Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Going Hawaiian

It’s funny what memory can do. I’m convinced that many years ago, probably on some late late show, I saw Betty Grable decked out in a hula skirt, singing and dancing to something called “Lola O’Brien Has Gone Hawaiian.” But diligent Internet research tells me differently. There was indeed a popular ditty (recorded by Lawrence Welk’s orchestra in 1955) called “Lola O’Brien, the Irish Hawaiian.” And in 1942 Betty Grable did hula her way into our hearts in Song of the Islands, in which she played a pretty (of course) blonde (of course) named Eileen O’Brien who goes native as decorously as possible.

The attack on Pearl Harbor had put Hawaii on the map for many Americans, but in 1942 a chain of islands in the middle of the Pacific was not a safe place to make movies. Aside from some background footage, Song of the Islands was shot primarily on the Twentieth-Century Fox backlot, though a camera team also ventured to Santa Catalina Island, just off the California coast. Realism was not exactly the goal. Audiences of the day wanted escapist romance, and that’s exactly what they got.

Because I’m just back from fun in the sun on Maui I’ve been thinking about Hawaii’s place in motion picture history. When World War II ended, filmmakers started coming to the Hawaiian Islands for real. From Here to Eternity, the all-star 1953 film based on James Jones’ blockbuster novel, uses actual Oahu locations as a backdrop for its tale of passion and punishment during the height of World War II. Yes, it’s black-and-white. But anyone who’s seen Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster smooching in the surf at Halona Cove will want to hop the nearest jet and head for paradise.

Roger Corman, always on the lookout for picturesque production values, went to Kauai in 1956 for two back-to-back tropical thrillers, She-Gods of Shark Reef and Naked Paradise. (A catchline for the latter was “Temptation and terror . . .in a savage land of wild desire!”) In exchange for giving an on-screen credit to Kauai’s Coco Palms Hotel, Roger was able to lodge cast and crew in atypically sumptuous surroundings at a bargain price. When Hawaii was granted statehood in 1959, the public’s fascination with palm trees, coconuts, floral leis, and little grass shacks only grew. Elvis went Hawaiian with 1961’s Blue Hawaii, the usual mélange of sappy songs, insipid romance, and Technicolor sunsets. Hawaii, a gargantuan historical epic based on James Michener’s saga, premiered in 1966. More recently, Hawaii has been a convenient location for exotic features like King Kong (the Jeff Bridges version) and Jurassic Park. As a backdrop for TV production, it has hosted everything from Hawaii Five-0 to Lost.

If you grow up in Southern California, there’s always the chance you’ll find yourself in a movie. When I was a pre-teen, I was an active member of a local drama group. One day we were approached by an aspiring young director. He was making a short educational film to commemorate Hawaii’s impending statehood. “I Live in Hawaii” focused on Hawaiian children, showing mainland school kids that their Hawaiian counterparts led lives much like their own, though under bluer skies and with surfboards at the ready. Principal photography was complete: now he needed kids’ voices to add to the soundtrack. To end his film, he wanted to show the young Hawaiians solemnly pledging allegiance to the American flag. For some reason, he decided a cute little Japanese-Hawaiian girl would sound exactly like me. So I was taped repeating over and over “With liberty and justice for all.” Aloha!

Friday, January 25, 2013

The Stanley Kramer Award: Honoring Films that have Something to Say

At this year’s Sundance Film Festival, critics and audiences have been wowed by Fruitvale, a taut drama based on the shooting death of a 22-year-old black man by Oakland transit police on New Year's Day, 2009. Fruitvale, a debut feature by writer-director Ryan Coogler, has been purchased by the Weinstein brothers for $2.5 million, so its future is in good hands. But Scott Foundas recently griped in the Village Voice that Fruitvale, for all its virtues, “has generated fewer headlines thus far than Escape From Tomorrow, a gimmick movie that has been the talk of the festival . . . for the simple fact that it was clandestinely shot on location inside various Disney theme parks in California and Florida.”

