Friday, September 21, 2018

Henry Winkler: An Emmy at Last

The comic hit-man genre, it seems, never gets old. Witness the success at this year’s Emmys of Barry, the HBO dark comedy co-created by Bill Hader: he has just won a performance Emmy as a low-rent hit-man who suddenly decides he wants to give acting a try. A second Emmy, well-deserved, went to ageless Henry Winkler, for his role as a pompous, name-dropping acting coach. From everything I know, the statuette couldn’t have gone to a nicer guy.

Henry Winkler, of course, first entered America’s living rooms as Arthur Herbert Fonzarelli, better known as Fonzie or The Fonz, on the hit nostalgia sitcom, Happy Days (1974-1984). Initially, Winkler was slated to be a minor player, but his breakout success as a cocky but lovable greaser-type quickly took him into the major leagues of TV comedy. While writing the biography of Ron Howard (Ron Howard: From Mayberry to the Moon . . .and Beyond), I learned a good deal about the relationship between an established young star and a rising one. The fact that Howard and Winkler became (and remain) close friends is a tribute to two of the industry’s finest gentlemen.

Howard, playing squeaky-clean high schooler Richie Cunningham, was supposed to be the star of Happy Days. But audiences fell hard for the motorcycle-riding, leather-jacketed Fonzie, and Winkler quickly became the show’s breakout attraction. As attention shifted away from Richie, Howard was publicly philosophical, acknowledging that “there was something immediately electric about Henry. . . . The show was trailing in the first season. Henry got the demographic for us.” It was due in large part to Winkler that more than seventeen million households were soon tuning in to Happy Days, leading to job security and fat paychecks for the entire cast. Yet there’s no denying that Howard’s own morale suffered. At the start of the third season, the Fonz was brought into the Cunningham household as a boarder and surrogate son. Howard bore this change with grace, but couldn’t stomach the network’s later suggestion that the series be renamed Fonzie’s Happy Days. Fortunately, series creator Garry Marshall agreed with Howard, and the familiar title was kept.

Howard (only twenty but a TV veteran), had much to teach the 29-year-old Winkler. He gave  him some valuable tips on production etiquette, and coached him to success as the pitcher on the traveling Happy Days softball team. And the friendship continued long after the show ended. Circa 1981, when both men were new fathers, People Magazine revealed, in an item titled “Pappy Days, ”that they spent their get-togethers debating the relative merits of Pampers and Huggies.

When Howard, moving into directing, launched his first big studio movie, he took Winkler with him. The film was Night Shift, a wild and crazy 1982 comedy about two opposites who form an ill-fated business partnership. Chuck Lumley is a mild-mannered nebbish who had become a morgue attendant because he wanted something quiet. Bill Blazejowski is the hyper-animated “idea man” who proposes to made the morgue do double-duty as a brothel. To play the electric Billy Blaze, Howard cast newcomer Michael Keaton. As Chuck, Winkler got to play a leading man not far removed from his own amiable, low-key personality. Though he loved being Fonzie, Winkler had sometimes yearned to show his stuff in a less outrageous role. But while he was playing a quietly comic version of himself, Keaton walked off with the movie. The  lesson, of course: be careful what you wish for.

I’m thankful to Bill Hader and Barry for giving a talented (and very funny) good guy another chance to shine. 

Winkler and Howard, together again at the 2018 Emmys

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy—Little Women for All Seasons

Don’t  look now, but Little Women will be coming to theatres late next year. The newest version of Louisa May Alcott’s American coming-of-age classic is being directed by Greta Gerwig of Lady Bird fame. Gerwig also wrote the screenplay, and the film will feature her Lady Bird star, Saoirse Ronan, in the plum role of Jo March. That seems like apt casting, as does the choice of dreamy young Timothée Chalamet to play Laurie, the boy next door. Meryl Streep should make a formidable Aunt March.

The first part of the novel that played a major role in my own childhood debuted exactly 150 years ago, in 1868. To commemorate this literary milestone, my friend and colleague Anne Boyd Rioux (a professor at the University of New Orleans) has just published Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters. Part One of Anne’s fascinating book explores how Alcott came to write Little Women and how the book’s success ultimately shaped her life. Part Two looks to the long-range impact of Little Women on its readers, detouring into the many versions of the story that have shown up on stage and screen. My favorite is Part Three, in which Anne gets philosophical, discussing such topics as “Can Boys Read Little Women?” and pondering the effects of the book on the evolving feminist movement.

