Tuesday, November 29, 2016

A Farewell to Florence, and a Pair of Sylberts

I’m going to miss Florence Henderson, whom I associate less with The Brady Bunch than with the forays into musical theatre she made early in her career. As a youthful fan of all things Broadway, I listened repeatedly to the singing of Mary Martin on my Sound of Music cast album. But when  I was taken to L.A.’s creaky old Philharmonic Hall to see the show for myself, it was a young Florence Henderson who wore the wimple.
Paul Sylbert, unlike Florence Henderson, became far better known for his work than for his sparkling personality. But in the course of his long career he was revered throughout the industry as one of Hollywood’s premiere art directors and production designers. He brought imagination and craftsmanship to such big-name films as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Kramer vs. Kramer, and The Prince of Tides. For creating a misty celestial waiting-room and other more earthly locales in Heaven Can Wait, he was awarded an Oscar in 1979.

Once upon a time Paul was married to Anthea Sylbert, a costume designer who nabbed Oscar nominations for her striking period work on Chinatown and Julia. But the relationship that most interests me is the one he had with his identical twin brother, Richard. They were born on April 16, 1928. A close-knit duo, the two Sylberts served together in the same Army infantry unit in Korea, and then studied art together at Philadelphia’s Temple University. Sylbert’s L.A. Times obit notes that “when [Paul] Sylbert landed a job at CBS in New York, his brother found work at NBC. 

I don’t know of any other Hollywood art directors who came as a matched set. Their big break arrived when Elia Kazan hired them both to re-create a steamy Southern town in the controversial 1956 film, Baby Doll. Eventually, though, they learned to work apart. While Paul was busy elsewhere, Richard created designs for such powerful dramas as The Manchurian Candidate and The Pawnbroker. Then he was lucky enough to hook up with Mike Nichols for his very first film, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? This 1966 assignment won Richard an Oscar, the last ever given for specifically black-and-white set design and decoration. It also won him the job of production designer on Nichols’ second film, The Graduate. To capture the narcissism and sterility of Southern California living, the two decided on a limited color palette dominated by lots of murky blacks and stark whites, and they tricked out their sets with all manner of glass and mirrored surfaces. They also played with the idea of water, choosing as a visual metaphor that bedroom aquarium that seems to reflect Benjamin Braddock’s place as a prize specimen in his parents’ world. The film’s striking visuals were surely Oscar-worthy, but no nomination was forthcoming. Nonetheless, The Graduate won Richard a reputation as a masterful interpreter of California living. He would go on to re-create L.A. on screen in such powerfully atmospheric films as Chinatown and Shampoo. But he also made intensely New York films, including  Rosemary’s Baby and The Cotton Club. And his second Oscar honored a movie that captured the look of the Sunday morning funny pages: Dick Tracy.

Richard Sylbert was working almost until his death in 2002. (Aside from his design career, he spent three years as chief of production at Paramount.) Paul, who also tried his hand at writing and directing films, left Hollywood in 2008 for a teaching post at his Philadelphia alma mater.  When he died, at 88, he’d outlived his twin by 14 years. Right now I’m mourning them both. 

Monday, November 28, 2016

Thankful for a “Loving” Decision

Thanksgiving is a holiday that encourages us to be grateful for the blessings we’ve been given. So Thanksgiving weekend seems an apt time to discuss Loving, a film that celebrates both love and political progress. I’ve long been aware of Loving v. Virginia, the case that led the Supreme Court, back in 1967, to roundly reject the notion that any state could ban marriage between persons of different races. Loving v. Virginia grew out of the prosecution of a young Virginia couple, Richard and Mildred Loving, for the crime of being married, in violation of the state’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924. He was white; she was black. They wed in nearby Washington D.C., but were pulled from their bed and jailed after they set up a household in their Virginia hometown.

