Friday, October 17, 2014

Interacting with Neil Patrick Harris, 2015 Oscar Host

In the midst of a serious Ebola scare and so many other national disasters, it’s great to be able to trumpet a bit of good news: Neil Patrick Harris is going to host the Oscars. I doubt I have to explain who NPH is. Albuquerque’s favorite son first made headlines as a teenager in the goofy title role of Doogie Howser. M.D., a popular TV series (1989-1993) about a fourteen-year-old med school graduate. 

He also made films. I was surprised to recall that one of his very first was the leading kid role in an amiable fantasy called Purple People Eater, written and directed by a Roger Corman friend of mine, Linda Shayne. Many of his later films have been lightweight too, like Starship Troopers and (playing a parody version of himself) Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle. And of course there’s recently been his Emmy-nominated sitcom role as playboy Barney Stinson in How I Met Your Mother. Yet his appearance in Gone Girl proves he can go dramatic as well.

But he’s made perhaps his biggest impression in a series of Broadway musicals. (He can sing, dance, do magic tricks, and probably walk on water.) He’s starred in everything from Sondheim to Rent to the Tony-winning transvestite role in the rock musical, Hedwig and the Angry Inch. It must be said, he has great legs. What’s really going to prepare him to serve as Oscar host, though, are the years he’s spent brilliantly hosting the Tonys, by far the  most entertaining of the big awards shows.

One of the things that most intrigues me about Harris, aside from his versatility, is the fact that he’s the ultimate social media creature. He has 10.7 million Twitter followers, to whom he sends out almost daily tweets, like this one: “Yesterday I celebrated the birth of my twins. Tomorrow I celebrate the birth of my book. I hope the book poops less.”

Yes, he’s got a new memoir out. In a typically puckish twist, NPH  pays homage to the Choose Your Own Adventure books kids used to love. Here’s part of the official blurb: “Sick of deeply personal accounts written in the first person? Seeking an exciting, interactive read that puts the ‘u’ back in ‘aUtobiography’? Then look no further than Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography! In this revolutionary, Joycean experiment in light celebrity narrative, actor/personality/carbon-based-life-form Neil Patrick Harris lets you, the reader, live his life.”

Sounds like fun. See his official book trailer below. For those not involved with today’s publishing world,  it might not be known that video book trailers are now considered de rigueur, but Harris’s is surely more entertaining than most. And of course it smartly capitalizes on the current fad for all things interactive. Even the stuffy old Academy of Arts and Sciences, the organization that stages the Oscar broadcast each year, has finally recognized that fans want to get involved on an active level. The Academy just completed a redesign of its site, so that movie buffs (and not just visitors to the Academy’s Margaret Herrick Library) can view priceless photographs and film clips. Now anyone with Internet access can see Audrey Hepburn’s screen tests for Roman Holiday and the theatrical trailer for William Castle’s Homicidal, which offers a “fright break” (with full refund of the ticket price) for those too scared to continue watching. 

I doubt I’ll need a fright break when watching NPH strut his stuff at the Oscars. True, the Oscar hosting job has scared some of the biggest names in the business. But not NPH, surely.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Geoffrey Holder: Un-Ordinary, Unforgettable

Geoffrey Holder, at age 84, has left the building. I wonder how many movie fans are saddened by that news. Holder is perhaps not a household name, despite his memorable appearances as the eerie Baron Samedi in To Live and Let Die and as the amiable Punjab in Annie. Ironically, he was best known for a series of commercials for 7-Up, in which, clad in a gleaming white suit, he sang the praises of “the Uncola.”

Even if you didn’t know the name, Geoffrey Holder made an impression. Measuring down from the top of his bald heat, he was six foot six, with a dancer’s grace and an exuberance all his own. His voice was basso profundo, his Caribbean inflection was lilting, and he spoke in superlatives: the world for him was “lovely,” “mahvelous.” And his clothes . . . suffice it to say that one of his many talents was for costume design.

I’ve  been following Geoffrey Holder’s career for many years, ever since my beloved first dance teacher, the beautiful Carmen De Lavallade, brought him down the aisle of the Lester Horton Dance Theater  and introduced him as the man she was going to marry. If memory serves, all of us little girls at Dance Theater were invited to the wedding, even though it was quite clear that we were not about to travel from L.A. to the fabulous estate in Connecticut where the outdoor nuptials were held. But we saw the photo spread (I think it was in Ebony, or Jet), and it looked to be a splendid calypso-flavored bash.

