Friday, June 14, 2024

Weird -- The Daniel Radcliffe Story

With the Tony Awards ceremony, dedicated to honoring the best of Broadway, coming closer—it’s scheduled for 8 p.m. Eastern time on Sunday, June 16—I’m looking forward, as always, to catching glimpses of stage magic. One huge difference between movies and live theatre is that anyone can watch a hit movie, whether in a cineplex or (increasingly) over cable. To see a theatrical hit with its opening night cast intact, you generally need to travel to New York City and pay hundreds of dollars for your seat. Since I can’t often do that, I’m forced to live vicariously through theatre reviews and through the snippets performed on primetime TV in the course of the Tony show.

 Invariably, some of the top nominated plays are headlined by stars best known for their work in Hollywood films. This year’s nominees include such lead performers as Live Schreiber, Michael Stulberg, Jessica Lange, Sarah Paulson, Rachel McAdams, and Eddie Redmayne, hailed for his performance as the eerie emcee in a revival of Cabaret. But I was especially tickled by the inclusion of Daniel Radcliffe for his supporting turn in the revival of one of my favorite Sondheim musicals, Merrily We Roll Along.

 Radcliffe, now 34 (can it be?) is of course best known as the title character in all 8 Harry Potter films, bringing to convincing life the bespectacled young hero in J.K. Rowling’s wildly popular series of fantasy novels. In 2001, when not yet in his teens, he became an international superstar as the plucky and magical Harry. For many actors, being identified with an iconic character ultimately leads to career death: no one is willing to see them try on other roles. But after a full decade of playing Harry, Radcliffe has managed to move beyond his most famous characterization, both on the screen and on stage. In film and on television, the diminutive Radcliffe seems to have headed straight for the oddball roles, like that of a talkative corpse in the surrealistic Swiss Army Man (2016), the first film by the two Daniels who went on to win Oscars for Everything Everywhere All At Once. I managed to miss that, but can enthusiastically recommend Radcliffe’s Emmy-nominated performance as Weird Al Yankovic in 2022’s Weird: The Al Yankovic Story. Wearing a Hawaiian shirt and a curly ‘fro out to there, Radcliffe is hilarious as the writer of goofy parody songs who plays the accordion, romances Madonna, and foils the schemes of a South American drug lord.

 Starting in 2007, on stage in London, Radcliffe shook off his Harry Potter image by appearing as the deeply troubled Alan Strang in Equus, a play that required of him a strange and graphic nude scene. For Broadway, he remained covered up as the leading man in the satiric musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, playing the song-and-dance role once made famous by Robert Morse and then revived by Matthew Broderick. His current Broadway gig, Merrily We Roll Along, casts him as the writing partner of a hotshot composer who squanders his musical talent on his way to fame and fortune. There’s a marvelous Sondheim score, of course, featuring a vicious rant for the much put-upon character played by Radcliffe (and, not so long ago, by Lin-Manuel Miranda). Now he’s up for a Tony, as are the other two members of the show’s central trio. No, I haven’t seen this staging of a play that was once a big Sondheim flop but is now a really hot ticket. But I can’t help rooting for Daniel Radcliffe: there’s something magic about him.

 

 

 

Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Taking a Stab at “Hit Man”

As a teacher of screenwriting through UCLA Extension’s The Writers’ Program, I’m always interested in what genres aspiring writers choose to concentrate on. I love the variety: romantic comedies, action adventure, heartfelt dramas, police procedurals, family fare. For a while, a good proportion of my advanced screenwriting students seemed to want to focus on the physical and moral perils of being a hit man. To each his (or her) own, I guess. But the key maxim for writers has always been Write What You Know. I suspect (phew!) that none of my students has put in time as a murderer for hire. That’s why these scripts, exciting though they may be, never seem to have the ring of reality.

 Which made me doubly curious about a new film, released through Netflix but currently in theatres, that’s been getting rave reviews. Hit Man, directed by Richard Linklater from a script he co-wrote with the film’s star, Glen Powell, is based on a Texas Monthly article about a certain Gary Johnson. The  late Johnson was a mild-mannered college instructor, specializing in psychology and philosophy, who took on a part-time job posing as a hit man. His employer was the local police department: his goal was to ferret out citizens angry enough to pay a stranger to commit murder, after which they’d quickly be arrested and sent off to prison. Like his real-life counterpart, the film’s Gary Johnson discovers he thrives on donning disguises and dancing around the edges of actual mayhem. But, as the closing credits make clear, the actual Gary Johnson never broke the law. His screen counterpart, though, is a more complicated creature.

