Monday, January 30, 2012

Going Viral: Sh*t Beverly Says in Movieland

Producer-director Mike Elliott -- he of the Carnosaur death scene that proved so deathless that it got re-used (without his knowledge) in Roger Corman’s Raptor – is kindly trying to help me drive more traffic to “Beverly in Movieland. “The other day, after I’d griped that fans of Blue Crush 2 are no longer clamoring to read my post about Mike’s wet-dream of a surfing film, he blackberried me some cryptic advice: “Put this link on your site and get a shitload of hits as it goes viral.” Of course he included the link, which I opened with trepidation. The last time Mike sent me something, it was about the bad-ass exploits of a honey badger. Educational, yes, in the way of tooth-and-claw nature documentaries . . . but not destined to be favorite viewing in my house.

Anyway, “Shit People Say in L.A.” turns out to be an ingratiating, if somewhat predictable, discourse by two wannabe actresses on all the usual L.A. topics: traffic, permit parking, improv classes, beach weather in January, sightings around town of actors with minor roles on major series. The fact that we’ve heard it all before doesn’t distract (well, not entirely) from the deadpan delivery and the accuracy of the details: Intelligentsia coffee, In-N-Out Burgers served “animal-style,” Coachella, commuter shortcuts through Cahuenga Pass.

What intrigues me is the way YouTube has taken hold as a way for all of us to become movie stars. I’m told that from the earliest days of Hollywood moviemaking, everyone wanted to get into the act. Just after World War I, Carl Laemmle turned fans’ curiosity to his advantage by letting them tour his Universal City backlot for 25 cents a head. Afterward, they got to sit on bleachers and watch movies being made. But it wasn’t long before merely watching wasn’t enough. Average folks were just dying to be on camera.

The advent of television gave a lot of us a chance to be seen over the airwaves, if only briefly. You could try to become a guest on a quiz show, tell your sob-story on Queen for a Day, or at least applaud wildly as part of a studio audience. For kids, there was the possibility of joining Howdy Doody’s peanut gallery, or even being chosen for the Mickey Mouse Club’s weekly Talent Round-Up. Back then, of course, we also had respect for stars. You might be picked for the Talent Round-Up, but that didn’t mean you were the next Annette.

In today’s reality-TV world, though, the stars have largely been replaced by just plain folks (the plainer the better). Because it’s widely understood that bad behavior is a valued commodity, everyone’s busy acting up for the cameras. (Remember that Colorado couple who created an uproar when they claimed their six-year-old son had floated off in a helium balloon? It was a hoax, designed to get the family its own reality show. All that free publicity for “balloon boy” was in vain, though: no production companies came calling, and sponsors weren’t buying.)

Then there’s YouTube, which offers the opportunity to be not only star but producer, director, and distributor. If you have a cat who plays the piano, a cute kid who sings off-key, or a bride who falls into the swimming pool on her wedding day, you too can go viral. If the shit YOU say is entertaining enough, you stand a good chance of being the next big thing. All right, world -- I’m ready for my closeup.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

J. Edgar Hoover and the Curse of the G-Man

So J. Edgar was stiffed when the Oscar nominations were announced. Obviously, there’s a conspiracy afoot!

When I was growing up, the bulldog face of J. Edgar Hoover was as iconic as the presidential heads on Mt. Rushmore. He always seemed to be around, shadowing such major figures as Martin Luther King and taking a predictably dim view of students protesting the Vietnam War. I also recall a bizarre and ultimately tragic incident involving Jean Seberg, who started her film career in Hollywood (as Otto Preminger’s St. Joan in 1957), then moved to Paris and achieved New Wave stardom as the American girl who beds and betrays Jean-Paul Belmondo in Breathless. Circa 1970, the word spread through the American press that Seberg was pregnant with the child of a Black Panther. The baby girl died soon after birth, and nine years later (after several previous attempts) Seberg committed suicide. Eventually, it was revealed that the FBI, hostile to Seberg’s leftwing sympathies, had planted in magazines and gossip columns the baseless rumor that upended her life.

