Friday, February 28, 2014

Philomena Meets Hands-On Harvey

Will a small British indie called Philomena take home any Oscars? If it does, its cast and crew will have Harvey Weinstein to thank. And they won’t be alone. Here’s a recent tidbit from the March 2014 issue of Harper’s:

Number of Academy Award winners in the past twenty years who thanked God in their acceptance speeches: 7  

Who thanked Harvey Weinstein: 30

Everyone who knows something about Hollywood has heard of Harvey Weinstein. He and his brother Bob started out circa 1970 as concert promoters. Soon, taking a tip from the Roger Corman playbook of that era, they formed a company called Miramax (named after their parents, Max and Miriam) and began importing challenging art-house flicks from Europe. The strategy worked. Looking for material closer to home, they soon had some major hits on their hands. These included Errol Morris’s powerful documentary, The Thin Blue Line, and Steven Soderbergh’s provocative chamber-piece, sex, lies, and videotape, which blew away audiences at the 1989 Sundance Film Festival and went on to win the Palme d'Or at Cannes. By the time Miramax scored once again with The Crying Game, Disney was angling to buy the company for big bucks. Under the Disney umbrella, the brothers started producing as well as distributing, and the hits kept on coming. (Harvey and Bob eventually left Disney to form The Weinstein Company, though I've heard they’re now planning to buy Miramax back. But that’s another story.)

Harvey Weinstein, it goes without saying, is a control freak. It’s not unusual to see him yank a film off the distribution schedule seven weeks before its planned opening. That’s what he did in January with the Nicole Kidman starrer, Grace of Monaco, after feuding with the director over editing issues. But he’s a genius when it comes to promoting his films. Everyone in Hollywood believes it was his clever marketing that helped push Shakespeare in Love past Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan in the 1999 Oscar race.

Harvey’s films, which include the whole Quentin Tarantino canon, have continued to do well at the Oscars ever since. (He’s also been accused of trying to take down his rivals, for instance spreading rumors about some unsavory aspects of John Forbes Nash’s character when A Beautiful Mind was looking Oscar-bound.) This year, boosting Philomena along with August: Osage County and Lee Daniels’ The Butler, he has been particularly ingenious. When Philomena, the true story of an Irish mother looking for the son who was stolen from her by the Catholic Church, was rated R by the MPAA because of a few expletives dropped by Steve Coogan’s character, Harvey swung into action. He quickly persuaded the film’s star, Judi Dench, to assume her “M” role from the James Bond films to humorously threaten the MPAA in a video clip. It went viral, and soon Philomena was reclassified PG-13. That new rating made it a far more comfortable fit for the mature audiences who shy away from the sex and violence that an R-rating generally implies.

Next Harvey took advantage of opposition to the film by some Roman Catholic groups, placing enormous ads that boldly parried their complaints. But his real coup was getting the actual Philomena Lee, a charming and gutsy eighty-year-old, to show up at press events and help spread the word. Focusing on her own story rather than the film version, she has not run afoul of the Academy’s rules for Oscar campaigning. Still, her presence has its own sort of clout, and the undauntable Harvey is clearly positioning her as a potential spoiler in this year’s Oscar race.  

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Bruce Dern: The Mouth that Roars

 Last week I had another Bruce Dern sighting. I was re-watching the 2003 film Monster, in which a de-glamorized Charlize Theron plays serial killer Aileen Wuornos. There was Dern, as a kindly Vietnam vet who doesn’t realize his gal-pal is capable of murder. As always, he was wholly convincing.

Bruce Dern has racked up 144 acting credits since he started out in live TV in 1960. He’s been directed by Elia Kazan (Wild River), Sydney Pollack (They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?), Alfred Hitchcock (Family Plot), and Quentin Tarantino (Django Unchained). He earned a Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for 1978’s Coming Home. And this year he’s reveling in his Best Actor nod for Nebraska, Alexander Payne’s well-observed indie about a cantankerous old man with quixotic dreams.

