Friday, July 3, 2015

Plane and Fancy: Looking for Happy Landings

When movies were young, back in the 1890s, there was something called the Kinetoscope. This device allowed one viewer at a time to watch a very short film—on the order of “Fred Ott’s Sneeze”—through a peephole. Kinetoscopes were featured at amusement arcades, but it was not long before the concept of the movie theatre developed. From that time onward, movies were screened for mass audiences, and the communal experience became part of the allure.

Times, of course, have changed. We can now watch movies at home on our television sets or computer screens. We can even, if we’re obsessive, view them on our smartphones. But it was on a series of long airplane rides that I really came to feel I was returning to the peepshow days of old. On my recent Lufthansa flights to and from Frankfurt, every seat in economy class was equipped with its own small screen. Wearing a set of headphones and navigating via a touchscreen, I had free access to what seemed like hundreds of movies. I learned I could relieve the tedium of air travel by way of an up-close-and-personal moviegoing orgy, but also that certain types of flicks work much better than others when you are folded into a cramped seat for over ten hours of flying time.

On my outward-bound flight, I chose carefully, and ended with a satisfactory playlist. This was my chance to catch up with Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited, in which three oddball siblings played by Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, and Adrien Brody travel by train across India as a way of coming to terms with their father’s death. To continue with the Indian motif, I moved on to The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. This was far more light-hearted than the Anderson film, and tried (overly?) hard for the exuberance of Bollywood extravaganzas. Still, the two flicks were similar in focusing on a westerner’s bedazed response to the chaotic splendors of India. After all that exoticism, it seemed fitting to return to the tried-and-true charms of a European fairytale. Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella had both magic and gusto, thanks to the nastiness of Cate Blanchett’s wicked stepmother. But for me the big surprise was Ex Machina, a scifi thriller with both a sleek look and a twisty storyline. Ex Machina is hardly a cast-of-thousands epic, and the very simplicity of its dramatic demands made it ideal airplane viewing.

Coming home, I did less well. Tim Burton’s Big Eyes, the story of Margaret and Walter Keane, was easy enough to follow, but the characters played by Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz never entirely held my interest. I next checked out Les Miserables, to see how well a solemn and grandiose stage musical could transfer to the screen. Alas, the combination of realistic squalor and characters belting arias into the camera lens struck me as grotesque, and I quit well before the midway point. Another film that didn’t work was Kingsman, the British spy caper that seemed much too complicated to follow, given the distractions of meal service and seatmates jostling to reach the aisle.

Finally I settled on an intriguing little romantic flick I’d barely heard of: Celeste and Jesse Forever. Its producer, co-writer, and star is Rashida Jones, the talented and gorgeous daughter of Quincy Jones and The Mod Squad’s Peggy Lipton. She plays opposite Andy Samberg, but in this rueful contemporary tale these two soulmates are not moving toward marriage, but rather toward divorce. It’s well-played and seems wholly contemporary. Today I guess no one seems to expect happily-ever-after.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Graduate’s Elizabeth Wilson: And Here’s to You, Mrs. Braddock

Elizabeth Wilson: it’s not a name with a Hollywood ring to it. And in fact most of Wilson’s triumphs were on Broadway, in a wide range of classical and contemporary plays. But Wilson, who died this past May at the age of 94, had indelible supporting roles in several hit films. In Nine to Five, she played the office snitch. She was Charles Van Doren’s mother in Quiz Show and (near the end of her life) Franklin D. Roosevelt’s mother in Hyde Park on Hudson. Yet for me her most unforgettable gig was portraying the mother of Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate.

