Sunday, May 29, 2011

Beautiful Downtown Burbank and Tim Burton (The One Who Got Away)

The Tim Burton exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art was a revelation for me. I didn’t realize (though I probably should have) the degree to which this quirkiest of film directors is also a talented visual artist. I also didn’t realize that he was born and raised in Burbank, California.

The thing is—Ron Howard was also a Burbank boy. When I was researching Ron Howard: From Mayberry to the Moon . . . and Beyond, I spent some time looking around what is still (despite the presence of NBC and several movie studios) in many ways a modest middle-class suburban town. In the early Sixties, when both Ron Howard and Tim Burton were small boys, life in Burbank was not so far removed from Mayberry. Young Ronny felt completely at home there. He went to public school, played Little League baseball, joined the Cub Scouts. At Burbank’s John Burroughs High School, he devoted himself to basketball and the campus newspaper, and fell in love with a shy red-headed girl in his English class. (They’re still a devoted couple.)

Young Tim, on the other hand, was a misfit from the get-go. The exhibit makes clear how as a teenager he used art as a way to fight boredom and seek social acceptance. His “Crush Litter” poster (a cartoon of a grimy muscle-man squeezing an overloaded garbage can in his bare fists) actually took first prize in a Burbank Beautiful contest, and was featured on local trash trucks for an entire year. He also programmed a series of ghoulish horror films—several featuring his beloved Vincent Price—to benefit the Burbank Police Youth Band. Burton’s hometown is so much a key to understanding his career that the three parts of the LACMA exhibit are labeled “Surviving Burbank,” “Beautifying Burbank,” and “Beyond Burbank.”

Ron Howard eventually left Burbank. Once he’d successfully made the shift from acting to directing, he moved his growing family to Greenwich, Connecticut. But Burbank never truly left him. He’s still deeply connected to his Burbank-based father and his brother Clint, both of whom still appear in most of his films. He’s also deeply connected to Burbank’s homespun mainstream values, which show to good advantage in films like Parenthood and Apollo 13.

In Burton’s case, his offbeat imagination has taken him far from his starting point. His most indelible movies, like The Nightmare Before Christmas, show his remarkable ability to create a world all his own. But my personal favorite, Edward Scissorhands, also gives us a pastel-colored suburbia in which an oddball artist forever contends with the everyday folks who live far more mundane lives. Sounds like Burbank to me.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Saturday Night Potomac Fever

Just back from Washington, DC, I’m thinking about what a great cinematic backdrop this city makes, with its monuments and its stately marble halls. Hollywood has been in love with our nation’s capital almost since the beginning. Witness Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Frank Capra’s 1939 valentine to the power of our elected officials to do the right thing. More recently we’ve had DC-based horror films (The Exorcist), DC-based political thrillers (All the President’s Men), and aliens blowing up the Capitol dome (Independence Day).

Over the years, as Americans have become increasingly cynical about government, Hollywood has supplied us with films that comment directly on those in the seat of power. Though the names are changed to protect the not-so-innocent, Mike Nichols’ Primary Colors is unquestionably a look at the election of William Jefferson Clinton, with John Travolta deftly impersonating the big guy from Little Rock. And Oliver Stone’s W. doesn’t hide behind pseudonyms in charting George W. Bush’s rise to the White House. Films such as these hardly speak well of our current generation of leaders. Where is clean-cut Jimmy Stewart when you need him?

But it’s surprising how many fairly recent Hollywood movies find in the presidency a source of romantic optimism. A prime example, of course, is 1995’s The American President, with Michael Douglas falling for Annette Bening. (She describes their first date to a confidante: “I kissed him.” And then what? “He had to go and attack Libya.”) In the film, Douglas’s character is a widower, so their romantic escapade is basically beyond reproach. The presidency doesn’t look nearly so good in 1993’s Dave, in which a President falls into a coma while in flagrante delicto with someone other than his wife, and must then be impersonated by a wholesome lookalike. Still, it’s the innocent romance between Dave (Kevin Kline) and the First Lady (Sigourney Weaver) that drives the action.

