Friday, May 29, 2015

The Beautiful (and Ageless) Carmen de Lavallade

When I was four years old, long before I knew anything about movie stars, my idol was my first dance teacher. It was only natural. Carmen de Lavallade was tall, slim, and a beautiful café au lait color. She had a sweet smile and a gentle soul. And she moved like a dream.

I wasn’t her only admirer, needless to say. At Lester Horton’s Dance Theater, a bravely multicultural venue on Melrose Avenue in West Hollywood, she was a star. And stardom of course meant eventually heading for the bright lights of New York City. In 1954 she left her native Los Angeles, along with future choreographer Alvin Ailey. Soon the two were dancing on Broadway in the premiere of a fabled Harold Arlen-Truman Capote musical, House of Flowers. That’s where she met dancer-actor-director-choreographer-designer Geoffrey Holder, still remembered by many as the Uncola Man. They were married in a vibrant Caribbean ceremony much documented in the black press of the era. And they remained married until Holder’s passing last October, at the age of 84.

Through the years, my family kept in touch with Carmen. We greeted her backstage after L.A. performances. My parents saw her dance in Las Vegas, and later we watched for her in movies. (Among her screen roles is a small but vivid part in John Sayles’ Lone Star.) When I wrote articles about Lester Horton, I knew I could phone her for a few heartfelt quotes. After I published in the Los Angeles Times a piece about how Dance Theater had taught a small girl to be colorblind, she called to express her thanks.  

 But I could never have imagined the experience I’ve just had: sitting down with Carmen in a New York café for a few hours of comfortable girl-talk. I’m happy to say that she’s still elegantly beautiful, and still deeply involved in things artistic. No, she doesn’t exactly dance these days: at age 84, “I don’t call it dance, I call it movement.” But she’s just launched a one-woman show chronicling the three phases of her career. There were the L.A. years, of course, as well as the time she’s spent in New York, and also an unforgettable ten-year period when she taught stage movement at Yale Repertory Theatre, under the legendary Robert Brustein. Her students in that era were such future stars as Meryl Streep and Sigourney Weaver. While at Yale, she learned to augment her dance training with a thorough understanding of the actor’s craft.

Since then she’s had modest but significant stage roles. She played the Mexican flower-seller in a revival of A Streetcar Named Desire that (alas) raised some hackles because it cast black actors in the central roles. We chatted frankly about skin color: curiously, as a light- skinned African- American, she often finds herself chosen for Hispanic roles. Not long ago, she played a foul-mouthed Puerto Rican abuela: I was thoroughly tickled when she demonstrated this very flamboyant, and un-Carmen-like, voice.

We also talked more personally, about the pain of Geoffrey Holder’s last days. He was a man who reveled in color. While wasting away, in the aftermath of a broken femur, he was still able to do paintings of brilliant hue. I was moved to learn that at the service held in his memory, somber shades were banished. Mourners attended wearing all the colors of the rainbow.

It must be tragically hard to lose your husband of almost sixty years. At Dance Theater, I remember an expression: “Make a fall into a dance.” Carmen, I think, has done so – and done it beautifully. 

Here’s a small sample of Carmen’s enduring performance skills. She can also be seen dancing (or moving) to Stephen Sondheim’s “Children and Art” on a recent app called Dances for an iPhone. I’m also posting a recent snapshot, as well as a photo of myself at age 4 as Carmen’s student. Yes, that’s me, jumping into a hoop as she watches.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Two Beautiful Minds: A Tribute to John and Alicia Nash

Yesterday morning I was startled by the news that John Nash, age 86, had been killed in a taxi crash on the New Jersey turnpike. It was a strange, violent end to a life that had contained more than its share of strangeness. Nash was the mathematical genius whose academic career was derailed by decades of schizophrenia. He once declined a plum faculty appointment, saying he was about to be named Emperor of Antarctia, and for years Princeton students remembered him wandering their ivy-covered halls, scribbling gibberish. Miraculously, Nash recuperated. He went on to win the 1994 Nobel Prize in economics for his contributions to the science of game theory.

