Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Easing On Down the Road with The Wiz

In early 1975, while blaxploitation flicks like Shaft and Superfly were still scoring on multiplex screens, Broadway welcomed a musical version of the classic Wizard of Oz that introduced black vernacular, pop music, and an entirely black cast. The show, which was called The Wiz, played to packed houses until 1979. At the annual Tony Awards festivities, it collected seven statuettes, including Best Musical Score and Best Musical. For the late Geoffrey Holder, husband of my first dance teacher, Carmen de Lavallade, it was definitely a career highpoint. The multitalented Holder won a Tony for directing the show, and a second for designing its flamboyant costumes. When his name was called, he literally danced up to the stage in a wonderful display of showmanship.

A hit of this magnitude of course captured the imagination of Hollywood. Transferring a fantasy from stage to screen is always a challenge, but the filmmakers behind The Wiz made some choices that definitely added to their difficulties. The Dorothy on stage in The Wiz, like that in the classic Judy Garland film adapted from the L. Frank Baum novel in 1939, is played as an innocent young girl. But the Hollywood team doubtless felt it needed a star performer, which is why it gave the role to Diana Ross, age thirty-four. A very game Ross could indeed look super-skinny and helpless, but she couldn’t convince as an adolescent. That’s why her part was transformed into that of a rather agoraphobic spinster kindergarten teacher who works hard on behalf of her extensive Harlem family but is cut off by her own fears from enjoying the world outside her door. The team behind Ross and company today seems unlikely. The screenwriter was Joel Schumacher, not yet a director of tough dramas. The director was the great Sidney Lumet, best known for films (like The Pawnbroker, Serpico, and Dog Day Afternoon) that captured a sense of urban squalor.

Perhaps because of Lumet’s experience on the streets of New York City, this cinematic version of The Wiz dropped the traditional Kansas setting of the opening scene in favor of a gritty urban Harlem streetscape. Characters descend into a spooky but fantastically appointed subway, and the Cowardly Lion (Ted Ross, who’d also won a Tony for this role) starts off as one of the lions in front of the New York Public Library. Other characters are played by Hollywood royalty, including Richard Pryor as the Wizard himself, Lena Horne (Lumet’s mother-in-law)  who gets to sing a corny ballad as Good Witch Glinda, and none other than Michael Jackson, playing his first movie role as the Scarecrow. Watching this film for the first time recently, I admired the lively sets and costumes (the film earned four Oscar nominations in technical categories), but disliked the way the lugubrious story advanced at a crawl, milking every opportunity to be sentimental.

But the recent trend for “live” musicals on TV gave me a chance to relive the spunk and spirit of the stage show. The 2015 broadcast was chockful of stars (Common, David Alan Grier, Mary J. Blige as an appropriate hateful Wicked Witch of the West, aka Evillene), but an actual teenager, Shanice Williams, was the glue that held it all together. Perhaps some of the excitement came from the adrenaline rush as cast and crew all joined hands to work at achieving theatrical perfection. I also sensed freshened dialogue, a sharpened storyline, and less easy sentimentality. Sorry, Diana Ross – you’re a singer like no other, but I’d rather not ease on down the road again with you anytime soon.

Friday, October 12, 2018

The Old Man & The Graduate

Robert  Redford turns on the charm full blast in his latest (and possibly his last) film, The Old Man & The Gun. Though he’s now a weather-beaten eighty-two years old, he capers nimbly through a picaresque movie in which he robs banks, romances a glowing Sissy Spacek, and makes a great case for Senior Citizen Power. In the Hollywood spotlight for fifty years, Redford has proved himself as an actor, a producer, and an Oscar-winning director (for 1980’s Ordinary People). He’s also been active in political and environmental causes, and founded the Sundance Institute (along with the famous Sundance Film Festival) to give independent films and filmmakers a leg up. The Old Man & The Gun features at one point vintage photos of the young Redford, including an actual still of him on the lam in Arthur Penn’s 1966 thriller, The Chase.  Those photos remind us—as though we needed reminding—of how astoundingly handsome he once was.

Yes, Redford has done a lot. But he did not get a chance to star for Mike Nichols as Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate. Even though he came close. Here, based on the research I did for my Seduced by Mrs. Robinson, is the full story:

In 1963, a young producer named Lawrence Turman read a novel by a recent college graduate named Charles Webb. Turman learned about Webb’s not-very-successful novel in the New York Times. The Times reviewer had some complaints about the novel, but also said that Webb had, in Benjamin Braddock, “created a character whose blunders and follies just might become as widely discussed as those of J. D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield.” These were magic words: everyone in Hollywood longed to film something on the order of Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Having bought the movie rights to Webb’s The Graduate, Turman approached Mike Nichols, well known for his sketch comedy act with Elaine May. Nichols had never directed a movie, but he’d just had a major Broadway hit directing an early Neil Simon laughfest, Barefoot in the Park, about a pair of newlyweds adjusting to life in New York City. The young husband was played by Robert Redford.

