Monday, December 31, 2012

Year’s End: The Legends We Lost in 2012

The end of a year tends to make everyone nostalgic. And, at times, melancholy. I felt sadness wash over me recently while dining in a neighborhood bistro that uses Hollywood classics as a sort of moving wallpaper. While munching on ahi tuna, I kept feeling my eyes drawn to the big rear wall where the 1947 version of Miracle on 34th Street was silently unfolding. This whimsical story of a department store Santa Claus should have seemed festive. But in watching jolly Edmund Gwenn, crotchety William Frawley, stalwart John Payne, and (especially) the beautiful nine-year-old Natalie Wood, I couldn’t help remembering that all have left us. (Blessedly, Maureen O’Hara is still around, having lived to the ripe old age of 92.)

At year’s end, magazines and TV programs all trot out their memorial tributes. One of the most moving, from TCM, salutes film people who passed away in 2012. Here are just a few: Japan’s Isuzu Yamada, a favorite of director Akira Kurosawa, was the spookiest Lady Macbeth ever, in Throne of Blood. When I did a serious phone interview with Phyllis Diller, she blew me away with the unexpected announcement that she was a great cook. Surprise!

Then there were the two wonderful character actors we lost on Christmas Eve, Jack Klugman and Charles Durning. Both had an Everyman quality that made them instantly believable in a wide range of roles. Klugman was a household favorite when I was growing up, both for his role as the slovenly half of TV’s The Odd Couple series and for playing a rough-hewn but dogged medical examiner on Quincy, M.E. Though Klugman is less associated with films, there were some modest but memorable characterizations. In the movie version of Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus, he gave both credibility and likability to the role of the doting nouveau riche father of golden girl Ali MacGraw. And, as Juror #5 he was part of the stellar ensemble (along with Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, E.G. Marshall, and Ed Begley) that brought the jury-room drama Twelve Angry Men brilliantly to life.

The more I read about Charles Durning, the more fascinating he seems. The defining moment of his life seems to have come on the battlefield of World War II, when he met the enemy face to face and somehow survived. He kept mostly hidden the side of himself capable of killing a young German soldier at point-blank range, but his wide variety of stage and screen roles always hinted that he was a man with unplumbed depths. He excelled as a crooked cop (The Sting) and in the two crass roles that won him Oscar nominations, as a shifty governor in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and a lustful Nazi colonel in Mel Brooks’s To Be or Not to Be. But I’ll remember Charles Durning for roles both funny and tender. As Jessica Lange’s father in Tootsie, he was fully convincing as a man’s man who becomes sweetly besotted with Dorothy Michaels, whom we know to be Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman) under a wig and a lot of pancake makeup. And I loved him in a 1975 television drama, Queen of the Stardust Ballroom, about a mailman who woos a lonely widow (Maureen Stapleton) on the dance floor. Critics of the day were amazed to find Durning so light on his feet. But along with everything else, he’d also worked as a ballroom dance instructor. Here was an actor forever capable of surprising his audiences.

May 2013 be filled with lovely surprises for us, one and all.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Approaching High Tower: Raymond Chandler Lives!

When I approached High Tower Drive, the day didn’t exactly scream film noir. The rains of the night before had given way to a brilliant blue sky, dappled with fluffy white clouds. Still, I would not have been totally surprised, when rounding a curve on the steep walking path, to stumble upon a dead body. This is Raymond Chandler territory, a pocket of residential L.A. where you can imagine bad things happening to bad people.

Hollywood Heights, a hilly enclave whose Mediterranean-style villas date back to the 1930s, is sandwiched between the tawdry bustle of Hollywood Blvd. and the dramatic vistas of the famous Hollywood Bowl. What makes this turf so distinctive is the slender italianate tower -– High Tower –- that unexpectedly looms above the pavement. It’s essentially a free-standing five-story elevator shaft, built circa 1920 to accommodate residents whose homes cling to the hills above. You can’t enter the tower without a key, but years ago, while on assignment for a local magazine, I was instructed to park on the street below and take the elevator up. It was dark, and the ride was exceedingly spooky. When the door slid open at the top of the hill, a strange man stood waiting. I’m sure I jumped, imagining a scenario straight out of Farewell, My Lovely. Fortunately, it was the husband of my host, waiting to guide me to their wonderfully atmospheric abode.

Hollywood location scouts have of course long known about High Tower. I have no list of the movies in which it’s been featured, but one stands out vividly in my recollection. Director Robert Altman, updating Chandler in 1973’s The Long Goodbye, gives his down-at-the-heels detective hero a home near the tower. Though it’s hard to imagine Philip Marlowe being able to handle the rent in this neighborhood, its sense of slightly decayed glamour fits perfectly into the Chandler universe.

After strolling the overgrown walking paths of Hollywood Heights, I took a gander at the small but well-appointed Hollywood Bowl Museum. The Bowl’s iconic entry statue, I discovered, is called the Muse of Music, and she was designed by sculptor George Stanley, who had previously created the Oscar statuette (working from a sketch by legendary Hollywood art director Cedric Gibbons). The museum contains memorabilia of famous performances by everyone from Pavarotti to Ella Fitzgerald to the Beatles. Also on display are clips of some of the films in which the 18,000-seat Bowl has played a part. These include Anchors Aweigh, A Star is Born, and yet another film noir classic, Double Indemnity, for which Chandler co-wrote the screenplay.

From the Bowl I walked down Highland Avenue to Sunset Boulevard (those noir names keep coming!), where I wandered through Crossroads of the World, the distinctive office complex built in 1936 in Streamline Moderne style to resemble a sailing ship and its ports of call. Today it provides space for a lot of creative folk. The makers of L.A. Confidential set a major character’s office here. But I’ve also been told one of the quaint outbuildings was used in a Muppet movie as the home of Kermit the Frog. (No film noir hero he. Maybe film vert?)

Back on Hollywood Boulevard, surrounded by tourists and crazies, I happened upon the Walk of Fame star of the late Charles Durning, whose death had prompted a large floral tribute. A passing kid demanded to know who Durning was, and seemed disappointed that his glory days were in the 1980s. But Durning kept on working: he was filming something called Scavenger Killers when he passed away at age 89. Now, alas, he sleeps the big sleep.

(All photos courtesy of Bernie Bienstock)

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Tales of (Dustin) Hoffman: Graduating into the Director’s Chair

During this holiday week, we can all enjoy a special gift: the airing of the Kennedy Center Honors gala on December 26. Among this year’s honorees -- along with ballerina Natalia Makarova, jazz great Buddy Guy, comic David Letterman, and three members of Led Zeppelin -- is an actor who catapulted to fame in 1967 with the release of a little comedy called The Graduate. In 1967 Dustin Hoffman was a prickly young man who insisted he had been miscast as Benjamin Braddock. He also made clear to anyone who would listen that he had absolutely no interest in a Hollywood career.

In 1967 Dustin Hoffman was a thirty-year-old stage actor bent on avoiding at all costs being typecast on the big screen as a befuddled post-adolescent. It’s a mark of his determination as well as his talent that he has since played a wide range of challenging roles, in films as distinctive as Midnight Cowboy, Little Big Man, Straw Dogs, Lenny, Kramer vs. Kramer, and Rain Man. Though he remains a perfectionist (see Tootsie for a glimpse of the intensity with which this actor prepares), he has learned over the years to enjoy his status as one of America’s screen legends. Hoffman today has embraced civic involvement: he worked hard to help establish the Broad Stage, an exquisite Santa Monica performance space for music and live theatre. And, even in silly films like Meet the Fockers, he truly seems to be having fun. You might say, he’s become a mensch.

His newest challenge is directing, and to my surprise he has chosen as his debut vehicle a sweet, graceful, and very English comedy set in a home for retired musicians. I saw Quartet at a screening hosted by Stephen Farber, whose Reel Talk series brings films and filmmakers to SoCal audiences. Steve interviewed Hoffman afterwards, and I’m happy to pass along some nuggets from that conversation.

Hoffman became interested in directing back in his Santa Monica College days, at a time when he had no clear career goal in mind. He had enrolled in drama classes for one simple reason: he was not doing well in his other course work, and “Nobody flunks acting – it’s like gym.” He took to it, of course, and ended up a serious student of the craft. After he’d made a splash as a film actor, he set about trying to direct himself in a prison drama, Straight Time, but gave up in disgust. Quartet came about when a cinematographer-friend recommended him for a greenlit-project that had lost its director. He responded to the material because “rather than a film about aging, it was a film about people who refused to retire -- who refused to give in to the aging process.”

