Friday, October 30, 2015

Halloween Horror Story

It’s that time of year again, when the mildest of people are wearing their Nightmare Before Christmas T-shirts in banks and doctors’ offices. In my weekly Zumba class, a soft-spoken man who always stands near the back of the room had covered his head with a blood-splattered pillow case. Everyone, it seems, loves the chills and thrills of Halloween. Latin Americans have the right idea in their celebration of Dia de Los Muertos, a day in which to conquer one’s fear of death by mocking its excesses and remembering its victims. In L.A. it’s easy to find grinning calaveras (skeletons) and sugar skulls, along with candles and eccentric altars dedicated to loved ones who are no more.

My former boss, B-movie maven Roger Corman, made much of his reputation on classy (though low-budget) horror films like House of Usher and The Tomb of Ligeia, based on the scary stories of Edgar Allan Poe. He also detoured into horror comedies like Little Shop of Horrors and Bucket of Blood. Some of his modern-dress horror films, like 1959’s The Wasp Woman and 1963’s X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes addressed one of the period’s genuine fears by focusing on the dangers of science run amok.

In fact, as horror-movie scholars (yes, they exist!) have pointed out, horror films succeed best when they capture the dread lurking within the public mind. Just as each era has its own bugaboos, it has its own preferred approach to horror. Just after World War II, which had ended with the unleashing of atomic power, horror movies naturally reflected a general fear of the A-Bomb. Such films as Godzilla (1954) explicitly tied their unstoppable monsters to fallout from the Atomic Age. The Fifties were also a time when the need for social conformity seemed to be spreading its own kind of poison. That’s why Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) resonated with the public at large.

By the 1960s, with social unrest on the rise, it’s no wonder that Night of the Living Dead (1968) struck a chord. Filmmaker George Romero has always said that the casting of a black actor in the chief good-guy role was not intended to send a social message. (On Romeo’s ultra-low-budget production, Duane Jones was simply the best man for the job.) But the fact that Jones’ character, mistaken for a zombie, is shot dead by cops trying to re-establish law and order spoke loudly to audiences in an era marked by interracial stand-offs.

In 1978, horror found a new home. The horror film had long been associated with creepy castles, or else with gritty urban environments. But in John Carpenter’s Halloween, horror invaded white-picket-fence suburbia. The message (as reiterated in later films like A Nightmare on Elm Street) was that no one is safe anywhere.

When I was Roger’s story editor at Concorde-New Horizons in the early 1990s, vampire stories had come into fashion. (See Coppola’s 1992 Dracula and our own To Sleep with a Vampire, among others.) And why not? AIDS was raging, and the vampire’s bite suggested symbolically a disease transmitted through blood. Now, at least on television, we seem to be back to zombies. I’m not quite sure why they’re the horror story of the moment. But (without casting any aspersions), I suspect that those poor bedraggled souls flooding into Europe from the Middle East must appear -- to those who don’t know their story and don’t speak their language -- as a mindless invading horde. For refugees like these, I guess, Halloween is a daily occurrence. Without, of course, all the candy. 

And boo to you, too! 

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Maureen O’Hara: When Irish Eyes Were Flashing

I admit I thought Maureen O’Hara had died long ago, until I learned she’d be receiving the 2014 Governors Award given by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for her stellar contributions to Hollywood. She was then 94, but her hair was still a flaming red (with, doubtless, a little help from her friends) and her fiery spirit was still intact. Word is that toward the end of her speech, as her words became garbled and disjointed, her microphone was quickly unclipped—and she made her displeasure abundantly clear. Good for her! Old age demands its privileges, and being long-winded should be one of them. In any case, she’s beyond all that now. Maureen O’Hara, pride of the Emerald Isle, died in her sleep on October 24, 2015, in (of all places) Boise, Idaho.