Most fans of The Graduate probably don’t remember Mrs. Braddock. I suspect they’re too busy focusing on the film’s other women: the slinky and dangerous Mrs. Robinson and her beautiful, virginal daughter, Elaine. But it’s worth paying attention to the dynamic in Ben’s home, where his affable parents shower him with presents, but in return expect him to entertain their guests with his collegiate accomplishments. (“You’re disappointing them, Ben,” scolds his father, when our hero shows reluctance to demonstrate in the family swimming pool the virtues of his new SCUBA gear.)  Ben’s dad habitually plays the ringmaster in this family circus, with his wife cheering from the sidelines. Tall and well-coiffed, dressed in stylish but slightly wacky leisurewear, she seems to thoroughly enjoy her husband’s monkeyshines. Whether barbecuing burgers for the backyard guests, scrambling eggs for her family, arranging roses in a vase, or fussing with Ben’s collar as he descends to greet his parents’ partygoing friends, she is the perfect (and perfectly charming) Beverly Hills matron.

Which should not imply that she’s in any way bland. This woman has spunk. There’s a scene in which parents and son are all floating in that swimming pool. The Braddocks simply can’t understand why Ben is so loathe to take out the Robinsons’ pretty daughter. Mrs. Braddock (decked out in the kind of frilly plastic bathing cap I remember all too well from my childhood) cheerfully forces the issue by announcing that if Ben won’t cooperate, she’ll simply have to invite all the Robinsons to dinner. Since Ben is secretly sleeping with his father’s partner’s wife, this is one scenario he can’t endure. Result: in the very next scene, Ben shows up at the Robinson home to claim a date with Elaine.

If Mrs. Robinson has been manipulating young Ben from the start, Mrs. Braddock is in her way equally adept at bending him to her wishes. That’s, in a sense, what moms do. (I mean no disrespect: I’ve personally been on both sides of the mother/child equation.) But there’s a huge difference between the two women. Whereas Mrs. Robinson acts out of discontent, hating her husband, her marriage, and everything about her comfortable but empty life, Mrs. Braddock is motivated by affection. She and her husband are a successful team. (At times we might even call them co-conspirators.) She loves her son too, and wants only the best for him. The only problem is that she and her husband are a tad too insistent on shaping his future in their own image.

I’ve seen a costumer’s snapshots for The Graduate, showing both Anne Bancroft’s Mrs. Robinson and Elizabeth Wilson’s Mrs. Braddock in their wardrobes  for the film. Bancroft is clearly having a ball, vamping for the camera. Wilson, though, looks a bit abashed, her eyes averted. She’s an actress, not a fashion-plate, and in Mrs. Braddock’s glitzy outfits her modest demeanor gives a hint of the woman behind the character. Here’s to you, Elizabeth Wilson! Hail and farewell.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Staying in the Picture with Robert Evans

In Hollywood, it never hurts to have a gift of the gab. Robert Evans, who’s certainly had his share of showbiz ups and downs, started out as a handsome young actor, detoured into a stint in women’s pants (his brother was a founder of Evan-Picone), ran Paramount Pictures during its glory days, got into serious legal hot water, got canned, then eventually wrote a memoir that got better reviews than any of his films, including The Godfather and Chinatown. Evans’ book is called The Kid Stays in the Picture, in tribute to Darryl F. Zanuck, who insisted that Evans not be booted from the unlikely role of a Spanish bullfighter in the film adaptation of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1957). So successful was The Kid Stays in the Picture, which came out in 1994, that it eventually was made into a 2012 documentary that was a hit at Cannes.

 Evans’ book has clearly not been massaged by a ghost writer and then vetted by a conscientious publicist. He explains his modus operandi right off the bat (these quotes are taken from the intro to the 2013 edition): “To tell the truth . . . and nothin’ but the truth . . . yet stick a bit of lightnin’ up the reader’s ass—that’s one mean hat trick. Don’t care how talented you are, or think you are. If you meant to make truth jump from the page, you need a hook!” Talk about finding your voice as a writer!  He goes on to say, directly contradicting the values of ardent grammar cops like me, “Forget grammatical perfection. Leave that to the pens of the more talented. Who the fuck wants to go toe-to-toe with George Bernard Shaw, anyway? Shock ‘em with the unexpected! . . .  Let ‘em laugh at you. But be you. Be an original!”

