Friday, March 28, 2014

Four Who Dared (to be James Bond, American-Style)

I’m too young to have ever seen a 1951 drama with a provocative title, I Was a Communist for the FBI.  I do recall my parents tuning in to a related TV series, I Led Three Lives (1953-1956). In both, an All-American good guy joins the Communist Party to spy on behalf of the red, white, and blue. Such was life in the 1950s, when those in the know were spotting saboteurs and commie stooges under every bed.

 Evan Thomas, eminent historian and biographer, published in 1995 a fascinating book called The Very Best Men. Subtitled  Four Who Dared: The Early Years of the CIA, it offered an inside look at a shadowy organization I knew little about, one established at the close of World War II to combat the red menace beyond U.S. borders. (By contrast, J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI were rooting out Communist infiltration on American soil.)

This was the era when Ian Fleming was starting to publish his James Bond novels. They reached U.S. shores by the late Fifties, and the first film followed in 1962. President Kennedy was one of many serious devotees; politicians as well as Americans of every stripe were agog at the idea of secret agents heroically (and with flair) keeping us safe from the evil forces that threatened our way of life. Thomas himself notes that “at a time when J. Edgar Hoover was still a national hero, there was no reason for the public to believe that the CIA was any less noble.”

The men who led the early CIA turn out to be a colorful bunch. Thomas focuses on four of them—Frank Wisner, Des FitzGerald, Tracy Barnes, and Richard Bissell—who had several things in common. They were all smart, brave, well-educated, and patrician. (Many CIA higher-ups followed a trajectory from Groton, one of the nation’s toniest prep schools, to Yale.) They tended to dislike administrative duties, and far preferred being where the action was, in faraway places where they could foment coups and otherwise disrupt Soviet influence. They loved spontaneity, and had little use for oversight, especially from other branches of the U.S. government. They sometimes succeeded brilliantly, but often made a hash of things.

The fingerprints of the CIA were everywhere in this era. They scared a Guatemalan president out of office and helped install as Iran’s prime minister a general so panicked by his new responsibilities that a CIA agent had to help him button his uniform collar on the day of the coup. They tried to depose Sukarno of Indonesia by shooting a pornographic movie in which a lookalike was seduced by a sexy Soviet spy posing as a flight attendant. As the Sixties wore on, many CIA hands became obsessed with destabilizing Cuba’s Castro regime. They quickly moved from schemes designed to embarrass Castro—like using a depilatory powder to make his beard fall out—to outright assassination attempts involving poisoned pens, poisoned diving suits, exploding seashells, and bacteria-laced cigars. None of this, obviously, makes the CIA look very good.

The lives of the four men profiled by Thomas did not turn out well. One killed himself; two ended their careers in disgrace; only one lived beyond the age of 62.  When Tracy Barnes read John Le Carré’s bitter The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, he recognized its essential truthfulness about the burden of a covert life. According to his daughter, “It was like it hit him, that this really was a dirty business, no more James Bond . . . but rather a creature that eats its own.” 

Evan Thomas (most recently the author of Ike’s Bluff: President Eisenhower’s Secret Battle to Save the World) will be featured on the panel I’m moderating at a conference sponsored by the Biographers International Organization. Other panelists, including Will Swift (Pat and Dick: The Nixons, an Intimate Portrait of a Marriage) and Brian Jay Jones (Jim Henson: The Biography) will join Evan in exploring the topic “Getting the Family On Board.”  It all happens on the University of Massachusetts’ Boston campus on Saturday, May 17. The public is most welcome.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

“I Talk the Line”: Johnny Cash Discovers Acting

So a newly rediscovered album by the great Johnny Cash goes on sale today. Out Among the Stars, recorded in the early 1980s when Cash had a deal with Columbia Records, was shelved because the label deemed it non-commercial, even though it featured Cash at the height of his powers, along with wife June Carter and good friend Waylon Jennings. The old tapes have been resurrected by Cash’s son, John Carter Cash, and now the public has the chance to listen in. This album, along with a very dramatic Johnny Cash postage stamp and a bestselling biography by veteran music writer Robert Hilburn, signals a new groundswell of interest in the Man in Black.

