Monday, August 29, 2011

Nellie Oleson: Prairie Bitch with a Mission

Jon Provost, like Ron Howard, grew up on television. As the human star of the Lassie series from age 7 to 14, the tow-headed youngster entered the fabric of American daily life. He explained to me a few years back, “When you’re in somebody’s living room, you become part of their family, and when they meet you they subconsciously think they know you.”

To have an intimate connection with the American public can be both a blessing and a curse. Provost understood how his TV persona could help people in need: “I’ve had over the years many fans say that they were growing up in an abusive household or something like that, and they would use Lassie as a means of escape, to help them get through some hard times.” Provost also learned, though, that being reared on a TV show can present interesting challenges, and that stardom at an early age can lead to unrealistic expectations.

Two recent show biz memoirs vividly cover this terrain. Both were written by women who, as girls, were regular fixtures on family-friendly TV series. Lessons from the Mountain: What I Learned from Erin Walton (Kensington Books) is Mary McDonough’s account of the years she spent playing the middle daughter on The Waltons. Alison Arngrim’s Confessions of a Prairie Bitch: How I Survived Nellie Oleson and Learned to Love Being Hated is the rollicking saga of Arngrim’s years as the resident Mean Girl who tormented Laura Ingalls on Little House on the Prairie. Arngrim’s memoir, a hit in hardcover, is newly out in paperback from HarperCollins.

McDonough, a shy and obedient child, clearly had a lovely time on Walton’s Mountain. Her challenge came later, when she needed to move on. Her poor body-image, combined with a yen to make her way into grown-up roles, led her to opt for breast implant surgery, with disastrous medical consequences. Her book traces her evolution from a victim into an activist, whose outspoken concern with women’s health issues even took her into the halls of Congress.

Arngrim, who weathered years of being reviled by the public as nasty Nellie, offers a more colorful tale, full of fascinating contradictions. Her series was child-friendly in the extreme, but on the set the adult world intruded (alcohol consumption was rife; bare-chested crew members ogled her developing body; star Michael Landon—whose roguish charm she adored—favored tight jeans and no underwear). And the difference between the uncomplicated world of Little House on the Prairie and her own tangled homelife (involving a gay father, an oblivious mother, and a drug-addled, abusive brother) was even more dramatic.

Arngrim learned to use her notoriety to shine a light on the sexual abuse of children. She has gotten involved in fighting AIDS too, and the end of her book is a detailed list of resources for those in need. Though her memoir pulls no punches, her ability to be gossipy and funny (she’s become a popular stand-up) made me sorry to see it end.

Years ago I spent the evening with two doting parents whose adorable six-year-old had just landed the lead in an ultraviolent supernatural thriller. The parents, deeply religious, were convinced that this film role was a heaven-sent mission, enabling their daughter to serve as a force of good for all mankind. I was skeptical then, and still am—but it’s also clear that a young actor who’s spent half a lifetime in our nation’s homes and hearts can use her fame to make the world a (slightly) better place.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Louisa May Alcott: An American Idol Plays the Fame Game

In the mid-nineteenth century, Louisa May Alcott was a rock star. With the publication of Little Women in 1868, she became the idol of American girls, and one of the young nation’s major literary lights. In fact it was her runaway success with Little Women that led the publisher of humorist Mark Twain to suggest he try writing a book for boys. The result was The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), followed shortly thereafter by The Prince and the Pauper and, ultimately, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885).

