Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Of Boobs and Men . . .

On the 2013 Oscar broadcast, host Seth MacFarlane found a way to flaunt his bad-boy credentials while at the same time seeming to repudiate them. We saw Captain Kirk, time-traveling from the future to critique MacFarlane’s Oscar-night outing, chastise him for a naughty ditty that had infuriated all the women in attendance.  Cue a production number: MacFarlane singing “We Saw Your Boobs,” gaily naming Hollywood lovelies who’d popped their tops on screen. The camera helpfully picked out those implicated. Most of them hardly looked amused by this reminder of the peep-show side of the movie biz, and of their role in indulging the fantasy life of horny males like the evening’s host.

Bare breasts was first sanctioned in a Hollywood studio film in 1964, when Sidney Lumet made The Pawnbroker. Lumet’s purpose was serious, not prurient. He was exploring the horrors of the Holocaust, as well as the loss of human dignity among the denizens of a Harlem ghetto. That’s why the MPAA censors recognized it was time to loosen the Academy rules against on-screen nudity.  

The change came in an era when hip young American filmmakers were looking to Europe for artistic inspiration. Continental Europeans, always more relaxed about displaying their bodies on beaches and in ad campaigns, had been far quicker than their American counterparts to incorporate on-screen nudity into their filmmaking. This served, of course, to heighten eroticism, while also launching a full assault on puritanical self-restraint. Back in 1960, François Truffaut made fun of American prudishness in Shoot the Piano Player by showing his leading man, Charlie, in bed with a friendly and very naked hooker. As they joke about TV and films, Charlie briefly covers his bed-mate’s large breasts with a sheet, quipping, “This is how it’s done in [Hollywood] movies.” (Ironically, the shot of her exposed breasts was briefly cut out of the film’s first American release in 1962.}

But after The Pawnbroker, American filmgoers were discovering breasts in a big way. Sometimes female breasts were exposed for thematic reasons, to shock the audience into sharing a character’s humiliation (see Schindler’s List, The Accused, Boys Don’t Cry). In such cases, we were meant to feel violated ourselves. Helen Hunt’s full-frontal nudity in The Sessions was, conversely, a thematic statement about her character’s healthily matter-of-fact acceptance of the human body, despite its imperfections.

Most often, though, we’re expected to be in the mind of the male titillated by the female form.  The Graduate flashed almost subliminal glimpses of Mrs. Robinson’s bare breasts to reflect the psyche of Benjamin Braddock, torn between horror and lust by the sight of his father’s partner’s wife in full cougar mode. When the zaftig and not-so-young Kathy Bates stripped and entered the hot tub in About Schmidt, we shared a moment of truth in with the confused middle-aged man played by Jack Nicholson.

Most filmmakers, of course, are male. And most American films featuring female breast nudity contain more than a pinch of voyeurism. Take it from a Roger Corman veteran: Breasts are the cheapest special effect in our business. Given Roger’s penchant for hiring smart young women as writers, directors, and producers, it is female Cormanites who’ve often found themselves teasing out plot excuses for well-endowed cuties to bare their boobs. Cuties like a young Sandra Bullock in Corman’s Fire on the Amazon. Yes, Seth MacFarlane could have included her on his list too. Ah, Hollywood -- land of the lustful male gaze! Which may explain why Lena Dunham seems to enjoy baring her own imperfect body, since she’s in a position to do it on her own terms.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Oscars for Amateurs: How Quvenzhané Wallis Made it to the Big Dance

Much attention has recently been paid to Emmanuelle Riva, who at 85 is the oldest nominee ever for the Best Actress Oscar. I have not yet seen Amour, but I’ve never forgotten her bravery in Hiroshima, Mon Amour, a 1959 landmark of French New Wave cinema. If the Academy chooses to honor Riva, it will be for a sterling performance, but also for her place in cinema history.

