Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Curtain Going Down on Hollywood’s Stages

It’s curtains for some historic Hollywood soundstages. L.A. has been abuzz with the news that a West Hollywood movie lot dating back to 1919 is about to undergo extensive renovations. Slated for immediate demolition at the former Warner Hollywood Studio are some venerable wooden office buildings and sound-dubbing stages erected in the time of Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford. In their place will rise glass and steel structures that are far more efficient, though far less picturesque. Such is life in the movie capital of the world.

I’ve spent some time at this particular Hollywood outpost. Known first as Pickford-Fairbanks Studio, it went through a variety of names (United Artists Studio, Samuel Goldwyn Studio) before being unimaginatively rechristened “The Lot.” I was there strictly for meetings, and caught no glimpse of the excesses of the old days, when Errol Flynn would legendarily sneak through a secret tunnel to have a drink at the intriguingly tawdry and only vaguely Chinese Formosa Café across the street.

Of course I came on the scene too late to truly experience the years when a movie lot was a small city populated by actors walking around in outlandish get-ups. When I was growing up, 20th Century-Fox’s huge New York Street (erected for Hello, Dolly) could be easily glimpsed from busy Pico Blvd., less than a mile from my home. And I got a whiff of the old studio era while writing a magazine piece about the making of a rather bold experiment, 1982’s Pennies from Heaven. This musical about a Depression-era Chicago sheet-music salesman who retreats into the fantasy world of pop tunes was staged in the old style, on richly detailed sets constructed inside several of MGM’s fabled soundstages. As I wandered across the lot, passing peroxided chorines on their way to lunch in the commissary, I felt I had traveled back in time. Too bad Pennies from Heaven cost (and lost) a small fortune.

Roger Corman once had a studio too. The overwhelming success of Star Wars (1977) convinced Roger that he should try an outer space epic, Battle Beyond the Stars. Prior to 1980, Corman movies had always been shot on practical locations, rather than on sound stages. It was with science fiction in mind that he set about buying the old lumber yard that became his Venice, California studio facility, sending attorney Paul Almond to negotiate with the ageing hippies of the California Coastal Commission who would need to give their approval of the sale. Paul’s hilarious description of the outcome is a highlight of my Corman biography. (See Excerpt #2)

Roger’s ramshackle studio proved unforgettable to those of us who spent time there. The stages were never properly soundproofed, and because the studio was directly in the flight path for L.A. International Airport, it was a challenge, when shooting a period piece, to avoid the sounds of jets and motorcycles. Ambulances too, because in this slightly unsavory neighborhoods there was sometimes real shooting going on. When it rained, the roof leaked. And Venice derelicts were apt to wander in, along with baffled customers who –- seeing the still-existing Hammond Lumber sign –- came by to purchase some 2x4s.

The late writer-director Howard R. Cohen told me that he and Roger once happened to be standing amid piles of scrap material when one of those lumber-seeking do-it-yourselfers drove onto the lot. Explaining that the lumber yard was now a movie studio, Roger sent him on his way. But then he had second thoughts, quipping to Howard, “You know, I could have made a few bucks off that guy.”

Steve Martin, who starred in Pennies from Heaven, is of course a comedian, actor, author, playwright, and master banjo-player. He's paying tribute today to the late Earl Scruggs, and I join him in mourning the loss of a great bluegrass legend.

Monday, March 26, 2012

A World Without Hollywood Endings (Spoiler Alerts Ahead!)

I didn’t realize what a creature of Hollywood I am until I checked out two of this year’s Oscar nominees for Best Foreign-Language Film. No question: they are worthy examples of international filmmaking, but both left me frustrated. The problem, I realized, is that neither has a Hollywood ending.

A Separation is the first Iranian film ever to win an Oscar. Not only was it nominated in the Best Foreign Film category, but it also earned a nomination for its original screenplay, a rare honor indeed for a film made in a foreign language. By no means overtly political, A Separation tells the intimate story of two married couples, whose destinies become intertwined. Still, in the course of telling a small personal story, A Separation touches on the social, political, and religious issues that are roiling Iran today.

