Friday, January 29, 2016

Carol Burnett: TV’s Clown Princess of Parody

One of the new movies opening today is a Marlon Wayans flick called Fifty Shades of Black. It’s not hard to guess which mega-sexy erotic romance it’s spoofing. In recognition of this new release, a Los Angeles Times staff writer has devoted a column to the long Hollywood tradition of making fun of movie hits. Funnyman Stan Laurel was sending up well-known dramatic movies back in the silent era. Bugs Bunny did it decades later. Mel Brooks, of course, has made some of the funniest genre parodies around. Who can forget such Seventies comic gems as Blazing Saddles (spoofing old westerns) and Young Frankenstein (spoofing horror films)? In 1980, the Zucker brothers and Jim Abraham scored with an hilarious parody of disaster movies like Airport. Their film was titled  Airplane!  Surely you’ve guffawed at it. (And don’t call me Shirley!)

One of the tricky things about a movie parody is that it needs to be able to sustain its comic tone throughout. A spoof can go limp pretty quickly. One of the joys of The Carol Burnett Show was its almost weekly movie parody. These were short, sweet, and hilarious. Of course they were built around the talents of a matchless comedienne who’s being honored this weekend by the Screen Actors Guild with a lifetime achievement award. I can’t think of anyone who deserves it more.

Carol Burnett (now 82 and still active) first won public notice in 1959 for her leading role in Once Upon a Mattress, a musical comedy version of “The Princess and the Pea.” As the gawky and not very delicate Princess Winifred, she was wholly endearing. When the show transferred from Off-Broadway to The Great White Way, a star was born. Broadway led to a featured role on the Garry Moore Show (1959-1962), a TV variety program I remember fondly. She also starred, along with good buddy Julie Andrews, in one of the all-time great TV specials, Julie and Carol at Carnegie Hall

Her movies have ranged from the schmaltzy Pete ‘n’ Tillie (1972, opposite Walter Matthau) to Robert Altman’s wacky A Wedding (1978) to the role of the mean Miss Hannigan in Annie (1982).  She copped an Emmy nomination for a rare dramatic role as the grieving mother of a dead soldier in the powerful Friendly Fire (1979).

But of course she’s best known for one of the greatest of all TV variety shows, The Carol Burnett Show (1967-78). As a regular watcher, I loved the blend of music, dance, comic sketches, and the host’s ingratiating personality. In her youth, Burnett had worked as a Hollywood usherette (one who got unceremoniously fired by her boss when she discouraged two movie-goers from entering at the tail-end of Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train). She has always adored movies, which is why it was only natural for her to parody so many of them on her program. With her stalwart sidekicks (including Harvey Korman, Vicki Lawrence, and, often, Tim Conway) pitching in to help, she delivered devastatingly funny take-offs on movies old and new. I still chuckle at Burnett and Korman in a From Here to Eternity spoof, smooching on the beach and then being doused with a bucket of water. I also remember them as Jenny and Oliver in Love Story, so entranced with one another that they can’t bear to part long enough to answer the doorbell. But most Carol Burnett fans agree that the cream of the crop was her two-part Went With the Wind. Thanks to YouTube for allowing it to live on. All hail the princess of parody—and congratulations! 

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Robert De Niro: A Dirty Grandpa Leaves the Mean Streets Behind

Today I learned that something called Dirty Grandpa had just grossed $11.1 million in its opening weekend, finishing 4th at the box office. Though it did well with ticket-buyers, the critics -- almost without exception -- have hated this movie. Richard Roeper, for one, denied the flick a single star, writing that “If Dirty Grandpa isn’t the worst movie of 2016, I have some serious cinematic torture in my near future.”

Dirty Grandpa (not to be confused with Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa) is a would-be comedy featuring a foul-mouthed old man whose attitudes are offensive in almost every conceivable way. The gist of the plot is that he kidnaps his uptight grandson (Zac Efron) and drags him on a road trip to Florida. Shockingly, the character is played by the great Robert De Niro, who seems to be making a point of starring in innocuous would-be laugh-fests.