I wonder how she feels, and how the other nominees feel, about the fact that one of their competitors is not only a brand-new actress but pretty much a brand-new person. Quvenzhané Wallis, now a charming nine-year-old, was only five when she auditioned for the leading role in Beasts of the Southern Wild, and she went before the cameras at six. Now she’s the youngest Best Actress candidate in Oscar history, which must make such doddering oldsters as Naomi Watts (born 1968), Jessica Chastain (born 1977), and Jennifer Lawrence (born 1990) wonder why they wasted so much time learning their craft.

Of course there are many factors at work here. To win Oscar gold, you need to be the right actor in the right project. Your film needs to be a critical success, and today an award-season strategy involving paid consultants and freebies for voters is definitely part of the mix. And if you’re a young newcomer, the Actress categories are more welcoming than those for Best Actor and Supporting Actor, because the men’s competition is always more crowded.  Abigail Breslin was a mere ten when she became a Best Actress nominee for Little Miss Sunshine, though by that point she was a veteran of several movies.  But both Tatum O’Neal and Anna Paquin took home Best Supporting Actress statuettes for their debut films, Paper Moon and The Piano. O’Neal was ten, and Paquin a ripe old eleven.

What gives? How did these largely untrained amateurs get to play with the big girls? Partly it’s a matter of savvy casting: finding a child whose personality and life situation nicely match the role she’s asked to assume. Tatum O’Neal, who’d endured a tumultuous upbringing and was street-smart beyond her years, took easily to playing a con artist alongside her actual father. Wallis, a Louisiana native, has the fearlessness and the sass essential to the role of Hushpuppy. A drama teacher I know insists that most children are natural-born actors. They excel at “let’s pretend” because they are comfortable shrugging off social niceties and entering fully into the part they are asked to play. It’s only when they approach their teens that they become self-conscious, which is why older actors have to learn to be as spontaneous and in-the-moment as children. So if you combine a kid’s natural flair for the dramatic with a role that’s a perfect fit, magic can happen.

There’s another category of first-time actors who’ve made a splash on Oscar night: people who have such close personal ties to the roles they play that they are essentially playing themselves. Oscar voters salute them because they have endured the unendurable, and brought this experience to the screen. Haing S. Ngor survived Pol Pot’s Cambodia, then re-enacted his suffering in The Killing Fields. Harold Russell was the perfect choice to play a gutsy World War II vet in The Best Years of Our Lives. I just learned that Russell’s role was originally meant to showcase a returning soldier suffering from PTSD. But when the production team learned of Russell, who had lost both arms in a military training accident, they knew they had the right man for this film.    

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Lawrence Wright and Paul Haggis: Making Their Love of Movies Crystal-Clear

Anyone who’s wandered through Hollywood, gazing up at imposing buildings with bold signage, knows that Scientology remains Big Business in Tinseltown. The Church of Scientology’s showbiz connection is spelled out in Lawrence Wright’s hot best-seller, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief. Though Wright (a Pulitzer Prize winner for The Looming Tower) devotes much of his new book to über-Scientologist Tom Cruise, he first got interested in the subject by way of his 2011 New Yorker profile of writer-director Paul Haggis, who had split with the church in 2009.

Paul was a Scientologist for thirty-four years. During that period he wrote such TV hits as thirtysomething, won acclaim for his Million Dollar Baby screenplay, and both wrote and directed the surprise Best Picture winner, Crash.  His official bio, though, omits his Roger Corman period. In 1988, when Paul was looking to move from television into film. Corman optioned a Dean Koontz thriller, Watchers, about a young couple and their preternaturally smart dog.  Working with me on the screenplay, Paul proved to be pleasant and smart (and no proselytizer).  He showed me some spec scripts for which he had hopes, including a clever romantic thriller called Blood Ruby Red. Roger, alas, wasn’t interested in backing that project. And when I returned from a brief vacation, I discovered the Watchers premise had been totally upended. Overnight the saga of a couple and their dog had turned into a boy-and-dog story, and other hands were involved in writing it. Later, Paul and I communicated only once, when I wrote to tell him I’d been blown away by Million Dollar Baby.