It couldn’t have happened to a more interesting guy. In contrast to Nebraska’s taciturn Woody Grant, Bruce Dern is a compulsive talker. A few years back, he and I spoke about film in the Sixties. Of course we touched on Roger Corman, who directed Bruce in The Wild Angels, The Trip, and Bloody Mama. Bruce still regrets that Roger stuck to formula, and “never really chose to direct a bigger budgeted movie with a great story.”  Instead, Roger’s directing career was a continuation of the Sam Katzman drill. He became the master of it, but he’s better than what he did.”  

Reminiscing about his Hells Angels role for Corman, Bruce segued into a philosophical discussion of why he adores playing bad guy roles: “When I began acting, I realized that in American historical western culture, bad guys were more celebrated in one way or another than good guys or anybody else. And the bad guys had to be celebrated, because they had game. They had social skills. They were not just mf-ers. They could play cards. They could ride. They could obviously shoot. They could obviously womanize. They could gamble. They could do a multitude of things.”

Despite his appreciation for bad guys (he shot John Wayne in the back in The Cowboys), Bruce also has high regard for the man on the white horse. Such a man was his godfather, Adlai Stevenson, who twice was the Democratic nominee for president. Bruce once asked Stevenson (his father’s law partner and best friend) how he had changed as a candidate from 1952 to 1956.  Taking both his hands, Stevenson said, “Bruce, in 1952 I came in on what I thought was a fairly white horse.” Then Stevenson’s eyes filled with tears, as he continued, “In 1956, that horse was a lot greyer, and I realized I can’t do this anymore. . . . As long as you live, you can vote however you want, wherever you want, but don’t vote for that office unless you see somebody on a white horse.”  Bruce sums up this surprising conversation by noting, “I’ve never voted for president in my life. Can you blame me?”

My friend and fellow writer Diana Caldwell had her own Bruce Dern encounter not long ago. She was in a Brentwood stationery store, contemplating some fancy script covers, when a tall, guy with greying hair and a raspy voice engaged her in chat. Thirty minutes flew by as he emphasized how proud he was of his actress-daughter  Laura, and encouraged Diana to submit material to the writing staff of his show, Big Love. Diana insists it was no pick-up attempt: just a friendly chap who enjoyed connecting with others in the biz. At this year’s Telluride Festival, she barely missed the chance to say hello. Here’s hoping that, post-Oscars, Bruce Dern remains his approachable self.

Friday, February 21, 2014

99 Years a Maid: Remembering Juanita Moore and Imitation of Life

It’s Black History Month, and 12 Years A Slave is gaining momentum in this year’s Oscar derby. Which makes this a great time to salute Juanita Moore, a 1960 Oscar nominee who died in January at age 99. Moore nabbed a Best Supporting Actress nomination for the Douglas Sirk version of Imitation of Life, playing a housekeeper who is cruelly rejected by her light-skinned daughter. After her Oscar glory (she was beaten out by Shelley Winters in The Diary of Anne Frank), Moore hoped to have her pick of challenging roles. But since black actresses usually played domestics, her career essentially stalled, though she was still performing on TV as late as 2001.

Imitation of Life, based on a tear-jerking 1933 novel by Fannie Hurst, has been filmed by Hollywood twice. The 1934 production, starring Claudette Colbert and Louise Beavers, fascinates me most. It’s the tale of two widows and their daughters. Colbert, needing help in making ends meet, joins forces with her housekeeper (Beavers) to open a pancake restaurant. Soon their packaged pancake mix becomes wildly popular, with Beavers functioning as an Aunt Jemima-like corporate symbol and earning a share of the profits. This progressive story of two women (one black, one white) successfully doing business together contrasts with more personal complications. While Colbert and her offspring melodramatically fall for the same man, Beavers grapples with the fact that her own daughter wants nothing to do with the black world, and is determined to pass for white. This daughter, Peola, is played by Fredi Washington, an African-American with fair skin and light eyes, whose unlikely looks and determination to stay true to her heritage cut her off from future opportunities in Hollywood, with studio bosses insisting she was not dark enough to be cast in “Negro” roles. (Washington later became an early civil rights activist and co-founder of the Negro Actors Guild of America.)