Obviously, I’m not a fan of the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover, whose concerns about national security frequently seemed to lapse into paranoia. In later years I heard the rumors about his “unorthodox” sexual proclivities, and became fascinated. So, obviously, did Clint Eastwood, who thought Hoover’s tangled psyche would make for a good film. He assembled what seemed an outstanding team. His Hoover would be played by the always-effective Leonardo DiCaprio, with Naomi Watts and Judi Dench in key roles. Hoover’s longtime companion, Clyde Tolson, would be portrayed by young Armie Hammer, who scored as a Winklevoss twin in The Social Network. The screenplay was in the capable hands of Dustin Lance Black, Oscar winner for Milk.

What went wrong? Frankly, I blame a lot of it on Black’s screenplay. It’s bad enough that – in a film covering some 50 years -- it relies on a scrambled chronology that only confuses the viewer. I also suspect that Black, known as Hollywood’s go-to writer when it comes to sympathetic portrayals of gays, couldn’t grasp how to create gay characters he just didn’t like. Black’s Hoover is a grotesque figure, and his Tolson is totally opaque. (Hammer’s stiff performance and unconvincing old-age makeup – apparently augmented by CGI work -- don’t help.) Personally, I had no clue as to what Tolson gained from his long covert relationship with Hoover. How could he love this unappealing character from the start? What was the attraction? (Also, why did the loyal secretary played by Naomi Watts stick around for so many years? Had she no life of her own?)

The one interesting aspect of J. Edgar for me was Hoover’s fascination with the movies. There’s a telling scene from the 1930s where a movie audience scoffs at a J. Edgar Hoover public service short about crime-fighting because they’re eager to watch Jimmy Cagney gun down cops in Public Enemy. So Hoover apparently persuaded studio bosses to turn Cagney into an FBI hero in 1935’s “G” Men, and he also worked on his own image, trying to convince the world that he personally captured John Dillinger. On TV there was The F.B.I., a long-running series (1965-1974) based on cases from the agency files, but I also vaguely remember a much earlier show, mostly because of its strange title: I Was a Communist for the FBI.

Today the American public still loves its gangster figures, and Hoover is widely remembered as a buffoon, a possible cross-dresser, and the protagonist of a dull movie. Sounds like a commie plot to me.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

David Carradine: A Hellraiser to the End

Not long ago, 22-year-old Daniel Radcliffe of Harry Potter fame explained to Parade magazine why he was temporarily led astray by booze: “I’ve worked with Richard Harris, Gary Oldman, all those actors who went crazy when they were young, and I always wanted that. The idea of that kind of life and chaos was always so appealing to me.” Fortunately for his fans, Radcliffe has wised up. He no longer seeks to emulate Brits like Richard Burton and Oliver Reed, whose talents were undermined and whose lives were shortened by their dedication to serious carousing. (See Robert Sellers’ recent book Hellraisers for more on that subject.)

Personally, I’ve had no contact with these famously drunk and disorderly British actors. But in my Roger Corman days I did have a brush or two with David Carradine, whose off-camera antics were legendary among New World and New Horizons folk. A man of huge talent and huge appetites, Carradine went off the rails time and again. Substance abuse was at least part of the problem, though he was supposedly clean and sober in later years. Not too long ago, thanks to his performance in Tarantino’s Kill Bill films, he was experiencing a major career revival. When he died mysteriously in 2009, at age 72, there were a lot of great performances still left in him.

Many Corman alumni remember Carradine’s on-set caprices: the potsmoking; the toddler son (named “Free”) who romped un-diapered through his trailer on the set of Cannonball; the time in Argentina (for The Warrior and the Sorceress) when he smashed his hand into a concrete wall and had to film his sword-fights while wearing a specially-decorated plaster cast. Carradine also once claimed to have misplaced his false teeth just before a key scene, necessitating a frantic search by the entire production team before the dentures were finally found tucked away in his costume.

Future producer Jon Davison has reminisced to me about a Carradine tantrum connected with one of Roger Corman’s best-known films, Death Race 2000. Roger had decreed that his leading man’s “Frankenstein” costume be made of cotton, to save money. David, who demanded leather, threw his helmet at the friendly costumer, then stormed into the New World offices, bent on a face-to-face confrontation with the boss. Jon vividly remembers how “Roger got so upset he hid under his desk and wouldn’t come out.” That was a smart move, because an angry David Carradine was a genuinely dangerous guy.