At the heart of A Separation is a middle-class couple, not especially religious, who are on the brink of divorcing because she wants to give their eleven-year-old daughter a better life in America and he feels an obligation to his elderly father, caught in the grip of Alzheimer’s disease. When wife Simin moves out, husband Nader hires a housekeeper – a devout chador-wearing young woman – to tend his father while he goes to work. Complications, including a miscarriage, end up embroiling two families in a series of lies, half-truths, angry outbursts, and appeals for legal justice. Without giving away all the twists and turns of the plot, let me simply say that the film ends with a young girl asked to decide with which of her two parents she wants to live.

I waited breathlessly for her answer. I didn’t get one. The film was over. Which is probably terrific in prompting post-film discussions, but I went alone.

Footnote, from Israel, is as visually inventive as A Separation is austere. The story of father-and-son Talmudic scholars may sound dry, but there are moments of great wit here, as well as a profound understanding of human nature. Eliezer Shkolnik is a zealous researcher, and a curmudgeon with little use for his fellow Talmudists. These include son Uriel, a much more expansive thinker, as a well as guy who's quite comfortable shmoozing his fellow academics. With a major prize at stake, all hell breaks loose. At base, Footnote is an exploration of the intricate bond between father and son. It climaxes just as the big prize is about to be awarded. We in the audience know who is going to receive the prize, and who really deserves it. The characters know it too.

I was certain the film was moving toward a satisfying twist that would right all wrongs and end in a heartfelt reconciliation. So much for my Hollywood expectations. Footnote simply left the viewer hanging. I waited through the credits, all in Hebrew, hoping SOMETHING would resolve itself. Nope!

The one foreign film nominee I saw that conformed to my Hollywood expectation of a happy (or at least a tidy) ending was In Darkness, a Holocaust drama from Poland. It’s the true story of a small group of Jews, facing Nazi extermination, who are hidden beneath the streets of Lvov by a Polish sewer worker who seems to have mixed motives. There are horrors aplenty, but the film ends with the survivors emerging at last into sunlight. The joy with which they’re greeted by their former neighbors is pure Hollywood, though this film would have been heartbreaking without it. The ending’s not entirely upbeat, though. A caption tells us about the real-life fate of that good-hearted sewer worker – not so Hollywood after all.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Paris Past and Present, Afternoon and Midnight

“We’ll always have Paris.” That’s what Rick says to Ilsa just before their final parting in Casablanca, the movie classic now celebrating the 70th anniversary of its release. It’s a reminder that the memory of love can be sweet indeed, and also that the City of Lights is a fabulous backdrop for a love affair. As movies are forever proving, Paris is for lovers, and a romance in the shadow of the Tour d’Eiffel makes everyone slightly Parisian.

So many of my favorite romantic movies are set in Paris. And so many of them star the lithe and lovely Audrey Hepburn. Remember her romancing Fred Astaire in Funny Face? And Cary Grant in Charade? I recently watched Love in the Afternoon, writer-director Billy Wilder’s salute to the frothy romantic comedies pioneered by his idol, Ernst Lubitsch. Gary Cooper plays a wealthy American lothario, who enjoys trysting with available (and not-so-available)Parisiennes, with the help of champagne, a suite at the Ritz, and a discreet gypsy orchestra to set the mood. Maurice Chevalier is all Gallic charm as a private detective who’s on to Cooper’s wiles, but appreciates them nonetheless. And Audrey Hepburn is Chevalier’s cello-playing daughter, innocent but hardly stupid. She becomes infatuated with Cooper’s roguish reputation, appears on his hotel balcony to save him from a jealous husband bent on revenge, and finds herself swept into a romance that can’t be controlled. He’s so intrigued by her quirkiness that by the final fadeout he’s ripe for the plucking. Which means – in true Hollywood fashion – that he’ll marry the girl, change his wandering ways, and live happily ever after.

