Friday, July 12, 2024

Thelma (Without Louise)


Old age is not for sissies. That’s one of the lessons taught by the new indie film, Thelma, which is now delighting cineplex audiences. It’s far less fanciful than The Old Man & the Gun,  the 2018 caper film that starred an octogenarian Robert Redford as an ageing bank robber with no desire to go straight. In Thelma, the challenges of negotiating one’s advanced years are not minimized, at the same time that the leading lady (93-year-old June Squibb) shows just how resourceful an angry grandma can be.

 Thelma, it seems, has a close relationship with her grandson, a 20-something slacker who adores her but has not yet figured out the whole process of adulting. When a phone call tells her that he’s been in a terrible accident and that she needs to cough up the big bucks to clear his name, she doesn’t hesitate to comply. It’s a scam, of course, but she doesn’t take lightly the fact that she’s been both fooled and robbed of $10,000 in cash, which she delivered (as instructed) to a P.O box. Revenge is definitely on her mind.

 Thelma, at 93, is a recent widow, one who’s still capable of managing her tidy home. She’s well-equipped with the tools of modern living—a cellphone and a laptop computer—but their more sophisticated functions tend to boggle her nonagenarian mind. (Honestly, I do sympathize.) Online banking, for one thing, seems far beyond her abilities, but in the course of this film she’ll need to gather her wits about her, and learn to seek help wherever she can find it.

 This latter point is key: through most of the film, Thelma is so convinced of her own abilities that she disdains asking anyone for assistance. Certainly her easily frazzled daughter (Parker Posey) and her acerbic son-in-law (Clark Gregg) are too busy worrying about her physical and mental state to be much help. As she’s soon to discover, most of her old friends are dead or incapacitated: one still lives independently, but seems unaware that her large old house is infested with roaches. An unexpected source of strength is Ben, a former travel companion who now (since the death of his wife) makes his home in an assisted living facility, where he is starring as Daddy Warbucks in an in-house production of Annie. He’s played by the charmingly mellow Richard Roundtree: the film first screened after his 2023 death (at age 81) from pancreatic cancer. Roundtree is, of course, best known for his iconic title role in the 1971 blaxploitation hit, Shaft. In Thelma he’s no longer a tough guy who’s quick on the trigger, but he still remains unforgettable. And he and Squibb play off of one another—sometimes amiably, sometimes testily—like the old pros they are.

 But in many ways the key relationship in Thelma is that between the title character and her grandson, winningly portrayed by young Fred Hechinger. The love between them is easy to see, as is the faith they feel in each other’s smarts. Writer/director Josh Margolin unabashedly modeled the title character after his own magnificently feisty Grandma Thelma, who once almost fell for a similar scam. Says Margolin, ‘I wanted to explore her fight for what’s left of her autonomy just as I was beginning to consider mine.” He chose an action drama of sorts because “as far as I’m concerned, watching my grandma get onto a high mattress is as thrilling and terrifying as Tom Cruise driving a motorcycle off a cliff.” The real Thelma, glimpsed in the film’s coda, is now 103 years young.





Tuesday, July 9, 2024

L.A. Weather and “Chinatown”

As a longtime volunteer with the Santa Monic Public Library system, I’m reading a new best-seller called L.A. Weather, by María Amparo Escandón. It concerns a family with Mexican and Old California roots, ambitiously folding in almost every touchstone 21st century concern you can think of: sexuality, gender demarcations, surrogate pregnancy, gentrification, religious practices, divorce, and complex family dynamics. (Somehow the question of politics only briefly rears its ugly head). But the key issue that gives the book its title has to do with the complexities of Southern California weather. The book’s central patriarch figure, Oscar, becomes increasingly estranged from his wife and three daughters as he obsesses over climate change and its potential impact on his secret almond grove.

 I appreciate the novel’s insider grasp of L.A. geography, and of the ethnic enclaves it chronicles. A movie based on the book would be an enjoyable tour of Malibu beach houses, east L.A. barrio bungalows, and orchards set deep in the San Fernando Valley. I’ve never done a scientific study, but it’s been pointed out to me that most upbeat screen love stories are set in New York (see, for instance, You’ve Got Mail), while L.A. in the preferred backdrop for dysfunctional futuristic landscapes (Bladerunner, I’m looking at you!)  It seems as though film execs, mostly from the east, come to SoCal to pursue their careers, then score with movies that either romanticize the coast they left behind or turn their new west-coast home into a horror show.

