Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Peter O’Toole – How to Steal a Million (Hearts)

In the final few weeks of 2013, film fans lost some larger-than-life stars. The most celebrated, of course, was Peter O’Toole, who burst onto the screen in 1962 as David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. Then, having played to perfection a famously enigmatic warrior-philosopher, he moved on to other roles that bore a tragic and literary stamp, like the title character in Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim. He played kings aplenty, including England’s Henry II in both Becket (opposite Richard Burton) and The Lion in Winter (where he colorfully sparred with Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, as imperiously portrayed by Katharine Hepburn). And he also played cheeky commoners who considered themselves ripe for kingly privilege: a movie director in The Stunt Man; a matinee idol in My Favorite Year;  a pompous restaurant critic in Ratatouille. In The Ruling Class he topped himself, as a member of the House of Lords who becomes convinced he is Jesus Christ.

O’Toole’s real-life propensity for living large made him perfect casting in such grandiose roles. But he could also play more humble fellows. A musical version of Goodbye, Mr. Chips would seem an unlikely vehicle for him, but he made the modest British schoolmaster both convincing and appealing. (His singing wasn’t so great, but the forgettable Leslie Bricusse song score hardly deserved better.) My own personal favorite O’Toole film is a dotty little romantic farce from 1966 called How to Steal a Million. It’s about a very nice young lady (Audrey Hepburn) who for complicated reasons needs to steal a priceless statue, the Cellini Venus, from a Paris museum. Enter O’Toole as a professional thief – or is he? With such veteran farceurs as Hugh Griffith, Eli Wallach, and Charles Boyer filling out the cast, it’s a light and charming entertainment.

It’s sad, of course, that O’Toole never won the Oscar he so richly deserved. But he outlasted all of his drinking buddies (Richard Burton and Oliver Reed among them) and gave us some wonderful hours at the movies.

Joan Fontaine was known for playing the second Mrs. de Winter in Alfred Hitchcock’s Oscar-winning Rebecca. She won her own Oscar for another Hitchcock film, Suspicion. The delicate blonde – a true English rose – specialized in roles that played up her air of genteel vulnerability. (She makes a dramatic contrast to the virile Burt Lancaster in a taut little 1948 thriller with an unlikely title: Kiss the Blood Off My Hands.)  But Fontaine was most famous for her life-long feud with her equally stellar sister, Olivia de Havilland. Fontaine always claimed she was the victim of her elder sib’s unrelenting cruelty. But I wonder. Did the English rose have a few thorns of her own?

Finally, I’ve got to mention Tom Laughlin, not exactly a great actor, but one who made his mark on Hollywood during the heyday of the Counterculture. His Billy Jack character, first introduced in 1967’s Born Losers, is an ex-Green Beret with  exotic martial arts skills and a rather violent commitment to pacifism. By 1971’s Billy Jack, Laughlin and wife Delores Taylor had become their own cottage industry: he directed the two of them in a screenplay they wrote together, and the money came rolling in. The rather stiff but dramatic story has our hero saving wild horses from slaughter and protecting the kids in a desert “freedom school.” More Billy Jack movies followed, and soon my boss Roger Corman was instructing rising young director Jonathan Demme to concoct his own Billy Jack clone. And that’s how our Fighting Mad was born. 

Peter O’Toole, Joan Fontaine, Tom Laughlin – may they all rest in peace.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Stallone and De Niro Celebrate Boxing Day

No, your eyes aren’t deceiving you. The two codgers on the billboards, the ones wearing striped trunks and boxing gloves, really are Robert De Niro and Sylvester Stallone. Their new film, Grudge Match, opened yesterday. But December 26, the day after Christmas, is celebrated in British Commonwealth nations as a time when workers enjoy a well-deserved holiday break. The Brits call it “Boxing Day,” perhaps because this was traditionally when appreciative aristocrats gave gifts to their loyal servants. At any rate, Boxing Day seems a fitting moment to discuss a comedy about two pugilistic rivals who get back in the ring to settle a thirty-year-old score.