Love in the Afternoon, Funny Face, and Charade share a filmed-on-location Parisian backdrop. They also share the fact that in each of them the adorable Audrey finds happiness with a man old enough to be her father. For me, imagining a vibrant young Hepburn going gaga for leathery 56-year-old Gary Cooper was definitely a stretch. But her on-screen connection with much older men (let’s not forget Sabrina) does make for a handy segue into the films of Woody Allen. Needless to say, the Woodman has long seemed to have a penchant for sweet young things, in life as well as in films like Manhattan. It’s interesting to speculate what Allen would do with a film adaptation of Lolita. Fortunately, his most recent work has left the teenagers alone, and concentrated strictly on (nominal) grown-ups.

In the Oscar-winning Midnight in Paris, Allen has made the most of his opportunity to film in spectacular French locations: the Musée de Rodin, the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, Monet’s garden at Giverny. His Paris is gloriously romantic, but this is not (entirely) the story of a man who finds love with a beautiful young woman. Owen Wilson’s Gil, a successful Hollywood screenwriter, already has a beautiful fiancée (Rachel McAdams). Problem is: he’s a romantic, and she’s a material girl with zero appreciation for Paris in the rain: “What's wonderful about getting wet?” Magically, Gil time-travels to his favorite era, Paris in the Twenties, where he meets Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and the flapper of his dreams. Ultimately, he sadly concludes it’s wiser to stay in the present, a time blessed with such amenities as penicillin and novocain. But if he can’t choose his own era, he can at least choose his own locale. Henceforth, he’ll work on his novel in a city which -- past or present – exerts a special magic. At the end, a new romance seems to be blooming. But in any case, he’ll always have Paris.

(This post is for Laura Burns, diligent screenwriting student and unabashed Casablanca fan.)

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Hungering for a Female Hero

The Hunger Games is coming. Struck by photos of Jennifer Lawrence -- in character as Katniss Everdeen – coolly aiming bow and arrow at her prey, I started remembering back to the bold, tough heroines favored by Roger Corman. From his earliest films onward, Roger liked women who were neither shrinking violets nor clinging vines. The typical Corman heroine is more like a cactus, soft and juicy at the center, but prickly as hell on the surface.

Take Beverly Garland in Roger’s 1956 western, Gunslinger. She played a frontier gal who put on the sheriff’s star after her husband was slain by outlaws. Naturally she did a lot of riding, shooting, and rassling, while also playing a lusty romantic scene staged, for some reason, in a tree. Alas for Garland and male lead John Ireland, said tree was home turf for a colony of red biting ants – ouch!

To make a Corman movie, especially in the early years, women had to be tough off-screen as well as on. The seven-day rain-sodden shoot was so taxing that co-star Allison Hayes, who played a conniving saloon keeper, legendarily snarled to Roger, “Who do you have to fuck to get off this picture?” But she got no reprieve, even when she fell from a horse and broke her arm. Garland described for me years later how she herself badly sprained her ankle during a scene that required her to run down a flight of stairs, then leap onto a horse’s back. The following day, with the movie’s climactic cat-fight scheduled, she couldn’t even hobble, until Roger summoned a mysterious doctor with a large syringe: “And in a few minutes I could walk, I could jump, I could do everything. And I worked all day.” Ultimately she paid the price: “I didn’t work for three or four months after that, because I couldn’t walk very well. But that’s Roger; the show goes on.”

Other Corman heroines were equally feisty and physical, with a strong penchant for taking charge. Long before Ripley kicked intergalactic butt in Alien and its sequels, Pam Grier was showing (in films like The Big Doll House and The Arena) that women are hardly the gentle sex. I was at New World Pictures when Roger persuaded Angie Dickinson to star as Wilma McClatchie, a one-woman Bonnie-and-Clyde who robbed the rich and kept the loot in Big Bad Mama. Typically for a Corman film, Wilma had her soft side (she loved her two nubile teenage daughters) and her sexy side (she loved both Tom Skerritt and William Shatner). But she was also mighty handy with a gun, and she never backed down when the going got tough. Just as our production ended, Angie won the top role on the Police Woman series: TV has never been the same since.

