Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Rain in Spain: “Hotel Florida”

Robert Capa's photo of a dead man in a tree
The Iberian Peninsula is in the news again, via the parliamentary election in Catalonia that is sending a signal of the region’s desire to be independent of Spain. And the whole world has been shaken by the photos of a Syrian toddler lying dead on a Turkish beach, one victim of the current refugee crisis. Both the news accounts and the photos have sent me back to Hotel Florida, Amanda Vaill’s fascinating 2014 account of “truth, love, and death in the Spanish Civil War.” Vaill’s book has a lot to say about the role of both movies and still photography in shaping popular opinion about a conflict that turned out, sadly, to be a rehearsal for World War II.

At the heart of Vaill’s book are three romantic couples. Arturo Barea and Ilsa Kulcsar came together unexpectedly when both were serving as press officers on behalf of the Spanish Loyalist cause. Robert Capa, originally from Hungary, and Gerda Taro, born in Poland, were war photographers on the lookout for the next big story. They gave their all to the Loyalists, and ultimately Taro gave her life. Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn, both of them journalists and authors, were Americans who loved Spain and craved adventure. Hemingway, looking for a way to be involved in the conflict, found it in the making of a pro-Loyalist film, The Spanish Earth.

All of these characters passed, at one time or another, through the lobby of Madrid’s Hotel Florida, which explains the book’s title. Vaill paints a vivid picture of Spain’s capital as a place where it seemed “as if the war were a movie on a distant screen.” Early in the conflict, life in Madrid goes on as usual: at the Genova movie palace at Plaza de Callao, you could buy a ticket to see Lionel Barrymore performing in David Copperfield. Hemingway, chronicling the war for a global audience, noted that  “readers in New York, and Chicago, St. Louis, and San Francisco, would never believe you could be in a war zone where there were bars and functioning movie theaters and shops selling perfume; they needed to smell cordite and hear guns.” Later, though, Madrid too suffered bomb attacks. The Paramount Theatre near Hotel Florida took a direct hit, one that damaged the giant sign advertising Chaplin’s Modern Times.

Out in the countryside, Robert Capa and Gerda Taro were risking their lives to capture images of fallen soldiers, weeping women, and murdered children. Early in the war, Capa had participated in staging faked war footage, and he would do so again years later on behalf of The March of Time. But for the most part he was deeply committed to photography as a form of honest recording of reality at its most raw. His motto: “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”  The quintessential combat photographer, he died in 1954 in Vietnam, while shooting photos for Life magazine.

Hemingway, while playing at documentary filmmaking, was involved with creatively shaping material that made the causes of the Spanish Civil War seem simple and direct. Later, dramatic devices were added, like artificial sound effects and the reading of a purely fictional letter. Back in the U.S., screenings of The Spanish Earth were hosted by such Hollywood celebs as Joan Crawford, John Ford, and Darryl Zanuck. Lillian Hellman sponsored a similar gathering at the home of Frederic March. Hemingway himself made a speech at Carnegie Hall, and through Martha Gellhorn’s contacts got his film into the hands of Eleanor Roosevelt.  Thus did Hemingway use his movie-star status on behalf of the Loyalist cause.   

Capa photographs a young refugee  

Capa's most famous photo of a dying soldier

Friday, September 25, 2015

. . . We All Scream for Jamie Lee Curtis

The debut this week of Fox’s Screen Queens series reminds me how much I love Jamie Lee Curtis. It’s not that -- despite my Roger Corman past – I’m a huge fan of horror films in which pretty girls in their undies  try to fend off rapists and killers. (Really, isn’t enthusiasm for these flicks largely a guy thing?) Yes, Jamie Lee got her showbiz start as Laurie Strode, the good girl who survived Halloween, and then went on to star in such chillers as  Halloween II, The Fog, and Prom Night. But it’s what she’s done since that impresses me.

