Friday, June 2, 2023

“Turn Every Page”: Robert Caro vs. Robert Gottlieb

The film opens with a sound many people today have never heard. But I remember it well: the clacking of typewriter keys. These keys are being struck, in rapid succession, by two fingers, one on each hand. After 87 years of life and the publication of two best-selling biographies (one in four volumes, with a fifth on its way), Robert Caro has not yet discovered either computerized word processing or touch-typing. Writing in depth about Robert Moses and Lyndon B. Johnson, Caro sticks to the old ways, including carbon-paper copies of all his drafts.

 In his long, illustrious career, Caro has always worked with one editor: the now 92-year-old Robert Gottlieb. He is by no means Gottlieb’s only prize author: Gottlieb has overseen the publications of such luminaries as Toni Morrison, Joseph Heller, Doris Lessing, and Bill Clinton. But his relationship with Robert Caro seems to be a special one, though it is not all smiles and pats on the back. As Gottlieb explains it, “He does the book work, I do the clean-up, and we fight.” Partly they fight because Caro, an obsessive researcher who started out as a newspaper man, turns in drafts that are many thousands of words over their contractual limit. That’s why Caro lugs his massive drafts into Gottlieb’s New York office, where together (always with a pair of #2 wooden pencils) they wrestle each book into submission.

 This is what we see on screen in the new documentary, Turn Every Page, It was shot over five years by Gottlieb’s filmmaker daughter, Lizzie Gottlieb. But despite her close proximity to her father and his most famous client, Lizzie did not get total access to their working relationship. Yes, they are separately candid in answering her questions (says Gottlieb admiringly about Caro’s accomplishments, “Anyone can be adorable but not everyone can be industrious—with good results”).  But the two men steadfastly refused ever to sit for an on-camera interview together. It was only near the end of the filmmaking process that Lizzie was allowed to film them working—emphatically changing words and x-ing out rejected passages. In those scenes we’ll never know exactly what they were saying, because she was expressly forbidden to record sound.

 We do learn, though, a great deal about Caro’s research process. A strong believer in conveying the impact of place on a biographical subject’s life story, Caro long ago persuaded wife Ina to move with him to the impoverished Texas hill country, all the better to soak up the atmosphere in which President Lyndon Johnson was raised. This helped particularly when he conducted a key interview with Johnson’s brother, Sam Houston Johnson. Though he had interviewed Sam Houston several times before about his brother’s childhood, Caro distrusted the results. Aside from a drinking problem, Sam Houston had a reputation as a spinner of tall tales. But following a  religious conversion and a period of sobriety, Sam Houston was persuaded by Caro to be interviewed inside the old family home. Caro seated him at the well-worn Johnson dinner table, then stood behind him, frantically taking notes as the man—encouraged, surely, by the once-familiar surroundings—began to reminisce. This, of course, is exactly what Caro was hoping for. I’m only amazed that he trusted to his notetaking (and not a pocket tape recorder) to get it all down.

 Caro told Lizzie that all those carbon copies of his drafts were stored in a kitchen cupboard. Near the end of her film, he opens the cupboard door : thousands of sheets of paper are stuffed inside. Who knows what additional treasures they contain?   


Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Sunday in the Park Without Stephen

Oh, the joys of a Sondheim musical! But I’m actually talking about another Stephen. You see, I’m newly back from a writers’ conference in New York City. On a beautiful  Sunday afternoon, I waited in Bryant Park for two hours to meet with  a fellow writer. Alas, he never showed. (Later I found out he’d been hospitalized. Of course I hope he gets well soon!)

 But Sondheim is much in my mind right now because I’ve just seen a terrific revival of the great man’s waltz operetta, 1973’s A Little Night Music, at the Pasadena Playhouse. What does this have to do with movies? Quite a lot, actually. This complicated story of thwarted and consummated love was based by Sondheim and book author Hugh Wheeler on the rare Ingmar Bergman romantic  comedy, 1955’s Smiles of a Summer Night. As in the Bergman film, events transpire on  the midsummer evening when, in the Swedish countryside, darkness never quite comes, but lovers strongly feel the urge to merge. Once Sondheim’s musical version became a worldwide stage hit, Hollywood came calling. Sondheim, a great lover of film, was all for it.

Stage director-producer Harold Prince signed on to direct the 1977 film version, which was distributed by my former boss, Roger Corman, a B-movie guy who in that era was looking to participate in classier projects. 

