Friday, April 21, 2017

Death of a Jock: Aaron Hernandez and the Movies

The big news coming out of the sports world as I write this is the suicide of Aaron Hernandez, who starred as a tight end for the Super Bowl-winning New England Patriots. At the time of his death, Hernandez was in prison serving a life sentence for fatally shooting a friend.  Less than a week after he was acquitted of a double-homicide in Boston, he was found in his cell, dangling from a noose made out of bedsheets. 

Hernandez’s brief life (he died at 27) seems to have been continuously marked by violence. Back in 2007, when he was a seventeen-year-old college football player at Florida State in Gainesville, he refused to pay a bar tab, then punched a barroom employee so hard that he shattered the man’s eardrum. Later that same year he was implicated but not charged in a Gainesville incident in which five shots were fired into a car at a stoplight, wounding two. Pundits say these were classic cases in which a prized jock eluded punishment because of his value to his team and his sport. Star athletes are like stars of stage and screen: their glamour allows them to pretty much get away with murder. (See the strange and disturbing case of O.J. Simpson, who was of course a celebrity in both respects, and whose acquittal on murder charges is very much part of the history of the City of Stars.)

Aaron Hernandez is hardly the first star athlete to combine physical power with a propensity for violence off the field. Some jocks, or so it seems, are fueled by rage that bubbles to the surface without warning. What’s striking is that, given how many movies focus on the wide world of sports, how few of them confront the anger that’s at the center of many athletes’ lives. Instead, sports movies tend toward fun and games, or toward a hagiographic approach in which the athlete at the film’s center seems a candidate for sainthood. Take baseball: such movies as Pride of the Yankees (about Lou Gehrig), The Jackie Robinson Story, Field of Dreams, and 42 tend to idolize baseball players. The characters in Bull Durham are less saintly, but fit into the category of charming rogues.
For me the football-related movies that spring to mind also focus on heroics. See, for instance, 1940’s Knute Rockne, All American. Much more recently there’s Brian’s Song, the 1971 TV movie that became a 2001 feature film: in both the focus of this true story is on the evolving friendship of a black and white teammates  who start as rivals and end as close friends, who close ranks before Brian Piccolo dies of cancer. And football becomes an ennobling experience in such high school films as Remember the Titans and The Blind Side. 

I’m hard-pressed to think of a football film in which the game’s raw cruelty is central to the story. Nor can I recall a football flick in which a character’s full-on aggression is not limited to the playing field. Are there any sports movies that dare to explore flawed men who can’t control their powerful and reckless anger?  I’d suggest looking at films about boxing. The classic example, of course, is Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, a gripping biopic about the self-destructive Jake LaMotta. In the more recent The Fighter, it’s the brother (played by Christian Bale) of the main character, real-life boxer Micky Ward, who best exemplifies the self-defeating anger that can ruin a boxer’s life. 

Will the Aaron Hernandezes of the sporting world inspire any movies? Maybe these stories are just too sad to tell.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Witches of Salem: Arthur Miller and Beyond

This 1996 film was based on the Miller play.

Playwright Arthur Miller, I have learned, was not the last word on the Salem witch trials of 1692. Miller’s The Crucible is a powerful drama, the winner of Broadway’s  1953 Tony Award for best new play. In it Miller adapts some of the sordid doings of the Massachusetts Puritans while also making a covert statement about his own era, one in which McCarthyism was rampant and the lives of many good men and women were being destroyed by false accusations. Miller’s characters were actual historical figures—John Proctor, Reverend Parris, Giles Corey, Deputy-Governor Danforth, Tituba—but he did some creative reshaping of personalities and motives. In raising one character’s age and adding the aftermath of a spicy adulterous relationship to the mix, he sharpened the reasons why a restless young woman might lead others to cry out against their neighbors, ultimately sending them to their deaths on the gallows. 