Mark Twain seemed to enjoy his celebrity. Louisa May Alcott emphatically did not. Harriet Reisen’s entrancing biography, Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women, makes clear that Alcott was highly uneasy with her newfound fame. Though Alcott in real life had the spunk we expect of the indelible character she based on herself—Little Women’s Jo March—she did not enjoy public attention. Her much-circulated photograph made her instantly recognizable; Reisen notes that “everywhere she went she was pursued by mobs of Jo-worshippers.” At a time when celebrity culture was a brand-new phenomenon, it would never have occurred to her to hire a handler to stave off unwanted intrusions. When fans made their way to the Alcott family home in Concord, Massachusetts, expecting to be invited in for a cozy chat, Louisa’s love of amateur theatricals stood her in good stead. Reisen tells us that, “costumed in apron and cap, and armed with the feather duster prop she had handy by the door, she played her own maid. Opening the door a crack, she would shake the feather duster in the face of the would-be intruder, announce indignantly that Miss Alcott was not at home, and slam the door.”

I’m fascinated by this tidbit because fame is such an obvious component of today’s Hollywood. As every viewer of American Idol knows, careers are made by whipping up fan enthusiasm. For a Hollywood aspirant, it’s essential to have a publicity team that can generate the right kind of attention, and then protect the client when the buzz gets out of hand. But I’ve talked to many celebrities (Gwyneth Paltrow, for one) who sound slightly amazed that the pursuit of a serious acting career can lead one to suddenly become a paparazzi magnet.

The subjects of my two biographies, Roger Corman and Ron Howard, have had very mixed feelings about their own celebrity. Corman, in the words of a longtime associate, is “a very private person, who also has a tremendous ego, and loves publicity.” Though he lets no one get too close to the real Roger, he’s a master at attracting media attention. For years, with the help of a canny publicist, he’s been planting bogus items in the trades. I know, because I once personally invented some outrageous items, like the “fact” that Roger had just signed Orson Welles to star in a screen version of Herman Melville’s The Confidence Man. (I chose this title as an English major in-joke, because this novel is absolutely unfilmable.) Today, on the strength of such Syfy hits as Sharktopus as well as Alex Stapleton’s new Corman’s World documentary, the press is beating a path to Roger’s door—and he knows exactly how to turn on the charm.

Ron Howard, a shy boy despite a show-biz childhood, chose to become a director partly to remove himself from the public eye. In the Happy Days period, he survived life as a teen idol. Today, no longer Opie or Richie, he thrives on being in charge, while mostly staying behind the scenes.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The (Unlikely) Candidate, and How He Grew

Did you hear the one about the gay Jewish Republican? He’s campaigning for his party’s nomination to face off against President Obama in 2012. Not that Fred Karger is naïve enough to think he’ll get the nod. A long-time political strategist who has worked on the presidential campaigns of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, he knows a few things about electability. Rather, his run for office is a quixotic gesture, aimed at showing other homosexuals that it’s okay to aim high.

For me the highlight of the recent Los Angeles Times piece on Karger is a brief reference to his boyhood. It seems he loved TV’s The Rifleman, not so much for the story of homesteader Lucas McCain as because the role was played by the buff and square-jawed Chuck Connors. Karger admits now, “I had a crush.” It was the first time he realized he was not like the other boys on the block.

This anecdote fascinates me because so many gay men to whom I’ve spoken have had a similar experience. There’s something about movie and television heroes that encourages young boys to uncover the truth about their sexuality. Take Marcus Mabry, now editor-at-large for the New York Times. Marcus acknowledged his sexual orientation at age nine when he went to see Star Wars and fell madly in love with Luke Skywalker. In hindsight, he recalls that “I had a crush on my best friend Billy Ireland in first grade. I was six years old then. Three years earlier than Star Wars. So I had that feeling. But Billy—I could erase that, because I didn’t know what it was, and I was a cute little kid . . . .It wasn’t possible to deny it after Star Wars. I never thought about that before, but it’s true.”

Anthropology lecturer Matthew Kennedy told me a similar tale. As a pre-teen, watching movies at the old Cascade Theater in Redding, California, he was introduced to his innermost urges by Planet of the Apes (the scene with Charlton Heston and his fellow astronauts skinny-dipping) and—curiously—by the lush Franco Zeffirelli version of Romeo and Juliet. The latter film, so irresistible to courting couples in 1968, of course chronicles a passion that’s strictly heterosexual. But what enthralled Kennedy was the alluring camera-pan down Leonard Whiting’s nude bottom the morning after the young couple’s secret wedding night.