            Riding with John Nash in that fatal taxicab was his wife, Alicia, age 82. I’m moved by the fact that John and Alicia died together. Those who know their story, as depicted by Sylvia Nasr in a 1999 biography that became an Oscar-winning Hollywood film, understand how important their relationship was to John’s recovery.

When A Beautiful Mind was adapted from page to screen, various inventive cinematic shortcuts were taken. Screenwriter Akiva Goldsman, whose parents were pioneers in the field of child psychology, had literally grown up side by side with youngsters suffering from schizophrenic delusions. Goldsman chose to use Nasar’s prizewinning biography as a point of departure, reasoning that “within this perfectly detailed exterior life, I could build an inner life, and in so doing give the audience a window into what it might feel like to suffer from this disease.” That’s why he devised a plan to trick the film audience into accepting as real the delusional world of the mentally ill. 

 For movie purposes, time also had to be compressed. That’s why a key period in the Nash marriage was elided. The movie shows an overwrought Alicia walking out on an ailing John, but then returning soon thereafter. In reality she divorced him in 1963, but took him back in 1970 when he had nowhere else to go. The two remained a devoted couple, remarrying in 2001. Director Ron Howard, who finally put his Opie image to rest when A Beautiful Mind was released in 2001, was particularly attracted to the “really compelling adult love story” within Goldsman’s screenplay. Howard has insisted, “This is the kind of love that lives are built on. And in this particular case I think a life was saved by it.” One of his proudest moments as a director is the scene in which Jennifer Connelly (as Alicia) expresses to Russell Crowe (as John), simply but powerfully, her need to believe in the power of love to overcome all obstacles.

Howard passed many sleepless nights while making this challenging film. Still, he was quite willing to face the pressure of having the real John and Alicia Nash visit his set. From his brief conversations with Nash, Russell Crowe was able to glean mannerisms, some dialogue snippets, and ideas about how to integrate Nash’s own puckish sense of humor into the film. Howard himself went so far as to invite Nash to be videotaped while explaining the findings that had helped him earn his Nobel Prize. Watching Nash at the blackboard, Howard discovered a seventy-three-year-old man who was “really vibrant, really alive, interested,” a far cry from the more guarded figure with whom he’d chatted earlier. Nash’s zest for life made Howard appreciate more fully “the miracle of his recovery.” He was also deeply moved by Alicia Nash, saying that the script of A Beautiful Mind “continued to evolve and grow as I got to know the strength of this woman.”

RIP John and Alicia Nash. And a sad farewell to the invaluable Eric Caidin, B-movie lover and proprietor of the Hollywood Book & Poster Company. Appropriately, he was fatally stricken in Palm Springs, while attending a Film Noir convention. Here’s his L.A. Times obit.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Lest We Forget on Memorial Day: Paths of Glory Lead But to the Grave

A trivia quiz for Memorial Day Weekend: what epic film was Stanley Kubrick’s first directorial project for Kirk Douglas’s company, Bryna Productions? No, it wasn’t Spartacus. Three years earlier, in 1957, Kubrick and Douglas worked together on Paths of Glory. This World War I drama, based on a novel by Humphrey Cobb, makes a strong case for the insanity of war. That’s why it strikes me as the perfect film to discuss as we approach Memorial Day. (If you haven’t seen it, prepare for spoilers in the paragraphs ahead.)

In 1935, when Cobb first wrote his novel, it had no title. Apparently the publishers held a contest, and the winning entry hearkened back to a line in a famous eighteenth-century poem. “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” was written by Englishman Thomas Gray (whom I can assure you is no relation). Reflecting on how all riches and honors are transient, the poet wrote, “The paths of glory lead but the the grave.” It’s a gloomy thought, but one that perfectly exemplifies the mood of Kubrick’s film, which trades on the public’s memory of two very recent World Wars.

The main characters in the film are all French, as hinted by a discordant version of “La Marseillaise” that plays over the opening credits. As the drama begins, high-ranking French officers confer amid the splendor of a captured German palace. Brigadier General Mireau is being asked by his superior to send his war-weary troops on a dangerous mission, without  adequate munitions and reinforcements. Mireau resists, but not for long, when it becomes clear that his own advancement in the ranks will be tied to the success of his soldiers in recapturing the “ant-hill” from the Germans. We soon see him strolling through the trenches, expecting to find only men of high morale. When one over-stressed soldier babbles about the possibility of dying, Mireau snaps, “There is no such thing as shellshock.”