Baseless accusations and over-eager justice seem to be a part of every age, which may be why The Crucible has had a long life in community theatres and high school drama departments. I have personally been part of the cast in two local productions, both times playing a little girl caught up in the madness. It was my familiarity with the play that made me so eager to read The Witches: Salem 1692, the latest tome by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and biographer Stacy Schiff. Though the full historical record remains sketchy, Stacy (whom I know as a fellow member of Biographers International Organization) has worked hard to detail the hundreds of arrests and the twenty public executions that the witch trials produced before those in power slowly acknowledged that “spectral evidence” was not exactly a reliable proof of guilt. She’s very good at taking on the historical perspective and delineating all the reasons (low social status, deviation from orthodox thinking, being on the wrong side of the political fence) why some folks turned out to be  more vulnerable than others.

One of the most striking things about the witch trials was that they were dominated by the testimony of very young women and girls. In Puritan society, such girls would be faced with a life of hard work, drab clothing, and obedience to patriarchal strictures. Stacy sees these girls (especially girls  who had lost parents to disease, death in childbirth, or Indian attacks) as desperate to add drama and color to their mundane existence. As she puts it, “History is not rich in unruly young women; with the exception of Joan of Arc and a few underage sovereigns, it would be difficult to name another historical moment so dominated by teenage virgins, traditionally a vulnerable, mute, and disenfranchised cohort.” 

In writing about witchcraft, as imagined by the Puritans and those who came before them, Stacy makes occasional reference to the witch at the center of one of America’s favorite stories, The Wizard of Oz. The Wicked Witch of the West too was taken down by a little girl, though of course we are all squarely on Dorothy’s side. Stacy’s book made me think about some less-upbeat movies in which young girls with hidden motives take on their elders. In 1961’s The  Children’s Hour, an angry schoolgirl destroys two teachers (Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine) by suggesting they are lesbian lovers. And 1956’s The Bad Seed stars blonde and pigtailed Patty McCormack as an adorable child who’ll do anything—and oppose anyone—to get what she wants. Maybe witches exist in the eye of the beholder? 

More about witchcraft in movies six months from now, when Halloween creeps closer.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Scott Wilson Finds a Career In the Heat of the Night

Scott Wilson, as Dick Hickock, is on the right

The other night, in the lobby of the Chinese Theatre, I was pleased to run into one of my favorite character actors, Scott Wilson. He was there as an honored guest of the TCM Classic Film Festival, which was screening In the Heat of the Night for its gala opening. About ten years ago, while researching the great movie year 1967, I had sat down in Scott’s comfy living room for what turned out to be a three-hour chat about his career. It started with a featured role in In the Heat of the Night, followed by a star-making turn as a real-life killer in one of 1967’s most powerful crime dramas, In Cold Blood. (One of his most memorable recent roles was as a victim – not a perp – in 2003’s Monster, where he ran afoul of Charlize Theron’s deadly Aileen Wuornos.) Though the biggest box-office hit that came out of 1967 was The Graduate, and critics applauded the bravura audacity of  Bonnie and Clyde, neither of those films was named Best Picture at the 1968 Oscar ceremony. That honor went to In the Heat of the Night, a tight little whodunit that fit the mood of the country in an era when civil rights were at the top of everyone’s mind.

The Atlanta-born Scott Wilson made his film debut as In The Heat of the Night’s Harvey Oberst, a small-town Southern punk. He’s first seen by Haskell Wexler’s dramatically hand-held camera desperately running away from the town of Sparta, Mississippi. When he’s finally caught just before the state line by Sheriff Gillespie (played with Oscar-winning flair by Rod Steiger), he discovers he’s the prime suspect in a murder case. Gillespie is only too happy to pin the rap on him. But Sidney Poitier, as a Philadelphia homicide expert who finds himself stuck in this backwater Southern town, quickly assesses the situation and announces that Harvey is innocent of the charge. He may have lifted the dead man’s wallet but he didn’t kill him, because the angle of the fatal blow indicates that it was caused by a right-handed assailant. And Harvey’s a lefty. 