 Escandón’s family saga contains a genuine affection for her adopted hometown, but also seems prophetic in that it worries about a climate crisis that threatens to uproot the Alvarado family’s sense of well-being. What strikes me, to my surprise, is how the novel’s key plot strand is the same one that resonates in the late Robert Towne’s script for Chinatown. This 1974 thriller, brilliantly directed by ultimate outsider Roman Polanski, is set in the L.A. of the 1930s, the era of such famous page and screen detectives as Philip Marlowe. There have been ten or more screen adaptations of Marlowe-related stories, including Humphrey Bogart’s 1946 The Big Sleep and Elliott Gould’s 1973 The Long Goodbye. Marlowe films always focus on moral decay and a private-eye hero who tries desperately (and sometimes messily) to create order out of chaos. But in Chinatown the hero (Jack Nicholson’s Jake Gittes) is less heroic and the ending is far less tidy than in the Marlowe-related flicks. As a crony memorably tells Gittes after the unthinkable has happened, “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown.” This climactic line threw me when I first saw the film, but of course I’ve come to accept it as a metaphor for all that’s chaotic and obscene about L.A. life. (Really, if you’ve seen this and Bonnie and Clyde, you know that Faye Dunaway should definitely stay out of moving cars when thugs and cops are around.)

 The moral story in Chinatown may be the one that stays with the viewer, but the plot hinges on a still-resonant L.A. topic: the drought. A key character in the film, L.A. water tsar Hollis Mulwray, is loosely based on a legendary L.A. figure, dam-builder William Mulholland. And we clearly see the tension between San Fernando Valley farmers who demand irrigation for their cash crops and City of L.A. residents worried about their source of drinking water. Those issues still remain, exacerbated by climate change, and we who prefer garden living to making our homes in a desert appreciate books and films that point out where we’re going wrong. 


Friday, July 5, 2024

Robert Towne and Old Hollywood’s Best Alumni Association

The death of screenwriter Robert Towne on Monday made me lament the passage of time. Towne’s great era was the Seventies, when he wrote such gritty films as The Last Detail, Chinatown, and Shampoo, while also making vital (though uncredited) contributions to The Godfather and other hits. Though these were all major studio pictures, I will long associate Towne with his Roger Corman days, when he played the male lead in Corman’s 1960 cheapie, The Last Woman on Earth, while simultaneously pounding out the script on the set. This was filmmaking, Corman style: assemble some ambitious pals and get them to take on as many jobs as possible (for as little money as possible). Eventually, the idea was that they’d find out what they were really good at, and maybe move on to the big bucks. For many would-be Hollywoodites, it worked.

 Here's the opening of Chapter 8 of my independent biography, Roger Corman: Blood-Sucking Vampires, Flesh-Eating Cockroaches, and Driller KillersRoger Corman and the Academy Awards are not usually mentioned in the same breath. But on April 8, 1975, many of the big winners had a Corman connection. Best Film and Best Director Oscars went to Francis Ford Coppola for The Godfather Part II. Best Supporting Actor was Robert De Niro, for his performance in the same gangster epic. Ellen Burstyn was named Best Actress for Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, directed by Corman alumnus Martin Scorsese. Other nominees that year: Talia Shire and Diane Ladd, both up for Best Supporting Actress; cinematographer John Alonzo, whose very first film was Bloody Mama; and Jack Nicholson, favored to win Best Actor for his starring role in Chinatown. (The award went instead to Art Carney, for Harry and Tonto, leading Corman to joke that Nicholson’s loss had spoiled his personal sweep.) Robert Towne, who won the year’s Best Original Screenplay honors for his Chinatown script, surveyed the glittering multitudes and said, in the presence of reporter Bill Davidson from the New York Times Magazine, “This joint looks like a meeting of the Roger Corman Alumni Association.”

 For those who aren’t up on Corman’s long career, here’s the lowdown.  Coppola, straight out of UCLA’s film school, went to work as a Corman production assistant, then made his directorial debut, 1963’s Dementia 13, with money left over from Corman’s The Young Racers. In 1970, De Niro had a major role in Corman’s Bloody Mama. Corman produced Scorsese’s second film as a director, 1972’s Boxcar Bertha. Talia Shire and Diane Ladd both acted in early Corman movies, as did Jack Nicholson, who first met Roger (and Robert Towne) in a Jeff Corey acting class, then went on to play in multiple Corman movies including The Little Shop of Horrors, The Raven, The Terror, and his 1958 film debut, The Cry-Baby Killer. Nicholson, who remains deeply appreciative of Corman’s role in his career, recalled for Roger’s own memoir working on films whose budgets were so low that the actors all had to share the same script.