The infantrymen’s number-one champion is Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas), in peacetime a highly-[placed attorney. He bravely speaks up on the men’s behalf, but to no avail. Soon Dax is faced with the biggest trial of his life. Furious that his troops have not succeeded (despite impossible odds) on the battlefield, Mireau demands that hundreds of them be executed for insubordination and cowardice. Ultimately he settles for the prosecution of three men, one selected from each battalion. It is Dax’s unhappy task to defend these three before a military tribunal, at which their lives hang in the balance. I will not go into detail about the film’s powerful climax. Suffice it to say that Mireau is convinced that it’s a boon to troop morale when men see their fellow soldiers die.

 The film’s distinctive ending accompanies these troops to a saloon, where they blow off steam with alcohol and noisy camaraderie. When the saloon-keeper brings forth a pretty young German prisoner of war to shyly serenade the men with a sentimental folksong, they respond with catcalls and crude remarks. Then the nostalgia behind the song gets the better of them, and they fall silent. It’s just a matter of time, we know, before they’re back on the field of battle, from which some will never return.

There is, though, at least one happy ending connected with Paths of Glory. That young German actress, Christiane Harlan (billed as Susanne Christian), became Stanley Kubrick’s third wife, and they remained together until his death in 1999. And the film itself was selected in 1992 by the Library of Congress for preservation within the National Film Registry.     

I wish a meaningful Memorial Day to you all.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Tough Gals and Tuneful Gals: Furiosa Meets Bathsheba Everdene

Surprise! Over the weekend, Mad Max: Fury Road took in $44.4 million on North American screens. This long-awaited reboot of George Miller’s famous post-apocalyptic franchise has earned big love from critics, and its handling of Charlize Theron’s Furiosa character has sparked spirited conversations about gender issues. The surprise, though, is that Mad Max was bested at the box office by the sequel to a low-budget musical comedy about an all-female a cappella group. Yes, Pitch Perfect 2, made for a relatively modest $29 million, scored $70.3 million in ticket sales this past weekend. That’s really something to sing about.

I certainly would have put my money on Mad Max. Back in my Roger Corman days, we all learned from the example of the original Mad Max and especially its 1981 sequel, The Road Warrior. This rough-and-tumble epic, shot in the barren wastes of the Australian outback, offered loads of opportunities for blood-and-guts action without the expense of elaborate sets and costume design. Inspired by The Road Warrior, we at Concorde-New Horizons shot post-nuclear melodramas wherever in the world we could find broken-down vehicles and some picturesque squalor. That meant Peru, the Philippines, the shabbier parts of L.A., and wherever Roger had a business deal going.  

One of the distinctive features of George Miller’s new Mad Max is its focus on a woman warrior, played with fierce but balletic intensity by a shaven-headed Charlize Theron. There are other women in key roles too. Though they’ve been badly treated by the men in their world, they are all brave and tough customers, who refuse to play the victim. Again, I can’t help thinking about my Corman years, when tales of strong women were the norm. The late Lana Clarkson as Barbarian Queen? And, especially, Pam Grier in gritty prison dramas like The Big Bird Cage? You couldn’t get much tougher than that.

 But of course this week’s box-office leader, Pitch Perfect 2,  is in its own way female-centric as well. Not only does it deal with a close-knit group of feisty women, led by Anna Kendrick and Rebel Wilson, but it was directed by a woman, Elizabeth Banks. So it’s nice to think that female power is on the rise at the movies, though the very rarity of women directors in Hollywood makes this an iffy proposition indeed.

