Friday, September 18, 2020

Serving Time with Lee Daniels' "The Butler"


With the upcoming presidential election high on our minds right now, it's no surprise I got interested in watching a 2013 film that boasts a pretentious title: Lee Daniels' The Butler. Daniels had won acclaim for directing 2009's Oscar-winning Precious. As the rare Black director to cause a stir in Hollywood, he perhaps added his name to the title of this movie as a way of encouraging investors with deep pockets as well as strong social consciousness to get involved. In any case, the film managed to raise its $30 million budget by appeals to 41 producers and executive producers, all of whose names appear on the screen in the opening credit sequence. The Butler was eventually distributed by the Weinstein Company, long before Harvey's sexual predilections caused a once-great career to flame out. So it goes.

In any case, The Butler, adapted from a 2008 Washington Post article, borrows from the life of an African-American man, Eugene Allen, who served in the White House from 1952 to 1986. Starting with the administration of Dwight D. Eisenhower, he wore formal dress to serve meals and otherwise act as an impeccably groomed retainer. Under Ronald Reagan, he and his wife were honored guests at a state dinner, making him the first White House butler ever to be so honored. It's a good story---but Hollywood was not content to keep it simple, stupid.

In the film, the Oscar-winning Forest Whitaker plays Cecil Gaines, a version of Eugene Allen who also owes something to Forrest Gump. Everything happens to him. Beginning as a young sharecropper in a Southern cotton field, he sees his father shot dead by the evil white man who has just raped his mother. A semi-sympathetic Southern lady (Vanessa Redgrave, of all people) then takes him into the plantation house as a servant, teaching him genteel ways of bowing and scraping for his white betters. Eventually he grows up and moves on, marrying and fathering two sons. But so devoted is he to his White House obligations that his restless wife (Oprah Winfrey, nicely convincing) retreats into alcoholism and a dead-end affair. As for his sons, the younger -- a patriotic lad -- marches off to serve in Vietnam. (You just know he'll return in a casket.) By contrast, the collegiate elder son Louis  (David Oyelowo) becomes enamored of the nascent Civil Rights Movement. After he's participated in sit-ins and landed in jail, his activist spirit moves him to join the Black Panthers.

 Sometimes the playing off of a personal story against a public one is effective. For me the film's strongest moment comes as Louis and his fellow activists are manhandled by angry whites after trying to order food at a Louisville luncheonette. While they are being pelted with food and otherwise tormented, papa Cecil--resplendent in formal suit and white gloves--is helping to serve an elegant White House repast. Mostly, though, this race through late Twentieth Century history seems stilted: how much can we take of quick montages of the music, fads, and personalities of each era?  And what's Princess Diana doing there, anyway?

The Butler is probably most notorious for what we might call its stunt casting. Various American presidents are represented on-screen by famous Hollywood actors, most of whom bear little resemblance to the actual men they're impersonating. Robin Williams as Eisenhower? John Cusack as Nixon? Liev Schreiber as LBJ? The mind boggles, especially with the casting of Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan and none other than Jane Fonda as Nancy. When faces (and voices) this familiar are presented on-screen, shouldn't they seem convincing?

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

As You Wish Upon a Star (The Princess Bride Returns)

Over the weekend, when I sat down to watch The Princess Bride, I didn't realize I was part of a trend. Maybe it's a general desire for escapism at a time of national crisis. With the COVID-19 pandemic breathing down our necks and a crucial election  roiling public emotions, we can all appreciate a quick trip to long-ago and faraway, especially when we're guaranteed an ending in which all of the good guys live happily ever after.

When The Princess Bride -- directed by Rob Reiner and adapted by the great William Goldman from his own novel -- was released in 1987, it was no great shakes at the box-office. It took the new phenomenon of home video to vault the film into the ranks of classic cinema. Generations of children, watching The Princess Bride in their living rooms, took Westley, Buttercup, and all the rest into their hearts. This seems entirely apt, since the heroic tale is framed by the tender relationship between a grandfather (Peter Falk) and his young grandson (Fred Savage), and takes on the aspect of a story passed between the generations. The kid is sick in bed, and Grandpa tries to entertain him by sharing a favorite storybook. It's full of pirates and duels and betrayals and escapes (and not overmuch in the way of kissing scenes): what more could any boy want?

The film's beauty lies partly in the perfection of its casting choices: Cary Elwes as a dashing hero, Robin Wright as an ethereal but spunky leading lady, Chris Sarandon as the thoroughly rotten Prince Humperdinck, Christopher Guest as his evil (and digitally challenged) sidekick. Fan favorites include the oddball trio of shrewd little Vizzini (Wallace Shawn), hulking Fezzik (André the Giant), and the soulful swordsman Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin), always on the track of his father's killer. Even screwier are Billy Crystal and Carol Kane, unrecognizable under heavy makeup as Miracle Max and his wife.

