Tuesday, May 31, 2016

“Waitress” – Take the Toast, Hold the Chicken Salad

The recent passing of Beth Howland, who memorably played the scatterbrained Vera on the TV sitcom Alice, reminded me that the entertainment media are full of female characters who look for love while waiting tables at cafes and diners across our land. Some live with the fact that they’re treated badly; others rise above their circumstances and discover they have talents other serving burgers and chicken-fried steak.

Back in 1970, Five Easy Pieces didn’t portray its waitresses with much kindness. The film, which memorably starred Jack Nicholson as an oil rig worker trying to distance himself from his aristocratic family, paired Nicholson with Karen Black, playing his waitress girlfriend. Not only is Black’s Rayette something of a whiny bimbo but Nicholson also makes a hash of his encounter with a waitress unfortunate enough to tell him (in what is probably the film’s best remembered scene) that he can’t order toast.

In 1974, Martin Scorsese shifted away from his usual mean streets to present an endearing portrait of a waitress in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. Much of the film’s action takes place in a Tucson diner where  a recent widow (Ellen Burstyn) with dreams of becoming a singer works alongside the sassy Flo (Diane Ladd) and the spacey Vera (Valerie Curtin), eventually finding romance with an attractive rancher (Kris Kristofferson) who warms to her and her young son. So appealing was this film that Burstyn won a Best Actress Oscar, and the TV series Alice, starring Linda Lavin and Polly Holliday along with Howland, soon followed.

Most waitress movies seem to take place in the Southwest or in Dixie, but Mystic Pizza (1988) sets its three attractive young servers (including a then-unknown Julia Roberts) in a New England town, adding an ethnic touch to its story of young women looking for love. More typical – and much more morose -- is Allison Anders’ 1992 indie, Gas Food Lodgings, in which a single mom (Brooke Adams) and her two young daughters cope with diner work in a dull desert town.

Then there’s Waitress, which in 2007 was an upbeat Sundance favorite, despite the tragic murder of its writer/director Adrienne Shelly (she also appears in the film) just before the film’s debut. The waitress played by Keri Russell is a genius at pie-baking, but she’s also in thrall to a miserably self-centered husband. Then, oops, she realizes she’s pregnant by the jerk to whom she no longer wants to be married. An unexpected affair with her ob/gyn leads her to sort out her priorities, and the end result is an empowered young woman ready and able to make use of her talents.

It’s typical of today’s Broadway that modest movie successes can lead to hit musicals. Waitress, which opened recently with Jessie Mueller in the central role, has just been nominated for four major Tony awards, including best musical and best score (by Sara Bareilles). The cast has a ball with all the pie-baking and jolly Southernisms, and Mueller – along with fellow waitress chums played by feisty Keala Settle and ditsy Kimiko Glenn of Orange is the New Black – sing up a storm. I also enjoyed the presence of veteran Dakin Matthews, whom I interviewed many moons ago, as the crotchety owner of Joe’s Pie Diner. But while fairytale endings are fun, the rosy conclusion of Waitress seems to work against a story about the realities of a working gal’s life. Still, it’s lovely to leave the theatre and go hunting for a good piece of The-Show-is-Over pie. Served, probably, by a waitress with Broadway stardom on her mind. 

Friday, May 27, 2016

Harold Lloyd’s “The Freshman” Speeds into Sleepy El Segundo

The Old Town Musical Hall in El Segundo, California is a precious glimpse into the Hollywood of the past. Located just off Main Street in a sleepy bedroom community surrounded by aerospace plants, the Musical Hall started off back in 1921 as the State Theater, dedicated to the screening of silent movies. It gradually lapsed into disuse until 1968 when two musicians, Bill Field and Bill Coffman, purchased a 1925 Mighty Wurlitzer Theater Pipe Organ from the Fox West Coast Theatre in nearby Long Beach.

The two Bills installed the organ (which boasts four keyboards, 260 switches, and all manner of controls and pedals) in their El Segundo theater, and the Musical Hall was born. Today, the little theater is a landmark of Old Hollywood kitsch. The various organ pipes, not to mention cymbals, drums, and other music-making apparatus, have been lovingly refurbished in glow-in-the-dark colors. The organ itself is surrounded by all manner of statuary, including a Buddha on one pedestal, a plush Mickey Mouse doll on another. The stamped metal ceiling is newly installed, and it gleams.

The Music Hall’s movie screenings (normally only on weekends) feature a brief Wurlitzer concert, complete with sing-along, followed by a short subject. I saw Laurel and Hardy’s knockabout farce, “The Chimp,” and then a feature-length gem, Harold Lloyd in The Freshman, from 1925. The Music Hall shows plenty of classic talkies, including old musicals and horror flicks. But it’s at its best when it can show off the Mighty Wurlitzer as an accompaniment to a legendary silent classic.