Carmen had met Geoffrey on Broadway, when both appeared in a Harold Arlen/Truman Capote  musical fable called House of Flowers. Playing the God of Life and Death, Geoffrey designed his own costume: a burnt-orange cape and a loin cloth. He intuitively knew how effective this get-up would be: “Being a dancer you stand with a straight spine. You look 12 feet tall.” In later years, Geoffrey returned to Broadway with The Wiz, the “urban” musical based on The Wizard of Oz. As director and choreographer he won two Tonys, and I well remember him dancing up to claim his statuette, artfully working the Uncola into his acceptance speech.

I’ve interviewed Geoffrey twice over the years, once for a piece on costume design, and once regarding his role as an unlikely tribal chieftain, Willie Shakespeare X, in the elephantine movie musical, Doctor Dolittle. He mostly enjoyed this first of many Hollywood adventures, but was blunt in discussing the egotistical and  racist Rex Harrison, as well as his equally obnoxious wife, actress Rachel Roberts. Typically, Geoffrey found a creative way to upstage Harrison in their first scene together. Noting Harrison’s veddy British vocal timbre, he decided, “I will drop my voice to make him sound like a sissy.” Gleefully he told me, “I had a private ball doing that.”

After describing to me the Paris soiree at which he met Marlene Dietrich, Geoffrey announced, “I am deliberately dropping names. I am so rich by being so honored by the best people. So when people talk about stars today – please!” He loved fun, but also held tightly to his formidable sense of self. As he liked to put it, “Dignity is not something you buy at Bloomingdale’s.”

A 2005 documentary film called Carmen & Geoffrey chronicles the long creative partnership of my former teacher and this amazing man. When I mentioned to Geoffrey that his wife was a truly lovely person, he promptly replied, “I know. I have good taste.”

Au revoir, Geoffrey. You’ve earned an “absolutely mahvelous” rest.

A quick segue from Geoffrey Holder’s flamboyant costumes to a heartfelt documentary about the subtle craft of Italian-born tailors. Vicki Vasilopoulos’ Men of the Cloth will be playing at the La Femme Film Festival for women directors in downtown Los Angeles on Sunday October 19th at 2 PM.  Brava, Vicki! 

Friday, October 10, 2014

Pigskin and Celluloid (Football on Film)

Well, football season is here again. But what with the Ray Rice scandal, bad behavior by other gridiron stars, and the rising anxiety about brain damage among athletes of all ages, football no longer seems like an all-American sport (in the positive sense, at least). How times have changed! My personal memory banks are full of movies in which football is presented as the great American pastime.

If you go back far enough into the annals of Hollywood, you’ll find Knut Rockne, All American. This thoroughly wholesome film was released in 1940, at a time when America had not yet entered World War II. While fighting raged in Europe and Asia, Americans turned inward, clinging to their isolation from the rest of the globe’s problems. Many cheered for this mostly true story of a Norwegian immigrant who grew up to be Notre Dame’s legendary football coach. As played by Pat O’Brien, Rockne was both an innovator and an inspirational figure. The film’s most famous sequence involves a outstanding freshman halfback, George Gipp, who leads the Fighting Irish to victory before succumbing to a fatal infection. As Gipp lays dying in a campus hospital, he urges his teammates to win one in his memory. "Rock,” he says to his coach (who later uses his words to motivate his squad), “sometime when the team is up against it and the breaks are beating the boys, tell them to go out there with all they've got and win just one for the Gipper.'”

Needless to say, George Gipp was played by the young Ronald Reagan. And when Reagan entered political life, “Win one for the Gipper” became his mantra. The film itself won no prizes -- for the Gipper or anyone else -- but in 1997 it was selected for preservation via the National Film Registry, overseen by the Library of Congress, in recognition of its cultural and historic significance.    

 I haven’t, of course, watched every movie made about football, though there’s warm spot in my heart for 1968’s Paper Lion. In this charming and funny flick, the always appealing Alan Alda plays writer George Plimpton who, for the sake of a Sports Illustrated byline, poses as a rookie quarterback for the Detroit Lions. There’s nothing like seeing (and empathizing with) someone who’s totally out of his league. Believe me, the audience feels every hit, every sack. Ouch!

