Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Nichols vs. Altman: Two Paths to Glory

For months I’ve been researching director Mike Nichols and the second film of his career, 1967’s The Graduate. Last night, on my version of a busman’s holiday, I watched Robert Altman’s 1975 film, Nashville. Both Nashville and The Graduate ably reflect a fertile period of American filmmaking that has come to be called the New Hollywood. Still, they are shot in highly disparate styles. A “making-of” documentary that accompanies the Criterion DVD of Nashville has convinced me that one key difference between the two movies lies in the personalities of two very different directors.

Mike Nichols began as a comic actor, hailed for his satirical performances with  Elaine May. After May broke up the act, Nichols moved on to even greater success as a director of Broadway comedies. Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park catapulted him into a career in Hollywood as well as on the Great White Way. Elizabeth Taylor chose him to direct her and spouse Richard Burton in a film adaptation of a controversial stage play, Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Nichols’ version was a popular and critical success. But – given that it focused on a mere four actors who played out their corrosive interaction against a single interior set – it did not take full advantage of the motion picture medium.

On The Graduate, Nichols was far freer to experiment technologically. The film is full of flashy camerawork that explores the psychology of the characters while conveying what Nichols saw as the sterility of SoCal life. Working with a cast made up largely of stage veterans, he rehearsed for three weeks before the start of shooting. In rehearsal, actors were encouraged to contribute their own ideas, but once the cast moved into production there was little tolerance for deviation from the finalized script. In his early films, Nichols was brutally hard on his performers. Dustin Hoffman, for one, felt completely off-balance, convinced he wasn’t up to Nichols’ standards of excellence. On Nichols’ part this was at least partially strategic: it was both a way of amping up his leading character’s agitated mental state and a trick to deflect attention from his own jangled nerves.

Robert Altman, by contrast, came across as jovial and laidback. In casting Nashville, he relied solely on instinct, giving major roles to those (like singer Ronee Blakley) with no real acting experience, once he sensed they were right for a particular part. (Explains Keith Carradine, “He hired behavior; he hired essence.”) On set, a performer was free to discard the script pages and try something completely different. Altman’s experiments with zoom lenses and with multi-track audio recording allowed him to shoot crowd scenes in which no one quite knew which characters would ultimately be featured on camera at any given moment. And the film’s many songs were all recorded live. The result: an improvisational feel that contributes to Nashville’s life-like spontaneity.

Though Altman hardly lacked a strong sense of self, he wanted his cast to blend into a community. That’s why he kicked off location filming with a 4th of July barbecue at the lovely rustic cabin he and his wife had rented. The barbecues continued throughout the months of shooting, and actors were encouraged to watch dailies together, thus reinforcing their feel for the overlapping stories in which they all played a part.

Almost everyone was housed at a local motel throughout the shoot. The one exception was Karen Black, who was whisked via limo to Nashville’s best hotel. Castmates who complained discovered Altman’s logic: no one else in the film was supposed to like Black’s character very much.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Fasten Your Seatbelts: There’s a Letter in the Mail for Three Wives

It’s hard to believe now that, back in 1949,  Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s A Letter to Three Wives was a really big deal. But at the 1950 Oscar ceremony, Mankiewicz won two Oscars, for both writing and directing this film. It was up for Best Picture too, but lost to a movie I consider far more memorable, a still-timely story of political corruption called All the King’s Men. (The following year, Mankiewicz made Oscar history by again winning screenplay and director honors. That 1950 release, which won a total of six Oscars, is a bonafide Hollywood classic, All About Eve.)

A Letter to Three Wives can fairly be called a woman’s picture, because its topic is wedlock, as seen through the eyes of three married women who are pals living in a small suburb. The structural gimmick is that the three, while en route to a good-hearted outing with some underprivileged kids, receive a note from a so-called friend telling them she has just skipped town with one of their husbands. This shocking news leads to extended flashbacks, in which we see the fault lines of each woman’s marriage.   

