Friday, May 14, 2021

Mike Nichols: Postcards from the Edge of a Career

It’s not easy for me to say nice things about film historian Mark Harris. Not that I’ve ever met Harris, and I doubt he knows I exist. But the publication of his first book, Pictures at a Revolution, ended up derailing my own book deal with a major university press, because I had planned to explore some of the same historic material his book had just finished covering. And when my Seduced by Mrs. Robinson: How The Graduate Became the Touchstone of a Generation appeared in late 2017, a reviewer in the New York Times posted a full-page review trashing my work, mainly because (as she herself pointed out) her good buddy Mark Harris had already written about The Graduate in a way she liked better. So it’s hard to be neutral about Harris’s achievements. even though I’ve heard from a professional colleague that he’s a good guy. Grrrr!

 That being said, I read with great interest Harris’s brand-new biography of director Mike Nichols, who evolved from a comic sketch-artist (with partner Elaine May) into a major film director largely on the strength of early films like The Graduate.  Surely this six-hundred-page tome was a book Harris was meant to write. Harris, you see, is married to playwright Tony Kushner. And Kushner’s Angels in America, a strikingly imaginative exploration of American history and the AIDS epidemic, became in Nichols’ skilled hands a landmark 2003 television production. So Harris, by way of Kushner and their circle of friends, knows pretty much everyone who was anyone in Mike Nichols’ long and complicated life.

 As a film director, with a comedy career and a Broadway smash behind him, Nichols hit the ground running with an unexpected invitation to direct Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in the screen version of Edward Albee’s corrosive Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? That work won him an Oscar nomination, and he went on to nab the golden statuette for his very second film, The Graduate. Then, just as he was beginning to seem invulnerable, he had a series of major artistic and financial flops that began with a misconceived version of Joseph Heller’s famous anti-war novel, Catch-22. Throughout a Hollywood career that ended with his death in 2014, Nichols moved in and out of favor, exploring a wide variety of genres and working with most of the industry’s brightest stars. For a while, in films like Carnal Knowledge (1971), he seemed to specialize in bitter humor from a male perspective. But lately I’ve been interested in a late-career series of movies (1983-1990) in which the female point of view emerges triumphant. This shift was apparently sparked by his teaming with Meryl Streep, the central figure in 1983’s political drama, Silkwood. In 1990, Streep took on the role of Suzanne in Postcards from the Edge, Carrie Fisher’s semi-autobiographical look at the life of an addict who’s also a Hollywood princess, thanks to the role of her superstar mother in her life.

 Gossip columnists, of course, saw Shirley MacLaine’s character in the film as a riff on Fisher’s own mother, Debbie Reynolds, someone well past her prime but still itching for public adulation. (Throwing a surprise party after her daughter’s released from rehab, she belts out a sexy version of Sondheim’s a “I’m Still Here” for the guests). Nichols’ direction gives us the Hollywood environment in spades, filling small roles with classic showbiz personalities like Gary Morton, Rob Reiner, Gene Hackman, and even good old Mary Wickes. But the film is also honest about addiction, a subject Nichols himself clearly—as Harris shows us—understood all too well.  


 

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

“Canned Laughter” in the Dark – Coming Soon to a Theatre Near You?

One of the pleasures of being Beverly in Movieland is encouraging the rise of talented young filmmakers. Chris Brake wrote to me from the south of England, just as he was launching a Kickstarter campaign to help fund his latest project. Chris, a London Film School graduate who makes short films with a fantasy twist, is working on Canned Laughter. It’s a distinctly idiosyncratic project about a retired comedian, Deirdre Gossamer, who misses the limelight. That’s why she knits herself an audience full of fans eager to enjoy her at-home performances. What she doesn’t anticipate, though, is a heckler in their midst.

 As in an earlier effort called “Scraps,” Brake plans to mix live action with puppetry. Having grown up watching E.T. over and over, he’s a lifelong fan of puppets as a way to convey serious ideas. He still marvels at how E.T. “elicits sympathy from a lump of rubber and foam. Everyone always remembers it as a film about an alien, but it’s really not. It’s a story about divorce and the effect that has on a family. And that’s what puppetry can do; it can externalize something fairly abstract and introduce complex themes to an audience in a way that’s more palatable by being symbolic or allegorical.”  

 Though Chris has long been committed to filmmaking as a career, he took a major detour for a while into stand-up comedy. Fortunately, he managed to elude the hecklers who badgered some of his colleagues. His own brand of comedy relied heavily on rhythm, on “finding the perfect words when I write, so the thought of that flow being interrupted was terrifying to me.” He’s now able to see his retreat to film as “almost like seeking a kind of protection from potential criticism.” Film, of course, is a fixed medium: “You can engineer a scene to hit all of the emotional or funny beats you need it to, and it will play like that forever.”