I’m not much inclined to see Grudge Match. But I’ve certainly followed the careers of both Stallone and De Niro. I caught Stallone in his first big role as a Brooklyn gang member in a small 1974 indie, The Lords of Flatbush, and cheered his breakout performance in Rocky, for which he also wrote the script. Though I can’t pretend to be acquainted with Stallone’s full array of action flicks, there’s no question in my mind that he’s an indelible figure in Hollywood, one who’s created for himself a unique persona. When I think of De Niro, I remember his dangerous unpredictability in such dark films as The Godfather Part II, The Deer Hunter, and This Boy’s Life. Martin Scorsese entrusted him with powerful roles in some of his most gripping work: Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Cape Fear. The list goes on and on, though he’s recently developed his funny side in goofy comedies like Analyze This and Meet the Parents.

One fact ties these two actors together, and it’s not that they’ve both played boxers. Both Stallone and De Niro got major career boosts through Roger Corman movies. Stallone, then New York-based, was cast by Steve Carver as the very deadly Frank Nitti in Capone, a co-production of New World Pictures and Twentieth-Century Fox, starring Ben Gazzara in the title role. On Steve’s recommendation to Paul Bartel, Stallone nabbed the part of  a lethal racecar driver, Machine Gun Joe Viterbo, in a Corman-produced dark comedy that has gone on to become a cult classic. Of course I’m talking about Death Race 2000. I vividly remember the day in 1974 that several of us involved with the production were eating lunch in a dim coffee shop. Suddenly a large figure dressed all in black loomed over our table. It was Stallone, come to greet his future director.

As for De Niro, he was directed by Roger Corman himself in 1970’s Bloody Mama, a lurid little film about a Depression-era crime spree. Oscar-winner Shelley Winters, who played a fictionalized Ma Barker, recommended to Roger some New York Actors Studio types for the roles of her highly perverse sons and lovers. The cast included Don Stroud (for whom both Roger and Shelley had the highest hopes) as well as a young Bruce Dern. De Niro became Lloyd Barker, a hopeless drug addict. This was three years before he gained national attention as a dying baseball catcher in Bang the Drum Slowly and then as Mean Streets’ volatile Johnny Boy. 

When he made Mean Streets, Martin Scorsese had just finished directing Box Car Bertha for Roger Corman.  Hoping to film his own highly personal New York story, he turned to Roger for financing. Roger’s demand that he transform Mean Streets into a blaxploitation flick made Scorsese look elsewhere for help. Which is why this quintessentially New York film was shot on the mean streets of Los Angeles. But that’s a story for 2014.   

Dedicated to Elena Allen, who provided inspiration.    

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

"Inside Llewyn Davis": The Cat Came Back

You can count on two things in a Coen Brothers movie: misery and music. The plot of The Big Lebowski involves kidnapping and extortion, set against some classic rock, an old cowboy tune  (“Tumbling Tumbleweeds”), and a production number inspired by Busby Berkeley. A Serious Man  -- a contemporary riff on the Book of Job – climaxes when an old-world rabbi offers as Talmudic wisdom the lyrics of Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love.”  In O Brother, Where Art Thou?, some escaped convicts dodge a lynching and other disasters, while posing as a bluegrass group, the Soggy Mountain Boys. Though their theme song is “Man of Constant Sorrow,” there’s nothing much sorrowful about O Brother. Instead, it’s a rollicking romp, in which misery (a flood of epic proportions, for instance) is transformed into exaltation.

Perhaps the exuberant optimism of O Brother, Where Art Thou? stems from the fact that it’s set among true believers who have faith in God’s rewards, whether in this life or the next one. But in jumping from the Depression-era South of O Brother to Kennedy-era Greenwich Village for Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coens have given themselves a more morose set of characters. True, as Joel and Ethan told Fresh Air’s Terry Gross, the young Baby Boomers who launched the folk music craze started by immersing themselves in Southern roots music, of the sort that O Brother celebrates. But such troubadours as Bob Dylan brought to the folk revival not the religious convictions of the Deep South but rather a strong determination to get outside the middle-class world in which they grew up.

