Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Peggy Sue Goes Back to the Future

Last weekend I attended a major reunion of my high school class. I will not divulge how long it’s been since we all graduated from Hamilton High School in West Los Angeles, but there’ve been some serious changes among us: marriages, divorces, births, deaths, expanding waistlines, hair that changed colors or disappeared altogether. Not that my reunion was nearly as eventful as the one portrayed in Francis Ford Coppola’s Peggy Sue Got Married. I don’t think anyone there was time-traveling, and our shindig wasn’t graced by the presence of a one-time dweeb who has now blossomed into a computer zillionaire.

Nonetheless, a good time was had by all. I’ve been to enough reunions to realize that the urge to impress one’s former classmates has long since faded. Instead, we’re all simply grateful that we’re still here, standing on our own two feet (most of us), and happily spinning stories of what we’ve survived and what lessons we’ve learned along the way. Admittedly, my reunion wouldn’t have made for a terribly good movie. The juicy stuff – the diva out to flabbergast, the drunken confessions at the bar, the reuniting of lost lovers who promptly decide to dump their longtime spouses – either didn’t happen or escaped my attention because I was too busy comparing notes about dead parents and favorite teachers. I must say, I didn’t mind at all that the drama of the evening was so muted.

On screen, though, reunions can be potent things. The classic reunion movie, one that remains a touchstone for my generation, is Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill, released in 1983. It’s not about a formal reunion, but rather chronicles a gathering of some Baby Boomers who’d been college chums in the Sixties, and have now gathered fifteen years later to mourn the loss of one of their own. In reviewing The Big Chill for Time Magazine, Richard Corliss wrote, “These Americans are in their 30s today, but back then they were the Now Generation. Right Now: give me peace, give me justice, gimme good lovin'. For them, in the voluptuous bloom of youth, the '60s was a banner you could carry aloft or wrap yourself inside. A verdant anarchy of politics, sex, drugs and style carpeted the landscape. And each impulse was scored to the rollick of the new music: folk, rock, pop, R&B.”  Corliss’s description fits my classmates and me as well. We vividly remember the politics of our high school and college days, the loss of JFK, the fear of being drafted, the music by which we lived our lives. One of Saturday night’s highlights for me was the moment the deejay put on the old tunes and some of us bravely bopped to everything from “The Stroll” to “Unchained Melody” to “Honky-Tonk Woman,” in defiance of the passing years.

The Big Chill always puts me in mind of John Sayles’ 1980 indie, The Return of the Secaucus Seven.. Because Sayles broke into movies via the Roger Corman Graduate School of Film, I spoke to him at length while researching my inside bio, Roger Corman: Blood-Sucking Vampires, Flesh-Eating Cockroaches, and Driller Killers. With $40,000 in the bank, the use of someone’s house, and a gaggle of non-SAG actors all turning thirty, Sayles chose to craft a story about former college friends gathering to commemorate the day, ten years earlier, when they all got arrested en route to a D.C. protest march. The film, Sayles’ directorial debut, beautifully fulfills an important Corman maxim: take advantage of what you’ve got.

I’d like to think that my Hami High classmates have done the same.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Getting Naked, I’m Afraid

I’m just back from an outdoor wedding in Northern California. Both bride and groom kept their clothes on. This made for a lovely event, but it would have had no cred on today’s reality TV. As I’ve discovered, the new trend is for total nudity. Yesterday, VH1 launched a series called Dating Naked, to compete with such shows as Buying Naked and Naked Vegas.

I stumbled onto the nudity trend via my treadmill TV. Channel-surfing on a Sunday morning, I came across Naked and Afraid, which was launched by the once-dignified Discovery Channel in June 2013. It’s a survivor-type show with a titillating twist: two healthy young Americans of different genders are stranded in some sort of exotic wilderness area, where they must manage to live off the land. For the 21 days of the challenge, they are given no food, no water, and no clothing. 