 There’s Jeanne Crain as a fresh-faced farmer’s daughter who met her handsome and wealthy husband while serving as a WAVE in World War II. She still feels like a rube and an outsider. There’s Ann Sothern, the career gal who out-earns her schoolteacher spouse (a young Kirk Douglas!) but kowtows to the producers of the sappy radio program for which she writes. There’s sultry Linda Darnell, who’s succeeded in persuading a retail tycoon (Paul Douglas) to marry her. The marriage was her ticket out of poverty, but it hasn’t entirely brought happiness. And always lurking in the vicinity, though never really seen on camera, is Addie Ross, whom each of the three husbands views as their town’s prime exemplar of class and sex appeal. For each of them, she seems to be the One Who Got Away, and we anticipate finding out at the end of the film exactly who—and what—she’s gotten away with stealing. The film’s cleverest touch is Addie’s voice-over narration. It’s provided (without screen credit) by Celeste Holm, whose self-satisfied purr tells us all we need to know about Addie Ross’s attitude toward domestic life.

A Letter to Three Wives began, fittingly, as a novel published in 1946 within the pages of Cosmopolitan magazine. The original, I’m told, was A Letter to Five Wives. The filmmakers started out planning to tell four marital stories, then removed one that was supposed to feature Anne Baxter. (She certainly got her revenge in All About Eve!) I gather the movie also differs from the novel because of its unambiguously happy ending. Not surprisingly, for that era, career gal Ann Sothern patches up her marriage by standing up to her demanding boss for the very first time. (I was glad to see that she doesn’t go so far as to quit her writing career altogether – she merely makes it clear that from here on out her weekends belong to her spouse and kids.) The reconciliation of Linda Darnell and Paul Douglas is frankly unconvincing, given their constant bickering earlier in the film, but I guess audiences in 1949 were in desperate need of reassurance that marriages could really work.

The DVD on which I viewed this film contains a fascinating character sketch of actress Linda Darnell, billed as “Hollywood’s Lost Angel.” What a turbulent life she led! Too much success too soon, bad marriages, and a death much too early. No wonder she was so convincing as the film’s beautiful cynic.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Stuntwomen: Soaring Without Wings or Wigs

How do you feel about a man wearing a dress and a woman’s wig? No, I’m not here to discuss the transgender-bathroom question that’s currently roiling North Carolina. My topic today is stuntwomen. As Mollie Gregory points out in her illuminating Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story, throughout the history of motion pictures men have been ready and eager to step in, don the wig, and take on stunt assignments that should much more logically go to women. Gregory, a moviemaker and a delightful speaker, is known for her books about the female presence in Hollywood. (Her Women Who Run the Show chronicles the rise of women in the film industry’s executive ranks.) Now she has interviewed sixty-five stuntwomen and looked back to the earliest days of moviedom in order to bring us the first-ever history of the women who – often in skirts and high heels – risk their lives to bring us movie thrills and spills.

I was lucky enough to hear Mollie, along with a panel of current stuntwomen, speak at a recent luncheon event co-sponsored by Women in Film. Mollie marveled at “how tough and gallant women are.” Her subjects love what they do,  and speak of the joy of “making a moment come alive visually by using your body and soul.” Still, they have suffered greatly from job discrimination and from sexual harassment. In order to work, they’ve had to battle paternalistic men who feel they’re protecting women, as well as mercenary males who want to fatten their own paychecks by denying stuntwomen the chance to ply their craft.

In the early days, silent movie performers did their own stunts, with little in the way of safety precautions to protect them. Some of those early actresses loved doing high dives and driving fast cars, firing guns and leaping from bridges. But once Hollywood had evolved into a hierarchical industry in the 1920s, men took over. For decades women were squeezed out as stunt performers, and certainly had little opportunity to move into the more executive position of stunt coordinator, the person responsible for designing stunts and ensuring the safety of those who perform them. One of the luncheon’s special guests was the son of William Wellman, who pointed out with pride that his father, on a 1951 film called Westward the Women, had been the first Hollywood director to hire a female stunt coordinator, Polly Burson. It made sense, on a movie with a heavily female cast, to put a woman in charge of stunt actors—but Wellman still had to fend off flak from studio brass for his decision.