 Chris’s first-ever visit to a cinema was to see Disney’s Beauty and the Beast at the age of six. As he describes it now, “The whole experience has been permanently imprinted on me.  I can recall almost everything about it; where we sat, the smell of the popcorn, the standees in the lobby, the dust in the projector-light, the line we had to wait in that snaked around the block, the woman behind us who made it about 10 minutes into the movie before realizing she was in the wrong screen and storming out shouting, ‘This ain’t the f***in’ Addams Family!’” To the young boy it mattered not at all that this cinema, the only one in his area, was “a total flea-pit.” Despite its sticky floors and stickier seats, he claimed it as a church of sorts, and later (once it gave way to the multiplexes) as “a treasure box of memories.”

  Now the proud father of a teething 10-month-old, Chris looks forward to introducing his son to the joys of moviegoing. As of now the boy is much too young to see a whole movie, “but I’ve sat with him and watched some of the old Laurel and Hardy shorts that my own Dad used to watch with me as a kid. To me they’re really a perfect introduction to cinema because so much of it is silent, visual comedy that’s just beautifully silly. I think it’s a great gateway not only into cinema but also into its heritage.”

To help Chris and his work become part of that heritage, check out his Kickstarter page: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/cannedlaughter/canned-laughter Or contact him directly at info@chris-brake.com 

 

 

 


 

Friday, May 7, 2021

The Gates Split: Conscious Uncoupling at the Movies

The news of the marital rift of Bill and Melinda Gates has of course made headlines. It’s big news when one of the world’s richest—and most philanthropic—couples goes pffft! This is not just a case of a marital unit splitting apart: the conscious uncoupling (in Gwyneth Paltrow’s memorably weird phrase) of this particular husband and wife after 27 years of marriage may send shockwaves through our culture.

 Oddly, their pending divorce makes me think back to classic movies from the 1940s. In an era when marriages tended to be forever, Hollywood released a whole slew of comedies in which the leading characters divorced, or threatened to. There was anger; there were tears. Nonetheless, hilarity ensued. Needless to say, before the lights came back up,  the husband and wife whose holy union had been rent asunder (by jealousy, by miscommunication, by ambition or greed) were back in each other’s arms, newly committed to living happily ever after.

 One of the earliest of these divorce comedies was The Philadelphia Story, the hilarious 1940 comeback vehicle for Katharine Hepburn, who had recently been named “box-office poison.” At the start of the film, she’s an heiress-type who’s very much divorced from the devil-may-care Cary Grant. And she’s on the brink of re-marriage to a bland chap with political ambitions when Grant’s character swoops back into her life. The presence of Jimmy Stewart complicates matters, and makes for a nifty subplot. But given the sparks that continue to fly between Hepburn and Grant, it’s easy to figure who will be reciting marriage vows at the film’s end. A similar story, though set in a newsroom, is another 1940s film starring Grant. This time, in His Girl Friday, he’s a newspaper editor, and his ex-wife is ace reporter Rosalind Russell. She’s engaged to the drab, domestically-inclined Ralph Bellamy, but her pending nuptials will deprive Grant of his best newshound. And darned if Grant and Russell don’t still love one another, despite it all. You can guess what happens.

 Perhaps the strangest divorce comedy is Preston Sturges’ The Palm Beach Story (1942), in which wife Claudette Colbert loves hubby Joel McCrea so much that she decides to divorce him in order to further his career. He’s the designer of an experimental (read: really peculiar) airport that will save space by hovering above a city. Her plan is to marry a millionaire so as to be able to finance McCrea’s vision. In Florida she finds her loving millionaire (Rudy Vallee), but ultimately can’t bring herself to consummate the deal. The film is fascinating, though, because it’s about money as much as love.

 Which brings me to a much more recent and much darker comedy, directed by Danny DeVito from a novel by Warren Adler.  The War of the Roses (1989), starring Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas, zeroes in on the split of an affluent couple, Barbara and Oliver Rose. They’ve had a long and apparently successful marriage, which includes the loving restoration of an historic mansion, but over time they’ve grown apart. When they decide to divorce, the ownership of the house and its contents is the big issue that keeps them at loggerheads. So viciously do they vie to hold onto what has been  their shared property that the end result is not pretty. No happy reconciliation for these two, and no civilized parting of the ways.

 It’s well known that Bill and Melinda have—in addition to an important charitable foundation—several fabulous luxury homes, notably a high-tech built-to-order mansion in Washington State and a Santa Diego beach house. Here’s hoping that, in the divvying up of their property, they don’t replicate the war of the Roses.