William J. Mann, author of such controversial biographies as Kate: The Woman Who Was Hepburn, knew he was gay from an early age. His sense of his own difference from other family members gave him a love-hate relationship with Hollywood, where “the default position . . . is always you get married and live happily ever after.” That’s why he gravitated toward The Dirty Dozen and other male-bonding films, which seemed to prove that a world without women was possible: “Wow, I could be with my friends, and it could be good.’ At the same time, he found himself wanting to grow up to be Mary Tyler Moore. What he envied about Moore’s TV life was its sense of familial relationships, but with a difference: “The family was not the family that television had portrayed up until then, the mother and father, and the children and the neighbors. . . . It was a created family; it was a non-biological family.”

TV and movies offer fantasies that are larger than life. It’s not only gays who find in them the fulfillment of dreams they can barely admit even to themselves.

Friday, August 19, 2011

New World’s Poster Girls: Hot Flesh, Cold Steel

So—if you shell out the big bucks, you too can now have a Big Bad Mama poster of your very own. I would never have thought, when I went to work for Roger Corman, that the wall decorations I used to see daily would someday be prized as collector’s items.

Picture me, newly sprung from a UCLA PhD program, coming to work at New World Pictures in 1973. The wall art, for a sheltered soul like me, was mesmerizing. Like, for instance, the poster for The Young Nurses, which featured the photographed heads and upper torsos of four alluring young women, apparently bare but grouped so that nothing too indecent was visible. Near each figure was a suggestive quote: “In this hospital the patients come first!” “Doctor, I thought you were only going to give me an injection!” A poster on another wall proclaimed that “it’s always harder at night for the Night Call Nurses.” But all this was tame compared to the lurid images and breathless prose to be found on New World’s women-in-prison posters. Surrounding a skillfully erotic painting of buxom babes writhing in their shackles would be several lines of screaming text: WOMEN SO HOT WITH DESIRE THEY MELT THE CHAINS THAT ENSLAVE THEM! . . . MEN WHO ARE ONLY HALF MEN AND WOMEN WHO ARE MORE THAN ALL WOMAN!

Marketing was not part of my job description, but at New World Pictures you ended up doing it all. So I played a modest role in hyping films like Cockfighter, Death Race 2000, and Jonathan Demme’s directorial debut, Caged Heat (WHITE HOT DESIRES MELTING COLD PRISON STEEL!). No matter what the film’s actual subject, the posters favored cars, guns, and skin. Ideally, as in the case of the poster for female blaxploitation flick TNT Jackson, the three came together in an image that was brassy and bodacious, with a strong appeal to the male of the species.

New World’s posters were so over-the-top that when I learned we were going to be distributing Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers, my first concern was that an in-house marketing campaign would undercut the dignity of this magnificent movie. But Frank Moreno, Roger’s head of sales and a man prescient enough to realize that we could reap hard American cash from a Swedish art film, soon put my mind at ease. As he’d promised, Cries and Whispers was treated with loving respect: a professional ad agency came aboard to design a poster that was both highly dramatic and a model of good taste.

No discussion of New World posters is complete without mention of the works that graced Roger’s own office walls. In his personal lair you would find large and rather battered placards given to him by a French producer after the 1968 student revolts in Paris. They were emblazoned with revolutionary slogans like «Salaires Légères, Chars Lourds» (“Light Salaries, Heavy Tanks”) and «Le Patron a Besoin de Toi, Tu n’as pas Besoin de Lui» (“The Boss Needs You, You Don’t Need the Boss”). These sentiments may have been fitting when Corman took on the Establishment with The Wild Angels back in 1966. But they always seemed to me oddly out of place as décor for a rising film producer known for his skinflint ways.