In one way, Jamie Lee was predestined for stardom. After all, her mother was perky blonde Janet Leigh, who was featured in scores of films in the 1950s and thereafter. I think of her in such light romantic comedies as My Sister Eileen and Bye Bye Birdie. But of course her best-known role was that of the original scream queen, Marion Crane, who took a deadly shower in Hitchcock’s Psycho. Jamie Lee’s father, Tony Curtis, was also a Hollywood superstar, both as a glamour-boy and as a serious actor in films like The Defiant Ones.

Once she’d made her mark in horror films, Jamie Lee started looking for cinematic respectability. Of all places, she ended up at Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, where Amy Holden Jones wanted to follow up her Slumber Party Massacre with something completely different. Jones wrote and directed Love Letters (1984), a romantic drama in which a young woman is inspired by her mother’s long-ago example to start a torrid affair with a married man. True to form, Corman demanded more nudity than was contained in Jones’ original script. She and Jamie Lee had no choice but to comply. Surprisingly, the eventual New World Pictures poster (which I recall on display in our office entryway) was the opposite of sleazy. And Jamie Lee moved on to bigger and better things.

Since then her films have included sparkling comedic performances in A Fish Named Wanda (1988) and True Lies (1994), for which she won a Golden Globe. The latter film took advantage of her persona as an apparently average suburban wife and mom who turns out to have a secret yen for adventure. Her ready-for-anything style also enhanced the 2003 screen adaptation of Freaky Friday, in which she and daughter Lindsay Lohan switch bodies.

I love these last two films because they “prove” that middle-of-the-road women, well past the sexpot stage, can still have hidden depths. That’s something Curtis has been proving in real life as well. She’s been married since 1984 to her one and only spouse, the hilarious Christopher Guest of Spinal Tap and Best in Show fame. Though she actually became a British baroness when Guest came into the title of Baron Haden-Guest in 1996, they apparently have a modest lifestyle. Together they’re raising their two children in (yes!) Santa Monica, though I admit I’ve never seen them wandering around town.  While in child-rearing mode, she wrote a number of well-received kids’ books, including one, Today I Feel Silly, and Other Moods That Make My Day, that spent ten weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.   

But what I love most about Jamie Lee Curtis is her honesty about herself and her failings. Seeking to debunk the myth of Hollywood glamour, she actually posed for MORE magazine in 2002 wearing nothing but her underwear. Unadorned, unretouched, she was showing the world what a forty-year-old looks like, sans Hollywood magic. She’s earned every one of her now-abundant grey hairs. You go, girl! 

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Americanah-- What Happens When Migrants Move In

The migrant crisis in Europe keeps growing. Today alone, some 20,000 refugees fleeing from Middle Eastern conflicts are trying to pass through Austria. Like the rest of the world, I have no smart ideas on how to solve a problem of this magnitude. But there’s no question that the fate of displaced persons has been a part of our global history from time immemorial.

Which means, of course, that scores of movies have been made about people who cross borders in time of duress, and end up finding themselves strangers in a strange land. We Americans are, whether or not we’d like to admit it, a nation of immigrants, and for the moment I’ll confine myself to films that detail the stresses and strains of coming to America.

Yes, Coming to America is -- as those with long memories know -- the title of an Eddie Murphy comedy about an African king who visits our shores to find a bride. (It was also the subject of a precedent-setting lawsuit by humorist Art Buchwald, who proved in a court of law that Paramount Pictures had lifted his original script treatment, without compensation.) But I’m not concerned today with the notion of visits by foreign potentates. I want to confine myself here to movies in which desperate people cross the ocean in search of a new life.

One such film was made by the great, though controversial, Elia Kazan, who was born in what was then called Constantinople, Turkey, of Anatolian Greek parents. His America America (1963), based on his own novel, is a loose dramatization of the life of his uncle, who traveled from Anatolia to Constantinople (now Istanbul) to escape the grinding poverty of his homeland. Along the way, the hero loses his nest egg, survives some life-or-death encounters, and changes his destination. It’s not until the very end of the film that he sees the Statue of Liberty rise before him in New York harbor.