Hollywood  has long been aware of Johnny Cash, who died in 2003. The 2005 biopic Walk the Line nabbed a Best Actor Oscar nomination for Joaquin Phoenix and a Best Actress win for Reese Witherspoon, who put on a black wig to play the everlovin’, autoharp-strummin’ June Carter. Cash’s deep, mournful baritone was featured on many movie soundtracks, and over the years he acted in numerous TV episodes, especially in western roles. Playing himself, he guest-starred on everything from Hee Haw to Saturday Night Live, and even hosted his own musical variety show (1969-1971)

Early in his career, Cash was eager to emulate Elvis Presley, who had capitalized on his recording success by starring in a long string of movies. The first, Love Me Tender, appeared in 1956: this romantic melodrama set just after the Civil War earned Elvis some respect as an actor while also launching a mega-hit record. Thereafter, Elvis made scores of movies (of varying quality) while the money kept rolling in.

Cash’s own feature film debut, following a few appearances on shows like Wagon Train and  The Rebel, was the leading role in a low-budget 1961 thriller called Five Minutes to Live. I discovered it when I was researching the life of  Ron Howard. At age seven, not long after he began playing Opie on The Andy Griffith Show, Ronny was cast as Bobby Wilson, a small-town boy whose mother is the film’s female lead. Normally Rance and Jean Howard were cautious indeed about selecting material for their talented young son. So it’s surprising to come upon Five Minutes to Live (later retitled Door to Door Maniac). Whereas Elvis’s movie roles, from the first, always put him in a good light, Johnny Cash seemed to be trying for a darker sort of appeal. In Five Minutes to Live, he’s a hardened criminal in on a nefarious plot to hold a rich man’s wife for ransom. He’s sadistic, as well as sexually predatory. But then young Bobby comes home from school, upsetting all the calculations of Johnny and his partner in crime. And soon the police get wind of what’s going on.

The ending involves serious gunplay, major jeopardy for young Bobby, and an illogically rosy fadeout. (The contradictions and plot holes in the clumsy script defy description.) Though Johnny Cash is definitely pegged as the bad guy, he gets a moment of redemption when he takes pity on the endangered young boy. He also gets to sing. He first gains access to his victim’s house by posing as a door-to-door guitar instructor. Later he uses his instrument to serenade the captive wife with a charming ditty about how she has (yup!) only five minutes to live unless someone shows up with the loot.

Cash, not surprisingly, makes a powerful movie villain. I doubt this film, though, contributed much of value to his remarkable career. 

Friday, March 21, 2014

Replaceable You: Saying Goodbye to One and a Half Men

The hit CBS sitcom Two and a Half Men has been with us (God help us!) for more than a decade. Originally it was a raunchy odd-couple story about an uptight chiropractor (Jon Cryer) who got divorced and moved into the swinging Malibu beach pad of his jingle-writing brother (Charlie Sheen). The twist was that Cryer brought a young son (Angus T. Jones) to the relationship. Hence the series’ title. As the whole world knows by now, Sheen flipped out in early 2011, making nasty statements about series creator Chuck Lorre, and earning himself a million headlines, a trip to rehab, and a pink slip.

But a hit is a hit, and so Lorre and company opened season nine by orchestrating a colorful off-camera death for  Sheen’s character and providing Cryer with a new roommate, played by Ashton Kutcher. The show’s popularity continued. Still, all was not well in CBS-land. Young Angus T. Jones had debuted on the show at age 10. By age 17, he’d become the highest paid child star in television, earning $7.8 million over the course of two seasons. Then in 2012 came his loud (OK, strident) pronouncement that he’d found God. The new God-fearing Jones decried Two and a Half Men as “filth,” labeled himself a “paid hypocrite” for his role in it, and warned audiences not to watch. It’s obvious what had to happen next. Jones’ character joined the U.S. Army and vanished into the distance.   

Wait! – wasn’t that pretty much what happened to Richie Cunningham when Ron Howard decided to leave Happy Days? Except, of course, that Richie was sent to Greenland, not Japan, and returned for the occasional Very Special Episode.

In any case, Two and a Half Men now has a new member of the younger generation. She’s Amber Tamblyn, playing a previous unacknowledged daughter of the Charlie Sheen character. And she’s a lesbian. Does that make her a half man, perhaps?

