Friday, March 22, 2019

Checking Out “The Library Book”

Books and reading tables make for a great backdrop in so many movies. George Peppard declares his love for Audrey Hepburn in a New York library in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. High school kids (Molly Ringwald and Emilio Estevez among them) serve their Saturday morning detention in the school library in The Breakfast Club. Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman search for evidence of high crimes in the Nixon White House by scouring the collection of the Library of Congress in All The President’s Men. Cop Morgan Freeman tracks down the m.o. of a serial killer through an eerie late-night visit to a police library in Se7en.

Those of us who are book lovers feel we know what libraries look like, feel like, sound like (Ssssh!). And we have in our heads a clear image of librarians: usually females of a certain age, wearing glasses on the tips of their noses, shushing the patrons, clearly more comfortable with books than people. (At home they cuddle with their cats, while reading Jane Austen and sipping hot milk.) It’s true there’ve been a series of made-for-television fantasy movies called The Librarian (and later The Librarians), in which the lead characters have nearly magical powers. But mostly when we think of movie librarians we summon up people like Katharine Hepburn as a prickly, no-nonsense research ace in Desk Set, as well as the adorable but oh-so-prim Shirley Jones, keeping order at the Madison Public Library in The Music Man.

The Library Book is determined to change our opinion of libraries, and of librarians, once and for all. It’s written by New Yorker staffer Susan Orlean, whose earlier The Orchid Thief was the basis for the 2002 Spike Jonze film, Adaptation .In the highly original script written by Charlie Kaufman, Orlean (as portrayed by Meryl Streep) becomes something of a fictional character herself, a journalist seduced by her protagonist -- a mangy orchid thief -- into a life of sex, psychedelics, and crime. The real Orlean has had a slightly less colorful life, but there’s no question she’s attracted by off-kilter subject matter.

One off-kilter subject in The Library Book is the late Harry Peak, a would-be actor who on the morning of April 29, 1986 may or may not have set the fire that nearly destroyed the Los Angeles Central Library. Peak, a ne’er-do-well with a winning smile and a compulsion for lying, was investigated but never charged. As a result of the fire, 400,000 volumes were destroyed. Happily the people of Los Angeles rallied to save the wonderfully fanciful library building and to rebuild its collections. The restored and much enlarged library (which dated from 1926) re-opened in 1993 and continues to flourish in the heart of downtown L.A.

Though Harry Peak is a lively presence in The Library Book, the real hero of the story is the library itself. Orlean has peered into every department, interviewed many staff members, and absorbed the pleasures of the renovated building. Along the way, she explores the innovations that libraries (both in Los Angeles and worldwide) are bringing to their communities: new technologies, ideas for social services, programming to appeal to those of all ages and cultural levels. Today’s libraries are, among many other things, repositories of films and film-related programs. 
Many years ago, when I was quite small, TV launched Cavalcade of Books. On its inaugural episode, the show honored the children’s department of the Los Angeles Central Library. There was an actual children’s librarian present, and I was the curly-headed moppet asking for books about dance. How wonderful that the library is thriving again. 

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Fresh Tales of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

Why do we all enjoy rogues so much—except when they’re taking advantage of us? Over the weekend I finally caught up with an oldie but goodie: the 1988 comedy, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. In this droll farce set along the sun-kissed beaches of the French Riviera, Michael Caine plays what is essentially the David Niven part. (Niven took on a highly similar role in the highly similar Bedtime Story, from 1964.) Caine plays a suave English “gentleman” who, with help from the local constable and hotel concierge, lures wealthy female tourists into entrusting him with their money and valuables. In the eyes of his selected pigeons, he’s a prince in exile, quietly trying to finance the popular uprising that will help him reclaim his throne, and they flock to press their jewels into his waiting hands.

Enter a rival of sorts, one who threatens to beat him at his own game. He’s Steve Martin, playing a brash American who uses tales of a dying grandmother to extract money from vulnerable women. When he discovers the elaborate con that Caine has going, he becomes an instant disciple, leading to some ludicrous scenes in which Martin (posing as Caine’s idiot brother) can only be said to emulate Jerry Lewis at his most exasperating. Obviously, this is my least favorite part of the film. But soon the men’s relationship turns into a lively battle of wits, with the two of them vying to see who can be first to extract $50,000 from a bubbly young American soap queen (Glenne Headley). Naturally a twist ending brings the proceedings to a satisfying close.

