Tuesday, March 28, 2023

The Catch-22 of Translating a Hit Novel to the Screen

At the end of the Sixties the book that everyone was reading was Joseph Heller’s darkly satiric World War II novel, Catch-22.  And the movie that everyone was watching was The Graduate, the outrageous romantic comedy directed by Mike Nichols. So there was little surprise, when word spread that Nichols would be directing a screen version of Catch-22, that audiences couldn’t wait to see the results.

 Nichols’ film, released in June 1970, unfortunately pleased almost no one. This despite the fact that it was a serious effort to translate a complex, almost hallucinatory, novel to the screen.  The Writers Guild of America did nominate Buck Henry’s script as the best screen drama adapted from another medium, but it didn’t win. That same year, M*A*S*H, a much more popular depiction of the truism that “war is hell,” took home a WGA Award for comic adaptation. Perhaps it was the success of M*A*S*H, featuring a lively rendering by Robert Altman of a behind-the-lines Korean War story, that undercut Catch-22’s box-office chances. Or  perhaps the brilliant, bitter Catch-22 just couldn’t work without Heller’s sparklingly ironic prose.

 Still, it was a worthy attempt. Nichols, who’d shown such visual flair in The Graduate, had fun depicting the almost operatic lift-off of WWII era bomber jets. Having used the songs of Simon and Garfunkel to great effect in The Graduate, he mostly avoided music in the far more serious Catch-22, but at one key point tried an outlandish reference to the opening strains of “Thus Spoke Zarathustra,” familiar to anyone who’d seen 2001: A Space Odyssey. (And, in that era, who hadn’t?)  

 The large cast is a remarkable gathering of Hollywood talents. Nichols was known for his casting savvy, and we can fully believe Martin Balsam as a gruffly maniacal Col. Cathcart, Richard Benjamin as a smarmy Major Danby, Anthony Perkins as a vulnerable Chaplain Tappman, Bob Newhart as an anxious Major Major, and Orson Welles as a bloated General Dreedle. The leading role, Yosarian, is that of a neurotic cipher, and Alan Arkin is particularly good at conveying his anxiety about war, the U.S. Army, and life in general.

 Given the worldwide success of The Graduate, it’s not surprising that Nichols again turned to several performers from that 1967 film. Elizabeth Wilson (Benjamin’s anxious mom in The Graduate) has a tiny but memorable role as the mother of a dying soldier. Norman Fell (the cranky landlord of Ben’s Berkeley rooming house) is seen here as a blunt sergeant. Buck Henry, who had brilliantly adapted Charles Webb’s The Graduate for the screen while also playing a skeptical desk clerk, again performs double duty, donning  a creepy little mustache to portray Balsam’s toadying sidekick, Colonel Korn.

 Nichols also cast Art Garfunkel, a novice actor and one-half of the musical duo whose songs dominate the score of The Graduate, as the naïve young Nately. (The following year “Arthur” Garfunkel was a central figure in Nichols’ corrosive Carnal Knowledge.) Charles Grodin, who to the end of his life insisted that he’d been cast by Nichols as Benjamin Braddock but had turned the role down, plays the oblivious bombardier on Yosarian’s plane. But what of the screen’s actual Benjamin Braddock? I’ve learned that Dustin Hoffman, whose Hollywood career burst into life with The Graduate, badly wanted to play the shifty Milo in Catch-22. Perhaps Nichols was truly offended that Hoffman took on, immediately following The Graduate, the scruffy role of Ratso Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy. In any case Nichols gave the role of Milo not to Hoffman but to his Midnight Cowboy co-star, Jon Voigt.



Friday, March 24, 2023

Benny & Joon & Sam—oh my!

I admit that in real life I’m not a great fan of Johnny Depp. I’ve never been anywhere near him, but his reported behavior toward his fellow human beings (including ex-partners) is not endearing. My hackles were raised when I read in my local paper about his fury at some Sunset Strip developers. As I recall, he threatened a lawsuit against them. After all, they had dared to put up high-rise towers that would mar one corner of the panoramic view of Depp’s children when they played in their Hollywood Hills backyard high above Sunset Blvd. Not that I don’t appreciate unfettered views, but I refuse to worry about the aesthetic pleasures of Depp’s offspring.

 There’s no denying, though, that Depp is a major talent, especially in roles of a whimsical nature. His physical dexterity, coupled with a strong sense of unworldliness, helped him break through to fame and fortune in such unique early roles as that of the title character in Edward Scissorhands (1990). Three years later, though he didn’t play a title role in Benny & Joon, his performance was what you carried away from a film whose primary relationship is that between a tense young mechanic (Aidan Quinn) and his mentally disturbed sister (Mary Stuart Masterson).  After their parents’ tragic death, Benny has devoted himself to Joon’s well-being, thus inadvertently stifling the emotional development of them both. Joon’s creative rebellions make their lives together disconcerting: early on, after a frustrated housekeeper quits, Joon (wearing a SCUBA mask) is found by the local police directing downtown traffic with a ping pong paddle. Clearly, something has to give.

