Tuesday, February 28, 2012

“The Artist” Sings L.A.’s Praises

It’s a curious year when the Best Picture Oscar – Hollywood’s highest honor – goes to a low-budget black-and-white silent film made by a creative team from France. But Oscar host Billy Crystal pointed up an interesting irony: The Artist was the only one of the nine Best Picture nominees that was shot entirely in the city of Los Angeles. In paying tribute to the early days of the motion picture industry, The Artist also paid tribute to the city where that industry took root as it has done nowhere else in the world.

The growth of the L.A. metropolis has always been intertwined with the making of movies. Reading Cari Beauchamp’s Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood, I got a vivid picture of the dawn of L.A.’s film industry. Circa 1912-14, long before the big studios had come into being, you could find cameras cranking, men with megaphones shouting, and costumed actors emoting all over the streets of L.A. Writes Beauchamp, “Fire or police chases of any kind were fair game to be used as backdrops, as were horse races, sporting events, and parades.” In the words of Agnes de Mille, choreographer and niece of Cecil B. DeMille, “The Keystone cops would take over a street and do what they had to do before the real police arrived.”

At first the shenanigans of movie folks were barely tolerated by the upstanding citizens of L.A. Soon, however, it became clear that there was good money to be made from this new local industry, and that everyone stood to benefit. I was reminded of this fact recently while on a tour of historic L.A. landmarks. So many local buildings have become movie icons, starting with L.A.’s distinctive City Hall tower. It was destroyed on-screen in 1953’s War of the Worlds, but survived to appear as the Daily Planet headquarters in the early TV series Adventures of Superman. Sharp-eyed visitors to L.A. can also spot less obvious movie locations. My tour bus cruised down Carroll Avenue, a street of nicely-restored Victorians in an old L.A. residential neighborhood called Angelino Heights. Our guide noted that the facades of some of these houses were featured in A Nightmare on Elm Street and loomed large in Michael Jackson’s Thriller music video.

We also passed the Wilshire Blvd. Temple (1929), home congregation of most of Hollywood’s early movie moguls. Among its treasures are the Bible-themed murals commissioned by the brothers Warner and painted by studio artisans. A far less opulent place is the wood-paneled Welsh Presbyterian Church on Valencia Street in midtown L.A. It too was first built as a synagogue, but has been lovingly tended by parishioners of Welsh descent since 1925. The Welsh traditionally love to sing, and current congregants still take pride in the fact that their choir was featured on the soundtrack of How Green Was My Valley, a poignant Welsh saga that beat out Citizen Kane and The Maltese Falcon as the Best Picture of 1941.

With the advent of location shooting, today’s Los Angeles has far less need to be ready for its closeup. If Woody Allen or Martin Scorsese wants to show Paris, he goes to Paris. But L.A. continues to spawn unique film-industry types, like the professional seat-filler who was saluted by Billy Crystal at this year’s Oscar ceremony. Meanwhile, young guerrilla filmmakers of the Roger Corman school are still out on L.A. streets, filming crowd scenes and chases without permits. If their chaotic presence prompts a traffic accident, they’ll shoot that too. Hey! It’s show biz.

This post is dedicated to Stuart Bernstein, who encouraged me to find my voice and start this blog. Stuart is one of those rare souls born on February 29, so tomorrow is his first birthday in four years. That’s one way to stay forever young!

Friday, February 24, 2012

Bonnie and Clyde: When Theadora Went Wild

No matter which film captures this year’s Oscar for best costume design, one thing is certain: the winning clothes will not be nearly so influential as those worn by Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty in 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde. The two outlaws’ outfits -- Bonnie’s berets, soft scarves, and mid-calf skirts; Clyde’s snappy fedoras and well-tailored suits – took the fashion world by storm. Young women who’d been strutting around town in thigh-high minis suddenly discovered the elegance of 1930s styling. Overnight they traded the baby-doll Twiggy look for Bonnie’s bias-cut silks and hems well below the knee.