To me the most unforgettable White House-based romantic comedy dates all the way back to 1964. In Kisses for My President, an attractive but no-nonsense Polly Bergen plays the first female chief executive. But the focus is on her hapless husband, Fred MacMurray, who finds his masculine ego shaken when he’s expected to attend a round of ladies’ luncheons and garden club teas. After much comic mishap, the problem is solved: President Leslie Harrison McCloud steps down from her office because (you guessed it) she’s pregnant. Ouch!

Real-life (as opposed to “reel life”) Washington is a trifle different. My hotel, alas, turned out to be steps away from George Washington University’s Ronald Reagan Institute for Emergency Medicine. When ambulance sirens disturbed my sleep, I couldn’t help musing about what sent President Reagan into emergency care: the bullets of John Hinckley Jr., a young man trying to impress movie star Jodie Foster. Reagan, of course, was our first movie-star president, and a deranged movie buff who confused cinematic illusion with reality nearly cost him his life.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Come Fly with Me

I’ve been doing a lot of flying lately. Which of course has made me contemplate the role played by air travel in the movies of the past—and the present. Back in the 1930s, the glamour of flight was highlighted in films both fluffy and serious. In the former category, there’s 1931’s Flying Down to Rio, the story of a dashing aviator who romances a Brazilian beauty. (The film marked the screen debut of the dance team of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, whose fleet-footed “Carioca” number shot them to stardom.) In 1939, Howard Hawks directed Only Angels Have Wings, a drama about flyboys who risk their lives to carry air freight out of a remote South American trading port.

War movies, of course, encouraged the notion of flyers as heroes. One of the most gripping air dramas to come out of World War II is Twelve O’Clock High (1949), about a bomber squadron and the new leader (Gregory Peck) who must whip his men into shape, then agonize over their survival. Twelve O’Clock High earned praise for its use of actual combat footage, as well as its honest treatment of what was then called “battle fatigue.” (Today, we know it as post-traumatic stress disorder.) Made by men who’d actually faced combat, Twelve O’Clock High stands out for its refusal to accept a glibly optimistic Hollywood ending.

In the post-war period, when air travel had become more commonplace for the average American, a commercial airplane flight proved to be an effective backdrop for an all-star melodrama. Such was 1954’s The High and the Mighty (with John Wayne et al), and the formula worked again in 1970’s Airport, in which such potential disasters as a bomber aboard a flight and an airport shut down by a snowstorm kept audiences on the edge of their seats. Ten years later Jim Abrahams and the Zucker brothers (along with my old pal Jon Davison) had audiences falling out of their seats with laughter when they launched Airplane!, a wicked spoof that still hits its mark. (Says the invaluable IMDB, “An airplane crew takes ill. Surely the only person capable of landing the plane is an ex-pilot afraid to fly. But don't call him Shirley.”)

For some of us, air travel now seems less romantic—and much less funny—than perhaps it once did. Back in 1967, Dustin Hoffman descending through the smog and then riding a moving sidewalk at LAX seemed an appropriate emblem of the dehumanized world into which The Graduate plunged its central character, home from college and about to re-enter his parents’ world. In 2009’s Up in the Air, George Clooney is so cut off from humanity that he’s happiest on a plane, racking up perks, frequent flyer miles, and the occasional meaningless amorous conquest.

It’s axiomatic that when airlines screen films, they avoid anything suggesting an air disaster. I rarely watch movies on planes, but on one long international flight, I was pleased to see that KLM was screening Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals. The one I caught was the rare Astaire-Rogers picture based on a true-life romance, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle. How surprised I was, high above the Atlantic in the wee hours of the morning, to catch the scene where Irene learns what just happened to Vernon’s plane. Ooops.

Do wish me bon voyage.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Full Monte, or Naked Under Feathers?

