Tuesday, May 21, 2019

The Many Sides of Rashomon

My friends are well aware that right now my favorite movie has to be The Graduate. After all, my book on this marvelous 1967 comedy (Seduced by Mrs. Robinson: How The Graduate Became the Touchstone of a Generation) came out in 2017. In the line of duty, I have watched The Graduate maybe 150 times, and have never failed to enjoy it. I’ve got loads of other favorites too. But for years I’ve had my own little pantheon of classics that I consider the best of the best. This triumvirate includes an American movie I’ve adored since childhood, as well as two foreign-language classics that never fail to awe me.

The American movie is Citizen Kane, a 1941 faux-biopic by twenty-six-year-old wunderkind Orson Welles, telling the story of a newspaper publisher’s rise and fall in a style that starts out rollicking and ends up poignant. One of the two foreign films on my short list is Federico Fellini’s mesmerizingly beautiful  La Strada (1954), anchored by Giulietta Masina’s haunting performance as a good-hearted waif in a traveling circus troupe. And the other comes from Japan.

Akira Kurosawa made Rashomon in 1950, not long after the end of World War II. Its budget was paltry and the film was not well liked in the country of its origin. But it developed a passionate following both in Europe (where it was the hit of the Venice Film Festival) and in the U.S., where it won an honorary Oscar that was a precursor to today’s Best Foreign-Language Film category. I’m writing about it now because I’ve just learned of the death, at age 95, of Machiko Kyo, the one woman in Rashomon’s tiny cast. She played the aristocratic wife in a strange and brutal triangle that’s at the film’s center. Her long career included Mizoguchi’s classic Ugetsu and the role of an Okinawan geisha opposite Glenn Ford’s American military captain in Teahouse of the August Moon (an east-meets-west comedy in which Marlon Brando donned yellow-face to play a local interpreter). But it’s Rashomon for which she’ll be remembered.

Rashomon, an artful blending of two stories by Japanese master Ryunosuke Akutagawa, is set back in the days of the samurai, Central characters include two travelers, a samurai and his lady, who in the course of their journey encounter an audacious bandit, played to the hilt by the young Toshiro Mifune. The dramatic juxtaposition of these three leads to the death of the samurai, the rape of his wife, and the disappearance of a valuable dagger. But what exactly has happened? Before a legal tribunal, the bandit narrates an account full of derring-do, in which he emerges triumphant from a duel with the samurai. The wife’s version of the tale emphasizes noble self-sacrifice, with herself as the central figure. Even the dead samurai is heard from. Via a medium, he aggrandizes his own heroic role. But wait! It turns out there’s been a silent witness to the whole episode, and his account turns upside down everything that’s gone before.

Today the so-called Rashomon effect is so well-known that many of those who reference it have never seen the movie. And Kuroaswa’s storytelling powers are such that others continue to crib from his work, especially for movies in the western genre. Hollywood quickly turned Kurosawa’s epic Seven Samurai (1954) into The Magnificent Seven (1961). And his Yojimbo, once again starring the dynamic Mifune, saw a second life as A Fistful of Dollars. Even Rashomon had a western incarnation, in 1964’s The Outrage, with Paul Newman as a bandido who doesn’t come close to filling Mifune’s shoes.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Not So Pretty Woman

I’ve been griping for quite a while about how Broadway has taken to musicalizing hit movies in hopes of luring in tourists trolling for entertainment on the Great White Way. Legally Blonde, which ran on Broadway for almost 600 performances and was nominated for 7 Tonys in 2007, has always been my go-to example, but I don’t claim to have seen it. Possibly it’s a deft translation of a breezy cinematic hit into a tuneful Broadway delight, but I wouldn’t know. I do know this—the new Broadway version of  the 1990 Julia Roberts-Richard Gere hit, Pretty Woman, is a giant dud. (Funny thing, though: the audience doesn’t seem to notice.)

Pretty Woman, of course, is a classic updated Cinderella fable (hooker marries prince). Though it is set in the seamy world of corporate raiders and Hollywood Boulevard sex workers, its characters manage to appear squeaky clean, to the point where I’m told that some little girls aspire to grow up to be a streetwalker-turned-princess like Roberts’ Vivian (ugh). But setting aside the unseemliness of the concept, it’s possible to enjoy the confluence of Roberts’ exuberance and Gere’s cool intellect as they break down one another’s emotional barriers. I don’t fault the stage actors who have taken on these roles. Samantha Barks, who played the tragic Eponine in the filmed Les Misérables, and Andy Karl, a Broadway favorite for such shows as Groundhog Day, are strong singers, and they’re clearly trying hard to sell their characters to the audience. One  problem is that Karl is given little to work with; he’s nothing more than a good-looking cipher. And Barks simply is not Julia Roberts. In fact, the two performances that really give this show a lift are much-expanded versions of movie characters. Eric Anderson scores in the dual role of the twinkle-toed hotel manager (think of  a singing and dancing Hector Elizondo) and the so-called Happy Man welcoming us all to dream big on Hollywood Boulevard. And the single-named Orfeh has appeal in a raucous turn as Vivian’s hooker pal.

I’ve mentioned singing and dancing, and of course any Broadway musical depends on the potency of its music. Here’s where Pretty Woman: The Musical really sags. Its score is by Canadian rocker Bryan Adams and his longtime writing partner, and I frankly can’t hum a single tune. Most egregious for me were clunky ballads dependent on June/moon kinds of rhymes; there’s precious little wit, but lots of power-balladeering about not being happy in your world and needing to find out where you really belong. The big finale song is called “Together Forever,” and contains every musical cliché you can think of. There are a lot of talented songwriters out there, but Adams and partner Jim Vallance (despite Adams’ three Oscar nominations) hardly belong on this list.

Maybe the reason that audiences (though not Tony voters) are happy with this show is that it does its best to be a carbon copy of the movie original. Remember Julia Roberts, in blonde wig, short shorts, and thigh-high vinyl boots, introduced while shimmying down a fire escape to avoid her Hollywood landlord? The musical has this identical scene. Ditto fun in a Jacuzzi, sex on a grand piano, a quarrel on a polo field, a fabulous red gown for a night at the opera.  Movie fans still talk about a moment wherein Gere snaps shut a jewel case containing a fabulous necklace, prompting from Roberts a delighted guffaw. I’m told this was a spontaneous reaction from Roberts; it’s not so much fun when reproduced nightly on the Nederlander stage. 

The Broadway version