Harold Lloyd, of course, was one of the three great comedians of the silent era, the others being Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Lloyd’s trademark was his large horn-rim glasses. He looks something like a WASP Woody Allen, but one whose slight built masks a surprising athleticism. In The Freshman, probably his most successful film, he plays an eager young collegian (“Call Me Speedy”) who’s determined to win friends and influence people as he matriculates at Tate University. He quickly depletes his college savings buying ice cream for everyone on campus, and amuses the student body by launching into a silly little dance step whenever he’s introduced to someone new, under the mistaken impression that this is his path to social success. He’s fundamentally an innocent surrounded by sophisticates and snobs. In one of the film’s most hilarious sequences, he hosts an elaborate “Fall Frolic” while wearing evening clothes that keep splitting at the seams because his ensemble is only loosely basted together. (His tailor, trying to make amends, is creeping around in the background, re-attaching sleeves while he’s trying to act suave.) When he tries out for the football team, he succeeds only in serving as a tackling dummy and water boy. Nonetheless, he somehow manages to win the big game—and to learn some life lessons about the value of being oneself.

The Freshman is priceless partly because of its glimpses of early Los Angeles, from the days before the big studio lots sprang into being. The big football game, for instance, is played at the Rose Bowl. (Cari Beauchamp’s invaluable My First Time in Hollywood: Stories from the Pioneers, Dreamers and Misfits Who Made the Movies has a lot to say about those early years.) It’s important too for its picture of how college life was regarded at a time when most Americans hardly dared aspire to step onto an ivy-covered campus. But most of all it lives on because it’s screamingly funny. A big thank-you to the Old Town Musical for bringing it to us in all its glory.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Nichols vs. Altman: Two Paths to Glory

For months I’ve been researching director Mike Nichols and the second film of his career, 1967’s The Graduate. Last night, on my version of a busman’s holiday, I watched Robert Altman’s 1975 film, Nashville. Both Nashville and The Graduate ably reflect a fertile period of American filmmaking that has come to be called the New Hollywood. Still, they are shot in highly disparate styles. A “making-of” documentary that accompanies the Criterion DVD of Nashville has convinced me that one key difference between the two movies lies in the personalities of two very different directors.

Mike Nichols began as a comic actor, hailed for his satirical performances with  Elaine May. After May broke up the act, Nichols moved on to even greater success as a director of Broadway comedies. Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park catapulted him into a career in Hollywood as well as on the Great White Way. Elizabeth Taylor chose him to direct her and spouse Richard Burton in a film adaptation of a controversial stage play, Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Nichols’ version was a popular and critical success. But – given that it focused on a mere four actors who played out their corrosive interaction against a single interior set – it did not take full advantage of the motion picture medium.

On The Graduate, Nichols was far freer to experiment technologically. The film is full of flashy camerawork that explores the psychology of the characters while conveying what Nichols saw as the sterility of SoCal life. Working with a cast made up largely of stage veterans, he rehearsed for three weeks before the start of shooting. In rehearsal, actors were encouraged to contribute their own ideas, but once the cast moved into production there was little tolerance for deviation from the finalized script. In his early films, Nichols was brutally hard on his performers. Dustin Hoffman, for one, felt completely off-balance, convinced he wasn’t up to Nichols’ standards of excellence. On Nichols’ part this was at least partially strategic: it was both a way of amping up his leading character’s agitated mental state and a trick to deflect attention from his own jangled nerves.

Robert Altman, by contrast, came across as jovial and laidback. In casting Nashville, he relied solely on instinct, giving major roles to those (like singer Ronee Blakley) with no real acting experience, once he sensed they were right for a particular part. (Explains Keith Carradine, “He hired behavior; he hired essence.”) On set, a performer was free to discard the script pages and try something completely different. Altman’s experiments with zoom lenses and with multi-track audio recording allowed him to shoot crowd scenes in which no one quite knew which characters would ultimately be featured on camera at any given moment. And the film’s many songs were all recorded live. The result: an improvisational feel that contributes to Nashville’s life-like spontaneity.

Though Altman hardly lacked a strong sense of self, he wanted his cast to blend into a community. That’s why he kicked off location filming with a 4th of July barbecue at the lovely rustic cabin he and his wife had rented. The barbecues continued throughout the months of shooting, and actors were encouraged to watch dailies together, thus reinforcing their feel for the overlapping stories in which they all played a part.

Almost everyone was housed at a local motel throughout the shoot. The one exception was Karen Black, who was whisked via limo to Nashville’s best hotel. Castmates who complained discovered Altman’s logic: no one else in the film was supposed to like Black’s character very much.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Fasten Your Seatbelts: There’s a Letter in the Mail for Three Wives

It’s hard to believe now that, back in 1949,  Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s A Letter to Three Wives was a really big deal. But at the 1950 Oscar ceremony, Mankiewicz won two Oscars, for both writing and directing this film. It was up for Best Picture too, but lost to a movie I consider far more memorable, a still-timely story of political corruption called All the King’s Men. (The following year, Mankiewicz made Oscar history by again winning screenplay and director honors. That 1950 release, which won a total of six Oscars, is a bonafide Hollywood classic, All About Eve.)

A Letter to Three Wives can fairly be called a woman’s picture, because its topic is wedlock, as seen through the eyes of three married women who are pals living in a small suburb. The structural gimmick is that the three, while en route to a good-hearted outing with some underprivileged kids, receive a note from a so-called friend telling them she has just skipped town with one of their husbands. This shocking news leads to extended flashbacks, in which we see the fault lines of each woman’s marriage.   