Monte Hellman’s got a new movie. Actually, his Road to Nowhere premiered at the Venice (Italy) Film Festival last September, and will open in L.A. and New York City in June. Hellman’s filmography is not long, but he’s been making his spare, enigmatic, but powerful little dramas since 1959, when (who else?) Roger Corman gave him his start. I interviewed Monte for my Roger Corman bio and found him to be reserved and pensive. He has, though, some terrific stories to tell. He filled me in on what it was like to shoot Beast from Haunted Cave back-to-back with Corman’s Ski Troop Attack in the Black Hills of South Dakota. It was the dead of winter, and Roger was aiming to keep the budgets at $50,000 or less. As a result, said Monte, “He told everyone in town that we were UCLA film students doing a student film, so we got hotel rooms for, I think, a dollar a night, but we had two people in a room so it was fifty cents a night per person, and we were shooting in ten below zero and he served salami sandwiches on plain white bread for lunch. I think if we’d just had a cup of soup. . . . Those kind of economies don’t pay off in the long run. You get a lot of bad will that’s generated.”

Having somehow survived Beast from Haunted Cave, Hellman went on to join forces with future Hollywood icon Jack Nicholson. With Corman’s backing the duo turned out two provocative westerns, The Shooting and Ride the Whirlwind (Nicholson wrote the screenplay for the latter). Then came the film most admired by Hellman fans, a 1971 cross-country drag-race odyssey called Two-Lane Blacktop. Three years later, Hellman was once again directing for Corman, who had optioned a Southern novel called Cockfighter. Roger, as I can attest, liked the thought of bringing to the screen the raw vigor of an outlaw sport. And he was convinced that the faint lewdness of the title would give Cockfighter added allure.

Despite impressively gritty work by Hellman and by veteran character actor Warren Oates, Cockfighter was one of Roger Corman’s rare miscalculations. He planned a world premiere screening in Atlanta, then discovered that most Georgians view cockfighting as an embarrassment. The public was staying away, so something drastic had to be done. Joe Dante, who was then a Corman editor, told me how Roger phoned him with a concrete plan of action: “We’re going to take the sex scenes from Private Duty Nurses, and we’re going to take the dynamite truck chase from Night Call Nurses, and we’re gonna cut ‘em all together in a one-minute montage. And I want you to cut it into the movie right when Warren Oates goes to bed and turns the lights out. And that will be a dream sequence. . . . Put all this stuff in the trailer, and now we’re going call it Born to Kill.” Later, we tried other titles, including Wild Drifter and Gamblin’ Man. But a rose (or a chicken) by any other name. . . .

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Lord Willing and the Creek Don't Rise

It’s tough to hear about flooding in the Mississippi Delta. First tornados, then floods: the weather reports sound like something out of a Biblical prophecy. Of what does the old Negro spiritual warn us? No more water; fire next time. That haunting phrase, based on the Book of Noah, can certainly make you stop and think.

But when I heard an NPR reporter mention Yazoo City, Mississippi, my mind wandered from the current crisis to my early days at Roger Corman’s New World Pictures. Though my chief duties were in story department (heck, along with Frances Doel I WAS the story department), I was also asked by Roger to help out with graphing the distribution of such classics as Night Call Nurses and Angels Hard as They Come. More often than not, our movies were booked into drive-ins in out-of-the-way burgs I wouldn’t much care to visit. But they had such wonderful names! I distinctly remember that Yazoo City was a popular venue for New World fare. My special favorite, though, was (as I remember it) the Dogwood Drive-In in Palestine, Texas.

The drive-ins were fading away even then, as the land they sat on became too valuable to devote to teenagers in parked cars. In their heyday, however, they set the scene for an unbeatably American combo: the romance of the automobile plus the romantic urges of horny young people, who could barely be bothered to look at the screen. But drive-ins were also frequented by large family groups on small budgets. Jody Armour is now a USC professor of law, but he recalls that in the Sixties, when money was tight, turning off the TV set and going on a family outing to a drive-in was a very big deal: “We’d think about it days ahead of time . . . . If you saw Planet of the Apes, one of the early movies I remember, that really lived with you. You went home and you dreamed about those huge apes that were 25 feet tall on that silver screen in the drive-in.”

