Friday, December 14, 2018

Over the Rainbow—Where L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz Doesn’t Measure Up to the MGM Version

When I was very small, The Wizard of Oz made a triumphant comeback to local movie theatres. With television in its infancy, the return of a family classic like this one to a movie palace near my home was major news. I remember pasting into my scrapbook an advertising photo of Dorothy and Good Witch Glinda. With her poufy dress, cocker-spaniel hair, and helmet-like silver crown, Glinda didn’t seem all that beautiful to me. Still, I was fully prepared to be enchanted by the movie. And of course I was.

 It wasn’t until years later that I finally read L. Frank Baum’s 1900 classic, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. And it took many more years—and many more viewings of the 1939 MGM film—before I returned to the novel with my children. I’m all too accustomed to feeling that movies adapted from famous novels lose something of the spirit (and the artistic integrity) of the original. And of course Baum’s brilliantly conceived characters—like the brain-addled Scarecrow, the sentimental Tin Woodman, the Cowardly Lion, and that humbug of a Wizard—will live forever. Still, in reading Baum’s masterwork, I caught myself feeling that its journey from Kansas to the Emerald City was rather plodding and far too moralistic. Baum, the father of four and by all accounts a charming and good-hearted man, was determined to use his writing as a way to improve children’s moral outlook. His great theme is that we all have inside ourselves the ability to achieve our fondest wishes. That’s why he continuously goes back to the Oz friends’ desires—for brains, for a heart, for courage, for home—to remind us that everything is possible if you simply look within.

The editor of The Annotated Wizard of Oz, argues strongly for the merits of Baum’s approach. Michael Patrick Hearn is, needless to say, a serious booster for Baum’s achievement. Where I find it annoying that, on her journey down the Yellow Brick Road, Dorothy keeps stopping to look around for a meal and a place to sleep, Hearn argues that children appreciate the homey details with which Baum grounds his fantasy. He’s also not troubled by the long, meandering section of the book (Fighting Trees! The Dainty China Country!) that follows its most exciting moments: the melting of the Wicked Witch of the West and the unmasking of the Wizard. To Hearn, these long-winded latter segments only serve to reinforce Baum’s moral message.   

Even Hearn, though, admits there are areas in which MGM screenwriters have improved upon the original. There’s the beautiful visual image of Glinda saving Dorothy and her friends from the fumes of the deadly poppy field by sending snow. And, more important, there’s the dramatic payoff of the Scarecrow’s fear of fire, which is established early on. In the novel, Dorothy splashes the bucket of water onto the Wicked Witch of the West out of anger, because the witch has swiped one of her precious silver slippers. (They became ruby in the film when the Hollywood moguls decided red shoes would photograph more effectively than silver.) Essentially the book’s Dorothy drenches the witch in a fit of pique, because her prize possessions are being taken from her. See how much more impressively the movie handles this moment: the Wicked Witch, threatening the Scarecrow, hurls a ball of fire in his direction. To save her friend, Dorothy heroically douses him with water, some of which splashes onto the witch who then, as Baum so aptly puts it, melts away before our eyes like brown sugar.

Well, there’s no place like the movies.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Widows: Ocean’s Eight in a Minor Key

A small clutch of women, who would seem to have little in common, band together to stage a major heist. Partly they’re after the loot, but this job is also a  way of answering the men in their lives, showing that they too have the balls to pull off something big. Does this description sound like Ocean’s Eight? I enjoyed that frothy caper flick, in which Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, and such diverse women as Mindy Kaling, Rihana, and Awkwafina, make off with all the loot at a posh society ball, at least partly in homage to Bullock’s character’s dearly departed brother, Danny Ocean. Widows, though, has much bigger things on its mind.

Widows is the latest from Steve McQueen, whose 12 Years a Slave won the Best Picture Oscar in 2014. To be honest, I wasn’t entirely a fan of that film. Yes, it was skillfully made. But I, for one, felt myself responding to it dutifully, out of a sense of obligation to appreciate a movie all too clearly intended to teach a lesson to the American public. With Widows, no such problem. This is a taut, diverting thriller that makes its socio-political point while never failing our yen to get caught up in a twisty plot. You’re always entertained, but there’s a lot going on beneath the surface.