Creators of hit series are well aware that the actors playing popular characters may not want to stick around forever. But it takes some ingenuity to figure out what to do. The family sitcom My Three Sons faced a stumbling block when eldest son Tim Considine left the series. Solution: #2 son Don Grady was moved up to #1, and dad Fred MacMurray adopted a younger boy to give him the requisite number of offspring.    

Then there was M*A*S*H, both an hilarious comedy and a serious meditation on the perils of warfare. The show, set in a medical unit during the Korean War, was on the air so long (1973-1983) that personnel changes were inevitable. Still, those in charge worked hard to maintain the interpersonal dynamics that made the series a hit. In the early days, the tent-mate and nemesis of Hawkeye Pierce (Alan Alda) was Larry Linville’s incompetent Captain Frank Burns. When Linville moved on, he was replaced by David Ogden Stiers’ Major Charles Winchester, which made Hawkeye’s chief antagonist no longer a nincompoop but rather a highly intelligent snob. Another important cast change came when McLean Stevenson chose to no longer play the local commander, goofy Lt. Colonel Henry Blake. His replacement, down-to-earth Henry Morgan, more than adequately filled the bill. But fans of the show will never forget Stevenson’s final episode. Through most of it was filled with pranks and warm goodbyes, the tag ending startled viewers (and cast members, I’m told) with the news that Henry Blake’s transport plane had been shot down over the Sea of Japan, and that there were no survivors. That’s one way to ensure there’ll be no return visits.      

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Grand Illusions at the Grand Budapest Hotel

Airplanes are disappearing from our skies. Sovereign nations are splitting in two. The weather continues to be weird, and the other morning I was shaken and stirred by a 4.4 earthquake. No wonder we moviegoers are feeling nostalgic about the past.

Which perhaps is part of the appeal of Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. An elderly relative of mine jumped to the conclusion that this new film was a reworking of Grand Hotel.  That 1932 ensemble classic (based on a bestselling novel) was set in a luxurious Berlin hostelry; it featured such MGM superstars as John Barrymore as a dissolute aristocrat, Greta Garbo as an aging ballerina, Lionel Barrymore as a dying accountant, and Joan Crawford as an ambitious stenographer. New York’s Waldorf-Astoria is still proud of the fact that a remake-of-sorts, Week-End at the Waldorf, was filmed on its premises in 1945. Eventually Neil Simon was to use a similar premise – that of criss-crossing lives in a sumptuous public place—for his Plaza Suite and California Suite comedies. Grand Hotel, by whatever name, reinforces our sense of hotels as romantic venues where a wide array of folk come together and drift apart.

It’s certainly true that the always inventive Wes Anderson is playing upon these assumptions. His grand hotel, set in the fictional Mittel-European Republic of Zubrowka, is a pink wedding cake of a place. In the 1930s, when most of the film is set, its lobby is filled with the powerful, the wealthy, and the beautiful, all of them nibbling exquisite pastries that arrive daily in cunning little pink boxes tied with ribbons. Elegantly presiding over the scene is Monsieur Gustav H., concierge extraordinaire, who is viewed with awe by Zero Mustafa, lowly lobby boy and immigrant from somewhere in the murky Middle East. Although the adventures of Zero and Monsieur Gustav eventually involve murder, theft, and incarceration, we can be forgiven for seeing their life-or-death  escapades through Anderson’s dreamy haze, which encompasses the Grand Budapest Hotel and everyone who enters its portals.

Wes Anderson has made films about insular clans before. I’m thinking particularly of The Royal Tenenbaums, where the eccentric members of one extended family were on vivid display. I found that film clever, but ultimately unsatisfying. Who cared, after all was said and done, about all those wealthy, talented, discontented people, even if they were played by interesting, quirky personalities like Gene Hackman, Anjelica Houston, Ben Stiller, and Owen Wilson?

What’s special about The Grand Budapest Hotel is the way it sets its tight little world against the forces of history. Though the film’s style of framing and pacing makes it consistently hilarious, reality keeps intruding in subtle ways. Like Zero’s offhand reference to the fact that back in his home country he was tortured, and his father assassinated, in the course of some nameless little war. And the creeping forces of Fascism that keep rearing their ugly heads each time our heroes board a train. By the time we’ve finished with the central story line, the movie has shifted to black and white, and the charming, carefree old ways are gone forever.