(This post is dedicated to Susan Henry, who egged me on, and to Brian Bankston, who gives his own loving spin to a discussion of poster art on his Cool Ass Cinema site. Part 2 surveys Roger Corman’s monster movie period, and Part 3 includes his Poe films. Brian promises that there’s much more to come.)

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Guard: When Irish Eyes Aren’t Smiling

Sgt. Gerry Boyle, played by Brendan Gleeson in John Michael McDonagh’s The Guard, is one of the most original characters I’ve met in a long time. Boyle is a walking, talking oxymoron: he’s laconic and obscenely garrulous, curmudgeonly and tender, lazy and vigorous, corrupt and idealistic. A heavy-set, jowly man, he gives the impression of being a not-so-bright hick, but he digs the jazz of Chet Baker and can talk knowledgeably about Dostoevsky. In short, he’s as complex as any real human being. Though the movie built around him may be low-budget and short on major plot twists, it left me with a smile on my face. And a lot to ponder.

In part The Guard falls into the familiar buddy-film subgenre of Hollywood cop movies. Because Boyle must reluctantly take on as his partner in crime-fighting an African-American FBI agent played by Don Cheadle, I found myself thinking back to the classic odd-couple relationship of Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier in 1967’s In the Heat of the Night. Released smack in the middle of the Civil Rights era, In the Heat of the Night focused far less on the solving of a crime than on a small Southern town learning to address its racial attitudes. When Sheriff Gillespie (Steiger) first encounters Virgil Tibbs (Poitier) late at night in the local train station, his first act is to arrest this well-dressed, well-heeled black man for robbery and murder. Tibbs, of course, turns out to be a Philadelphia detective, far smarter than anyone else in Sparta, Mississippi. By the end of the film, Tibbs has upended the stereotypes about him and his ilk. He has solved the murder, and elicited from Sheriff Gillespie, a grudging respect culminating in a solemn hand-shake before Tibbs leaves town.

The Guard plays on this situation, and to some extent reverses it. Boyle greets Cheadle’s Wendell Everett with expectations that come straight out of American crime movies, assuming that as a black man he grew up in “the projects” and flirted with a life of crime. (In fact, Everett turns out to be a straight-arrow who went from prep school to Yale.) When chided for his outrageously racist remarks, Boyle shrugs, “I’m Irish. Racism is part of my culture.” But in fact Agent Everett is just as guilty of jumping to conclusions: it takes him most of the movie to accept that this Irish rube knows his stuff.

Ultimately, the whole thrust of the film confirms the extent to which everyone relies on stereotypes. Englishmen, big-city Dubliners, Eastern European immigrants, gays, drug-dealers, cops: all are pigeon-holed by characters too locked into their own prejudices to see that reality defies the easy assumption. The same goes for the Irish view of Americans. For the citizens of Galway, American life is just like the movies, and the question of what Billy Joe McAlester threw off the Tallahatchie Bridge is a matter worthy of serious discussion. Such is the deadpan humor of a film in which we learn, via a casual aside, that the FBI’s Everett has named his young sons Stokely (as in Carmichael) and Huey (as in Newton).

The Irish lads behind this film hardly lack for an antic disposition. The Guard’s blend of serious action, offbeat humor, and philosophical heft were for me a delight. If everyone’s Galway accent had been a wee bit less opaque, it would have been a truly grand night at the movies.

WORTH READING: Stephen Farber’s piece in praise of “middlebrow” movies in Sunday’s Los Angeles Times. Any thoughts on that? I remember the same attitude prevailing back in the Sixties. I didn’t see In the Heat of the Night for many years, because Pauline Kael and her ilk made it sound overly middlebrow. In that era, I considered myself an intellectual. That was before my Roger Corman years, needless to say.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Bryce Dallas Howard: Helping Out in the Family Business

Seems like Bryce Dallas Howard was destined to be a show biz kid. She was conceived while her parents, director Ron Howard and wife Cheryl, were on location in Texas, shooting a TV movie called Skyward. (Her middle name pays tribute to the city where sperm met egg.) Bryce’s paternal grandparents were actors; her father, of course, had been a child TV star, as had Uncle Clint (Gentle Ben). So it’s no great shock to see Bryce featured in a mainstream movie like The Help, based on Kathryn Stockett’s bestselling novel. Perhaps the only surprise is that she plays the villain of the piece, genteel racist Hilly Holbrook. This is quite a departure from her father’s good-boy appearances as Opie Taylor and Richie Cunningham.