In 1967, as Mike Nichols was preparing to film The Graduate, he naturally thought of the handsome, intelligent stage actor. By this point, Redford was making his mark on Hollywood, with featured roles in films like The Chase and Inside Daisy Clover. He wanted to play the hapless Benjamin Braddock, and Mike Nichols wanted to hire him. The legendary story, which has circulated for fifty years, is that Nichols, finally concluding that Redford wasn’t right for the role, asked the actor, “What was the last time you struck out with a girl?” Responded Redford, totally nonplussed, “What do you mean?”  

Larry Turman told me the reality was just a bit different. He’d always felt that Benjamin Braddock wouldn’t be funny unless he was a lovable bumbler, age twenty-one going on sixteen. Turman had a hunch that Redford, talented though he was, would project a screen image that was too suave and sophisticated for the character. Nonetheless, Redford was one of six actors who screen-tested for the role, along with Tony Bill, Charles Grodin, and a nervous young man named Dustin Hoffman. Both Turman and Nichols were rooting for Redford, but both finally agreed he was just not their idea of what Benjamin should be. Redford’s day, though, would soon come. Two years later, he starred with Paul Newman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, perfecting his portrayal of a gunslinging rogue. And a star was born.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

The Late Scott Wilson – This Time It’s Real

That's Robert Blake at left, Scott on the right

Scott Wilson  is dead. Admittedly, it’s hardly the first time he has died. In 1967, he was hanged in the courtyard of the Kansas State Penitentiary for having committed multiple brutal murders. In 2003 he suffered a different fate, at the hands of Florida serial killer Aileen Wuornos. And he was unlucky enough to get fatally mixed up with zombies in TV’s The Walking Dead. Wilson was of course an actor who emerged unscathed from all of his dealings with mortality in films like Monster and In Cold Blood. Now, alas, he has succumbed to leukemia for real, at age 76.

I met Scott Wilson when I was researching the films of 1967. I was thrilled to speak with him, because he’d appeared in two of the best, In the Heat of the Night (he played fugitive Harvey Oberst, who is cleared of a murder rap by Sidney Poitier’s detective Tibbs) and In Cold Blood. I think he was flattered to have the start of his career examined so closely. We sat in the dim, cozy living room of his West Hollywood duplex, sipping tea and munching cookies graciously served by his wife Heavenly, a lovely woman who fully measured up to her challenging name. As my tape recorder slowly turned, Scott reminisced about landing the role of Harvey, who starts out as a racist but ends up becoming a true believer in Mister Tibbs’ smarts.

It helped that he was a Southerner by birth, from Atlanta. When he discovered acting as a young man, he spent five years learning every aspect of the craft, never actually expecting to earn a living on stage or screen. Auditioning for the role of Harvey, he knew he’d have to do a lot of cross-country running: his character has committed a robbery and is fleeing through the Mississippi countryside to escape the long arm of the law.  Fortunately, he was then earning his keep as a valet parker, sprinting up Hollywood hills to retrieve the cars of restaurant patrons, and so he could handle the physical challenges of his part with ease.

Thanks to Poitier and Quincy Jones, Scott was encouraged to try out for the leading role of a feckless killer in the screen version of Truman Capote’s true-crime thriller, In Cold Blood. He physically resembled the real Dick Hickock (who committed the killings along with Perry Smith), and he possessed a hearty laugh that bubbled out of him at unexpected moments, lending an eerie quality to the most mundane conversations. I was spooked by that laugh, even in his comfortable living room, especially when he played me an audition tape (from the old stage chiller, Night Must Fall) that he used to nab the Hickock role.

Columbia Pictures originally wanted major stars to play the two young killers. But Scott explained that director Richard Brooks insisted on unknowns “so there would be nothing to blemish the audience’s reaction to the killers; they could identify with them as killers instead of actors.” This helped catapult a screen novice into a leading role, but it also had its downside: Brooks made little attempt to tout his unknowns, Scott and Robert Blake, as actors. Result: they missed out on award recognition they richly deserved. 

Still, Scott wasn’t in it for the accolades. He told me, “I didn’t aspire to walk the red carpets. I didn’t aspire to the accouterments of being an actor. It’s what surrounds being an actor. Once I found acting, I said, this is what I want to do. I was really never interested in being a star.”

Hail, and farewell.