My late parents, who had little use for war movies or westerns, were hardly big John Wayne fans. Nor did they idolize Golden Age director John Ford. But they made a big exception for The Quiet Man, the 1952 romantic comedy—filmed in County Mayo in glorious Technicolor—that won Ford his fourth Oscar and filled the screen with his love for the Auld Sod. It’s a wild and wooly romp about an Irish-born American boxer who (having accidently killed a man in the ring) has hung up his gloves for good. Which sparks great outrage when he refuses to go to battle for his new wife in order to secure from her cantankerous brother (Victor McLaglen) the dowry to which she’s entitled. O’Hara, of course, was cast as the wife, a tempestuous free spirit who prizes her independence and her heritage above all. Others in the cast include such Irish treasures as Barry Fitzgerald and  Jack MacGowran. And the film, of course, ends in a knockdown dragout brawl to end all comic brawls. It’s an ending that even a confirmed pacifist can enjoy.

In all, O’Hara played opposite John Wayne in five movies. It’s been widely quoted that he paid her the ultimate John Wayne compliment: “I’ve had many friends, and I prefer the company of men, except for Maureen O’Hara,” he said. “She is a great guy.” Most moviegoers, though, would hardly think of her as a “guy.” Her green eyes, red hair, and creamy complexion gave her the Hollywood nickname The Queen of Technicolor. Ironically, though, some of her best-known roles were in black-and-white films. Like the poignant How Green Was My Valley (1941), another John Ford production, this one set in a Welsh coal-mining village but filmed in the decidedly un-Welsh Santa Monica Mountains. (I’ve been lucky enough to visit the old Los Angeles Welsh church, once a synagogue, that contributed its choir to the soundtrack of this film.) In 1947, O’Hara starred in another memorable black-and-white movie, playing little Natalie Wood’s unhappy mother in the original Miracle on 34th Street. Fourteen years later, this time in living color, she was mom to one incarnation of Hayley Mills in the first go-round of The Parent Trap.

I encourage Maureen O’Hara fans to check out a wonderful Huffington Post reminiscence by Mike Kaplan, a former Hollywood jack-of-all trades whom I was lucky to meet at a Santa Monica coffeehouse when his legendary poster collection was being displayed at the Academy. He’s worked as a producer, director, and publicist, and has been closely linked to the works of Stanley Kubrick and Robert Altman. Kaplan met O’Hara, his boyhood crush, in Boise, and it sounds as if he had a lot to do with making her honorary Oscar a reality. Thanks, Mike!

Friday, October 23, 2015

USC’s Steve Sarkisian: How Not to Go Hollywood

Fans of the University of Southern California Trojans are still reeling from the sudden dismissal of head football coach Steve Sarkisian. Sarkisian, a former member of the USC coaching staff, had moved on to head the football program at the University of Washington, where his team scored some dramatic wins over longtime rivals. He was lured back to USC in 2014, and had hopes of another stellar season this year. Then it became all too clear that the coach was fighting a drinking problem. A divorce that was announced in April probably contributed, but there were rumblings about alcoholic lapses back in his Seattle days. At USC this fall, Sarkisian missed practices and behaved bizarrely at a major booster event;  several players admitted to smelling liquor on his breath. A brief leave of absence hardly solved matters, and his USC contract was terminated on October 12, 2015, with the football season barely underway.

This is not the way things happen at the movies. On-screen football coaches tend to be paragons of virtue. The movie that most sticks in my mind in this regard is an oldie, 1940’s Knute Rockne, All American. Today the movie is best remembered for Ronald Reagan’s portrayal of a real-life Notre Dame halfback, George Gipp, who – before dying young of a streptococcal throat infection -- makes an inspirational speech urging his teammates to “win one for the Gipper.” But the movie’s true star is Pat O’Brien, who plays the title character, a Notre Dame chemistry instructor who transforms the game of football with his inventiveness and his leadership skills. He invents the forward past, and inspires his Fighting Irish teams (composed of good men and true) to glory before dying at the age of 43, in 1931. Ironically, he was en route to serve as a technical advisor for a feature film called The Spirit of Notre Dame when his plane went down in a Kansas field.

