Friday, November 17, 2017

Matthew Bourne Runs Away with The Red Shoes

The Red Shoes started out as a story by Hans Christian Andersen, dating back to 1845. The dour Danish writer—whose fairytales were far grimmer than those of the brothers Grimm—conjured up a pair of demonic dancing slippers that destroy a young girl’s life: she can’t remove them, even after she’s chopped off her own feet. I’m not a fan of the Andersen story, but I can’t help loving the 1948 English film from the powerhouse team of Emeric Pressburger (love that name!) and Michael Powell.

This cinematic Red Shoes becomes the tragic story of a ravishingly beautiful ballerina -- flame-haired Moira Shearer -- torn between true love (in the person of a shy young composer) and artistic ambition (personified by the impresario of a prestigious dance company). The film, released not long after the dark days of World War II, was an opulent Technicolor fantasia, full of bravura dancing and big gaudy emotions. It adapts the gist of Andersen’s story into a ballet within the movie, the star vehicle that ensures the ballerina’s fame and undermines her human existence. One of its many charms is the casting of such bona fide ballet maestros as Robert Helpmann and Léonide Massine in featured roles. But the central focus of The Red Shoes is Shearer as Victoria Page, desperately dancing for her life. Many little girls who were enrolled in dancing classes saw the film in the 1950s, and they’ve never gotten over its impact.

A 1993 attempt to turn The Red Shoes into a Broadway musical gathered such stellar behind-the-scenes talents as Jule Styne (composer), Marsha Norman (lyricist), Stanley Donen (director), and the dance world’s Lar Lubovitch (choreographer). Even Flying by Foy, the outfit that has helped generations of Peter Pans soar aloft, got involved. But it was all for naught: the show lasted for a total of five performances.  

Now along comes Matthew Bourne to usher The Red Shoes into a new era. (It had an award-winning run in London, and I saw it during its U.S. premiere, at L.A.’s Ahmanson Theatre. By now it’s doubtless dancing its way to New York.) Bourne is a choreographer, but one who hails from an unconventional background. Totally without traditional ballet training, he became obsessed with dance as a young boy enamored with MGM musicals. His inspiration was Fred Astaire, not Rudolf Nureyev. He formed a dance company while still in his teens, but didn’t actually study dance (at the Laban Centre for Movement and Dance) until the ripe old age of 22. His breakthrough was an astonishing 1995 production of Swan Lake that featured  male swans. Many of the full-length ballets he’s done since have set familiar tales like Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Carmen in detailed social settings. (His version of Cinderella, for instance, takes place during the life-or-death London blitz of World War II.)  Some of his inspiration still comes from the movies. One of my favorite Matthew Bourne ballets is derived from Tim Burton’s film, Edward Scissorhands. 

As someone who grew up immersed in modern dance, not ballet, I love the fact that Matthew Bourne doesn’t force every woman’s feet into foot-crippling toe shoes. His dancers are beautifully trained, but they can perform in soft slippers, in high heels, or in bare feet. When his ladies go en pointe, it’s for a dramatic reason. And I also love his feel for the all-encompassing world of movies. His works are not just about purity of movement but also about characterization and stage design. No surprise: the name of his company is Adventures in Motion Pictures.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Steve Buscemi: A Guy Without a Ghost of a Chance

It all started when I was booked to appear on Illeana Douglas’s podcast, I Blame Dennis Hopper (about which more later). Illeana is both an actress in films and a lover of films, and her enthusiasm has led me to check out several movies that feature either her or her beloved grandfather Melvyn Douglas (who won his first Best Supporting Actor Oscar for 1963’s Hud and his second for 1979’s Being There). That’s how I came to watch Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World (2001), in which Illeana plays an ultra-sincere but naïve art teacher who interacts with the film’s heroine in an important way.  

Ghost World, based on the comic book by Daniel Clowes, is the story of two brand-new high school graduates, Enid (Thora Birch) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson). Awkward social outcasts, they strike a rebellious pose, priding themselves on being too good for their classmates as well as the residents of their non-descript suburb. (Note to Angelenos: the bleaky contemporary streets can be found in Santa Clarita.) For a while the film goes on in this vein, showing the two girls making vague attempts to find work and an apartment to share, while unleashing catty remarks on anyone who comes within earshot. But things start to change when, just for the hell of it, they play a dirty trick on a lovelorn man who’s had the bad sense to put a personal ad in the local paper.   

