Friday, July 29, 2016

Roger Corman Dives into the Pit (and the Pendulum)

This year The Pit and the Pendulum is 55 years old. And Roger Corman? He’s 90. I saw both the film and its director this past week, in the posh Goldwyn Theater of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. It was part of the “Archival Revival” series, celebrating 25 years of the Academy Film Archive. The film I watched was a beautiful 35 mm. print, one of several Corman flicks that the Academy has lovingly restored. (Others include The Intruder, The Student Nurses, Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, and Ron Howard’s debut film as a director, Grand Theft Auto. Coming soon: House of Usher and X—The Man with X-ray Eyes. )

Before the screening, an Academy representative interviewed a genial Roger, who looked and sounded terrific. His only concession to his advanced years was that he now uses a cane to walk. He talked smartly about the advantages and disadvantages of CGI, which he noted (based on his experience with films like the upcoming Death Race 2050) considerably slows down the editing process. Given that his early movies took only 10 days to shoot, and that the more elaborate Poe films (like The Pit and the Pendulum) took a mere 15, Roger is a man accustomed to speed. He also discussed his famous alumni, put in a plug for wife Julie’s success with family films, and explained how he brought art-house masterpieces by the great Ingmar Bergman to drive-in movie theatres. Bergman wrote a letter of thanks, explaining that he’d always wanted to reach a wider audience. It’s a letter, nicely framed, I’ve seen many times on the wall leading into Roger’s office.

But a man in his 90s may be excused a few memory lapses. Prompted by the interviewer, he talked about his Stanford days, when he wrote movie reviews for the campus paper. He remembered giving John Ford’s My Darling Clementine an especially strong review. Sorry, Roger! My research for my biography, Roger Corman: Blood-Sucking Vampires, Flesh-Eating Cockroaches, and Driller Killers, led me to read through all the Stanford Dailies from Roger’s time on campus. As a sports editor, he wrote regular columns, but I never came across a movie review with his name on it. It’s possible that one or two slipped by me, but My Darling Clementine didn’t open until around the time he graduated.

No matter. I enjoyed seeing The Pit and the Pendulum on the big screen. It is far from my favorite of the Poe films: I give that crown to the macabre and elegant Masque of the Red Death, made in England on more sumptuous sets. Yes, I can see why that lethal pendulum would have scared the daylights out of youngsters years ago. But to me Pit’s storytelling seems convoluted and much of its acting stiff. Some in the Academy  audience actually laughed at the highly theatrical (OK, hammy) acting style of Vincent Price. When I recently screened Masque for a community event, no one had the slightest inclination to titter: some who had assumed it would be campy expressed surprise afterward at the movie’s power.

One big plus in The Pit and the Pendulum was the reliably creepy Barbara Steele. I also much enjoyed seeing Luana Anders on screen. Decades after this film was made, she had modest success as a screenwriter. I worked with Luana on the script for Fire on the Amazon (1993), a jungle drama best remembered for a hot nude scene featuring a then-unknown Sandra Bullock. Luana and I talked about how her name often showed up in crossword puzzles. She loved the recognition.    

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Woody Allen’s “Café Society” -- Where Middlemen Rule

Woody Allen’s latest, Café Society, is a tragicomic look at love and regret, set on the fringes of showbiz. The film, gorgeously photographed by three-time Oscar-winner Vittorio Storaro, gives the warm glow of nostalgia to the period in which (while the working class struggled to put food on the kitchen table) Hollywood movers and shakers lived the high life. It’s a world where outsiders can quickly become insiders, but may lose something important in the process. Jesse Eisenberg, as a gawky New York kid who tries going Hollywood, makes a perfect neo-Woody surrogate, and Kristen Stewart has a fresh loveliness that explains why she gets under men’s skin. But I want to focus on Steve Carell, playing superagent Phil Stern. He’s a Hollywood success story, a wheeler-dealer who’s always too busy juggling calls from Ginger Rogers and Adolph Menjou to complete a conversation with whoever’s right in front of him.

