Friday, March 31, 2017

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (but had better Get Out)

Jordan Peele’s directorial debut, Get Out, has been an unexpected 2017 crowd-pleaser. Since its release, it has proven itself a critical and box-office hit. Peele, part of the comedy duo of Key & Peele, was best known until now for his uncanny impersonation of President Obama. But he’d always wanted to work in the horror genre, and Get Out deftly mixes horror with social satire about the role of racism in America.

At the heart of Get Out is the visit of a young black man and his white girlfriend to the home of her unsuspecting parents. This makes the film an heir to the tradition begun by a classic from 1967, Stanley Kramer’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. As part of my own research into that great year for films (which will culminate in the November publication of my “Seduced by Mrs. Robinson: How The Graduate Became the Touchstone of a Generation”), I spent many hours in  the Stanley Kramer archives at UCLA. Although by today’s standards, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner may seem tame, it raised hackles back in 1967. At the same time that hip college students were declaring it hopelessly old-fashioned, Kramer was receiving death threats for suggesting via this film that there was nothing wrong with a marriage between members of two different races.

Because Kramer was hard-headed enough to know that in 1967 such a message was inherently controversial, he sought to mollify moviegoers with a sort of drawing-room comedy, in which lovely people in beautiful clothes set aside their racial differences and become one big happy family. As he explained to a student who questioned the air of unreality floating over this film, “I wanted to make a pleasant experience for the audience, to make the situation as pleasantly acceptable as possible, to leave them with a glow.”

To that end, Kramer managed a casting coup. He persuaded his good friend Spencer Tracy to play the father, despite the ill health that would make this Tracy’s valedictory performance. By signing Tracy he managed a twofer, getting Tracy’s longtime companion Katharine Hepburn to take the role of his wife. For the prospective son-in-law who is perfect in everything but his skin color, the obvious choice was Sidney Poitier. With three megastars on board, Kramer easily convinced the brass at Columbia Pictures to back the film, without letting them in on its central premise. He was deep into pre-production when Columbia got wind of what this story was about. Rattled by fears of controversy, Columbia quickly decreed that because Spencer Tracy was uninsurable, the picture would have to be scrapped. Karen Sharpe Kramer recalls that her husband was devastated, but he soon regrouped. Announcing to Katharine Hepburn that he would put up his own salary as collateral to cover the risks posed by Tracy’s health issues, he urged her to do the same. (Their gamble paid off: Tracy completed the picture on schedule, but would die of a heart attack fifteen days later.)

According to Karen Kramer, Columbia Pictures hardly looked forward to the film’s release. In Los Angeles, the studio booked it into a single house, the Village Theatre in Westwood, “hoping that no one would see it, . . . scared to death that it would be an explosive situation they had to deal with.” But, as her late husband used to say, audiences can sometimes smell a hit: “The minute those doors opened, there were lines around the block. I mean twenty blocks long. And they never stopped coming.” Across the nation, too, this was a movie that had to be seen. 

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

San Diego and All the Ships at Sea

I’m recently back from San Diego, California, the tourist mecca where the sun is always shining (except when it rains, of course). Though my trip was delayed for a day because of what forecasters were predicting would be the downpour of a century, I was relieved to find San Diego a wonderful escape from the cold and damp. As a Californian who’s lived through five years of drought, I don’t dare be ungrateful for rain when it comes. But, though most welcome, this rainy season has been rather hard on my spirits: I’ve in no way resembled Gene Kelly happily hopping through puddles in Singin’ in the Rain.

Anyway, today’s San Diego is a fascinating mix of gleaming new high-rises and remnants of the old days when sailors on shore leave thronged the waterfront and daytrippers headed down to Tijuana for an exotic shot of foreign culture. Still standing and still proud, the Hotel del Coronado is a gorgeous reminder of days gone by. Built in 1888, the beachfront resort has long attracted dignitaries and celebrities. It also has its very own ghost: a mysterious young woman who checked in under an assumed name and was later found dead in a stairwell. Hollywood best remembers the Hotel Del for impersonating a Florida luxury hotel in the immortal Some Like It Hot (1959). Today photos of Marilyn Monroe and the rest of the cast still line corridor walls. 

