Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Straight Skinny on “Dallas Buyers Club”

There’s much to admire about Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club. In the role of Ron Woodroof, a cocky Texan whose HIV-positive status leads him to battle the FDA and the medical establishment, McConaughey is both powerful and nuanced. And at times extremely funny too. But virtually every review praising his performance mentions that he lost over thirty pounds (or forty, or fifty, despending on what source you read) to achieve the skeletal frame of a man dying of AIDS.  This was a far cry from his 2012 Magic Mike, in which he buffed up to play a male stripper.

McConaughey isn’t the first Hollywood star to punish his body in the service of his art. Tom Hanks also got skinny to play an AIDS sufferer in Philadelphia. For Cast Away he ate himself pudgy to portray a sedentary middle-aged guy. Then production was halted for a year of serious dieting so that he could look suitably gaunt as a man marooned on a South Pacific island. Hanks recently revealed he’s got Type 2 diabetes, a situation that may (or may not) have been encouraged by his years of yoyo-ing weight.

Other stars who’ve lost major poundage to take on dramatic roles include Christian Bale (The Fighter), Matt Damon (Courage Under Fire), Matthew Fox (Alex Cross), and Curtis “Fifty Cent” Jackson, who played a football star battling cancer in All Things Fall Apart. Michael Fassbender starved 42 pounds off his frame when portraying real-life Irish hunger striker Bobby Sands in Hunger. Another actor who whittled himself to a point of near starvation was Adrien Brody, playing a Warsaw musician hiding from the Nazis in The Pianist.

Brody won a Best Actor Oscar for his pains, the youngest man ever to do so. Likewise Tom Hanks was honored for Philadelphia, and McConaughey is considered a serious Oscar contender this year. In 2011, Christian Bale won for his supporting role in The Fighter, and Jared Leto (who also dropped significant weight to play – brilliantly -- a transsexual AIDS patient in Dallas Buyers Club) is frequently mentioned in this category. So acquiring a lean and hungry look can have its rewards. Obviously, Oscar voters are impressed by guys who go without dinner.

Women who’ve found success in today’s Hollywood of course know a thing or two about dieting. Even for those who are NOT playing cancer patients or concentration camp inmates, thin is definitely in. The web is full of blow-by-blow accounts of the workout and dietary regime that allowed the already slender Anne Hathaway to squeeze into her cat suit for The Dark Knight Rises. She went beyond slim and slinky to play the tortured Fantine in Les Miserables. For this she too won an Oscar, along with (I suspect) the adulation of teenage girls keen to latch onto her diet secrets.

The determination by Hollywood stars to lose weight at all costs is nothing new. Back in 1967, Faye Dunaway was cast as outlaw Bonnie Parker in Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde. Her previous film had been Otto Preminger’s Hurry Sundown, a Southern-fried melodrama in which she played the supporting role of a hearty country gal. Costume designer Theadora Van Runkle confirmed to me Dunaway’s instinctive sense that she’d need to be thinner to do justice to Bonnie’s 1930s look. She slimmed down almost overnight, strictly through will power: “I never saw her eat anything.” Which made Dunaway not the pleasantest person to have on a movie set. But what price glory?

All the above is making me mighty hungry, so I think I’ll go gobble some pumpkin pie. Happy Thanksgiving! 

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

A Time to be Thankful: Syd Field and Mickey Knox

As Thanksgiving approaches, I’m both thankful and sad. I’m thankful for the Hollywood personalities I’ve had the good fortune to meet, and sad that many are no longer with us. In November alone, we lost two who made a difference.

I was introduced to Syd Field at a behind-the-scenes staff event that heralded the opening of the Getty Center in Brentwood. Our meeting took me by surprise: somehow I’d never thought of him as a man, but rather as a series of screenwriting books (beginning with 1979’s Screenplay) that today’s Hollywood regards as gospel. When it comes to the arts, I’m resistant to any hard and fast rules, except for the one voiced by screenwriter William Goldman, who famously said, “Nobody knows anything. . . . Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.”

