This past week I indulged in one of my occasional film orgies. A trip to my local public library gave me an excuse to come home with an armload of classics, chosen for variety as well as entertainment value. What a pleasure to have access – for free! -- to such a wealth of cinematic treasures.
First up was Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, a taut little crime-and-punishment drama from 2007 that was the last film directed by the great Sidney Lumet. Fifty years after he burst onto the Hollywood scene with Twelve Angry Men, the 83-year-old Lumet showed a young man’s vigor in guiding such contemporary aces as Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, and Marissa Tomei into outrageously entertaining performances. It’s good to see that the director of such masterworks as The Pawnbroker, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, and Network went out in a blaze of glory, having etched yet another indelible portrait of New York life.
For a change of pace, I watched a 1942 screwball comedy, The Man Who Came to Dinner, about what happens when a sharp-tongued public figure slips on an icy step at the home of a fan, and then takes over the household while recuperating. Hilarity ensues: I particularly liked Billie Burke as the dithery hostess; Mary Wickes, making her feature film debut as a much-put-upon nurse; and (of all people) Bette Davis doing a rare romantic turn as a loyal but no-nonsense sidekick to the great man. And, oh yes, I mustn’t forget the penguins.
Comedy of a very different sort marked 50/50, the 2011 flick in which Joseph Gordon-Levitt faces a cancer diagnosis with the help of best buddy Seth Rogen. It’s based on the real-life story of screenwriter Will Raiser, which is why it rings so true, with raunchy humor shown to be one defense against intimations of mortality. There wasn’t much humor in Robert Rosen’s bleak, powerful The Hustler (1961), which is ultimately less about a poolroom play-off between brash upstart Paul Newman and old smoothie Jackie Gleason than about the implications of winning and losing. This one packed a wallop.
As did, in a very different way, the heart-warming Norma Rae, made in 1979 by two Roger Corman alumnae, Tamara Asseyev and Alex Rose. This story of a feisty Southern textile worker who stands up for unionization turned Sally Field from TV’s Gidget into an Oscar winner. I loved the craft of this film, how it captured a sense of time and place, allowed its characters to reveal unexpected dimensions, and built to a powerful climax that was entirely silent.
Norma Rae was based on the actions of Crystal Lee Sutton, who led a wildcat strike at a North Carolina textile plant. Because Sutton preferred to keep her private life private, the film creates a mostly fictional heroine. But when I ventured out to the multiplex last night, I saw a movie that’s all about an actual person on the last day of his life. Fruitvale Station, which has proved especially timely in the aftermath of the George Zimmerman verdict, introduces Oscar Grant, the deeply flawed but deeply engaging young black man who was killed by an Oakland, California transit cop on New Year’s Day, 2009. It’s a film that deserves attention.
But may not get it. At the same multiplex, most screens were filled with Wolverine, World War Z, Pacific Rim, RIPD, The Conjuring, and a few kiddie flicks. I hope today’s moviegoers can handle a film that contains no werewolves, demons, zombies, robots, or undead vigilantes, only a human being who ends up dead for real.