 There’s Jeanne Crain as a fresh-faced farmer’s daughter who met her handsome and wealthy husband while serving as a WAVE in World War II. She still feels like a rube and an outsider. There’s Ann Sothern, the career gal who out-earns her schoolteacher spouse (a young Kirk Douglas!) but kowtows to the producers of the sappy radio program for which she writes. There’s sultry Linda Darnell, who’s succeeded in persuading a retail tycoon (Paul Douglas) to marry her. The marriage was her ticket out of poverty, but it hasn’t entirely brought happiness. And always lurking in the vicinity, though never really seen on camera, is Addie Ross, whom each of the three husbands views as their town’s prime exemplar of class and sex appeal. For each of them, she seems to be the One Who Got Away, and we anticipate finding out at the end of the film exactly who—and what—she’s gotten away with stealing. The film’s cleverest touch is Addie’s voice-over narration. It’s provided (without screen credit) by Celeste Holm, whose self-satisfied purr tells us all we need to know about Addie Ross’s attitude toward domestic life.

A Letter to Three Wives began, fittingly, as a novel published in 1946 within the pages of Cosmopolitan magazine. The original, I’m told, was A Letter to Five Wives. The filmmakers started out planning to tell four marital stories, then removed one that was supposed to feature Anne Baxter. (She certainly got her revenge in All About Eve!) I gather the movie also differs from the novel because of its unambiguously happy ending. Not surprisingly, for that era, career gal Ann Sothern patches up her marriage by standing up to her demanding boss for the very first time. (I was glad to see that she doesn’t go so far as to quit her writing career altogether – she merely makes it clear that from here on out her weekends belong to her spouse and kids.) The reconciliation of Linda Darnell and Paul Douglas is frankly unconvincing, given their constant bickering earlier in the film, but I guess audiences in 1949 were in desperate need of reassurance that marriages could really work.

The DVD on which I viewed this film contains a fascinating character sketch of actress Linda Darnell, billed as “Hollywood’s Lost Angel.” What a turbulent life she led! Too much success too soon, bad marriages, and a death much too early. No wonder she was so convincing as the film’s beautiful cynic.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Stuntwomen: Soaring Without Wings or Wigs

How do you feel about a man wearing a dress and a woman’s wig? No, I’m not here to discuss the transgender-bathroom question that’s currently roiling North Carolina. My topic today is stuntwomen. As Mollie Gregory points out in her illuminating Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story, throughout the history of motion pictures men have been ready and eager to step in, don the wig, and take on stunt assignments that should much more logically go to women. Gregory, a moviemaker and a delightful speaker, is known for her books about the female presence in Hollywood. (Her Women Who Run the Show chronicles the rise of women in the film industry’s executive ranks.) Now she has interviewed sixty-five stuntwomen and looked back to the earliest days of moviedom in order to bring us the first-ever history of the women who – often in skirts and high heels – risk their lives to bring us movie thrills and spills.

I was lucky enough to hear Mollie, along with a panel of current stuntwomen, speak at a recent luncheon event co-sponsored by Women in Film. Mollie marveled at “how tough and gallant women are.” Her subjects love what they do,  and speak of the joy of “making a moment come alive visually by using your body and soul.” Still, they have suffered greatly from job discrimination and from sexual harassment. In order to work, they’ve had to battle paternalistic men who feel they’re protecting women, as well as mercenary males who want to fatten their own paychecks by denying stuntwomen the chance to ply their craft.

In the early days, silent movie performers did their own stunts, with little in the way of safety precautions to protect them. Some of those early actresses loved doing high dives and driving fast cars, firing guns and leaping from bridges. But once Hollywood had evolved into a hierarchical industry in the 1920s, men took over. For decades women were squeezed out as stunt performers, and certainly had little opportunity to move into the more executive position of stunt coordinator, the person responsible for designing stunts and ensuring the safety of those who perform them. One of the luncheon’s special guests was the son of William Wellman, who pointed out with pride that his father, on a 1951 film called Westward the Women, had been the first Hollywood director to hire a female stunt coordinator, Polly Burson. It made sense, on a movie with a heavily female cast, to put a woman in charge of stunt actors—but Wellman still had to fend off flak from studio brass for his decision.

Several of the women on Gregory’s panel have themselves made history as stunt coordinators. They spoke of dangers they’ve survived, of  injuries they’ve overcome, and of how stuntwomen face special challenges because they’re expected to perform tricky maneuvers not in padded clothing but rather in skimpy tank tops and teeny skirts. Annie Ellis, a third-generation stunt performer, noted that it’s constantly necessary to remind filmmakers not to risk lives by “rushing the shot.” She remembers, on the movie Twister, the filming of a tricky stunt that involved a tanker truck plummeting to earth, followed by a huge explosion. The scene had been filmed successfully, but needed to be re-shot several weeks later because of camera problems. Because this was a re-do, the director didn’t see the need for a rehearsal. It’s in situations like these that stunt coordinators need to stick up for their team’s well-being.

What can you say to a director who asks you to do the impossible? “No—unless you want to show us first.”