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.


  1. That Mitty remake looks singularly awful. I am pleased that Kat Kramer is keeping her father's social conscience alive. Sadly, I have not yet seen On the Beach - though I know I will find it fascinating - just one I haven't gotten around to yet.

  2. On the Beach is a good film with some truly poignant moments, notably when Gregory Peck's submarine returns to an eerily empty San Francisco. Too bad studio requirements made it essential to cast American film stars, Ava Gardner among them, who never sound convincingly Australian. I'm told there was a serious TV remake in 2000 that had its moments (and real Aussie actors), but was far more committed to showing actual gore than Kramer's elegant original.