Friday, April 28, 2017

I Remember Jonathan Demme

I never knew Jonathan Demme well. But he was part of my early days in the film industry, and so I add my voice to those who are paying tribute to this talented, eclectic filmmaker, who died of cancer Wednesday at age 73. 

Back in 1974, in the early days of Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, I was a jill-of-all-trades, working on scripts and publicity releases, while dipping my toes into the mysterious business of film production. Jonathan had attracted Roger’s attention by crafting the script for a motorcycle movie in the style of Akira Kurosawa’s classic Rashomon. By the time I joined the New World staff, he had his first shot as a director. Though he filmed in East L.A. instead of in Roger’s go-to exotic location, Manila, Jonathan’s Caged Heat was hailed by some perceptive critics as both a tribute to and a brilliant satire of the women-in-prison fare for which New World was becoming famous.

I participated in Caged Heat only on the sense of contributing to its marketing campaign. But Jonathan soon became a familiar sight around our Sunset Strip office suite, wandering the grimy halls with his very tall, very Australian then-wife Evelyn Purcell in tow. You couldn’t miss Jonathan: he of the shaggy hair, friendly grin, and brown-and-white saddle oxfords. But I wouldn’t have guessed that he’d be a future Oscar winner, for directing the 1991 thriller, The Silence of the Lambs. 

My one close encounter with Jonathan came when, on the strength of Caged Heat, he was offered by Roger the chance to write and direct a co-production with Twentieth-Century Fox. This was the era of tough-guy movies with outrageous rural heroes. Billy Jack had done well at the box office. So had a vigilante film about a Southern sheriff, Walking Tall, and a rambunctious NASCAR flick, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry. Roger’s genius was that he always knew how to take what was working elsewhere and repackage it with a little more sex, a little more violence. Jonathan was sent off to do some thinking. Then he met with Roger and the New World story department (Frances Doel and me) over lunch at a local eatery. It was one of the very rare lunches I ever had on Roger’s dime. Jonathan wowed us by holding up a chart in which he compared his new film concept, point by point, to those three low-budget hits. He decreed that his hero, too, needed a sidekick, an unusual weapon, and a trademark mode of transportation. So he proposed that in his Fightin’ Mad, his leading man would ride an old Indian motorcycle, wield a crossbow, and hang out with his toddler son. Most of that ended up changing, but Fighting Mad (without the apostrophe) was eventually produced, with Peter Fonda in the lead. 

In his later years, Jonathan paid tribute to his former mentor by casting Roger in virtually every film he made. Sometimes Roger’s roles were miniscule, like that of a wedding guest in Rachel Getting Married. In Silence of the Lambs, Roger has little personal screen time, but—because he’s the movie’s FBI chief—his photo appears on the wall in many scenes. His most sizable role came as a wily businessman in Philadelphia, the powerful 1993 AIDS drama for which Tom Hanks won his first Oscar. 

Demme’s affection for his old boss never waned. It was he who called it “the thrill of a lifetime” to present Roger with an honorary Oscar in 1991. Hard to believe that Demme is gone now, while Roger Corman, at 91, keeps on rollin’ along. 

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

A Little Danish in La La Land

In the City of the Angels (now newly known as City of Stars), April 25, 2017 has been officially proclaimed “La La Land Day.”  To celebrate this momentous event, dancers wearing bright primary colors will be dangled from bungee cords down the side of the L.A. City Hall tower. That seems a fitting salute to this award-winning film, on what is sure to be another day of sun. 

L.A. is clearly besotted by a movie that pays tribute to its own wacked-out glory. I know people who’ve already bought their tickets to a big event scheduled in late May for the Hollywood Bowl:  a La La Land Concert, with the movie accompanied by a hundred-piece live orchestra and (presumably) by anyone who cares to sing along. 