I’m a great fan of the charming 1975 indie, Hester Street, in which an arrival in Manhattan makes all the difference in the life of a Jewish immigrant family from Eastern Europe. Jake has preceded his wife to the Goldene Medina (Yiddish for “Golden Land”) by several years, in order to establish a toehold in his new country. By the time wife and son arrive, Jake’s a stylish gent who’s enjoying his new freedoms on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Poor Gittel, with her old-world ways, quickly feels she’s not entirely welcome. How she handles this sticky situation is what the movie is all about.

Much more recently, there’s Amreeka (2009), the rare Palestinian movie that is less about Middle Eastern political issues than about adapting, both joyfully and painfully, to life in the United States. This is another film I can wholeheartedly recommend.

Which brings me to a major 2013 novel I suspect will make an important movie. It’s called Americanah, by award-winning Nigerian émigré Chinamanda Ngozi Adichie. Its two main characters -- bright, middle-class young people -- leave their homeland, he for England and she for the United States. It’s a love story, but also a tale about the meaning of blackness in countries where skin color helps determine destiny, for better or for worse. I’ve heard Lupita Nyong’o, Oscar-winner for Twelve Years a Slave,  has signed on for a role that would capitalize on her gloriously ebony complexion. Once upon a time, the elegant and talented Nyong’o would have been wholly shut out of Hollywood glamour roles. Now she’s the new face of Lancôme cosmetics, and let’s hope the sky’s the limit.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Of Alarm Clocks and Brilliant Young Minds: It’s Not Easy Being Smart

 One of the big stories lately has been the case of Ahmed Mohamed, a fourteen-year-old Texas schoolboy with a passion for technology. When he showed off to his teacher an alarm clock he’d made himself, a thingamajig full of coils and wires, she called the cops. Next thing he knew, he was being hauled off to jail in handcuffs, accused of trying to cause panic by assembling a phony bomb.

It didn’t help, of course, that he was a dark-skinned boy whose name identified him as a religious Muslim. Even his NASA t-shirt couldn’t save him from being considered a junior-grade terrorist. Now that the police have cleared him, he’s still suspended from school.  Of course the ACLU has gotten involved. So have President Obama and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, both of whom have put out the welcome mat for this promising young science whiz.

Clearly, being smart and geeky is a mixed blessing.

I took away the very same message from a new British film. It was originally called X +Y, but is being released (at least in the U.S.) as A Brilliant Young Mind. I suspected at first that we’re supposed to be lured into theatres by the similarity between this title and that of Ron Howard’s Oscar-winning drama about a grown-up mathematical genius with severe mental issues. But in fact this movie is the first feature of Morgan Matthews, the filmmaker behind the 2007 BBC documentary Beautiful Young Minds, which followed the fate of the British team competing in the 2006 International Mathematics Olympiad.

Most movies about competitions focus on the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. Think of, for instance, another British film: Chariots of Fire. I also remember Spellbound (2002), a documentary that managed to find high drama in America’s 1999 National Spelling Bee. I don’t know the details of Matthews’  math team documentary. But I’m aware that in one of the contestants, Daniel Lightwing, Matthews found a young boy whose gifts and challenges have made him well worth portraying in a fictionalized context.

Matthews’ fictive hero, Nathan Ellis, resembles Daniel Lightwing in that he clearly belongs somewhere on the Autism spectrum. He has, for instance, a thing for prime numbers, and will only eat prawn balls when they come in groups of seven. His extreme social awkwardness has only been exacerbated by a family tragedy, from which his good-hearted mother (the always affecting Sally Hawkins) is desperately trying to rescue him. Nathan is played by Asa Butterfield, who was the beautiful little boy with enchanting blue eyes in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo. Now tall and gangly, he’s thoroughly convincing as an overgrown kid who cannot relate to people but has a brilliant comprehension of  what the British call “maths.” A school teacher with problems of his own (Rafe Spall) discovers his mathematical gifts and coaches him for eventual acceptance on the British national team. This leads to a trip to Taipei and a close encounter with some formidable young math whizzes on the Mainland Chinese team.