  It all starts when he meets Maddy (the gorgeous Adria Arjona) who wants to get rid of her abusive ex by any means necessary. She accepts the killer-for-hire she meets at face value:  he’s sexy tough-guy Ron. He knows, though, that underneath it all he’s meek and mild Gary, who’s quite capable of falling for Maddy, and doesn’t want to see her under arrest. When this irresistible force and this immovable object get together, sparks fly . . . and the audience thoroughly enjoys seeing where they go from here. No, of course I have no plans to give away the ending.

 I knew Richard Linklater’s work from back in the Nineties, when he introduced Matthew McConaughey to the world in Dazed and Confused.  In this century, he’s made successful studio films like School of Rock and Bad News Bears, while also experimenting with a romantic indie trilogy about two young people in Paris that started with Before Sunrise. To date, his bravest experiment has been with 2014’s Boyhood, an Oscar-nominated coming-of-age drama that was filmed between 2002 and 2013, allowing the main actors to grow and change over time. (Patricia Arquette won the statuette for Best Supporting Actress.) Now, however, he’s committed to filming Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along, a musical theatre piece which covers a two-decade period in reverse chronology: he started filming in 2019 (with Ben Platt and Beany Feldstein in central roles) and—despite some key cast changes that have required major reshoots—plans to devote twenty years to the project. Good luck with that!

 Prior to Hit Man, I had never heard of Glen Powell. Now I know he has a long track record in TV, as well as recent successes in screen romantic comedies like Anyone But You. His breakout film role was as Lt. Jake "Hangman" Seresin in Top Gun: Maverick. Don’t blame me if all the flyboys in that film blur together in my mind.

 


 

Friday, June 7, 2024

Murder, She Watched

Though I’ve always been a fan of the late, great Angela Lansbury, until recently I had never seen a single episode of the famous crime series in which she starred for twelve seasons, Murder, She Wrote. This CBS series, which ran from 1984 through 1996, starred Lansbury as Jessica Fletcher, a novelist and amateur detective. She’s a retired English teacher comfortably ensconced in the quaint (and fictional) Maine town of Cabot Cove. A widow, she has taken up the writing of mystery novels in retirement, acquiring both fame and fortune. It’s all a bit of an echo of Agatha Christie’s celebrated spinster sleuth, Miss Jane Marple, a shrewd amateur keen on solving mysterious deaths in and around her English village of St. Mary Mead. I’ve heard that Jessica Fletcher’s sleuthing and that of Miss Marple fit into a sub-genre of crime fiction called “the cozies,” in which sex and violence are played down, the guilty have a tendency to eventually confess their misdeeds, and average citizens often turn out          to be much smarter than the local constabulary. One wit has noted that in a cozy series, the main character becomes embroiled in so many high-profile murders, often by accident, that the public may tend to get suspicious. Citron Christian quips, in something called The Blot, that Jessica Fletcher had to be the actual murderer in every case, because "No matter where she goes, somebody dies!"

 I got first-hand experience of Murder, She Wrote over the past weekend, while spending the night in a resort town. Some obscure cable channel was having a marathon, and so I watched three episodes in a row. As it happened, they all aired in late 1985 or early 1986, when star Lansbury was a spry sixty-year-old. (She is seen cruising around Cabot Cove on a bicycle in the opening credits.) The episode called “Murder Digs Deep” has her investigating a mysterious death while on an archaeological jaunt in Mexico. “Murder by Appointment Only” takes her to NYC, where  a lost lipstick becomes a key clue in a story set in the beauty industry. Frankly, they didn’t do much for me. (To be honest, it had been a long day and I kept dozing off.) But “Trial by Error” delighted me, because it puts the unflappable Jessica in a jury room, where assembled jurors must decide whether a man is guilty of involving his wife in a near-fatal auto accident.

 I gather that part of the fun of Murder, She Wrote is the appearance of guest stars with long histories in the entertainment industry. In this episode, among the members of the jury are amiable Virginia Capers (The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air),  cranky Tom Ewell (who starred opposite Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch), ageing cutie-pie Arlene Golonka (The Andy Griffith Show), the glowering Brock Peters (To Kill a Mockingbird), and the fawning Vicki Lawrence (Carol Burnett’s perennial sidekick). Naturally, in an obvious echo of the great jury-room drama, Twelve Angry Men, they disagree from the start, with some jurors feeling the driver is obviously innocent and others convinced that he’s obviously guilty. They agree on only one thing: that they want to finish up quickly and go home. But the sensible Jessica, who of course is selected as jury foreman, insists on examining each bit of testimony, leading to a surprising set of conclusions. You see, it turns out that there’s not just one murderer around: there are two. Though in Twelve Angry Men a careful look at the evidence finds an “obviously guilty” man innocent, in Jessica Fletcher’s world there are murderers galore.


