Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Love Stories; Life Stories: A Farewell to Gene Wilder and Arthur Hiller

I’m remembering two giants we’ve lost in the last two weeks: Gene Wilder and Arthur Hiller. Life, sad to say, isn’t fair. True, these gentlemen lived long and prospered. Wilder was 83 when he passed away, and Hiller was a ripe old 92. They were admired by the public and by their peers in that most fickle of industries, show biz. And yet their later years were clearly tough for them both, as well as for those who loved them.

I was first aware of Gene Wilder in 1967, in one of the most brilliant little sequences in an altogether brilliant movie, Bonnie and Clyde. He and his lady friend are canoodling on a small-town verandah when the Barrows gang audaciously steals his car, parked at the curb. In a series of wacky reversals, he and Velma pursue the outlaws, only to find themselves ordered at gunpoint into the stolen vehicle. For a while they get along famously with their abductors, sharing snacks and telling jokes. Then he happens to let slip his occupation—undertaker—and the mood dramatically shifts.

From that auspicious beginning, Gene Wilder went on to do unforgettable work for Mel Brooks, as Leo Bloom in The Producers, the Waco Kid in Blazing Saddles, and (best of all) the grandson of the famous Victor Frankenstein in Young Frankenstein. (Who can forget his “Puttin’ on the Ritz” song and dance routine with the monster? I’m told this was Wilder’s idea, vetoed by Brooks until he saw how well it played.) He also, as a mysterious candy maker named Willy Wonka, played a major role in the childhoods of many youngsters I know. In addition, he was part of an unlikely duo with Richard Pryor in both Silver Streak and Stir Crazy, zany films that made the two men Hollywood’s first successful interracial comedy team.

Along with all the fun, Wilder faced heartbreak, notably in his short-lived marriage to Gilda Radner, who died of ovarian cancer after less than five years of wedlock. He worked hard to raise money for cancer awareness, and slowly segued from acting into writing. But, tragically, it was complications from Alzheimer’s disease that claimed him on August 29, 2016.

 Arthur Hiller was a director, not an actor, and so his face was not as familiar as Wilder’s, with its flyaway blonde curls and innocent blue-eyed gaze. Hiller actually directed Wilder and Pryor in Silver Streak, and was also known  for a wide array of hit comedies and dramas, including The Hospital, Plaza Suite, and The Man in the Glass Booth. His favorite of his own films came early in his career, 1964’s wryly anti-war The Americanization of Emily, starring Julie Andrews and James Garner and based on a Paddy Chayefsky screenplay. But of course he remains best-known for the most schmaltzy film of its era., Love Story may be ripe for parody but it also earned Hiller an Oscar nomination as Best Director of 1970. Dedicated to his industry, he served as president of the Directors Guild and of the Motion Picture Academy, while also being active on the National Film Preservation Board.    

I met Arthur Hiller in his later years, and was saddened to learn that macular degeneration was preventing him from making—or even watching—movies. In the last year, I caught a glimpse of him at the dentist’s office: he was essentially blind. A poignant outcome for a gentle soul dedicated to the motion picture medium. He passed away less than two months after his wife of 68 years. So I guess he knew what a Love Story was all about.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Judd Apatow’s Home Movie: “This Is 40”

I’ve been living in Judd Apatow’s world quite a bit lately. In the line of duty (don’t ask!), I’ve watched several of Apatow’s screen comedies, including Superbad, the great Knocked Up, and now This Is 40 (released in 2012). The latter two films feature a pair of SoCal Gen X’ers, Pete and Debbie, played by Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann. In contrast to Apatow’s familiar overaged adolescent characters, these two have all the trappings of upper-middle class adult life: a luxury home in Brentwood, pricey cars, two growing daughters who attend a posh school, lawyers and accountants. Still, the approach of middle age doesn’t make them feel stable and secure. Debbie obsesses over her looks and her sex appeal; Pete craves drugs and junk food. Both are desperate for sex, but real intimacy between them is rare, and it keeps getting thwarted (by the kids, by workplaces woes, by their personal neurotic anxieties). And their tenuous relationships with their fathers—both of whom have remarried and produced young children of their own—create additional tension.