Another local attraction (aside from the world-famous zoo, which was filmed to represent Charles Foster Kane’s private menagerie in Citizen Kane) is the Maritime Museum of San Diego. This collection of seagoing vessels includes the Star of India, an 1863 merchant bark; an 1868 San Francisco ferryboat; and the USS Dolphin, a diesel-electric submarine first launched in 1968 and in use by the Navy until 2007. All of these are the genuine article, but the HMS Surprise was built in 1970 as a replica of a Napoleonic War-era British Royal Navy frigate. Why? Hollywood needed a working 19th century warship to use as a set for the Russell Crow drama, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. Rechristened, the Surprise also made an encore appearance for one entry in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.

Inside one ship on display is a small exhibit reminding us of many Hollywood movies that take place aboard ship. I saw clips from The Sand Pebbles (American gunboat in 1920s China), The African Queen (tramp steamer in 1914 Africa), Titanic (British luxury liner that only thinks it’s invincible), and Disney’s pioneering Steamboat Willie. Wracking my brain, I’ve come up with a much longer list, which includes (in no particular order) Ship of Fools, the hilarious stateroom scene in A Night at the Opera, Moby Dick, and an old Cold War favorite of mine, The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming. This 1966 film, directed by Norman Jewison, is the comic story of what happens when a Russian submarine runs aground off the coast of Cape Cod.

The Russians Are Coming was made in the spirit of fun and hopes of international harmony. But a Russian B-59 submarine now on display as part of San Diego’s Maritime Museum is a chilling reminder of how close we once came to nuclear holocaust. On October 27, 1962, this very submarine, bearing a nuclear torpedo, desperately needed to surface in the vicinity of Cuba. With the Cuban Missile Crisis underway, two of the officers argued for launching their weapon. Thankfully, Commander Vasili Arkhipov, vetoed that idea. I salute him here for, let’s face it, saving the world.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Orale! This Zoot Suit Still Fits

 Zoot Suit first appeared at  L.A.’s Mark Taper Forum back in 1978. It was a revelation. For the first time a mainstream Los Angeles stage was presenting a slice of local history that laid bare official L.A.’s casual discrimination against young men of Latino heritage. This largely true story of the World War II-era Sleepy Lagoon murder case, as written and directed by Luis Valdez of El Teatro Campesino, was strong stuff.  But that hardly meant it was a grim evening of theatre. Valdez’s direction (encouraged by Center Theatre Group’s invaluable artistic director, Gordon Davidson) played up the color, the music, and the general exuberance of L.A.’s Mexican-American community. Audiences, whatever their own ethnic background, were mesmerized.

So successful was Zoot Suit that it moved east, for a 1979 Broadway run. There were only 41 performances, though star Edward James Olmos would be nominated for a featured-actor Tony. (The sense at the time was that Broadway audiences were not really ready for a plunge into the world of the Chicano. I’d love to see what Lin-Manuel Miranda could do with this material!) Eventually, in 1982, a film version would appear, with Olmos again as the play’s showiest figure, and established actors Charles Aidman and Tyne Daly taking on the roles of two sympathetic Anglos who fight the conviction of Henry Reyna (Daniel Valdez) for a murder he didn’t commit. Though this miscarriage of justice is the story’s center, Olmos’s character is what makes it unforgettable. He plays El Pachuco, a sort of fantasy tough-guy who mediates between Reyna and the audience, sardonically attacking Anglo culture and showing off the flamboyant up-yours spirit of the zoot-suiter. Reveling in a Spanglish vocabulary, he represents the anger of an underclass that uses defiant poses and fancy threads to differentiate itself from the white man’s world.