Perhaps Hoffman’s greatest directorial contribute was to insist that everyone in the geriatric cast (outside of the central quartet of Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly, and Pauline Collins) be actual retired performers who could contribute their musical skills on camera. He talks about these gifted singers and musicians with great warmth, saying, “I have new icons, now that I’m 75.” Maggie Smith is one of those icons, along with Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira, who is still shooting movies at age 104.

Clearly, making Quartetwas a happy experience for Hoffman. His greatest on-set pleasure lay in encouraging his actors to surprise him with their artistic choices. Now he delights in sitting in the rear of an auditorium, watching the audience watch his film. This he calls “my biggest joy, outside of going to the bathroom, eating, and sex.” Too much information, perhaps?

Friday, December 21, 2012

Apocalypse Now: The Mayan Calendar Brings Us to Doomsday

Hey, I guess the world didn’t end on December 21, though recent news events might lead us to think the opposite. Frankly, I’ve enjoyed the creative ways movie buffs have been dealing with the end-of-times predicted by the ancient Mayans. Bill Dever, über-fan of genre films, has posted on his B-Movie Nation site a long list of movies to help you check out whether the world will end with a bang or with a whimper. (Soylent Green, anyone?) And Cinefile, one of L.A.’s most beloved video stores, is urging customers to prepare for the coming apocalypse by way of a major sale on its Gold Card, which now offers 10 rentals for $25. (An extra bonus: if life as we know it grinds to a halt, you don’t have to worry about returning your selections!)

Cinefile, by the way, devotes a wide shelf to its collection of End of the World films. By no means have I seen them all. But, of course, in my Roger Corman days I worked on several. Typically we went the Mad Max route, creating an end-of-the-world scenario in which a ragtag collection of tough, sexy types struggles for survival against a backdrop of futuristic squalor. Such films were usually set in some kind of desert outpost. The reason was obvious: squalid desert outposts (like the ones we depicted in The Terror Within and its sequel) make for cheap sets. I vaguely recall that Cirio Santiago, Roger’s Manila-based crony, had the wild notion that for once we try a different tack, and create an apocalyptic world in which dry land has been completely submerged by ocean waves. Survivors would live aboard boats, and fight over drinking water. If this sounds like the much maligned Waterworld, I’m convinced it was an early incarnation of that same doomed project.

One End of the World film that stands out for me because it so dramatically reflects the fears of its era is Stanley Kramer’s On the Beach (1959), adapted from a blockbuster 1957 novel by Nevil Shute. In the late Fifties, the great international fear was nuclear holocaust. On the Beach is set in Australia in the year 1964. Though no one quite speaks of it, the rest of the world’s population has been wiped out by nuclear war. It will take five months for the deadly radiation to arrive Down Under, and in the meantime the citizenry braces itself for impending doom.

On The Beach relies for its power not on fancy special effects but on a script that highlights the psychological trauma of waiting for the end. For some of the characters, like Ava Gardner’s Moira, it’s a time of unabashed hedonism. The good-guy Australian naval man played by Anthony Perkins (one year before Psycho) worries over the well-being of his young wife and baby. The most dramatic scenes involve a nuclear scientist (played surprisingly well by Fred Astaire) who turns auto racer, channeling his personal sense of guilt into a reckless abandonment of basic safety precautions. Though everyone’s Aussie accent rings hollow, the film grabs us, especially when a submarine captained by Gregory Peck makes a sad voyage to San Francisco, looking for survivors who don’t exist.

Stanley Kramer, a master of publicity, played up the social relevance of On the Beach by staging simultaneous openings in various world capitals. But though it may have sparked debates over nuclear disarmament at the United Nations, nothing much changed. Five years later, another Stanley released a black comedy that suggested we’d all learned to stop worrying and begun loving the bomb. Dr. Strangelove, of course.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Pixelvision: Easier Than Child’s Play

This is not a happy time for media watchers. In a era when huge TV screens are ubiquitous -- even in the locker room at my neighborhood gym -- I can’t avoid graphic reminders of the massacre at Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School. As I changed out of my sweats this past Sunday, I was confronted with a father’s poignant memories of his beautifully little daughter, so cruelly snatched from the world. It made me feel less like getting in shape and more like sobbing.

TV brings us tragedy, but we also turn to television to help us heal. Our President’s remarks to a community in mourning are televised. Pundits on various news shows debate what should be done. CNN, the station blaring in my locker room, featured Levar Burton discussing how to talk to children about tragedy. Why Burton? Maybe because his debut role as Kunta Kinte on Roots and his later appearances on Star Trek: The Next Generation have made him a sympathetic presence in America’s living rooms. But also because by hosting (and executive producing) Reading Rainbow for PBS over 23 seasons he has become a trusted advocate for children’s literacy. TV, it seems, confers expertise.

But I don’t want to talk about TV and tragedy. I want to view childhood in a happier light, as a time of creative experiment. My visit last week to a set of brief screenings at a funky Santa Monica coffeehouse has given me that opportunity. The traveling film festival known as PXL THIS was started twenty-two years ago by Gerry Fialka, a star of the L.A. experimental film scene. (Fialka has been hailed as SoCal’s pre-eminent underground film curator and as a “multi-media Renaissance man.”) All PXL THIS films were shot with the Fisher-Price PXL-2000 camcorder, a lightweight plastic thingumabob that somehow records audio and video on the same cassette. The PXL-2000 was developed in 1987 to enable kids to shoot their own movies. Over the years it’s been discovered by artists looking for new ways to capture the world around them. Because the raw but somehow poetic look of Pixelvision’s black-and-white images meshes nicely with the sensibility of punk rock, the PXL-2000 has frequently been featured in music videos. Filmmaker Richard Linklater called upon it in 1991 when making Slacker, his break-through indie about low-life types wandering aimlessly around Austin.

PXL THIS 22 shows off the many uses to which this toy camera can be put. Two of the featured filmmakers are not quite ten years old. One of them, Chester Burnett, has staged a comic exorcism featuring a Barbie doll. The other, Donovan Seelinger, takes advantage of Pixelvision’s grainy quality for an almost hallucinatory look at Venice Beach’s skateboard park. (Donovan’s dad Geoff contributes a complementary visual study of the rush of automobile and foot traffic at a busy Venice intersection.) Some of the night’s offerings are surreal, like the film in which oddball puppets try to stage Ionesco’s Rhinoceros. Some make a satirical point; others pay serious homage to writers, artists, and musicians. I was especially fond of Fialka and Clifford Novey’s eight-minute “I Think I’m in Something,” which is hard to describe but mesmerizing to experience. (Think of one of those air-inflated advertising figures that bobs and twists in the wind like a dancer gone amok. Then add actual dancers emulating the figure’s outlandish contortions. Score this with some Alice Coltrane jazz, and you get the general idea.)

Pixelvision’s grainy, gnarly images allow artists to play like children. Too bad that in this world of ours, children sometimes must grow up far too fast.


On Thursday, January 17, USC’s Cinematheque 108 presents "Genuine Fake Films By Gerry Fialka" Admission is free.

Friday, December 14, 2012

"The Sessions": Ben and Judi Put On a Show

“Tis the season when movie award nominations are coming thick and fast. If you live in L.A., you’re bombarded on a daily basis by ads that tout various films “for your consideration.” In a cozy bungalow on the edge of the Pacific, Ben Lewin and Judi Levine are living out an indie filmmaker’s dream. Their labor of love, The Sessions, is on everyone’s radar, thanks to award-caliber performances by John Hawkes and Helen Hunt. Both actors have been nominated for SAG and Indie Spirit awards, and now Golden Globes. And the L.A. Times is even mentioning Ben as a possible contender for a screenwriting Oscar.

Not bad for an Australian couple who shot their last feature in their native country in 1994. After almost two decades in California (where in order to support their three children he dealt in antique watches and she worked on catalogues of vintage motorcars), they are suddenly poised to be The Next Big Thing. To which Ben quips, “I’d like to think of myself as the next hot young thing, if no one has any objection.”

Ben’s coup was finding an essay by Mark O’Brien, a brilliant but severely disabled writer, detailing how he set out to lose his virginity at age 38 with the help of a sex surrogate. Because of the essay’s sad ending -- though Mark had been thrilled by his first sexual experience, he held out little hope for a long-term relationship with a woman of his own –- Judi had her doubts. But Ben’s research yielded up wonderful news. Toward the end of his short life, Mark had formed an intimate connection with the woman of his dreams. This woman, Susan Fernbach, became a strong booster of the film, as did the actual surrogate, Cheryl Cohen Greene. Their help was invaluable, and so were the financial contributions from family and friends. It’s clear this movie was a true Mickey and Judy affair. Using every resource at their disposal, the Lewins were doing “Let’s put on a show!” for real.