Paul and I both love movies, and so does Lawrence Wright. This comes through in his very first book, a 1988 memoir called In the New World: Growing Up with America, 1960-1984, when he writes of a trip made to Europe after college. It was the late Sixties, the Vietnam War was raging, and Wright felt little fondness for his native land. Then he went to an underground cinema in Paris, and found a local crowd gathered to watch a Gary Cooper double-bill. Memories flooded back: “How many times had I seen these movies on late-night television! To see them again in France was to understand at last the power of the American Western, which is really the creation myth of America.” Wright may have been an American abroad, but “I could see, as I glanced at the faces around me, that this was a European dream. It was individual man, called to his limits, facing evil and the prospect of death, but standing alone and in the cause of goodness, truth, justice.” The fantasy of the lone American hero was alive and well on the Rive Gauche. 

Soon thereafter, Wright was teaching English at a Cairo university. Though relations between Egypt and the U.S. had been strained following Israel’s victory in 1967’s Six Day War, Wright discovered his Egyptian students hardly held the American public responsible: “Their genuine feeling for the goodness of the American people was formed by Hollywood, which casts a spell over the entire world. The America of the movies is a land of such innocence and beauty that my students were predisposed toward forgiveness. They wanted to be on our side. Some of them had been born in villages in the Nile delta, or in Palestinian camps on the bloody West Bank, but they had grown up watching Doris Day driving carpool through the suburbs of the new world and Fred MacMurray smoking his pipe and telling bedtime stories. America had insinuated itself into their imaginations.”

Thursday, February 14, 2013

A Valentine (or two) from Stanley Donen

The other day, felled by that nasty cold that’s been making the rounds, I curled up on the sofa and watched one of Fred Astaire’s more obscure musicals, Royal Wedding. It contains the famous number in which a lovestruck Astaire blissfully dances on the ceiling of his hotel room, but the rest of the film was brand-new to me. In Royal Wedding (released by MGM in 1951), Astaire’s dance partner is the petite and perky Jane Powell. Fortunately, they don’t play lovers, because Astaire is at least thirty years Powell’s senior, and looks every bit of it. Instead they are cast as brother and sister, a successful song-and-dance team who bicker affectionately as they sail off to London. You see, there’s a royal wedding afoot, and they’ve been invited to perform during the festivities. This allows for a wealth of colorful music numbers, including the Latin-themed “I Lost My Hat in Haiti,” Astaire’s masterful duet with a hatrack, and the comically crass “How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Love You When You Know I've Been a Liar All My Life?” 

I’m amused that an actual British wedding (that of Princess – soon to be Queen – Elizabeth) inspired this film. The royal nuptials are not shown on screen, but everyone in this Hollywood version of England seems swept away by the romantic thrill of it all. One character’s feuding parents bury the hatchet; Jane Powell thrusts aside her career ambitions to marry a British lord; and Astaire overturns his determination to remain a bachelor forever. All subplots wrap up, of course, on the very day that the royal bride and groom are heading toward Westminster Abbey. Ah, sweet mystery of life!

This frothy concoction marked the solo directing debut of one of Hollywood’s great masters of romance, Stanley Donen. Sixteen years later, Donen made an equally charming but far more realistic film about love and marriage. I’m talking about the great Two for the Road, which -- though it contains elements of a classic romantic comedy -- aims much higher, attempting no less than to dissect a marriage, exposing both its joys and its grievances.