What’s remarkable is that Apatow has closely modeled the marriage of Pete and Debbie after his own. Leslie Mann has been his actual wife for almost 20 years. The two daughters in both Knocked Up and This is 40 are played by Maude and Iris Apatow. In This is 40 they take on the roles of  Sadie (age 13) and Charlotte (age 8), smart and sassy young girls who are frequently seen squabbling with their parents and with each other. Apatow has expressed some regret that, for the good of the project, Maude was required at one point to lash out at her screen mom and dad with plenty of f-bombs. No, he wouldn’t want her talking that way at home, no matter what language she hears from her elders. But—on behalf of his story line—he needed a shocking verbal explosion from her in the film. Not so nice for a parent to hear his young daughter cussing like a sailor. But hey, that’s show biz.

Even more remarkable than casting his own children is the fact that Apatow has been willing to dig deep into the daily facts of his own marriage. With the full cooperation of Leslie Mann, whom he calls “the bravest actress I know,” he uses films like This Is 40 to reveal the little secrets of married life, like public farting, misplaced vanity, sexual dysfunction, and unappealing bathroom habits. (Pete, when feeling stressed, likes to sneak off to the toilet to play Scrabble on his iPad. Debbie, suspicious of his lengthy absences from family life, demands to see the evidence of his bowel movements, even though he quickly assures her that “I flush as I go.”)  Apatow is quick to credit Mann with being forthright about the female perspective on intercourse, childbirth, and other body functions. And he manages, with apparent good grace, to film her in extremely intimate situations with a guy to whom she’s not married in real life.

In the published version of This Is 40, part of the Newmarket Shooting Script series, Apatow explains how much he enjoys having his family members appear in his projects: “I love them and like to see them everyday.” Will there be more Pete and Debbie movies? “There’s a part of me that wants to make a sequel every seven years, like Michael Apted’s Seven Up documentary series.” Since he admits to writing comedic but still serious screenplays in order to figure out aspects of his own life, I look forward to seeing what’s next on his agenda.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

In Good Company in Malibu, Where Folks Do the Darndest Things

So Rio 2016 has been put to bed.  I admit I’m a sucker for the Olympic Games. Yes, I know all the problems as well as all the annoyances of the NBC primetime coverage. (How many times can anyone bear to watch a commercial in which a grown woman insults her elderly dad because his “How I Met Your Mother” stories are not as exciting as the Internet?) But televised sports continue to grab me because of their unrivaled spontaneity. It’s the surprises that I’ll remember, like Joseph Schooling from Singapore beating the best in the field in the 100-meter butterfly. And South Africa’s Wayde Van Niekerk, raised with the legacy of apartheid, setting a world mark in the 400-meter sprint. Not to mention U.S. women’s beach volleyball stars Kerri Walsh Jennings and April Ross, down and out after their sloppy semi-final loss to a Brazilian pair, coming back from a serious deficit to tame two more Cariocas (and the crowd) for a hard-fought bronze medal.

Our entertainment media claim to believe in spontaneity too. That’s the point of all those reality shows where supposedly ordinary people (like duck hunters and stage mamas and “real housewives”) say the darndest things. I’m dating myself when I remember back to Art Linkletter’s House Party and People Are Funny, shows in which everyday folks were manipulated into showing off their goofy side. Those were innocent programs: a Linkletter specialty well known to schoolchildren in the L.A. area was to invite a few kids onto the show and coax them into comic answers to his theoretically artless questions. But if the Linkletter programs and such later entertainments as Candid Camera can be considered innocent merriment, today we expect a raunchy bluntness that’s not exactly extemporaneous. The shows’ makers carefully seek out “average” folk who lack a filter, then dream up situations that encourage them to go berserk. And they’re hardly above (on competition-type shows) stacking the deck by choosing heroes and villains in advance. I know someone who was quietly removed from a major competitive show when she refused to become the designated bad girl, the one who lives to undermine the hard work of others. Unscripted? Think again.