There’s some fun in Inside Llewyn Davis, notably a goofy novelty song called “Please, Mr. Kennedy” in which an astronaut pleads not to be sent into space. It’s amusing too seeing the Coens deftly parody some of the most celebrated singers of the pre-Dylan era, including Tom Paxton, the Clancy Brothers in their Irish fisherman sweaters, and the desperately sincere Peter, Paul and Mary. But the focus is on Llewyn Davis, who has something of the career of the legendary Dave Van Ronk but hardly his look or his gravelly sound. As played by Oscar Isaac, Llewyn is a sweet-voiced but hopelessly hangdog fellow who has a talent for pissing off his friends, the few he has left. He’s at the other end of the spectrum from George Clooney’s cocky charmer in O Brother: this is a man with real musical gifts, but one who creates gloom wherever he goes. We first meet him singing a somber ditty that begins “Hang me, oh hang me, I’ll be dead and gone.” Most of his other songs have something to do with farewells and partings.  When, midway through the film, he has what seems a golden opportunity to dazzle an important impresario, he chooses a dirge about the death of Henry VIII’s Queen Jane. What fun!

While staving off meaningful human contact,  Llewyn finds himself stuck with a big orange cat that has the annoying habit of slipping away when he most needs to corral it. Filmmakers know that cats can’t really be trained. The best you can do is have several on hand: the lethargic one willing to be carried around, the jumpy one inclined to run off, and so forth.  In some scenes, the cat was actually attached to Oscar Isaac with a hidden wire. If he was ever a cat-fancier, those days are over. 

 I’ve just been reading about the making of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. That classic film contained a runaway orange cat too. Did Holly Golightly’s Cat run straight to Llewyn Davis? 

Friday, December 20, 2013

“'Good Evening, Mr. and Mrs. America, and All the Ships at Sea” -- Walter Winchell Signs Off

The recent obits for actress Jane Kean all noted that she played Trixie Norton in the Jackie Gleason Show’s Honeymooners episodes from 1966 to 1970. Few of them mentioned that in the early 1950s she was the protégée and mistress of America’s most powerful newspaperman, Walter Winchell.

 Winchell spotted the petite blonde at New York’s Copacabana, where she was appearing in a sister-act that featured comedy and music. From the first he was smitten with both Kean sisters, inviting them to come along as he cruised Manhattan’s byways in the wee small hours, checking out police calls. Through his syndicated columns and his hugely popular radio broadcast he spread the word about their charms. One result: in 1955 Jane and Betty Kean enjoyed a five-month run as headliners in a Broadway extravaganza called Ankles Away. But all the attention quickly stopped when Jane insisted that Walter (thirty years her senior) divorce his wife. Winchell may not have had much use for domesticity, but he regarded as sacred his public reputation as a family man.

All this and much more I learned through Neal Gabler’s definitive Winchell: Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity. Gabler made me see that Winchell’s personal saga is also the story of twentieth-century America. In the 1920s, when the young ex-hoofer’s Broadway column first began, he showed the rising middle-classes just how celebrity gossip could cut the rich and famous down to size. His slangy use of colloquial English, laden with lively innuendo, changed journalism forever. In the 1930s he rode the crest of the radio wave, attracting listeners from sea to shining sea. (Gabler says that at the height of his fame, 50 million Americans – out of a population of 75 million – either listened to his broadcasts or read his daily columns.)

Given his craving for power at a time when world events were shaking up everyone’s lives, it’s no surprise that Winchell soon turned political. Before and during World War II, he was an unabashed booster of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, using his own bully pulpit to push the Roosevelt agenda, often with the covert help of FDR’s inner circle. But his close personal ties with J. Edgar Hoover led him, after the war, into a fierce anti-communism that made him an early ally of Senator Joseph McCarthy.