 That’s when Johnny Depp’s Sam comes into the picture.  An unwanted relative who’s come to stay with one of Benny’s poker buddies, he ends up tending Benny’s house while also keeping an eye on Joon. His methods are unorthodox: he uses a skateboard to help clean the walls, and a steam-iron to toast cheese sandwiches. None of this is surprising for someone who seems to have modeled himself on Buster Keaton and the silent movie clowns of the past.  It’s not long before the two misfits fall in love, and of course complications arise quickly. At one point, Joon is about to be confined to a mental hospital, barring both Benny and Sam from her life.  But, since this is fundamentally a romantic comedy, all problems (along with the cheese sandwiches) are ironed out well before the two-hour mark.

 I’m sure books can be written about the movies’ handling, over the decades, of mental illness. In popular films of my youth, like 1962’s David and Lisa and 1966’s King of Hearts, those with mental challenges are gentle souls who are perhaps too delicate for the crass world of every day but have a valuable wisdom of their own. They seem fully redeemable by romantic love, which they pursue wholeheartedly and with no fear of future consequences. In fact, the message seems to be that we’re all a bit crazy, and might as well own up to it, for the sake of ourselves and our planet. In the great scheme of things, whether a real-life Joon can build an adult life for herself with Sam’s help is surely debatable. His charm notwithstanding, he’s barely literate, and seems to live in a fantasy realm of his own making. But we’re at the movies, boys and girls,where fantasy outweighs reality every time. This is ultimately a feel-good film that made me feel very good indeed.

 A special nod to Rachel Portman’s airy musical score, which helps capture the story’s delicate magic.


Tuesday, March 21, 2023

The Calla Lilies Bloom Again for "Stage Door" and Jean Rouverol

Hollywood, particularly in the 1930s, loved movies about what it was like to work in live theatre. For movie audiences who lived far from the Great White Way, it was a chance to peek behind the scenes at a glamorous world they wished they knew better. And, of course, movies featuring  gaggles of pretty girls were always in fashion. Which is partly why Stage Door was a popular as well as a critical success. The film was based on a play by two Broadway legends, Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman, but the Oscar-nominated screen adaptation veered so far from the original that the witty Kaufman quipped it should be renamed “Screen Door.”

 Stage Door takes place mostly in the showbiz rooming house where scores of aspiring Broadway babies lounge, bicker, and banter, while waiting for their big break. Three of them stand out. Andrea Leeds scored an Oscar nomination for playing  the tragic Kay, a talented actress desperate for a leading role she doesn’t land, for reasons that have nothing to do with her ability. Ginger Rogers is Jean, a perky dancer quick with an opinion or a wisecrack. Katharine Hepburn, starring in her first box-office success after four big commercial flops, is Terry, who first seems like a stuck-up socialite but proves her humanity when the chips are down. (Her on-stage entry line, beginning “The calla lilies are in bloom again,” is apparently a knowing reference to an actual Hepburn line in a Broadway play that Dorothy Parker had wittily panned.) The male lead is the always-oily Adolph Menjou, as a producer and seducer who controls the women’s fate.

 Stage Door proved to be a star-making vehicle for several other actresses. Lucille Ball scores as one of the rooming house’s dizziest dames. The acerbic Eve Arden and dance phenom Ann Miller have modest roles, but both make a definite impression. As for all the others, it’s hard to sort them out, especially since they’re all young, pretty, and Caucasian. But the end-credits told me that one of them, playing the role of Dizzy, is Jean Rouverol, a then-actress whose importance to the film industry was to lie in a very different direction.

 Jean, whom I once met briefly at a writers’ party, moved on from her acting career  in 1940, when she married Hugo Butler. He was a prolific screenwriter who in 1941 was nominated for an Oscar for his work on Edison, The Man. His screenplays, ranging from Lassie Come Home to a western called Roughshod, held him in good stead in Hollywood.  Jean meanwhile was churning out episodes of TV’s Search for Tomorrow while being a supermom to her kids. (She ended up having six.)

 Both Butler and Rouverol were politically leftwing, which meant that in 1951 they faced being subpoenaed by the infamous House UnAmerican Activities Committee. Their solution was to self-exile in Mexico City, where they spent what turned out to be a fairly delightful decade, living next-door to Diego Rivera and enjoying the company of other HUAC refugees, like Dalton Trumbo. Of course they could no longer write under their own names, but Hugo formed a creative partnership with the great Spaniard Luis Buñuel (The Young One) while also writing and directing a well-regarded Little League baseball documentary, Los Pequeños Gigantes.  

 Refugees from Hollywood, published in 2000, is Rouverol’s memoir of her blacklist years. While not forgetting how many fellow writers truly suffered, she captures the excitement of her family’s HUAC years. saying, “I wouldn't change a moment of it. We were periodically terrified. But we felt like some curious kind of pioneer.”

 Dedicated to Susan Henry, who discovered Rouverol's memoir in a book box and gifted it to me.