Here’s the point: almost everyone finds gimmickry more newsworthy than serious social drama. That’s why the Producers Guild’s Stanley Kramer Award is so important. Introduced in 2002, the award annually honors a movie that (to quote a press release) “illuminates provocative social issues in an accessible and elevating fashion.” Past winners have included such socially engaged films as I Am Sam, Antwone Fisher, Hotel Rwanda, Milk, and Precious. Last year the honor went to Angelina Jolie for In the Land of Blood and Honey. This year’s award, to be presented during the Producers Guild ceremony on January 26, will go to a controversial documentary on the Weinstein roster, Bully.

The heart and soul of the Stanley Kramer Award is Stanley’s widow, Karen Sharpe Kramer. She too is a member of the Producers Guild in good standing. In the early days she chose the recipients herself, in consultation with producers Hawk Koch and Bruce Cohen. Now, as the award’s prestige continues to rise, she meets with a committee of five veteran producers to agree on what she calls “that one little gem every year reflecting Stanley’s history and legacy.” Stanley, who as a producer and director made such ground-breaking motion pictures as The Defiant Ones, Inherit the Wind, Judgment at Nuremberg, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, never aspired to be known for message films. As Karen has reminded me, “Social issue films are very hard sells. People don’t like history lessons. People want to be entertained.” But her late husband, gravitating toward topics that interested him, had a knack for turning out entertaining movies that also “enhanced and elevated humanity, inspiring you to be a better person.”

Regarding the films of 2012, Karen’s personal favorite was Silver Linings Playbook, for its offbeat but uplifting look at mental illness. She also admired Amour, but felt the award should go to an American film. Ultimately the committee chose to honor, for only the second time, a documentary feature. The 2007 honoree was Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, for its powerful look at climate change. This year Bully was chosen because it explores an epidemic to which attention must be paid. Studies tell us that that over 13 million American kids will be bullied this year. This makes bullying the most common form of violence experienced by American youngsters. Says Karen,“Six-year-olds are killing themselves now.” Though Bully was short-listed for an Oscar nomination, it didn’t make the final five. So Karen hopes, through the Stanley Kramer Award, to help put the topic back in the news.

She’d wanted to see the presentation made by the likes of Anderson Cooper or Ellen DeGeneres. Now that matters are in the hands of a committee, though, things take longer to organize. As of this morning, the matter was still up in the air, and she says, “I’ll be surprised, like everybody else.”

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Thoughts on Inauguration Day

The first presidential inauguration I remember was that of John F. Kennedy. My 9th grade journalism teacher lugged a small TV set into the classroom, and we were all mesmerized by the flickering black-and-white image of a handsome young man in formal dress taking the oath of office. Yes, I distinctly recall him uttering the famous line, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Uh oh, I thought. What exactly does that mean for me?

Television made me, along with my fourteen-year-old classmates, a participant in those inaugural ceremonies. (Less than three years later, it also made me a participant in Kennedy’s funeral.) Today, of course, we all expect that our big-screen TVs, not to mention our computers and even our smartphones, will allow us to witness history, up close and personal. An inauguration like that of President Barack Obama is, perhaps first and foremost, a major media event.

And in some ways it’s also a Hollywood event. The main stars of the day are politicians, but Hollywood stars also help raise the pizazz level. In the lead-up to yesterday’s ceremony, Eva Longoria was the host of an inaugural concert at which Rita Moreno, Jose Feliciano, and other Latino celebrities performed. The inauguration itself featured patriotic songs sung in respectful but contemporary stylings by James Taylor (the Sixties singer who was also featured in Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop), Kelly Clarkson (who shot to fame as the first winner of American Idol, then went Hollywood in the vapid From Justin to Kelly ), and Beyoncé (the drop-dead-gorgeous chanteuse who acquitted herself nicely in Dreamgirls). I also caught a glimpse of an inaugural ball at which the First Couple was serenaded by Jennifer Hudson. Hudson, of course, quickly moved from American Idol finalist to Oscar winner for her Dreamgirls supporting role.