Pat O’Brien’s Knute Rockne is a totally good guy (as in real life he apparently was). A much more recent true football story also boasts a good-guy hero. I’m talking about Remember the Titans, released in 2000, but chronicling a memorable series of events from 1971. The place was Alexandria, Virginia, then in the throes of desegregation. African-American Herman Boone (Denzel Washington) is hired to replace a legendary white coach at the head of a newly integrated high school team. Predictably, there are clashes between black and white members of the squad, complicated by the fact that the original coach has reluctantly agreed to serve as Washington’s assistant. But, happily, everyone learns to work together,  despite the bad behavior of biased officials, for the greater glory of T.C. Williams High School, 

USC has enjoyed a great deal of football glory, but the Steve Sarkisian era will not be on its highlights reel. Despite the real-life drama involved, a movie about a football coach with a drinking problem will probably not be on a studio’s roster anytime soon. This is especially true because USC has long had a cozy relationship with Hollywood. Its fabulous film school buildings are financed by some of the industry’s finest (Lucas, Spielberg, Ron Howard), and I doubt they’d smile on a story that cast university personnel in a negative light. I’ve discovered there WAS  at least one Hollywood movie that focused on a football coach from hell. But College Coach, starring Dick Powell as a conniver who’ll do anything to win games, was made all the way back in 1933.  I don’t see it being updated anytime soon.


Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Broadway Musicals Go Hollywood, and Vice Versa

A young man I know, one who’s determined to make a life as a writer of stage musicals, published on an online site called StageBuddy a strong piece of advice on how to improve today’s musical theatre scene:  “Stop trying to adapt blockbuster movies into blockbuster [stage] shows. There are tons of original, audience-­friendly ideas out there -- ­­they just need a producer's confidence to bring them to life.”

He’s right, but if you skim the list of what’s hot on Broadway, you’ll discover how much of it is derived from material with a movie connection. At one time, Hollywood looked to Broadway as a source of major musicals that could be successfully translated to the screen. Check out the Sixties and early Seventies, when some of the biggest movie hits included big-budget adaptations of  My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, Oliver!, Fiddler on the Roof, and Cabaret. Today, the occasional stage musical gets the screen treatment, but usually without much success. Case in point: Clint Eastwood’s muddled attempt to make a movie out of the delightful stage hit, Jersey Boys, the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. Also in 2014, Rob Marshall and an all-star cast worked hard to film the challenging once-upon-a-time musical, Into the Woods. There are some lovely moments in this movie adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s intertwined fairytales, but no one would call it a blockbuster. About the yowling 2012 screen version of Les Misérables, the less said the better.

When I was last in New York, it was remarkable how many Broadway musicals had taken their inspiration (and much more) from original film versions of the material. I’m thinking, of course, of such current Disney extravaganzas as The Lion King and Aladdin, as well as recent hits Mary Poppins and Beauty and the Beast. Also on today’s Broadway roster are stage musical adaptations of An American in Paris, Finding Neverland, School of Rock, and The Color Purple. Sometimes these Hollywood-meets-Broadway transitions inspire bold new staging ideas, like those director Julie Taymor brought to The Lion King , using the magic of puppetry to replace Disney animation. But generally audiences who choose to see, let us say, the stage musical version of Legally Blonde (which ran on Broadway from 2007 to 2008 before doing extensive touring) want a fairly exact copy of everything they loved in the film. Which requires less creativity than a form of cloning.

