Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Talking Sense, with Sensibility

I don’t think Emma Thompson is stressing about it, but I continue to feel that I owe her an apology. It all dates back to 1995, when (after leaving Roger Corman’s Concorde-New Horizons Pictures), I was desperately scrounging for work in the film industry. For a brief, miserable period, I served as a reader for a big recording label that was trying to work its way into films. In that pre-Internet era, being a reader was a miserable job, and I doubt it’s changed very much since,, aside from the fact that a screenplay PDF can now arrive automatically in your in-box. My job was to rush bright and early to the company’s headquarters, grab the screenplay that had been assigned to me, then race home. I had about six hours to read the script and fill out a detailed report outlining the basic plot and evaluating the strengths of the writing.  By 4:30 p.m. I needed to be back at the same office, dropping off the fruits of my labors. I’d been warned in advance that company executives had no time to waste: I was expected to be as tough as possible on everything I considered.

 So . . . one day I was assigned Emma Thompson’s first screenplay, an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. This was intended as a writing sample: the film was in process of being made by another company, but it was my job to evaluate whether Thompson should be considered as a screenwriter for future gigs. As a PhD English major I had read my share of Austen, and loved her witty slant on romantic life in the early 18th century. I enjoyed Thompson’s screenplay too, but I obeyed my mandate to be a stern critic. I didn’t feel too bad, back then, about the harshness of my complaints: Thompson was already an Oscar-winning actress, and I didn’t think I’d ruin her life by dissing her talents in another field.

 I soon gave up on the indignities of being a reader, a dead-end job if there ever was one. Sense and Sensibility (starring Thompson, Kate Winslet, Hugh Grant, Alan Rickman and many of Britain’s finest) turned out to be a major hit. It was nominated for seven Oscars (including best picture) and won for Thompson’s screenplay. She was also honored by the Writers Guild of America, as well as by the literary folks attending the annual USC Scripter Award presentation. The Scripter competition gives prizes to the best screen adaptation of an existing literary work. Normally, both the screenwriter and the author of the original material are feted. At USC, actress-turned-author Fannie Flagg read a letter purporting to be from Jane Austen herself, praising Thompson’s work and crowing that the Brontë sisters would doubtless be jealous to have missed out on similar accolades. (Thompson had her own fun being Jane at the Golden Globes presentation –see below.)

 As for me, I continued to think ill of Thompson’s Sense and Sensibility adaptation until I re-read Austen’s novel and then sat down with The Sense and Sensibility Screenplay and Diaries, published by Thompson in 1996. Thus prepared, I was able to see what a very smart, sensitive job Thompson had done of simplifying Austen’s complex language and plotline without losing the essence of her concerns. I understood for the first time what she had wisely left out, and (equally important) what she had added: like giving the youngest Dashwood daughter a personality and interests that richly enhance her sister’s evolving romance. I’m late in saying it, but Brava, Ms. Thompson!



Thursday, February 25, 2021

I Care A Lot . . . About Seniors in the Movies

As a woman of a certain age, I’m starting to become sensitive to the way older folks are portrayed on screen. I’m annoyed when ageing baby boomers are depicted as “cute,” or (worse yet) pathetically out of touch. I appreciate the fact that Liam Neeson, at 68, regularly kicks butt in his flicks. And I love the on-screen moral and intellectual strength shown by such actresses as 75-year-old Helen Mirren, 71-year-old Meryl Streep, and 86-year-old Judi Dench. 

 Which leaves me of two minds about a new movie on Netflix, I Care A Lot. The film is intended as a thrill ride, in which viewers are never quite certain on which side to be, and in that respect (despite some pretty large plot-holes) it certainly measures up. One curious thing: both writer/director J Blakeson and star Rosamund Pike are British, so I’m not quite sure why the setting of the story and the nationality of its cold-as-ice main character are made distinctly American. Is it a Brit’s comment on American naïveté, or the depths of American chicanery? Or is the film showcasing, perhaps, the failure of American social institutions to protect themselves against unscrupulous con artists?

 In any case, the opening of the film will strike fear in the heart of anyone old enough to qualify for an over-65 COVID vaccine. It seems that Pike’s character, the attractive and well-kempt Marla Grayson, knows just how to find seniors with money and no intrusive family connections. With the help of an unprincipled doctor, a blindsided judge, and several others in on the scheme, she proclaims a medical emergency, gets herself appointed her target’s legal guardian, and has the victim hustled off to a “convalescent home.” While her numerous charges waste away behind locked doors, plied into compliance with heavy-duty meds, she sells their houses and empties their safe deposit boxes, all in the name of providing funds for their ongoing medical care.