The episode I partly saw, “Mayan Misery,” was set in the jungles of Belize. Cass, a strapping former soldier with a family back home, started out armed with plenty of brute strength. Shannon, a willowy earth-mother type, was touted as an expert on herbs and alternative medicines. Both sported lightweight cross-body satchels containing a diary, a map and one useful item of their own choosing, like a fire-starter or knife. Other than that, they were buck-naked except for their tattoos.

I watched this couple, nearly dying of thirst, risk serious illness by drinking out of local streams. I watched them, faced with torrential rains, crouch in a spooky cave inhabited by bats and who-knows-what. As time passed, I saw the damage done to their skin and bare feet. Basically, they looked like hell. Their nudity (with genitalia discreetly blurred for TV viewers) was hardly a turn-on for me, nor (I presume) for one another. But what was the point, exactly?

In the New York Times for July 17, 2014, Neil Genzlinger published an amusing piece called “Say Yes to Undress,” in which he predicts that someday soon, in deference to “14-year-old viewers and those who wish they still were,” we’ll have All-Bare TV. This trend, he frets, “is going to cost the jobs of countless costume designers, seamstresses, ironers, dry cleaners. Several Emmy Award categories will disappear, though in fairness, one will surely be added for outstanding blurring of crotches and nipples.” He’s not looking forward to Naked Downton Abbey.

My own thoughts have gone in a different direction. Yes, the featured couple in Naked and Afraid  is bug-bitten and defenseless, but they’re hardly alone out there in the jungle. This is a TV show, after all. So there’s got to be a camera crew recording their every move. Even with today’s lightweight and versatile equipment, I presume our couple is being tailed 24/7 by a cameraman, a sound recorder, maybe a lighting expert, and likely a producer to keep things running smoothly. None of those folks, I’m guessing, is going without food or water. And I’m quite sure they aren’t required to work in the buff, with their primal parts flapping in the breeze.

Oddly, I’m reminded of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. As I learned when researching Ron Howard: From Mayberry to the Moon . . . and Beyond, the Grinch’s heavy costume and makeup made star Jim Carrey so acutely claustrophobic that one afternoon shooting had to be halted hours earlier than planned. The next day, director Ron Howard showed up in identical Grinch garb out of sympathy for his leading man. Seems only fair that the behind-the-scenes team on Naked and Afraid show some solidarity with their nekkid stars, right?

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Eli Wallach: Two to Tango

The late Mickey Knox once told me he’d thought of calling his 2004 memoir The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. This seemed apt, because it was Mickey who – while sojourning in Italy during the blacklist era – adapted the script of Sergio Leone’s classic spaghetti western into American English. But upon learning that his longtime pal Eli Wallach was considering the phrase for the cover of his own upcoming book, Mickey quickly stepped aside. He figured that Wallach had earned the right to borrow the title of Leone’s second Fistful of Dollars follow-up. After all, the movie’s most famous moments involve the scruffy Tuco, the cheerfully malicious and notably “ugly” character played by Wallach with infectious zest. Clint Eastwood may have been the film’s leading man, but it’s Tuco we most fondly remember. 

Mickey’s book about his oddball career ended up being called The Good, The Bad, and the Dolce Vita: The Adventures of an Actor in Hollywood, Paris, and Rome. Wallach’s own memoir, which came out a year later, bears the puckish title The Good, the Bad, and Me: In My Anecdotage. You can be sure it contains some lively reminiscences about working with Leone. It also covers his other celebrated bandido role, that of the gold-toothed Calvera in 1960’s The Magnificent Seven. There’s no telling why a short Jewish Method Actor from Brooklyn became typecast by Hollywood as a South-of-the-Border outlaw, but Wallach made the two roles his own in a way that the movie industry has never forgotten. Thereafter he was offered a long string of colorful bad-guy parts (thieves, hitmen, Mafia dons) and seemed to relish every one of them. 