 Not everyone who worked for Roger in the early days became famous. But take the case of Dick Miller, who started out as a would-be screenwriter. Roger saw potential in the short, pugnacious Miller, and cast him in leading roles of films like 1959’s A Bucket of Blood. Eventually he became a featured actor (and good-luck charm) in all the films of a later Corman alumnus, Joe Dante. Eventually he starred in That Guy Dick Miller, a 2014 documentary made by one of his fans. I remember Dick well, and I hope the world will remember Robert Towne too.



Tuesday, July 2, 2024

Bill Cobbs: That Thing He Did!

We all know who the big stars are, even if we haven’t always seen their movies. Their faces are on movie posters and magazine covers; their names are embedded on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and their footprints decorate the forecourt of the Chinese Theater on Hollywood Blvd. Long after they’re dead and buried, we still talk about Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando and Marilyn Monroe. Their bodies may not have survived, but their reputations certainly live on and on. Greta Garbo’s career was before my time, but her image remains in my memory banks. Such is the power of movies.

 Most working actors in Hollywood don’t achieve that kind of celebrity. Even those who land fairly steady paychecks for their film and TV roles can expect to remain unknown to the public at large. I remember once interviewing a wonderful actor named René Auberjonois in his lovely Windsor Square home, complete with a verdant garden and a yoga hut. I’d delighted in seeing him many times in local theatre productions, usually playing lead characters who were charming and flamboyant. My interview with him, for the Los Angeles Music Center’s program magazine, of course emphasized his stage roles. But stage stardom is a sometime thing, and can’t often support a cushy lifestyle. Auberjonois mentioned to me in passing that he was lucky indeed: his looks and skill-set were in great demand in Hollywood, and he was paid handsomely to take colorful character parts. Examples: he was Father Mulcahy in the original Robert Altman film version of M*A*S*H, and had small but significant roles in both Star Trek VI and The Princess Diaries. He was also featured on television, and  did a great deal of voice work for animated films, TV, and video games. A household name? Hardly. But a very comfortable life indeed. When he passed away in 2019 at age 79, there were small tributes in the press.

 Another of those great journeyman actors has just reached the end of the line. Bill Cobbs made it to 90, still active through 2022. His film roles were sometimes modest, ranging from Man on Platform in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974) to Man in Lunchroom in Silkwood (1983). Happily, his parts gradually got larger. He had a significant presence as Moses, the clock expert, in the Coen brothers’ screwball The Hudsucker Proxy, and played a sneaky security guard  in the first Night at the Museum (2006).

I cherish his performance in the first film Tom Hanks ever wrote and directed, That Thing You Do! (1996). The light-hearted story, set in the rock ‘n roll Sixties, is about four young amateur musicians who record an original pop song that unexpectedly tops the charts nationwide. Hanks gives himself the role of the A&R record exec who spots the quartet. The Wonders (as in “one-hit wonders”) seem poised for genuine stardom until—inevitably—their very different goals pull them apart. The four nicely-cast musicians are Johnathon Schaech as the ambitious lead singer, Ethan Embry as the naïve bass player who’d rather be a Marine, Steve Zahn as the stoner lead guitarist, and Tom Everett Scott (a young Hanks lookalike) as the drummer who has a deep-seated love of music. It is Scott’s character who, late in the film, happens upon a legendary jazz pianist, someone who reinforces his true passion for great musicianship. The film’s climax is their impromptu jazz duet, one that reminds young Guy of what he truly values in life. This is a small role for Cobbs, but a deeply appealing one. Bill Cobbs will be missed.


Friday, June 28, 2024

High Anxiety: Mid-Level Mel Brooks

What would we do without Mel Brooks? He’s been the comic genius behind TV (Get Smart) and movies (2000 Year Old Man), but I associate him mostly with movies, as a writer, a director, and sometimes a star. His first directorial outing was in 1967, as writer/director of The Producers, which introduced the world to the outrageous combination of Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder, as well as to the most hilariously tasteless production number of all times, “Springtime for Hitler.” I suspect that if you watch the film you’ll agree it runs out of steam midway though, but Brooks would later enlarge it into a Broadway musical blockbuster.