Richard and Mildred were by no means rabble-rousers, nor campus intellectuals with something to prove. Rather, they had both grown up in a workaday rural enclave where blacks and whites mixed easily The Virginia countryside was a place of quiet beauty where a hard-working man like Richard (a bricklayer) could  buy a plot of land and -- with his own hands -- build a house for himself and his family. The new film, shot in the very place where a hugely pregnant Mildred was locked for days in a jail cell, conveys the simple desires of two unassuming people who will not stop loving one another, no matter what the law mandates.

It’s an interesting coincidence that the year of the Loving decision was also the year of the release of Stanley Kramer’s landmark film about interracial romance, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Kramer’s widow, Karen Sharpe Kramer, likes to say that her husband’s movie influenced the decision of the Supreme Court in the Loving case. Not so: the decision came down (on June 12, 1967) while the film was still in process of being completed. It effectively rendered moot a line in the script about how the union being contemplated by John Prentice and Joanna Drayton would be considered illegal in 17 states. Obviously, the marriage of the fictive John and Joey would be very different from that of the flesh-and-blood Richard and Mildred Loving. Their story takes place in San Francisco, where Joey, the daughter of a liberal-minded newspaper publisher played by Spencer Tracy, comes back from an Hawaiian vacation with Dr. John Prentice in tow. She (played by Katharine Houghton) is rich and beautiful. He (played by the era’s inevitable heroic black man, Sidney Poitier) is a medical doctor whose sense of mission leads him to travel the world, curing those afflicted with exotic diseases. So in marrying him, Joey will be safely removed from home-grown bigotry, and will not have to deal with “What will the neighbors think?”

 Critics of the film (and there were many) complained that Poitier’s character was impossibly noble. Kramer himself countered that the focus of his film was squarely on the way even the most progressive parents have to grapple with a grown child’s marital choice.  By making the black husband-to-be little short of sainthood, Kramer saw his film as pointing up the foolishness of using race as the overriding criterion when it comes to picking a mate. He deliberately made Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner an amiable comedy of manners, populated by likable and beautiful characters. It worked: the film was a massive hit all across the nation.

Loving  is far more real, except in one respect. Lead actor Joel Edgerton is Australian, while actress Ruth Negga hails from Ethiopia and Ireland. But that’s something you’d never guess.  

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Togetherness is Put to the Test in "Don’t Think Twice"

Don’t Think Twice sounds like a Bob Dylan song, which of course it is. But it’s also a clever little feature film, the kind of indie that combines humor with heart, about the inner workings of a New York improv troupe. (The title comes from a legendary improv precept: Don’t think.) The Commune is made up of six close-knit performers: a pretty young woman, a not-so-pretty young woman, a waif, a steady guy, an insecure nerd, and a zany named Jack. All are adept at making stage magic out of thin air, but after eleven years they’re not gaining much ground, either artistically or financially. Says one, “Your 20s are all about hope, and your 30s are all about how dumb it is to hope.” Then, just as they’re being booted from their long-time theatre space, Jack (played by Keegan-Michael Key of  Key and Peele) is invited to join the celebrated cast of TV’s Weekend Live. Suddenly the troupe’s us-against-the-world spirit seems to have sustained a death blow.

Personally, I’ve always loved improv. Decades ago, when I was part of the dating scene, a favorite destination was the Sunset Strip’s Tiffany Theatre, where a troupe called The Committee held sway. I used to laugh myself silly when they pantomimed a death-defying trapeze act called The Flying Walloons, while never actually leaving the ground. But they were equally adept at responding on the fly to audience suggestions. My absolute favorite committee member was Howard Hesseman, who for some reason performed under the name Don Sturdy, before going on to a solid career in TV comedy.

Years later, I was lucky to interview a troupe led by improv guru Paul Sills. Such talented wackos as Richard Libertini, Hamilton Camp, Richard Schaal, and Avery Schreiber all vied humorously with one another to see who could sound most pretentious on my tape recorder. In performance, though, they seamlessly worked together, turning simple prompts from Sills or the audience into complicated performance art before our eyes. On the night I attended a Sills & Company show, the troupe was welcoming a special guest performer, none other than Robin Williams. Williams was, of course, brilliant in his own eccentric way, but he seemed unwilling, or unable, to function as one of the gang. He lacked the ability of the others to work as a unit, blending into a whole much greater than the sum of its parts.