But despite his lucrative movie career, he continued to return to the New York stage, where he took on roles by Shakespeare, Shaw, Ionesco, Arthur Miller, and his longtime friend, Tennessee Williams. Six years after making his Broadway debut, he won a Tony for Williams’ The Rose Tattoo.  He also created the role of Kilroy in Williams’ ambitious Camino Real, thereby missing out on playing Maggio in a hit film, From Here to Eternity. His part went to Frank Sinatra, who won an Oscar. 

Wallach was remarkable not only for living long but for living well. By the time he died on June 24 at age 98, he had wracked up 90 film credits. His final feature, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, appeared in 2010, when he was a mere 94. A video interview appeared in the New York Times that same year, just prior to Wallach receiving the Motion Picture Academy’s Governors Award “for a lifetime’s worth of indelible screen characters.” The interviewer was Times critic A.O. Scott, who addressed his subject as Uncle Eli for good reason: Scott’s late grandfather was Eli’s older brother. The footage reveals a man who, though aged, is still very much alive. Given how many youngish actors we’ve lost recently – Philip Seymour Hoffman comes to mind – it’s encouraging to see an oldster with a functioning body and an unquenchable spirit.

 Not only was the elderly Eli Wallach still capable of being charming. He was also a participant in a love story that lasted sixty-six years. He met Anne Jackson in 1946, when they were cast opposite one another in Tennessee Williams’ This Property is Condemned. They married in 1948, raised three children, and continued to appear in plays together as late as 2000. (Cautioned Jackson, “We're not the couple we play onstage. For us, it's fun to separate the two.")  

Long life; long marriage. Who in Hollywood is ever going to be able to equal that record? 

Friday, July 11, 2014

Up in the Air at the Movies

The other night I watched Non-Stop, a 2014 Liam Neeson thriller set aboard a transatlantic flight to London. Moviegoers have flown the unfriendly skies at least since 1954, when washed-up pilot John Wayne fought to save a planeful of passengers in The High and the Mighty. In today’s increasingly precarious world, engine trouble is the least of our worries. Neeson stars as a (yup!) washed-up sky marshal who must fight to save a planeful of passengers from an extortionist who threatens, via text message, to start killing people unless $150 million is deposited into his bank account. And then the mysterious deaths begin.

It’s all very complicated, and more than slightly implausible. But that didn’t stop me from being on the edge of my seat, trying to figure out who aboard the plane – the female lead? the guy with the shaven head?  the devout Muslim? the little girl? -- was sending those ominous texts. At the film’s end, after many high-flying emotions, I was very glad to be back on solid ground.

Let’s face it: when it comes to suspense, airplanes and movies just seem to go together. That’s what I was thinking recently when I toured the Museum of Flying, located on the grounds of the Santa Monica Airport. This being Southern California, the museum features aircraft that had co-starring roles in several Hollywood films. Like the sleek little BD-5 micro jet piloted by Roger Moore as James Bond in Octopussy. And the replica of the Wright Brothers’ original Flyer that appeared in Night at the Museum.

In tracing the history of Southern California aviation, the Museum of Flying of course devotes space to a flyboy who went on to make movies of his own. Howard Hughes—inventor, engineer, airline owner, aerospace honcho—also made his mark on Hollywood. In 1930, he produced and co-directed one of his most successful films, Hell’s Angels. This was a rough-and-tumble story of World War I combat pilots, and its aerial dogfight sequences won particular praise. Over seventy years later, Martin Scorsese focused on Hughes’ all-consuming passion for flying in his 2004 biopic, The Aviator.

I also learned the story of Douglas Aircraft, which once occupied the land where the museum now sits. During World War II, the Douglas aircraft plant turned out 300,000 planes for military use. This was such a fantastically large figure that Hitler himself deemed it mere propaganda. But the totals were genuine, thanks to round-the-clock shifts by a legion of dedicated workers, many of them Rosie the Riveters. Yes, at the height of the war, a full 40% of the Douglas workforce was female. 

