Thursday, September 21, 2017

Black is Beautiful (And Very Funny) in Coming to America

I’d been curious about the Eddie Murphy comedy, Coming to America, ever since I had lunch with the delightful Deborah Nadoolman, She’s a Hollywood costume designer (and now an esteemed costume historian) perhaps best known for giving Indiana Jones a distressed leather jacket and a broad-brimmed hat. She also supplied the Blues Brothers with their hipster threads, and put Michael Jackson in a red bomber jacket for “Thriller.” But her sole Oscar nomination involves 1988’s Coming to America, for which she designed some of the wittiest costumes I’ve ever seen. (It turns out that year’s Oscar for costume design went to Rain Man.)


Deborah is married to John Landis, who directed Coming to America in 1988. Landis had first directed an eager young Eddie Murphy in Trading Places; five years later, with Murphy having leapt into the Hollywood pantheon in Beverly Hills Cop, the relationship between director and star was apparently quite fraught. Some of the tension surrounded the fact that Murphy had dreamed up the film’s story (though a famous legal case involved humorist Art Buchwald’s claim that the origin of the plot came from him).


It hardly surprised me to learn that Eddie Murphy was the driving force behind Coming to America. In this era of political correctness, I suspect no white director or screenwriter could have gotten away with the project, if not for Murphy. The movie involves an African prince, but it’s hardly an attempt to show Africans as either heroically noble or victims of western paternalism and greed. Instead this kingdom is really quite hilarious. The fictional Zamunda is a pastel-colored place with an imposing but benevolent king (James Earl Jones, of course), who rules over fawningly adoring subjects. Prince Akeem, newly 21, is so pampered that he has never brushed his own teeth, tied his own shoes, or washed his own penis. (Voluptuous bathing girls happily perform this duty.) Everywhere he goes, young maidens sprinkle rose petals in his path. And the wife who has been selected for him is a total knockout. (She has been carefully trained to agree with everything he says.)


Naturally, Prince Akeem prefers a girl who loves him for himself. Which is why he and buddy Semmi (Arsenio Hall) travel to New York City to experience real life. Murphy is quite hilarious in his enthusiastic embrace of life in a Queens tenement. Next thing you know, he’s cheerfully mopping floors at McDowell’s, an obvious McDonald’s rip-off run by a very funny John Amos. Some of the movie’s best satiric moments are saved for a party at the home of the nouveau-riche Amos, who decorates his walls with copies of famous paintings (like a version of Manet’s “A Bar at the Folies-Bergère” in which the pretty barmaid has dark African skin). There’s also some fun at the expense of an entrepreneur character who got rich off a greasy Jheri-curl-like hair oil.


I found the eager naïveté of Murphy’s character totally endearing, and he plays off well against Arsenio Hall’s more worldly buddy, who installs neon décor and a hot tub in their spartan cold-water flat, just as Prince Akeem is trying to impress his American girlfriend with his poverty. Murphy and Hall are clearly total hams: they also take on a clutch of other characters including a James Brown-like soul preacher and some codgers hanging around an old-school barber shop. Murphy even gets to impersonate an elderly Jewish man who ends the film with a moldy Yiddish dialect joke. I was totally fooled until the credits. No wonder Rick Baker earned an Oscar nomination for his wizardry with makeup.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Black is Beautiful (And Very Funny) in Coming to America



I’d been curious about the Eddie Murphy comedy, Coming to America, ever since I had lunch with the delightful Deborah Nadoolman, She’s a Hollywood costume designer (and now an esteemed costume historian) perhaps best known for giving Indiana Jones a distressed leather jacket and a broad-brimmed hat. She also supplied the Blues Brothers  with their hipster threads, and put Michael Jackson in a red bomber jacket for “Thriller.” But her sole Oscar nomination involves 1988’s Coming to America, for which she designed some of the wittiest costumes I’ve ever seen. (It turns out that year’s Oscar for costume design went to Rain Man.)

Deborah is married to John Landis, who directed Coming to America in 1988. Landis had first directed an eager young Eddie Murphy in Trading Places; five years later, with Murphy having leapt into the Hollywood pantheon in Beverly Hills Cop, the relationship between director and star was apparently quite fraught. Some of the tension surrounded the fact that Murphy had dreamed up the film’s story (though a famous legal case involved humorist Art Buchwald’s claim that the origin of the plot came from him). 