I’ve got agents on the brain right now, because I’ve just finished reading a fascinating business book by my friend and colleague, Marina Krakovsky. In The Middleman Economy: HowBrokers, Agents, Dealers and Everyday Matchmakers Create Value and Profit, she argues that we are all middlemen (or, I suppose, middlewomen) in one way or another, whether we work in business, in education, as realtors or as nannies. Using lots of real-world examples, she cleverly categorizes various ethical middleman functions as The Bridge (“Spanning the Chasm”), The Certifier (“Applying the Seal of Approval”), The Enforcer (“Keeping Everyone Honest”),. The Risk-Bearer (“Reducing Uncertainty”), The Concierge (“Making Life Easier”), and The Insulator (“Taking the Heat”). Discussing this last category, she introduces powerful sports agent, Drew Rosenhaus, whose abrasive personality—as used in support of his many star clients within the National Football League—inspired an important character in the film Jerry Maguire. Rosenhaus makes no apologies for his outrageous verbal attacks on team management. He sees these as serving his clients’ interests: on their behalf he can take the heat for his own rants, saving the athletes from burning their bridges with their teams.

Marina deals with the positive outcomes that result from middlemen’s maneuvering. Leave it to Hollywood, of course, to focus on situations in which middlemen find they can’t stomach their in-between position. George Clooney has made something of a specialty of portraying the man in the middle, in such films as Michael Clayton (2007) and Up in the Air (2009). In both he plays a fixer charged with smoothing over something that’s illegal, or at least profoundly unpleasant (like the firing of a firm’s longtime employees). Eventually, of course, his character sees the light. Then there’s Tom Hanks, another of Hollywood’s traditional good guys, who in Bridge of Spies (2015) reluctantly takes on the task of defending a Soviet spy in an American courtroom, and somehow emerges unscathed by the process.

Steve Carell’s agent-character in Café Society doesn’t seem to be doing anything that’s either illegal or profoundly distasteful. But there’s the acute sense that his in-between position has turned him into both a sycophant and a poseur, one who’s forever sucking up to those above him and lording it over those who haven’t reached his level. He gets richly rewarded (romantically and every other way), but perhaps loses his soul. Just like another of the film’s characters: his brother Ben. Ben is a Brooklyn mobster who takes care of business when someone needs to be taught a lesson. If you need help with a noisy neighbor, for instance, just say the word. But I don’t think Marina Krakovsky has this kind of middleman in mind.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

How Garry Marshall Made Sure that “Happy Days” Stayed Happy

I met the late Garry Marshall in 2004. It was backstage after the taping of a reunion show celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of one of Marshall’s classic sitcoms, Happy Days. Because I’m the author of Ron Howard: From Mayberry to the Moon . . . and Beyond, I was invited by the founder of the international Happy Days fan club, who’d flown all the way from Milan, Italy for the occasion. Yes, Happy Days—that amiable series about growing up in the 1950s—has loyal fans all over the globe. And several of them had made their way from Europe to L.A. for the occasion.

Those fans saw far more than just a taping. (And what a taping it was, attended by Ron Howard, Henry Winkler, Tom Bosley, Marion Ross, Erin Moran, and many others, all reminiscing about a show they loved.) The reunion kicked off with a softball game, much like those overseen by Marshall in the days when the series was on the air. Marshall, the ultimate sports fanatic, formed the team to foster esprit de corps among cast and crew. They started out playing on weekends in an entertainment industry league, and eventually came to spend hiatus periods touring the world under USO auspices, playing exhibition games against American troops in Germany and Okinawa. (Ron Howard, a natural athlete, excelled as a batter and fielder. He also mentored Henry Winkler, who surprised himself by becoming a competent pitcher. Their on-the-field camaraderie helped in calming a delicate situation on the set: Howard was supposed to be the show’s featured player, but it was Winkler, as the Fonz, who became the breakout star. Somehow the two survived the tension of their unequal status and became lifelong best friends.)