The designer of those captivating clothes was Theadora Van Runkle, working on her very first film. Later Van Runkle credits include Bullitt, The Godfather Part II, and Peggy Sue Got Married, as well as Myra Breckinridge, which she herself called “arguably the worst movie ever made.” Awed by her reputation (and that remarkable name), I was sure that Theadora would be haughty and unapproachable. Hardly. When I phoned her to talk about film in the Sixties, she turned out to be delightfully chatty. We got along so famously that we tried making plans to meet. Alas, it was not to be. Theadora passed away last November at age 83.

Theadora’s movie career came out of nowhere. A single mom supporting herself as an illustrator, she couldn’t afford to see many films. But one day she took the kids to a bargain screening of Lawrence of Arabia. Theadora remembered, “I was so inspired – I came home and I was watering the garden, and this rainbow appeared over the roses. I said, ‘I’ve got to have some recognition for my art work. I’ve got to.’ I begged the universe to give me recognition.” The following day, she got a call from legendary costumer Dorothy Jeakins, who knew her sketch work. Jeakins, who was off to Rome to work on Reflections in a Golden Eye, passed on to her "a little cowboy movie at Warner Bros.” that turned out to be Bonnie and Clyde.

Van Runkle’s portfolio impressed director Arthur Penn and producer/star Warren Beatty, but she was such a novice that she thought movies were shot in sequence. Early only, when Beatty saw her working on Faye Dunaway’s frock for the film’s opening sequence, he chewed her out. Theadora insists he was right, that she didn’t know what she was doing. She learned quickly, though. Dunaway, she discovered, had a passion for detail, as well as the perfect body for languid Thirties styles that could be worn bra-less. (By contrast Estelle Parsons wore bits and pieces because she rejected Van Runkle’s designs, except for one iconic jodphur outfit.)

When it came time to verify screen credits, Beatty assumed she’d modify her moniker, since he considered Theadora Van Runkle “the ugliest fucking name I ever heard.” (“Thea Vee” was his suggested fix.) But Theadora stuck to her guns, and soon her full name appeared among the ranks of Oscar nominees. She didn’t win -- that honor went to John Trescott, whose exquisitely detailed work on Camelot was not really captured by the cameras. But Theadora moved on to other films and other kudos, including one unforgettable publicity event.

In 1968 the brand-new Century City Shopping Mall, sitting on land that was once the Fox backlot, held a weeklong festival with a Bonnie and Clyde theme. Shops put fake bullet-holes on their windows, and announced that their prices were “a steal.” Theadora and Faye, dressed in period finery, were special guests, and she never forgot the coverage given to “Miss Dunaway’s beauty and Miss Van Runkle’s shapely legs.”

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Viola Davis and the Black Woman’s Burden

Viola Davis, who gives an indelible performance in The Help, is one of the frontrunners for this year’s Academy Award for Best Actress. Davis is the daughter and the granddaughter of strong, stoic women who earned their living in domestic service. But she’s discovered on the talk-show circuit that not everyone is wholeheartedly proud of her for playing a maid. Tavis Smiley, for one, shared his ambivalence that she was nominated for a role that puts her in Hattie McDaniel territory Said Smiley, who specializes in African-American issues on his PBS show, “I want you to win, but I’m ambivalent about what you’re winning for.”

The topic came up again when Davis was interviewed by Terry Gross on one of my favorite radio programs, Fresh Air. Davis told Gross in no uncertain terms that when she took on the role of a Southern housekeeper named Aibileen she was by no means reduced to playing a cliché, “or else I wouldn’t have done it. You're only reduced to a cliché if you don't humanize a character. A character can't be a stereotype based on the character's occupation.” Early in her career, Davis sometimes played two-dimensional women who raised no hackles with progressive viewers because they held upscale jobs. Today, as an award-winning stage and screen actress who has some choice in the parts she accepts, she looks for opportunities to explore a character in depth, whether she be a judge or a maid. Her goal is to find the fundamental humanity in any role she plays, however humble the character’s circumstances.

Biographers too are committed to exploring the basic humanity of their subjects. Beginning with the facts of an actual human life, a good biographer shapes a story that is complex, poetic, and true on the very deepest level. I’m proud to be a member of BIO, the Biographers International Organization, which will be holding its third annual Compleat Biographer conference on the USC campus from May 18 through 20. Because we’re in the middle of Black History Month, now is a good time to segue from Viola Davis to this year’s BIO award recipient, Arnold Rampersad, who will deliver the official keynote address on Saturday, May 19. A professor of English at Stanford, Rampersad is the esteemed biographer of such iconic African-Americans as W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, Jackie Robinson and Ralph Ellison. These men came from modest backgrounds –- Robinson was born into a family of sharecroppers -- and yet their contribution to American life cannot be overestimated.