I myself felt something of that wrath years later, after I was handed a script called Lost Planet. David had written, as a starring vehicle for himself, an outer-space drama with echoes of Mad Max. I thought it showed promise, but did my usual diligent job of compiling a lengthy set of story notes. Obviously, I’d struck a nerve. In his fury, he objected to my carefully-written comments, accusing me of being overly invested in my own literary style. I later learned he’d tried to have me fired.

I didn’t remind him of that situation in 1999, when we had a good phone chat for my Corman biography. On that occasion David proved smart and good-humored, graciously praising Roger’s contribution to Hollywood: “It’s almost as though you can’t have a career in this business without having passed through Roger’s hands for at least a moment.”

I liked that incarnation of David Carradine a lot. But I don’t know what to make of the one who died so bizarrely in a Bangkok hotel room. Certainly I hope that young Daniel Radcliffe finds other -- better –- sorts of role-models.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

We Call him MISTER Poitier

On January 15, the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s birth, it was good to turn on the Golden Globes and see Morgan Freeman receive the Cecil B. DeMille award from none other than Sidney Poitier. Poitier, now 84, has been reclusive in recent years. But back in the Sixties, Poitier was far more than merely an actor. By appearing in the sort of leading-man roles previously reserved for whites, Poitier became the Holllywood face of the American civil rights movement. As a bona fide star, he taught Americans (as well as people around the globe) that a man can have dark skin and still be a hero. Morgan Freeman would never have had the chance to play both the President of the United States (in Deep Impact) and God (in Bruce Almighty) if Sidney Poitier had not paved the way.

Poitier’s career began in 1950 with No Way Out, which cast him as a doctor confronting racism in an urban hospital. This was the first of many times he’d play a well-educated black man (a doctor, a social worker, a cop) facing off against white bigots less upstanding and intelligent than he. But he really captured the public’s attention in The Defiant Ones, Stanley Kramer’s earnest drama about two escaped convicts, chained together, who learn mutual respect while making their way through the segregated South. Both Poitier and Tony Curtis, who played his ethnic opposite, were nominated for Best Actor Oscars. But Poitier didn’t win an Oscar until 1963, for his role as a drifter who helps some nuns build a chapel. The film was Lilies of the Field, and Poitier’s victory as the first African-American Best Actor recipient made headlines around the world. (Some blacks to whom I’ve spoken, though, were slightly miffed, feeling this modest, light-hearted film was “the least of his body of work that should have been recognized.”)

Cut to 1967, when Poitier was America’s biggest box-office draw. In To Sir, With Love he played a conscientious teacher who tames some bad-ass high school students. In the Heat of the Night, which went on to win the Oscar for Best Picture, cast him as a shrewd Philadelphia police detective who reluctantly joins forces with a small-town Southern sheriff (Rod Steiger) to catch a killer. His final film of 1967, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, raised hackles because he played a brilliant and philanthropic surgeon who dared to fall in love with the daughter of a white newspaper publisher. Though the film, which also starred screen legends Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy (in the last role of his life), inspired controversy, it turned out to be a box-office bonanza. Soon Columbia Pictures was offering Poitier a major production deal.

Poitier’s unique status in Hollywood had its downside. Rod Steiger later revealed how his friend chafed against it: “They put this image on him, for chrissake. He couldn’t yell, couldn’t swear, couldn’t do anything, ‘cause he was the Prince of the Black Race.” This awkward label made Poitier jealously guard his private hours, and contributed to his hypersensitivity about his reputation with the moviegoing public.

