Friday, June 28, 2013

Four Weddings . . . and a Funeral or Two

  Traditionally, June is the month for weddings. And, given the Supreme Court’s new rulings on marriage equality, wedding talk is certainly in the air. Before June is ushered out, I want to propose my new idea for a reality TV show.

Lots of us are suckers for matrimonial pomp and circumstance. On the treadmill (my preferred spot for watching junk television), I’ve gravitated toward the TLC Network’s Say Yes to the Dress, on which brides-to-be try on gowns while coping with crazy relatives, crazy figure issues, and crazy budgetary challenges. But since competition is now the name of the game, I’ve discovered an even more addictive show, TLC’s Four Weddings. Here’s how it works: four brides attend each another’s weddings. They then rate one another by secret ballot, giving points for best dress, best venue, best food, and best “experience.” The latter implies some fancy sort of entertainment. Like an elaborate Wizard of Oz theme. Or a multi-ethnic “Saris and Sombreros” bash, featuring mariachis and Bollywood dancers. Or a Fourth of July patriotic picnic, complete with fireworks. At the end of each episode, the winning bride receives an all-expenses-paid romantic honeymoon getaway. (Yes, her groom gets to come too.)

I can’t help being amused by those rival brides, seemingly enjoying each other’s nuptials but all the while making mental notes. (“The prime rib was overcooked.”  “That poufy gown just did not flatter.” “Didn’t Missy – or Michaela – or Madison -- look a wee bit tipsy out there on the dance floor?”)

The show’s name, Four Weddings, can’t help but remind me of one of my favorite romantic comedies, Four Weddings and a Funeral. Which gave me an idea. If weddings are extravaganzas, so are some funerals. (Joan Rivers calls them “red carpet for dead people.”) Back in January, TLC actually introduced a reality special featuring some of the outrageous “home-going” ceremonies that are staged for real at a Dallas funeral parlor. (Picture, for instance, a barnyard setting and a casket shaped like a barbecue grill, in tribute to a deceased country singer known for his musical salute to Chili’s babyback ribs.) I did not see that show, which was dubbed “Best Funeral Ever.” But I was disappointed to learn there was no competition involved. Of course, if we’re comparing funerals rather than weddings, the guests of honor can’t be expected to judge one another’s festivities. But I can envision next-of-kin standing in the rear at other people’s services, making notes on the most attractive casket, the most scenic gravesite, the most inspiring funeral oration. (What prize would be awarded? My imagination only takes me so far.)

Obviously, I’m making light of death here, which probably doesn’t speak well for me. This flaw in my character was brought home just recently, when I again tuned in to Say Yes to the Dress. Needless to say, each young woman who appears on the program, searching for her dream dress at a bridal boutique, has a problem that needs solving. Like the bride who prefers elegant simplicity when all her relatives are rooting for froufrou and lace. And the two-tons-of-fun young woman determined to stuff herself into a strapless fairy-princess concoction. But one bride’s problem was of a different order. Her head was bald when she chose her gown, because she had been fighting cervical cancer. At the beachfront wedding ceremony captured by TLC’s cameras, both she and her groom looked radiant. But the show ended with a stark dedication to Margo Mallory Ambler,1987-2012. It wasn’t, certainly, something to joke about. So – enough of fun and games for now.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Fill the Void: Lovers and Other Strangers in Tel Aviv

Last weekend, while most American moviegoers were checking out the pecs of the Man of Steel, I was watching the tribulations of people dressed in equally oddball outfits. These would be members of a devout Jewish community (long black coats, long sidecurls, and big fur hats for men;  long skirts and elaborate headcoverings for women) who take it on faith that everyone ought to be married. Fill the Void, from Israel’s burgeoning film industry, has won several international awards. Unlike most of Israel’s acclaimed recent films (for instance, Beaufort and Waltz with Bashir), it has nothing to do with war, terrorism, or politics—unless you count the politics of matching the right bride to the right groom.