If you’d thought Ron Howard wanted his little girl to follow the family tradition, you’d be (pretty much) wrong. When two-year-old Bryce was running around the set of Splash yelling “Action!” and “Cut, please,” he told reporters he’d let his daughter choose her own path when the time came. Later, as the family expanded, he said he’d discourage his kids from entering the business as children, “but if I saw that it was their burning desire to try this, then I would do everything I could to help them become good.” Still, he warned that any offspring of his who took up acting would have to face unfortunate comparisons with little Ronny Howard.

A desire to raise his children far from the lures of Hollywood was one reason behind the family’s move to sedate Greenwich, Connecticut. As the four Howard youngsters entered their teens and showed definite signs of being stagestruck, Howard turned emphatic: “I wouldn’t allow them to be kid actors, knowing what I know.” His veto quickly became a bone of contention in the Howard household: “They’re all mad because I won’t let them go on auditions.”

Bryce, in particular, seemed determined to start on an acting career. As high school graduation neared, I’m told she was pouting aloud about Howard’s insistence that she go to college, instead of immediately pursuing her dream. But she enrolled in NYU’s prestigious Tisch School of the Arts, and got a thorough grounding in stagecraft. By the time her big break came, she was ready.

It didn’t happen immediately. A studio executive told me she’d auditioned for 2003’s Mona Lisa Smile, in which Julia Roberts played an unconventional teacher at an all-female college. Bryce didn’t land a part (among those who did were Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, and Maggie Gyllenhaal), but when the exec praised her acting chops to Ron and Cheryl Howard at an industry cocktail party, they glowed with pride, just like any other set of doting parents. Remarkably, Bryce’s first leading role didn’t trade on her family connections. M. Night Shyamalan saw her in an Off-Broadway production of a Shakespearean comedy, then cast her as the blind waif at the center of The Village. She survived that outrageously contrived movie (and also Shyamalan’s Lady in the Water) with her dignity intact, then went on to do art films for everyone from Lars von Trier (Manderlay) to Kenneth Branagh (As You Like It) to Clint Eastwood (Hereafter). For a change of pace, she’s played Gwen Stacy in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3. She’s also been busy of late with writing, directing, producing, and (oh yes), motherhood. So perhaps one day–if there are no parental objections—we’ll see a fourth generation of actors in the Howard family.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Topkapi: Does Crime Pay?

So D.B. Cooper is back in the news. Forty years ago, a well-dressed man hijacked a Boeing 727, extorted $200, 000 in ransom money, then parachuted into uncharted terrain, never to be seen again. Last week’s newspapers contained fresh speculation as to his true identity, but the mystery of D.B. Cooper remains intact. The question is: why has D.B. Cooper become a folk hero? Why do we cheer for rogues who take what doesn’t belong to them, and get away with it?

For an easy-on-the-brain summer treat, I just saw Topkapi, 1964’s comic gem about a gang of thieves bent on spiriting an emerald-encrusted dagger out of a Turkish museum. Topkapi was directed by Jules Dassin, who in Rififi (1955) had given us a dead-serious take on a jewel heist. Here Dassin is in a more light-hearted mood, reveling in the exotic beauty of Istanbul and in the vivid eccentricities of his actors. These include the smooth-as-silk Maximilian Schell and the plump, dotty Robert Morley, along with Dassin’s own wife, Melina Mercouri of Never on Sunday fame. Her eyes sparkling with mischief, her voice a rusty purr, her laugh (an important plot element) throaty and infectious, she is a creature to love, but not to trust. When the film was released, most kudos went to Peter Ustinov, whose portrayal of a “schmo” with a fear of heights won him an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. I was also fascinated by Gilles Ségal as an aerialist whose ability to do remarkable things while hanging upside down is the key to the theft.