It is that tension between the group dynamic and the power of individual ambition that is explored by Don’t Think Twice. When Ben Stiller (playing himself) attends a performance and goes out with the cast afterward, their fawning desperation isn’t pretty to watch. But writer-director-cast member Mike Birbiglia, when speaking to aspiring artistses, tends to focus on inspiration rather than despair. In fact, he’s come up with six tips for those eager to make it (somehow) in the dramatic arts. Here they are, in brief:

(1) Don’t Wait – try doing something, anything, NOW

(2) Fail – you won’t ever succeed without a lot of less-than-excellent attempts

(3) Learn From Failureideally by finding a supportive community

(4) Maybe Quit – be honest about your abilities and your chances

(6) CLEVERNESS IS OVERRATED, AND HEART IS UNDERRATED – Here’s what Birbiglia himself adds to this point: “Plus, there are fewer people competing for heart, so you have a better chance of getting noticed. Sometimes people say, ‘One thing you have to offer in your work is yourself.’ I disagree. I think it’s the only thing.”

Friday, November 18, 2016

Tales from the Script: Writes and Wrongs in Hollywood

You’ve heard of Tales from the Crypt. Now here comes the equally scary Tales from the Script, a 2009 documentary about Hollywood’s most maligned above-the-line professional, the screenwriter. Twice yearly I teach the art of screenwriting to wonderfully eager and hardworking advanced students in UCLA Extension’s world-renowned Writers’ Program They dream of moving into the big leagues, and of course I try to help them make their dreams come true .But the working professionals seen in this film provide evidence that a screenwriter’s lot is not always a happy one.
Tales from the Script also enjoys a companion volume that quotes from conversations with some 50 of the industry’s finest. The documentary combines talking-head interviews with artfully chosen movie clips (from such films as The Way We Were and Barton Fink) that illustrate how screenwriters are regarded in Hollywood. One of my favorite clips is the scene from Get Shorty in which a self-confident Delroy Lindo assures a wide-eyed John Travolta that writing a screenplay is a cinch. Not so, of course. First of all, there’s the craft of writing. The job is simply more complicated when you’re trying to fit a lot of material into a two-hour framework. Jane Anderson, whose credits include TV’s acclaimed Olive Kittridge, explains it this way:  “Films are architecture, and you’ve got to get your blueprint down.” 

Then there’s the basic difficulty in getting in over the threshold, which may well entail lying about connections you don’t really have. Even if your screenplay is sold, you’ll probably be removed from your material as much as possible. And a work that’s optioned isn’t necessarily produced, so your chances of seeing your own movie on screen—whether or not it’s in a recognizable form-- are slim. Shane Black, who’s enjoyed massive hits like Lethal Weapon, also sees the downside of success: there’s the danger of believing your own hype. My colleague Dennis Palumbo, who turned from screenwriting (My Favorite Year) to psychotherapy, characterizes screenwriters as “egomaniacs with low self-esteem.” Ouch!

If you’re a screenwriter, you’re doomed to take endess meetings with mid-level execs who “can’t relate to anything they haven’t seen before.”  And changing tastes make small, sensitive movies hard to peddle. Screenwriter Naomi Foner (Running on Empty) notes that “Ordinary People wouldn’t get made today. That would be a Lifetime television movie.” In Tales from the Script, writers talk frankly about navigating sit-downs with producer types. My old friend John Brancato long ago used to crank out Roger Corman sci-fi flicks with his writing partner Mike Ferris. They’ve since graduated to big paydays like Terminator 3, but John still knows his place in the Hollywood pecking order. His advice: “Let the producer take the big chair. Always sit on the couch.”