That ad is placed by an obsessive record-collector named Seymour, and he’s played by Steve Buscemi, an actor who is always worth watching. Gradually Enid comes to know Seymour. Though he’s dweebishly unattractive and acutely conscious of his own failings, he has a passion for early jazz that’s contagious. While Rebecca works at her dreary job and obsesses about the amenities of her future apartment, Enid is soaking up new aesthetic ideas. These contribute to the work she does in the summer school art class she must take in order to complete her graduation requirements. She’s got real talent, but her unorthodox approach is going to set her up for eventual failure. 

Meanwhile, she’s coaching poor Seymour in finding love, only to become acutely jealous when he seems to have succeeded. The relationship of these two—the rebellious young woman and the morose, anxious middle-aged man—plays out in surprising ways, and ultimately becomes the film’s heart. 

Birch, so memorable as Kevin Spacey’s disillusioned daughter in 1999’s American Beauty, is a memorable presence. But for me the movie belongs to Steve Buscemi, who seems as though he can’t help attracting odd and remarkable roles. In many of them, he dies in grotesque ways—see him ending up in the woodchipper in the Coen Brothers’ Fargo. Sometimes he gets away with murder (check out his role as Mr. Pink in Reservoir Dogs and his recent TV portrayal of a corrupt politician in Boardwalk Empire), but whether he’s fundamentally cowardly or fundamentally brutal he generally comes across as a nogoodnik. That’s why I cherish his rare lovable role, like that of the nebbishy Donny, sidekick to John Goodman’s Walter, in The Big Lebowski. As Seymour in Ghost World, Buscemi is capable of bursts of destructive rage. But for the most part he’s a good guy who knows he’s a loser. He badly wants love, and is capable of great tenderness when he thinks he’s found it. But things never quite seem to resolve in his favor. Having learned from his example, Enid may eventually finds her way out in the the larger world. But alas poor Seymour—he remains stuck in place.

For Illeana Douglas, who introduced me to Ghost World. 

Friday, November 10, 2017

In Bed with Mrs. Robinson – My Fifteen Minutes of Fame

Andy Warhol once predicted that each of us will be famous for fifteen minutes. If so, I’ve had more than my share of fame this week. On Tuesday, November 7, my Seduced by Mrs. Robinson: How The Graduate Became the Touchstone of a Generation was published by Algonquin Books. To commemorate the big day, I found myself booked to do no fewer than thirteen radio interviews, starting at 6 a.m. Pacific Standard Time. As I write this, I’m on tap for eight more today, as well as an evening appearance at one of my favorite indie bookstores, Book Soup. I just hope I can keep my eyes open: I’m normally a stay-up-late kind of gal, but this past week I’ve been springing awake at 4:30 a.m., ready to rumble.  

Yesterday was an off day—all I had to do was drive from my Santa Monica home to Culver City where National Public Radio has its west coast headquarters. There the adorably blue-haired Leo del Aguila fitted me with oversized earphones and made sure I sounded good on mike. Then suddenly I was talking to Robert Siegel, the senior host of All Things Considered, who turned out to be a fellow Baby Boomer with fond memories of seeing The Graduate for the first time. How nice to chat, both before and after the official interview, with a man blessed with a sonorous voice and a good-humored manner, even if he was speaking to me from thousands of miles away. Ah, the magic of modern communications!

The great thing about radio (just ask Terry Gross!) is that no one cares what you look like. You don’t have to wonder what to do with your hands, nor worry about whether you hold your mouth in a funny position when listening to someone else speak. A bad hair day is no big deal on radio. Theoretically you could roll out of bed, pick up the telephone, and do the interview in your jammies. But media experts strongly advise that you freshen up and put clothes on. If nothing else, that will make you feel more professional. I’ve also been told that it helps to speak standing up, and that moving around will give your voice more energy. That’s why, during radio interviews from my home, you’ll find me roaming around the living room, trying out dance moves (yes, really) and checking out spots that my cleaning lady may have missed.

How do I know what to talk about? That’s easy. I know the contents of Seduced by Mrs. Robinson as well as the back of my hand. (Better, actually – I don’t spend a lot of time studying my hands.)  And all the prep work done by Algonquin is really paying off. All my interviewers have received a press release as well as a list I’ve drawn up containing 20 surprising facts about The Graduate. Especially when a radio host hasn’t had time to actually read my book, I get lots of questions like this one: Which soon-to-be famous movie and TV folk had tiny bit parts in The Graduate? (Answer—future Oscar winner Richard Dreyfuss, who has one line as a college kid, and TV’s Mike Farrell, playing a bellhop at the Taft Hotel.) So far, at least, everyone has been super-friendly. Clearly no one is trying to trip me up. But in any case I know the biggest enemy of radio is dead air, so the essential thing is to KEEP TALKING, no matter what.  Funny thing: as a natural-born chatterbox, I have no problem on that score. 

If you’re curious to hear the results of my All Things Considered interview, here it is!