In celebration of the Center Theatre Group’s 50th anniversary (and in fond tribute to the late Gordon Davidson), the Mark Taper is now once again hosting Zoot Suit. This new production, headed by Mexican-born Oscar nominee Demián Bichir, is probably even more colorful and more musically oriented than the long-ago one I remember. On the night I attend, the packed house adored it, and the run is completely sold out. Happily, the responses from the audience to some of Spanish-language throwaway lines hinted that Latin Americans were (for a change) well represented in the Taper audience. I must admit that for me the play’s twists and turns were slightly less galvanizing than what  I recall. I suspect this is because the injustice shown on the stage is more of a given now than it was back in 1978. Still, some of the rhetoric among the play’s police and judicial figures, with its basic assumption that most Latinos are rapists and murderers, seemed all too well connected with the language we hear on today’s nightly news. This is hardly a play whose themes seem outdated or irrelevant.

Zoot Suit put Edward James Olmos on the map. Since then, of course, he’s been a Hollywood stalwart, Oscar-nominated for his leading role in Stand and Deliver, and a featured player in such classics as Blade Runner. While the original Zoot Suit was being staged, I (as an L.A. Times theatre writer) was introduced to Olmos. He was friendly and warm, but the role of El Pachuco had such a hold on me that I instinctively shied away. I also take a moment to salute one of the original Zoot Suit players, my college-era colleague, Angela Moya, who went on to have a nice little acting career. Angela, where are you now?

A Postscript: Edward James Olmos’ Oscar-nominated role was that of super-teacher Jaime Escalante. I just discovered, on a letter that came in today’s mail, that the U.S. Post Office has issued a Jaime Escalante stamp. 

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

“Beauty and the Beast” Goes Gaily Where Others Fear to Tread

The big rumor out of Hollywood is that this weekend’s box office champion, the (mostly) live-action version of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, contains a gay character. Le Fou, the fawning sidekick of the vainglorious Gaston, is said to reveal (via Josh Gad’s performance) a not-exactly-manly crush on this obnoxious local hunk. From the clips I’ve seen, there’s nothing especially distinctive in what Gad does on screen, outside of the usual Disney hijinks. Still, his momentary wink in a musical number was apparently enough to set off gaydar across the globe. I’m told the Russian government considered an outright ban, but settled for imposing an age limit on those who could see the film without adult supervision. There’s a theatre in small-town Alabama that has declined to show Beauty and the Beast altogether. And the Film Censorship Board of Malaysia  demanded, but didn’t get, Disney’s promise to cut the offending moment. When the company founded by Walt Disney to showcase Mickey Mouse and a bunch of animated fairy tales is suddenly accused of violating common social norms, we’re in a whole new world. (Oh wait – that was a song from Aladdin.)

Not that Hollywood, throughout its history, has completed avoided gay characters. But for decades, partly because of MPAA restrictions, homosexuality showed up only furtively on screen, often via comic-relief characters like the fluttery tailor who measures James Cagney in Public Enemy. By the Sixties, changing times allowed for the rise of the “dark, dirty secret” film, in which a twisted psyche—like that of Brando’s tormented military man in Reflections of a Golden Eye—is ultimately explained in terms of repressed homosexual urges. In the 1967 camp classic, Valley of the Dolls, a limp-wristed fashion designer character named Ted Casablanca appears to be gay, though the script seems unable to decide whether this is indeed so. In any case, his ambiguous status prompts an unforgettable line from tough-gal Neely (played by Patty Duke in full Judy Garland burn-out mode): “He’s not a fag, and I’m just the dame to prove it.” No wonder a gay man of my acquaintance calls Valley of the Dolls “my favorite bad movie of all time.”

Gay men have long tended to be enthusiastic moviegoers. In his pioneering work, The Celluloid Closet, Vito Russo explains that “the movies were where one learned to pass for straight, where one learned the boundaries of what America would accept as normal.” But a whole new era seemed to dawn in 2005 when Brokeback Mountain presented two attractive leading men—rugged cowboy types—who fell deeply and hopelessly in love. Admittedly, not everyone was comfortable with this subject matter. It may not have been accidental that the two lead actors, Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, were both unequivocally hetero. And, though favored to win the Best Picture Oscar, Brokeback Mountain lost out on this honor to the far less artful Crash.

