Wednesday, June 27, 2012

What's in a Name?

Once upon a time, when I was writing press releases for New World Pictures, a sexy young thing who had just played the title role in a Roger Corman action flick asked me a jaw-dropping question. She wanted to know how to spell her name.

It was a stage name, of course, a little bit fancier than her plain-vanilla birth moniker. She knew how she wanted it pronounced, but the spelling part had her stumped. (No, I won’t identify her, but her performance as a topless kickboxer was really dynamite!)

Hollywood has always had a thing about names. In the old days, you couldn’t be groomed for stardom without being given a brand-new identity. Fox even auditioned cowboy actors to embody the heroic name they’d already chosen: Rex Bell. (It went to George Beldam, a hunky stuntman who later married Clara Bow.) Sometimes the studios were right. Frances Gumm just doesn’t have the ring of Judy Garland. Frederic Austerlitz Jr. is a mouthful: much better to become Fred Astaire. Still, I’ve never understood why Lucille LeSueur emerged as Joan Crawford. (Doesn’t the former name sound much more exotic and interesting?)

Some name changes, alas, were the studios’ way of concealing their stars’ ethnicity. Though most of the big moguls were themselves Jewish, they believed that the moviegoing public wouldn’t buy identifiably Jewish leading men and ladies. So Emanuel Goldenberg became Edward G. Robinson and Julius Garfinkle emerged as John Garfield. In a later generation, Betty Joan Perske was transformed into Lauren Bacall, and David Daniel Kaminski was shortened to Danny Kaye. The studio bosses can’t entirely be blamed; many Jewish actors instinctively changed their names in order win acceptance on American stages. But it’s quite true that Hollywood demanded that its stars come off as WASPs. When Danny Kaye was newly arrived in Hollywood, he was required to dye his red hair blonde for a more Anglo-Saxon look. And an attractive Spanish dancer, Margarita Carmen Cansino, was forced to change both her name and her hair color when Columbia Pictures decided to promote her from Latin spitfire to leading lady. She emerged as Rita Hayworth, and a star was born.

Norma Jeane Baker might have achieved stardom no matter what, but the yummy alliteration of the name Marilyn Monroe seems ever so much sexier. When I was growing up, male sex symbols, by contrast, were given hard, abrupt names. Remember Rock, and Troy, and Rick, and Tab? Brevity was supposed to sound macho, I guess. (Oh well . . .)

It was probably in the late Sixties when the Hollywood name game started to change. Gradually, it became acceptable to be more ethnic, and more of an individual. Barbra Streisand, who refused to change either her name or her nose, was part of an evolving pattern. How exciting when a lead actress could find success under the name Mary Steenburgen, or even Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. (Imagine that on the marquees of yore!)

Today I’m glad to say that (almost) anything goes. Actors can and do keep the names they were born with, and still have success in their careers. Look at Oscar nominees Jesse Eisenberg and Sacha Baron Cohen. Look at best supporting actress nominee Shohreh Agdashloo. And busy British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor. (How you pronounce that is anyone’s guess.) A former classmate of my son, a lovely and talented young lady, is doing just fine in TV and film with the complicated name Megalyn Echikunwoke. Makes me feel a bit sorry for Michelle Williams, who had to rise above her all-too-generic name to be recognized for her talent alone.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Loved One: Dying in Movies

I’ve just come from a memorial service for a good man who would seem to have deserved a longer stay on earth. He was a husband and a father, with two college-age sons. He wasn’t ill. Instead he fell victim to a cruel twist of fate: he was waiting on the sidewalk to cross a busy street when a driver (distracted or drunk) jumped the curb and plowed into him. I’m told the driver is now in jail. And this good man is dead.

Movies give us a warped perspective on death and dying. When my father succumbed – extraordinarily painfully – to pancreatic cancer, I was relieved that his suffering was over. But I also felt irrationally cheated that we’d been denied the kind of death scene I knew from movies, where the family gathers around their loved one’s bedside for a touching farewell scene. It’s a classic moment, in which wrongs are righted and old grudges dissolve into heartfelt declarations of love. In Love Story, Jenny and Oliver had such a moment, but my father never did. At the end, and for far too many days, he was not a person at all, simply a body waiting to breathe its last.

Then, of course, there are those movies where body count is all that matters. In most action flicks, we don’t get to know the dying: they are nothing but the modern equivalent of cannon fodder. I remember the late David Carradine telling me about the fun he’d had making Stray Bullet 2 at Roger Corman’s studio in Galway: “I think we kill every cop in Ireland.” And, yes, I remember Carradine’s iconic role in New World Pictures’ midnight-movie classic, Death Race 2000. In that outrageous indie (much bleaker than the big-budget Jason Statham remake), race drivers like Carradine’s “Frankenstein” scored points and encouraged fan adulation by running over as many pedestrians as possible. In meetings with screenwriter Chuck Griffith and Corman story editor Frances Doel, I personally helped invent creative ways for Frankenstein to rack up points without striking the audience as unsympathetic. One solution: a scene we called Euthanasia Day at the Old Folks’ Home, in which caregivers wheeled aged inmates into position to be mowed down by Frankenstein. Our script called for him to detour off the road and run over the cartoonishly evil-minded attendants, letting the oldsters live on.