 The drama heightens, of course, when she picks the wrong victim, Jennifer Peterson (played by the always appealing Dianne Wiest). Jennifer is by no means helpless—she’s a successful businesswoman in her early seventies who owns a charming home and has a full slate of activities—but within minutes Marla has presented an emergency court order and whisked her off to a facility that quickly relieves her of her cellphone and other ties to the outside world. She seems beyond help. But wait! Jennifer has a secret personal connection that will not tolerate her disappearance, and has the muscle to do something about it.

 From there the story twists and turns, reveling in lurid dramatic clichés. Maniacal lesbians! Blood-thirsty members of the Russian mafia! Peter Dinklage throwing giant-sized temper tantrums! Several important characters get left for dead, but recover completely (this is definitely a gang that can’t shoot straight). I didn’t buy a lot of it, but there’s no question this story is entertaining, if you like mayhem and deceit. Particularly strong is what happens between Marla and her #1 foe, who bury the hatchet in a way that I didn’t see coming.

 And yet . . . I deplore watching Dianne Wiest in the role of an ageing but still vigorous woman who needs to be rescued by men. Aren’t we long past The Perils of Pauline? It’s progressive, I guess, to show a woman who’s capable of being a kingpin and a villain, but why can’t another woman—an older woman—be the one to trip her up? Maybe it’s just me, but wouldn’t it be nice to see a thriller in which a seventy-year-old female kicks butt?


Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Woody Allen: An Everymensch Steps to the Front

These are not easy times for Woody Allen. This month’s release of a four-part TV documentary, Allen v. Farrow, casts his behavior toward his then-seven-year-old adoptive daughter Dylan in the worst possible light. The series was made by the much-honored documentarians Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, who have both earned a reputation for getting ugly things right. I’m hardly a Mia Farrow enthusiast, and some of her son Ronan Farrow’s journalistic crusades strike me as grandstanding. But the story of Allen’s troubling behavior toward Dylan—which he continues to hotly deny—leaves little question that Woody Allen’s once brilliant filmmaking career is essentially over.

 For someone who loves Annie Hall, delights in the goofy pleasures of the early Allen canon (Sleeper, Bananas, Take the Money and Run), and respects the moral complexities of later films like Crimes and Misdemeanors, it’s sad indeed to see a professional reputation destroyed by personal bad behavior.  Allen’s case is hardly unique, though: plenty of great artistic talents were heinous individuals. What complicates Allen’s situation, though, is that he can’t easily be divorced from his work. When we look at a brilliant Gauguin painting, we don’t need to focus on the fact that during his romantic Tahitian sojourn Gauguin apparently spread syphilis throughout the islands. But to watch a Woody Allen film is to watch Allen himself, in the fairly unchanging role of a lovable nebbish, one who’s shrewd but not wise, who frequently screws up but is still able to retain our sympathy. In other words, an everymensch.

 Those thoughts crossed my mind as I watched Allen’s performance in the rare Allen film he did not write or direct. The Front is a 1979 movie that takes us back to 1953, that unfortunate time when—thanks to the dark machinations of some power players in Washington DC—lives were destroyed because of past beliefs and associations. During what we now call the McCarthy Era, Hollywood was especially hard hit. Actors, directors, and particularly screenwriters were banned from pursuing their craft, or lived in fear that they’d be denounced in front of a congressional committee. Two and a half decades later, the late Walter Bernstein wrote The Front, and Martin Ritt directed it. Both had been blacklisted back in the day, as had featured actor Zero Mostel and several of the others taking part. And the script contains such grim true-to-life incidents as a beloved but suddenly unemployable performer hounded into suicide.

 In the midst of this disastrous situation, Allen plays a ne’er-do-well cashier (and sometimes bookie) who’s a longtime pal of a blacklisted TV writer. For a 10% cut, he agrees to put his name on his friend’s brilliant new pilot. Suddenly, he’s the hottest scribe in the industry, especially after two more blacklist victims beg him to front for them as well. All this attention means he’s expected to show up at meetings and generally air his genius. It’s a fascinating role for Allen: as a man living (and profiting hugely from) a lie, he’s trying to wiggle his way through a moral dilemma without giving up too much of his newfound creature comforts, which include a politically idealistic TV-exec girlfriend.

  Woody Allen in The Front gets to call upon a lot of his trademark Woody-isms: the thick glasses, the hapless air, the stammer. He’s not the real Allen (he says at one point he can hardly write even a grocery list) but he sure looks and sounds like the Allen we know and love. Or do we really know him? Regarding who he really is, will we ever be sure?