Because this year’s BIO conference is the first to be held in Los Angeles, several of its panels will explore the Hollywood experience. I’ve personally organized a panel entitled “Pursuing Hollywood’s Past” that will feature several leading showbiz biographers, and I’ll moderate “How Dare You? How to Write An Unauthorized Celebrity Bio and Live to Tell the Tale.” A session on the writing of the biopic will feature Hollywood luminary Dustin Lance Black, an Oscar-winner for the screenplay of Milk.

Hollywood of course loves biopics, which is why several of this year’s Oscar nominees (including Meryl Streep and Michelle Williams) are up for playing actual historic figures. But Viola Davis belongs in their company, even if she’s not portraying a prime minister or a movie star. As far as I’m concerned, it’s equally impressive to play a maid whose life draws on the dreams and struggles of generations of real women. Viola Davis’s mother and grandmother didn’t talk much about their daily woes. But in bringing those woes to the screen, Davis emerges with her human dignity triumphantly intact.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Whitney Houston and the Tragedy of Getting That Big Break

When I returned last Saturday from a speaking gig at the Southwest Texas Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association conference in Albuquerque, the big news was the death of Whitney Houston. Houston, alas, was a prime example of someone who had everything – talent, looks, worldly success to go with that otherworldly voice – but couldn’t make a go of it. I wonder: would she have been better off if she had never become famous at all?

As a Southern California kid with an interest in drama, I of course used to fantasize about getting my big break. Particularly during my high school years, I dreamed that I would suddenly be catapulted into celebrity. When visiting relatives finagled a behind-the-scenes tour of the Twentieth Century-Fox lot, I had a secret hope that someone would take one look at me and say, “Wait a minute, young lady. Yes, you in shocking pink – you’d be perfect for a featured role in our next film.” And then I would be on my way to stardom.

I bring this up because at the conference in Albuquerque I met two filmmakers, director Tony Zierra and producer Elizabeth Yoffe, with a remarkable story to tell. In the late 1990s, Zierra was living in a grungy rental house on L.A.’s Masselin Avenue with four aspiring young actors. Short on money and opportunities, he decided to shoot a documentary chronicling his housemates’ pursuit of their showbiz dreams. Then something unexpected happened: three of the four began to make it big. In short order, Brad Rowe was being groomed as a sex symbol in the Brad Pitt mold and Chad Lindberg started getting meaty character parts, though he yearned to be accepted as a leading man. Soon afterward, Wes Bentley won a star-making role in 1999’s most talked-about film, the Oscar-winning American Beauty. Overnight the guy who’d been sleeping on the couch on Masselin Avenue became a hot Hollywood commodity. All the while, Tony was on the scene, watching his buddies evolve into young men who were haunted by their own success. He saw how quickly their enthusiasm for their new lives turned to anxiety, paranoia, and even drug abuse.

Carving Out Our Name, the film assembled by Tony out of thousands of feet of footage, struggled for years to make it to the big screen. When his friends were on the fast track, their agents, managers, and attorneys tried hard to take control of the finished product. Finally the doc nabbed a slot at the Toronto Film Festival. The date was September 10, 2001, and the success of the screening was totally eclipsed by what occurred in Lower Manhattan on the following morning. Seemed like Carving couldn’t catch a break, but it was finally revised and released in 2011 as My Big Break.

At the conference, producer Elizabeth Yoffe hammered home the point of how Hollywood eats its own. If a promising young actor starts messing with drugs, they will be amply supplied to him, no questions asked. If he happens to O.D., those in the know will shake their heads sadly, and then use his death to help sell the public on his final film. Such was the case with another of Tony’s Hollywood pals, the late Heath Ledger, whose senseless demise turned The Dark Knight into a box-office bonanza.