My son Jeff Bienstock was recently fortunate enough to have a new stage musical on display at the National Alliance for Musical Theatre’s annual New York festival. Legendale, for which Jeff wrote book and lyrics (with Andrea Daly supplying the music) takes the audience into the wacky world of fantasy video games, featuring trolls, ogres, bog-monsters, and cow-maidens. These characters are set against such real-life types as a bored IT guy and a mousy office temp. The NAMT festival also presented six other totally original musical works: I saw a film noir musical with elements of old radio drama, an ominous piece about dead souls arising from a Southern cornfield, and an end-of-the-world phantasmagoria whose leading characters included Marie Antoinette and the inventor of the hot-air balloon. The only plot that was not wholly a product of its writers’ imagination was a hip-hop do-over of Shakespeare’s Othello. In other words, in the rarefied realm of musical theatre, originality is hardly dead. Today on Broadway audiences are cheering a rap musical based on the life of Alexander Hamilton. So let’s hope originality continues to flourish on the musical stage, whether or not movies are involved. 

Friday, October 16, 2015

Keeping the Hills Alive with “The Sound of Music”

We all know how The Sound of Music opens, right? It starts with a helicopter shot of Julie Andrew on an Austrian mountaintop, spinning ecstatically in place as she carols, “The hills are alive . . .”   Yes, that’s the oh-so-familiar movie version, one of the all-time box-office champions. But The Sound of Music was first a hit Broadway show, starring Mary Martin and Theodore Bikel. Last night I saw a Broadway-bound revival, which brought back memories of years gone by, when – at a huge barn-like auditorium called the Los Angeles Philharmonic Hall – I first encountered The Sound of Music, with Florence Henderson at the head of a touring production.

The stage version of The Sound of Music, based on the story of Maria von Trapp and her musical brood, starts not with a helicopter shot but with a chorus of nuns singing a joyful “Alleluia.” (My father, who did not have much use for nuns, once wondered at this point whether he’d stumbled into the wrong show.)  Needless to say, some of movie’s greatest charms are missing from the stage version. On stage,  mountains have to be portrayed by painted backdrops, and you can’t show that gaggle of little von Trapps biking down country lanes, and rowing on country lakes. So the joy in nature felt by the leading characters must be accepted . . . yes! . . . on faith.

Still, I was fond of the stage version because it seemed franker about the other side of the mountain, the ongoing Nazi threat that balances the sweetness and light at the show’s core. The movie does retain both Captain von Trapp’s wealthy, worldly fiancée and his impresario friend who makes a virtue of expedience. But in the movie adaptation, their two songs have been removed. “How Can Love Survive?” is a cynical ode to romance among the very rich. “There’s No Way to Stop It” is a comic ditty dedicated to the wisdom of celebrating the men in charge, whomever they might be, in order to save one’s own skin. This second song makes perfect sense in a tale about leaving one’s homeland rather than capitulating to the dictates of the Nazi Anschluss. Beneath the song’s apparent light-heartedness, it’s a bold statement, and I thoroughly enjoyed hearing it again.

            This new production, which began in L.A., does right by the political forces that are gathering. A particularly vivid touch involves the climactic musical competition in which the Trapp Family Singers appear. When they take the stage in their quaint dirndls and lederhosen, the backdrop behind them is a huge set of red banners flaunting the Nazi swastika, which was more than enough to send shivers down my spine. Casting works well too. Director Jack O’Brien points out in a program note that when Mary Martin starred as Maria on stage, she was 47 years old. Julie Andrews, cast in the movie after becoming America’s sweetheart in Mary Poppins, was nearly 30. The new Maria is (heaven help us!) a college sophomore in her first big role. Kerstin Anderson, just 21, is tall and gangly, with a lovely voice and lots of infectious spunk. She’s believable as a postulant in an abbey, and we can totally buy her falling for Captain von Trapp (Ben Davis), who’s played a bit younger than usual and looks something like a bearded Ryan Gosling. The moppets (envied, I’m sure, by every kid in the audience) are well differentiated.  And Ashley Brown, as the Mother Abbess, raises the rafters with “Climb Every Mountain.” The Sound of Music sounds very good indeed.