Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Republican National Convention and the Legacy of Louis B. Mayer

(L.B. Mayer Slept Here)

It’s that time in our national political life when delegates assemble to nominate their party’s candidate for President of the United States. I wonder if, amid all the hoopla, anyone stops to remember the contributions of Louis B. Mayer, the MGM honcho who put his own indelible stamp on the Republican Political Convention of 1932, thereby changing American politics forever.

I get my information from an excellent book published last year by USC professor Steven J. Ross. Its title is Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics. Taking exception to the common wisdom that Hollywood types are all a bunch of lefties, Ross carefully lays out the lives and careers of ten major show biz figures -- ranging from Charlie Chaplin to Arnold Schwarzenegger -- who tried to publicly act on their political beliefs. Ross (with whom I chatted at this year’s Biographers International Organization conference) is hardly a man who lacks his own political convictions. But he’s successfully kept them out of sight in this book, the better to weigh the achievements of everyone from Ronald Reagan to Jane Fonda, from Charlton Heston to Warren Beatty.

For me perhaps the most eye-opening part of Ross’s book is its chapter on Hollywood mogul Louis B. Mayer, “the man who brought Hollywood into the Republican Party.” Mayer, who began life as a poor Russian Jewish immigrant before rising to fame and fortune as MGM’s powerful studio chief, naturally gravitated toward the pro-business, anti-communist views of the Republican Party. A friend and an early political supporter of Herbert Hoover, he surprised his detractors with a well-received speech at the Republican Convention of 1928, in which he promised to bring the entire movie industry into the Republican fold. Immediately following Hoover’s inauguration as President, Mayer and family were the first guests invited to a White House sleepover.

With Hoover in the White House, Mayer offered the Republican Party what Ross calls “a new element of glamour.” Visiting Republican politicos were given tours of the grandiose MGM lot –- “the Versailles of the movies” –- and offered plenty of photo ops with Hollywood’s brightest stars. (In exchange, MGM found it easy to borrow battleships and fleets of Navy planes, and won permission to photograph the White House interior in order to re-create it for an upcoming film.) Soon Mayer was named vice-chairman of the California GOP: his biggest contribution was teaching Republicans how to use Hollywood-style showmanship as a way of wooing voters.

The Republican National Convention of 1932, in which the incumbent Hoover was re-nominated by his party, was marked by Mayer’s savvy awareness of the pizzazz needed to get the public interested. The convention was to be broadcast on national radio, and Mayer made sure his listeners heard more than windy orations. He introduced live music during delegate demonstrations, as well as a talking film of President Hoover. For the newsreel cameras, he provided a colorful balloon-drop once Hoover’s nomination was secured. With the campaign launched, Mayer sent such luminaries as Ethel and Lionel Barrymore, Al Jolson, Wallace Beery, and young Jackie Cooper (who said he’d vote for Hoover if he were old enough) to political rallies near and far. Unhappily for Mayer, Hoover was defeated in 1932 by Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his New Deal.

Mayer’s methods weren’t always strictly kosher. In 1934, when he worked toward the election of a Republican governor in California, he faked newsreel footage and forced MGM employees to contribute financially to the campaign. Such dirty tricks, too, have become part of our political heritage.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Ballyhoo, or the Necessity of Blowing Your Own Horn

It’s been a good week for my self-esteem. Loyal reader Craig Edwards (a former denizen of Movieland himself) has posted on his website a most amusing interview with yours truly, complete with slightly zany photos. And biographer Jack El-Hai (author of The Lobotomist and other fascinating books), chose Beverly in Movieland as one of the history blogs he most enjoys. Naturally I’m spreading the word. We who live and work in Movieland know the value of good publicity.