 

Tuesday, June 4, 2024

From Page to Screen: Launching ‘Oppenheimer”

Lucky me! Just a few months after Oppenheimer picked up seven Oscars—including Best Picture—at the Academy Awards ceremony, I heard Kai Bird explain in depth how it all came to be. Bird, who donned a tux to attend the flashy ceremony at Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre, is the co-author of American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. This massive 2005 biography of the theoretical physicist who during World Wart II led the Manhattan Project, resulting in the world’s first atomic weapons, became the source material for Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster film. (The research leading to the completed book was begun by Bird’s friend and co-author Martin J. Sherwin, an historian who passed away in 2021.)

 Though Bird and Sherwin won the Pulitzer Prize and other major honors for their 721-page opus, the motion picture industry didn’t immediately get on board.  Like most Hollywood stories, this one took its time in moving from page to screen. That was one big takeaway from this year’s 14th annual Biographers International Organization, a New York gathering of old pros and biography newbies all of whom love the idea of accurately and compellingly putting a life into words. The session at which Bird appeared was titled “From Book to Film: Selling Options, Scripting, Producing.” The speakers, in addition to Bird, were biographers A’lelia Bundles and Jack El-Hai, both of whom had their own Hollywood stories to tell.

 Needless to say, cynicism abounded at this gathering. Someone called up an old Hemingway story about how, when you sell your work to Hollywood, you stand at the California state line and toss in a bag containing your magnum opus. In exchange, the Hollywood moguls toss back to you a sack full of money. Today the writer/producer dynamic is much more complicated, though, and the money is generally less. Happily, sometimes things work out.

 Longtime journalist Jack El-Hai has had two biographical works optioned by Hollywood. The Lobotomist, his in-depth story of the doctor who invented the questionable procedure, has never quite made it to the screen. But The Nazi and the Psychiatrist –after several false starts—was recently filmed in Europe with a cast headed by Russell Crowe and Rami Malek. Having watched the filming in progress, Jack is thrilled that the project, now titled Nuremberg, will be out by the end of this year. Meanwhile, A’Lelia Bundles’ award-winning work on the life of her own great-great-grandmother, Black cosmetics and hair care entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker, was transformed into Self-Made, a Netflix miniseries starring Octavia Spencer. Bundles has high praise for Spencer, but not for the execs who garbled the true story of her ancestor, adding cat fights and other material she deemed offensive but was powerless to reject. (Her contract gave her script review, not script approval, a very big difference.)

 As for Oppenheimer, the material was originally optioned by Sam Mendes. He was coming off his Oscar wins for American Beauty, but couldn’t land the financing he needed. Several additional options followed: one produced a script filled with 108 different historical inaccuracies, like Oppy maliciously poisoning rival physicist Edward Teller at a cocktail party, leading to a dramatic (but wholly bogus) death scene. At long last, a billionaire with a physics background came aboard, then approached Nolan, who cranked out a brilliant 200 -page script retaining virtually all the complexity of Bird’s and Sherwin’s scholarly study. When Bird pointed out a few small issues involving historical accuracy, his words were respected and corrections made. That’s why Bird calls himself today “the luckiest biographer in the history of the planet.”  

 

Friday, May 31, 2024

Brothers (Somewhat) Grim: The Shermans and “Better Call Saul”

 The passing of songwriter Richard Sherman at age 95 marks the end of an era of Disney-style songwriting. Along with older brother Robert, who died in 2012, Richard was on staff at Disney starting around 1960, working in the early years directly with Walt himself. The 2013 film Saving Mr. Banks, about the filming of Mary Poppins, charmingly illustrates the cozy relationship between Disney and the two brothers (portrayed by Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak) he liked to call “the boys.”

 As key players in the making of Mary Poppins, the Shermans gave the world such jolly tunes as “A Spoonful of Sugar,” “Step in Time,” and "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” winning one of their multiple Oscars for “Chim Chim Cher-ee." They were also responsible for Walt’s own favorite, the tender ballad, “Feed the Birds.” In addition they wrote ditties for scores of other Disney movies, while also contributing to the soundtrack of the Disney theme parks such international earworms as “It’s A Small World (After All).” Personally, I don’t think I’ll ever forget the perky theme song for Tomorrowland’s long-defunct Carousel of Progress (“There’s a bright new beautiful tomorrow/ Shining at the end of every day”).  Talk about optimism!

 Though at work Richard and Robert Sherman were an unbeatable team, they were not always the best of friends in their private lives. According to Richard, there was never any serious falling out between the two, but their personalities were such (Richard was a life-of-the-party type, while his brother would rather read a book) that they didn’t mesh well on social occasions. That’s why they stayed clear of one another when not working, to the point that in later years Robert took up residence in England, while Richard stayed put in SoCal. That fact shouldn’t entirely surprise us. Take a look at, for instance, the Bible, where it’s rare to come upon a pair of brothers whose relationship reflects true “brotherly” love. Or check out the very different men sired by the same father in Dostoevsky’s masterwork, The Brothers Karamazov.  