Two for the Road presents its English husband and wife -- played by Albert Finney and Audrey Hepburn -- entirely in the context of their travels through the south of France. Frederic Raphael’s dazzlingly non-linear script intercuts between widely-spaced points in time without regard for basic chronology. Over the span of the twelve years that comprise this film, we see Mark and Joanna meet as young hitch-hikers and tumble into bed together; we watch them confront the spectacular breakdown of their car and the discovery that she is pregnant; we follow Mark’s growing success as an architect and his brief fling at infidelity; we face a bitter patch in their marriage that suggests a unbridgeable rift between them. As the years pass, their cars get fancier, their resentments get bigger, and their skepticism about marriage as a permanent state continues to grow. At times Two for the Road seems overwhelmingly cynical: for instance, there’s Joanna describing marriage as “when sex stopped being fun.” The film certainly questions the concept of dewy-eyed matrimonial love. But, ultimately, the past history they share keeps Jo and Mark together. It’s less a Hollywood ending than a realistic one, colored by a complex web of emotions.

Though critics cheered this film, audiences of the day were not so certain.  But I salute the courage of Donen and company. I’ve been married (mostly happily) for forty years, and so I know marriage is never just love and roses.

Happy Valentine’s Day to Bernie. 

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

And Then What? – The Oscars and the Power of Suspense

As I write this, the manhunt continues for Christopher Jordan Dorner, the vengeful ex-cop suspected of gunning down three innocents. Now, though Dorner seems to have vanished without a trace in the snowy mountains of Big Bear, tensions continue to rise. Where will he surface next? Who will be his target?

This kind of real-life suspense is something movies are always aiming to capture. Filmmakers know that viewers can be kept on the edge of their seats if they’re deeply invested in the fate of a film’s central characters. It helps if they find themselves surprised by plot twists and turns they didn’t anticipate. But what if the outcome is known in advance? Three of the nine films nominated for this year’s Best Picture Oscar -– Argo, Lincoln, and Zero Dark Thirty –- are based on actual historic incidents. In each case, when I walked into the theatre, I knew (at least in general terms) what would ultimately happen: that the beleaguered American Embassy personnel would safely escape from Tehran, that Lincoln and his allies would rally Congress to pass the 13th Amendment, that a squad of Navy SEALS would breach the Abbottabad compound and kill Osama Bin Laden. The success of these films lies in their ability to grip viewers like me, even when we know what’s coming.

Smart screenwriters dealing with historic episodes ratchet up suspense in several ways. Writers can create rich, complex charcters whose behavior is not always predictable. Tony Kushner’s script for Lincoln got me interested not only in the results of the Congressional vote but also in the diverse personalities who –- for their own reasons -- chose yea or nay. Writers can introduce heart-pounding chase scenes. Chris Terrio added to the climax of Argo a (doubtless exaggerated) pursuit on the airport tarmac that contributed hugely to the audience’s excitement level. Writers can flesh out an action sequence with so many real-seeming details that we can’t help but be caught up in the moment. All of us know the results of the Abbottabad raid, but it becomes much more powerful when Mark Boal’s script immerses us in its second-by-second chaos and confusion.

Back in 1995, Ron Howard and his screenwriting team faced a similar challenge when transforming the memoir of mission commander Jim Lovell into the film Apollo 13. The abortive Apollo 13 moon mission had blasted off in 1970, but in 1995 most moviegoers probably still remembered that it -- alone among America’s lunar missions -- hadn’t gone as planned. Due to crippling technical difficulties, the moon landing had to be scrubbed, and the astronauts barely made it back to earth. Because the astronauts’ survival was well known, screenwriters Willam Broyles Jr. and Al Reinert heightened their film’s suspense through character interaction. As the stakes grow higher, viewers shuttle between the apparently doomed astronauts in their capsule and the engineers at Houston’s manned space center, desperately relaying ideas to help fix the damaged spacecraft. Another key component of the film involves Jim Lovell’s wife, holding tight to her husband’s love as he yearns to return home to her and their family.

Apollo 13 was nominated for nine Oscars, including Best Picture. But there was no nomination for director Ron Howard. That fact seemed to doom the picture, even though it had won top honors from Hollywood’s acting, directing, and producing guilds several weeks earlier. On Oscar night, Braveheart was the big winner. Given the current Oscar snub for Argo’s director, Ben Affleck, is Argo fated to go the route of Apollo 13? That’s a question that will make for real suspense on February 23.