Winchell’s political about-face – combined with the rise of television and a number of other factors – made him seem far less attractive to his fan base as the Fifties gave way to the Sixties. Gabler vividly details a 1951 run-in with black entertainer Josephine Baker, whose apparent mistreatment at Winchell’s beloved Stork Club led him to make grotesque accusations about her political leanings. Though this ugly episode, in Gabler’s eyes, was the beginning of the end for Winchell, he tenaciously hung on, even while a Hollywood drama, Sweet Smell of Success, splashed onscreen the dark side of  his image. Starting in 1959, he even became a TV star of sorts, adding an idiosyncratic rat-a-tat narration to a popular series based on FBI heroics, The Untouchables.  

Several twentieth-century songs, including Mel Brooks’ “I Want to be a Producer,” allude to the great coup of getting one’s name in Winchell’s column. But as that column sank in importance to his fellow Americans, the man himself increasingly seemed to be living in a world of his own. His long-suffering wife passed away; his son and namesake committed suicide. When he himself died in 1972 -- aged 74 but looking much older – he went out not with a bang but with a whimper. Mr. and Mrs. America didn’t much care.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Sound of Music: The Sound of One Hand Clapping?

Two weeks ago, America’s TV sets were alive with the sound of music. Or something like that. At any rate, the Twittersphere was alive with the sound of big, fat Bronx cheers. Professional critics were not alone in proclaiming NBC’s live musical version of the beloved singing-nun story one of their LEAST favorite things.

As for me, I didn’t see it. True, the notion of a live stage musical playing itself out in my family-room transported me back to the lovely days of my TV-watching childhood  (Julie Andrews as Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella! Mary Martin re-creating her stage performance as Peter Pan!) Still, I really wasn’t enticed by the prospect of watching American Idol winner Carrie Underwood try on Maria’s wimple. Frankly, an evening in the company of brown paper packages tied up with strings sounded like more fun to me.

Lord knows, it may be heresy (at least among several members of my immediate family), but I was never a devotee of the blockbuster 1965 film either. I know there are those who consider the casting of Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer divinely inspired, and regard each of the Von Trapp tykes as a morsel of perfection. Yes, the Alpine scenery was undeniably glorious. I appreciated such touches as the casting of a leading lady who actually COULD sing (take that, Audrey Hepburn!) and the on-screen appearance of Marnie Nixon, who had famously dubbed the lilting soprano voices of Hepburn in My Fair Lady and Natalie Wood in West Side Story. Since Nixon wasn’t needed to stand in, vocally speaking, for the movie’s heroine, it was splendid that we finally got to see what she looked like, though a nun’s habit pretty much concealed her from view.

But even in those days, I was somewhat of a contrarian. And one reason I couldn’t fully adore the movie is that I treasured the memory of seeing The Sound of Music onstage. At L.A.’s old, barnlike Philharmonic Auditorium, I applauded Florence Henderson and the rest of the touring company. But  it was Mary Martin who starred on the cast album that my family played over and over. Those were the days when any middle-class family aspiring to culture boned up on Broadway’s latest hits. We owned the LPs of The Music Man, Fiddler on the Roof, and the entire Rodgers and Hammerstein output, and we knew every word of every song. No wonder I take Sound of Music so personally.

Much has been made of the death last week of Eleanor Parker, who played the aristocratic fiancée of Baron von Trapp in the 1965 film. (Some wags have insisted it was Carrie Underwood’s TV performance that killed her.) But fans of the movie rarely notice that two Rodgers and Hammerstein songs involving Parker’s character didn’t make it from stage to screen. Both “How Can Love Survive?” and “No Way to Stop It” are cynical ditties sung by the Baron’s sophisticated friends, who are all too ready to accept a Nazi takeover, so long as they can enjoy their own luxurious lives in peace. I loved these songs, because they added  to the stage musical a spoonful of vinegar that helped the treacle go down. In the movie version, though, the songs were cut.

Mary Martin was doubtless too old for the screen adaptation of Sound of Music and I can’t deny Julie Andrews’ fresh appeal. Israeli folksinger Theodore Bikel, who played the original Baron von Trapp, has had a curious movie career, playing men of widely varying nationalities. How many know he was Oscar-nominated for The Defiant Ones?