Personally, these events aren’t for me, even though I thrill to the excitement of musical theatre. I grew up with a strong appreciation for musicals performed live, on stage, and it’s rare for me to see a movie musical that outshines its stage version. I’ll make an exception for West Side Story (great film!), but I firmly believe that a true stage metamusical, like A Chorus Line, shouldn’t even try to work as cinema. 

Which makes it curious that today’s Broadway producers keep looking to Hollywood for new material. Check out how many of the current long-running Broadway musicals originated as films: Aladdin, Kinky Boots, School of Rock, Waitress, The Lion King. And this season’s new hopefuls include musicalized stage versions of Anastasia, Amélie, and Groundhog Day.  

I’m particularly obsessed with stage musicals right now because a young writer who’s near and dear to me, Jeff Bienstock, is just back from Denmark, where his original musical (with composer Andrea Daly) had its world premiere. Their Legendale moves in and out of the videogame universe, and its cast includes a Wild Warrior, a Cow Maiden, a creepy Alchemist, and several Zombie Robots, along with more everyday folk. The head of Denmark’s Fredericia Theater, Søren Møller, snapped up Legendale when he saw a workshop production in New York City. As he told the opening night Danish crowd, the show made him feel he was watching beloved films of his childhood: ET, Back to the Future, Raiders of the Lost Ark . He emphasized that he fell in love with the Legendale script partly because of its cinematic possibilities. 

The rear of the Fredericia Theater stage is spanned by huge curved panels encrusted with thousands of LED lights. Through the magic of technology, Legendale’s audiences could see behind the actors such glowingly realistic effects as a gushing waterfall, a fiery explosion, soaring birds, and trees swaying gently in the wind.  In Søren’s words, Legendale is “changing the perspective of what theatre can be.” Other musicals included on the Fredericia Theater’s roster of late are direct stage adaptations of big Hollywood animated musicals: Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame and DreamWorks’ The Prince of Egypt. These too take advantage of the Danish theater’s spectacular electronic wizardry. So little Denmark, where per capita funding for cultural activities far exceeds anything we’ve ever had (or are likely to have) in the U.S., is expanding the horizons of theatre production by way of the inspiration of the cinema.

For the youngest generation of playgoers it may occasionally be hard to tell the difference. Somewhere on  Facebook’s Fredericia Theater site, I spotted mention of an overheard comment in praise of Legendale – “En pige på omkring syv år sagde: ‘Det var en god film’” Which of course is Danish for “A seven-year-old girl said, ‘That was a good movie.’”  

Friday, April 21, 2017

Death of a Jock: Aaron Hernandez and the Movies

The big news coming out of the sports world as I write this is the suicide of Aaron Hernandez, who starred as a tight end for the Super Bowl-winning New England Patriots. At the time of his death, Hernandez was in prison serving a life sentence for fatally shooting a friend.  Less than a week after he was acquitted of a double-homicide in Boston, he was found in his cell, dangling from a noose made out of bedsheets. 

Hernandez’s brief life (he died at 27) seems to have been continuously marked by violence. Back in 2007, when he was a seventeen-year-old college football player at Florida State in Gainesville, he refused to pay a bar tab, then punched a barroom employee so hard that he shattered the man’s eardrum. Later that same year he was implicated but not charged in a Gainesville incident in which five shots were fired into a car at a stoplight, wounding two. Pundits say these were classic cases in which a prized jock eluded punishment because of his value to his team and his sport. Star athletes are like stars of stage and screen: their glamour allows them to pretty much get away with murder. (See the strange and disturbing case of O.J. Simpson, who was of course a celebrity in both respects, and whose acquittal on murder charges is very much part of the history of the City of Stars.)