In any case, though I applaud any trend toward widening social possibilities on film, I can’t get very excited about a Disney sidekick who may seem to evince stereotypically gay mannerisms. The issue’s looming large for me, because I’ve just seen the Broadway Tony Award winner for best musical of 2015, Fun Home. Here’s a creative adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s 2006 graphic memoir, about a daughter who accepts her own lesbianism while at the same time coming to realize that her father is a deeply closeted gay man. It’s a heartbreaking story, although it is presented in a way that is not short of humor. And it knows how to push its gay characters well beyond stereotype. 

Friday, March 17, 2017

Revisiting “The Band’s Visit”: Musicians Without Borders

With the U.S. debating the terms on which foreign visitors can enter the country and Washington D.C. making an apparent shift in its policy toward Israel and Palestine, I sat down to watch a ten-year-old Israeli film called The Band’s Visit. It, like so many of our news stories of late, focuses on what happens to those who cross international borders. The Band’s Visit tells the fictive story of a small Egyptian band, officially the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra. The eight men, in their elaborate formal uniforms, fly to Tel Aviv for a cultural exchange, but get far more than they bargained for. I’d long heard of this film, but  didn’t anticipate that it is less a political statement or a satire of bungling bureaucracy than a gentle reminder that people are people, no matter their point of origin.

The film begins with a prime example of cross-cultural misunderstanding. After its arrival at Ben Gurion Airport, the proud little band discovers there’s no liaison present to smooth its way to its performance venue. One band member, the group’s foremost Romeo, is delegated to inquire at an airport information desk. Speaking in mangled English, he asks the Israeli receptionist about transportation options. The men end up on a public bus that drops them at a town in the middle of nowhere. Yes, this is Beit Hatikva, but no one is expecting the band’s arrival. Eventually, the problem becomes clear. Arabic languages lack a “P” sound, and regularly substitute a “B.” The bandsman apparently inquiring about Beit Hatikva (“House of Hope”) actually needed directions to Petah Tikva (“Opening of Hope”), a well-established industrial city just outside of Tel Aviv. 

Anyway, it’s almost nightfall, and the men are going to need food and a place to sleep. The denizens of Beit Hatikva are a hard-scrabble bunch, most of them marked by dreams that have gone awry. But, led by the big-hearted Dina (Ronit Elkabetz) who owns the seedy local café, they open their own homes to the band members. The film cuts between several of these home-stays, which variously include an amusing trip to a roller-skating rink, an awkward dinner with a deeply stressed young married couple, and a revealing conversation between the proud but sad leader of the troupe and the earthy Dina, who feels she has squandered her own chances for happiness. Nothing earth-shattering happens, but before the night is out everyone knows everyone a bit better. And just a small amount of magic has made some drab  lives slightly more endurable.

Then comes morning, and the eight musicians set off for their proper destination, where their mutual love of music is at last on full display.

The Band’s Visit, a popular film both in Israel and abroad, was selected to represent Israel in the competition for the 2008 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. One problem, though: in the interest of realism, the Egyptian characters speak Arabic together, while the Israelis speak Hebrew. When members of the two groups need to communicate across national lines, English is their lingua franca. Since more than 50% of the film’s dialogue is in English, the Academy disqualified it from the Foreign Language Film category. A shame, truly.

Less shame than tragedy is the death in 2016 of the beautiful and soulful actress Ronit Elkabetz, who succumbed to cancer at age 51. The star of many Israeli films, she last played the very different role of an Orthodox Jewish wife denied a divorce by her husband in 2014’s Gett: The Trial of Viviane Ansalem.  She also co-wrote and co-directed. Her passing is a huge loss.