Rama Burshtein, though born in New York, studied filmmaking in Israel, at a time when she was becoming religiously observant. For decades, she has been writing, directing, and producing films tailored to the needs of Orthodox Jewry. Some of these films, in keeping with traditional Judaism’s strict rules about modesty and the separation of the sexes, were designed for women only. Though Fill the Void appeals to a much wider audience, it has nothing but respect for the beliefs and social mores of the closed community it so faithfully depicts.

I’m told Burshtein is a Jane Austen fan.  Austen’s world, like Burshtein’s, is a circumscribed place in which marriage is central and matchmaking is an activity of great consequence. We tend to think of Jane Austen (Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility) as a comic writer, but her delicate novels do not overlook the possibility of bad judgment, bad luck, and heartache. Her central characters quietly suffer, but they learn to make do, and sometimes are rewarded with their hearts’ desire. So it is with Fill the Void’s eighteen-year-old Shira. As the film opens, she’s in a supermarket with her mother, excitedly stealing a glimpse of the bridegroom-to-be a matchmaker has promised. But soon tragedy strikes: her older sister suddenly dies, leaving a newborn baby. And through the elaborate maneuverings that are part and parcel of this community’s social life, she discovers she herself is being proposed as the “beshert” (predestined mate) of her sister’s handsome but needy widower.

Fill the Void was workshopped at the Sundance Institute, which crafted this official description: “A devout 18-year-old Israeli is pressured to marry the husband of her late sister. Declaring her independence is not an option in Tel Aviv's ultra-Orthodox Hasidic community, where religious law, tradition and the rabbi's word are absolute.” These phrases make Shira sound like a modern young woman in revolt against her elders. But such is hardly the case. Shira, a true daughter of her community, yearns—like the girls around her—for the day when she can announce, “I am a bride.” But her complicated feelings regarding her dead sister, her unwed friends, her much-older suitor, and her own submerged sexuality result in a tangle that only the rebbe can put to rights.

As is typical in such communities, the rebbe (a sort of local chief rabbi) is the man to whom everyone turns in time of crisis. This plays out comically when a distraught old woman bursts into his study to demand help in choosing a new stove. In matters of the heart, too, the rebbe can be counted on for commonsense wisdom. He, like all the characters in this film, is treated with dignity. It’s rare to see a movie about a fundamentalist sect that does not condescend to its characters. And it’s rare to be allowed inside the walls of this fascinating world.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Former Child Stars: Ugly is as Ugly Does

Admit it: you (like me) are a sucker for intriguing lists, especially those with a Hollywood connection. While trying to get some work done (yes, really), I couldn’t help being distracted by a link to a site called Ranker, which was touting its survey of the “The 30+ Ugliest Former Child Actors.” This snarky post by someone named Robert Wabash enjoys bashing cute show biz kids who have turned into what he calls “train-wreck adults.” He accuses them of growing up to look like Muppets, despite the fact that “most of them made more money before they lost their virginity than you'll make your whole life.”

Well, okay. I’ve always been interested in the careers of child actors. Let’s see whom he’s accusing of taking ugly pills. I can’t pretend to know every name on the list, since at some point in my life I stopped watching sitcoms. And what I mostly have to go on is the photos on the site.  I must admit Eric Bonsall, who was a cherubic little tyke on Family Ties, looks pretty creepy with his stubble and his neck tattoo. (Sounds as though he’s had serious run-ins with the law, which goes with his new look.) Macaulay Culkin, who’s had his share of problems since he scored with Home Alone in 1990, looks disturbingly strung out. It’s a surprise to see Jonathan Lipnicki, so adorable in Jerry Maguire, sporting a tattoo and a six-pack, though I’m not sure he qualifies as ugly. (And this photo might certainly reflect him in a costume, of sorts, for a movie role. Ditto for Frankie Muniz’s mohawk.) Yes, Raven-Symoné looks far more zoftig than in her Cosby Show days, but I assume this is puberty kicking in. Like most of us civilians, kid actors tend to gain a little weight as they age.