Not that there’s anything wrong with an an actor known for his dramatic skills turning to comedy. It was the great 19th century thespian Edmund Kean who is reputed to have uttered, on his death bed, the immortal show biz maxim, “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” Certainly the skill of our favorite comic actors, like Jack Lemmon, Steve Martin, and the late, great Robin Williams, is nothing to sneeze at. And I’ve personally enjoyed De Niro in such comedic films as Meet the Parents and particularly Analyze This, in which—playing a Mafia boss with neuroses—he seemed to be parodying his classic gangster roles of the past.

I have De Niro on the brain right now because of a recent airline trip, on which I attempted to watch his amiable 2015 comedy, The Intern. As seems so often to happen with those seatback television set-ups, the sound wasn’t good, so that I lost a good deal of the dialogue. Then at the midpoint, the transmission failed entirely. No matter—as is true with so many of Nancy Meyers’ film projects, it was easy enough to predict the ending.  It seems Anne Hathaway is a brilliant young clothing designer who heads a thriving e-commerce start-up. She’s a workaholic with a cute kid, a shaky marriage, and an intensely hands-on management style. Into her life comes a seventy-year old widower (De Niro) who has traded retirement for a slot in a senior citizen internship program. Of course Hathaway is skeptical of his presence within her trendy loft headquarters. But (although his briefcase and formal suits make him stand out among the company’s hipsters) his business savvy and general common sense turn out to be a godsend, and ultimately set her on the right path.

What’s surprising in The Intern is how convincingly De Niro plays nice. Even a touch of meekness is not beyond his skills. But I’ve got to say that I miss the De Niro of old, the one who was unpredictable and dangerous. I’m talking about the volatile Johnny Boy of Mean Streets, the haunted young Vito Corleone of The Godfather, Part II, the fanatical Travis Bickle of Taxi Driver, the downright scary Max Cady of Cape Fear. Especially for Martin Scorsese, De Niro has played a panoply of mobsters and monsters that movie fans will never forget. More recently, David O. Russell has given him rich roles too, like the father (and obsessive Philadelphia Eagles fan) in Silver Linings Playbook, a film that successfully melded comedy and depth of feeling. I’m glad De Niro feels no inclination to rest on his laurels. But I hope he will confine himself to projects that are worthy of his talent.

I have no inclination to see this film, but because I'm writing a book on the long-range impact of "The Graduate," this advertising image gave me quite a chuckle.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Doris and Rock Avoid a Trainwreck

I admit I’m not the target demographic, but I just finished watching Trainwreck, the Golden Globe nominee starring and written by today’s comic it-girl, Amy Schumer. As advertised, it’s very raunchy and very funny—not your mother’s romantic comedy, and possibly not yours either, if you’re of the AARP generation.

Amy plays (a character named) Amy, a semi-successful journalist on the staff of a New York-based men’s magazine tellingly called S’Nuff. Having early in life absorbed her father’s mantra that “monogamy isn’t realistic,” she has no use for romantic commitment. But she likes (or rather loves) all the basics: booze, dope, and sex with a series of muscle-bound pretty boys. (Since turnabout is fair play, I really liked the fact that in the film’s many bedroom scenes, Amy remains modestly covered up, while it’s the menfolk whose bare essentials are frequently on view.) What happens when a girl like Amy meets a genuinely nice guy (Bill Hader), who’s also both smart and totally smitten? He can’t match Amy in terms of sexual experience, and she can easily drink him under the table, but there’s the possibility that these two can become one. Since the film is directed by Judd Apatow, who likes to balance raunch with sweetness, the outcome is never truly in doubt. But the journey is a lively one, and a good way to spend a Saturday evening not already occupied with booze, dope, and sex.