Following Pearl Harbor, company founder Donald Douglas worried that his workplace, located only three miles from the Pacific Ocean, might be vulnerable to Japanese air attack. And so began a little-known collaboration between Hollywood and the aircraft industry. Set builders from Warner Bros. were delegated to create a fake city that completely camouflaged the plant. From the air, busy Douglas Aircraft looked like a collection of houses, buildings, and streets, with nearby runways disguised as farmland. 

Today, Hollywood and the airline biz are continuing to merge in curious ways. Recently, flying Delta, I saw a safety featurette that reminded me of the spoofy Airplane. As a chirpy-voiced stewardess described the plane’s features, the camera panned to passengers who were outrageously in dress and behavior. One slithered up the aisle on his belly like a trained seal; another breakdanced into his seat. Demonstrating the oxygen mask was an ALF-like muppet. And who was that giving us the thumbs-up from the cockpit? Yup, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars -- Just An Old-Fashioned Love Story?

What can you say about a teenage hottie who died? Such is a key questions broached by The Fault in Our Stars, a breakout summer hit among the younger set. The Fault in Our Stars is a faithful adaptation of a romantic YA novel that’s topped the bestseller lists since its debut in January 2012. Because of its focus on attractive young people coping with cancer, it put me in mind of the three-hankie novel and movie that some of us remember from 1970. Of course I’m talking about Love Story.

Improbably, Love Story was written by a young Harvard professor of classics, Erich Segal. I’m told he tried to sell a screenplay version, but was advised by a literary agent to publish a  novel first. It appeared on Valentine’s Day, 1970, becoming the year’s top-selling work of fiction in the U.S., while also being translated into upwards of 20 languages. The film, released in December of that same year, was a runaway hit. When Oscar season rolled around, Love Story was nominated in seven categories, among them Best Picture, Best Director (Arthur Hiller), Best Actress (Ali MacGraw), and Best Actor (Ryan O’Neal). In the end, it won only for Francis Lai’s swoony score (cue the violins!), which went on to be featured in thousands of wedding ceremonies thereafter. The Love Story legacy also includes a #9 slot on the AFI’s all-time list of great movie romances. And, I suspect, it’s the reason that so many Americans born in the 1970s are named Jennifer and Oliver. (It will be fun to see whether, given the current popularity of The Fault in Our Stars, Hazel and Augustus will soon end up becoming baby names of choice.) 

The curious thing about Love Story is that it’s not really about leukemia. Despite its famous opening lines – “What can you say about a twenty-five-year-old girl who died? That she was beautiful and brilliant? That she loved Mozart and Bach, the Beatles, and me?” – it does not spend most of its pages on illness. Instead, it’s a very polite and romanticized tale of class struggle, featuring the forbidden love between an upper-crust Harvard WASP and a working-class baker’s daughter. They meet in the school library; they spar (she disparagingly calls him “Preppie” at lot); they reconcile; they marry, after which Oliver’s banker-dad disinherits him. That’s when illness strikes, though father and son tearfully reconcile just after poor Jenny expires, having taught her young husband that “love means never having to say you’re sorry.” Prior to that, the movie’s been filled with now-common romantic tropes, like pretty young people romping through fields of flowers in slo-mo, their long locks flowing in the breeze. And, of course, illness itself looks pretty too: the sicker she gets, the more beautiful she looks. (The Carol Burnett Show brilliantly spoofed the film, via its hilarious “Lovely Story.”)

In writing The Fault in Our Stars, novelist John Green (who had worked as a chaplain in a cancer hospital and became a close friend of one young patient) was determined to cut the crap. True, his Hazel and Gus are both physically good-looking, and many elements of their story can be seen as pure YA wish-fulfillment. There is, for instance, that romantic trip to Amsterdam, where they drink champagne and fall into bed together, with her mother’s tacit approval. Still, their struggles with cancer – the toll it takes on them and on those around them -- are portrayed with heightened realism. Frankly, it’s encouraging to see a YA hit that deals with real-world problems, not the sex life of vampires.