Ben’s script, strong enough to attract big-name Hollywood actors, gives cinematic life to both Mark and Cheryl. For me it was Cheryl’s positive but businesslike approach to the mechanics of sex that was the true revelation. Helen Hunt prepared for her role by meeting with the real Cheryl Cohen Greene. By gaining insight into Cheryl’s comfort with her own body, Hunt was able to accept the script’s demands for considerable full-frontal nudity. I asked Ben what he had to do, as a director, to free his Oscar-winning star to bare all on camera. First, he says, she needed to decide he wasn’t a creep. Hunt clearly found reassurance in the fact that Judi dropped Ben off at their initial meeting, after which their eleven-year-old daughter burst into the room to discuss surfing.

That precocious eleven-year-old, Phoebe, appears in the film’s brief memory sequence, shot guerrilla-style on a California beach. Even though Phoebe’s now almost thirteen, her parents were not eager for her to see The Sessions. But when it won the Audience Award at Sundance they finally relented. Judi, parent as well as producer, notes that today’s kids are surrounded by offensive media messages about body image and casual sex. For Judi, it’s much more urgent to monitor her daughter’s TV viewing than a film about “having an intimate and respectful relationship with somebody else, regardless of whatever the circumstances are.” She notes that in this regard the Swedes are well ahead of us. In Sweden The Sessions has been rated G, suitable for children twelve and over.

For Southern Californians: the American Cinematheque will host Ben Lewin and Judi Levine at a screening of The Sessions, scheduled for Tuesday, December 18 at 7:30 p.m. The place is the Aero Theatre, 1328 Montana Ave, Santa Monica, CA 90403.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Gore Vidal and Me (or Remembering My Goriest Job)

The death of Gore Vidal on July 31, 2012 almost got by me. Hey, I was busy enjoying my summer, and Vidal has never been a favorite of mine. Of course I admire his malicious wit: you can't help loving a guy who announces “the four most beautiful words in our common language: I told you so." Still, I found Vidal's apparent coldness profoundly unappealing.

This despite some clever work on the page and on the stage. Vidal had a fair number of movie moments too. His plays The Best Man and Visit to a Small Planet both became successful films, the latter with none other than Jerry Lewis playing an outer-space alien checking out life on earth. His novel Myra Breckenridge, a satiric comedy about transsexuality in Hollywood, was made into a notorious Raquel Welsh vehicle that Theadora Van Runkle described to me as “arguably the worst movie ever made.” (Theadora designed the film’s costumes, so she’s entitled to her opinion.) As a script doctor, Vidal took credit for adding a homoerotic subtext to Ben-Hur. (Who knew?) Later he wrote, and then disowned, the script for the notoriously lewd Caligula.

But when I reminisce about Gore Vidal, I think about my own short, not-so-sweet career as a Hollywood script reader. It occurred in 1994, after I was suddenly cut adrift from Concorde-New Horizons. (For more about that, see the Introduction to my Roger Corman: Blood-Sucking Vampires, Flesh-Eating Cockroaches, and Driller Killers. One thing Vidal and I have in common: we’re not ashamed to blow our own horns. For proof, see below.)

Anyway, I was looking for an honest paycheck, and a phone call from an exec at Interscope Pictures seemed an answer to my prayers. She’d heard about me at an industry cocktail party. When I accepted her offer of employment, I was suddenly plunged into one of Hollywood’s worst jobs. The whole point was to winnow the company’s submission pile, saving busy development folks from having to read most scripts themselves. Here’s how it worked: in mid-morning I’d be summoned to drive to Interscope headquarters (in a highrise at one of L.A.’s most congested intersections) to pick up a script. At home I’d read it, write a detailed synopsis, and add comments that were supposed to focus on the negative wherever possible. Then I had to drive back to Interscope that same day, in rush-hour traffic, to deposit my work in a special cubbyhole outside the office door. Though I enjoyed virtually no human interaction, at least I was efficiently paid. I think my checks rose from $35 to $50 during the few months I was there.

Maybe because I seemed like a sucker who’d put up with anything, I started being assigned novels that someone thought might translate into a Hollywood movie. That’s how I found myself reading Vidal’s historical novel, Burr, about the man who served as our country’s third vice-president and was later tried for treason. It was 562 pages long, so I was given the entire weekend to write my report. Iconoclastic as always, Vidal used his novel to upend the story told in American history books. In his hands, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were fatuous windbags, while Burr (who among other misadventures killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel) became an unlikely hero. I spent a miserable weekend on Burr, for which I earned a princely $135.

Soon thereafter I stopped taking assignments from Interscope Pictures. Eventually the company changed hands, then shut down in 2003. I wish there were someone at Interscope to whom I could say, “I told you so.”

By the way -- if you’re a fan of B-movies and Roger Corman, I encourage you to check out the new Facebook page built for me by ultra-fan Bill Dever. (Thanks, Bill!). It’s named after my biography and soon-to-be ebook, Roger Corman: Blood-Sucking Vampires, Flesh-Eating Cockroaches, and Driller Killers. Write to me at if you’d like to be invited to join.

Friday, December 7, 2012

So Lucky to Have Had Dave Brubeck – and Susan Luckey

I lost two favorites this week. The first was Dave Brubeck, whose 1959 recording, Time Out, was one of the great jazz albums of all times. Brubeck’s polyrhythmic skills as a pianist and composer were unsurpassed, though ironically his signature tune was not his own composition. “Take Five,” written by Brubeck’s longtime sax player Paul Desmond, will always live on for me. Curiously, I associate it with a play I did at Hamilton High School. The Crucible, Arthur Miller’s take on the Salem witch trials, is powerfully dramatic. In rehearsal, we serious junior thespians would work ourselves up to a fever pitch. Then -- take five! In an instant, we were rambunctious teenagers again, cool and loose and free. The Brubeck Quartet’s recording, for me, captured exactly that wonderful release of tension.

The world mourns Dave Brubeck, who died of a heart attack just shy of his 92nd birthday. But I feel equally sad about the loss of Susan Luckey, who passed away at age 74, mostly forgotten by the public. No, I don’t mean Susan Lucci, soap opera star and perennial Emmy nominee, who remains very much alive. Susan Luckey was a dancer and actress who made a big impression on me when I was a dreamy youngster enamored of movie musicals. The pinnacle of her career was probably playing Zaneeta, Mayor Shinn’s giggly daughter, in the 1962 film version of The Music Man. A sweet young thing, Zaneeta was forever exclaiming “Ye gods!” when caught canoodling with Tommy Djilas, the immigrant kid from the other side of the tracks. Her father may have disapproved, but Zaneeta and Tommy danced so beautifully together that we in the audience knew their love was here to stay.

But Susan Luckey had already won me over back in 1956, thanks to her role in the film version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel. Based on a Hungarian drama that was transplanted to a New England setting for Broadway and then Hollywood, Carousel is a most unlikely musical theatre piece. It begins (SPOILER ALERT AHEAD) with a romance between a local girl and a hard-living carnival roustabout. (In the movie they’re played by Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae, though at one time Frank Sinatra coveted MacRae’s role.) They marry, she becomes pregnant, and then he’s killed in the course of a robbery gone wrong. That’s the end of the leading man -- except it isn’t, because we know he’s secretly watching over the little family he left behind. (This is starting to sound like Ghost, but so be it.)

Susan Luckey played daughter Louise, growing up fatherless and unhappy. At the center of the film’s second half is a long, dramatic seaside ballet in which we learn all we need to know about her sorrows and her dreams. That ballet, combined with the final stirring scene in which Louise -- reconciled at last to her father’s memory -- has joined her high school classmates to sing “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” invariably moved me to tears.