In 1968, Roger Corman gave young Peter Bogdanovich a chance to direct a movie that would meld two days of work by horror star Boris Karloff with footage from Karloff’s vintage Corman film, The Terror. Bogdanovich and his multitalented wife Polly Platt dreamed up the notion of casting Karloff as an aging movie actor who is menaced by a sniper at a drive-in theater. It was a brilliant concept for a contemporary horror film, and Targets ended up launching both Bogdanovich and Platt on impressive careers. Three years later, the pair made The Last Picture Show. Apparently the Lord was willing, and both of their lives were changed forever.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Cannes Do

Another year, another Cannes Film Festival. This granddaddy (or grand-père, if you will) of film festivals dates back to 1946. Held in a resort town that hugs the French Riviera, it has always had a schizophrenic reputation. At Cannes, art meets commerce, and the glamour of Hollywood collides with anti-Hollywood sentiment. The dress code runs to similar extremes. For official screenings at the Palais, you won’t be admitted without a tuxedo (if you’re male) or a ball gown (if you’re female). A few paces down the Croisette, bare-breasted starlets sun themselves on the sand.

There are lots of ways to make an impression at Cannes. Throw a party on a yacht! Plaster your face on banners the size of buildings! Parade around town, as the wacky folks at Troma like to do, in weird get-ups! (They bring along honeydew melons for demonstrating head-crushing effects, and make sure their Toxic Avenger character comes to Cannes equipped with his own “Toxedo.”) Meanwhile, the film distribution people are too busy to have fun. They’re holed up in their hotel suites, desperately trying to play let’s-make-a-deal.

This year’s festival will include a new documentary, Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel. It chronicles Roger’s contribution to the film industry through interviews with many of his famous alumni. Director Alex Stapleton tells me my Corman biography was her inspiration. Though she interviewed me at length for her film, you won’t find me on screen. (More of that later.) Still, this is an exciting moment for a smart young filmmaker, and I certainly wish her well.

My favorite Cannes story comes from director Larry Peerce. Back in 1964, he made a gutsy little indie drama called One Potato, Two Potato, which explored in depth the fall-out from an interracial marriage. Hollywood, of course, wouldn’t touch it. (This was three years before Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner put an upbeat Technicolor gloss on the notion of a black-white courtship.) Desperate to sell his film, Peerce managed to pull some strings and get it into the main festival. He described for me what it’s like to have your movie in competition at Cannes: “You sit in a box – the filmmakers sit in a box – and at the end of the film they throw a spotlight on you, you stand up, and they give you whatever they feel they want to give you. If they don’t like you, it can be one of the most horrifying experiences of your life.”

The movie that preceded his was met with whistles and catcalls. One Potato, Two Potato was far luckier: when it reached its heartbreaking conclusion, the audience began to cheer. Next came a Palme d’Or nomination for Peerce, followed by lots of worldwide sales and an American distribution deal. Ultimately, the film’s screenplay was nominated for an Oscar. Not bad for a little movie that had to go to France to be discovered by American audiences.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Mama's Boy

We just lost Jackie Cooper, the foremost child star of his era. Back in 1931, he became the youngest best actor Oscar nominee of all time, for his leading role in a weepie boy-and-his-dog saga called Skippy. He was all of nine years old. Much admired for his ability to cry on cue, young Jackie was able to tap into the tough circumstances of his own upbringing: a father who went out for cigarettes and never returned; a financially strapped mother who toured in vaudeville, parking him with a grandmother who scrounged for work as an extra. In the Depression era, when he was known as “America’s Boy,” he made big bucks and hobnobbed with celebrities. But he never got over the loss of his childhood. Predictably, he grew into a rocky adult life, marked by booze, bankruptcies, fast cars, faster women. He got through it somehow, and ultimately found his niche on television, both as an actor in light comedies and as an Emmy-winning director.

Cooper’s trajectory makes me think of another celebrated child actor, little Ronny Howard. The adorable redhead began acting at four, and entered American living rooms at five, as Opie Taylor on a sitcom classic, The Andy Griffith Show. (During his summer hiatus, he co-starred in popular movies like The Music Man and The Courtship of Eddie’s Father.) When he and his TV dad, Sheriff Andy Taylor, strolled down to the fishing hole for the last time, Ronny was fourteen years old, and quickly outgrowing his days as a cute kid. Like Jackie Cooper, he was entering the awkward fraternity of over-the-hill child actors. Happily, Ronny Howard had much to fall back on. His parents, actors Rance Howard and Jean Speegle Howard, had raised him to be both a thoroughgoing professional in front of the cameras and a real boy at home. Rance, who regularly accompanied him to the set, made sure that he behaved himself and that he was never given special treatment. Jean, a stalwart PTA mom, oversaw the home front, providing Ronny and younger brother Clint with another kind of Mayberry experience in workaday Burbank, California.