Yes, I had fun. But, old-fashioned gal that I am, I couldn’t help remembering back to what romantic comedies meant when I was growing up and learning the rules of engagement between the sexes. Like everyone else, I got a lot of my education in these matters from what I saw on the movie screen. And I certainly don’t recall a heroine of the Amy Schumer ilk. 

What I do remember is Doris Day (and, in Sex and the Single Girl, Natalie Wood in full Doris Day mode). Doris (or Natalie) is a smart and sassy working gal. Maybe she is a writer, or a psychologist, or an ad exec. She is fully capable of feeling sexual attraction to a hunky guy of the Rock Hudson ilk. He’s known as a lady-killer, and she comes very close to succumbing to his charms, but is saved by a combination of luck, fate, and her own scruples. (In Sex and the Single Girl, in which Wood plays a virginal version of Helen Gurley Brown, the stud is Tony Curtis. Wood’s character, a psychologist who has written a bestseller about women in the bedroom, talks a good game about modern sexuality, but it’s quite clear her only knowledge of the experience is academic. ) The plot of a movie like Lover Come Back or Pillow Talk or Sex and the Single Girl or The Tender Trap (Debbie Reynolds and Frank Sinatra) always shows how the playboy-type male gets maneuvered into holy matrimony when he surprises himself by falling for the good girl. Even though he might have gotten into her good graces in the first place by way of deception, it’s made clear at the ending that he’s ready to change his ways and wholeheartedly embrace monogamy.

Monogamy—the very thing that Amy’s father railed against. But, at the same time, the thing that we’re hoping for at the end of Trainwreck, once Amy has learned to love herself and unleash her inner cheerleader. (Long story.) Adding to the mix are Tilda Swinton, Daniel Radcliffe, and a whole lot of name athletes. Who knew LeBron James—in the black BFF role—could be so funny? 

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Howard Hughes: From Hell’s Angels to Hercules

Howard Hughes started out with three goals in life. He wanted to be the world’s greatest golfer, the world’s greatest aviator, and the world’s greatest movie producer. Though he made his longest-lasting mark in Southern California as the founder of a major aerospace firm (one that employed my husband for several decades), he had a significant impact on Hollywood both as  a movie producer and as the one-time owner of RKO Studios.

Hughes, born in Texas, first entered Hollywood in 1925, at the tender age of 20. Because of his father’s early death he had money, and he also had plenty of chutzpah. He soon produced two silent movies that were financial successes. One, 1928’s Two Arabian Knights, won the first Academy Award for best director of a comedy.  In 1930, he spent lavishly ($3.8 million) to shoot a war film that capitalized on his keen interest in aviation. This was Hell’s Angels, starring Jean Harlow along with Ben Lyon and James Hall, who played two brothers enlisting in Britain’s Royal Flying Corps. Hell’s Angels  started out as a silent picture but was later converted into a talkie. In the course of a difficult production period, Hughes himself staged the film’s dramatic aerial dogfights. Hell’s Angels marked the first time a motion picture camera shot footage from inside an airplane cockpit. As a director, Hughes was also notorious for waiting for perfect clouds to form. (The film received an Oscar nomination for its striking cinematography.)

Other films produced by Hughes include Scarface (1932), with Paul Muni starring as an Al Capone-type gangster. Because of its level of violence, this film ran afoul of the Hollywood censors, as did the later The Outlaw (1943). The latter gained notoriety when Hughes designed a special metal brassiere for voluptuous star Jane Russell. 

Another Hughes exploit had nothing to do with movies. During World War II, the U.S. military had high hopes for the creation of a “flying boat,” an aircraft made out of wood rather than metal, with a large enough capacity to transport troops and equipment across the Atlantic. After much trial and error, Hughes produced what critics nicknamed “The Spruce Goose.” This massive plane—at one time the longest and heaviest aircraft ever built—was not ready until 1947, long after the war was over. It flew only once, and only briefly, with Hughes himself at the controls.