 I’m fond of The Twelve Chairs, Brooks’ off-the-wall 1970 look at Tsarist Russia. (I’ve adopted its original song, “Hope for the Best, Expect the Worst,” as my own personal philosophy of life.) But Brooks’ greatest year was arguably 1974, when he introduced not one but two comedic masterworks, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. Both showcase Brooks’ talent for parody, his success at spoofing familiar genres like the Western and the classic monster flick. Next came the considerably more effortful Silent Movie, featuring Brooks favorites Marty Feldman and Dom DeLuise, along with a cast of Hollywood stars in cameo roles. In 1977 it was back to a genre spoof: Brooks’ High Anxiety (despite its title’s witty nod to High Society) is dedicated to poking fun at the suspense classics of shockmeister Alfred Hitchcock. Many critics have noted that Hitchcock’s films are themselves frequently tongue-in-cheek, and don’t need to be parodied. Still, there’s fun to be had in seeing how many Hitchcock references you can spot.

 First of all, the jaundiced look at the whole field of psychiatry reminds us of Hitchcock’s 1945 Spellbound. Here Brooks himself plays an eminent psychiatrist, Dr. Richard Thorndyke, who has flown out to California to lead the Psycho-Neurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous,  a place that is clearly not as salubrious as it seems. (Thorndyke’s name is an immediate reminder of Cary Grant as Roger Thornhill in  North by Northwest.) Despite his sterling reputation, Thorndyke is suffering from a Brooksian psychological ailment called “high anxiety,” which seems a cross between vertigo and acrophobia. He is not helped by the institute’s location, high above the rocky shoals of the Pacific, and his troubles are compounded when he’s victimized by a flock of pooping pigeons, à la Hitchcock’s The Birds.

 Things go from bad to worse when Thorndyke attends a conference in San Francisco, where he’s housed on the 14th floor of the brand-new Hyatt Regency. This real locale was famous in its day for being built around an enormous atrium that would make almost anyone dizzy if she were on the top floor looking down. Of course there’s a beautiful, mysterious Hitchcock blonde (Madeline Kahn) who needs his help, leading to the film’s single most hilarious scene: when they sneak a gun past airport security by posing as the world’s most annoying traveling couple. Predictably the film’s climax is staged as an homage to Hitchcock’s Vertigo, with Dr. Thorndyke forced to pursue the bad guys up the high twisted staircase of the institute’s bell tower. Of course villains like Cloris Leachman and Harvey Korman get their comeuppance, and everyone else lives happily ever after.  Kudos to the 1940s-style black & white cinematography and the surreal elements borrowed from Salvador Dali’s Spellbound dream sequence.

 I’m told Hitchcock himself was mightily amused. He reportedly sent Brooks a case of six magnums of fine wine with a note that read, "A small token of my pleasure, have no anxiety about this."

 A very happy 98th birthday to the 2,000-Year-Old Man! 




Tuesday, June 25, 2024

An Ode to the Elastic, Electric Donald Sutherland

I first knowingly encountered the late Donald Sutherland in 1968, in an odd little British film called Joanna. Then and now, I’ve been unsure if Joanna was intended as an ode to Swinging London (the miniskirts! the casual sex!) or a morality tale or a spoof. It did have a very pretty leading lady, a score by Sixties fave Rod McKuen, and several hunky young men. It also had Sutherland as the wealthy but terminally ill Lord Peter Sanderson, who hosts Joanna and her groovy friends at his sumptuous home in Morocco. When he came on screen, I thought I had never seen such a weird-looking person. There was a fey quality to him that had me completely baffled: was there some sort of comment being made about his sexuality? I didn’t know, but I didn’t much care. Joanna was a movie that didn’t invite hard thinking.

 It took a while to realize I’d seen Sutherland a year earlier in a vastly different role, that of a not-too-bright Southerner named Vernon Pinkley who hilariously steps in to impersonate a general in a World War II action drama, The Dirty Dozen. That was the thing about Sutherland: you couldn’t pin him down. Even his nationality seemed flexible: the Canada-born Sutherland played British and American roles with equal conviction.

 It was in 1970 that Sutherland had his big Hollywood breakthrough. Though for fans of the long-running TV series, Alan Alda will always be the REAL star of M*A*S*H, Robert Altman’s original film starred Sutherland as Hawkeye Pierce. He and Elliott Gould as best buddy Trapper John McIntyre found stardom as two young battlefield surgeons who cope with the horrors of the Korean War by way of outrageous antics. One year later he played the title role in Klute, a neo-noir thriller best remembered for Jane Fonda’s Oscar-winning role as a prostitute being stalked by a killer. Sutherland’s role is that of a detective who becomes Fonda’s protector and then her lover. The powerful connection between Fonda and Sutherland,  which allegedly spilled over into their personal lives, led to Sutherland’s deep involvement in Fonda’s crusade against the Vietnam War.