There’s a fine art to generating buzz, which is why most Hollywood regulars call on the services of a public relations firm. I first encountered publicists when doing celebrity interviews for the Los Angeles Times and Performing Arts magazine. A good publicist wants his or her client to get attention in the media, but it’s also part of the job to shield that client from discomfort of any sort. I remember a lengthy interview I once did with Steve Tesich, who won an Oscar for writing Breaking Away. We spoke in his suite at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, and throughout our chat there was a stony-faced publicist sitting in the corner, silently weighing every word. When at last the publicist slipped out for a moment, Tesich looked at me quizzically. “What exactly,” he wondered aloud, “does she think she’s protecting me from?”

Working for Roger Corman taught me all about the other side of the publicity game. Corman folk quickly learned to ramp up public interest in our films through creative exaggeration, not to mention outright lies. When working on press materials, my colleagues and I let our imaginations run wild, announcing that Big Bad Mama actress Susan Sennett was the granddaughter of filmmaking pioneer Mack Sennett, and bestowing on Jeanne Bell, who starred in the martial arts flick TNT Jackson, the coveted (and purely imaginary) Ebony Fist Award, in recognition of her “expert form, flexibility, and muscle tone.” Jon Davison, now a producer (Airplane!), was a master at creating publicity campaigns that essentially parodied serious hype. Jon’s official Piranha press-kit suggested that exhibitors create “exciting pre-publicity” by leaving dead piranhas on the banks of local lakes and streams: “Promote community interest and fear by organizing groups (Boy Scouts, citizen volunteers, etc.) to guard against the ‘coming onslaught.’ Give enterprising kids in your area a few bucks to make themselves scarce for a few days. Watch your grosses soar!!”

Meanwhile, Roger Corman himself pays an off-again on-again publicist to keep his name in the news. One of my duties at New World Pictures was to come up with bogus items suitable for planting in the columns of Hollywood trade papers. Just of grad school, I couldn’t resist giving my items a literary spin. Thus it was duly announced by Hank Grant in The Hollywood Reporter that Roger had signed the legendary Orson Welles to star in a new screen version of The Scarlet Letter, and that he planned to film Herman Melville’s The Confidence Man. (I chose The Confidence Man as a quiet in-joke, because it was the least cinematic public-domain novel I could think of.)

Year after year, the game has continued. In 2002 I asked Corman veteran Frances Doel about an item in Variety. It announced that Roger was prepping The Return of the Animator: “The head of an animation company comes back to life in 2066, one hundred years after having been cryogenically frozen.” Part of the joke, of course, lay in the cheeky reference to rumors surrounding the late Walt Disney. Frances was also tickled to learn that she herself was supposedly writing the script.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The End of TomKat and Don Grady (a Cool Cat)

This is a tough time to be a fan of Hollywood. So many great personalities have recently left us that I’ve had no chance to pay individual tribute. So here’s a collective hail and farewell to Frank Pierson (writer of Cool Hand Luke), Ernest Borgnine (who proved ugly can be cool), Lupe Ontiveros (who made it cool to portray a maid), Al Freeman Jr. (dangerously cool in Dutchman), Phyllis Diller (who looked as though her hair was washed in Cool Whip), and Tony Scott (whose mysterious plunge from the Vincent Thomas Bridge has sent icy shivers down my spine).

I was overseas in late June 2012 when news broke that a Hollywood power couple was no more. So pervasive is the public image of TomKat that the split between Katie Holmes and Tom Cruise seemed like a celebrity death of sorts. Certainly, European tabloids were as excited as American ones that Tom and Katie had reached the end of the road. It’s sad, of course, when any marriage dies, especially when a child is involved. But I felt far sadder later that day when I learned about Don Grady’s death from cancer at the age of 68.

Most of the world (or that part of it touched by American television) knew Don Grady as an early Mouseketeer who found greater fame as Robbie Douglas on My Three Sons. This was one of those inoffensive shows from the early Sixties, full of family squabbles and warm-hearted reconciliations. To be honest, I rarely saw it.

Don Grady did well as a show biz kid because he was talented, musical, and fearless. He was pleasant looking, with a dimpled chin that might even have impressed Kirk Douglas. And he was short (5’7” was his adult height), which for a child actor is always a great advantage: you can play younger than your actual age, and come off seeming mature and precocious. One other advantage for Don was the fact that his mother Mary was a well-known Hollywood talent agent who specialized in representing kids.