The construction of the Spruce Goose (which Hughes preferred calling the Hercules) required a cavernous hangar on the site of the Hughes industrial complex. The Culver City, California property has sat idle for many years, growing increasingly decrepit. Now, however, the hangar is the centerpiece of an evolving business park known as the Hercules Campus at Playa Vista. Its cavernous interior was used in the filming of Independence Day and Titanic. Recently it was leased by Google, and creative plans are afoot. The surrounding buildings also house high-tech tenants, like the video game firm Konami. The new headquarters of YouTube is also onsite: it boasts a huge outdoor screening facility as well as spectacular video-making equipment. If your YouTube channel has 10,000 subscribers, you too can come to Culver City, dress up in a crazy costume, and make a movie.

Somehow, I think Howard Hughes would be pleased.  (I wonder if he’d also be pleased to know that he himself was the star character in two major Hollywood films. In  The Aviator he was young, virile, and played by Di Caprio. In Melvin and Howard, he was impersonated by a scruffy Jason Robards as a crazy old coot in the desert. )

Friday, January 15, 2016

Black Roles Matter: Denzel Washington

Today, January 15, would have been the 87th birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. So it’s a special day, and one on which it seems appropriate to salute the contributions of African-Americans to the film industry. I’m writing this a few days in advance, so I don’t know what’s going to pop up in terms of Oscar nominations. Let’s hope we don’t see a repeat of last year’s #OscarsSoWhite Twitter meme. In light of the fact that the big 2015 snubs included one for David Oyelowo’s impressive portrayal of Dr. King himself in Selma, it’s fair to say that anything can happen.

Not that race is supposed to factor into a selection of the year’s best performances. (It would be pretty grotesque if we established a quota systems ensuring “fair” distribution of awards in terms of color.) But given the wealth of popular and critically acclaimed movies featuring Black actors that came out in 2015 (among them Creed, Concussion, Straight Outta Compton¸ and Beasts of No Nation), I’m hoping that at least one qualified Black actor or actress shows up on the list of acting nominees. Truthfully, a Black male nominee  is much more likely. Pity the poor Black actresses who haven’t seemed to have much in the way of interesting roles in the past year, except on television. (Taraji, you go, girl!) But I would personally vote for Samuel L. Jackson in just about anything, maybe including Snakes on a Plane.

The Golden Globe folks, those jolly members of the foreign press corps who always put on a wild and crazy TV broadcast, this year nominated in the motion picture categories two Black performers, Will Smith for Concussion and Idris Elba for his powerful supporting role in Beasts of No Nation. Neither won, but both were on the ballot. And the Foreign Press gave its annual Cecil B. DeMille Award to an African-American icon, Denzel Washington.

Washington, who made the leap to fame and fortune in the 1980s, has always been regarded as an heir apparent to the great Sidney Poitier. Poitier, of course, made his mark in the Fifties and Sixties. I’ll never forget my family’s excitement when in 1964 Poitier became the first African-American ever to win a Best Actor Oscar, for his charming role in Lilies of the Field. Then in 1967 he scored a rare Trifecta, releasing three films--To Sir, With Love; In the Heat of the Night, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner—that spoke earnestly to questions of race while making Poitier the world’s top box office star. Poitier was hugely respected, but his tragedy as an actor was that (understandably, in that turbulent era) he could never permit himself to play anything but heroic roles.

Denzel Washington, like Poitier, seems to be made for heroics, and many of his best parts take advantage of his natural nobility. He won his first Oscar in 1989 for his portrayal of an ex-slave who becomes a soldier in the Civil War drama, Glory. He played a mighty leader in Malcolm X, and a gutsy attorney defending a man with AIDS in Philadelphia. But his Best Actor Oscar came in 2002, for tackling a meaty role that Poitier would never have touched, that of a corrupt cop in Training Day. Ironically, on the same night that he won the statuette, Poitier himself received from the Academy an honorary award “for his extraordinary performances and unique presence on the screen and for representing the industry with dignity, style and intelligence.”

The same could be said about Denzel Washington, a man who does Hollywood proud.