As befits a classic, The Princess Bride has become a part of our daily vocabulary. It's inconceivable (tee hee!) that a fan of the film wouldn't react to Inigo's oft-repeated "Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father; prepare to die!" And "As you wish," as a secret way of saying "I love you" has its charm. Today's Hollywood adores The Princess Bride so much that when actors had been stuck in quarantine for months, they all leapt at the idea of shooting, bit by bit, a "home movie" version, produced by Ivan Reitman to benefit the World Central Kitchen charity. It is notably for zany casting, for home-grown props (like Diego Luna fencing with an umbrella against Jack Black wielding a plastic Jedi sword), and for the final appearance of Carl Reiner as the Grandfather, saying "As you wish" to his son Rob (playing the Fred Savage role) just a few days before Carl's passing at the age of 98. Everyone from Tiffany Haddish to Hugh Jackman to Shaquille O'Neal gets into the act, sometimes switching roles in mid-scene.

And on September 12, members of the original cast reunited online for a reading of Goldman's original script. This too was a fundraiser, in which at least 100,000 fans tuned in to contribute toward the Biden campaign in the swing state of Wisconsin. Once the reading was done, a Q&A revealed lively political sentiments from those involved. Billy Crystal, for one, joked that his character, Miracle Max, had lost his place in the castle – despite his ability to raise the dead — because he wrote a book revealing that Prince Humperdinck “didn’t care about the plague.”


Here's a clip from Jason Reitman's "home-movie" version of the film  

Friday, September 11, 2020

Making Noise About "The Quiet Man"

 During this pandemic, I'll gladly watch anything that removes me from our current miserable circumstances. Which is why I decided to check out a film my late parents had adored. I mean The Quiet Man, the romantic romp from 1952, starring John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara in a courtship ritual full of both kisses and kicks, set in the imaginary Irish country town of Innisfree. The film, shot by John Ford on location in County Mayo, is peopled by members of the Ford stock company, including Victor McLaglen as a powerful local squire, Ward Bond as the community's priest, and  Barry Fitzgerald as an imp of a factotum who makes sure that Innisfree doesn't deviate from age-old tradition. 

My parents, hardly lovers of John Wayne, had no special feelings for Ford's classic American westerns. But they loved The Quiet Man for its breezy comic approach to the battle of the sexes. I think they were delighted to see it as a fairytale with a happy ending. Not Irish themselves, they took in stride its depiction of the Auld Sod as a place rife with drinking, gambling, carousing, and the occasional donnybrook; they shrugged off the surprising moment when a local wife -- coming upon John Wayne dragging his stubborn new spouse through the fields -- counsels, "Here's a fine stick to beat the lovely lady."

Though I thoroughly enjoyed Ford's  expert filmmaking, I have found myself wondering how the Irish of today view the movie. The Internet of course uncovers a wealth of opinions. One contributor doesn't equivocate, calling The Quiet Man "a violent stereotypical travesty that has done our proud nation untold harm abroad." By contrast, a scholar named William C. Dowling has written at length as to how the film is less about cultural imperialism than the power of cultural myth. Labeling The Quiet Man as Ford's "struggle for artistic expression against the commercial imperatives of the Hollywood glamour empire," he puts it in the context of those  rowdy Shakespearean comedies in which the spirit of Saturnalia ultimately binds a community together. (I should add that Dowling, a Rutgers professor emeritus, is New Hampshire-born, so maybe his opinion doesn't count.) 

My friend and colleague Beth Phillips, a great lover of all things Irish, has sent me a quote from her mentor, Adrian Frazier, as published in his book, Hollywood Irish: "Ford's Irish movie is like a Christmas pudding made from an ancient recipe, stuffed with nuts and fruits and coins and candies of every description, then soaked in liquor." Her friend James Mullaney of County Mayo is slightly more positive, recognizing certain aspects of the film as true and saying that the film's characters, "like those on the American television show The Bevery Hillbillies, are exaggerated but, at the same time, recognisable--both to an Irish viewer and an international viewer. " As for poet Noel Duffy, he admits that his mother's generation generally liked the film, given the power of its stars and that fact that "it was pretty rare to see films based in Ireland back then." Today, however, "My strong sense is that my generation view The Quiet Man as the worst form of Paddy-whackery, but then the Irish [rebroadcast it] every St Patrick's Day so maybe your average punter might still like it. Anyone younger than me . . ., is probably not even aware of the film's existence."