But surely Syd Field should get credit for educated guesses. His focus on the three-act structure has influenced everyone from Judd Apatow to Alfonso Cuarón. It has also influenced  young development executives who talk in Field speak and will not tolerate any deviation from the Field model when it comes to the placement of plot points. Field himself, remarkably, turned out to be low-key and modest about his place in the screenwriting firmament. One thing I’m sure of: he truly loved movies.

So did Mickey Knox. I first met Mickey in 2005 through my friend Bella Stander. He’d been a chum of her late father, the gravel-voiced character actor Lionel Stander, during the bad old Blacklist days when both were hanging out in Rome. During Bella’s L.A. visits, Mickey would end up eating at my dinner table. He gave me a copy of his 2004 memoir, The Good, the Bad, and La Dolce Vita, a rollicking and sometimes bawdy tale of a life much enjoyed.

I never knowingly saw Mickey on film. What I learned from his book was his importance behind the scenes, especially when working with legendary Europeans as a translator and dialogue coach. He supplied the English-language dialogue for Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, then worked with Leone to cast and shoot Once Upon a Time in the West. He also taught Anna Magnani to handle her English-language lines in The Rose Tattoo, which ultimately won her an Oscar. Beyond this, Mickey – like Zelig – was always where the action was. When Marlon Brando dropped trou in front of Magnani, Mickey was there. On the set of White Heat, James Cagney addressed him in fluent Yiddish. Robert Capa gave him photography tips, and Willy Shoemaker told him what horse to back. He pigged out with Orson Welles, beat John Wayne at chess and Omar Sharif at gin rummy. Shelley Winters and Zsa Zsa made passes; so did Tennessee Williams. Ava Gardner didn’t, but he got to massage her sore feet.

Did Mickey merely have a vivid imagination? His stories, wild as they are, have the ring of truth. And J. Michael Lennon’s new scholarly biography of Norman Mailer confirms that the two were the best of friends. In 1970, Mickey had already left the party when Mailer viciously stabbed his wife Adele. The next day, however, it fell to Mickey to retrieve the knife with which his pal had done the deed.

In his book, Mickey never makes excuses for his own lapses. His brash but good-natured personality comes through loud and clear. When he came to dinner, I wish I’d asked more questions. 

Friday, November 22, 2013

November 22, 1963: Lee Harvey Oswald at the Movies

For those of a certain age, the mere mention of November 22, 1963 sends chills down the spine. The assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, fifty years ago today,  has forever changed Baby Boomers’ view of the world. We believe in conspiracies. We resist putting our faith in big institutions. We don’t quite trust anybody, either over or under thirty.

As the fiftieth anniversary drew near, several articles were written about how the Kennedy assassination gave rise to paranoid movie thrillers. A good piece in a Hollywood-based site called TheWrap mentions Blow-Up, The Parallax View and The Conversation as just three of the films shaped by what happened that day in Dallas. On television, in recent years, we’ve had 24 and Homeland. The very fact that Americans continue to puzzle over the Zapruder footage of the assassination (and that the footage were edited into Oliver Stone’s controversial JFK) shows the extent to which motion pictures are intertwined with one of the darkest days in American history.

What’s not generally remembered is that Lee Harvey Oswald, the shadowy former Marine who was long ago named Kennedy’s assassin in official reports, was captured by police at a suburban Dallas movie house called the Texas Theatre. He’d slipped inside without paying, and was watching a double bill of Cry of Battle and War Is Hell when an alert assistant manager notified law enforcement. The lights came on and, following a brief scuffle, Oswald was arrested. (After many financial ups and downs, the theatre survives today as an historic and cultural landmark.)

At the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, while researching film in the Sixties, I happened upon an odd little book by someone named John Loken. Loken seems to like arcane research: his only other publication is an analysis of the possibility that the Shroud of Turin is the authentic burial shroud of Jesus. But in 2000 he released a pamphlet-sized work called Oswald’s Trigger Films. It delves into the possibility that Lee Harvey Oswald, whom Loken accepts as JFK’s lone assassin, was goaded into lethal action by the movies he favored.