The 1934 Imitation of Life struggled to pass muster with the Hays Office, which opposed anything in Hollywood films that might smack of miscegenation. Though clearly the character of Peola has significant white as well as black ancestry, the issue is never addressed. And the big scene in which Peola ventures into the white world is all about being a cashier in a restaurant: there’s no sexual undercurrent, no confrontation with a white suitor newly aware of her past.

The 1959 film starring Lana Turner and Juanita Moore changes a lot. Now the leading white character is a glamorous actress, and Moore plays her maid and confidante. Adorable Sandra Dee is Turner’s daughter, while John Gavin is cast as the photographer for whom they vie. Once again, the black daughter (renamed Sarah Jane) rejects the facts of her birth in order to pass as white, appalling Moore, who intones, “It’s a sin to be ashamed of what you are. . . . The Lord must have had his reasons for making some of us white and some of us black.” But the old taboo that barred scenes between a black woman and a white man is gone now, leading to the dramatically charged moment when Sarah Jane is beaten by her white boyfriend and left bleeding in the gutter. In any case, the taboo might not have mattered, because Sarah Jane is played by Susan Kohner, dark-eyed daughter of a Mexican mother (Lupita Tovar) and an Eastern European Jewish father (Hollywood superagent Paul Kohner). Susan Kohner is hardly African-American, but she, like Moore, was Oscar-nominated for her powerhouse performance. 

Happily for Lupita Nyong’o, today’s Hollywood can appreciate a black actress playing a black role.  

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Marvelous Menace of Lee Marvin

February 19 would have been Lee Marvin’s 90th birthday. So says Dwayne Epstein, who ought to know, because he’s the author of an authoritative new biography, Lee Marvin: Point Blank.

Dwayne has asked me to dedicate today’s Beverly in Movieland blog post to his favorite subject, and  I’ve been easily persuaded. Dwayne’s a deserving guy, and besides, I wouldn’t want the ghost of Lee Marvin coming back to beat me up, or dangle me from an upper-story window (as he did with poor Angie Dickinson in The Killers).

Dwayne insists Lee Marvin ushered in a motion picture era that’s still with us, what he calls the Cinema of Violence. A look at the many highlights of Marvin’s career – ranging from Bad Day at Black Rock to The Wild One to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance to (yes) Point Blank – reveals a wide range of tough-guy roles. Even Marvin’s Oscar-winning performance in 1965’s Cat Ballou, though wildly comic, casts him as a mismatched pair of gunslingers. Marvin’s massive physique, coupled with his unmistakable whiskey croak, immediately signifies him as man who courts danger and meets it halfway.

In Dwayne’s telling, you have to look to Marvin’s own biography for the source of his dark power. There’s an odd episode that occurred well before he was born: his father’s beloved uncle and guardian, on an arctic expedition with the legendary Commander Peary, was murdered under mysterious circumstances, though for years the deed was hushed up. Says Dwayne, “The devastating effect this had on [Marvin’s father] was incalculable. For the rest of his days he kept his most vulnerable emotions in check as a result of this primal act. In contrast his son, a recognized international film icon, would spend his adult life exploring the emotional impact of violence, and its effect on the human experience.”

As a growing boy, Marvin constantly butted heads with his father and with school authorities. But the prime shaper of his own life was his experience in World War II. He left high school in 1942 to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps, and faced the enemy close-up on Saipan, during a battle in which most of his unit was killed. He himself was shot in the buttocks: later, on a hospital ship, he checked his wallet and  discovered “a gaping, blood-soaked hole through a photo of his entire family.” He also brought away from the battlefield a letter he took off the body of a dead Japanese soldier. When he had it translated, he was startled to find that the soldier’s thoughts about war and life back home were hardly different from his own. The emotions this letter roused in him later contributed to a World War II film he made in 1968 opposite the great Toshiro Mifune, Hell in the Pacific.