I won’t spoil the ending, but it strikes me that there are two kinds of heist movies: those in which the rogues make off with their ill-gotten gains and those in which (despite all the planning, all the scheming) the theft goes awry at the very last second. We love heist movies partly because of the ingenuity of their plotting. I think we love them too because, in a world where mediocrity abounds, it’s a pleasure to observe true expertise: the nimble-fingered safecracker, the mechanical genius, the chameleon who can impersonate anyone. And, of course, there’s the lovely fantasy of getting rich the easy way (though it never turns out to be so easy in the end).

Why don’t we resent characters who simply take what they want, instead of struggling like the rest of us working stiffs? Because, secretly, we’d like to do the same. And many heist-type films stack the deck by making the crime seem victimless. We’re not terribly bothered if a bank or a big Vegas casino gets ripped off. In The Sting, the guy who gets fleeced is so despicable that we’re free to regard the con-men played by Newman and Redford as heroes. Sometimes the thieves and con artists appear to be righting a wrong, so that robbing the rich becomes an essentially virtuous act.

I have a soft spot for William Wyler’s sparkling How to Steal a Million, in which Audrey Hepburn must break into a museum to steal a statue her family already owns. Here we don’t need to feel the slightest moral qualm: Hepburn turns thief not to amass riches but rather to save her father’s reputation. How nice that along the way she finds love. This is one film (among many) in which crime definitely does pay, and the audience is the big winner.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Planet of the Apes: How the Monkeys Saved Fox

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is here. Its arrival marks yet one more opportunity for Twentieth Century Fox to cash in on a series that’s been a bonanza since 1968. In that year the original Planet of the Apes became an unexpected Fox hit. Producer Arthur Jacobs was supposed to strike it rich for Fox with Doctor Dolittle, a big-budget musical confection trying to blend the whimsy of Mary Poppins with the wit and post-Victorian elegance of My Fair Lady. Hoping to please the entire family, Fox spent $18 million (a huge sum in those days) on Doctor Dolittle, then advertised it grandiloquently as “Twentieth Century-Fox’s Christmas Present to the World.”

Only one problem: this movie featuring talking animals and singing humans (Rex Harrison among them) was a true Christmas turkey. That didn’t stop it from being nominated for a Best Picture Oscar (along with Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, In the Heat of the Night, Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate). Veteran producer Mike Medavoy (Black Swan), upon being reminded that Doctor Dolittle was up for Best Picture in a very strong year, quipped to me that “this tells you a lot” about the way the industry operates. In 1968, Fox’s award-season strategy was both simple and effective. It involved seven plush screenings of the film to accommodate members of Hollywood’s craft branches, each kicking off with champagne or cocktails, and then a buffet supper in the studio commissary.

Nine nominations notwithstanding, Fox made no money on Doctor Dolittle. But the following year, Arthur Jacobs moved from Dolittle’s sausage-cooking chimpanzee to a screenfull of talking apes, and hit the jackpot. The tale of American astronauts stranded on a distant planet where humans are subjugated by gorillas and orangutans struck a nerve in audiences already made anxious by wars, assassinations, and other man-made disasters. The surprise ending had particular impact. Who can forget that half-submerged Statue of Liberty? Writer-producer J. J. Abrams (Lost), when asked about his favorite plot twist of all time, cited the climax of Planet of the Apes, “when you realize, ‘Oh my God, he’s never getting home because that is home.’”