I admit I’m a total sucker for dream ballets. And the musicals of the post-World War II years were full of them. I suspect that Gene Kelly loved them as much as I did, because he starred in some of the best. Like the “Gotta Dance” number (featuring the outrageously slinky Cyd Charisse) in Singin’ in the Rain. And, best of all, the finale of An American in Paris, in which the paintings of Toulouse-Lautrec come to exuberant life. That finale made me cry too: it was just so gorgeous. As was Susan Luckey in Carousel. Rest in peace.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012 Giving a Swift Kick to “Men of the Cloth”

What is it with crowdfunding? Everywhere I turn these days, someone’s relying on social media and the kindness of strangers to try to raise money for a worthwhile project. Veteran literary blogger Ron Hogan ( is drumming up funds to further his goal of introducing readers to great new writers; aspiring filmmaker Owen Dara has tried crowdfunding (along with a lot of blarney) to finance his comedy, Credit Crunch, now filming in Ireland. Even the Lakota Sioux, intent on buying back a piece of sacred land they call Pe’sla, have launched a crowdfunding campaign, which has gained support from such Hollywood types as P. Diddy and Bette Midler.

Fern Reiss, self-publishing guru and CEO of, calls crowdfunding “a more egalitarian form of Renaissance patronage.” She’s using this concept –- which incorporates the idea that donors receive tangible gifts in return for their generosity –- as a way to promote her latest book, The Breast Cancer Checklist. And she graciously supplies her personal tips for getting started.

To find out more about how crowdfunding works, I chatted with Vicki Vasilopoulos. As a journalist, Vicki spent years covering the men’s fashion industry. While attending runway shows in Europe, she chanced to meet an Italian master tailor, part of a dying breed of craftsmen trained since childhood to fit and flatter the male form. “Italian men,” says Vicki, “dress better than American women.” Explaining the appeal of a “bespoke” (custom-made) suit, she refers to the sprezzatura, or self-assured but nonchalant personal style, we associate with someone like Marcello Mastroianni.

Vicki, captivated by the humble yet highly-skilled craftsmen who turn out threads worthy of Italian film stars, has now devoted ten years to a documentary film, Men of the Cloth. It follows three Italian master tailors who ply their trade in the U.S. Her enthusiasm for her subjects is contagious. She calls them “the last tribe of the Kalahari, except they just happen to be old-world artisans.”

As Men of the Cloth moves toward completion, Vicki makes full use of a Facebook page that has 1,359 fans, some of them in places as distant as Brazil and Kuala Lumpur. From these fans she’s received modest financial contributions, for which she is tremendously grateful. Now she’s also launched a one-month campaign to drum up finishing funds. is a prominent crowdfunding website that establishes ground-rules, collects donations through, and takes a small cut for its trouble. Kickstarter rules require that no money actually change hands unless the entire fundraising goal is met. That’s why this year December 21 is a bigger date for Vicki than Christmas. If her project doesn’t meet its $20,000 goal by then, all she’ll get is a lump of coal in her stocking.

Another Kickstarter rule is that thank-you gifts must be unique items, not purchasable in any store, that specifically represent the project to which they’re connected. Of course such gifts often include DVDs of a finished film and invitations to special screenings. But Men of the Cloth boosters who are passionate about craftsmanship and are able to donate the big bucks have some real treats to choose from, including custom-made cashmere scarves, dress shirts, suits, and even an elegant hand-made leather briefcase.

One of the biggest surprises for Vicki is that interest in her project is not confined to older folks nostalgic for the past. She’s discovered that today’s young hipsters, too, are keen on the charms of fine tailoring, to go along with their passion for hand-crafted bibelots and artisanal chocolate. And maybe old-fashioned letter-writing as well. Without the speed and the wide reach of the Internet, though, Men of the Cloth would still be running around naked.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Two and a Half Child Stars: The Strange Case of Angus T. Jones

The big news rocking TV Land is that another crisis has hit the comedy favorite, Two and a Half Men. First it was Charlie Sheen very publicly flipping out, touting his sexual prowess and talking trash about series creator Chuck Lorre. Now Angus T. Jones, who’s played the kid on the series since age nine, has come forward to announce he’s found God. At 19, he’s made a passionate commitment to a Seventh Day Adventist group, the Forerunner Christian Church. In a YouTube video that quickly went viral, he states his new-found conviction that audiences should turn away from his often-risqué series. “Please stop filling your head with filth,” he pleads.

Though in the video Jones makes clear his desire to part company with Two and a Half Men --“You cannot be a true God-fearing person and be on a television show like that” -- it must have belatedly occurred to him that his words may doom the livelihood of many co-workers. That’s why he has issued a statement avowing his highest regard “for all of the wonderful people . . . with whom I have worked over the past 10 years, and who have become an extension of my family.” If that’s how he treats his family, you have to wonder . . .

Two and a Half Men has been good to Angus T. Jones. It’s given him awards aplenty, along with the highest salary of any child on television. It’s helped him satisfy his do-gooder instincts by engaging in significant charity work. Of course, it’s not wrong to discover your moral convictions and decide to act on them. But I personally suspect that there’s something about being a kid star on a long-running TV series that can turn your brain to mush.

Take Rusty Hamer, who in 1953 (at age six) was cast as the son of Danny Thomas on a hugely popular sitcom, Make Room for Daddy. Rusty was a cute kid, but those on the set all knew that he was out of control. He thrived on the power he wielded, terrorizing crew members and inflicting bodily harm on his older “sister,” actress Sherry Jackson, for the simple reason that he could get away with it. When the show’s long run finally ended in 1964, Rusty was a lost soul. At 17, he was out of work. Two years later, he nearly died after shooting himself in the stomach, in what police termed “a freak accident.” Then in January 1990, at the age of forty-two, he killed himself with a blast from a .357 magnum shotgun.

Child stardom doesn’t have to be lethal, though. In 1960, the brain trust behind Make Room for Daddy launched a new series about a small-town Southern sheriff. When The Andy Griffith Show made its debut, audiences fell in love with six-year-old Ronny Howard. He stayed with the show until it ended in 1968, later saying, “It was very embarrassing to be fourteen years old and crying at the wrap party.” But Ronny Howard had at least one big advantage over Rusty Hamer. His parents had always made sure he had his feet on the ground.

On Make Room for Daddy, Rusty Hamer specialized in wisecracks and put-downs. Rance Howard, Ronny’s father, shared with Andy Griffith and his producers his bold idea that humor could also be found in a father-son relationship based on mutual respect, one in which the father imparts life-lessons and imposes discipline when needed. Years later, Griffith himself acknowledged that the bond between Sheriff Taylor and Opie mirrored Rance and Ronny’s powerful real-life connection.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Argo Affleck Yourself! (Going Hollywood to Go Home)

What with the fallout from the Petraeus affair, not to mention the tragic attack in Benghazi, the CIA hasn’t been looking too good of late. That’s why it was a pleasant change to see Argo, in which – during the dark days of the 1979 Iranian revolution -- CIA operatives were crafty enough to spirit six Americans away from bloodthirsty Tehran mobs.

For those of us who survived the early Eighties, Argo provides flashbacks to some very bad times. Who can forget the period when 52 members of the American Embassy staff were held for 444 days by their Iranian captors? News broadcasts of that era signed off nightly with a reminder of how long our fellow citizens had been incarcerated, and it was hard to look past the fact that our country looked mighty helpless when faced with the strange new world of religious terrorism. Argo captures that era in masterful detail: the constant media barrage, Jimmy Carter looking grim, everyone’s really awful fashion sense.

Argo is the story of a small victory that occurred in the middle of a great disaster. Leave it to Hollywood to understand that the public likes true stories, but wants them to have happy endings. Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, an astonishingly real saga of a GI bomb disposal team in Iraq, may have won the 2008 Oscar, but few people bought tickets to see it. (The same might hold true for Bigelow’s latest, Zero Dark Thirty, which unsparingly chronicles the hunt for Osama bin Laden.) Argo, on the other hand, has been a certifiable hit. Partly that’s due to actor/director Ben Affleck’s sure hand at the helm. Partly, too, it reflects the audience’s fascination with tales of derring-do, subterfuge, and breathless escape – the ingredients that go into the best James Bond spy thrillers.

Ironically, one reason that Argo works so well as a Hollywood movie is that there’s a very Hollywood strand to its plot. It seems that CIA “extraction” expert Tony Mendez (a nicely low-key performance by Affleck) actually did smuggle the six Americans out of their hiding place by disguising them as a Canadian film production unit, visiting Tehran on a location scout for a sci-fi fantasy flick. To accomplish this, he partnered with Hollywood makeup artist John Chambers, best known (until now) as the greasepaint genius behind Planet of the Apes. In Argo, Chambers (deliciously played by John Goodman) joins forces with over-the-hill producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin at his most impish) to give an industry imprimatur to the bogus movie. Their banter adds an essential element of humor to the proceedings, providing an effective break in the mounting tension. (Says Lester to Mendez at one point, “You’re worried about the Ayatollah? Try the WGA.”)