Which brings me, somehow, from Rio to Malibu, home of Gidget and Three’s Company.  I had gone with friends to one of my favorite SoCal places, the Getty Villa. Built by zillionaire J. Paul Getty to match the style of ancient Rome’s Villa dei Papiri (which was destroyed by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D.), it houses a marvelous collection of Greek and Roman antiquities, beautifully displayed. Among the villa’s glories are its intricately patterned marble floors as well as the spectacular trompe l’oeil paintings on the walls of its enclosed outer peristyle. Where did Getty’s team find the craftsmen to do this sophisticated work? Why,  they were European emigrés, who’d made their living decorating the sets for Hollywood’s great Bible epics, like Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments. Score another one for the influence of the film industry on Southern California cultural life.

Later, we had dinner in an outdoor Italian café that epitomized Malibu’s own dolce vita. This café  too has a showbiz history: a birthday party for Barbra Streisand at which Andrea Bocelli led the singing, local resident Jim Carrey coming in several times a week to pretend to be a waiter. While we sat there, feeling blissful, the young women at the next table pulled out their phones, very excited. They’d spotted a Kardashian, complete with spouse and kids. In Malibu, even Kardashians are just part of the landscape. 

The Getty Villa, with inlaid flooring

Friday, August 19, 2016

Rio 2016 – Boys Gone Wild?

Unfortunately—despite all the excitement involving female gymnasts, women’s beach volleyball, and an American sweep of the women’s 100 meter hurdles—the big news coming out of the Rio Olympic this week involves a quartet of American swimmers. Yes, their competition is over, but that hasn’t stopped them from making waves.

I admit I only know what I read in the papers, or hear from the lips of the unflappable Bob Costas. But it seems that medal-winner Ryan Lochte and three of his buddies went to a party hosted by French athletes. They had a lot to drink, then grabbed a cab at about 4 a.m. to return to their quarters. At some point the cab was accosted by fake Rio cops who pointed weapons at the athletes and robbed them of their wallets and valuables before fleeing into the night. That’s the story Lochte told his mom in the U.S., by phone, and soon it was all over the news media, serving as a reflection of the dangerous streets of Rio during the Olympic games.

No question that Rio can be dangerous. There’ve been several disturbing incidents in the last few weeks, including the mugging of the games’ head of security by men with knives immediately after the opening ceremonies. But this robbery of gold-medal American athletes caused a major headache for the Rio de Janeiro police force, which became determined to investigate. When they looked into the swimmers’ allegation, discrepancies began to appear. A security video that captured the foursome’s return to the Olympic Village called into question the timing of their taxi adventure. Not only that: they appeared to have on their persons some items they’d claimed were stolen hours earlier. Now three swimmers have been detained in Rio (two were pulled off an airline flight just before its departure) for questioning by the cops. And Lochte, already back home, also has some serious ‘splaining to do.

I feel sorry—for the swimmers, for the Rio police, for sports fans everywhere—that the excitement of the games has been marred by whatever is going on. Are the U.S. athletes liars? Contemplating this possibility, my movie-besotted brain latched onto several movies in which small lies have big consequences. There is, for instance, 1961’s The Children’s Hour, in which a young troublemaker at a girls’ school hints at a lesbian relationship between two teachers (played by Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine), leading to tragedy. In 2007’s Atonement, another young girl (remarkably played by 12-year-old Saiorse Ronan) is drawn by her own jealousy and sexual confusion to accuse an innocent man of attacking her sister.