But we’re not allowed to be sad. Those stalwart souls who stick around for the whole of the long, lo-o-o-ng credit roll will be treated to some cheery balalaika music, accompanying an odd little dancing figure who dispels any sort of gloom. And with such familiar faces as Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, and Harvey Keitel popping up at odd moments, life in Wes Anderson’s world truly feels like a cabaret. 

It’s a treat to study the website of this film, which includes a link to the purely hypothetical  
Zubrowka Film Commission. Zubrowka, we are told, “offers a grand destination featuring a film-friendly community, luxurious locations, and free production space.”    

Friday, March 14, 2014

Musings from the Mojave: Ridgecrest, Lone Pine, and Manzanar

Ever hear of Ridgecrest? It’s a small, friendly town in the Upper Mojave Desert, 2 ½ hours and a world away from Los Angeles. Still, Ridgecrest is glad to be considered an outpost of Movieland.

Last week I spent several days in Ridgecrest, as guest of the East Sierra Branch of the California Writers Club. The pleasant, attentive people to whom I spoke – many of them authors themselves – seemed fascinated by my stories about what it took to write, publish, and promote my Roger Corman: Blood-Sucking Vampires, Flesh-Eating Cockroaches, and Driller Killers. Ridge Writers, as they call themselves, have had their share of Hollywood experiences. Among the movies filmed in their desert community are Jurassic Park, Holes, Tremors, and Land of the Lost.

Up the road a piece from Ridgecrest is Lone Pine, population 2,035. It’s at a higher elevation than Ridgecrest (3,727 feet, to be exact), and its location – nestled against the rugged Alabama Hills, which abut the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevadas – makes it particularly picturesque. Which means, of course, that Hollywood discovered it long ago. Since the days of silent movies, Lone Pine has been the location of choice for shooting cowboy movies. Every he-man from Gary Cooper to Clark Gable to Humphrey Bogart has strapped on his six-guns in this vicinity. It’s also been the locale where Roy Rogers and William “Hopalong Cassidy” Boyd filmed most of their western adventures, and where the Lone Ranger roamed, with the faithful Tonto in tow.

Which is why Lone Pine boasts a dandy little attraction. Avid collectors Beverly and Jim Rogers display their collection of western memorabilia in Lone Pine’s Film History Museum, which bills itself as the place “where the real west becomes the reel west.”  Visitors generally start out watching a short documentary, which reveals that in the days before overseas location shooting, the region also supplied exotic desert terrain for Gunga Din and The Lives of a Bengal Lancer.  But the doc’s real focus, of course, is on westerns, and we learn that the town’s citizenry often helped out by supplying horses and props. At the fadeout, we hear the Statler Brothers singing their ode to a vanishing breed, “Whatever Happened to Randolph Scott?”

Among the museum’s treasures are a case devoted to movie bad guys and a fascinating assortment of gear worn by the late stuntman Richard Farnsworth.  (You can see a protective vest made for a guy who’s stuck being struck by an arrow, and another used by someone who needs to be dragged by a galloping horse.) The eldest of Roy Rogers’ nine children has contributed a slide show of family photos. Though the autographed celebrity headshots on the walls of the town’s best restaurant are mostly quite dated (Dale Evans, Ernest Borgnine, Sally Struthers), I also discovered that as a filming location Lone Pine has not yet gone out of style. Bits of Iron Man were shot here, along with Gladiator and Star Wars. Only two years ago, Quentin Tarantino brought some of his cast to Lone Pine for Django Unchained.

But to me the most remarkable location is to be found a few miles further north. Manzanar was once a “relocation” camp where 11,000 Japanese Americans were incarcerated by their own government from 1942 to 1945. Today, it’s being preserved as a national monument. For visitors it’s an eerie place, especially at sunset, when the wind blows lonesome and  the old Japanese cemetery stands out starkly against the Sierras.  Lest we forget the cruelties of which we as a people are capable, someone really needs to make a great movie.