It’s not so different from what just happened to Whitney Houston. A day after her death, the Grammy awards broadcast was a ratings smash. And expect more great ratings for her televised funeral tomorrow. For CBS, CNN, and everyone in TV-land, the death of a diva is surely the ultimate big break.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Roger Corman: Hearts and Flowers on St. Valentine’s Day

It’s February 14, so of course I’m thinking of Roger Corman’s St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. It details what led up to the famous mob-land killing in which Al Capone’s boys wiped out a rival Chicago gang. The film was released in 1967, amid worries by Warner Bros. studio honchos that Corman’s true-crime flick would upstage their own Bonnie and Clyde. They needn’t have worried: after a slow start Bonnie and Clyde became an enormous hit, and is regarded today as a classic. St. Valentine’s Day has its fans, but I’m not really among them. I firmly believe Roger’s best work as a director lay elsewhere. But there’s a nice story behind the making of The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, and it’s particularly fitting for a day dedicated to hearts and flowers.

Roger Corman has never been known as a warm-and-fuzzy guy. But actor Bruce Dern told me about a kindly Corman act that benefitted both him and a young Jack Nicholson. Because St. Valentine’s Day was a co-production with Twentieth Century-Fox, all the really good roles went to Fox contract players, like Jason Robards (who played Al Capone) and rising star George Segal. As Bruce put it to me, only “little shitbag roles” were available to himself and Jack, both of them members in good standing of the informal Corman stock company of actors. Roger told them, by way of apology, “I’m gonna make sure you each work the first week of the film and the last week of the film, so that even though you only have two days, you’ll be carried full five weeks.” In other words, Roger was cagily using SAG regulations to reward his favorites with paychecks far more ample than their small roles warranted. Bruce and I agreed that this gesture was pure Corman: he was great at being generous with other people’s money. Still, said Bruce, “It was so sweet that he did that for us, and I really liked him for that.”

Though Roger Corman’s cheapskate reputation is fully justified, in the course of his long career he’s also quietly dipped into his own pockets to help veteran employees. For instance, a fellow named Larry Cruikshank had known Roger since the old days, when he was (depending on whom you ask) either Roger’s first agent or the man who rented him his first office space. In the early 1970s, when Larry needed a job, Roger found a place for him on the New World staff. In the mornings he negotiated contracts and performed other business functions; in the afternoons he was a permanent fixture at a Sunset Strip watering hole. Nonetheless, his salary continued unabated. After Larry developed cancer, Roger instructed his staff to keep paying his health insurance premiums. Following Larry’s death in the mid-1980s, Roger made sure that the attendant who had nursed him through his final illness had been adequately compensated for his labors.

There’ve been other down-at-the-heels Hollywood functionaries, too, whom Roger quietly supported in one way or another, because their association dated back to the early years. Such kindly acts were not for show. A longtime employee, who remembers the entire Cruikshank episode, insists that Roger “never expected credit, or necessarily wanted anybody to know about it.” That was the generous side of Roger Corman. Stories about the other side will have to wait for another day. Perhaps Halloween.

This post is dedicated to loyal reader Craig Edwards, who remembered something about the Bruce Dern story but didn’t get the details quite right. Thanks, Craig, for giving me this opportunity to set the record straight!

Friday, February 10, 2012

Ben Gazzara, Al Capone, and Me

Ben Gazzara and I shared some scenes in 1975. Not that he would have remembered. Gazzara, who just died at 81, was an actor’s actor. An Actors Studio alumnus, he played Brick in the Broadway premiere of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), and was featured in A Hatful of Rain. At the movies, he was a soldier on trial for avenging his wife's rape in 1959’s Anatomy of a Murder, Later, he made several films for his compadre, John Cassavetes, starred in TV’s Run for Your Life, and scored as a slimy pornographer in The Big Lebowski.

Gazzara was once known as a picky actor, turning down plum parts in major films. I guess he wasn’t feeling quite so choosy when offered the lead role of Al Capone in a biopic for Roger Corman’s New World Pictures. Capone was a co-production, so its budget was a trifle higher than usual. Roger wanted a down-and-dirty crime pic like his own 1967 St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. The screenwriter for both was Howard Browne, a veteran of TV classics, like Cheyenne, Maverick, and 77 Sunset Strip. But Howard was also a former journalist nostalgic about his days covering the Chicago crime beat. I remember him in story meetings, rhapsodizing about the Windy City -- “I loved her like a woman.”