I’m embarrassed to admit that when I was a lunch guest at Hillcrest Country Club, a posh venue once frequented by the likes of George Burns and Groucho Marx, I spotted across the large room a dark-skinned man standing at the buffet table. He was wearing black pants and a white shirt, and I casually assumed he was a waiter tidying up. That, it turns out, was my one glimpse of Sidney Poitier in the flesh. Ooops.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Marion Davies and Hearst’s Sand-Castle by the Sea

We Santa Monicans are proud of our movie heritage. Last Sunday I helped the Santa Monica Conservancy celebrate what would have been the 115th birthday of Marion Davies (1897-1961). Davies, of course, was the consort of publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst for over thirty years, from the time she was a Ziegfeld Follies cutie until his death in 1951. He used his money and his personal clout to promote her movie career, but this wasn’t simply the case of an ambitious young thing putting out for her sugar daddy. From all reports, despite their thirty-four year age difference, Marion genuinely loved the big galoot she called “Pops.”

His largesse to her was legendary. Diamonds may have been a girl’s best friend, but Hearst also liked to surprise Marion with small parcels of Southern California real estate. Many of these she sold at a profit, amassing enough of a personal fortune that when bad times struck the Hearst empire she was able to help out her man with a $2 million gift. But she held onto her very special seaside villa. It was located just north of the Santa Monica pier, and in those days of uncongested streets, Marion could leave the MGM lot in Culver City, remove her makeup in the car, and be cooling her tootsies in the blue Pacific in 15 minutes flat. The palatial estate was the site of some of Old Hollywood’s liveliest shindigs. Marion loved costume parties, and there are priceless photos of filmdom’s finest (everyone from Douglas Fairbanks to the Marx Brothers) dressed as Tyrolean goatherds and circus clowns. She was a more than gracious hostess: a guest who had hit on hard times would sometimes be slipped a costly bauble, with Marion blithely explaining she’d grown tired of it.(She also created a children’s medical foundation that for many years was housed on the UCLA campus.)

Marion’s white sand-castle is long gone, but its guest-house has been lovingly preserved and incorporated into the Annenberg Community Beach House. That’s where the birthday salute was staged. Docents in period costumes discussed Marion’s life, but the biggest treat was a screening of one of her silent comedies, The Patsy. It’s a shame that so many of us, under the spell of Orson Welles’ great Citizen Kane, confuse Marion Davies with Kane’s paramour, the talentless Susan Alexander. It’s quite true that William Randolph Hearst used his millions (and his readership) to boost Marion’s career, much as the movie’s Charles Foster Kane tried to buy success in the opera world for his tone-deaf protégé. But Marion – though not well suited for the costume epics that Hearst chose for her – was a genuinely delightful comedienne. In The Patsy, playing a put-upon younger daughter who triumphs over her domineering mother (Marie Dressler) to win the man of her dreams, she is charm personified.

A better movie portrait of the relationship between Marion Davies and Hearst is Peter Bogdanovich’s little-seen The Cat’s Meow (2001). It stars Kirsten Dunst as an adorable Marion, opposite Edward Herrmann as her over-stuffed W.R., in a semi-factual story about the mysterious death of director William Ince aboard Hearst’s yacht. Another way to understand their era is to read Cari Beauchamp’s Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood, which explores the beginning of the movie industry from the viewpoint of another Marion. Who knew that in the early days many top screenwriters, like the multi-talented Frances Marion, were female? And who knew that early Hollywood women were dynamos, until the moguls put them back on their pedestals?

Happy birthday, Marion, wherever you are.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Harry Belafonte and the End of the World

I just caught the 2007 sci-fi thriller, I Am Legend, in which Will Smith is the last man left in New York City, and possibly the world. Seems like apocalyptic movies have been with us forever. Roger Corman made his share -- I worked on several, including The Terror Within. Roger’s end-of-the-world flicks usually featured monsters of a more or less preposterous sort.

But A-list filmmakers have also tried their hand at movies about civilization reaching the end of its road. Often, particularly in the late Fifties, their films reflected the widespread public anxiety about the threat of nuclear war. In that era families dug bomb-shelters and we schoolchildren practiced drop-drills, hiding under our desks to shield ourselves from nuclear attack. The year 1959 saw the release of two very serious movies about the aftermath of nuclear war. In both of them there’s not a monster in sight. Stanley Kramer’s On the Beach, based on Nevil Shute’s novel, is set in a town in Australia. The rest of the world’s populaton has been wiped out in a senseless series of tit-for-tat bombings, and the locals (augmented by the crew of an American submarine) are waiting for the deadly cloud of radiation that’s sure to finish them off. As the tension mounts, some find love, some succumb to despair, some try to ease their psychic pain with daredevil bravado. (Fred Astaire, of all people, plays the film’s most interesting character, a nuclear scientist who turns to race-car driving as an escape from his sense of personal guilt.)