I won’t give away what happens, but one of the joys of A Brilliant Young Mind is that it’s about people far more than it is about math. (Which is a good thing, because the intricate math problems solved in this film are far beyond my comprehension.) Let’s just say that victories sometimes can be found in unexpected places. I once knew a young boy so out of step with his classmates that they nicknamed him UFO. He grew up nicely, and I trust Nathan Ellis (and Daniel Lightwing) will do so too. 

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Twinkle, Twinkle, Dickie Moore (What it's like to be a child star in Hollywood)

I don’t really know the film work of Dickie Moore, who died September 7 at age 89. Though the chubby-cheeked little boy got his start in silent movies, Moore’s heyday was the Depression era. He appeared in 19 motion pictures in 1932 alone. The following year, at the age of 6, he played the lead in a film adaptation of Dicken’s Oliver Twist. He was Marlene Dietrich’s young son in Blonde Venus, and shared the screen with Barbara Stanwyck in So Big, Walter Houston in Gabriel Over the White House and Spencer Tracy in Man’s Castle. By the age of twelve, he was a has-been, but later had the distinction of giving another former child star, Shirley Temple, her first screen kiss.

Moore was the rare child star of Hollywood’s Golden Age who managed to get a college education. After serving in World War II, he studied journalism at Los Angeles City College, then used his writing skills in running a public relations firm, Dick Moore and Associates, that lasted four decades. In 1984, he published a book I consider a classic. Its jaw-dropping title: Twinkle,Twinkle, Little Star (But Don't Have Sex or Take the Car). Far more than a memoir, this is Moore’s wide-ranging exploration of what it was like to be a top child actor in his own era. For the book, he interviewed many of his peers, including Jackie Coogan, Shirley Temple, Mickey Rooney, Jane Withers, Roddy McDowall, Margaret O’Brien, and Natalie Wood. All agreed that child stardom is an unnatural state. It may have its pleasures, but it leaves one ill equipped to enter the adult world.

The child stars of Moore’s generation tended to shoulder the burden of being their families’ sole means of support. Which meant that in a professional sense they needed to grow up quickly, and to know how to behave in an adult environment. On the other hand, in an era that prized innocence, they were kept artificially young by their parents and their studios. Puberty was seen as the enemy, and these kids often remained ignorant of anything as basic as their changing bodies. And most were kept in the dark about money matters, too, with the result that they were frequently taken advantage of by conniving hangers-on. (Jane Withers, in this and so many other ways, was a happy exception.)  There was always stiff competition from other young wannabe stars, which is why ambitious stage parents (like Shirley Temple’s mom) tended to isolate their little darlings from their peers. Child stars, by and large, were lonely. And despite their fame, they lacked a strong sense of personal self-worth. That’s why as they grew up they tended to marry young, and badly.  

Not all successful child actors resented their parents. But many did . . . for good reason. Fathers were often out of the picture, or were so dispirited by having children who took on the role of family breadwinner that they pretty much vanished into the woodwork. Diane Cary (once adored as Baby Peggy) acidly called showbiz moms “the saber-tooth tigers  of the Hollywood jungle.” Jane Powell, the adorable girl-next-door blonde, once considered her mother “my girlfriend, my confidante. . . .  I am amazed I didn’t see through her as a child.” Looking back, she recognized her mother as a shrewd and calculating woman, who drove her father away on the grounds that he wasn’t good enough.

The interviews conducted by Moore for this book had one happy outcome. He and Powell married in 1988 (it was her fifth try), and stayed together until his death.