Sadly, Jean Howard, who had overcome a devastating accident as a young woman, succumbed to heart disease at the age of seventy-two. But she lived long enough to see Ronny evolve into the very grown-up Ron Howard: a loyal husband, a devoted father of four, and a major Hollywood director. Paying tribute to Jean’s fight for life, Ron told a reporter in 1999, “A lot of that drive and ambition I have, it turns out, comes from my mother.” She may have taught him ambition, but she also taught him what really counts. When asked which of his many achievements she admired the most, she always said, “My grandchildren.”

Ron’s mother is no longer with him. Fortunately for me, mine is alive and well. Happy Mother’s Day, Mom!

Thursday, May 5, 2011

A Helluva Town

In the 1949 musical On the Town, three sailors on shore leave have a mere twenty-four hours to explore New York City. Lucky me: I’ve just spent five whole days satisfying my jones for New York. The occasion was the annual conference of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, a group of smart and lively people dedicated to actually making a living from their writing skills. (Imagine that!) Though I was at ASJA to conduct a serious workshop on interviewing techniques, my movie memories of New York quickly kicked in, making me want to dance down the street like Gene Kelly in a sailor suit.

In many of my favorite movies, New York is all about romance. Think of Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr arranging a tryst at the top of the Empire State Building in An Affair to Remember. Think of Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra meeting their dates high above it all in On the Town. Think of Pillow Talk, of Sex and the City. And – yes, of course – think of Woody Allen, whose best New York movies shimmer with love and lust. I can’t forget the gorgeous city montage that opens Manhattan, accompanied by the plaintive clarinet of "Rhapsody in Blue" and by Allen’s own voiceover: “To him . . . this was still a town that existed in black and white, and pulsated to the great tunes of George Gershwin.”

On Sunday, I took the subway to Brooklyn, which has less of a distinctive movie personality than its skyscraping neighbor borough. There’s the down-and-dirty Brooklyn of Spike Lee (for whom She’s Gotta Have It is something of a home movie), but I chose to explore Brooklyn Heights, a collection of historic rowhouses that gaze lovingly at the Manhattan towers across the water. I’m told Moonstruck was filmed in Brooklyn Heights, though how bakers and deli owners could afford such pricey real estate I can’t imagine.

Late Sunday evening, as I was packing to fly home, I got word of the slaying of Osama bin Laden. Which, in retrospect, made my visit to Brooklyn Heights all the more poignant. Strolling the esplanade that skirts the bluffs, I’d seen graphic reminders of the view that once was, with the twin towers of the World Trade Center looming proudly above the rest of Lower Manhattan. Because of bin Laden and his fellow ideologues, that view was gone forever, and with it a good slice of New York’s finest. What came to mind, suddenly, was the last shot of Munich, hardly Steven Spielberg’s best work, but still a film trying hard to tackle disturbing issues of hatred and revenge. The glimpse in the film’s final moment of the Manhattan skyline – complete with Twin Towers -- from a Brooklyn vantage point was to me a stunning reminder of the way that violence begets violence. The news of bin Laden’s death reinforced Spielberg’s implicit question: now what?

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Osama bin Laden: Ready for his Close-Up?

It’s official. Osama bin Laden--scourge of the American people, mastermind of the 9/11 plot that killed thousands of innocents--has been taken down in a daring commando raid. Already I suspect the wheels are turning in Roger Corman’s brain.

All of Hollywood, of course, loves topical movies. Savvy executives know that projects that capture the moment will probably capture the box office. Lucky indeed are the filmmakers, like Kathryn Bigelow (of The Hurt Locker) and Oliver Stone (of Platoon) who currently happen to be prepping thrillers about the tracking down of Al Qaeda’s #1 terrorist. And development execs throughout Tinseltown are probably leafing through their slushpiles at this very moment, frantically searching out special ops action-adventure scripts that can be adapted to reflect today’s headlines.