Scott Wilson’s character, then, becomes the first in the film to acknowledge that a black man (not to mention a Yankee) is a great deal smarter and more capable than any of the locals. Through various plot twists, he eventually becomes an ally. In fact, Harvey’s evolution from hostility to appreciation for Poitier’s Virgil Tibbs foreshadows that of Sheriff Gillespie, who gradually moves from disdain to sincere gratitude for what Tibbs has contributed to the life of his town. 

If  Harvey Oberst has reason to appreciate Virgil Tibbs, Scott Wilson has all the more reason to appreciate the helping hand given him by Sidney Poitier. During filming, Poitier even went home one night and reworked an already strong scene between the two of them for maximum effect, then made sure director Norman Jewison was giving the young Scott some good close-ups. When Scott interviewed for the role of Dick Hickok in In Cold Blood, Poitier was one of those who approached director Richard Brooks on his behalf. (Jewison and film scorer Quincy Jones spoke up for him too.) Beyond that, Poitier took it upon himself to give the fledgling actor a pep talk, praising his talent and predicting a bright future. The result: “After he left I was like Godzilla, and I walked into that meeting with Brooks feeling very confident, having no self-doubt.” Soon thereafter, the part was his. Just one more way that Sidney Poitier made a difference in Hollywood’s film industry. 

My heartfelt thanks to Scott Wilson for his talent and his gifts as a raconteur. And to his wife Heavenly for her long-ago tea and cookies. 

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Cruising the Red Carpet in the Heat of the Night at TCM Film Festival

No, I didn’t arrive by limo. Downhome gal that I am, I took the Metro from Santa Monica to DTLA (that’s the new hip name for Downtown Los Angeles) to Hollywood and Highland, where sits the Chinese Theatre in all its glory. (Today it’s actually the TCL Chinese Theatre, not Grauman’s, and it’s owned by actual Chinese.) I could have sidestepped the red carpet and entered the theatre directly, but an intrepid blogger named Raquel Stecher, whose long-running vintage film site is called Out of the Past, wanted to meet me. Naturally, I obliged. Anything for the press!

Meanwhile a handful of excited volunteers in basic black were lined up, ready to greet arriving celebrities. Those elderly folk who arrived in my presence were not people I recognized, but they seemed delighted by all the attention. Later, after I’d filed into the splendidly exotic Chinese Theatre (whose lobby is filled with costumes of stars like Grace Kelly and Marilyn Monroe), the truly big guns showed up. On this festival premiere night (co-sponsored by the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures), they included the team behind the featured film of the evening, 1967’s In the Heat of the Night. After we’d all sat for a long time, nibbling free popcorn and watching an endless loop of festival promos, the real entertainment began. First came a heartfelt video tribute to longtime TCM resident host Robert Osborne, who passed away one month ago. Next, Osborne sidekick Ben Mankiewicz, grandson of the man who wrote the screenplay for Citizen Kane, sat down for a chat with In the Heat of the Night’s producer, Walter Mirisch, its director, Norman Jewison, and featured actress Lee Grant. All are upwards of 90, though Grant, in particular, looks surprisingly fit. When Mankiewicz welcomed the three to the stage, Jewison quipped, “I’m just glad to be alive.” 

In the audience but not taking part in the discussion was the one and only Sidney Poitier, who elicited a long ovation from the crowd. Though Poitier didn’t speak, he was often evoked by the others. Mirisch noted that he and Poitier—best friends through the years—have lunch together on a weekly basis. And Poitier was much involved in the shaping of this film, which began with Mirisch uncovering a story that would highlight Poitier’s talents and outlook. Many of the anecdotes that came up were familiar to me: how they avoided shooting this tense racial drama in the Deep South (where Poitier might have faced hostile locals) by finding a suitable small town in southern Illinois; how Rod Steiger (in an Oscar-winning performance as the small-town Southern sheriff) chose to define his character by the way he chewed gum; how the moment when Poitier’s character (a Philadelphia police detective) returns the slap of a bigoted Southern overlord galvanized moviegoers everywhere. 