But in watching the inauguration I was struck by one other TV memory that shows how times have changed. During the Sixties, the three big television networks loved to rack up audiences by hosting special events. In the turbulent year 1967, singer and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte was the sole guest on a major TV special starring a popular British singer, a petite blue-eyed blonde named Petula Clark. The two taped a poignant anti-war duet, in the course of which she spontaneously touched his arm. A representative of the sponsoring car company, Plymouth, was present during the taping. When he saw the touch, he became apoplectic. Says the show’s director/producer Steve Binder, “You’d have thought they had fornicated on the air.” Binder rallied support from the host network, NBC, then forced the show’s editor to erase the earlier takes of the song, so the offending moment would have to be aired. The special was broadcast in April 1968, stirring up huge media attention. With good reason, Binder insists, because it was “the first time a black and a white had touched on primetime television.” Screenwriter Patrick Sheane Duncan recollected for me the controversy the special generated: “Everyone went crazy over that . . . . Unbelievable! They wouldn’t show it in the South.”

That was then; this is now. Politicians love to press the flesh, and this year’s inauguration was no exception. On the steps of the Capitol, in Statuary Hall, and on the reviewing stand, our first African-American president and his wife were comfortably hugging men and women of all races. I’m not aware of any sponsors, or network execs, having heart attacks. It’s nice to think that TV can now truly broadcast in living color.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Danny Kaye: A Peach of a Performer

One of my very first movie memories involves Danny Kaye, whose official centennial arrives on January 18. When I was about to start kindergarten, my mother announced that we were going to a matinee with a friend and her five-year-old son. Since Lee was (heavens!) a boy, I leaped to the conclusion that we would be seeing a cowboy movie. It was called Hans Christian Andersen, which sounded like a Western to me. Instead, of course, it was a bogus biopic, turning the life of the great Danish author into a vehicle for Danny Kaye, complete with spritely Frank Loesser songs and a big dream ballet. I was enchanted.

In later years, I continued to be a Danny Kaye fan. I was especially delighted by the sublime silliness of The Court Jester, in which such authentically English folk as Angela Lansbury, Glynis Johns, and the great Basil Rathbone keep straight faces while acting out a drama of royal intrigue set in a Technicolor Middle Ages. The Court Jester is the film in which “the pellet with the poison’s in the vessel with the pestle,” and Kaye instantly turns from coward to master swordsman with a snap of the fingers. Hilarious!

As I was to discover, my parents had their own fond recollections of Danny Kaye. During World War II, my father was stationed for a long stretch in Omaha, Nebraska, and my mother was able to join him there. The heat was stifling, and only movie theatres were air-conditioned. So every night they went to the movies. And the movie they saw most often -– at least six times –- was a military comedy called Up in Arms, featuring Danny as a hypochondriac who gets inducted into the U.S. Army. The goofy plot is punctuated by patter songs, written by Sylvia Fine (Mrs. Danny Kaye) to show off her husband’s talent for inspired buffoonery. There is, for instance, the parody of a razzle-dazzle Hollywood production number --“When it’s cherry blossom time in Orange, New Jersey, we’ll make a peach of a pair” -- featured in his famous “Lobby Number.” My mother still remembers most of the words, and I do too.

Kaye took on the occasional serious role (as when he played bandleader Red Nichols in a weepie called The Five Pennies), but a later generation probably remembers him best for one of the great TV variety shows of all time, The Danny Kaye Show (1963-1967). He also could put on a helluva live performance, and I saw him at least once at L.A.’s Greek Theater. That’s when I first heard his Dodger Song (“Oh really? No, O’Malley”), because Kaye shared with me a passion for our local baseball team.

Cut to 1970, when I was one of 56 Japanese-speaking guides greeting visitors to the U.S. Pavilion at Expo 70 in Osaka. Celebrities came through almost daily (Imelda Marcos! Britain’s Prince Charles! Emperor Hirohito! Astronauts just back from the moon!), so it was easy to become blasé. But I was thrilled to see Danny Kaye and his entourage being escorted through. When he approached the folk art exhibit where I was standing, I greeted him enthusiastically, and announced that I knew the Dodger song by heart. Uh oh! His eyes twinkling with mischief, he insisted that I sing it for him. Caught between embarrassment and bravado, I stammered out a few lines, as journalists’ cameras clicked away. Fortunately for the world’s eardrums, that footage has never surfaced. But I’ll never forget my one meeting with Danny Kaye. May his memory -- and his movies -- live on forever.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