Aaron Hernandez is hardly the first star athlete to combine physical power with a propensity for violence off the field. Some jocks, or so it seems, are fueled by rage that bubbles to the surface without warning. What’s striking is that, given how many movies focus on the wide world of sports, how few of them confront the anger that’s at the center of many athletes’ lives. Instead, sports movies tend toward fun and games, or toward a hagiographic approach in which the athlete at the film’s center seems a candidate for sainthood. Take baseball: such movies as Pride of the Yankees (about Lou Gehrig), The Jackie Robinson Story, Field of Dreams, and 42 tend to idolize baseball players. The characters in Bull Durham are less saintly, but fit into the category of charming rogues.
For me the football-related movies that spring to mind also focus on heroics. See, for instance, 1940’s Knute Rockne, All American. Much more recently there’s Brian’s Song, the 1971 TV movie that became a 2001 feature film: in both the focus of this true story is on the evolving friendship of a black and white teammates  who start as rivals and end as close friends, who close ranks before Brian Piccolo dies of cancer. And football becomes an ennobling experience in such high school films as Remember the Titans and The Blind Side. 

I’m hard-pressed to think of a football film in which the game’s raw cruelty is central to the story. Nor can I recall a football flick in which a character’s full-on aggression is not limited to the playing field. Are there any sports movies that dare to explore flawed men who can’t control their powerful and reckless anger?  I’d suggest looking at films about boxing. The classic example, of course, is Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, a gripping biopic about the self-destructive Jake LaMotta. In the more recent The Fighter, it’s the brother (played by Christian Bale) of the main character, real-life boxer Micky Ward, who best exemplifies the self-defeating anger that can ruin a boxer’s life. 

Will the Aaron Hernandezes of the sporting world inspire any movies? Maybe these stories are just too sad to tell.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Witches of Salem: Arthur Miller and Beyond

This 1996 film was based on the Miller play.

Playwright Arthur Miller, I have learned, was not the last word on the Salem witch trials of 1692. Miller’s The Crucible is a powerful drama, the winner of Broadway’s  1953 Tony Award for best new play. In it Miller adapts some of the sordid doings of the Massachusetts Puritans while also making a covert statement about his own era, one in which McCarthyism was rampant and the lives of many good men and women were being destroyed by false accusations. Miller’s characters were actual historical figures—John Proctor, Reverend Parris, Giles Corey, Deputy-Governor Danforth, Tituba—but he did some creative reshaping of personalities and motives. In raising one character’s age and adding the aftermath of a spicy adulterous relationship to the mix, he sharpened the reasons why a restless young woman might lead others to cry out against their neighbors, ultimately sending them to their deaths on the gallows. 

Baseless accusations and over-eager justice seem to be a part of every age, which may be why The Crucible has had a long life in community theatres and high school drama departments. I have personally been part of the cast in two local productions, both times playing a little girl caught up in the madness. It was my familiarity with the play that made me so eager to read The Witches: Salem 1692, the latest tome by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and biographer Stacy Schiff. Though the full historical record remains sketchy, Stacy (whom I know as a fellow member of Biographers International Organization) has worked hard to detail the hundreds of arrests and the twenty public executions that the witch trials produced before those in power slowly acknowledged that “spectral evidence” was not exactly a reliable proof of guilt. She’s very good at taking on the historical perspective and delineating all the reasons (low social status, deviation from orthodox thinking, being on the wrong side of the political fence) why some folks turned out to be  more vulnerable than others.

One of the most striking things about the witch trials was that they were dominated by the testimony of very young women and girls. In Puritan society, such girls would be faced with a life of hard work, drab clothing, and obedience to patriarchal strictures. Stacy sees these girls (especially girls  who had lost parents to disease, death in childbirth, or Indian attacks) as desperate to add drama and color to their mundane existence. As she puts it, “History is not rich in unruly young women; with the exception of Joan of Arc and a few underage sovereigns, it would be difficult to name another historical moment so dominated by teenage virgins, traditionally a vulnerable, mute, and disenfranchised cohort.” 