The trend toward turning current events into movies is hardly a new one. During World War II, big Allied victories were splashed across movie screens in quickie dramas like RKO’s Back to Bataan (1945). These projects were known by theater-owners as “exploitation films,” not because they were lurid but because they took advantage of the big events of the day. Roger Corman, whose own career began in 1954, has always been a master at seizing on subjects that people are talking about. On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first man-made satellite to orbit the earth. A mere three weeks later, Roger and company wrapped War of the Satellites, a rather preposterous science-fiction drama designed to cash in on young people’s new fascination with outer space. Within three months, it was on movie screens throughout the U.S.A.

While I was Roger Corman’s story editor, I saw something of the same seize-the-day mentality at work. Circa 1990, when a deposed Panamanian dictator named General Manuel Noriega suddenly escaped from his American captors, Corman sprang into action. He summoned one of Concorde’s most experienced writers, Thomas McKelvey Cleaver, and gave him until the following Monday to crank out The Hunt for Noriega. Though we were on the brink of the 4th of July weekend, Roger would not consider slowing his pace. He instructed Tom to cancel any holiday festivities, in order to spend the entire weekend at his typewriter. Then, after a pause, Roger relented just a bit: “All right, you can light one sparkler.”

A day later, though, the deal got canceled. Noriega had been found, thus ruining Roger’s plan to capture a hot topic on film before anyone else. Today, the industry has changed so much that getting a movie into U.S. theaters is no longer part of the Corman calculation. One thing’s for sure, though: the ending of The Hunt for Osama bin Laden has already been written.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Fast, Cheap, and Furious

You can’t copyright a title. So Universal Pictures, which has just released Fast Five, one more entry in its lucrative car-racing franchise, didn’t have to ask Roger Corman for permission when it made The Fast and the Furious in 2001. Roger’s own The Fast and the Furious dates all the way back to 1954. This 73-minute race-car drama—shot in nine days on a $50,000 budget—was the twenty-eight-year-old Corman’s second film as a producer. It also marked Corman’s first opportunity to step behind the camera himself, when for one climactic sequence he served as a second-unit director. He filled in as a stunt driver too, later telling journalist Ed Naha that he had ruined one take by failing to let the hero pass him in a key racing sequence. Said Roger, “I got so excited about driving a real race car that I drove to win the race.”

As Roger’s filmmaking career gained traction, his passion for speed did not abate. Though notoriously frugal in most respects, he sometimes treated himself to sports cars, even (briefly) a Lotus. Cheapie director Jim Wynorski, who started as New World Pictures’ head of advertising, once told me a revealing story about Corman’s car mania. It seems Roger was driving a Los Angeles freeway, with Wynorski as his passenger, when somebody cut them off: “I remember going down the 10 Freeway, with him hitting 80, 90 [miles per hour], trying to beat this guy to the exit who had cut him off. He was living Eat My Dust for real. And I thought, ‘There’s a reason he made all those car movies. He likes cars. He likes fast cars.’” Wynorski wasn’t worried, though, about his own safety: “For some reason, I felt the Roger Corman angels were hovering over that car.”

But the Roger Corman angels have their limits. Former Corman assistant Anna Roth (now the author Anna Hays) remembers her very first day on the job, when Corman ran out of gas in Beverly Hills’ Benedict Canyon and she (then a newcomer to Los Angeles) had to quickly track him down. Remarkably, he had called her at the office because he didn’t know his own home telephone number. Roth finds it disconcerting that “he wasn’t aware of his gas gauge or his home number or even his home address. At the same time, he was very detail-oriented and very precise.” Once, writing with a pencil stub on a tiny scrap of paper, he showed her the formula by which he worked out his video contracts, using pre-sales to guarantee $250,000 in profit before each film was even in the can.

If Roger’s behavior contains contradictions, so does his choice of vehicles. In my day, he mostly drove a large black Mercedes. But you might also see him tooling around town in one of the fleet of cut-rate picture cars on which a Concorde minion had gotten a good deal: a not-fast, not-furious Chevy Caprice Classic.