UCLA's Pauley Pavilion: The Electronic Version

A few weeks ago I was back at Pauley Pavilion, cheering on a basketball team. It was a sentimental journey. Decades ago, during the height of the John Wooden era, I sat in the stands for all Bruins home games, while my future husband played trumpet with the UCLA band. This time around, it was not Lew Alcindor and company I cheered for, but a very capable UCLA women’s basketball team playing an afternoon game. My husband was tootling with the UCLA Alumni Band, at an event designed to show off Pauley Pavilion’s newly-unveiled renovation.

Of course there was a lot of nostalgia for me, watching the cheerleaders wave their pompoms, and hearing the band play (endlessly) time-honored fight songs like “Sons of California.” But in many ways, I discovered, things ain’t what they used to be. Today the spectator experience has been transformed. At times it mimics watching a game on television, but there’s also a multimedia component that turns fans into participants in a larger-than-life spectacle.

The old Pauley Pavilion, which was brand-new when I was a UCLA student, was barnlike and utilitarian, something like an oversized bunker. The refurbished Pauley manages to look airy, thanks to a generous addition of exterior glass walls. It keeps alive the proud Bruin tradition with lots of colorful photos and memorabilia. But it is also vastly more commercial than its predecessor: not only are there refreshment stands aplenty, but Pauley now also boasts a “marketplace” for food purchases as well as a spiffy gift shop peddling Bruin T-shirts, teddy bears, and other souvenirs.

Inside the arena, the simple scoreboard of old has been replaced by a four-sided JumboTron that does far more than record the points scored by each team. Its LED display was constantly in action, showing close-ups of the players, half-time interviews with coaches, and instant replays. (Yes, at times I felt as though I were watching the game on TV from my couch at home.) But the scoreboard also functioned as an electronic cheerleader, exhorting the crowd to get loud, get LOUDER, GO INSANE!!! No pretty girl with pompoms or clean-cut guy with a megaphone could hope to compete.

The JumboTron was not the game’s only focal point. There were large LED screens at the four corners of the arena, and also bands of moving images visible in every direction. When the game opened with the singing of the “Star Spangled Banner,” I couldn’t at first find the actual flag. But I couldn’t miss the American flags rippling in the breeze on each of those huge screens. The screens also had fun showing the various team members cavorting off the court, “up close and personal.” At one point, there was even an animated clip incorporating the Bruin hoopsters into a wacky ski race. Still, I discovered that a main purpose of all that LED was to send the fans commercial messages. Ads for a bank, an airline, an insurance company, and something called “Muscle Milk” were continually flashing. And I had no DVR to fast-forward through that advertising blitz.

In one way, though, Pauley tried hard to capture the excitement of a live event. The big scoreboard kept urging the fans to “show us your dance moves.” As youngsters rocked out in their seats to the thumping beat of recorded music, a roving video camera singled out the best and bravest, then projected their images on the big screens at center court. Kids went wild as they recognized themselves. They were ready for their close-ups, as is Pauley Pavilion in this brave new media world. (P.S., we won!)

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Unsung Stuntman: Carl Ciarfalio Takes a Bow

Now that the list of Oscar nominees is out, I’m pausing to acknowledge Hollywood’s forgotten men (and women). Stunt performers have been around since the movies began. But they rarely get the recognition they deserve. Take Harvey Parry, who used to stunt-double the great silent film star, Harold Lloyd. Parry’s contracts specified he could not admit to doubling for Lloyd until after Lloyd’s death. But wasn’t Lloyd -- an extremely athletic fellow -- capable of doing his own stuntwork? Modern-day stunt actor Carl Ciarfalio admits this was true, mostly. Lloyd in his prime was “much like today’s Tom Cruise. Tom does almost everything, but not everything.”