Other Hollywood touches: At a reading of the script at the Beverly Hilton, intended to get the trade press talking about the non-existent film project, the always-bodacious Adrienne Barbeau takes the role of Serksi the Galactic Witch. And at Tehran’s airport some potentially hostile Iranian guards can’t disguise their child-like enthusiasm for the fake film’s gorgeously drawn storyboards.

Part of the point, it seems, is that everyone’s a sucker for Let’s Pretend. This fact helps save the six Americans, but it works conversely as well. In passing, we see a brief but horrifying incident that really happened: Iranian revolutionaries terrorizing American hostages by standing them up in front of what turns out to be a fake firing squad. It’s a heart-stopping moment. But ultimately this film about the NOT making of a film achieves what we’ve wanted all along: a Hollywood ending.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

November 22: A Day to be Thankful and Mournful (Remembering JFK)

Today is Thanksgiving, a beloved American holiday. But for those of us who remember the Sixties, today is also the 49th anniversary of one of the worst days of our lives. On November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was gunned down in Dallas. A president who embodied youth and optimism -- the first president whose election we could remember -- was suddenly no more. Our feelings about the world would never be quite the same again.

My personal memories of John F. Kennedy are bound up with television. It’s often been said that Kennedy’s defeat of his opponent, Richard M. Nixon, owed much to his mastery of TV as a communications medium. When the two candidates appeared in a televised debate, a nation took the poised, dapper Kennedy to its heart. The public relations coups of Kennedy’s presidential years played well in front of the TV cameras. So did his photogenic young wife, who in 1962 led an hour-long tour of the White House that was simulcast on all three networks.

It’s appropriate, then, to remember back to where I first heard the news of Kennedy’s assassination. It was in the studios of KTLA, a local TV station. I had been chosen, along with three classmates, to participate in a televised discussion of the Bill of Rights. We were thrilled, of course, and we spent countless hours preparing, under the guidance of our civics teacher, Mr. Leonard Green. On November 22, 1963, we dressed in our best and carpooled to KTLA, where we were supposed to have a run-through, then break for lunch prior to the actual taping. After our run-through, Mr. Green was called away by a studio honcho. When he returned, he told us we had done so well that the broadcasters wanted to get us on tape immediately.

It was not until that taping was completed that Mr. Green broke the horrifying news. (How he got through the segment without betraying his own roiling emotions I‘ll never know.) My first reaction was that this was some sort of weird hypothetical, linked to our discussion of the Bill of Rights. Alas, it was all too true. We crowded into the station’s control booth and watched the mind-numbing footage coming out of Dallas.

That was a Friday. My family and I spent most of the weekend in front of the TV set, hoping against hope that it was all a bad dream. We did not, though, see the famous on-camera moment when Jack Ruby shot and killed suspected assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, thus ensuring there’d forever be the shadow of a doubt about Oswald’s guilt. Oliver Stone exploited that doubt in 1991 in his muckraking JFK. But this was hardly the only impact of Kennedy’s death on the film industry.

One of history’s ironies is that Stanley Kubrick’s macabre Dr. Strangelove was scheduled for a test screening on November 22, 1963. The film was slated to premiere soon thereafter, but its release was delayed, since studio execs felt the public was in no mood to see such a dark political satire. In the release print, a throwaway line about how a fellow could have “a pretty good weekend in Dallas” was changed (Dallas became Vegas). And General Turgidson’s exclamation -- “Gentlemen! Our gallant young president has been struck down in his prime!" --disappeared entirely.

Meanwhile, Stanley Kramer’s It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, which had opened just before the assassination, became a monster hit. It played at L.A.’s Cinerama Dome for two straight years, and Kramer’s widow Karen remains convinced that “it helped to heal the nation.”

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Brooke Shields and her Mother: Losing it at the Movies

When the death of Teri Shields was announced late last month, the flurry of obituary tributes subsided quickly. After all, she had been out of the public eye for decades, ever since Brooke Shields stopped permitting her mother to guide her acting career. Since at least 2009, Teri Shields had been struggling with dementia, which contributed to her death at age 79.

It was a sad end for a woman who once seemed to have the world by the tail, thanks to her willingness to exploit her very young daughter’s beauty. Teri and her husband divorced a few months after Brooke was born in 1965. As a single parent, Teri was determined to make her own way in the world. She found a lucrative career through her baby daughter, whose first paying gig (at 11 months) was an ad for Dove soap.

Teri Shields was soon shrewdly aware of her daughter’s striking combination of innocence and sexual potential. Acting as Brooke’s manager, she arranged for her ten-year-old to be photographed in the nude for a Playboy Press publication. Two years later, Brooke was cast in Pretty Baby. This 1978 film, a serious look at the brothels of New Orleans in the early years of the 20th century, had an impressive pedigree. Director Louis Malle, a pillar of French cinema, was making his American film debut; story and screenplay were the work of the multi-talented Polly Platt, one of the many Roger Corman alumni who went on to earn impressive Hollywood credentials. Sven Nykvist’s cinematography was gorgeous. Performances by Keith Carradine (as a lovesick photographer) and newcomer Susan Sarandon were appealing. But what everyone remembers about Pretty Baby is twelve-year-old Brooke Shields, stark naked, in the central role of a child prostitute whose virginity is auctioned off to the highest bidder.

As a mother myself, I wonder how a parent could push such a young child into such a sexualized environment. A few years after Pretty Baby’s release, Teri calmly told a TV interviewer, “Fortunately, Brooke was at an age where she couldn't talk back.” Brooke’s best-known films from her teen years also involved sexual discovery: The Blue Lagoon (1980) and Endless Love (1981). And of course there was the notorious TV ad for Calvin Klein jeans, shot when she was fifteen, in which Brooke looks straight into the camera and proclaims, “You want to know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing.” (When she graduated from Princeton in 1987, her senior thesis was apparently titled, “The Initiation: From Innocence to Experience: The Pre-Adolescent/Adolescent Journey in the Films of Louis Malle, Pretty Baby and Lacombe Lucien.” It was certainly a subject she knew something about.)

Teri Shields, quintessential stage mother, was by no means unique. When I was writing for The Hollywood Reporter, I researched a piece on children who are cast in films that contain mature situations. Though the parents I spoke to worried about their youngsters growing up too fast, I have a hunch that many of them would jump if a juicy part came their child’s way.

The eeriest conversation I had for that article was with young Jena Malone, who’d starred as a victim of sexual abuse in a hard-hitting 1996 TV movie, Bastard Out of Carolina. When the role became available, Jena didn’t wait for her mother’s approval. By all accounts unusually bright and mature, she herself read and absorbed the tough-minded script. That an eleven-year-old could talk knowingly about sexual molestation, and would want to simulate it on camera, is something that the mom in me would rather not accept.

Friday, November 16, 2012

David Petraeus and the Biographer Who Got Too Close to Her Subject

As a biographer myself, I have been avidly following the revelation that squeaky-clean General David Petraeus has been under the covers with the author of his biography, Paula Broadwell. The news of their affair has recently made Broadwell’s book, the aptly-titled All In, a best-seller. But it has ruined his public career, while also seriously damaging her professional credibility. My fellow members of BIO (aka the Biographers International Organization) have taken to Facebook to discuss the journalistic ethics of the situation, as well as the dangers facing biographers who get too close to their subjects.

Meanwhile, remembering back to my years at Concorde-New Horizons Pictures, I can visualize my former boss Roger Corman dusting off old scripts about illicit affairs, strategizing just how they can be tailored to fit the current situation. Roger came from the world of exploitation films, after all, and he’s never missed a chance to be timely. Back in 1987, the success of Fatal Attraction made him determined to get his own erotic thriller into the marketplace. Enter screenwriter Jackson Barr, a good old boy from Texas with a downhome twang and a wicked sense of fun. Soon thereafter, we at Concorde were shooting Body Chemistry, another love triangle involving a nice-guy husband, a devoted wife, and the femme fatale who tries to ruin both their lives.

Whereas Fatal Attraction introduced an attorney who slept with a sexy business associate while his wife and daughter were out of town, we at Concorde came up with a scientist – one involved in the study of sex pheromones – who succumbed to the allure of a sexy colleague while his wife and young son enjoyed a night at the museum. Though we tried to distinguish our film from the original, there’s no denying that the trajectory was the same: the lover, when firmly told by the male lead that their relationship can’t continue, is overcome with jealous rage. She schemes to get revenge, with deadly consequences.