One more surprise on this week’s top-of-the-box-office list: in the #10 slot is the new screen version of Thomas Hardy’s classic novel, Far From the Madding Crowd. Written back in 1874, it was a wild success in Victorian England. And no wonder, because it’s chockfull of romantic drama, set against the picturesque British countryside. At the center of all the plot entanglements is a beautiful, smart, and headstrong young woman, Bathsheba Everdene. She has three suitors: a sturdy young farmer; a wealthy but lonely landowner; and a dashing young soldier. Hardy’s novel was first filmed as far back as 1915. I saw John Schlesinger’s sumptuous 1967 screen adaptation, starring Julie Christie along with Alan Bates, Peter Finch, and the decidedly sexy Terence Stamp, and have never quite gotten it out of my system. In the Sixties, as feminism was taking hold, Christie’s Bathsheba struck me as truly a woman to remember. The very appealing Carey Mulligan heads the new cast, and I wonder whether she too will make an indelible impression.

In any case, Bathsheba Everdene lives on in one interesting sense. Author Suzanne Collins has given a version of her last name to Katniss Everdeen, who of course is the heroic leading character in another series of tough girl-power films, The Hunger Games. 

Friday, May 15, 2015

Deflate-Gate, Hollywood-Style

In the world of sports, the big story right now is “Deflate-Gate.” The strong probability that footballs were illegally deflated in an NFL playoff game at the behest of  Tom Brady and the New England Patriots has now resulted in some stiff penalties, not to mention major embarrassment. Hollywood, by contrast, has never been accused of deflating anything. Instead, daily life in the movie capital can fairly be called “Inflate-Gate.” Many starlets, for one thing, still feel they’ll have a better chance of success if they buy themselves a bigger set of bazooms. And then there’s something that goes on daily, the constant scramble to give oneself sole credit for accomplishments that more fairly belong to a group.

In my Roger Corman years, I saw this tendency all around me. (Yes, the breast implants along with the insistence on taking credit where credit was not due.)  Today Roger happily congratulates himself for adding the dark humor to the cult classic, Death Race 2000. Back in 1975, however, he fought hard to remove director Paul Bartel’s comic touches from the finished film. Yet Roger is not alone in taking a solo bow for the accomplishments of others. A fascinating 2008 documentary called Every Little Step is a behind-the-scenes look at the staging of a classic Broadway musical, A Chorus Line. Composer Marvin Hamlisch is shown discussing how the comic thrust of one of the show’s songs was lost on the audience until, during out-of-town tryouts, a key adjustment was made to its title. Hearing Hamlisch tell this amusing story, it’s easy to assume he wrote the song’s words as well as its music. Never once does he stop to acknowledge the show’s gifted lyricist, Edward Kleban.  

Producer Robert Evans, the 1970s “boy wonder” of Paramount, has never been accused of false modesty. His rollicking memoir, The Kid Stays in the Picture, makes clear his contributions to such major hits as Rosemary’s Baby, Love Story, The Godfather, and Chinatown. But part of Evans’ charm is that he owns up to his failings as readily as his triumphs. There’s one moment when he goes far out of his way to recognize the contribution of an underling. When principal photography on The Godfather was in the can, it was apparently discovered that the film had no real ending.  That’s when “Peter Zinner, one of the film’s two editors, took the task upon himself. He choreographed mayhem with religion, intercut murder with the baptism of Michael Corleone’s newborn child. He saved the day—he saved our ass!” Evans clearly sees the irony: “Coppola went on to become the decade’s maestro, Evans its boy genius . . . but Peter Zinner—who? He silently disappeared, looking for a new gig—saving another producer’s or director’s ass.”

Despite the preening of many producers, directors, and stars, filmmaking is a collaborative effort, toward which everyone’s contribution counts. But, inevitably someone gets overlooked. In 1964 the late Paul Almond directed Seven Up, a documentary that intimately explored the lives of fourteen British schoolchildren. The Up series has continued into the present, returning at seven-year intervals to interview the same subjects. But though Almond conceived the concept, it is his successor, Michael Apted, who now gets the accolades.

Then there’s Sesame Street’s Big Bird. He’s long been a beloved icon, but how many know the name of Caroll Spinney, the man beneath the feathers? This oversight was rectified last year by a documentary called I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story. And Spinney’s hilarious Birdman parody, a YouTube hit, helps give credit where credit is surely due.