It hardly surprised me to learn that Eddie Murphy was the driving force behind Coming to America. In this era of political correctness, I suspect no white director or screenwriter could have gotten away with the project, if not for Murphy. The movie involves an African prince, but it’s hardly an attempt to show Africans as either heroically noble or victims of western paternalism and greed. Instead this kingdom is really quite hilarious. The fictional Zamunda is a pastel-colored place with an imposing but benevolent king (James Earl Jones, of course), who rules over fawningly adoring subjects. Prince Akeem, newly 21, is so pampered that he has never brushed his own teeth, tied his own shoes, or washed his own penis. (Voluptuous bathing girls happily perform this duty.) Everywhere he goes, young maidens sprinkle rose petals in his path. And the wife who has been selected for him is a total knockout. (She has been carefully trained to agree with everything he says.)

Naturally, Prince Akeem prefers a girl who loves him for himself. Which is why he and buddy Semmi (Arsenio Hall) travel to New York City to experience real life. Murphy is quite hilarious in his enthusiastic embrace of life in a Queens tenement. Next thing you know, he’s cheerfully mopping floors at McDowell’s, an obvious McDonald’s rip-off run by a very funny John Amos.  Some of the movie’s best satiric moments are saved for a party at the home of the nouveau-riche Amos, who decorates his walls with copies of  famous paintings (like  a version of Manet’s “A Bar at the Folies-Bergère” in which the pretty barmaid has dark African skin). There’s also some fun at the expense of an entrepreneur character who got rich off a greasy Jheri-curl-like hair oil. 

I found the eager naïveté of Murphy’s character totally endearing, and he plays off well against Arsenio Hall’s more worldly buddy, who installs neon décor and a hot tub in their spartan cold-water flat, just as Prince Akeem is trying to impress his American girlfriend with his poverty. Murphy and Hall are clearly total hams: they also take on a clutch of other characters including a James Brown-like soul preacher and some codgers hanging around an old-school barber shop. Murphy even gets to impersonate an elderly Jewish man who ends the film with a moldy Yiddish dialect joke. I was totally fooled until the credits. No wonder Rick Baker earned an Oscar nomination for his wizardry with makeup.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Fantasy Goes Live (and Corporate) at Universal Studios




Universal Pictures, founded in 1912, today is America’s oldest movie studio. Long ago Universal was best known for its monster films, notably Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Mummy. Universal’s affection for horror has continued through the years: visitors to the studio backlot are  shown sets and memorabilia connected with such super-scary movies as Psycho, Jaws, and Jurassic Park. There’s nothing Universal loves more than a good scare.

But of course it was those studio tours that really put Universal on the map as a major SoCal attraction. They began all the way back in 1915, cost a nickel, and included a boxed chicken lunch. (Today’s prices are a whole lot higher. It costs $25 simply to park your car.) In 1964, under corporate ownership, Universal began to seriously turn itself into a theme park. It started with a narrated bus ride highlighted by glimpses of stars’ bungalows and by such “surprises” as a disintegrating bridge and a flash flood that showed off what Hollywood could do by way of movie magic. Gradually, there arose Disneylandish “lands” dedicated to the Universal hits of the moment.

There’ve been some strange bedfellows in this process. For years one of the park’s most popular rides allowed visitors to vicariously experience a bonafide Universal blockbuster, Back to the Future. Eventually, though, that magic DeLorean was sent to the junkyard. As I discovered on a recent visit to Universal Studios Hollywood, this ride’s place has now been taken by an elaborate homage to The Simpsons, the long-running cartoon show that hails not from Universal but from Fox Studios. Instead of hurtling into space in miniature DeLoreans, visitors in a Simpson-esque jalopy now  try to escape Sideshow Bob’s attempts to derail the Krustyland Theme Park. It’s scary and goofy at the same time. 

Like most of today’s theme-park “dark rides,” this Simpsons adventure combines physical jolts with the dramatic use of film that draws visitors into the action. In other of the park’s attractions, like the one featuring those madcap Minions, 3-D glasses enhance the effect. As your seat bounces and soars, you can be forgiven for feeling a bit queasy. But it’s doubtless both cheaper and safer to explore the possibilities of the film medium than to build an old-fashioned outdoor roller coaster. And the results, while doubtless less heart-stopping for the rider, are a great deal more imaginative.