Browne’s Capone was the usual brash, crass crime boss. To me his most interesting character was Frank Nitti, portrayed as a numbers-cruncher whose larcenous deeds were at odds with his buttoned-down style. In Browne’s script, Nitti was unique among the thugs in that he dressed like an accountant and never swore. Some of that characterization went out the window, though, when the part went to Sylvester Stallone, on the strength of his work in Corman’s Death Race 2000. As Nitti, Stallone was clearly feeling his oats, adding in all the cusswords that Browne had deliberately left out. Oh well.

Roger entrusted directing duties to Steve Carver, who’d scored a solid Corman-style hit with another period film, Big Bad Mama. Steve invited me to appear in a speakeasy scene, so I showed up at an old ballroom near downtown L.A., and received flapper garb: a fairly ugly green dress and brown headband, plus garish makeup. There were scores of extras, but Steve positioned me at a roulette table, right near the door where a lawman or rival gang member (was it Dick Miller?) was about to burst in and wreak havoc. My second big moment came when Gazzara as Capone flies into a murderous rage, and someone ends up crash-landing on a craps table. I was one of the merry-makers standing around the table, reacting to the mayhem. Through multiple takes, I discovered I was reflected in a big wall-mirror that was part of the set. If I moved out of position even slightly, the shot would be ruined. Rarely have I felt so important!

Capone performed only modestly at the box office. But years later, Gazzara got another juicy Corman opportunity, playing a Singapore brothel-keeper in Saint Jack. This was a 1979 comeback film for Peter Bogdanovich, whom Roger had staked to a production deal. As Joe Dante remarked to me, “The thing about Roger is that you meet him on your way up, and if you’re not lucky you meet him again on your way down. Peter was particularly lucky because when he was on his downward spiral Roger hired him to do this picture. . . . It turned out to be a pretty good picture, and it put him back on the road.”

Monday, February 6, 2012

Old Celebrities Never Die: They Just Cook on TV

These days, fame is not fleeting. If you were famous once, you can be famous forever. This thought came to me while watching Madonna (still svelte at 54) cavort during yesterday’s Super Bowl halftime show. Other recent Super Bowl headliners have included Paul McCartney, The Rolling Stones, and The Who, all well into their sixties. These talents once topped the celebrity heap, and they still know how to deliver. But lesser figures also grace our TV screens: in fact, they’re everywhere.

Years ago, celebrities showed up on TV quiz shows. I still remember Pantomime Quiz, a charades-type show that later became Stump the Stars. (Highlights: actor Hans Conried expertly spewing forth Shakespearean quotations, and early Corman favorite Beverly Garland -- who once told me she was there for comic relief – going into desperate gyrations to mime a title or phrase.) Then for decades we could tune in Hollywood Squares, where old comedians would go to die.

Nowadays reality TV has spawned shows of the Celebrity Rehab ilk. But for those of us who like our celebrities clean and sober, there’s also been a rash of programming that puts once-familiar faces into unfamiliar situations. In 2010, actress Jennifer Grey recaptured past glories via victory on Dancing with the Stars. Of course, it’s not totally surprising that singers and actors (as well as Olympic athletes) know how to move to music. Gray’s 1987 breakout role in Dirty Dancing required her to look good on the dance floor, so it wasn’t wholly unexpected that she’d be able to slam across a dance routine, despite a body that’s aging and much-injured.

But who knew that fading Hollywood stars like to cook? The Food Network has just launched a new competition, featuring celebrity teams mentored by a pair of the network’s own superstars, the very peroxided Guy Fieri and zaftig Rachael Ray. Rachael vs. Guy: Celebrity Cook-Off has concluded its opening round, peopled by such minor celebs as Lou Diamond Phillips (La Bamba), actor and rapper Coolio, comedian Cheech Marin, and former ‘NSync cutie Joey Fatone, each of them trying to win prize money for charity. Dashing madly around a studio kitchen, they all demonstrated their chopping skills, confronted mystifiying secret ingredients, invented an amuse-bouche on the fly, and faced the challenges of plating while the clock ticked down.