All these advantages couldn’t protect Don, circa 1968, from the U.S. Army. The Vietnam War was raging, and most young men I knew (including my husband-to-be) were looking for ways to save themselves from slogging down the Ho Chi Minh trail. Bernie was good enough on the trumpet to land a gig with an Army Reserve marching band unit, which met regularly for drills and performances. Don Agrati (serving under his birth name) was a bandsman too. Despite his Hollywood pedigree, he put on no airs. Once, when the unit was stationed at Fort Lewis, Washington, a trio of guys walked into a supermarket. Gaping at Don, the checker asked, “Aren’t you on TV?” “Not me,” he answered, then pointed out a fellow soldier. “He’s on TV.”

Don in that era was trying to make it as a musician. (He eventually succeeded, as a glance at his website proves.) I have in my hand a 1973 relic, Don’s debut solo album for Elektra Records, Don Agrati Homegrown. The final track, a nostalgic ditty called “Two-Bit Afternoon,” featured a cameo by the 300th Army Band playing a cheerful march Don had written. I was there when the guys, in their olive-drabs, strutted through the streets of Don’s little beach town, tooting away for the microphones, before adjourning to his charming house, complete with recording studio. There his then-girlfriend (on TV and for real), Tina Cole, scooped up spaghetti for one and all. I’ll never forget that beautiful Southern California day. Don will be missed.

By the way, I certainly wouldn’t dream of blowing my own horn (yeah, right!), but anyone at all curious about how Beverly got to Movieland should check out Craig Edwards’ current blog post at "Let's Get Out of Here." Enjoy!

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Holm and her Range: Celeste Holm 1917-2012

I first encountered Celeste Holm when my parents let me stay up to watch Gentleman’s Agreement on the late show. The film had ignited much controversy in 1947, because it dared to expose the covert anti-Semitism entrenched in American life. No, the United States in the 1940s didn’t legally bar Jews from schools and jobs, nor did it ship Jews to extermination camps. But there were college admissions quotas as well as rampant discrimination in housing (“No Jews or dogs allowed”), and white-shoe business firms were quietly clear about not wanting Jews to darken their doors, even as secretaries. Gentleman’s Agreement tackled some of that ugliness with its story about a WASP journalist named Philip Schuyler Green who goes undercover as “Philip Greenberg” to experience anti-Semitism in NYC and in the notoriously restricted suburb of Darien, Connecticut.

I’ve heard that Darryl Zanuck of Twentieth Century-Fox decided to film Laura Z. Hobson’s novel after being refused membership in the L.A. Country Club because its honchos assumed that Zanuck (like most Hollywood studio moguls of that era ) was Jewish. I’ve also heard that Jewish film execs were wary of the project, fearing it would stir up trouble. Zanuck found his reward when Gentleman’s Agreement became one of the highest grossing films of 1947. It won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director (Elia Kazan), as well as a Best Supporting Actress statuette for Celeste Holm, whose earlier movie roles had been in vapid musicals. (She started out as the original Ado Annie in the Broadway smash, Oklahoma!)

I barely remember the plot of Gentleman’s Agreement, but I’ll never forget Holm’s big scene. She plays a pal of Gregory Peck, a stylish fashion editor who’s both smart and good-hearted. No fan of bigotry, she describes to Peck how appalled she was at a gathering where someone got a laugh by telling an anti-Semitic joke. Peck asks how she handled the situation. She answers with great passion, “I just sat there.” The gist of the scene, of course, was that just sitting there, inwardly fuming, is hardly good enough. When rampant bigotry rears its head, you can’t be afraid to raise your voice in protest. It’s a message that has stuck with me ever since.