Body Chemistry did well enough for Concorde that we revisited our femme fatale three more times. One big contrast to Fatal Attraction was that our dangerous dame always lived on to vamp another day. In the original Body Chemistry, Dr. Claire Archer (played by Lisa Pescia) was a research scientist with a few screws loose, but in Body Chemistry 2 we made her a radio psychologist with her own call-in show. Jackson Barr, who knew his way around a late-night radio station, showed Claire enthusiastically embracing the joys of the “on the air club.” Eventually, of course, bad things happened to not-so-good people. Next there came Point of Seduction: Body Chemistry III, which combined the B-movie talents of Jim Wynorski, Andrew Stevens, Morgan Fairchild, and me (yes, I have a cameo as a caller to a sex-line). By the time of Body Chemistry 4: Full Exposure, Claire Archer had evolved into a TV producer played by the lubricious Shannon Tweed -- you can’t get much more B-movie than that. Fortunately no one adopted my admittedly goofy suggestion that Claire give both Siskel and Ebert a thumbs-up experience.

I’m not suggesting that any of this matches the David Petraeus saga. But Body Chemistry, or one of the many other erotic thrillers we produced at Concorde in the early Nineties (Naked Obsession! In the Heat of Passion!) can surely be tweaked by an enterprising screenwriter to involve a straight-arrow general, his trusting wife, and a biographer who’ll stop at nothing to get herself, shall we say, between hardcovers.

No one has claimed, though, that Paula Broadwell ever boiled a bunny.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Graduate Returns to Berkeley

I’m just back from Berkeley, California, where the spirit of the Sixties lives on. Or at least tries to. Though I didn’t see any real live hippies, the campus of the University of California was full of chalked messages advertising a student protest. And in the recent election, voters apparently defeated (though narrowly) a measure that would make it a crime to sit or lie on sidewalks in Berkeley’s commercial areas between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. (Telegraph Avenue would never be the same without its laidback legions of scruffy sidewalk loungers.)

But I really thought about the Sixties when I stepped into my hotel, the venerable Durant. Years ago, the Durant was known for muted elegance. These days, however, it tries to induce nostalgia in its patrons by decorating in a style we might call “Sixties Revival.” The Durant’s lobby is graced by an odd chandelier that looks to be constructed out of old exam bluebooks. One wall features photos of student activist types. Across the corridor there’s a display of protest buttons, as well as a case containing a burned bra.

Upstairs, the theme continues. My room key-card bore an ID picture of a dude with an Afro. A room service menu suggested goodies that might be of interest “if you have the munchies.” The Do Not Disturb sign looked like an athletic sock, the kind you might hang on your doorknob to warn your roommate of romantic activity in progress. Bedside light fixtures vaguely resembled lava lamps. I was charmed by the black-and-white photo in the bathroom, of two long-haired young streakers who’ve just exuberantly flung off all their clothes for a romp in the woods.

In every one of the Durant’s guest rooms there’s a full-sized poster of a woman’s shapely leg, behind which stands a young man in a sports jacket, looking vaguely perplexed. The wording of course reads “This is Benjamin. He’s a little worried about his future.” It’s a reminder that –- even though its characters seem to have chosen their wardrobes in the JFK era –- The Graduate rocked moviegoers in 1967 because it captured the angst of young Baby Boomers on the brink of entering the adult world.

It’s wholly apt that the Durant uses The Graduate to represent Berkeley in the Sixties. After Dustin Hoffman’s Ben Braddock suffers through the stifling pretensions of nouveau-riche Beverly Hills, he finds personal liberation when he hops into his sports car and heads for Berkeley(famously going the wrong way on the Bay Bridge) to persuade Elaine Robinson to marry him. Director Mike Nichols did take his cast up north for some atmospheric shots along Telegraph Avenue. But permission to film on the UC Berkeley campus was denied, which is why the only genuine glimpse of the campus (a brief moment showing Elaine walking with friends near the famous Sather Gate) was shot guerrilla-style. Meanwhile, back in L.A., the University of Southern California stood in for UC Berkeley in several key scenes. The poignant sequence of time elapsing as Ben sits sadly by a campus fountain were shot in front of USC’s Doheny Library, as any Trojan would be happy to point out.

Though The Graduate so effectively embodies the spirit of the late Sixties, it contains neither hippies nor references to the Vietnam War. Years later, Katharine Ross acknowledged that while making The Graduate, “We were sort of still in the Fifties mentality.” It was only while the film was in production that “the Summer of Love happened in San Francisco, and Vietnam was about to blow the country apart and change us all forever.”

Friday, November 9, 2012

Shhhh! Silents, Please! Marion Davies in Show People

It’s one of the best deals around. In Beverly Hills, California, there’s a wealth of screenings available to you at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater, located in the headquarters of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. (Yes, the folks who hand out those little naked guys at over-long ceremonies once a year.) It costs five bucks per person, and you don’t need to shell out for popcorn, because food and drink are strictly prohibited. There’s even free parking, in the garage of a nearby office tower. But be sure to buy your ticket early: these events are popular.

What you can expect for your $5 is a comfortable seat and a very long evening. Screenings always begin with a pre-show, at which the Academy’s Randy Haberkamp provides spirited commentary and historic context. He also rounds up special guests who offer their own perspective.

The screening I just attended was catnip for a highly specialized audience. Show People, starring Marion Davies, has much in common with this year’s top Oscar winner, The Artist. Both are behind-the-scenes sagas that tell of rises and falls within the movie industry. And both are silent movies. Released in 1928, Show People came out the year after The Jazz Singer revolutionized Hollywood with its introduction of sound. And so, delightful though it is, Show People feels a bit like an elegy for an era that was rapidly passing away.

It’s the story of pert Peggy Pepper, who arrives in Hollywood with stars in her eyes. Before long, she’s a hit in a knockabout farce –- complete with spritzes of seltzer water, custard pies in the kisser, and inept cops falling into a water trough –- that’s an homage to the herky-jerky movies of Mack Sennett. Her leading man tries to be philosophical when she’s whisked off to High Art Studios to become a dramatic actress. At High Art (represented in the film by the MGM backlot), she hobnobs with celebrities like Douglas Fairbanks and William S. Hart, playing themselves. Now redubbed Patricia Pepoire, she is taken in hand by a suave John Gilbert type who persuades her to behave more like a Grande Dame. This leads to funny scenes in which Davies is clearly mimicking the Grandest Dame of the era, Gloria Swanson.

There are inside jokes aplenty. Early on, Peggy turns down an autograph request from Charlie Chaplin, because she doesn’t recognize him without his Little Tramp trappings. Soon afterward, arriving at her studio, she sees an elegant woman alight from a limousine and saunter off, swinging a tennis racquet. When told this is Marion Davies, Peggy (played of course by Marion Davies) does not seem impressed.

Guest of honor when I saw Show People was historian Kevin Brownlow, to whom we owe so much regarding the preservation of silent film. Brownlow explained that Davies’ consort, William Randolph Hearst, had to be lured from the set so he wouldn’t see his beloved drenched with a fire hose. (Hearst flatly refused to let her be hit by a pie.) Brownlow also revealed that there originally was a scene where Davies, a talented mimic, impersonated Greta Garbo. It was cut by MGM, because “you don’t laugh at Garbo.”

Before the lights dimmed, two men in my row were intently discussing the obscure silent movies that were their mutual passion. The older man asked if the younger had seen the 1980 screening of Abel Gance’s Napoléon, at which Carmine Coppola conducted his own musical score. The younger man replied, “I wasn’t born then.” No matter: it’s never to late to fall in love with silent film.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Cool Hand Barack and Boss Man Mitt: Failure to Communicate?

The first Tuesday in November is coming up fast, and once again Americans are about to elect a president. We’ve been through all the rituals -- the nomination fights, the conventions, the debates, the alternately snarling and cajoling TV ads -- and soon the day of reckoning will be here. This isn’t the place to endorse my chosen candidate. But what this season has taught me is that the classic 1967 film Cool Hand Luke had it right: “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”

Communication is what political speech is supposed to be all about. Too often, though, we support politicians based on style instead of substance. President Ronald Reagan was revered by many Americans as “The Great Communicator,” partly for his message, but perhaps even more for the comfortable, reassuring way he could put it across. From our first actor-president, I wouldn’t have expected less.