What’s the appeal of has-beens and never-weres in the kitchen? Well, they face exotic tasks with a panache that perhaps we mortal folks lack. If a celebrity has true star-power, he knows how to project the force of his personality over the airwaves. The same is true, of course, of the celebrity chefs now cluttering cable cooking shows. Julia Child started it. These days, any chef worth his salt knows how to be charmingly adorable (or charmingly irascible) as he flambés, purees, and fricasees his way into our hearts.

Which leads me to a shout-out for Eric Greenspan, chef and resident live-wire at The Foundry on Melrose, near L.A.’s trendy West Hollywood. Eric is very short, very wide, and very loud. With his booming voice and unmistakable bellylaugh, he’s as much of an attraction at The Foundry as the excellent food. Naturally, he’s been featured on one of those competitive chef shows. I happened to see him get chopped from the lineup, following a disaster of a dessert that combined chocolate with fried grasshoppers. (He thought it would be a whimsical touch.) Dismissed by the judges, Eric retreated into the wings, looking like a sad little boy. His is a face made for TV, and I suspect he’ll be back again. Till then, bon appetit!

Friday, February 3, 2012

Of the Pill, Pregnancy, and One Perfect Baby

Unexpected pregnancies pop up in scores of movies. But though the Pill, which revolutionized women’s sexual behavior, has been marketed to American women since 1960, the moral implications (and complications) of this reliable method of birth control only rarely appear on screen. It fell to the British, at a time when Swinging London was still considered the height of hip, to try wresting social comedy from the easy availability of oral contraceptives. Prudence and the Pill, released in 1968, plunked such dignified English actors as David Niven and Deborah Kerr into a tale in which mother’s pills are stolen by daughter, who puts fakes in their place. There’s also a longtime mistress who sabotages her lover’s wife’s pill-stash, which is then borrowed by the housemaid. And so on.

This connubial roundelay, ending in multiple pregnancies, was meant to be fresh and funny, but Hollywood wasn’t amused. Upon the film’s release, its producer announced that when he’d sent the script to the MPAA for its approval, “they were horrified by the whole idea and said the picture shouldn’t be made. Then I sent the script to the British censor. He said the story was charming, delightful entertainment.” Ironically the British censor board had been quick to ban American films like The Wild One and The Trip (which remained outlawed until 2002), fearing these would help undermine civil authority. But I’m told the British view intimate relations as a personal matter, quite acceptable if not carried out in public. They tend to enjoy rowdy sex farces on stage and screen, so Prudence and the Pill -— with its marital hijinks and prim avoidance of actual passion -- promised to be their cup of tea.

The U.S., needless to say, has deep Puritan roots. (England overcame its flirtation with strait-laced Puritan types in the seventeenth century.) And the MPAA historically has worked hand in glove with the Catholic Church to promote traditional moral standards. Always more tolerant of screen violence than sexual matters, the MPAA in the Sixties was queasy about the light-hearted treatment of a contraceptive method good Catholics shunned. But though the British producer was banking on Prudence and the Pill winning notoriety in the U.S. by being denied a code seal, a recently revamped MPAA chose not to kick up a fuss, and the sloppily-made film sank without a trace.

In American movies of the Sixties, even those like The Graduate that dealt frankly with sex, the Pill was generally not discussed. In fact, even today the subject remains largely hush-hush, with viewers assuming that female characters with active sex lives are quietly taking care of their contraceptive needs off-camera. This suggests the degree to which moviemaking remains a male enterprise, reinforcing the happy fantasy of sex without consequences. Occasionally, though, the demands of a plot dictate otherwise. Judd Apatow’s 2007 comedy, Knocked Up, is explicit about a birth-control lapse that triggers an hilarious and ultimately heartwarming series of (blessed) events. Knocked Up’s view of life is a rosy one, much like that of Prudence and the Pill, in which relationships are vastly improved by surprise pregnancies. But at a time when most movies buy into the notion of casual sex with no strings attached, the fact that Knocked Up contains traces of an old-fashioned cautionary tale is a development that women like me can certainly appreciate.

This post is my left-handed tribute to Adrian Zev Grayver, born January 24, 2012. Adrian’s conception was by no means unplanned, and his arrival has caused great joy (as well as many sleepless nights). All hail to the fresh prince of Manhattan Beach!