Holm’s blend of sweetness and smarts (she resembles a slightly less acidic Eve Arden) is also on display in a romantic comedy from 1955, The Tender Trap. She’s featured as a transplanted midwesterner who’s now the only female violinist in Manhattan’s prestigious NBC Symphony. Unfortunately, career success hasn’t brought happiness: “One fine day we look around, and we’re thirty-three years old and we haven’t got a man.” She’s frank with a potential suitor: “Do you have any idea what's available to a woman of thirty-three? Married men, drunks, pretty boys looking for someone to support them, lunatics looking for their fifth divorce -– quite a list, isn’t it?” This being a romantic comedy, someone appropriate turns up for her in the end. But naturally Holm is the sidekick, not the female lead. That honor goes to Debbie Reynolds, as the conventionally cute twenty-two-year-old who snags and domesticates the swinging bachelor twice her age played by Frank Sinatra.

I’ve read Celeste Holm’s obits, and it’s clear that she, like her character, never quite figured out how to make her domestic longings come true. She was married five times (divorced thrice, widowed once), and suffered through a protracted legal battle that ate up her savings while pitting her two sons against husband #5, forty-five years her junior, whom she married at age eighty-seven. I have a feeling she deserved better.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Elvis at the Movies, or Heartbreak Hotel Goes Hawaiian

I marked the 35th anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley by remembering the happy days and nights I spent at the Heartbreak Hotel. Yes, there is one – and it’s right across the street from Graceland. I can’t quite remember what brought us to Memphis, but it’s a city full of tourist attractions: the original Sun Records, the music clubs on Beale Street, the National Civil Rights Museum (not a cheery place, because it’s housed in the motel where Martin Luther King was murdered), the ducklings who march daily through the lobby of the Peabody Hotel (yes, really), lots of good barbecue. We wanted to stay in the heart of all that, but somehow we wound up in Elvis Heaven, at 3677 Elvis Presley Boulevard.

As you would imagine, the Heartbreak Hotel is as garish as the man who inspired it. The lobby is done up in shades of purple, bright blue, and mustard. Just off it is the Jungle Room Lounge, with décor that reflects Elvis’s own party den across the road. At the Heartbreak Hotel, you can choose among the Hollywood Suite (sleek art deco), the Burning Love Suite (romantic shades of red), the Graceland Suite (“gives guests the sense of living in their own diminutive Graceland Mansion”), or the Gold and Platinum Suite. We opted for a simpler room, and didn’t bother to patronize the gift shop where you can buy Elvis wine and an Elvis birthday card. But for me the Heartbreak Hotel’s oddest, greatest delight was that each guest room features Elvis movies round-the-clock.

Elvis Presley starred in 31 movies over a period of just 13 years. Frankly, I saw bits and pieces of so many of them that they all blend together in my mind. But most feature an Elvis who’s slender, attractive, fun-loving, and prone to break into a sappy love song or a lively up-tempo tune. The backdrops change, but the plots are generally pretty much interchangeable: see Blue Hawaii, It Happened at the World’s Fair, Fun in Acapulco. In Harum Scarum (a movie that would never be made today), romantic entanglements have him running around an Arab kingdom, sometimes in flowing robes, charged with assassinating the local potentate. In Kissin’ Cousins, he plays twins, and romantic entanglements have him running around the Ozarks spooning with man-hungry hillbilly gals.

One film I saw from start to finish was Elvis’s first. Love Me Tender (1956) is a serious romantic drama, set in the aftermath of the Civil War. Elvis plays, with impressive simplicity and sweetness, the youngster who’s stayed home to look after the farm and ended up marrying the sweetheart of the elder brother (Richard Egan) who reportedly died in battle. Of course big brother belatedly returns, with murderous consequences – but not before Elvis has touchingly crooned the title ballad. There’s a sense of conviction in Elvis’s performance here I didn’t see elsewhere. Who knows what he could have done in Hollywood if he’d been given better acting challenges? Or if his primary obligation wasn’t to sell soundtrack albums?