 Unfortunately for filmgoers, much of the casting tried a bit too hard for Hollywood pizzazz.. While male actors like Len Cariou reprised their stage roles, the all-important women’s parts were given to actresses popular with TV  and movie fans. That’s why Diana Rigg, well known in that era for playing Emma Peel on TV’s The Avengers, was given the key supporting role of  Countless Charlotte, the bitter wife of a philandering dragoon. And the leading part, that of a glamorous but ageing actress who has discovered she longs for true love (and who gets to sing “Send in the Clowns”) went to no one but Elizabeth Taylor. I’ve never managed to see the whole movie, which was roundly panned by critics and shunned by audiences. But the YouTube clip of Taylor stiffly talk-singing through that dazzling song (see below) is easy to ridicule.

 A Little Night Music was not the only Hollywood film based on a Sondheim musical, but it was one of the first. In the Sixties, two Broadway musicals for which he’d provided lyrics, West Side Story and Gypsy,  became big-budget films, with varying degrees of success. His knockabout musical comedy, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, became a frenetic Zero Mostel vehicle in 1966.  Seven years later, Sondheim—a great fan of mysteries and word games—collaborated with actor Tony Perkins on the script for a twisty, bitchy non-musical called The Last of Sheila. For Warren Beatty’s comic-strip spinoff,, Dick Tracy (1990), Sondheim was hired to contribute five songs. One of then, “Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man)” was seductively sung by Madonna, in the role of Breathless Mahoney: it ended up winning Sondheim his one and only Oscar.

 Of the two major Sondheim musicals that have been made into movies thus far,  Sweeney Todd (a 2007 film starring a well-cast Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter) has its moments, notably a deadpan droll “By the Sea,” with a scowling Sweeney on the sand at Brighton, fully dressed in his funereal black suit. An all-star Into the Woods (2014) , with Meryl Streep as the Witch, approaches the power of the original. But fantasy, which works beautifully on stage, is much harder to carry off at the movies. 


 With best wishes to S.M. Silverman


Friday, May 26, 2023

Imitating the Inimitable: the Loss of Loud, Proud Tina Turner

So another icon has left the building. Yesterday’s newspapers brought word that the great Tina Turner had passed away at age 83.  I never saw her perform in person, but her recordings and over-the-air performances were plenty to convince me that as a singer, dancer, and all-around bad ass she was one of a kind. To me, and to many others, she will always be “Proud Mary” for real.

 Which, of course, is why Hollywood snapped up the opportunity to portray her onscreen. In the 1993 biopic, What’s Love Got to Do With It?, Tina was played by Angela Bassett, while Laurence Fishburne took on the role of Tina’s talented but sometimes ruthless husband, Ike. (Both were nominated for Oscars.)  Though she criticized the film’s many inaccuracies, Tina herself praised Bassett’s performance, later writing in a 2003 Time  magazine tribute to Bassett, “Angela, the first time we met, you didn't look, sound, or move like me—that came later after you worked so hard to make it happen. But even then, I could see that the young woman standing before me had strength, determination, and big, big dreams, just like me.”

 It's rare when the lead actor in a biopic gets that kind of praise from a living subject. Which doesn’t mean, of course, that what Bassett contributed on screen should be confused with the real thing.  We move even further from reality with Tina, the jukebox musical first seen on stage in London (2018) and then  on Broadway a year later. The show, which I’ve enjoyed, neatly shapes Tina’s chronology as a way to work in most of her top songs, using them to explain the various phases of her life.

 So-called jukebox musicals have been all the rage on Broadway for some years now, giving theatregoers a chance to pretend they’ve seen some of the world’s great talents in person. Not all jukebox musicals set out to tell the performer’s own story: for instance, Girl From the North Country re-arranges 19 pre-existing songs by Bob Dylan to tell a Depression-era story about the inhabitants of a shabby Duluth rooming house. But the classic jukebox musical uses a singer’s own catalogue of hits as a way to narrate the story of his or her showbiz career. I’m thinking of the current MJ: The Musical (about, natch, the life and times of Michael Jackson) and A Beautiful Noise: The Neil Diamond Music (which includes in its cast actors playing Diamond Then and Diamond Now). Beautiful, the musical about songwriter Carole King’s eventful life, was well-received when it opened in 2014 for a five-year run. There was somewhat less love for The Cher Show (something of a hodgepodge, with three different actresses playing Cher as Star, Babe, and Lady). It only stuck around for 295 performances.

 Aside from shows that focus on a single performer, there are several that explore the dynamics of an evolving musical group.  Long-ago revues like Ain’t Misbehavin’ and Smokey Joe’s Café paid tribute to songwriters like Fats Waller and the Leiber/Stoller duo, but didn’t really focus on anyone’s biographical story. More recently, the long-running Jersey Boys intertwined the lives of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons with their musical hits, explaining how four feckless young guys from the Garden State grew and changed as they found themselves becoming cultural icons. In a similar spirit, Ain’t Too Proud has drilled in on Motown’s The Temptations.

 Is it nostalgia that endears these shows to the public? I think we all want to feel that we were truly in the room where it happened,