 Sure, there's something rather disturbing about a headstrong young wife essentially demanding to be dominated by her new mate. Still, in some ways SHE wins the battle  And there's something quite lovely about that. 

 Deepest thanks to Beth Phillips, who ought to check out this movie for herself! 


Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Chadwick Boseman Forever

It's hard to imagine not feeling sad about the passing of Chadwick Boseman, the talented and charismatic actor who has just died of colon cancer at age 43. He had so much living left to do, and so many indelible portrayals to give us. Boseman was, of course, the Marvel Universe's Black Panther, the noble and idealistic ruler of the imaginary African kingdom of Wakanda. This year he was the revered Stormin' Norm Holloway in the flashback sections of Spike Lee's Vietnam film, Da 5 Bloods. And we have yet to see his final performance, in the film version (now in post-production) of one of August Wilson's most dynamic plays, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. With Oscar-winner Viola Davis in the title role, this should be a production worth checking out.

In his film career, which commenced in 2008, Boseman has specialized in playing historic figures, imbuing them with both humanity and flair. In 2013, he was Jackie Robinson in 42, conveying the challenges faced by the first Black man in Major League baseball. Two years later, he took on the mantle of James Brown in Get On Up. In 2017, by now a co-producer as well as a star, he portrayed Thurgood Marshall, in a film focusing on the 1940 case that brought him fame as an NAACP attorney, long before he broke the color barrier on the U.S. Supreme Court. Boseman seemed to fit easily into the role of a hero, but somehow managed to dodge the impressions that his on-screen characters were too good to be true.

Which reminds me of another eminent Black actor who once took on heroic roles. Sidney Poitier, whose film career started around 1950, made the nation's pulse beat faster in 1958 with The Defiant Ones. During the turbulent Sixties, when American audiences first began to confront civil inequality, Poitier enjoyed a long string of starring roles in which he played a sort of national savior. As a wandering handyman helping out some kindly nuns in an uplifting trifle called Lilies of the Field, he won a Best Actor Oscar, the first ever given to a man of color. He also played heroic doctors (No Way Out), heroic teachers (To Sir, With Love), heroic social workers (The Slender Thread), heroic police officers (In the Heat of the Night) all roles designed to emphasize his nobility and compassion. Not for him was there opportunity to be goofy or sexy or particularly human. When his heart was stirred, it was always on behalf of someone down-trodden and WHITE, like the young blind woman who falls for him in that great tear-jerker, A Patch of Blue.

How did Black audiences feel about the elevation of one of their own? Many cheered for Poitier's success, but the more thoughtful among them also felt peeved that the one film that allows him to fall in love makes his sweetheart a rather vapid white woman and hammers home a point about the bravery of interracial marriage. In the New York Times, a young Black playwright named Clifford Mason published a sardonic diatribe under the heading, "Why Does White America Love Sidney Poitier So?" (Cliff, a thoughtful observer of the arts scene, told me years later that he was actually saddened that the era didn't allow Poitier to play to his strengths as a leading man in lightweight romantic comedies.)

.By the time he starting taking on more controversial roles, as when playing a racial militant in 1969's The Lost Man, Poitier was beginning to feel irrelevant. For Chadwick Boseman, we'll never know where his career might have led.






Friday, September 4, 2020

Fake News: "To Die For"

 To Die For was released back in 1995, so why does it seem so up-to-the-minute? Partly this is due to the sad fact that it was consistently mentioned in obituaries for the late Buck Henry, who left us (alas!) on January 8 of this year, at the age of 89. Henry wrote the tart and brilliant screenplay, based on a novel by Joyce Maynard (who as a college co-ed had a secret sexual relationship with the fifty-three-year-old J.D. Salinger -- a spicy tidbit that has nothing to do with this story). Maynard's inspiration for her novel was an actual New Hampshire criminal case involving Pamela Smart, a cute young thing who seduced a naive high school kid, then persuaded him to murder her husband.

In the film, the role of the adorable but conniving Suzanne Stone is played by a bubbly and blonde Nicole Kidman, in what I consider one of her very best roles. What resonates with me in the current day and age is Suzanne's ambition. Although not especially talented, she will do whatever it takes (including murder) to succeed as a television personality. Her mantra, repeated several times in the film, makes it quite clear what she wants out of life: "You're not anybody in America unless you're on TV. On TV is where we learn about who we really are. Because what's the point of doing anything worthwhile if nobody's watching? And if people are watching, it makes you a better person."

That's why, after nabbing a Girl Friday job at a tiny local cable-access station, Suzanne sets off on a campaign to turn herself into an on-camera personality.  Like some of today's TV superstars I could mention, she seems far less interested in delivering the news than in burnishing her own reputation as a sexy commentator on public affairs. Her obsessive quest for celebrity of course shakes up her marriage to an adoring local guy (Matt Dillon) who simply wants  a loving wife and a baby.