Oswald frequently went to the movies alone. (His Russian-born wife didn’t understand American movies.) The Palace Theatre was a prominent movie palace seven blocks from his workplace, and clearly visible along his bus route. From November 14 through December 12, 1962, it featured a chilling drama called The Manchurian Candidate; this film (in which a young man is brainwashed into gunning down a presidential candidate) also later played at the Texas Theatre, located close to Oswald’s apartment. Loken, unlike some conspiracy theorists, doesn’t think of Oswald as a dupe programmed by outside forces into killing Kennedy. Instead he speculates that Oswald – who loved intrigue and saw himself as a James Bond-type man of action – was moved to imitate the film’s central image of an assassin on high, targeting his prey through a rifle’s telescopic sights.

It can’t be verified that Oswald saw The Manchurian Candidate. But in October 1963, according to his widow Marina, he twice watched on television a 1949 John Garfield flick, We Were Strangers, in which a Cuban patriot engineers the death of a dictator. And, just maybe, he also saw 1954’s Suddenly, in which gangsters led by Frank Sinatra plot a presidential assassination. (It was withdrawn from circulation after JFK’s death.) According to Loken, it makes perfect sense that Oswald  -- once he’d changed the course of American history -- sought refuge in “the dream world of a movie theater showing violent films.”

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Governor Awards – From Corman Confab to Campaign Stop

Depending on which report you read, the star of Saturday evening’s Governors Awards banquet was either a glowing Angelina Jolie, a classy Steve Martin, or an ageless charmer, Angela Lansbury. They (along with costume designer Piero Tosi) were all being honored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for lifetime achievement, with Jolie receiving the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for helping refugees around the globe. The banquet is meant as a way for Hollywood to celebrate its own in relaxed fashion, away from the insanity of the Oscar broadcast. This year, however, the gathering morphed into something quite different: a chance for aspiring Oscar nominees to strut their stuff. Though the ceremony was not televised, it was preceded by a full-fledged red carpet for arrivals, and such awards hopefuls as Bruce Dern (Nebraska), Margo Martindale (August: Osage County), and Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips) made themselves highly available to the roving press corps. No question -- what was first conceived as a low-key party is now an early campaign stop.

 Things were rather different in 2009 when director Norman Jewison kicked off the first Governors Awards festivities by exulting, “We’re gathered here together, all artists, celebrating excellence, without any television cameras. Isn’t it great!” That inaugural year, honorees included actress Lauren Bacall, cinematographer Gordon Willis, producer John Calley, and my  former boss, Roger Corman. During the cocktail hour, I’m told former Cormanites stormed the hors d’oeuvres table, true to the tradition that Corman folk are always hungry, because they don’t earn enough to feed themselves properly.  

Over dinner, the tributes to Roger came first, and (because no time restrictions were imposed) they dominated much of the evening. Everyone who sang his praises was an Oscar winner. First up was Ron Howard, who described himself as “a proud graduate of what I like to define as RCUPC—Roger Corman University of Profitable Cinema.” Next to speak was Quentin Tarantino, who confessed that  he’d spent his growing-up years as the ultimate Corman fan. Tarantino screened clips from a range of Corman movies, including a memorable scene from X: The Man With the X-Ray Eyes in which the mild-mannered scientist played by Ray Milland discovers he can now see through women’s clothing. After a spirited run-down of the Corman legacy, Tarantino brought his speech to a dramatic crescendo: “Roger, for everything that you have done for cinema, the Academy thanks you, Hollywood thanks you, independent filmmaking thanks you, but most importantly—for all the wild, weird, cool, crazy moments you’ve put on the drive-in screens—the movie-lovers of the planet Earth thank you!”
 Jonathan Demme then stepped forward to praise “the power, the depth, the humanity, the social commentary, and the unbound imagination of Roger’s extraordinary body of work as an artist.” Calling the moment “the thrill of a lifetime,” he summoned Roger to the stage to accept his Oscar. Roger’s brief, elegant speech touched on film as a blend of art and commerce, then ended with a challenge:  “I believe the finest films being done today are done by the original innovative filmmakers who have the courage to take a chance and to gamble. So I say to you . . . keep gambling, keep taking chances.”