Death Race 2000, like most films of its era, was relatively short on blood. But Bonnie and Clyde introduced two jolly killers whose own bullet-riddled demise -- shot in slow-mo and living color -- made for deliberately painful viewing. Pauline Kael famously wrote that Arthur Penn’s masterwork, “by making us care about the robber lovers, has put the sting back into death.” Maybe so, but Bonnie and Clyde could also be accused of paving the way for the string of increasingly grisly horror films we now call slasher porn, in which the yuck factor is part of the thrill.

Then there’s the notion of death as black comedy. The idea of satirizing the funeral industry goes back to 1965, with Tony Richardson’s darkly funny adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One. Richard Linklater’s Bernie can be viewed as an update, but has the distinction of being a true story, about a prissy undertaker (the bravura Jack Black) so well liked by his small-town Texas neighbors that they’d gladly see him get away with murder. To them, the grumpy old lady he shoots in the back wholly deserves her fate. Do we too, as moviegoers, prefer perps to victims? Death, where is thy sting?

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Girls in White Dresses . . .

It’s that time of year. Beaming young women in head-to-toe silk and chiffon sail down the aisle like Rose Parade floats. Occasionally someone notices there’s a groom too. I’m told the tradition of the wedding gown dates back to Victorian days, when the daughters of the wealthy could afford a one-time-only dress of pristine white. But today white wedding gowns are for anyone and everyone, whether or not they qualify as “pristine” in the traditional sense. And the choosing of such a gown can make for high drama, often involving the entire family. Which is why I’ve become hooked on a cable reality show called Say Yes to the Dress.

The version I’ve seen (on one of those treadmill TVs at my gym) is set in an Atlanta bridal salon. Each bride has come in with a small entourage, usually involving her mother, her sisters, and some BFFs. In one case, there’s also the groom, an unfortunate fellow who’s the only one brave enough to tell his bride that the poufy fairy-princess gown she’s chosen is not exactly a good fit for her plus-plus-plus-sized frame. The fun, of course, lies in seeing family dynamics at work. One mother-of-the-bride tries to upstage her daughter by trying on bridal gowns herself. A slim young woman who’s described as a “NASCAR bride” wants a dress that’s classy and figure-hugging, but has to fight a retinue that’s determined to deck her in lace, complete with frills and doodads. A bride planning a church wedding goes head to head with her very religious mother, who doesn’t buy her vision of appropriate garb for God’s house. The salon employees must mediate all this, trying to solve personal crises while also peddling expensive couture.

Most brides look to the movies (as well as to royal weddings) to decide how they’d like to look on their special day. Even the most self-assured bride can find herself aspiring to the fairytale bouffant style of Princess Diana or the sleek modernity of Princess Kate . . . or, back in the day, the demure but elaborately draped lace-and-satin ensemble worn by Elizabeth Taylor in 1950’s Father of the Bride. Taylor’s gown, I’m told, inspired millions of copies. Its popularity may explain why the bridal dress in the 1991 remake, though simpler, shares many of the same characteristics.

There are wedding gowns featured in all sorts of movies, from Camelot to The Godfather to Mamma Mia to Bridesmaids. Depending on the demands of plot and character, they range from the stately to the ostentatious, from the wispily romantic to the boldly outré. The big-screen version of TV’s Sex and the City revolves around the choice of a dress, with fashionista Carrie Bradshaw offered her pick of increasingly outlandish creations before finally, after many twists and turns, settling for simplicity.

When I interviewed legendary costume designer Theadora Van Runkle in 2008, she told me she’d received countless fan letters from brides-to-be who wanted to dress like Leigh Taylor-Young in the wedding scene from the 1968 Peter Sellers comedy, I Love You, Alice B. Toklas! But the fetching Ms. Taylor-Young was not in the movie’s several wedding scenes, which featured chiffon extravaganzas of the most garish sort. The wedding in the film represents the upper-middle-class conventionality from which the leading man flees to take up with a free-spirited hippie named Nancy. He never marries Nancy, but in one key scene she appears in a lacy white minidress with long flared sleeves. Just the thing, I’m sure, for a late Sixties Baby Boomer barefoot-on-the-beach wedding.

Dedicated to June brides everywhere – and their grooms too!