The cast is filled with effective supporting players, including Dan Hedaya as Suzanne's Italian father-in-law, Wayne Knight as her bemused boss, and Buck Henry himself (complete with dorky mustache and bowtie) as a prim high school teacher. Illeana Douglas has a vivid role as Dillon's cynical ice-skating sister, someone smart enough to mistrust Suzanne from the start. Among the trio of high school misfits Suzanne pulls into her lethal orbit are two future Oscar winners, Casey Affleck as the spaced-out Russell and Joaquin Phoenix as the love-besotted James. The third partner-in-crime, a self-loathing young girl played by Alison Folland, notes at the end of the film that -- thanks to her small part in the murder plot and the subsequent media attention surrounding it -- she herself has enjoyed some of the fame that Suzanne had promised would come from appearing on-screen in the living-rooms of a nation.  Such irony! Folland's Lydia fully intends to live out the fact that "if people are watching, it makes you a better person."

As we've all seen recently, there's no end to the good that  can come to you if you make a splash on television. It's not fake news to say that TV celebrity can lead to much bigger things in much wider circles of power. "On TV," as Suzanne has insisted, "is where we learn about who we really are." It's also where a nation discovers what kind of person tickles our collective fancy. In an election year, it's especially worth pondering what makes someone telegenic, and what gives him or her a public reputation to die for.





Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Zack and Miri and Rose and Charlie: Near-Fatal Attraction

The meet-cute is a Hollywood staple: it is, of course, the contrivance that brings together two highly ill-assorted people (let’s say a man and a woman) who bicker and spar, but then—by the last reel—discover they’ve fallen in love. This trope is the mainstay of too many romantic comedies to count, everything from 1938’s Bringing Up Baby to You’ve Got Mail sixty years later. I’m thinking about two movies that don’t actually start with a first meeting. The couples in question have known each other long before the action begins. But they’re far from an obvious pairing . . . until lightning strikes.

 And yet, vive la diffĂ©rence! There’s a whole new world between the coupling of Rosie and Charlie in The African Queen (1951) and the two Millennials at the center of the 2008 romp, Zack and Miri Make a Porno. Zack (Seth Rogen) and Miri (Elizabeth Banks) are roommates, trying to make ends meet in a grotty apartment while working bottom-of-the-barrel jobs at a local strip mall. They’ve had their share of intimate encounters (as when accidentally barging in on one another in the bathroom). And neither is short on sexual experience Still, these two losers who’ve been buddies since grammar school never stop to consider each other as potential romantic conquests.

 Life changes dramatically when a viral selfie (long story!) inspires them to try for the big bucks by casting themselves in a porn flick. This being a Kevin Smith movie, the language throughout is raunchy in the extreme, and some of the film’s situations skirt – or elude altogether -- the boundaries of good taste. Hilariously, of course. But at base what we have is a love story, between two nice young people who will, we’re quite sure, live happily ever after. With, as we learn at the fadeout, a surefire new business plan to keep two bodies and two souls together.

 The African Queen is set not in a Pittsburgh suburb but in darkest Africa, circa 1914, where the genteel Rose Sayer (Katharine Hepburn) and her brother Samuel (Robert Morley) serve the local populace as Methodist missionaries. This is German colonial territory: the outbreak of World War I brings a German attack that destroys their modest village and ultimately kills Samuel. Rose’s only way out is aboard a rickety little steam launch captained by the rough-and-ready Canadian mechanic Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart, in his only Oscar-winning role).

 As the prim-and-proper Miss Sayer and the gin-swilling Mr. Allnut travel downstream in close quarters, they seem far from a perfect match. But once she’s discovered the charms of bathing in the river in her scanties, Rose reveals a whole different side to her personality: one that’s courageous and ripe for adventure. Soon the unlikely duo is braving white-water rapids, en route to the lake where they’ll make a quixotic stand against a German military vessel. It’s life or death, but Rose is blooming. And Charlie fully appreciates her grit.

 This film was shot largely on location by the always-colorful John Huston. The African experience was so grueling, including serious bouts of illness for cast and crew, that Hepburn later published a lively account. And young Peter Viertel, who co-scripted the screen adaptation, penned a scathing portrait of Huston and his  maniacal insistence on shooting an elephant before filmmaking could commence. Viertel’s White Hunter, Black Heart itself later became a mediocre 1990 film directed by and starring Clint Eastwood in the Huston role. 

 As for Charlie and Rose, here’s how the original novel ends: "Whether or not they lived happily ever after is not easily decided."