At Corman’s Concorde-New Horizons, we created scores of plucky heroines. Over the years we introduced strong female cops (Silk), strong female martial artists (Angel Fist), and strong female superheroes (Black Scorpion). We gave the late Lana Clarkson her signature role, as the Amazonian leading lady in the sword-and-sorcery epic, Barbarian Queen. Of course these smart, savvy females all had great bodies, and performed feats of derring-do while wearing next to nothing. When the Black Scorpion character (lady cop by day, superhero by night), found her way into a Corman-produced TV series, Roger proudly told TV Guide that “where we economized was on the Scorpion’s costume—it doesn’t cover up a lot of her.”

Corman heroines were never meant as role-models for little girls. It was definitely their big brothers we were keeping in mind.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Picturing Raymond Chandler (in Living Black-and-White)

Raymond Chandler was no stranger to Hollywood. He was nominated for two screenwriting Oscars, for collaborating with Billy Wilder on Double Indemnity and for his solo outing on The Blue Dahlia. He also clashed colorfully with Alfred Hitchcock while hashing out a screen version of Strangers on a Train. He knew Hollywood well, both the workaday place and the state of mind. And no one is better than Chandler at capturing in prose the mix of seediness and splendor that marked the Hollywood of his day.

Hollywood was fascinated by Chandler too. Many of his taut little novels have been filmed, and his archetypal private eye, the tough-but-tender Philip Marlowe, has been played by some of the industry’s biggest names. I’m thinking especially of Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep, with Lauren Bacall as his love interest and a screenplay by none other than William Faulkner. Marlowe was also portrayed by Dick Powell, Robert Mitchum, and (of all people) Elliott Gould, who starred in Robert Altman’s somewhat goofy version of The Long Goodbye.

Since I’m both a lover of libraries and a devoted Santa Monican, I have long been involved with a Santa Monica Public Library program called Citywide Reads. Each year library staff and volunteers pick a novel, order many copies, and persuade lots of locals to read it. We then hold a series of book discussions – come one, come all! – along with film screenings, lectures, and special events. In 2012, to mark the program’s 10th anniversary, we’re spotlighting Raymond Chandler. After all, the Bay City described in his pages (a tawdry place, full of gambling dens, bad women, and crooked cops) is none other than our beloved home town. That’s why I’ve immersed myself in Chandler’s The Lady in the Lake. And why I watched one of the weirder films ever to come out of Hollywood.

Lady in the Lake (1947) stars Hollywood stalwart Robert Montgomery. He also directed, which may (or may not) help explain the film’s curious aesthetic choice. Though Montgomery plays Philip Marlowe, the viewer rarely sees him. He appears in the opening scene, sitting behind his desk, and explaining that he’s letting the audience solve his most recent case: “You’ll meet the people; you’ll find the clues. . . . You’ll see it just as I saw it.” This means that throughout the movie the camera becomes Marlowe’s point of view. Viewers hear his voice, follow his gaze, and occasionally see his hands (when he extends them to be handcuffed, or to land a punch). We catch occasional glimpses of him in a mirror, and the camera work sometimes suggests he’s gone woozy, on the brink of passing out.

MGM tried hard to sell this as “a revolutionary innovation in film technique.” The trailer breathlessly touts “the most thrilling of all mysteries, and YOU play the starring role with Robert Montgomery.” Moviegoers, possibly disappointed by the near-absence of the film’s star, stayed away. Chandler had worked on the screenplay, but heartily disliked the concept, and quickly extricated himself. (He may also have disliked the very Hollywood addition of a big romance for Marlowe, and a blissfully happy ending.) But for an example of genuine cinematic experiment within the studio system, Lady in the Lake is worth taking the plunge.

Also worth pondering is a book with a Roger Corman connection. Roger’s daughter Catherine – the one Corman offspring actively pursuing her own creative career – recently published Daylight Noir: Raymond Chandler’s Imaginary City. Her moody black-and-white photos, coupled with quotes from Chandler novels, showcase L.A. as “a city of well-guarded secrets.” So true, so Chandler.

(A free screening of Lady in the Lake will be held at the Santa Monica Public Library’s Martin Luther King Jr. Auditorium on Thursday, March 22, at 6:30 p.m.)