Several of the women on Gregory’s panel have themselves made history as stunt coordinators. They spoke of dangers they’ve survived, of  injuries they’ve overcome, and of how stuntwomen face special challenges because they’re expected to perform tricky maneuvers not in padded clothing but rather in skimpy tank tops and teeny skirts. Annie Ellis, a third-generation stunt performer, noted that it’s constantly necessary to remind filmmakers not to risk lives by “rushing the shot.” She remembers, on the movie Twister, the filming of a tricky stunt that involved a tanker truck plummeting to earth, followed by a huge explosion. The scene had been filmed successfully, but needed to be re-shot several weeks later because of camera problems. Because this was a re-do, the director didn’t see the need for a rehearsal. It’s in situations like these that stunt coordinators need to stick up for their team’s well-being.

What can you say to a director who asks you to do the impossible? “No—unless you want to show us first.”

Friday, May 13, 2016

Riding Out a Twister: “What Stands in a Storm”

Last week, tornados were touching down in Oklahoma, spreading death and destruction in their wake.  Personally, I know tornados only from movies, like 1996’s Twister. But those who’ve actually survived them tend to laugh at Hollywood’s portrayal of storm chasers, the hardy (and sometimes faintly crazy) souls who risk their lives while trying to study extreme weather events.

Kim Cross knows about tornados first-hand. A resident of Birmingham, Alabama,  she’ll never forget April 27, 2011.
That was the climax of a three-day outbreak, when 349 tornadoes raked 21 states in the American South. One of them, a so-called EF4 multiple-vortex tornado, flattened huge swaths of Birmingham and Tuscaloosa, seat of the University of Alabama. Like everyone else on that fateful  day, Kim stayed glued to the TV broadcasts of meteorologist James Spann, who forecast the path of the oncoming twister. As it seemed to head straight for her neighborhood, she grabbed a helmet and hunkered down with her family in her home’s safest room. Fortunately for Kim, the tornado struck seven miles away, leveling almost everything in its path. Others weren’t so lucky. That tornado claimed hundreds of lives, not to mention property damage. Many of Tuscaloosa’s stately oaks, hundreds of years old, were toppled by the force of the winds. The city will never look the same again.

As a journalist at Southern Living, Kim was asked to cover the superstorm’s aftermath. That’s how she came to unearth dozens of heartwarming stories of survivors helping one another get past the tragic day. After receiving multiple awards for her magazine work, she was primed to write a book. What Stands in a Storm: Three Days in the Worst Superstorm to Hit the South’s Tornado Alley was published in 2015. It’s a powerful narrative, which follows the storm’s path by way of the experience of both survivors and victims. In one chapter, “Slouching Toward Tuscaloosa,” Kim vividly cuts between the stoic men at a fire station, storm chasers photographing a funnel that’s heading straight toward them, a vigilant hospital administrator, and three college seniors exchanging frantic text messages with their loved ones back home. Binding these vignettes together is the TV voice of James Spann, warning one and all to get out of harm’s way.          

As a trained journalist, Kim was hugely concerned with accuracy. That’s why she established for herself some ground rules based on the way cinematographers capture the visual landscape: “I couldn't let you, the reader, see or know anything the character in that scene didn't see or know at that moment . . . . To help me do that, I imagined myself as a camera operator. In the first scene, we are panned out, seeing the big picture. In the second scene we zoom in a bit and can see the inside of a firehouse. In the third scene we zoom in even more, on two college students in a car.” Suspense comes from the fact that the reader never knows ahead of time who will live and who will die. Kim understands these people so well that she can convey their essence through their actions and social media exchanges, without ever putting into their mouths dialogue she can’t verify.

And she’s terrific at using words to set the scene: “At the Salvation Army, thirty-five people sought refuge in the dining hall as the wind blasted open the doors and stripped away the roof. A steel building that crumpled like a wad of foil was hurled into the seventy-bed shelter, which collapsed upon the impact. An electrical substation twisted like a telephone cord, and the lights went dark across town.” 

Kim Cross, the 2016 recipient of ASJA honors for full-length non-fiction,  will be a featured speaker on my “Award-Winners: From Pitch to Publish” panel at the annual conference of the American Society of Journalists and Authors in New York City. It all takes place May 21, and the public is cordially invited.

By the way, the paperback edition of Kim’s book has a new subtitle: A True Story of Love and Resilience in the Worst Superstorm in History. And here’s a sample of the elaborate timeline she created to help tie the storm’s moment-by-moment progress to her narrative.  

On the left are weather maps charting the advance of the tornado