Widows concerns several women whose husbands have just been killed while trying to hijack millions from a Chicago political campaign. With their private lives in disarray, the new widows are persuaded by one of their number, played by the fierce and yet vulnerable Viola Davis, to carry off the scheme their husbands didn’t live to see through to fruition. By way of flashback glimpses of their former lives, we know that while Davis and her husband (played by Liam Neeson) had a powerful romantic bond, the other women must cling to less happy memories. The devil-may-care spouse of Michelle Rodriguez had a gambling habit that now jeopardizes the future of her barrio dress shop, not to mention the well-being of her children. Newcomer Elizabeth Debicki (whose performance has already garnered accolades) lost an abusive spouse and now finds herself beholden to a chauvinistic suitor who feels he has bought her favors.

Female victimization and female empowerment are important threads throughout the story, but by placing these against a local political campaign McQueen also comments on an all-male world in which both sides—both that of the patrician white alderman and that of the upstart black wannabe—are  equally venal (and equally brutal). Some reviewers have found this political backstory less than satisfying, but for me it contributes to the complexity of the world in which Davis and company find themselves. And here’s an example of McQueen’s artistry at work: Davis’s character, who lives well because of her husband’s long criminal past, resides in a sleek modern condo with stark white walls and carefully chosen works of art. In virtually every scene, she’s outfitted in high-style clothing in shades of inky black and crisp white. There’s only one scene in which she wears a Technicolor hue: a bright red sweater. And this scene, which starts out simply enough, turns out to be her character’s essential turning point.

Black, of course, is an appropriate color for a new widow to wear. But I can’t help thinking that McQueen is also quietly commenting on the role of race in the Davis character’s life. The very fact that she’s married to a white man ultimately becomes a part of the unfolding tragedy, in ways that an audience would not at first guess.  

Friday, December 7, 2018

Shatner Claus is Coming to Town

You’d better not shout, you’d better not cry, you’d better not pout, I’m telling you why—William Shatner is coming to town! Yes, Captain Kirk himself has just  released a new holiday recording, with the unlikely title of Shatner Claus:-- The Christmas Album. Though he was not exactly raised as a Christian, Shatner has gathered established folk and pop musicians to help him celebrate the Yule season by way of Christmas songs, among them both kitschy secular ditties and such religious classics as “The Little Drummer Boy” and “Silent Night.”  Of course, no one accepts William Shatner as a serious singer. But his spirit is fully committed to this enterprise. As he puts it, “Every song – good or bad – has my interpretation with the desire to bend it a little or fulfill more fully its original desire.”

I’ve been interested in Shatner for years, largely because of his longstanding Roger Corman connection. Roger was my boss for nearly a decade, and when scholars wrote to ask about his gutsy production of The Intruder (1962), I handled the correspondence. As spelled out in my biography, Roger Corman: Blood-Sucking Vampires, Flesh-Eating Cockroaches, and Driller Killers, Roger was disturbed enough by the issues surrounding the desegregation of schools in the Deep South that he veered away from his usual horror fare to film the story (based on actual fact) of a rabble-rouser who descends upon a small Southern town to rile up the citizenry for reasons of his own. To play the charismatic but nefarious Adam Cramer, he chose Shatner, then a young Canadian actor best known for his stage work. The production company ran a real risk by shooting on location in southern Missouri, close to the Arkansas border, where the emotions of the citizenry were already raw. For three weeks cast and crew dodged sheriffs, eluded threats of violence, and sidestepped accusations that they were communists. Crowd scenes were shot in such a way that Shatner made his most incendiary speeches after the majority of locally cast extras had gone home. Shatner, whose performance won high praise from critics, emailed me years later that as a director, Roger was “wonderfully quick and efficient. He knew exactly what he wanted.” He recalled the making of The Intruder as “harrowing, stimulating, enabling, and frustrating. Because we shot the film on location in the South, we weren’t able to do a lot of the controversial things contained in the script.”

Shatner enjoyed himself less in 1974 when he co-starred with Angie Dickinson in a Depression-era cops-and-robbers romp, Big Bad Mama. His role is that of a con artist bubbling over with Southern charm, one who wins Angie away from the younger and more obviously virile Tom Skerritt. Though Skerritt’s nude sex scenes with Dickinson are genuinely sexy, Shatner was clearly panicked by the thought of performing in the altogether. Director Steve Carver has told me the lengths to which Shatner went to protect his modesty. (He tried covering his privates with gaffer’s tape, looking like, in Steve’s words, “jungle boy.”) He was also vain about his toupee, which led Skerritt (with whom he feuded) to find creative ways of knocking it askew as the camera rolled. He also antagonized Angie and everyone else, partly by playing fast and loose with his scripted dialogue.

All this, of course, was after the first three seasons of Star Trek aired, but before the series became a true cult legend.  And it was also long before William Shatner decided to teach the world to sing, in perfect Shatnerian harmony.