One thing Anne has taught me is that every era views Alcott’s work through a slightly different lens. We see this vividly in the many film versions she studies. Still the most famous is the Little Women of 1933, directed by George Cukor. Though shot entirely in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley, this black & white film captures the book’s sense of nineteenth-century New England at the height of the Civil War. Depression-weary moviegoers responded strongly both to the film’s nostalgia and to its frank awareness of economic poverty. Anne is not an admirer of Katharine Hepburn’s famous portrayal of the lively, coltish Jo March, who would grow up to become Alcott herself. Having just viewed the film again, I’m more sure than ever that Hepburn (despite her mannerisms) is MY Jo, though the portrayals of her sisters by much-too-old Hollywood actresses now seem sadly dated.

After World War II, Mervyn LeRoy directed a cheery, optimistic (and Technicolor) version of Little Women, starring June Allyson as Jo. It’s been years, but I remember her as bouncy and appealing, with Janet Leigh as a pretty Meg, and Margaret O’Brien (at 12) appropriately young and introverted as gentle Beth. But Elizabeth Taylor in a blonde wig playing little Amy—what were they thinking?

Watching the 1994 Little Women again, I was struck by how hard the film was trying to capture the energy of the evolving Women’s Movement. Perhaps this was to be expected, given the participation of a female screenwriter, Robin Swicord, as well as a female director, Australia’s Gillian Armstrong. As the four girls’ beloved mother, Susan Sarandon was given some outspoken feminist moments (opposing the wearing of corsets, for one thing) that were true to the mindset of Alcott’s own mother but in no way reflect the attitudes of Marmee in the Alcott novel. I liked the casting of Meg (Trini Alvarado), Beth (Claire Danes), and 12-year-old Kirsten Dunst as an age-appropriate Amy. But a major problem for me was Winona Ryder, an engaging actress but simply too pretty and too petite to be Alcott’s ungainly Jo.  Anne’s affection for this version is palpable, though she also admits to its faults. As for me, I can’t wait to see what comes next. 

Friday, September 14, 2018

Sisterhood is Deliverance in “Steel Magnolias”

I don’t know what it is about the Deep South. My spouse has noted that the honeysuckle accent that dominates the sound track of  many movies can sound charming on the lips of a woman. But a man with a Southern drawl generally conjures up the image of an overall-wearing, sixpack-chugging good ol’ boy. In short, a member of the Beverly Hillbillies.

There’s been so much stereotyping of the South at the movies that I was raised to be skeptical of all of it. On the one hand, movies have given us the romantic South, full of hoop skirts, white-pillared plantations, loyal darkies, and tragic loss on the field of battle. (See, of course, Gone With the Wind.) By contrast, there’s the racist South: bigotry and lynchings galore. That’s one reason why Deliverance (both James Dickey’s novel and the 1972 film directed by John Boorman) is so refreshing. The story of Deliverance contains no plantations and no racial strife. It’s a man-against-nature tale, in which four Atlanta city slickers who are out for a lark in the great outdoors find far more than they bargained for while on a river-rafting trip in Northern Georgia.

It happens that I have visited the gorge where the movie was made, a place where the late Burt Reynolds legendarily risked his life so the cameras could get a realistic shot of a man going over the falls in a canoe. While touring what’s called the Red Clay Country of North Georgia, my husband and I kept being asked by locals if we planned to have lunch at the Dillard House Inn. It sounded like a must-try, so we stopped in for what turned out to be one of the great meals of my life. (Biscuits and gravy, fried chicken, ribs, stewed tomatoes, mashed potatoes, fresh green beans, corn on the cob, strawberry shortcake, and of course sweet iced tea, all for a ridiculously low price.) In the restaurant lobby, there was a showcase full of memorabilia relating to the Deliverance cast and crew, who had happily made the Dillard House their home away from home.  

So I have a soft spot in my heart (and of course my stomach) for Deliverance, and the passing of Burt Reynolds has helped remind me of the movie’s many charms. Aside from the vivid performances of Reynolds and Jon Voigt, Deliverance introduced to the screen the wonderful Ned Beatty, an appropriately Southern actor who began a great career when he took the role of the unfortunate Bobby Trippe, he who runs afoul of some genuine hillbilly types.  

Another aspect of Southern life shows up in Steel Magnolias, the 1989 film (directed by Herbert Ross) based on a hit Broadway play. This is the small-town South of middle-aged white ladies who hang out at the local beauty parlor to gossip, to bicker, and to support one another when the chips are down. They have funny names (M’Lynn, Truvy, Ouiser, Annelle, Clairee) and they’re played by some of Hollywood’s finest (Sally Field, Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine, Daryl Hannah, Olympia Dukakis), all of them clearly having a fine old time. There’s lots of humor, but also a highly serious plot strand involving M’Lynn’s newlywed daughter Shelby (a very young Julia Roberts) and the medical condition that may wreak havoc on her pregnancy. As in the somewhat similar Fried Green Tomatoes (1991), laughter and tears prettily co-mingle, with Southern Sisterhood proving to be powerful indeed. Just to make it  quite clear that these folks are without racial bias, I noticed in crowd scenes the occasional strategic black face.