Carl Ciarfalio knows a great deal about stuntwork. He should, after 38 years in the business. You’ve seen him on-screen in major films like Fight Club, Mission Impossible III, and The Amazing Spider-Man. He’s got a Roger Corman connection too, having worn the “Thing” suit in Concorde’s underground hit, The Fantastic Four. (More on that later.) It all began when he and a wrestling-team buddy auditioned for a stunt show at Knott’s Berry Farm. Knott’s was looking for big guys who could fall down and be funny. Carl, then digging ditches for a plumber, figured the Knott’s gig would make a great summer job, before he entered Cal State Fullerton. But “within a couple of months I had a cowboy hat and a gun and I was on stage and people were applauding and laughing, and I told my parents, ‘I’ll go back to school one day.’” Instead, of course, he ended up in the school of hard knocks.

A stuntman’s career requires training, as well as a serious approach to one’s craft. I told Carl I’d been on the set of New World’s Big Bad Mama when stuntmen performed a dangerous car flip. They walked away unhurt, then headed for the nearest bar. Carl agrees this often happens, especially on location, but “at the end of the day . . . I like to go home and take a shower and take a deep breath and think about what the day was about. Because you’re only as good as your last gag.”

In his off-hours, does he do crazy things for fun and recreation? “No, ma’am, I’m exactly the opposite of that. There’s a huge difference between thrillseekers and daredevils and professional stunt people. Professional stunt people need to have that A-type personality to be able to step off the cliff or light themselves on fire, but they also need to be able to do it in front of the camera -- hit their marks and then do it a second, third, fourth, and fifth time. So that makes it different than a daredevil who is trying to beat the odds. Scripted stunts, scripted action is much different than jumpin’ off the roof and hopin’ you make the pool.”

Now that he’s an elder statesman of sorts, Carl increasingly works as a stunt coordinator, facing the pressure of keeping his entire team safe from harm. One big challenge: “Low-budget films want it all, and have no money for anything.” In which case, he’ll demand script changes, because “no piece of film is worth an injury or a death.”

As one of the first governors representing stunt performers at the Television Academy, Carl has helped make sure stunt coordinators now receive Emmy recognition. Oscar, though, has yet to catch up. Given the current popularity of action films, he hopes this will soon change. After all, “a James Bond movie would be nothin’ if it was just walkin’ and talkin.’”

Monday, January 7, 2013

Making Book: How My New Corman Cover Came to Be

It is a truth universally acknowledged that you can judge a book by its cover. In fact, that’s exactly what many people do. That’s why the publishing industry spends the big bucks designing cover images carefully calculated to entice readers. When my Roger Corman: An Unauthorized Biography of the Godfather of Indie Filmmaking first appeared in hardcover, the dust jacket was a nice shade of purple, but the rather stiff photo of Roger seated behind an enormous (and slightly phallic) movie camera wasn’t much of a come-on. Several years later, a hipper publishing house changed the title of the paperback to Roger Corman: Blood-Sucking Vampires, Flesh-Eating Cockroaches, and Driller Killers, and came up with a cover design that was memorably lurid. I still get a chuckle out of it. Look below to see what I mean:

For my new eBook, it’s fallen to me to choose my own cover image. I told the talented J.T. Lindroos I was looking for something garish, and reflecting a B-movie sensibility. I wanted to include Roger’s face, as in the paperback cover, and I also suggested that a hint of the man-eating plant from Little Shop of Horrors would be welcome. J.T., a Corman aficionado as well as a fan of my book, almost immediately cranked out this design:

It was a good start, but the photo didn’t much work in this context, and Audrey Junior was unrecognizable. Back to the drawing board:

Yes! This version, with its caricature of Roger’s face, was much more vivid. But the dominatrix at right didn’t look like much of anything, and the guns pointed at Roger’s temples made me squeamish. Also, I had a small brainstorm: what about giving my former boss fangs?

Roger as vampire seemed to strike exactly the right note. And I loved the new cockroach in the upper corner. But the retro gal with the gun had an odd WWII vibe, and what was up with those paintbrushes (?) on the lower right? They were supposed to be monster claws, but this was hardly obvious. My suggestion: for a sexy babe, what about one of those vixens who grace the mudflaps of big trucks? And how about an outstretched claw menacing the onlooker? It could mirror the claw on one of my all-time favorite Concorde posters, for The Terror Within.