Monday, June 11, 2012

The Great Gatsby on Film: 3-D or not 3-D?

How apt that the trailer for Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby surfaced just before I flew to New York. I consider F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel about longing, romance, and money one of American literature’s greatest triumphs. And New York City is at its center. Fitzgerald’s prose encapsulates what excites me about the Big Apple: “the racy adventurous feel of it at night, and the satisfaction that the constant flicker of men and women and machines gives to the restless eye.” Here, as Gatsby and Nick Caraway ride into Manhattan from Long Island, is one of Fitzgerald’s most breathtaking descriptions: “Over the great bridge, with the sunlight through the girders making a constant flicker upon the moving cars, with the city rising up across the river in white heaps and sugar lumps all built with a wish out of non-olfactory money. The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world.”

Fitzgerald boasts a visual style that can rightly be called cinematic. Like other novelists of his era, he ultimately made his way westward in search of a fat studio paycheck. Disdainful of Hollywood and its ways, Fitzgerald produced little usable screen material. But his Hollywood period led to the writing of the Pat Hobby stories — which detail with utter conviction the life of a hack screenwriter—as well as the unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon, whose central character was inspired by “boy genius” Irving Thalberg. Later, Fitzgerald’s love affair with gossip columnist Sheilah Graham itself became a movie, based on Graham’s autobiographical best-seller, Beloved Infidel.

Baz Luhrmann is hardly the first filmmaker to see in The Great Gatsby terrific source material. There’s a silent version dating back to 1926, with Warner Baxter as Gatsby, though no copies survive. Alan Ladd played Gatsby in 1949, but the version most people remember was filmed in 1974, with Jack Clayton directing Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. (When I taught American literature to UCLA undergraduates, I kept a sharp eye out for students who thought they could watch the movie in lieu of reading the book. Like that scene of Gatsby and Daisy dancing under the big clock – that’s not in the novel, kids!)

Clayton’s The Great Gatsby struck me as dutiful but dull. But on the strength of his trailer, I’m hoping that Luhrmann can capture Fitzgerald’s phantasmagoric quality, that “blanket of beautiful prose” he used to transform the familiar world into magic. After all, he’s the chap who came up with something completely different in Moulin Rouge, and visually transformed Shakespeare’s oh-so-familiar Romeo and Juliet without doing violence to its text. Luhrmann’s promised use of 3-D technology may turn out to be mere gimmickry, or may (as in the case of Scorsese’s Hugo) add something wonderfully new.

By the way, though some New York snobs still exalt their Broadway theatre scene over our Hollywood movie madness, I was struck by the number of Manhattan locales that brag about having appeared in When Harry Met Sally or You’ve Got Mail or an episode of Seinfeld. When I went to the always-astonishing Metropolitan Museum of Art, one fashion exhibit juxtaposed the work of current designer Miuccia Prada with that of an earlier innovator, Elsa Schiaparelli. Schiaparelli, as played by actress Judy Davis, was seen on the museum’s walls in an imaginary dialogue with Prada. The video footage was directed by Baz Luhrmann, hinting once again that he’s a man who responds to visual style. Let’s hope!

This post is dedicated to Alan Bienstock and his bride, Hemed Mizrahi. Alan proposed in the Met’s Egyptian wing, and I wish them both a lifetime of love and beauty.

Friday, June 8, 2012

My Ray Bradbury Chronicles

I wasn’t always a Ray Bradbury fan. Back in high school, an ardent Bradbury enthusiast lent me a copy of Farenheit 451, but I found it far less convincing as a vision of the future than Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and far more sentimental. Yes, I was something of an intellectual snob in those days, which may have been part of the problem. At any rate, Truffaut’s film version, which came out a few years later, didn’t impress me either. Nor did a Bradbury story in my college Freshman English anthology, in which astronauts carelessly despoil a pristine planet. The message, it seemed to me, was all too heavy-handed.

It was during my first year at UCLA that I got the rare chance to participate in an off-campus colloquium on The Arts Today. I was thrilled to be accepted, but not entirely pleased to learn that Ray Bradbury would be one of the honored guests. I knew he’d be spending our weekend surrounded by slavish admirers (mostly male, mostly science majors) who had signed up primarily for the pleasure of his company. I was right: the fanboys were annoying, and Bradbury’s talk on the folly of trying to adapt Moby-Dick for a John Huston film starring Gregory Peck didn’t interest me much.

But something happened at that colloquium that was magical, at least for a Southern California kid like me. We were at a rustic conference center in the mountains near Lake Arrowhead, and it started to snow. Real snow – lots of it. That’s when I learned that Ray Bradbury is a good guy to have on your side in a snowball fight. (In this he was a dramatic contrast to our other weekend guest, the composer and music critic Virgil Thomson, a smug little man who regarded us rowdy undergraduates with frank disdain.)