I don’t know, of course, if the four American men are liars. And their behavior, thank goodness, doesn’t seem to be leading to tragedy so much as embarrassment. They do admit they’d had too much to drink at that party. So I should probably be thinking about movies of a different sort. Like those of the last twenty years that feature overgrown male adolescents acting badly. Like Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn in Wedding Crashers. Or the guys in The Hangover. Or Seth Rogen in anything he had a hand in writing, like Superbad or This is the End.  Or that circle of slackers (Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, Jay Baruchel, and company) in Knocked Up. Such movies—especially those overseen by Judd Apatow—can be really, truly funny. But the portrait they paint of young men with too much booze on their brains has some disturbing implications for our culture. At the movies we find them lovable. But in real life? Maybe not so much.

Since this was written, of course, the world has learned that this was indeed a case of American boys behaving badly, and then blaming others for their own misdeeds. Not exactly a proud moment for our nation.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The Boys in the Boat: A Triumph of the American Will

Amid all the excitement about Michael Phelps, Simone Biles, and Usain Bolt, I suspect most Rio Olympics fans are not aware of the gold medal just won by the U.S. women’s eight crew. In fact, they are a dynasty unto themselves, having won eleven straight Olympic and world championships. Not with the same rowers, of course. A changing cast of smart, strong young women (8 wielding oars and 1 coxswain with a megaphone) has made sure the tradition of American dominance in women’s crew continues. The average armchair sports buff, though, is probably not paying attention.

 But I’ll bet Daniel James Brown is thrilled. Brown is the author of one of the most exciting books I’ve read in a long time, The Boys in the Boat. Its subtitle: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The “boys” were a hardscrabble team from the University of Washington, who had to overcome many hurdles on their way to Germany. Brown, a Seattle resident, was lucky to stumble upon their story, and to get to know the few surviving teammates. His book is an inspirational story of survival through grit and pluck, set at a perilous moment in world history.

The top Oscar-winner from 1981 was Chariots of Fire, a stirring real-life tale about runners at the 1924 Paris Olympics. Its focus was on two outsiders on the British men’s team—a Jewish immigrant’s son and a devout Scottish Christian—who struggled to find acceptance among their aristocratic teammates, most of whom hailed from Britain’s elite (and snooty) universities. In The Boys in the Boat, there’s something of the same social tension. It’s the Depression era, and the Pacific Northwest young men, the sons of lumberjacks and dairy farmers, are having a tough go just coughing up their school fees. But hard times have honed their desire to win, and a brilliant coach named Al Ulbrickson proves to be a master at shuffling line-ups and making sure these tall, sometimes awkward collegians function as a unit. There’s also a master boatbuilder with the charming name of George Lyman Pocock who sees the poetry of rowing, and is able to impart it to rough-hewn young stalwarts with more practical matters on their minds.

 On the road to Berlin, Ulbrickson’s team first had to defeat their arch rivals at the University of California. Then it was on to the east coast, where they felt abashed in the company of well-heeled Ivy Leaguers, for whom rowing was a longstanding tradition. If they were intimidated by American bluebloods, they felt even more so when competing against powerhouse British teams. This was all good practice for their arrival in Berlin, where Hitler and his Nazis was determined to prove Aryan superiority through sport. Brown details the spectacular venues provided by the host nation, as well as the efforts made by Nazi Germany to hide its racist ideology and put out the welcome mat to athletes from all over the world.

Rowing sports were a huge deal in that era, and fans near and far gathered in front of radios to hear the outcome of the men’s eight. The stands were packed with enthusiasts, and Hitler himself sat in the VIP box to cheer his country’s crew team on to victory. But it didn’t happen. Somehow the scrappy Americans overcame all obstacles to eke out a win. German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, who’d been assigned to document the 1936 Olympics for posterity, captured the race with her cameras. But in her classic 1938 documentary, Olympia, the victory of the American crew had no place.  

The Boys in the Boat has been optioned by the Weinstein company for filming, but there are still no concrete details about an upcoming production. I do know a young actor, also a gifted rower, who’d be perfect for a major role. (Josh Pence, I’m looking at YOU!)  Meanwhile, we can watch bits of Riefenstahl’s footage on YouTube, as in this little documentary, made to inspire female rowers.