The words were stirring, though some onlookers might have quietly remembered that Corman’s own years of true artistic risk-taking were far behind him. Meanwhile, attention finally turned to the evening’s other nominees. But even Warren Beatty, preparing to salute John Calley (The Remains of the Day), paused to quip, “I hadn’t realized that I really never worked with anyone who didn’t start with Roger.”

As a former Cormanite myself, I feel entitled to add a brief commercial message: you’ll find lots more about the Governors Awards banquet in the pages of my Roger Corman: Blood-Sucking Vampires,Flesh-Eating Cockroaches, and Driller Killers (new 3rd edition, available now).

Friday, November 15, 2013

“Fallout”— Kat Kramer Out to Change the World

On Wednesday night, much of L.A.’s “cool” contingent was at Hollywood’s Chinese Theater, watching a celebrity-studded premiere of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, a highlight of the American Film Institute’s annual fest. That same evening, not far away, a handful of showbiz greats turned up to contemplate a far graver topic: nuclear proliferation. The occasion? The fifth anniversary of Kat Kramer’s Films that Change the World. Kramer was introducing to America the film Fallout. This Australia documentary charts the history of nuclear warfare, while also chronicling how Nevil Shute’s novel, On the Beach, evolved into Stanley Kramer’s hard-hitting 1959 movie.

Of Stanley Kramer’s four children, Kat (named for her godmother, Katharine Hepburn) is the one who’s come closest to following in her father’s footsteps. She told me that Stanley Kramer’s brand of socially conscious filmmaking “is in my DNA.”  He was famous for producing and directing films (like The Defiant Ones, Judgment at Nuremberg, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner) that tackled the day’s leading issues through dramatic storytelling. But the films in her series tend to be documentaries, like Teach Your Children Well (which takes on homophobia and schoolyard bullying) and The Cove (it won an Oscar for exposing the secret slaughter of dolphins near a Japanese village). Kat emphasized to me that today it’s documentaries that “have their own voice.” Unlike Hollywood features, so often made by committee and beholden to major commercial interests, a documentary can be fearless about making a strong statement.

The evening began with the inevitable lineup of stars for the paparazzi to photograph. There were Lily Tomlin and Louis Gossett Jr. (both of whom would later address the group), as well as such where-are-they-nows? as Jerry Mathers, who used to be known as TV’s Beaver Cleaver. I was tickled to see the still-handsome George Chakiris, all black hair, black stubble, and jet-black clothing. In fact, black seemed to be the color of the evening, in Kat’s case accented with silver lamé and with the oversized earrings that are a personal trademark. It felt like your usual celebrity red carpet, until the program began, with Tomlin introducing her close friend, Dr. Helen Caldicott.

Caldicott, an Australian pediatrician and author, was inspired by On the Beach to become an activist against nuclear energy. She’s a true pit bull on the subject, though a pit bull who’s bubbling over with humor and charm. Her charm doesn’t blunt her basic message: “We get really close to nuclear war quite often.”  Such a war could come at any moment, and if it does, she predicts an impending ice age, in which “we’ll all freeze to death in the dark.” Before that happens, however, there’s also the danger posed by climate change, as witness recent disasters in the Philippines and Japan, where the tsunami-damaged Fukushima nuclear reactor is now leaking radiation into our atmosphere and our oceans.

With the present looking so grim, it was a pleasure to go back to the past through Lawrence Johnston’s documentary, Fallout. We learned that Nevil Shute, an English engineer who discovered a talent for writing, was normally relaxed about peddling his adventure novels to film companies. On the Beach, though, was a different story. In depicting Melbourne, Australia as humanity’s last stand in the face of encroaching radiation from a nuclear blast, Shute identified strongly with the nuclear engineer (Fred Astaire in the film) who blames himself and his colleagues for the destruction of mankind. Stanley Kramer’s movie is still haunting, but Shute never accepted the dramatic tweaks that an American filmmaker brought to his own singular vision of Armageddon.  

PS  A warm farewell to the fascinating Mickey Knox, actor, blacklist survivor, and buddy of Norman Mailer, who passed away this morning. More on Mickey later.