One story I hadn’t heard before came from director Jewison. The great Quincy Jones was doing the movie’s score, which featured a bluesy title ballad, its lyrics written by the always-reliable Alan and Marilyn Bergman. When Jewison suggested  that the ballad be sung over the opening credits, Jones promised to try to enlist his good buddy Ray Charles. Jewison jumped at the idea, but was stunned when he discovered that Charles insisted on seeing the movie first. Charles, of course, was blind. But Jewison gamely talked him through a private screening. Once Charles heard the double slap and realized that a black man had just made Hollywood history by retaliating against a white bigot, he exclaimed, “Maximum green!” Jewison’s still not sure what this means, but Charles’ soulful vocals add to the film’s many pleasures.

Friday, April 7, 2017

A Movie Orgy in the Friendly Skies

Flight attendants, I suspect, love movies. They appreciate the fact that on long trips their passengers are so busy staring at their seatback screens that they forget to gripe and demand attention. Having just made two very long trans-Atlantic flights, I’m grateful for having movies on demand to help me pass the time.

Gone are the days when we had no choice but to watch the sole movie (generally a middle-of-the-road family film) being screened in the cabin. Since I could generally not see or hear all that well, I tended to opt for the pleasures of a good book. Today, however, we often have dozens of choices, and can stop and start a movie whenever the spirit moves us. Another innovation: the movies available are chosen to suit a wide variety of tastes. Last November, one inventive U.S. carrier offered a sampling of election-related flicks, including Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Election, Napoleon Dynamite, and Citizen Kane. And who doesn’t love an airline that gives you the opportunity to watch Audrey Hepburn at her most enchanting in Roman Holiday?  

On my long flights to and from Denmark, I found myself making up personal rules for the kind of films best suited to inflight viewing. Though I’d seen La La Land before, it was a perfect choice: straightforward, upbeat, basically simple in its concept and execution. (My fellow passengers seemed to agree.) I also enjoyed watching Disney’s Moana, a family film I probably wouldn’t pay to see in a multiplex, though I’m sure its sophisticated animation worked much better on a big screen. Among the movies in the “classics” category, I was glad to reaquaint myself with Big, the 1988 gimmick film made memorable by Tom Hanks’ charming performance as a twelve-year-old boy in an adult’s body. Last year’s Oscar-nominated Lion was simple (perhaps too simple) in its concept, so that I never had to worry about losing the thread of the story, but it struck me as tedious in its excution. (That didn’t stop me, though, from tearing up at the climactic reunion scene I knew was coming.)  Perhaps my absolute favorite was an oldie: Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine in The Apartment (1960). Here’s a piquant comedy that puts its accent on characterization, not quips. It’s simple; it’s sincere; it’s a great film to encounter in the middle of the Atlantic in the middle of the night. 

 Here’s what doesn’t work well on a seatback screen: (1) Anything with an extremely complicated plot or a very large cast of characters. (2) Anything highly dependent on verbal wit (those little earphones don’t always do a great job of conveying all the dialogue). (3) Anything in which wide-screen cinematography is a major part of the story, especially if a good deal of the story occurs in semi-darkness. (4) Anything in which characters speak in heavy dialect. I once tried watching Mr. Turner, the Mike Leigh biopic about painter J.M.W. Turner, on an airplane. Since the cast is veddy British and the film works hard to capture Turner’s shimmering artistic style via its visuals, I soon gave up. But I’m sure I’d have an equally hard time with the South Florida patois of Moonlight. 

Here’s my strangest adventure in seeing a movie on a plane. Years ago, late at night, the movie that came on was an old Astaire-Rogers musical, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle. Light fare, right? Except that at the end of this true story of an early twentieth-century dance team, Irene learns that her beloved Vernon has just been killed in a plane crash. Ooops! 

Update: Given the unfortunate stories coming out of United Airlines in the last day or so, maybe I should refer in my title to the UNFRIENDLY skies.