More recently, two movies have depicted high school football as a laboratory for the solving of social problems. In 2010 The Blind Side won Sandra Bullock an Oscar. Of course she doesn’t put on the helmet and shoulder pads herself. As real-life heroine Leigh Anne Tuohy, Bullock is a genuine steel magnolia, a blonde Southern belle who welcomes into her comfortable life a homeless and troubled black kid with football talent to burn. After the usual trials and tribulations, of course he does her proud, going on to be the first-round draft pick of the Baltimore Ravens.

Equally inspirational is 2000’s Remember the Titans, another true story about high school athletes who make good. In this one, the always stalwart Denzel Washington is an African-American who in 1971 is named coach of a newly integrated Virginia team. Tensions between black and white players naturally mount, but Coach Boone finds ways for everyone to get along. I watched this film to catch the performance of Ryan Hurst, a star actor at Santa Monica High School who plays (very well) a showboating white kid. In a much smaller role, someone named Ryan Gosling is there too. How refreshing it is to see football players as good guys!

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Bert I. Gordon: A Really B.I.G. Show

Filmmaker Ron Howard has always admired aging directors who continue to ply their craft. It is his goal to someday emulate the late John Huston on the set of his last film, “out there at eighty-one or eighty-two, wheezing in a wheelchair.” Remarkably, back in 1965 when Ron Howard was eight-year-old Ronny, he was directed by a man who is today still actively making films. The  project was Village of the Giants. Its director (who also served as producer, screenwriter, and creator of visual effects) was Bert I. Gordon, also known as Mister B.I.G.

Mister B.I.G. was given his nickname by sci-fi maven Forrest J. Ackerman, in tribute both to Bert’s initials and his fondness for using camera tricks to put on screen various enormously oversized creatures, including giant ducks, giant ants, and The Amazing Colossal Man. In Village of the Giants, Ronny Howard played a boy genius whose invention (a magic growth compound called “Goo”) is stolen by marauding teenagers led by Beau Bridges. Next thing you know, the teens are thirty feet tall. As the ad campaign promises: “SEE THEM BURST OUT OF THEIR CLOTHES AND TERRORIZE A TOWN.”

I was a high school classmate of Bert Gordon’s eldest daughter, Carol. Years later I spoke at length to Susan Gordon, whose stellar career as a child actress began in 1958 when she subbed for an ailing performer on her dad’s Attack of the Puppet People.  Sadly, we lost Susan in 2011. But Bert stays busy. His 2010 memoir recounts that when he arrived in SoCal from Wisconsin, he fantasized buying a yacht. Now, his office is a boat docked at Marina del Rey, where he’s writing a second book and working out details for the release of his newly-completed movie, Secrets of a Psychopath.  He also spends time tending his website:   

Bert admitted to me that many of his lifelong dreams have come true. From the time he got his first movie camera at age 9, he’s been determined to make his way in Hollywood. The fact that his productive years have been spent in the B-movie world, making low-budget horror flicks interspersed with a few sex comedies, has never bothered him. Unlike Roger Corman, whose career paralleled his when both were creating films for American International Pictures, Bert has never given much thought to social message. Yes, in several of his movies, it’s radioactive matter that causes tiny critters to mutate into giants. Still, he doesn’t seem much interested in the political implications of such things as plutonium blasts. Above all, he just wants to tell stories on film.

The challenges he’s most enjoyed over the years have largely been on the technical side. At the Directors Guild’s recent Digital Day, he found a session on the making of Avatar “as fascinating as hell.” But such trendy terms as Motion Capture don’t have much meaning for him, and if he were doing visual effects today he’d rely on a tied-down camera, just as he did in the past, instead of opting for contemporary CGI technology. One modern innovation, though, definitely has the B.I.G. seal of approval:  he loves shooting digital, which allows the director to see his footage immediately, instead of waiting for expensive film stock to be processed.

“I’ve always been open to imagining change,” says Bert. Which is why, perhaps, his upcoming movie is a thriller, with no visual effects at all. (It’s privately funded, and he’s in talks to make a second film.) Of the subject matter, he says only, “The horror’s in the mind now.”