Of course Hollywood has given us many notable movies about con men (and con women – let’s not forget Barbara Stanwyck in the 1941 Preston Sturges classic, The Lady Eve.)  Among everyone’s favorites is the 1973 Oscar winner, The Sting, in which Paul Newman and Robert Redford pull off a magnificent con via a phony high-stakes betting parlor. I’m also partial to 1990’s The Grifters, which introduced me to the slippery talents of director Stephen Frears and actress  Annette Bening. Lawrence Turman, soon to produce the classic The Graduate, got his start as a solo producer with The Flim-Flam Man, a 1967 comedy starring George C. Scott as a con artist plying his trade in the byways of the American South. Tom Hanks’ straight-arrow FBI man chases down Leonardo DiCaprio’s gifted grifter in another favorite of mine, Spielberg’s 2002 Catch Me if You Can.

Like Catch Me If You Can, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels found additional success as a Broadway musical. An even more famous musical about a con man is an American classic, The Music Man, in which a Midwestern traveling salesman lines his pockets while claiming to be assembling boys’ marching bands. When caught, Professor Harold Hill admits that even he is fooled by his own high-flown rhetoric: “I always think there’s a band, kid.” This sense of a liar caught up in his own lies seems to fit the swindler who’s at the center of Dean Jobb’s rollicking work of historical nonfiction,  Empire of Deception. In 1922, Chicago financial whiz Leo Koretz was being feted by the socially-prominent investors in his Bayano Syndicate, which proposed to extract great sums of oil from a cache he’d discovered deep in the jungles of Panama. Only problem: oil had never been found in this out-of-the-way location. Eventually, Koretz left town, changing names and occupations as he skipped back and forth across the Canadian border. Jobb, a Canadian professor of journalist, has tracked down the whole lively story What a movie it would make!

Friday, March 15, 2019

The Freshman Fifteen Thousand*: or Buying Your Way into the College of Your Choice

*$15,000 is allegedly the amount paid by actors Felicity Huffman and William H. Macy to allow their daughter unlimited time to complete her SAT exam. 

I’m sure I’m not the only parent truly ticked off by the college admissions scandal that has rocked our sense of fair play in higher education. Everyone who’s been through the harrowing process of nagging kids to study for standardized tests, fill out applications, gather letters of support, and observe deadlines has got to be feeling plenty angry that the rich and famous are bypassing all of that. Sure, we always suspected that influence played its part, that the glamour of a celebrity parent or the hope that a zillionaire might endow a building could pave the way for an offspring to be welcomed onto a prestigious campus. And, if we enrolled our own kids in SAT prep courses, we knew we were bettering their chances because we could afford to do so.

Still, I wouldn’t have guessed that some parents, in cahoots with crooked test prep professionals and bribe-able college officials, would go to such egregious lengths to game the system. Like having their kids’ SATs taken by ringers. And helping those same kids to pose as competitive athletes, sometimes in sports they’ve never actually played, thereby gaining them entrance to  elite schools like USC and UCLA. (Woe to the aspiring student athlete who loses a place on the squad to make room for these bogus applicants.)

I can think of few movies that deal with the college application process, maybe because it’s generally more grueling than dramatic. There is, though, the segment of Legally Blonde in which the bubbly and curvaceous Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon), a Beverly Hills gal with a college degree in fashion merchandising, is accepted into Harvard Law. Her ace in the hole is an admissions video that plays up her considerable attributes by posing her in a bikini. (She admits she got “a Coppola” to direct this masterpiece.) But Legally Blonde being a good-natured comedy, Elle turns out to be smart as well as sexy, and a credit to her future profession.

Most Hollywood movies that deal with college life don’t give us a chance to wonder how the students got there. In The Graduate, we know all about Benjamin Braddock’s college successes—as a student, an athlete, and a campus leader—but we are never encouraged to question the strings his parents pulled to have him admitted into that east coast bastion of learning in the first place.  The lives of the two main characters in Love Story revolve around the venerable Harvard campus. Oliver (Ryan O’Neal) is a wealthy young man, a scholar and a jock, who was probably helped to enter Harvard by way of his legacy status. Jenny (Ali MacGraw) is a smart-as-a-whip young woman from a working-class home who’s now working her way through Radcliffe. How hard did she have to push to get accepted? What rich kid did she displace? That’s not what this schmaltzy film is all about.

A very different look at college life, but one that is dear to my heart, is Harold Lloyd’s 1925 silent classic, The Freshman. This film, partially shot on the USC campus, looks at college as a place of hijinks, formal dances, and football games, where education definitely takes a back seat to social life. Lloyd’s lovably inept “Speedy” character, a new arrival on campus, is determined to find popularity as a football hero. Instead, he is recruited to take the place of the tackling dummy he’s accidentally destroyed. And his attempts to plan the big dance are equally disastrous. Still, he’s ultimately a winner, unlike those parents who thought they could buy their children college glory.