J.T. listened to his subconscious, which dreamed up a cross between my mudflap maiden and the Bride of Frankenstein, with a lightning bolt running through her Marge Simpson beehive. He dubbed her “Bride of Mudflap,” and for me it was love at first sight. A few more tweaks, and we were done.

Does this have anything to do with the thinking that goes into movie posters? I’m glad you asked. When I was a Corman minion, we didn’t spend much on poster art. But we did put great ingenuity into “selling” our product line through vivid pictorial images that conveyed the spirit of each film. On more than one occasion, the poster was circulated before the screenplay was even written. Take, for instance, the flamboyant image (by the great John Solie) of David Carradine posing in futuristic biker regalia to advertise Bloodsport. This poster was sent to the Cannes Film Festival, along with Carradine himself, to drum up enthusiasm for a kind of sequel to Death Race 2000. The film itself never lived up to the poster’s promise. But hey! That’s show biz!

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Death Race 2000: Driving a Hard Bargain

I’m proud that my Roger Corman: Blood-Sucking Vampires, Flesh-Eating Cockroaches, and Driller Killers (now –- at last! –- available as an ebook) has loyal fans. One of them, Jerry Lentz, just referred me to a recent Roger Corman interview on PBS. Here, as always, my former boss comes off as genial, articulate, and modest. When discussing Death Race 2000, though, he casually enlarges his own role and slights the contributions of others. As Roger’s assistant story editor at New World Pictures, I was involved from the beginning. So it seems high time to set the record straight.

Roger tells host Ernie Manouse that Death Race 2000 started with a short story by Ib Melchior. In Roger’s telling, “The Racer” is about “car racing in the future, in which the drivers try to knock each other off the track.” Disappointed with the initial script, he personally added a new wrinkle: the film would chronicle a cross-country road race, with drivers accumulating points for every pedestrian they ran down along the way. The goal was a serious action flick, until Roger realized, “Y’know, this idea is so audacious, it’s got to be done with humor.” Out of this change of heart came a cult classic.

Sorry, Roger . . . that’s not how it happened. In the beginning, there was indeed the Ib Melchior story. It contained the germ of the idea fans remember today: that drivers win the race by “scoring” pedestrians. This was hardly a Corman brainstorm, nor was it the product of Melchior’s fertile imagination. Most of us who were kids on 1950s schoolyards -- far too young to have experienced real tragedy in our own lives -- played the naughty little game of assigning points to various traffic victims. (A pregnant nun on roller skates was worth at least 15 points.) Anyway, although Melchior’s story contained that one morbid element, it was also pat and sentimental. The leading character, having just run down (ugh) a pretty school teacher and her young charges, sees the error of his ways and decides to covertly change the system.

What we took from Melchior’s story was its gruesome idea but not its sentimental approach. Still, our first screenwriter didn’t seem to get the picture. Science fiction author A.E. Van Vogt couldn’t buy the idea of a driver deliberately hitting pedestrians. So he established that all drivers were being brainwashed by futuristic devices hidden in their dashboards. Van Vogt was quickly replaced by the sardonic Robert Thom, who’d written Wild in the Streets and could never be accused of soft-heartedness. Thom had the right spirit, but when he wrote an opening scene that went on for 20 (handwritten!) pages and showed a stadium packed with nude people making love, it seemed time to look elsewhere.

Roger eventually turned to an old crony, Chuck Griffith, creator of Little Shop of Horrors and Bucket of Blood. But the film’s most inspired comedic touches came from director Paul Bartel. The laughter at early preview screenings infuriated Roger, because he wanted a straight-ahead futuristic action film, like United Artists’ Rollerball. Joe Dante, who worked in the editing room, laments Corman’s decree that new scenes of gore be added to a movie that was “a real pop art masterpiece before Roger got to it.”

Roger’s not a liar, exactly. He’s 86, his memory is selective, and he’s great at telling stories that burnish his own legend. He used to credit me with thinking up the film’s twist ending. Now that I’ve written his biography, though, my contribution too has been erased from his memory banks. Sad, but predictable.