And here’s the book’s much-quoted epigraph: “There are three sides to every story: yours . . . mine . . . and the truth. No one is lying. Memories shared serve each differently.”

Much later in the book, Evans pauses to sum up his highly original life, which has included pursuing Grace Kelly, tangoing with Ava Gardner, feuding with Frances Ford Coppola, plucking Jack Nicholson out of the Roger Corman ghetto, and marrying Ali MacGraw. Not to mention staging a impromptu Passover seder intended to convince Roman Polanski to direct Chinatown: guests included Walter Matthau, Sue Mengers, Warren Beatty, and Kirk Douglas, who presided in perfect Hebrew. Here’s his take on two key decades in his life: “As the fifties aged, so did I. Made it to the big screen! Beaten up by Errol Flynn, kissed by Ava Gardner, slapped by Joan Crawford, toe-to-toe in close-ups with Jimmy Cagney. Not bad, huh? Not good either. By decade’s end, I was sure of one thing: I was a half-assed actor.”

“The sixties? That’s a different story. No back door this time – front door all the way. ‘Run the joint,’ was the order of the decade. Run it I did, for more than a decade. First and only actor ever to make the jump. Don’t understand it. This world of fickle flicks? It’s been well over thirty years now and I’m still  here, still standing behind them same gates. Bet your house, it isn’t dull. I’ve either done it, or gotten it. You name ‘em, I’ve met ‘em—well, almost. Either worked with ‘em, fought with ‘em, hired ‘em, laughed with ‘em, cried with ‘em, been figuratively fucked by ‘em, or literally fucked ‘em. It’s been one helluva ride!”

And one helluva read.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Afternoon (and Evening) of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq

Ballet is so often about heartbreak. In Swan Lake, after her lover proves unfaithful, Odette is trapped in the body of a swan. Giselle goes mad and dances herself to death. And so on and so forth. And then there’s the story of Tanaquil Le Clercq. This real-life saga is so poignant that it inspired a documentary film: Afternoon of a Faun.

The documentary’s title points back to a short, intimate duet (set to the music of Debussy) choreographed by Jerome Robbins on behalf of his sometimes-dance partner at the New York City Ballet, Tanaquil Le Clercq. About that exotic name: Amanda Vaill, Robbins’ stellar biographer, explains that Tanny was “born in Paris to an American mother and French father and named after an Etruscan queen of the fourth century BC.” Jerry Robbins was short and streetwise; Tanny was unusually tall, long-limbed, and elegant. (Her frequent partner Jacques d’Amboise later described her as “this elongated, stretched-out path to heaven.”) Though physically very different, Robbins and Le Clercq shared intelligence and a wicked sense of humor. Their emotional connection lasted throughout their lives. In his final years, Jerry placed at his bedside a framed photograph he’d taken of Tanny, so that he could gaze at it first thing in the morning and last thing at night.

Though Robbins and Le Clercq adored one another, his bisexuality certainly complicated their relationship. Then, at age 23, she fell under the spell of George Balanchine, co-founder and artistic director of the New York City Ballet. Balanchine, himself a great choreographer, was in the habit of falling for the ballerinas who inspired him. At 48, he had already wed and shed four, including Vera Zorina and Maria Tallchief, when Tanny came into his line of vision. They were married at midnight as the year 1953 began. A letter spelled out the situation to Jerry: “I just love you, to talk to, to go around with, play games, laugh like hell, etc. However I’m in love with George. Maybe it’s a case of, he got here first.”

Then came the year 1956. While Jerry Robbins was on busy on Broadway, launching The Bells Are Ringing and pondering the project that would become West Side Story, Tanny and the New York City Ballet were touring the capitals of Europe. Suddenly, in Copenhagen, she began to feel flu-ish. The next morning, she found herself paralyzed from the waist down. It was infantile paralysis: Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine was still so new that it was being used mostly on school children, and she had skipped being vaccinated before her European trip. Though Tanny survived days in an iron lung, it was clear she’d never dance (or walk) again. She had just turned 27.