Part of the reason that Happy Days retained its family feeling, year after year, was that Garry Marshall was firmly in charge. Marshall, one of Hollywood’s truly nice guys, ran a set as though he were the genial host of a party. Not that he allowed for sloppy work, but he always made sure that his projects were true collaborations. Rich Correll, who worked on the Happy Days production team, told me how Marshall introduced himself to every new member of the cast and crew:  “Look, yes, I’m Garry Marshall and it’s my show, but if you have a better idea for a joke that we’re pitching, come up and give it to me. . . . If you can fix it, you can tell me anything. Now you might not have the right fix, but don’t be afraid to tell me.” It was a lesson that Ron Howard quickly took to heart. Once Howard became a director in his own right, he chose to adopt the same policy. Those who work with him for the first time are skeptical at first: many directors talk a good game about collaborative effort. Truth be told, Howard (like Marshall) really practices what he preaches.

Marshall’s obits have not mentioned another of his projects, one that touches my heart. As a lifelong theatre buff, he joined with his daughter to build the Falcon Theatre, a 130-seat space in Burbank, California, not far from several major studios. It operates year-round, presenting Hollywood professionals in comedies and dramas, while also hosting a number of offerings for children. Sometimes Marshall himself would step in as director, as he did for Happy Days: A Family Musical a few years back. One of Marshall’s favorite TV characters, Sgt. Ernest G. Bilko, used to say, “The bigger they are, the nicer they are.”  In Marshall’s own case, how very true.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Evelyn Nesbit: The Girl on the Red Velvet Swing and the Crime of the Century

This poster is adapted from a famous photo of Evelyn Nesbit

American Crime Story’s “The People Vs. O.J. Simpson” has just been nominated for a whopping thirteen primetime Emmys. Hardly surprising, given the power of the murder trial we couldn’t stop watching in 1994-1995. The possibility that football-star-turned-actor O.J. Simpson had murdered his ex-wife encompassed so many key American issues: race, sex, celebrity. No wonder it was often labeled the Crime of the Century.

Back on June 25, 1906, another murder equally galvanized the nation. It evoked all the tension surrounding the  shifting social patterns of the brand-new twentieth century. This was a time when old moral and aesthetic codes were breaking down, and new wealth was taking over the social establishment. Somehow the murder of New York architect and bon vivant Stanford White by Harry Thaw of Pittsburgh, prodigal heir to his father’s industrial millions, came to exemplify the obsessions of the new era. Naturally there was a woman at the center of the story.

She was Evelyn Nesbit, a beautiful and very young (age 22) photographer’s model and Broadway chorus girl. She was also Harry Thaw’s wife.  As Paula Urburu makes clear in American Eve: Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White, the Birth of the “It” Girl and the Crime of the Century, Evelyn had settled in New York at age fourteen with her widowed mother and troubled brother. Since Mamma had no plan for supporting the family on her own, Evelyn’s precocious beauty became the little family’s meal ticket. At fifteen, appearing on Broadway and living a life that was mostly unsupervised by her feckless mother, Evelyn met the dashing Stanford White. He—a major celebrity responsible for such landmarks as the original Madison Square Garden—quickly took her under his wing. At first he was a welcome father figure. Then he drugged and raped her. With few other options available, she chose to overlook his sinister act and became his willing mistress, though she eventually moved on when he began turning to new young conquests.

Harry Thaw fell hard for Evelyn. Many other stagedoor Johnnies had, but the unstable Harry was obsessed with wreaking vengeance on Stanford White, even before he met her. He wormed out of Evelyn the story of how White had “despoiled” her innocence. Now knowing a truth she had successfully kept hidden, Thaw raped and brutalized her himself. Somehow he eventually got her to marry him in a private ceremony. (The bride wore black.) Then one evening as they attended a rooftop performance at White’s Madison Square Garden, he shot White at close range. Somehow he expected to be acclaimed a hero for defending his wife’s sacred honor.