This post is dedicated to Roxanne Lane, a film industry veteran who’s one of Argo’s most loyal fans.

Note: Here’s a surprising editorial in today’s Los Angeles Times, pointing out Tony Kushner’s deliberate falsification of the voting record of four congressmen from Connecticut, in order to heighten the drama of the film Lincoln.

Friday, February 8, 2013

USC’s Scripter Award: Honoring the Transformation of Books into Movies

Roger Corman is not exactly known for adapting literary subject matter to the screen. But of course his fame as a director rests in part on his creative use of the public-domain stories of Edgar Allan Poe. When I myself worked for Roger, we generally chose projects based on original ideas. But from time to time Roger was not above paying for the rights to a literary property, provided it offered sufficient opportunities for sex and violence. So I was involved with Charles Willeford’s Cockfighter and Ib Melchior’s The Racer (which we transformed rather drastically into Death Race 2000). Years later, I helped adapt a Dean Koontz thriller, Watchers, and a Brian Aldiss sci-fi extravaganza, Frankenstein Unbound. For Julie Corman I worked at turning Gary Paulsen’s award-winning YA survival tale, Hatchet, into a family flick, A Cry in the Wild. (We changed the title because, since our film was to be released under the Corman banner, Hatchet would doubtless be mistaken for a slasher film.)

This weekend’s big marquee event is the presentation of the Grammy Awards. But the University of Southern California, home of a film school begun in 1929 as a joint venture with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, is hosting a nifty fundraiser Saturday evening on behalf of the USC Libraries. It’s the 25th annual Scripter Award, which is unique in honoring screenwriters but also the creators of their source material. This year’s finalists were chosen by a blue-ribbon panel co-chaired by Naomi Foner, whom I admire because she wrote and produced Running on Empty. (She also produced Maggie and Jake Gyllenhaal, but that’s another story.) Among those involved in the selection process were such major literary lights as Michael Chabon, Nick Hornby, and Mona Simpson, along with Hollywood players like Gale Anne Hurd, Lawrence Kasdan, and Mike Medavoy. Vying for this year’s Scripter Award are the writers behind Argo, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Life of Pi, Lincoln, Perks of Being a Wallflower, and Silver Linings Playbook. When the winners are announced, both the screenwriter and the writer of the prose original will doubtless be on hand to make some gracious remarks.

That’s been true for most of the past ceremonies, which honored such well-crafted screenplays as The Descendants, The Social Network, Slumdog Millionaire, and No Country for Old Men. Back in 1996, though, Emma Thompson was chosen for her spot-on adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. Austen, alas, wasn’t able to put in an appearance. So Thompson read a very amusing letter she claimed was Austen’s response to the award. Wish I had been there!

Since I haven’t done all the background reading, I don’t feel qualified to name a personal favorite. But I was quite impressed by the way screenwriter David Magee captured Yann Martel’s apparently unfilmable novel, Life of Pi. I’m also fascinated that Lincoln’s Tony Kushner took a small slice of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s scholarly biography, Team of Rivals, and blew it up into an absorbing film.

Writers know that it’s far easier to expand a short story into a screenplay than to try to compress a big novel for the screen. Looking back through Scripter history, I was certain that one of the winners had been Brokeback Mountain, based on a concise but very powerful story by Annie Proulx. In fact, Brokeback was beaten out by the film (and biography), Capote. Maybe this year’s Scripter folk are making amends to Brokeback’s screenwriters, Larry McMurtry and Diane Ossana. The duo will receive Scripter’s 2013 Literary Achievement Award for their years of high-caliber writing. Write on!

BREAKING NEWS: On Saturday evening, February 9, the movie Argo continued its march toward Oscar by winning the 25th annual Scripter Award. Prizes went to screenwriter Chris Terrio as well as Joshuah Bearman (for his Wired article, "Great Escape") and Antonio J. Mendez (for his memoir, The Master of Disguise). I'm sure my friend Roxanne Lane is thrilled!