In any case, I hear Elvis enjoyed the time he spent living in Southern California. One favorite pastime was riding motorcycles in the hills of Bel-Air. (A man who once worked for a Triumph dealership remembers him coming in with his entourage, then ordering new bikes for all.) Surprisingly, one of his favorite hang-outs was the Lake Shrine, a peaceful garden retreat in Pacific Palisades maintained by the Self-Realization Fellowship. It must have been a good spot to shrug off the pressures of celebrity, Elvis-style.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Remembering Helen Gurley Brown: Sex and the Hollywood Girl

I’ve always been fascinated by the career of Helen Gurley Brown. Come to think of it, I’ve always been fascinated by the name of Helen Gurley Brown. Not easy to take her seriously, when the “girly-girl” aspects of her personality seem to be spelled out in her moniker. But I digress. The fact is, she changed America’s view of female sexuality. Brown’s publication of Sex and the Single Girl in 1962 proclaimed that women, like men, could enjoy sex outside of marriage. Sex and the Single Girl, which tells working women how to meet, entice, and perhaps eventually marry the men of their dreams, was a bestseller that helped usher in the Sexual Revolution.

Brown’s book heartily endorses the sex act, but is surprisingly mum about possible biological consequences. This despite the fact that the Sixties had introduced a medical breakthrough that would transform women’s intimate lives. In June 1960, the birth-control pill first came onto the market. Though greeted enthusiastically by many, it was banned in some states until a 1965 Supreme Court decision permitted its use by all married women. The unmarried in numerous locales had to wait for a follow-up legal decision in 1972, but a Baby Boomer memoirist recalls that co-eds of his acquaintance “obtained prescriptions through dermatologists who were willing to support the conceit that it cleared up acne.” Gradually, oral contraceptives filtered through American society, leading to what John Updike called in Couples, his much-discussed 1968 novel about wife-swapping in suburbia, “the post-pill paradise.” Mrs. Robinson might not have approached Benjamin so boldly without this handy and nearly foolproof way of covering her tracks.

We might assume that movies from the early Sixties onward would reflect women’s uncertainties about their new options. But Hollywood instead stuck closely to its old formulas. When Sex and the Single Girl became a movie in 1964, it was less an exploration of female sexuality than Doris Day redux. A pretty but vacuous Natalie Wood portrayed Helen Gurley Brown, who in the screen version is a psychologist as well as a best-selling author. Her notoriety has led a scandal rag to accuse her of being a “twenty-three-year-old virgin.” Little does she know that a new patient (Tony Curtis) is both a cad and a snooping journalist determined to pin down an answer to a key question: “Does she or doesn’t she?”

Sex and the Single Girl steals shamelessly from 1961’s Lover Come Back. Like Doris Day, Wood dresses in gleaming white to emphasize her innocence. (She also combines crisp white with stark black, thus resembling a human Rorschach test. Only in the film’s last scene, as a woman in love, does she switch to feminine, flowing peach hues.) Like Rock Hudson, Curtis pretends to be sexually insecure and turns to Wood for help. As her infatuation with him grows, she may spout both psychological jargon and feminist rhetoric —- “When I do get married, it’s not going to be for love or sex or romance. I can get all of those things outside of marriage, just as easily as you can” —- but in fact the movie firmly endorses a double standard. By the end of the film he’s proposing, and she’s talking about giving up her career. At a time when American females were beginning to separate the idea of sex from matrimony, Sex and the Single Girl sticks to the old notion that the business of women is to get married. As the film’s catchy theme song tells us, the single girl who plays her cards right, sexually speaking, will find “that suddenly she’s not single anymore.”

Monday, August 13, 2012

From the Court (or the Pool) to the Sound Stage

The other evening, when the gold-medal duo of Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings were chatting with Bob Costas of NBC, he commented that ideal casting for a Hollywood treatment of these two beach volleyball stars might be Deborah Messing and Laura Dern. Walsh -- the tall, willowy blonde -- disclosed that her shorter, more curvy brunette partner had fantasized being portrayed by Sandra Bullock. It was all in fun (I think). Frankly, I was relieved that no one's suggesting the two women go Hollywood and play themselves. Or use their victory as a springboard to serious acting careers.