Also in 1959, Harry Belafonte starred in The World, the Flesh, and the Devil, a film that gives an interracial twist to the idea of nuclear holocaust. The only survivor seems to be Belafonte, a miner who was deep underground at the time of the blast. We see him, like Will Smith in I Am Legend, wandering through an eerily empty Manhattan, until he happens upon a beautiful blonde (Inger Stevens). Though her first words are “Don’t touch me,” it’s not long before love comes calling. Curiously, she seems far more able than he is to look past their color difference. Yes, she uses phrases like “I’m free, white, and twenty-one,” but she’s quickly charmed by his humor and good manners, to the point where the audience can imagine them as Adam and Eve repopulating the world. But when she reaches out to him, he recoils, saying, “If you’re squeamish about words, I’m colored, and if you face the facts I’m a Negro. And if you’re a polite Southerner I’m a Neegra, and I’m a nigger if you’re not.” Still, the realization that they may be the last two people on earth helps them move ever closer together. It’s then that the arrival of a tough-minded white man, played by Mel Ferrer, complicates their relationship further, leading to the film’s ambiguous but hopeful ending.

It’s no surprise that Belafonte would choose a film project confronting the most emotionally-charged issues of the day. He was – and still is – a man of deeply-held convictions. When hugely popular as a singer, he was also an activist, risking his life as well as his career to take a stand for civil rights and other causes. Today, at 84, he’s still speaking out for what he believes. In October I took my mother, once his number-one fan, to hear him speak on behalf of his acclaimed new memoir, My Song. Occupy L.A. was going full-steam at the time, and Belafonte gave a hearty shout-out to the protesters who want, in their own way, to save civilization as we know it.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Hugo: The Magic of Movies

Roger Corman transformed Martin Scorsese – abracadabra! – from a student of cinema into a commercial filmmaker. Hired by Roger on the strength of some student films to direct Boxcar Bertha (1972), Scorsese showed he could work fast and cheap, mixing pathos with an ample helping of blood and guts. The following year, when Scorsese set out to make Mean Streets, he looked to Corman for financing. Roger duly noted that blaxploitation films were doing well at the box office, and offered his protégé $150,000 if he’d change his Italian-American thugs into black ghetto types. It was an offer Scorsese could refuse, and he’s gone his own way ever since.

It’s easy to think of Scorsese, over the course of his forty-year career, as a poet of urban violence. His best-known movies – Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, The Departed – practically revel in bloodshed. Their impact is so powerful that it’s easy to forget the wide range that Scorsese has explored in such atypical films as Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, The Age of Innocence, and Kundun. The fact of the matter is that Scorsese loves movies of all sorts, and perhaps his greatest passion is for preserving the great cinema of years gone by.

Which is why Hugo is, among many other things, a valentine to movie history. Adapting The Invention of Hugo Cabret, an award-winning illustrated children’s novel by Brian Selznick, Scorsese combines his devotion to state-of-the-art movie technology with an homage to movie pioneers like Georges Méliès and the Lumière brothers. The story of a French orphan waif who lives in a Paris train station is rendered visually magical by Scorsese’s dramatic use of 3-D cinematography. And the plot, hinging on an automaton that sketches out a scene from Méliès’s fanciful 1902 A Trip to the Moon, allows Scorsese to incorporate footage shot by the French film pioneers and to salute their contribution to today’s cinema.