During several trials, Evelyn was forced to describe aloud the indignities she’d suffered (as well as providing titillating details about cavorting on White’s private red velvet swing). The public couldn’t get enough of it. A film, Rooftop Murder, had been rushed into production by Thomas Edison’s studio a mere week after the tragedy occurred. Later there would be other films and stage productions, some financed by Harry Thaw’s own family, who were bent on selling their version of him as a crusader for American womanhood.

Years later, an impoverished Evelyn herself acted in films that were essentially versions of her eventful life. And in 1954 she actually sold her story to Hollywood. (In The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing she was portrayed by newcomer Joan Collins). Milos Forman’s film of E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime raises Evelyn from a cameo role into a major player. As a forerunner of today’s young publicity hounds, she’s a dramatic example of how life in the spotlight can destroy innocence and beauty.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Lin-Manuel Miranda Puts the Ham in Hamilton

Don’t get me wrong – I love this guy. Aside from being a great talent, Lin-Manuel Miranda has shown multiple times that he’s a gentleman and a scholar. Scholar? Well, Miranda got his inspiration for the Broadway phenomenon Hamilton when he toted along on a family vacation Ron Chernow’s hefty and erudite 2004 biography of Alexander Hamilton, founding father of the U.S. financial system. Chernow came on board as an historical consultant to the musical, and he has praised Miranda’s uncanny ability to synthesize complex ideas into catchy hip-hop lyrics. Somehow Miranda has managed to make the tale of our country’s founding so vital and interesting that whole generations of school kids (and their parents) are being turned on to the ins and outs of America’s past. I deeply respect the show’s management for working hard to give youngsters the opportunity to step into history.

Along with writing music, book, and lyrics for the Pulitzer and Tony-winning Hamilton, Miranda of course played the title role. Here’s how he shows his gentlemanly side: this past week, as he stepped down from the Broadway cast, he made it a point of loudly praising his understudy and now replacement, Javier Muñoz. Introducing Muñoz to the press, he emphasized that throughout the show’s evolution the two had created the role together. There aren’t many actors who would be so generous in sharing credit..

I first became aware of Miranda in 2008 when I saw his earlier Tony-winning production, In the Heights. Far less ambitious than Hamilton, it’s a somewhat predictable tale of the Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights, a place where many colorful ethnicities meet and mingle. I had mixed emotions about the show, despite its lively Latin music. But Miranda (as an amiable narrator-figure named Usnavi) was a rapper’s delight. Then there were the years when he popped up on the Tony Awards broadcast with on-the-spot freestyle salutes to the evening’s victors. Wow!

Like any actor trying to make a living, Miranda could also be seen in modest television roles, on shows like House, Modern Family, and How I Met Your Mother. But the acclaim he’s gotten for Hamilton (which also includes a MacArthur  “Genius” grant) has assured him of a more starry second act. It’s been pointed out of late that he’s a prime contender for the fabled  EGOT designation, which recognizes those legendary few who’ve won all four of the entertainment world’s prime honors: the Emmy (for work in television), the Grammy (given by the recording industry), the Oscar (which acknowledges cinema greats), and the Tony (for Broadway excellence). At the moment Miranda lacks only the naked bald guy. But his future in the movie industry is looking brighter by the moment.

As a writer, he’s already contributed  a song for the cantina scene in the most recent Star Wars.  Soon afterward he was tapped by Disney to write songs for this year’s Polynesian-themed animated feature, Moana. So, given Disney’s long track record in the Best Song Oscar category, a statuette may not be far off. Then there’s his acting career. He’s been signed to cavort opposite Emily Blunt in a musical Mary Poppins sequel, due out in 2018.

Another lovely aspect of Lin-Manuel Miranda is that he’s a true family guy. When he married his sweetheart, Vanessa, in 2010, he prepared a little something to surprise her during the wedding banquet. I’m told it took a month of planning and the secret participation of many friends and family members. Luckily for us, he posted the results on YouTube. What can I say, other than “l’chayim”? (Only in America, right?)  

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