 Another intensely dramatic role for Sutherland was opposite Julie Christie in 1973’s psychological thriller, Don’t Look Now. The eerie Venice-set drama, brilliantly directed by Nicolas Roeg, focuses on young parents trying to get past the accidental death of their young daughter. In the midst of their all-consuming grief,  there’s a sex scene that raised many eyebrows for its convincing eroticism, leaving some viewers certain that the intimacy on screen was genuine.  (Sutherland has staunchly denied this.) He was also a grieving father in Robert Redford’s Oscar-winning Ordinary People (1980), though most of the film’s accolades went to Mary Tyler Moore and young Timothy Hutton, who played his wife and his surviving son. But none of this should imply that Sutherland only took on somber roles. He played everyone from heroes to goofballs, like the pot-smoking professor in National Lampoon’s Animal House. He was even a stuffy British patriarch (and Keira Knightley’s father) in Joe Wright’s 2005 version of the Jane Austen classic, Pride and Prejudice, as well as the chief villain in The Hunger Games. Though Oscar nominations eluded him, the Academy in 2017 granted him an honorary Oscar “for a lifetime of indelible characters, rendered with unwavering truthfulness."

Today son Kiefer (named after Donald Sutherland’s very first director) carries on the family commitment to screen acting. But it’s unlikely he’ll ever top his father’s long and varied list of achievements. 


Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Good Housekeeping: “The Remains of the Day”

The lineage of The Remains of the Day is unusual. It began as a 1989 novel by Kazuo Ishigoro, a native Japanese who was raised in England. Though Ishigoro’s first two novels deal with the nation he had left at age 5, The Remains of the Day marked his turn toward strictly British subject matter. Following the massive success of this novel, he has explored science-fiction material (Never Let Me Go), dabbled in screenwriting (for the Oscar-nominated Living) and won the 2017 Nobel Prize in Literature, among other major honors.

 The screen version of The Remains of the Day, released in 1993, started out (to my surprise) as a Mike Nichols project with a screenplay by Harold Pinter. When the film passed into the hands of the Merchant-Ivory team, Pinter severed ties, though apparently some of his work was used, while Nichols stayed involved as a producer. The resulting film benefits from Ismail Merchant’s, James Ivory’s and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s comfort with literary adaptations, as well as their impressive visual sense. A film about a head butler and a housekeeper numbering their days in service to Lord Darlington requires a functioning manor house as its setting. The Merchant-Ivory reputation was such (after the artistic success of films like A Room with a View and Howard’s End)  that the filmmakers were able to persuade previously reluctant property owners to open their doors to cast and crew. Clearly, the resulting film is a triumph of logistics. Several country homes were used in combination, including Dyrham Park for the house’s exterior and driveway; Powderham Castle for some gracious public rooms and a spectacular turquoise stairway; Badminton House for servants’ quarters and a conservatory. On screen it all looks like one impressive stately mansion.

 Though Ishigoro wrote his novel in the first person, from the perspective of a starchy and deeply traditional butler, the screenplay’s basically third-person point of view hardly detracts. In Anthony Hopkins’ performance we well understand how much Mr. Stevens is bound by his own past, as well as by an unrelenting sense of duty to those he sees as his betters. Playing opposite him is the always convincing Emma Thompson, as a housekeeper who would like to be braver than she is. These two would make for a natural pairing, except that their basic timidity holds them back. This is best acknowledged in what the filmmakers call “the book scene,” in which Miss Kenyon briefly sets aside her usual decorum to playfully wrestle away from Stevens the mysterious book he is reading in his rare off-hours. The fact that he rebuffs her, for no very good reason, is a wonderful indicator of his habitual strait-laced outlook (is he deeply repressed, or just shy?).

 I first saw this film when it was in theatres, and best remembered it for that very English sense of stiff-upper-lip self-denial. What I’d forgotten completely is how much the film has to say about the politics of the pre-World War II era. Lord Darlington, it appears, has a sentimental affection for German culture. Though at base he’s a well-meaning man, his money and social position help him prop up the reputation of the Nazi party within his own country. What’s deeply disturbing is that Stevens, as his loyal retainer, will not permit himself to think independently of the master of the house, even when the lives of others (like two Jewish immigrant girls in his kitchen) are at stake. So he loses not only a chance at love but also, ultimately, his self-respect. A sad ending for one who puts duty before all else.