The writers in Tales from the Script freely admit there are times when a director can lift their work to a higher level, and when an skilled actor can show them that many of their words are just not necessary. And sometimes a writer gets very lucky, as when newcomer Justin Zackham got the perfect director and cast for his first feature, 2007’s The Bucket List. But that’s not often the case. Usually screenwriters, even the most successful, find themselves struggling with both their craft and their industry. Said one, as you move through your career, “the rules don’t actually change. You just get lied to by a higher caliber of person.” Still, screenwriters keep at it, sometimes turning out upwards of 46 drafts (for Amadeus) in hopes of striking cinematic gold – or at least writing that one really good sentence. 

Friday, November 11, 2016

Fried Green Tomatoes in My Stomach, and Georgia on My Mind

If my vowels are getting broader and you hear me starting to drop final g’s, it’s because I’m newly back from Georgia, where I flew both to attend an all-day meeting and to hang out with good friends. Georgia, I learned, is today a moviemaking mecca. Notably, seven seasons of TV’s The Walking Dead have been shot in the vicinity of Atlanta. I admit I didn’t spot any members of the zombie apocalypse roaming the hip streets of Decatur, nor were they hanging out near Margaret Mitchell’s family monument in historic Oakland Cemetery. Still, the state of Georgia seems to be a place where anything is possible. For one thing, it does a great job of masquerading as a neighboring state in such Hollywood confections as Sweet Home Alabama.  

Georgia plays itself in a number of well-known movies. In 1989, the Oscar-winning Driving Miss Daisy was shot in the city where it was set, illustrating the lifestyle of a certain well-entrenched Jewish enclave within Atlanta. The Temple, an historic congregation founded by German-Jewish immigrants in 1860, features prominently in the film. So the plot strand about the bombing of The Temple in 1958 by white supremacists was staged in and around the 1931 neo-classical building where the actual incident took place.

On a previous trip to Georgia, I’d been up to the red clay country in the northern part of the state. There I stumbled upon (though, thankfully, not into) a gorge that appeared in a major novel by the Georgia-born author, James Dickey. Deliverance, a 1972 Oscar nominee, featured Jon Voigt and Burt Reynolds as city dwellers who, on a rafting trip, try going back to nature and get more than they bargained for. (Perennial character actor Ned Beatty also got his start on this film, because he had the good fortune to be a Southerner involved in local theatre.) My spouse and I might never have seen the gorge, except for the fact that folks in the area kept assuming we’d be having lunch at the Dillard House in Rabun County. The Dillard House, a legendary restaurant since early in the 20th century, attracts customers from near and far because of its delicious (and inexpensive) down-home cooking. It truly lives up to its reputation, and a glass case in the lobby pays tribute to the shooting of Deliverance nearby. Yes, Hollywood moviemakers always appreciate a good, hearty meal.

This time around, my Georgia hosts took me to the tiny town of Juliette, which is known to Hollywood as the place where 1991’s Fried Green Tomatoes was filmed. Based on Fannie Flagg’s Southern tragicomic novel, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, the movie features all-stars Jessica Tandy and Kathy Bates (as a frumpy Alabama housewife who learns how to remake herself), along with Mary Stuart Masterson and Mary-Louise Parker. (My old New World Pictures buddy Stan Shaw plays Big George.) The younger actresses appear in long flashback sequences illustrating Tandy’s tumultuous but tender growing-up years. After a family tragedy they evolve into close friends who open a small-town café featuring (yup!) fried green tomatoes, along with other Southern delicacies. The building used in the film was not originally a restaurant, but -- after the film crew moved on -- someone got the bright idea of starting one. And so the Whistle Stop Café has been there ever since, attracting a crowd of folks hungry for good tomatoes, good barbecue, and good pie.

And where, would you ask, did Hollywood shoot that most cherished of Southern movies, Gone With the Wind? Would you believe Culver City, California?  

This one’s for Ken and Terri Bryson – big thanks to y’all for a delightfully down-home weekend. 

The cast with author Fannie Flagg in front of the Whistle Stop Cafe set. (That's Cicely Tyson at rear left.)