Two women on the list should be congratulated for getting their lives together. Mackenzie Phillips and Oscar-winner Tatum O’Neal both had unconventional childhoods, early success, and drug problems. The wonder is that they both seem to be back in action -- and look pretty good, despite all they’ve survived.

Then there are the photos of ex-child stars who look like (and apparently are) perfectly normal adults. Like Mara Wilson, of Mrs. Doubtfire and Matilda. And Fred Savage, once the adorable star of The Wonder Years, who’s now a family man with a budding career as a director and producer. He doesn’t look ugly in the photo posted by Wabash, just grown-up. Mayim Bialik, who made gawkiness a trademark on TV’s Blossom, still gets laughs on The Big Bang Theory. It doesn’t seem fair to call her ugly, though she can justly be accused of nerdiness, thanks to her PhD in neuroscience.

Perhaps the most interesting figures on Wabash’s list are Daniel Radcliffe and Haley Joel Osment, both poised for adult success but both not immune to the perils of the adult world. After a drunk driving episode, Osment headed for rehab. I hope it works for him, as it eventually did for another on the “ugly” list, Clint Howard. True, the Howard boys – with their hair loss and scraggly teeth – are not beauties. Clint, in fact, has made a career of his oddball looks. But we should all have the success in life that Ron Howard’s had, bald pate or no.  

When writing for the Hollywood Reporter’s annual Showbiz Kids issue, I interviewed Amanda Bynes, who was then starring in her own Nickelodeon show. At 13, she seemed level-headed. Now she’s a train-wreck. Pretty, yes, but with a growing rap sheet. That to me is ugly. 

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Hamburger Hamlet: Good Night, Sweet Prince

If you grew up in L.A. , you remember the heyday of the Hamburger Hamlet. Much more than a burger joint, it was a casual but classy hangout that epitomized the showbiz way of life. Co-founder Harry Lewis, who died last week at age 93, was an actor. He had a long movie career, which included  roles in Key Largo and as a sheriff’s deputy in a film noir classic, Gun Crazy. On screen he played supporting roles. But as a restaurateur, along with wife Marilyn, he was a superstar.

Hamburger Hamlet, which opened on the Sunset Strip in 1950, catered to hungry actors. At first, Harry flipped burgers and Marilyn waited tables, but their concept worked so well that soon there were locations in such tony SoCal neighborhoods as Beverly Hills, Brentwood, and Palm Springs, where Ronald Reagan and Rat Pack types often dropped by. The Hamlets promised—and delivered—what was termed “simply marvelous food.”  Burgers were well cooked, well served, and creative, boasting a variety of exotic toppings. Also on the menu were such inventive treats as “Those Potatoes.” (Yum!) Lobster bisque was a specialty, and it was at the Hamburger Hamlet that I first discovered the joys of French Onion Soup Fondue. (I still make it at home, using the Hamlet recipe.)

Another attraction of Hamlet restaurants was their decor. All Hamlets were clubby and vaguely British, with comfy red leather booths and flattering lighting. The walls were hung with theatrical memorabilia, but the Shakespearean motif carried the day. In various showcases, small figurines depicted a Laurence Olivier-type in black tights and flowing white shirt delivering puns on lines from the Bard’s most famous play. To a miniature Ophelia he proclaimed, “Get thee to a bunnery!” And, sitting alone with a hamburger in hand, he mused, “To eat or not to eat – what a foolish question.” To a bookish kid like me, being at the Hamlet was a literary as well as a culinary delight.

At the Beverly Hills Hamlet, not far from where I grew up, family groups routinely mingled with Hollywood celebrities. Circa 1965, when Broadway’s Julie Andrews was the new kid in town, I saw her coming out of the Hamlet, surrounded by studio suits. She was casually dressed in red—red slacks, red turtleneck, red lipstick—and seemed to glow with youth, health, and promise. Two years later, when the reason Billy Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge was the question on everyone’s lips, I spotted singer-songwriter Bobbie Gentry lunching with her manager in the next booth. As I recall, he was advising her about using a file cabinet to store her various writing projects, and she, as a newbie, was seriously nodding in agreement. (In 1967, the notion of digital data storage could hardly have been anticipated.)