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: From March Madness into History

I seem to have let Black History Month slide by without a shout-out to the biggest black historian of them all. No matter: African-Americans are entitled to make history in months other than February. And March Madness is now officially underway. So it’s a perfect time to salute Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who has recently been named by the U.S. Department of State as an American cultural ambassador. Abdul-Jabbar, in case you haven’t heard, is the author of many serious books exploring black contributions to American life. He has chronicled the Harlem Renaissance, written about the unsung heroes of World War II’s mostly black 761st Tank Battalion, and just published a history of African-American inventors. Along the way, of course, he’s also played a little basketball. And made a surprising number of movies, the most famous of which is undoubtedly Airplane, in which (as co-pilot Roger Murdock) he spoofed his own public image as a serious, even humorless, guy.

It’s surprising (or maybe it isn’t) how many star athletes have ended up in movies. I once wrote an L.A. Times piece on a USC course in which student athletes –- including a future Heisman trophy winner –- fulfilled their fine-arts requirement by studying acting fundamentals. Their hope, of course, was to luck into a lucrative and glamorous Hollywood career, once their playing days were over. But despite their admirable physical grace, most star athletes don’t make great actors, because they’re not terrific at articulating lines on camera. Still, some have done well. Among former football greats, Merlin Olsen had a featured role on TV’s Little House on the Prairie, and even starred in his own series, Father Murphy. And Jim Brown, who debuted in major action flicks like The Dirty Dozen, is still taking on varied roles. Not to mention O.J. Simpson, who racked up a number of screen credits before he was (ahem) otherwise engaged.

In my Roger Corman days, when we were churning out routine thrillers by the dozens, Roger got the mad notion that the mere presence of a sports star would increase our audience. In one film he gave a supporting role to popular Dodger Steve Garvey. In another, he cast running back Roger Craig as a police detective, and made sure he was prominent in a chase scene so that fans could watch him run. Neither fledgling actor showed much talent, and I’m certain they didn’t increase our viewership of Bloodfist 6 or Naked Obsession.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, I suspect, would not have stooped to such exploitation. At least, when he and I were UCLA classmates, he projected a fierce dignity. He was Lew Alcindor then, the most recruited (and the tallest) player in college basketball. We were both enrolled in Professor Albert Hoxie’s Western Civ class, along with a few hundred other undergraduates. One day, I switched to an unfamiliar discussion section. I sat in the front row, and suddenly a huge shadow loomed behind me. Then two giant feet appeared, one on either side of my desk. I was so rattled that I dropped my pen on the floor, and just let it lie.

Professor Hoxie, a gifted lecturer with a flair for tracing the social and intellectual currents of an era, died at age 86 in 1999. His obituary in the Times noted that his most famous former student had lauded him in print. In the opening pages of his Black Profiles in Courage, he wrote that Hoxie “taught me that authentic history was not dry, lifeless facts, but rather the living legacies of real human beings.” Not bad for a white guy who couldn’t jump.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

It’s a Sherman World After All (or it used to be)

With “It’s a Small World After All” running through my head on a cerebral tape-loop, I’m thinking about the late Robert Sherman. Along with his look-alike younger brother Richard, he created hundreds of family-friendly tunes, many for Walt Disney. Sons of a Tin Pan Alley songwriter, the Sherman brothers had two essentials for success: talent and excellent timing. They hit their stride in an era that welcomed original movie musicals.

Starting out with Disney’s The Parent Trap (“Let’s get together, yeah yeah yeah”), they soon got the chance to set the adventures of P.L. Travers’ beloved English nanny to music. The result was Mary Poppins, a magical confection that charmed both the young and the young at heart. (How well I remember, as a high school senior, seeing it multiple times with my friends. On the brink of graduation into the real world, we were trying to hold onto our childhood as long as we possibly could.)