Planet of the Apes was also viewed in the Sixties as an allegorical look at the rising tension between the races. This was hardly intended. In 1968, when Sammy Davis Jr. enthused that Planet of the Apes was the best film he had ever seen about black/white relations, Jacobs had no idea what he was talking about. Davis’s comment was later relayed to Eric Greene, who was then researching his Planet of the Apes as American Myth (1996). Years before, at age five, Greene himself had seen a Planet of the Apes movie, and had quickly become a devotee of the entire series. Greene didn’t understand back then why he was drawn to the Apes films. But as a child of mixed racial heritage he felt a special bond to these stories that so poignantly investigated racial “otherness.”

Planet of the Apes was a movie in which the once-mighty white race had become a subject population. In this dystopian vision of the future, white men are slaves. As for white women, they’re either dead (the female astronaut who never makes it to the planet) or dumb (Linda Hamilton, beautiful but unable to speak).In those circumstances, being a monkey’s uncle—or aunt—sounds pretty good to me.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Michael Cacoyannis and Zorba the Greek: Shall We Dance?

Michael Cacoyannis? Not a name most people know. Zorba the Greek? Mention this title, and I feel like dancing. I suspect I’m not alone.

When I learned last week that Cacoyannis had died at the age of ninety, my thoughts immediately turned to the 1964 film that gave Anthony Quinn his last Oscar nomination. Quinn, the Irish-Mexican actor who grew up in the barrios of East L.A., played characters of many ethnicities, but found his signature role in Alexis Zorba, the part-time handyman/full-time life force who teaches repressed Englishman Alan Bates to celebrate the joy of being alive. On the beaches of Crete, Zorba sounds his barbaric yawp (to use an appropriately Whitmanesque phrase), staving off death, grief, and failure by lifting his arms skyward and dancing out his pagan emotions.

The film, based on the novel by perennial Nobel Prize runner-up Nikos Kazantzakis, was brilliantly filmed by Cacoyannis, who tightened the story, choreographed its dramatic moments for maximum impact, and brought to the screen the austere beauty of Crete’s landscape and its people. A huge international hit, it was nominated for seven Oscars (including best picture) and won three. The big winner that year was My Fair Lady, and the contrast between the glossy Technicolor musical and the small black-and-white art film could not have been more striking. Every young person I knew would have given the nod to Zorba the Greek, which we adopted as a statement of the kind of adult life we all wanted to live. Listen to Zorba summing up the young Englishman’s character: “You’ve got everything except one thing: madness! A man needs a little madness, or else . . . he never dares cut the rope and be free.”

We of the Baby Boom generation, who were quickly approaching adulthood in 1964, yearned to be free. We wanted political freedom, intellectual freedom, sexual freedom. In 1964, some of us were traveling to the Deep South as Freedom Riders, trying to extend the freedom of the voting booth to those who’d been denied it for generations. Many of us would soon be marching in the streets in defiance of the military that was sending young American men to fight and die in Vietnam. The advent of birth control pill was changing the way we viewed our bodies. Not all of us were activists, but at least we could dance. And dance we did. Zorba the Greek launched a national movement that saw folk dance clubs spring up across America. There, to the lilt of bouzouki music—the kind we knew and loved from Mikis Theodorakis’s Zorba the Greek score—we could leap and sway and sweat, dancing out our youthful hopes for the future.

Michael Cacoyannis made films other than Zorba the Greek, fifteen in all. Two years before Zorba, I’d been galvanized by his Greek-language adaptation of Euripides’ classic tragedy, Electra, starring the soulful Irene Papas. It is visually arresting, using silence as powerfully as any movie I know. Cacoyannis was also gutsy enough to bring Greek tragedy to the American screen, by starring Katharine Hepburn, Vanessa Redgrave, Genevieve Bujold, and Papas in The Trojan Women. I remember this as an unsparing rendition of the ancient tragedy, in which the defeated women of Troy lament the loss of their husbands, lovers, and sons. An impeccable film, but not fun to watch: I badly missed the exuberance of Zorba. Today I salute him and Cacoyannis: Opa!