In writing about witchcraft, as imagined by the Puritans and those who came before them, Stacy makes occasional reference to the witch at the center of one of America’s favorite stories, The Wizard of Oz. The Wicked Witch of the West too was taken down by a little girl, though of course we are all squarely on Dorothy’s side. Stacy’s book made me think about some less-upbeat movies in which young girls with hidden motives take on their elders. In 1961’s The  Children’s Hour, an angry schoolgirl destroys two teachers (Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine) by suggesting they are lesbian lovers. And 1956’s The Bad Seed stars blonde and pigtailed Patty McCormack as an adorable child who’ll do anything—and oppose anyone—to get what she wants. Maybe witches exist in the eye of the beholder? 

More about witchcraft in movies six months from now, when Halloween creeps closer.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Scott Wilson Finds a Career In the Heat of the Night

Scott Wilson, as Dick Hickock, is on the right

The other night, in the lobby of the Chinese Theatre, I was pleased to run into one of my favorite character actors, Scott Wilson. He was there as an honored guest of the TCM Classic Film Festival, which was screening In the Heat of the Night for its gala opening. About ten years ago, while researching the great movie year 1967, I had sat down in Scott’s comfy living room for what turned out to be a three-hour chat about his career. It started with a featured role in In the Heat of the Night, followed by a star-making turn as a real-life killer in one of 1967’s most powerful crime dramas, In Cold Blood. (One of his most memorable recent roles was as a victim – not a perp – in 2003’s Monster, where he ran afoul of Charlize Theron’s deadly Aileen Wuornos.) Though the biggest box-office hit that came out of 1967 was The Graduate, and critics applauded the bravura audacity of  Bonnie and Clyde, neither of those films was named Best Picture at the 1968 Oscar ceremony. That honor went to In the Heat of the Night, a tight little whodunit that fit the mood of the country in an era when civil rights were at the top of everyone’s mind.

The Atlanta-born Scott Wilson made his film debut as In The Heat of the Night’s Harvey Oberst, a small-town Southern punk. He’s first seen by Haskell Wexler’s dramatically hand-held camera desperately running away from the town of Sparta, Mississippi. When he’s finally caught just before the state line by Sheriff Gillespie (played with Oscar-winning flair by Rod Steiger), he discovers he’s the prime suspect in a murder case. Gillespie is only too happy to pin the rap on him. But Sidney Poitier, as a Philadelphia homicide expert who finds himself stuck in this backwater Southern town, quickly assesses the situation and announces that Harvey is innocent of the charge. He may have lifted the dead man’s wallet but he didn’t kill him, because the angle of the fatal blow indicates that it was caused by a right-handed assailant. And Harvey’s a lefty. 

Scott Wilson’s character, then, becomes the first in the film to acknowledge that a black man (not to mention a Yankee) is a great deal smarter and more capable than any of the locals. Through various plot twists, he eventually becomes an ally. In fact, Harvey’s evolution from hostility to appreciation for Poitier’s Virgil Tibbs foreshadows that of Sheriff Gillespie, who gradually moves from disdain to sincere gratitude for what Tibbs has contributed to the life of his town. 

If  Harvey Oberst has reason to appreciate Virgil Tibbs, Scott Wilson has all the more reason to appreciate the helping hand given him by Sidney Poitier. During filming, Poitier even went home one night and reworked an already strong scene between the two of them for maximum effect, then made sure director Norman Jewison was giving the young Scott some good close-ups. When Scott interviewed for the role of Dick Hickok in In Cold Blood, Poitier was one of those who approached director Richard Brooks on his behalf. (Jewison and film scorer Quincy Jones spoke up for him too.) Beyond that, Poitier took it upon himself to give the fledgling actor a pep talk, praising his talent and predicting a bright future. The result: “After he left I was like Godzilla, and I walked into that meeting with Brooks feeling very confident, having no self-doubt.” Soon thereafter, the part was his. Just one more way that Sidney Poitier made a difference in Hollywood’s film industry. 

My heartfelt thanks to Scott Wilson for his talent and his gifts as a raconteur. And to his wife Heavenly for her long-ago tea and cookies.