Balanchine remained by her side throughout the crisis, but he was soon emotionally moving on. Inevitably his eye strayed to others, including a new young ballerina, Suzanne Farrell. In 1969, he initiated a quickie Mexican divorce from Tanny in the vain hope of winning Suzanne. As always, Jerry Robbins was her comforter and court jester in this crisis.

Amanda Vaill’s Somewhere ends with the death of Jerome Robbins in 1998, at the age of 79. In 1994, he’d had a poignant dream of Tanny standing and walking. But she was still wheelchair-bound when she passed away in 2000, age 71. According to the documentary, she lived out her last years as a book author and a teacher of dance, inspiring the young students at the school of the Dance Theater of Harlem. I too am inspired by someone who discovered how to begin again.

Here’s a fascinating web tribute to Tanaquil Le Clercq, in the form of a book review of a 2012 novelization of her post-Balanchine life.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Jerome Robbins: Leaping from Stage to Screen with West Side Story

We mostly think of Jerome Robbins as a stage creature. There are all those ballets he choreographed for George Balanchine at the New York City Ballet. He supplied the dance numbers for such Broadway gems as On the Town and The King and I, then both directed and choreographed everything from Peter Pan to Gypsy to Fiddler on the Roof.

But he loved movies too. With the help of Amanda Vaill’s marvelously insightful Somewhere: The Life of Jerome Robbins, I want to focus here on the transition from stage to screen of perhaps his most famous production, West Side Story.

Jerry Robbins was part of the West Side Story team from the very beginning. In fact, the original idea came from him. While studying at the Actors Studio,  he advised young Montgomery Clift on how to make the part of Romeo relevant to the modern world. The trick, he felt, was to think about the tight-knit ethnic enclaves of New York City: “What would you do if you were an Irish Catholic kid and fell in love with a Jewish girl? . . . And what if you were in a gang, and her people were too, and there was fighting?”

By the time Jerry and colleagues Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein, and Stephen Sondheim were ready to transform this concept into a Broadway musical, the ethnicities of the central characters had changed. At first, potential backers simply weren’t interested. But West Side Story, both directed and choreographed by Robbins, proved to be a stage triumph. And a movie sale quickly followed.

Hollywood was not entirely receptive to Robbins’ talents. He didn’t lack for screen experience, having staged the dance sequences for the film version of The King and I, including the remarkable “Small House of Uncle Thomas.” But the studio honchos who were producing the cinematic West Side Story were determined to hire a veteran Hollywood director. They found one in Robert Wise, who’d helmed successful action films and (years before) edited the great Citizen Kane. Robbins himself was grudgingly hired as co-director, responsible for the musical sequences while Wise concentrated on the book scenes.

 Jerry immediately began experimenting with ways to synthesize music, camerawork, and dramatic action, but his extensive notes on every aspect of the project rankled the powers-that-be. As he wrote to a friend back home, “It’s a hard time out here now, and rather than my teaching them how to make the camera dance it’s possible that I’m being taught the limitations of imagination and lack of daring.”

Despite Jerry’s original preference for black-&-white film noir stylistics, the studio bosses insisted on Technicolor and recognizable stars. Natalie Wood was no problem for Jerry: the two got along famously. (Neither had much use for the actor cast opposite her, Richard Beymer.) And Robbins was at his happiest filming a brilliantly danced Prologue on the streets of New York, in a slum area that would soon be cleared to build Lincoln Center. Afterwards, though, while in the midst of staging the Dance at the Gym, he suddenly found himself dismissed. His firing was blamed on the film being over budget, though this was hardly a convincing excuse.

Ultimately, West Side Story collected ten Oscars, with Wise and Robbins sharing the directorial prize (and ignoring one another in their acceptance speeches). Robbins received a special award for choreography as well. Later the film’s screenwriter, Ernest Lehman, paid tribute: “Jerry Robbins is the man behind the gun. He put the bullets in, he cocked it, he shot it—and everybody else is just smoke and noise.”