Years ago Hollywood looked to Olympic champions for their star potential. Perhaps the first athlete-turned-actor was Johnny Weissmuller, the American swimmer who won five golds in the 1920s, then became the quintessential movie Tarzan. Another Olympic swimmer who ended up playing action roles was Buster Crabbe. His name sounds like something out of a comic book, so it’s apt that he starred as comic-book heroes Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers.

Hollywood also snapped up Sonja Henie, the Norwegian ice princess who won Olympic figureskating titles in 1928, 1932, and 1936. She went on to star in a dozen Fox musical romps with titles like Thin Ice, Wintertime, and Sun Valley Serenade. The plots -- such as they were -- always gave Henie a reason to strap on her skates for a big production number. Henie became controversial because of her apparent coziness with Nazi leaders, but at the height of her career she was one of Hollywood’s highest-paid stars.

One soggy beauty made her mark in the water rather than on top of it. Esther Williams wasn’t exactly an Olympian, because the 1940 Olympics were cancelled. But Williams was a serious competitive swimmer who had set many national records. She caught the eye of MGM talent scouts looking for their own Sonja Henie-type, someone athletic but totally feminine. Films like Million Dollar Mermaid and Dangerous When Wet let her look fetching in a one-piece suit while showing off her talents on the diving board, on water-skis, and as the centerpiece of elaborate synchronized swim routines. (I still love those!) Years ago I visited a decrepit tourist attraction called Cypress Gardens, where guides proudly showed off a Florida-shaped swimming pool that was built at enormous cost for the filming of 1953’s Easy to Love. It was set at a Florida tourist attraction, with Williams’ character the aquatic star and Van Johnson playing hard-to-get as her boss. The inimitable Busby Berkeley contributed splashy choreography.

More recently, Olympic stars have had difficulty transitioning to the big screen. After swimmer Mark Spitz won seven gold medals at the 1972 Olympics, Hollywood beat a path to his door. After all, he was tan and muscular, with a flashing grin and a rakish mustache. Only problem: he couldn’t act. Gold-medal 1976 decathlete Bruce Jenner had a modest acting career (he auditioned for but didn’t get the role of Superman). Today he’s best known as the step-father of the egregious Kardashian clan.

I most admire Cathy Rigby, the highest scoring American female gymnast at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, back when Americans didn’t win gymnastics medals. She later made TV commercials and did sports commentary, before launching a full-blown acting career. She’s best known today for physically demanding stage roles like the high-flying lead in Peter Pan, for which she copped a Tony nomination. I saw her in Li’l Abner, playing Mammy Yokum. She totally owned the part of Li’l Abner’s feisty mom, and (though over fifty) even managed to throw in a nifty tumbling run.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Marvelous Marvin Hamlisch: One Singular Sensation

Don’t get me wrong: the late Marvin Hamlisch was an extraordinary talent. But he has left some lyricists feeling at least a tad disgruntled.

Hamlisch was a musical prodigy who entered Juilliard at six, then attended New York’s High School for the Performing Arts (made famous by Fame) along with good friend Liza Minnelli. At twenty he got his first Broadway gig, and four years later he composed the first of many film scores. In 1974, still not yet thirty, he achieved an extraordinary trifecta at the Oscar ceremony. That was the year a nude streaker (remember those?) sprinted across the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, leading presenter David Niven to quip, “Probably the only laugh that man will ever get in his life is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings."

The streaker was not easily forgotten (even though TV tactfully showed him only above the waist), but I also remember a fully-clothed young musician with big hair, big glasses, and a big grin bounding up to accept three Oscars that night. Hamlisch was honored for his dramatic scoring of The Way We Were, and the film’s title tune was named Best Original Song. In marked contrast to his schmaltzy score for The Way We Were was Hamlisch’s delightfully droll reworking of Scott Joplin’s ragtime repertoire for The Sting. His version of such Joplin rags as “The Entertainer” not only won him an Oscar for Best Adapted Score but also helped boost Joplin (who died in 1917) to new status as a national treasure.