Mary Poppins earned the Shermans two Oscars: Best Song (for “Chim Chim Cher-ee”) and Best Musical Score. Their nominated 1968 song "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" may not have been a tune for the ages, but it definitely had broader appeal than the 2005 Oscar-winner, “It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp.” Visitors to Disneyland won’t soon forget their infectious soundtrack for the “Tiki Tiki Tiki Room” (even if they’d like to), and if you’re old enough you probably also recall their syrupy “Carousel of Progress” paean to modern technology: "There's a great big beautiful tomorrow/Shining at the end of every day.” They don’t make ‘em like that anymore.

Today, of course, most movies don’t have song scores. Only Randy Newman, responsible for the musical moments in most Pixar films, seems even faintly comparable to the Shermans. And when’s the last time someone paid Newman to write a full-out screen musical? Lately the field for the original song Oscar has become so sparse that last year there were only two candidates on the ballot: “Real in Rio” and “Man or Muppet.” (The latter, which won, is an amusing spoof of the heartfelt movie ballads of old, but hardly something you come out of the theatre humming.) Nor is today’s Broadway any more hospitable to song-writers. Many of the Great White Way’s current musical hits are oldies, like How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and even a revival of Cole Porter’s 1934 Anything Goes. Others are stage versions of Hollywood musicals (including Mary Poppins) or re-purposed compilations of familiar pop tunes (Jersey Boys). If the Sherman brothers were starting out now, I don’t know where and how they’d catch on.

This concerns me because my son Jeffrey (who grew up loving Gilbert and Sullivan, Rogers and Hammerstein, and other great song-writing duos) is determined to enter the musical theatre field. At Manhattan’s prestigious BMI workshop for composers and lyricists, he became friendly with Robby Sherman, one of Robert’s sons. Through Robby he learned something of the Sherman brothers’ working method. As tensions rose between them, Robert relocated to London while Richard remained in Beverly Hills. But the partnership continued via long-distance phone and electronic media, proving once again that it’s a small world after all. (A 2009 documentary film, The Boys, gently explores their strained relationship.)

My son Jeff lacks Robby Sherman's family connections in the musical theatre field. He has talent (and an award from the New York Fringe Festival to prove it), but his timing is hardly the best. Nonetheless he and his collaborators have great expectations for a March 12 reading of their latest show, about rival paleontologists. Jeffrey, here’s hoping The Bone Wars proves to be supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Whitney Houston and Zina Bethune: Two Who Died Too Soon

No doubt about it: the sudden death of Whitney Houston was a sad moment for Hollywood and the world. Yet as much as I lament over a great talent gone to waste, I can’t help feeling frustrated that Houston’s tragedy seemed to be mostly of her own making. From all I hear, she lived large, loved deeply but not too wisely, and was caught up in the self-obsession so common to show biz royalty. In Hollywood circles, of course, that hardly made her unique.

On February 11, 2012, Whitney Houston was found dead in the bath tub of her suite at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. Less than twenty-four hours later, just after midnight on February 12, sixty-six-year-old Zina Bethune died on Forest Lawn Drive in L.A.’s rustic Griffith Park.

Zina who? I remembered her name from an old CBS TV series called The Nurses. This was the era when Vince Edwards starred as an intense young doctor on Ben Casey and Richard Chamberlain found fame as an intense young intern who butts heads with the medical establishment on Doctor Kildare. Both doctor series got their start in 1961, and The Nurses -- an obvious attempt to play up the female aspects of hospital drama -- first aired one year later. Bethune, a youthful veteran of the New York City Ballet, was cast as an intense student nurse who (yes, of course) butts heads with the medical establishment. After the first season, The Nurses changed its name to The Doctors and the Nurses, so that men could be around to help solve the women’s problems. To be honest, I don’t think I ever saw the show.

But I did see Zina Bethune playing the nice-girl part in Who’s That Knocking at My Door, the ambitious but muddled love-and-sex story that helped launch Martin Scorsese on his long career. The film contains a flashback to a brutal rape, and I found myself blaming the scene’s cinematic stiffness on Bethune’s limitations as an actress. Hard to say, but there’s no question that hers was not a terribly impressive career.