Over the years I became aware of Ray Bradbury as a quintessential L.A. author. He seemed to be everywhere: showing up at local bookstores, at the theatre, on TV. The rare Angeleno who didn’t drive (though he was not averse to bumming rides from friends), he could frequently be spotted on his trusty bike, or on foot. I also learned of his generous support for local institutions. Clifton’s Cafeteria, a kitschy spot in downtown L.A., was a favorite of Bradbury’s in the tough early days, thanks to the owner’s policy of feeding the hungry, whether or not they could afford a meal. In 2009 Bradbury returned to the now-shabby Clifton’s to celebrate his 89th birthday in style.

I also learned to be more appreciative of Bradbury’s writing. I think it was in my kids’ high school anthology that I first read “All Summer in a Day,” a story that uses an outer-space setting to make its point about life on earth. It’s short but almost unbearably poignant: a small, perfect gem.

My second and last personal Bradbury encounter took place in 2003. My biography of Ron Howard was newly out, and I’d been asked to speak at a ladies’ luncheon held in a hotel ballroom. When I learned Bradbury was also on the program, I felt thoroughly daunted. He was physically frail by that point, but he spoke beautifully – and he couldn’t have been more gracious to me, despite the vast difference in our writing careers.

It’s been noted that Ray Bradbury died during a rare celestial event: the transit of the planet Venus across the Sun. What an appropriate time for the poet laureate of space exploration to leave us! He too was something rare.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Shades of Grey: Joel Grey and Family

On my recent trip to New York City, I indulged my passion for Broadway musicals by taking in Anything Goes, a show that was fresh and new in 1934. Back then, the songs Cole Porter wrote for the leading lady were belted out by Ethel Merman, she of the cast-iron lungs. For this Tony-winning revival, the adorable Sutton Foster got Merman’s Reno Sweeney role, but by the time I saw the show she had departed. Still, the cast was filled with veteran stage performers who sang and tapdanced up a storm. One of the cutest -- and certainly the oldest -- was Joel Grey, who’s still cavorting on Broadway at age 80.

In this romp set aboard a transatlantic luxury liner, Grey plays Moonface Martin, aka Public Enemy #13. Frankly, he seems too nice to be entirely convincing as a dangerous (though lovable) gangster. But the audience adores him, and you’ve got to give him credit for stamina. I also salute Joel Grey for his part in a show biz dynasty. His father, Mickey Katz, was a clarinetist and band leader with a distinctly Jewish appeal. Back in the days when Yiddishisms were understandable only to one small ethnic community, Katz amused his chosen people by recording parodies of familiar Fifties pop tunes. In his repertoire, the Kay Starr hit song “Wheel of Fortune” became “Schlemiel of Fortune,” and “Shrimp Boats Is A-Comin’, There’s Dancin’ Tonight” turned into “Herring Boats Is A-Comin’, With Bagels and Lox.”

When Katz’s son Joel came of age, he shed his obviously ethnic surname, and struck out on his own as a song-and-dance man. There’s an invaluable Youtube clip of Joel Grey at age 18, tripping the light fantastic on Eddie Cantor‘s TV show in 1954. He was performing on Broadway as early as 1951, first in his father’s musical revue, Borscht Capades, but later in plays and book musicals. His real break came in 1966 with Kander and Ebb's Cabaret. Grey’s iconic performance as the grotesque Master of Ceremonies who holds court at Berlin’s Kit Kat Club as the Nazis rise to power won him a Tony award. When the play was brilliantly translated to the screen by Bob Fosse, Grey added a best supporting actor Oscar to his mantel. He’s since made plenty of film and TV appearances, but Hollywood has never known quite what to do with this tiny, talented man. Though he was once touted as Hollywood’s next Danny Kaye, the decline of movie musicals sent him back to Broadway, and he's never left.

Then there’s Grey’s daughter, Jennifer. Lithe and lovely, she started out strong with two 1980s hit films, playing the sister in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Baby (the one who shouldn’t be put in the corner) in Dirty Dancing. In the latter film, her romantic duets with Patrick Swayze heated up the screen, and sent millions of young girls off in search of their own sexy dance instructors. But Jennifer’s path turned out to be star-crossed, plagued by injuries, soured relationships, and roles of only middling interest. Her life improved considerably in 2010, when she competed on Dancing With the Stars. At age 50, she overcame stress and serious spine issues to perform challenging routines with the exuberance of a much younger woman. When she and her partner emerged triumphant, her dad was in the audience cheering her on.

This weekend Broadway will be handing out its Tony Awards. One will probably go to the revival of Stephen Sondheim’s great show, Follies. There’s a song in Follies that probably has special meaning for Joel Grey and family: “I’m Still Here.”