Hamlisch hardly rested on his laurels. In 1975 he was part of the creative team that launched A Chorus Line. It would become the longest-running production in Broadway history, the winner of nine Tony Awards and (in a rare coup for a musical theatre piece) the Pulitzer Prize for drama. Thereafter he stayed busy as a composer of film scores, pop songs, and Broadway shows, while also serving as music director for such luminaries as Barbra Streisand. He also signed on as the principal pops conductor of so many symphony orchestras (Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, San Diego, Buffalo, Dallas, Pasadena . . .) that his frequent-flyer mileage must have been astounding.

Here’s the gripe, though: like all too many composers of popular tunes, Hamlisch sometimes forgot that a song is only as good as the lyricist behind it. There’s a 2008 documentary film called Every Little Step that chronicles both the making of the original A Chorus Line and the casting of its 2006 Broadway revival. Because A Chorus Line is a about the agony and ecstasy of a theatrical audition, it’s fascinating to watch actual performers auditioning for the central roles. Viewers also learn a lot about the creative process behind the show. One of Hamlisch’s great on-camera anecdotes involves the last-minute discovery that a key song needed to be retitled so as not to spoil its central joke. The anecdote hinges on the song’s clever lyrics, and Hamlisch never once stops to acknowledge that those lyrics were not his, but were rather the contribution of the late Edward Kleban. (Similarly,“The Way We Were” of course depended for its success partly on the poignant lyrics of Alan and Marilyn Bergman.)

In the late 1970s, Hamlisch was romantically involved with lyricist Carole Bayer Sager. Out of their relationship came a so-so Broadway musical, They’re Playing Our Song. It acknowledges how much a composer and a lyricist need one another, even when their personalities are miles apart. I hope that, amid the thrills and accolades that marked his life, Marvin Hamlisch occasionally stopped to remember that lesson.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Curiosity Sticks Its Landing

On Sunday night, I took time out from watching Olympic gymnastics to trek to Pasadena. In a Caltech auditorium, surrounded by men and women who had spent years of their lives on the project, I cheered the live video feed from the JPL control room confirming that the Mars Science Lab -- an over-sized Wall-E type thingamajig named Curiosity -- had landed safely on the Red Planet. It felt like an extraordinary combination of science fiction and reality TV, a sort of celestial Dancing with the Stars. NASA, which in the light of proposed budget cuts needs all the good publicity it can muster, is doing its best to highlight the drama of the mission. It sent its feeds worldwide (there was a viewing party in Times Square), and tried hard to illuminate for the novice such features as the Sky Crane as well as the “Seven Minutes of Terror,” that tense waiting period before we would know for sure if Curiosity had reached its destination with all systems go.

Of course a Martian sighting would have helped.

Mars has always captured the human imagination. The Romans named it after their god of war, and writers and filmmakers have long imagined it populated with hostile creatures bent on destroying civilization as we know it. Orson Welles’ 1938 live radio version of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, broadcast as though an invasion were actually in progress, famously sparked panic. Welles’ dramatic coup in turn sparked one of the best episodes of The Twilight Zone, “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” in which mysterious extraterrestrial doings cause paranoid small-town Americans to turn on one another.

I can’t begin to count the number of movies that feature Mars and Martians. There’ve been deadly serious films, as well as totally goofy ones, like Tim Burton’s delightful Mars Attacks! In most cases, of course, science fiction is as much about how human beings behave under pressure as about threats from outer space. (See for instance Independence Day, in which – in response to an invasion by unspecified aliens – mankind bravely rises to its own defense.)

But, in light of my trip to the California Institute of Technology, I’ve been thinking about a gathering that took place in the very auditorium in which I sat last night. It was held in anticipation of a much earlier Mars success story, the November 1971 arrival of Mariner 9, which would orbit the Red Planet, sending back the first-ever photos of the Martian surface. Among the superstars present were Carl Sagan, Ray Bradbury, and Arthur C. Clarke, who had collaborated with Stanley Kubrick on the most mesmerizing and maddening science fiction film of all time, 2001: A Space Odyssey. According to cinematographer Bruce Logan, who as a very young animator spent several years on 2001, Clarke submitted a voiceover narration that would have put the film in context, helping out viewers by explaining its enigmatic ending. This, though, was scrapped by Kubrick, who decreed, “Let them figure it out.”