It was what she did after Hollywood that intrigues me now. After the roles stopped coming, she remained in Southern California, married, and devoted herself to a life in the arts. In 1980 she founded and served as choreographer for Bethune Theatredanse, a nonprofit multimedia company that has toured internationally, even performing at the White House. Another of her ventures was Infinite Dreams, a dance and theatre outreach program for children with disabilities. More than 8,000 physically, emotionally, and cognitively disabled youngsters have been welcomed into classes held throughout Southern California. Bethune, who as a young girl battled scoliosis and other ailments, tells the world on the organization’s website: “We don’t ask how much can you move, we simply say . . . come dance with us.”

Bethune’s work earned her numerous commendations. But she never ceased caring about those who were smaller and more helpless than herself. On February 12, she stopped her car on a dark stretch of road to tend to an injured possum. Sadly, she was struck by a car traveling in the opposite direction, and then by a second vehicle that dragged her 600 feet. Neither driver stuck around, so neither was present when she died of massive head injuries. On March 8 those who loved her gathered in a local theatre for a memorial service. It was not nationally televised.

Friday, March 2, 2012

(Chris) Rocking the Voice Actors’ World

One of the most talked-about parts of this year’s Oscar broadcast has been Chris Rock’s comic riff on supplying voices for animated characters. Said Rock, “I love animation because in the world of animation, you can be anything you wanna be. If you’re a fat woman, you can play a skinny princess. If you’re a short, wimpy guy, you can play a tall gladiator. If you’re a white man, you can play an Arabian prince. And if you’re a black man, you can play a donkey or a zebra.” Obviously, Rock was making a social point – and a good one. But he went on to declare that “voice-acting is the easiest job in the world,” a simple matter of walking into the booth, saying a few lines, and collecting a million dollars. Nice work if you can get it, and a well-known performer like Rock (or Eddie Murphy or Mike Myers or Antonio Banderas or Tom Hanks) certainly enjoys million-dollar paydays that don’t even require him to learn his lines or wear makeup

But Rock’s put-down of voice-acting didn’t sit well with those workaday folks who earn their living supplying voices for commercials, games, and cartoons. On the Voice Acting Alliance site, many pointed out the obvious: that when you’re Chris Rock, you’re hired to sound like Chris Rock. Voice-acting specialists, though, need to be credible in a wide range of roles, covering many moods, age groups, and character types. When a producer is looking to save money, you may end up having a conversation with yourself, even if the scene involves (let’s say) an old lady chiding a little girl. Or perhaps you’ll be asked to play three young boys, each requiring a distinctive sound.

I have special affection for voice actors because long ago, in that era when Roger Corman took time out from T&A to distribute art-house flicks, New World Pictures acquired an animated feature from France. Known as Planète Sauvage (or Fantastic Planet), it was a lush depiction of a faraway world where humans were kept as pets by giant blue creatures, some of them benign. For the benefit of the American drive-in crowd, Roger wanted the characters to speak English. So we translated the script, tailoring the new lines to fit as closely as possible the mouth-positions of the characters, and then looked for a handful of actors who could play all the roles while also meeting the technical demands of a hurry-up looping session. We were lucky indeed to cast veterans of the Golden Age of Radio, including deep-voiced Olan Soulé, who liked calling himself the world’s oldest Batman. Another treasure was cuddly Hal Smith, who’d graduated from playing the live-action part of Otis, the town drunk, on The Andy Griffith Show to re-creating famous character voices for Disney animation.

Then there was Janet Waldo, who began her acting career as a giddy teenager, Corliss Archer, on a popular radio show that debuted in the 1940s. Janet’s first brush with animation came when she played daughter Judy Jetson for Hanna-Barbera’s futuristic sitcom, The Jetsons. Though she continued to star in youthful roles on such cartoon series as The Adventures of Penelope Pitstop and Josie and the Pussycats, she proved equally adept at supplying the voices of crotchety grannies, tough dames, and children of both sexes.

Today, Janet Waldo is enjoying her seventh decade in show business. We’ve just chatted on the phone, and her voice sounds as youthful as ever. So maybe Chris Rock was right: voice acting is easy. Or maybe it’s the challenges involved that have kept Janet Waldo young at heart.