Years ago, John F. Kennedy won his televised debate with Richard Nixon (and thereby the 1960 presidential election) because he wore makeup, didn’t sweat profusely, and looked comfortable in front of the camera. Today we watch conventions and debates seeking equally superficial clues to the candidates’ qualifications for high office. Who looks most at ease? Who has the better smile? And the wittiest one-liners? Who could boast the best-looking set at his convention, and the best-dressed wife, and the most glamorous celebrity endorsers?

Cool Hand Luke takes place worlds away from Washington politics, but it has much to say about the clash between style and substance. Based on the actual experiences of novelist Donn Pearce, the film explores day-to-day life on a Southern chain-gang. Though British critics of the day saw Cool Hand Luke as yet another exposé of prison abuses south of the Mason-Dixon line (and thus a direct descendant of 1932’s influential I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang), Americans understood that Cool Hand Luke was meant as allegorical: a tale of a non-conformist whose assault against authority turns him into a mythic hero.

Luke (as vividly played by Paul Newman) is first seen on a drunken bender, decapitating a row of parking meters. His infraction may be minor, as well as pointless, but when he encounters a warden determined to crush his spirit, he instinctively begins to establish himself as a defender of individual freedom. His acts of rebellion are often grotesque and sometimes comic (like the bet that he can eat fifty hard-boiled eggs in an hour), but we’re not surprised when tragedy looms. Why does the audience warm to this unlikely champion? Partly because this was the Sixties, and young viewers were conditioned to endorse outrageous revolts against the status quo. And also because Luke –- for all his irrational behavior -– was at base a man of style, one whose intrinsic panache made him a natural-born leader. Here’s Luke being eulogized by his follower, Dragline (an Oscar-winning George Kennedy): “He was smiling . . .You know, that Luke smile of his. He had it on his face right to the very end. Hell, if they didn't know it ‘fore, they could tell right then that they weren’t a-gonna beat him.”

The screenplay of Cool Hand Luke is credited to Donn Pearce and also industry veteran Frank Pierson, who was Oscar-nominated for both Cat Ballou and Cool Hand Luke before finally winning for Dog Day Afternoon (1975). Pierson died in July 2012, busy to the end (he was a consulting producer on Mad Men). I salute his memory, and hope that the winner of the 2012 election has both style and substance, plus a great speech-writer.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Stanley Kubrick and the Joy of Turning Books into Movies

Stanley Kubrick, the subject of a major exhibit now at the L.A. County Museum of Art, was a great believer in turning to outside sources to spark his creative imagination. In the course of his directing career he adapted novels by writers as different as Vladimir Nabokov (Lolita), Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange), William Makepeace Thackeray (Barry Lyndon), and Stephen King (The Shining). At times he was extremely faithful to the author’s intentions. Elsewhere he took vast liberties. (For Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, he turned Peter George’s Red Alert from a cold-war thriller into the blackest of black comedies.) Kubrick explained his fondness for adaptation by saying, “What I like about not writing original material . . . is that you have this tremendous advantage of reading something for the first time.” He went on to call this a “falling-in-love reaction” to an existing text.

I came across this quote from Kubrick soon after having read Joseph McBride’s Writing in Pictures, which suggests that the best way to learn screenwriting is through the exercise of adapting a classic story from the page to the screen. (McBride shares his own adaptation of Jack London’s almost dialogue-free adventure story, “To Build a Fire,” as an example.) I myself have played hooky of late from my serious interest in Hollywood biography to read several recent novels. One of them would be a disaster as a motion picture. The other two are so nicely suited to cinematic adaptation that if I were a film producer I’d think about snapping them up.

Colm Toibin’s The Master (not to be confused with this year’s Paul Thomas Anderson film), is a fictionalized account of the later years of a great novelist, Henry James. Sticking closely to the known facts about the author’s life, Toibin’s work suggests how James’s writings evolved, and at what cost to the writer. It’s a quietly brilliant portrait of an artist who could see into the souls of others but kept his own inner life off-limits, even to himself. But there’s no conventional action, and few opportunities for visuals: this would be a really tough sell as a movie.

Then there’s March, an intense and surprising novel by Geraldine Brooks. March, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2006, takes the story of Louisa May Alcott’s prim Little Women family in a new direction. It shifts its focus from the four girls and their mother in Concord, Massachusetts to the father who was so largely absent from their lives because of his service as a Civil War chaplain. Brooks gives us battle scenes and grim hospital scenes aplenty, but also allows the idealistic Captain March an up-close look at the tragedies wrought by slavery. And yes, there’s a thread of raw sensuality that’s certainly absent from Alcott. Sex, violence, and period costumes -- what more could a movie want?

Another award-winning period novel is last year’s The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick DeWitt. But where March is serious and elegiac, The Sisters Brothers is a ribald fable. Set in the California of Gold-Rush days, it features two scruffy varmints who are killers for hire. One of them, Charlie, enjoys his trade. But his brother, Eli, tempers his vicious strength through the workings of a warm heart. Their story is a grizzly one, but it also contains such endearing moments as Eli’s discovery of the pleasures of tooth-brushing. I’m told John C. Reilly has optioned this novel. He’d be perfect casting, but I’d love to see the Coen Brothers get their hands on The Sisters Brothers.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Innocent Scares on Halloween

RED RUM, anyone? Halloween’s the perfect time to drink a toast to scary movies. Of course, scary is in the eye of the beholder.

Personally, I like a good scare as much as the next gal. I’m not, though, a big fan of gross-out horror. I much prefer psychological horror films, the kind that fill you with doubt about the workings of the human psyche.

The film that still preys on me, after all these years, is a little black-and-white British thriller called The Innocents (1961), based on Henry James’ classic ghost story, The Turn of the Screw. It was directed by Jack Clayton, with Deborah Kerr in the central role of a Victorian governess whose young charges may or may not be possessed by the fiendish spirits of two departed servants. (Even back then, it was awfully hard to keep good household help.)

I saw The Innocents in broad daylight, in a neighborhood movie house called the El Rey. (Today it’s a trendy live-concert venue geared to people who hardly represent my demographic.) The theatre, as I recall, was half-empty. My junior-high-school classmate and I had no idea what to expect. When the film came on -- with the haunting voice of a little girl singing an eerie ballad while the screen slowly filled with the image of a pair of hands clasping and unclasping -- we knew we were in for a wild ride. There was no gore, no obvious gotcha moment designed to make you jump out of your seat. By the midpoint, though, tension was so thick that Sabina and I were clutching one another for dear life.

I don’t recall many details about The Innocents, because I haven’t seen it since. Some years ago a fellow film buff kindly made me a VHS copy. But it sits in my cabinet unwatched, not because I’m too frightened to see it again but rather because I’m worried it will seem a lesser film than the one I remember. I suspect Sabina and I watched it at exactly the right time in our lives, as we trembled on the brink of maturity, wondering what lay ahead.

Henry James’ ghost story has long been viewed as an exploration of the governess’s repressed sexuality. That element of The Turn of the Screw was skillfully captured by Jack Clayton, though in a way that was hardly blatant. (It was, however, suggestive enough that the film was initially barred in Britain to children under 16.) Later in the Sixties, psychological horror – with an emphasis on the dark side of human nature -- would become increasingly graphic. Many friends have recommended to me Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963), a classic spooky-house thriller. It’s full of things that go bump in the night, but I’ve always found it less than scary. Far more disturbing is Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965), in which Catherine Deneuve is a beautiful but frigid manicurist who acts out her fear of men in shocking ways. All three of these films were made in England, where they seem to know a thing or two about terror.

Of course Alfred Hitchcock was born and raised on English soil, even though he went Hollywood and shot Psycho -- perhaps his creepiest psychological film -- in Southern California. I was too young to see it in 1960, and by the time I caught up with it, the ghastly secrets had been spilled. Still it was plenty scary, and remains so. But this year, with the onslaught of Frankenstorm, perhaps no one needs any more terror –- or another shower scene.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Sylvia Kristel Welcomes Russell Means into Heaven?

I never met either Russell Means or Sylvia Kristel. And that’s probably a good thing. Russell Means might have scared me. In the presence of the ravishingly sexy Sylvia Kristel I would doubtless have felt intimidated. But when the two of them died recently, just four days apart, I found myself musing about some of the more unlikely films that came under the Roger Corman umbrella.

As an actor, Russell Means was best known for his first role, the title character (opposite Daniel Day-Lewis) in 1992’s The Last of the Mohicans. He next played a mysterious Navajo who comes to a bad end in Oliver Stone’s brutal Natural Born Killers, then showed a softer side as the voice of Chief Powhatan in the Disney version of Pocahontas. It made perfect sense to cast Russell Means as a Native American power-figure. Because that’s exactly what he was.