An important point about 2001 is that it was made when human beings had only taken baby steps into space. In 1999, Clarke’s novelization of 2001 appeared in a new Millennial Edition. His introduction notes that “2001 was written in an age which now lies beyond one of the great divides in human history; we are sundered from it forever by the moment when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped out onto the Sea of Tranquility. Now history and fiction have been inextricably intertwined; the Apollo astronauts had already seen the film when they left for the moon.”

Can't resist adding this terrific Youtube tribute to Curiosity and the JPL team:

Rest in peace, Neil Armstrong, born August 5, 1930, died August 25, 2012

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Sex on the Set: Kristen Stewart Goes Astray in the Dark Forest

So this week’s biggest Hollywood story is about how Kristen Stewart of the Twilight franchise was caught snogging the (married) director of her latest hit, Snow White and the Huntsman. It shocked her fans, who know all about Kristen’s long-time relationship with her vampirical Twilight co-star, Robert Pattinson. I could make some really bad jokes, but instead I’ll reflect on the Hollywood tradition of movie sets as hotbeds, so to speak, for sexual adventures.

Quite honestly, during my many years in the movie industry, I was mostly chained to a desk that was weighted down with piles of scripts. Not a very sexy environment, that’s for sure. But in 1974 I worked production on a New World Pictures classic, Big Bad Mama. The stint included a week in Temecula, California, now a thriving suburb but then strictly a cow-town. We were housed in a dreary motel miles from anywhere. In that week, I got a glimpse of what it’s like to make movies away from home: you alternate between frenzied activity and long, dull stretches in a place you don’t particularly want to be. I was a newlywed, and my greatest transgression was a bizarre late-night drive with crew member Paul Bartel (future director of Eating Raoul) in search of the gourmet restaurant he was sure was out there somewhere in the hinterlands.

My point is that going on location can make you a little crazy. Living in close quarters in some out-of-the-way spot for weeks and months at a time, movie people can succumb to all sorts of shenanigans. In the case of Big Bad Mama, star Angie Dickinson had enough clout to stay in her own home, from which she was ferried to the set at the crack of dawn each day by a hard-working young driver. And her two romantic partners in the film, William Shatner and Tom Skerritt (the latter still smarting from a recent divorce) largely kept to themselves. So if there was hanky-panky going on, it was among lesser mortals.

But many’s the location shoot in which romance on-screen turned into romance off-screen. It makes perfect sense. Leading actors are attractive, charismatic people (especially when dressed and lit to look their best). They are also notoriously insecure. And their training encourages them to truly believe in the feelings they’re simulating for the camera. So if they’re playing love scenes, they have a tendency to fall in love for real. This was true back in 1935 when Clark Gable and Loretta Young, making The Call of the Wild, had an affair in the forests of Washington State that produced a secret daughter. It was never more true than when Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, shooting Cleopatra in Rome, began a torrid romance that ignited an international scandal.

Today, when bedroom scenes often require a high decree of physical intimacy, it’s all the more understandable that an on-screen relationship sometimes continues off-camera. Though married to Jennifer Aniston, Brad Pitt fell for Angelina Jolie on the set of Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Ironically, Heath Ledger’s portrayal of a gay cowboy in Brokeback Mountain led to a serious real-life relationship with Michelle Williams, who played his heartbroken spouse in the film.

A star who falls for her director introduces another element. When she’s 22 and he’s almost twice that, the relationship strikes me as disturbingly exploitative. Not that mutual attraction seems impossible. She’s fresh and young; he’s heading toward a midlife crisis. Director Nicholas Ray was in his mid-forties when he seduced teenager Natalie Wood while shooting Rebel Without a Cause. A great film, but at what cost?