The pride of today’s Universal Studios is The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Here once again is an elaborate “land” dedicated to a movie project made by another studio (Warner Bros.). Nonetheless, the Universal braintrust has lavished much love and care on reproducing all the familiar Potter tropes. There’s the charming town of Hogsmead, covered with snow (quite a contrast to the California summer). You can sample butter beer, have a magic wand choose you at Ollivanders, and bop to the music of a frog chorale. Above it all looms the enormous bulk of Hogwarts. Enter, and you’ll find yourself playing follow-the-leader with Harry himself as, on his broomstick, he eludes a giant dragon and plunges down toward a raging chasm. (My stomach has still not quite recovered.) In this ride above all, the possibilities of cinema as a visceral experience are fully sampled. 

I was cheered by the fact that there’s live action too: clever on-site performers (like that wand-making expert), as well as cheerful employees who deftly enhance the fun. No wonder so many guests purchase interactive wands and academic robes. Much as I love movies, I adore encounters with human beings who know how to welcome me into a fantasy world.




Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Richard Nixon, TV Star



I admit I didn’t approach John A. Farrell’s Richard Nixon: The Life with much excitement. After personally surviving the Nixon era, I’d read some books, and watched some movies, and that seemed quite enough for me. But Jack Farrell’s new biography of the only U.S. president to resign from office turns out to be as exciting as the best-crafted thriller. It’s chockful of revelations, many of them benefitting from the recent release of scores of documents and White House tapes to scholars. And Farrell’s taut, vivid prose jolts the Nixon story to life. Here’s a pre-Watergate tidbit involving some early underhanded scrutiny of perceived enemies: “The surveillance yielded little but gossip and traces of bureaucratic jockeying. Nixon and his aides, with a revealing degree of self-consciousness, at long last packed the transcripts up and locked them in a White House safe, where their faint tick tick tick was, for a time, forgotten.” (Yes, this passage reminds me of a screenwriter’s best friend: the ticking clock.)

As a man and a president, Richard Nixon was inspired by movies, particularly Patton, which he watched over and over in times of stress. But at many key points his career was driven by the new medium of television. Farrell details how, in 1952, at the point when his place on the Eisenhower ticket was threatened by allegations of financial misconduct, Nixon turned to TV to make his case to the American people. Though the optics were crude and were improvised on the spot, it worked. He became Ike’s two-term running mate.

Television was less a friend to him, of course, in 1960, when—as the Republican candidate for president—he entered into a series of nationally televised debates with Senator John F. Kennedy. Farrell notes that since Nixon’s entry into national politics in 1950, “the percentage of American households with television sets had leaped from 11 to 88 percent. . . .The audience for the first debate was some 70 to 80 million people, in a country with 107 million adults.” In that first head-to-head, Kennedy proved handsome, articulate, confident. Nixon, done in by fatigue, a bad makeup job, and the public perception that he was ill at ease, could not hope to match the challenger’s poise. 

Nixon lost the presidency in 1960, but was back on the hustings in 1968, at a time of political and social turmoil. Following the assassination of presidential candidate Robert Kennedy, Nixon’s aides strongly suggested he trade in public appearances for media events, like the “man in the arena” telecasts in which he showed off his political savvy by fielding questions from a panel of voters. As one advisor put it, “The greater the element of informality and spontaneity the better he comes across. We have to capture and capsule this spontaneity—and this means shooting RN in situations in which it’s likely to emerge, then having a chance to edit the film so that the parts shown are the parts we want shown.”  

So Nixon became a president of an evolving media age. Of course, the television cameras were there as the Watergate scandal continued to electrify the public. When Nixon stepped down from the presidency on August 9, 1974, they captured his final words and his final “V for victory” salute. Three years later, beginning on March 23, 1977, they recorded his unprecedented series of interviews with British journalist David Frost. The results were so riveting that they evolved into Frost/Nixon, a 2006 British play that took Broadway by storm. In 2008, Ron Howard directed original stars Frank Langella and Michael Sheen in the Oscar-nominated movie.