Long before he went Hollywood, Means was a national leader of the American Indian Movement. In 1973, he gained international prominence for his role in AIM’s 71-day armed occupation of Wounded Knee in South Dakota, and his fiery commitment to his cause never wavered. After he was indicted, along with AIM’s Dennis Banks, for his part in the Wounded Knee uprising, the Los Angeles Times called the pair “the two most famous Indians since Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse wiped out Custer nearly a century earlier.”

This quote reminds me of the days when Roger Corman, on the strength of the 1990 box-office triumph of Dances With Wolves, decided he wanted to bring to the screen the story of Crazy Horse. None of us knew anything much about Indians, and historical epics with a cast of thousands were not exactly Roger’s specialty. His concept was to film the re-enactment of the Battle of Little Big Horn that takes place annually in Montana, and then shoot the rest in Peru, where he had connections. (This led me to refer to our film as Dances With Llamas.) Fortunately, after we struggled with a lackluster script, the whole idea got scrapped. Russell Means may have breathed a sigh of relief.

Sylvia Kristel was a gorgeous Dutch actress who, beginning in 1974, starred in a series of French films as Emmanuelle, a sexually adventurous young wife living in exotic lands. IMDB reader James Hitchcock points out that one reason the Emmanuelle films seem so dated today is that they try to give intellectual underpinnings to what is essentially soft-corn porn. The result is what he memorably calls “existentialism-lite,” or “Sartre meets Hugh Hefner.” I never saw an Emmanuelle film, but the fifth in the series somehow became a Roger Corman co-production, complete with many new scenes shot by Steve Barnett of the Corman staff and lots of Corman stock footage added to flesh out (so to speak) the skimpy story. Barnett’s version was released in 1987, but two years earlier Steve had been asked by Roger to enhance another soft-core French film, The Click.

I’m open-minded about movies, but The Click fits my definition of pornography. It’s about an inventor whose small handheld device can make beautiful women writhe in the throes of passion. Eventually one of his victims falls genuinely in love with him. Yuck! The other thing I remember about The Click (not to be confused with Adam Sandler‘s 2006 comedy) is that we had an original French poster hanging in the Concorde offices. The huge poster featured an arty sketch of an undraped young woman in dreamy tropical surroundings. I always thought its caption should read, “I was a sex slave in Disneyland.”

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Newsweek: Going -- Going -- Gone?

So we’ll soon be saying farewell to Newsweek as an actual magazine. Which makes me nostalgic for those long-ago days when my contemporaries and I were getting to know the world around us. In that era, the choice between a subscription to Time and Newsweek was serious business. I went with Time, mostly because Time seemed to have far more imaginative cover art. (That old saw to the contrary, you can tell a magazine by its cover.) Recently, Time issues have gotten much skinnier, and I notice I’m frequently being reminded that if I want complete arts coverage, I need to check Time’s website. As Newsweek does its disappearing act, I suspect Time too is running out.

In the Sixties, though, we movie buffs looked forward each week to reading what our favorite critics had to say. If a hip critic smiled on a newly-released film, we’d all plan to see it. If it was labeled “uncool,” we’d stay away in droves. That’s why it took me years to experience Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, a socially important movie deliberately designed to make Middle America feel good. And why I felt a serious obligation to check out Antonioni and the French New Wave.

But the movie above all others that was saved from oblivion by young critics was 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde. As a small, brutal film that was loathed by the studio (Warner Bros.) that financed it, Bonnie and Clyde was supposed to be buried after a few token weeks in the Deep South. But it also played, to rapt audiences, as the first-night attraction at the Montreal Film Festival, and soon afterwards opened in New York City. An early reviewer was the venerable Bosley Crowther of the New York Times, who had already penned several rants about the violence in such 1967 hits as The Dirty Dozen. He griped that “Bonnie and Clyde is a cheap piece of bald-faced slapstick comedy that treats the hideous depredations of that sleazy, moronic pair as though they were as full of fun and frolic as the jazz-age cut-ups in Thoroughly Modern Millie.”

Soon afterward, the anonymous reviewer at Time accused Bonnie and Clyde of “sheer tasteless aimlessness,” and Joseph Morgenstern of Newsweek dismissed the film as “stomach-turning.” A week later, though, Morgenstern did something unheard of: he reversed course, publicly berated himself for his misguided earlier opinion, and gave Bonnie and Clyde an unqualified rave for daring to confront violence in a meaningful way.

The most influential voice speaking out on the film’s behalf belonged to Pauline Kael, whose 9000-word essay in praise of Bonnie and Clyde won her a regular reviewing gig at The New Yorker, a sinecure from which she stormed the mostly male bastions of film criticism with eloquence and wit. Beginning with a blunt question -— “How do you make a good movie in this country without being jumped on?” —- Kael explored the film from many angles, emphasizing its cinematic antecedents and its visceral power. The attention paid by Kael to the cultural resonance of Bonnie and Clyde helped transform modern film criticism, and made Bosley Crowther’s crotchety complaints seem all the more out-of-touch. By year’s-end, he had been eased out of his influential post at the Times. His replacement, Renata Adler, lacked reviewing experience. But she was under thirty, and was doubtless being positioned as someone Baby Boomers could trust.

What fun we used to have, reading all the critics and enjoying their intellectual tug-of-war. Those were the days when we looked forward to the contents of our mailboxes. How very quaint that now seems.

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By the way, do check out an interview I did for BZFilm, a site for fans of low-budget movies that’s based in (would you believe?) Azerbaijan. Thanks, Tim, for the great questions! Film really is a universal language, but I’m awfully glad you and I could communicate in English!

Friday, October 19, 2012

Making Screenwriting (sort of) Painless: Joseph McBride’s Writing in Pictures

The other day I had occasion to drive past my old high school, Alexander Hamilton High. Like many places in Southern California, Hami High has its own Hollywood connection. Years ago, it was used as the location for a popular TV series, Mr. Novak, starring James Franciscus as an idealistic English teacher who butts heads with the educational establishment. Needless to say, we actual students didn’t much like our campus being invaded by TV folk, especially those actors our own age who had been cast as “typical” students. Seeing TV make a mockery of us encouraged us to feel just a trifle rebellious. But we were more than a decade too early for Rock ‘n’ Roll High School.

I mention Rock ‘n’ Roll High School -- that classic youth rebellion musical from Roger Corman’s New World Pictures –- because the writer who dreamed up the original screenplay has a new book out. Ironically, Joseph McBride is now a member of the faculty, not of Vince Lombardi High School but of San Francisco State University, where he teaches screenwriting and film history. He’s written such respected biographies as Searching for John Ford and Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success, as well as a collection of interviews with Howard Hawks. His latest, though, is for the would-be screenwriters among us. It’s called Writing in Pictures: Screenwriting Made (Mostly) Painless, and it’s the most out-of-the-ordinary screenwriting book I’ve ever encountered.

Sometimes it seems there are as many guides to screenwriting as there are aspiring screenwriters. Most of these books methodically plod through the various aspects of the screenplay, devoting chapters to such well-worn topics as characterization and structure. (Screenwriting guru Syd Field famously decreed precisely where the first and second act-breaks should fall, and generations of screenwriters have been lining up their stories to his specifications ever since.) Today’s typical screenwriting book (like Blake Snyder’s exasperating Save the Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need) is written in snappy contemporary prose, cites lots of current box-office hits, and provides a slew of exercises to keep the writing student busy on his (or her) way to making it big in Hollywood.

McBride’s book is all the better for being less a primer and more a meditation on film as a medium. He includes delicious quotes from such cinema masters as Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, Robert Towne, and Larry McMurtry. His examples are often drawn from classic films like Grand Illusion and On the Waterfront, at the same time that he’s smart about how (for instance) Diablo Cody’s dialogue in Juno shows teenagers cracking wise as a way to avoid expressing genuine emotion. Before he ever gets to dialogue, though, he emphasizes the special power on screen of small non-verbal moments. His respect for what actors bring to scripts shines through on every page.

McBride’s approach is also unique in arguing that a great way to learn screenwriting is by going through the process of adapting a short story into a screenplay. Using his own adaptation of Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” by way of illustration, he moves the reader through a story outline, a treatment, a step outline, and finally a completed draft of a filmable script.

It’s an unusual approach, but a valuable one. And you’ve got to love someone who quotes the great Dorothy Parker: “If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second-greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of [Strunk and White’s]The Elements of Style. The first-greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.”