I don’t know the Selznick novel, so I can’t comment on the fidelity of the film adaptation. But I found myself enthralled by Scorsese’s mastery of his craft. Nothing in the film seems extraneous: though two hours long, it is as tightly constructed as a sonnet. Partly this is due to his use of motifs that tie all the plot strands together. One is prestidigitation: the sleight of hand that produces magic tricks. Two other motifs intricately connect with the film’s 1931 setting. One involves trains, which in that era were both glamorous conveyances and powerful sources of danger. And, since Hugo has secretly taken his late father’s place tending to the train station’s clocks, the cogs and gears of huge timepieces dominate the film, which becomes in its way a meditation on the passage of minutes, hours, days, and years.

Cogs and gears also suggest early movie cameras. And Scorsese’s bustling train station, with its web of social relationships, allows him to slip some adult social commentary into a children’s story about a boy finding a family. The comic villain of the piece, played by Sacha Baron Cohen, is a uniformed station inspector who sees it as his duty to chase down and incarcerate young urchins. Only gradually do we understand that the brace on his leg, which comedically impedes his movement from time to time, is a sad souvenir of World War I. And that many of the other adult characters are also quietly remembering what they’ve lost in the War to End All Wars. A war that put an end to magic, at least for a while.

(Here's a detailed review of Hugo with plenty of spoilers.)

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Time to Hail 2011’s “Person of the Year”

So Time Magazine’s 2011 “Person of the Year” is not an individual but an aggregate. Time is honoring “The Protester” for making waves from Cairo to Athens to Moscow to Wall Street. In fact, I’m told that the generalized young female protester staring out from Time’s cover derives from a photograph taken right here in Southern California, during an Occupy L.A. event.

It makes me think back forty-five years to January 1967, when Time’s annual “Man of the Year” issue hit newsstands nationwide. This “Man of the Year” was not a “he” but a “they,” representing the generation Time called “Twenty-five and Under.” The cover image, a soft-edged illustration, featured the head and shoulders of a stalwart young man, his green eyes looking directly at the reader. His hair was short; his face clean-shaven; he was wearing a jacket and tie, much in the spirit of The Graduate’s Benjamin Braddock newly home from college. Behind him we could glimpse others of his generation, including a dark-haired young Caucasian woman, a clean-cut young black man, and an amused-looking Asian youth. Collectively they stood for the Baby Boomers then coming into their own, with the white male (predictably) in the lead.

The 1967 Man of the Year, affluent and idealistic, had what Time called a unique sense of control over his own destiny. Said Time, “He is the man who will land on the moon, cure cancer and the common cold, lay out blight-proof, smog-free cities, enrich the underdeveloped world, and, no doubt, write finis to poverty and war.” Similarly starry rhetoric concluded the cover story: “With his skeptical yet humanistic outlook, his disdain for fanaticism and his scorn for the spurious, the Man of the Year suggests that he will infuse the future with a new sense of morality, a transcendent and contemporary ethic that could infinitely enrich ‘the empty society.’” Time floridly predicted that this Man of the Year may well succeed in his mission, and have fun along the way.

The well-scrubbed faces on Time’s January cover gave no hint that by the end of 1967 some of this “twenty-five and younger” generation would morph into spaced-out hippies and angry war protesters. Obviously, part of the change sprang from the big events of the day: the escalation of the Vietnam-era military draft; the violent turn taken by the civil rights movement; the widening of the generation gap. The popular movies of the time mirrored the tensions within the country, and sometimes helped to compound them. In fact, before 1967 was out, Time used stills from Bonnie and Clyde on its cover, along with the caption, “The New Cinema: Violence . . . Sex . . . Art.”

The Graduate, one of the last movies to debut in 1967, could not be considered violent, but its message to young people about the need to disrupt established norms was unmistakable. The Graduate, a modestly-budged comedy starring the unknown Dustin Hoffman, became a sleeper hit, especially among America’s youth. Time itself recognized the changes afoot when, the following June, it put out an issue simply titled—with an obvious nod to the film—“The Graduate 1968.” The cover photograph was of a newly-minted college graduate, UCLA’s Brian Weiss, clad in graduation robe, beard, and peace symbol. A caption added a variation on a by-then familiar phrase, asking, “Can You Trust Anyone Under 30?”

What happened to the young renegades of 1968? They grew up, of course. Many went corporate, but their children—some of them—are busy trying to create a better world. Happy New Year to them, and to us all.