Hell in the Pacific was hardly the first war film – or the last – in which he starred. In Stanley Kramer’s Eight Iron Men, he taught the rest of the cast authentic military behavior, including how to die convincingly. Much later, he led the cast of such classics as The Dirty Dozen and Sam Fuller’s The Big Red One. According to Dwayne, Marvin once told a friend that he was a trained killer with an unquenchable need for violence. He’d go into barrooms and deliberately pick a fight, coming home with bruises and black eyes. The current diagnosis would be PTSD: because Lee Marvin experienced violence for real, he brought that reality onto the world’s movie screens. Quentin Tarantino is only one of today’s filmmakers who identify themselves as Sons of Lee. 

Happy birthday to Jeff, who was born one day before Lee Marvin, and a whole lot of years later. May Jeff’s life be far more peaceful than Marvin’s was.

Friday, February 14, 2014

A Tasty Treat for Valentine’s Day (if you like zombies)

Zombie Butterscotch Kiss -- sounds perfect for Valentine’s Day, right? Unless, of course, you’re not so sure about zombies. I mention this title, because it’s the name of a project by a former student of mine. She completed a course I offered last fall through the screenwriting division of UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program. This particular course is an advanced workshop called “1-on-1 Feature Film Rewrite.” It promises 12 enrollees (chosen for the quality of their script submissions) serious personal attention as they strive to bring their screenplays to the highest possible level.  

Though I’ve long been a classroom teacher, I’ve taught exclusively online for the last seven years. It still surprises me how an instructor and a student can develop real rapport over the Internet, without ever coming face to face. (For one thing, online communication effectively removes the blowhards who tend to dominate classroom discussions, but who are generally more noisy than talented.) An online class, in fact, is ideal for situations where each student expects intense personal feedback.

Another thing about online courses: they attract enrollees from all over the world. My class has contained  some remarkable aspiring writers from Greece, China, Mexico, and Canada. One of my all-time favorites was a Jesuit priest in Dublin. He was depicting a missionary’s life in Africa, and his handling of a scene with sexual implications was definitely unique. This past fall, I had  not one but two talented Aussies on my roster. They didn’t know one another (hey, it’s a big country!), but I helped them connect, and also enjoyed working with them individually.

So I’m finally back to Zombie Butterscotch Kiss. It’s the brainchild (so to speak) of Judith Duncan, who makes her home in Sydney. The ten years she spent doing improv theatre led her to study writing. Recently she earned an Honors Degree in Media Arts at Sydney’s University of Technology, and – through the wonders of cyberspace -- also completed UCLA’s Professional Program in Screenwriting. Now she earns a living as a receptionist (“great training for filmmaking, as I problem-solve all day”), while also teaching “Writing Dr. Who” through the Open Program of the National Institute of Dramatic Art, which happens to be Cate Blanchett’s alma mater.

Judith’s original coming-of-age drama, Zombie Butterscotch Kiss, attracted attention in a horror screenplay competition held by the Australian Writers’ Guild. Despairing of getting it produced in her homeland, she’s turned it into a novel. On the strength of her first 25 pages (which were polished in yet another UCLA Extension course) she’s been accepted into an exclusive writers’ workshop sponsored by the Djerassi Artist Colony. Trouble is – the colony is located near San Francisco, not Sydney. “My dreams being much bigger than my bank balance,” she is now in fundraising mode, and has shot three short YouTube videos in a bid to raise the money to finance her travels. Says Judith, “Roger Corman would have been proud of me. I wrote the scripts, we shot them all in one day in December down at the local park, with four crew including my neighbor, in-camera sound, and my sister did the catering.”

Here’s a link to Judith’s crowdfunding site, which will be up until March 27.  I’ve also promised director Steve Carver I’d remind readers of his unique Unsung Heroes and Villains of the Silver Screen photography project, which is also seeking public support. And anyone interested in my upcoming UCLA Extension course should write to Chae Ko at or phone 310-206-2612.

Enough commercials. Meanwhile, enjoy Zombie Butterscotch Kiss. And Happy Valentine’s Day!