One other Hamlet memory: in the early years all the servers were African-American. This might sound like a nod to the old plantation days, but in fact the Lewises were doing their bit, in the Civil Rights era, to promote upward mobility  Members of the Hamlet serving staff were well-spoken and elegantly turned out in crisp black and white uniforms. (I once saw a behind-the-scenes poster laying out the strict codes of dress and conduct.)  If a server did well, he or she could be promoted to front-of-the-house duty, and from there was helped to move into management. So the Lewises were using their restaurants to showcase their social views, as well as their love of good food in good surroundings. Just writing this has made me awfully hungry! 

Friday, June 14, 2013

Roger Corman’s Drive-In: How “Little Shop of Horrors” Got Found, and Got Copyrighted

Well, now that summer’s almost here, it’s time for some drive-in movies. Of course, flicks you watch from your car are pretty much a thing of the past. But B-movie maven Roger Corman has just launched his very own YouTube subscription channel, which has been aptly dubbed “Corman’s Drive-In.”  For a mere $3.99 per month, subscribers can enjoy old movies culled from the Corman archives. First up is a rarity, 1958’s The Cry Baby Killer, in which Jack Nicholson made his screen debut. It will be followed by a Corman classic, the original Little Shop of Horrors.

Little Shop, of course, is the two-day wonder that was cranked out by Roger to take advantage of sets left standing when another production wrapped. Chuck Griffith dashed off the story of a dimwitted flower-shop assistant who breeds a plant that thrives on human blood. The young Jack Nicholson joined forces with Corman regulars Jonathan Haze, Dick Miller, and Mel Welles in this gruesome but hilarious farce. The budget totaled about $27,500, and the film’s threadbare look became part of the fun.

Typically, Roger didn’t get around to copyrighting his quickie movie. But when Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s musical version of Little Shop became an off-Broadway hit in 1982, he discovered that his earlier laxness was now costing him money. Television stations were frequently airing his 1960 film, and people were even circulating pirated home video versions. In order to sell his own authorized videos, Roger needed to locate the master print. But given the chaotic state of record-keeping at Concorde-New Horizons Pictures, no one had any idea where it was. It fell to a young staff editor named Steve Barnett to track down the elusive print.

As usual, Roger had never bothered to make what’s called an “interpositive” as a backup in case of damage. Steve has detailed for me how he located the original Little Shop cut negative at a film lab’s storage facility. The optical soundtrack was also there, but not the “three-stripe,” the magnetic tape of the dialogue, music, and effects soundtracks. An optical soundtrack is celluloid, and can be extremely fragile when it’s old. Steve remembers that “I was deathly afraid to put the soundtrack into the printer, for fear it would crumble and we would lose it forever.”

Fortunately, Roger’s brother Gene suggested that the magnetic tape of the film might be in the vault at a local sound lab, possibly stored under another name. So Steve’s sleuthing continued: “Down there in the basement of Ryder Sound in Hollywood, dusting off all these old boxes, we found this one stack that said, ‘Passionate People Eater’—barely visible. The ink was on masking tape and it was evaporating. So we almost didn’t know what it was.” It was, in fact, the object of Steve’s search, labeled with the film’s working title. After his eureka moment, he quickly went to work making copies of Little Shop’s various elements: “I wanted as much protection for it as I could get, as much for Roger’s own good as for what I felt was this amazing piece of film history. I was just thrilled to be able to protect something that I’d watched as a kid on television. And so if you buy the authorized video now, it’s this pristine, beautiful copy. I don’t think Roger knew I went as far as a fine-grain interpositive and an internegative—but he knows now, so there you go.”

Sounds like Corman’s Drive-In owes Steve Barnett a big debt of gratitude. And a generous reward — but that’s hardly Roger’s style.