 In movieland, there’s a highly similar dynamic. I could come up with many examples, but let’s start with the film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s 1952 novel East of Eden, in which brothers Cal and Aron (deliberately reflecting the tension between Cain and Abel in the Book of Genesis) vie—with disastrous results—for their father’s approbation and the love of the same girl.

 I’ve been thinking about pairs of brothers a lot lately, because (as a latecomer to the joys of cable television) I’m deep into season three of Better Call Saul, the complex lead-up to Breaking Bad. In Better Call Saul, we see the evolution of the shady lawyer Saul Goodman (played by Bob Odenkirk) from his beginnings as Jimmy McGill, a natural grifter from Chicago who ends up (following a law school education via correspondence course through the University of Western Samoa) as an attorney in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Jimmy is smart enough to be successful, but his every move turns out to be blocked by his older brother Chuck (Michael McKean), a once-distinguished barrister with severe psychological issues and a longstanding envy of Jimmy’s natural charisma. Jimmy loves and admires Chuck, in his way, but will never allow Chuck to bring him down.  Chuck, we sense, has always hated his kid brother, ever since he figured out that Jimmy was their mother’s favorite.

  (Yup, it sounds like a much more serious version of the Smothers Brothers, another filial pair we’re in process of losing. Tommy Smothers—whose signature line was “Mom always liked you best!”—died on December 26, 2023.)

 


Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Movies as the Splice of Life

Charles Jensen’s Splice of Life is not the first book I’ve ever read that tells a personal story by way of the films that have shaped the author’s life. I remember with affection John Manderino’s Crying at Movies. In that charming book Manderino admits learning how to kiss through watching the Swedish art film Elvira Madigan, and divulges that his apparent physical resemblance to The Graduate’s “rodent-like” Dustin Hoffman won him an unexpected bed partner. But Jensen’s new work, subtitled “A Memoir in 13 Film Genres,” is both the smartest and the most complex example of the genre that I’ve ever encountered.

 I know Charles Jensen as the highly dedicated director of the Writers’ Program, offered both “on-ground” and online through UCLA Extension. Before I read his new book, I was aware that he is a serious poet, as well as a man deeply committed to providing learning opportunities to students of every stripe. But Splice of Life has given me new insight into the fellow who oversees the screenwriting classes I offer twice a year. It’s a deeply personal look at Charlie’s in-depth fascination with movies, and how films intersect with the high and low points of his own sometimes complicated life. 

The early chapters detail Charlie’s awkward acknowledgment of his own sexual leanings by way of films like Mean Girls (which neatly parallels his high school years) and Fatal Attraction. I love his smart close reading of the latter film, in which he views not the sexy seductress Alex (Glenn Close) but the philandering husband Dan (Michael Douglas) as the villain of the piece. His take on Fatal Attraction led me to think hard about how the “victim” label in movies is sometimes used to excuse what he calls “peak male fuckery.” He has also taught me a new key term—“queer coding”—that indicates how (in popular films like Scream) gay subtext is partially concealed, except for those with eyes to see.

One of my favorite chapters goes back to classic Hitchcock: 1943’s Shadow of a Doubt.  Charlie’s analysis of this great film (in which the seemingly amiable Joseph Cotten secretly dispatches wealthy widows) uncovers more “queer coding,” but it also plays against the startling real-life story of a member of Charlie’s extended social circle, who was ultimately convicted of murder.

 As Charlie shows himself evolving into a relatively happy and productive Angeleno (following the awkward years in the upper Midwest and the formative ones in Arizona), his film pairings sometimes become more lighthearted. He matches Get Him to the Greek with the poignant but also rather wacky story of the burial of his grandmother’s cremains. We also, in various chapters, learn about his hair-loss anxiety, his body-image issues (he deals here with the obsessive ballerina in Black Swan), and—somewhat climactically—his semi-successful appearance on Jeopardy! To capture the emotion of his big moment on the tube, he writes about the raw competition spelled out in The Hunger Games. It all leaves me wondering how the UCLA Writers’ Program will figure in his next book, and what film he’ll choose to illustrate the complexities of his current job.

 Charlie opens Splice of Life with three wonderful quotes from master filmmakers. I can’t resist quoting them here, because they all figure into what he’s achieved between his book’s covers:

 Cinema is a mirror by which we often see ourselves. —Alejandro González Iñárritu

 Anything that is not autobiography is plagiarism. —Pedro Almodóvar

 A film is never really good unless the camera is an eye in the head of a poet. —Orson Welles

 Congratulations, Charlie!