Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Remembering Rance Howard, or Father Really Does Know Best

Rance played Bruce Dern's brother in one of his last films

For me Thanksgiving weekend ended on a sad note, with the news that Rance Howard had passed away at the age of 89. Rance was not a household name, like his famous son, Ron. But anyone acquainted with the Howards is well aware that Ron’s steadiness and common sense are part of the family legacy. Jean Howard once said of the grown-up Ron, “He’s the most determined person I ever met in my life. I think he gets this from his dad.”  

Rance Howard started out in an unlikely place for an actor, and with an unlikely name. He was a Oklahoma farm boy, born Harold Engle Beckenholdt, who discovered the magic of cinema when merchants screened free movies to lure the country folk to town on Saturday nights. He first met his future wife, Jean Speegle, when they acted together in productions at the University of Oklahoma. Later they toured in a bus-and-truck theatre troupe, starring in child-friendly productions of Cinderella and Snow White. Sometimes the troupe was short on dwarves, so the tall, lanky Rance would get on his knees to fill in. 

Later, after son Ronny entered their lives, Rance and Jean moved to New York City to further their careers. At one audition, Rance discovered that a small boy was needed for a featured role. Because he and his four-year-old son enjoyed performing comic scenes from Broadway hits, it seemed appropriate to bring Ronny in to meet director Anatole Litvak. That’s how Ronny Howard got his first screen credit: the movie was The Journey, starring Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr. 

When the family moved to California, Rance nabbed small parts in a number of films and TV dramas, but it was Ronny who was the breakout star. The nation fell in love with the cute redhead who played Opie Taylor on The Andy Griffith Show. Rance was a familiar presence on the set, playing a few roles and even writing an episode called “The Ball Game” that became his son’s very favorite. Even more important, he was there to supervise Ronny, ensuring that his son was always a consummate professional and never a spoiled brat. When I was researching Ron Howard: From Mayberry to the Moon . . . and Beyond, I spoke to a number of Hollywood performers—Shirley Jones for one—who remembered Rance gently coaching from the sidelines, helping Ronny handle emotional scenes but never usurping the director’s prerogative.

When Ronny Howard the actor evolved into Ron Howard the director, the family unit remained close. Ron’s first directing gig came out of a deal he’d made with B-movie legend Roger Corman. Ron, then at the height of his acting fame on Happy Days, was being sought to play the lead in a teen car-crash comedy called Eat My Dust. Eager to move into directing, he accepted the role with the understanding that if the film did well he’d have the chance to write and direct a movie on a subject of Corman’s choosing. It turned out Roger wanted more of the same. And so Ron and his father were soon hammering out Grand Theft Auto, about a young couple who steal a Rolls Royce and head out to Las Vegas to get married, with a good many people in hot pursuit. 

I was fascinated to learn, when I questioned Corman story editor Frances Doel, how well the two Howards functioned as a team. It’s not many a 23-year-old, on the brink of a career breakthrough, who can work comfortably with his dad. But Rance Howard was clearly a very special man.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Illeana Douglas, or “Don’t Cry for Me, Dennis Hopper”

So Charles Manson, who sent shivers up our spines back in 1969, is dead. Which hardly brings his victims back to life. And, around the world, bad things are happening to good people. Politics? Don’t get me started. But I'm still feeling the glow of Thanksgiving weekend, so who am I to dwell on the negative?

Instead, I’m giving thanks for a wonderful woman named Illeana Douglas. You may have caught her in movies like Goodfellas, Cape Fear, and To Die For. You may have seen her rare leading role in Allison Anders’ music industry indie, Grace of My Heart. If you love old movies, you’ve surely watched her grandfather, Melvyn Douglas, in the course of his great career. Illeana idolized her father’s father, and it was partly under his spell that she chose to spend her life on movie sets.

But her own father hit upon a far different life for himself. And movies were entirely to blame. It was with her father in mind that Illeana chose the title for her 2015 memoir: I Blame Dennis Hopper.  You see, back in 1969,  Illeana’s parents went to see Easy Rider, and nothing was ever the same thereafter: “After my father saw Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider, he started, well, acting like Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider.” This meant quitting his 9-to-5 job, growing a floppy mustache, and endlessly playing “Born to Be Wild.” It also meant abandoning the family’s nice Colonial house in suburban Connecticut in order to start his own commune, a place full of dope-smoking freeloaders who had grown Dennis Hopper mustaches of their own. And it meant an all-purpose stoner response to every situation:  “This is what it’s all about, man.”  Illeana’s account of the break-up of her parents’ marriage is both heart-breaking and hilarious. It ends with the author, on a movie-set, meeting the real Dennis Hopper and discovering he was probably not to blame, after all. Because the life-lessons she’d learned in the course of her eccentric upbringing were pretty cool indeed. 

Other chapters in I Blame Dennis Hopper reflect the fact that Illeana is the ultimate movie fan, someone who views the world in terms of the way that movies (and movie stars) have shaped her outlook. I’m not sure I agree with her theory that “all movie lovers have some sort of void or sadness in them that movies fill.” But she certainly makes a good case for the power that screen stars have over those of us who sit in the audience. Here’s her comment on Liza Minnelli: “We look up to movie stars. We believe in them, because they are larger than life, and it makes us believe in ourselves when no one else does.”

And here’s her down-and-dirty encapsulation of her own existence: “My life is like a movie. At first it was a Busby Berkeley musical with everybody happy and dancing, and then it was like a French film that I didn’t understand, but I looked really good, and now it’s like a seventies disaster movie where I’m screaming, but no one can hear me.” 

Speaking of screaming, that’s one of Illeana’s special talents. A blood-curdling screech brought her to the attention of Martin Scorsese, who used it to good advantage in The Last Temptation of Christ and became her main man for a number of years. I don’t know about her love life now, but I know she keeps busy as an actress, writer, producer, and director. And then there’s her podcast, on which I was lucky enough to be a guest. It’s called, inevitably, “I Blame Dennis Hopper.”

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Running on Empty with Two-Lane Blacktop

Years ago, when I was interviewing for a job with B-movie mogul Roger Corman, he insisted I read and prepare to discuss with him Siegfried Kracauer’s Theory of Film. As his subtitle, The Redemption of Physical Reality, suggests, Kracauer saw film as fundamentally a visual medium, one that captures photographically the way the world looks and moves. Of course I felt obliged to read this ponderous tome from cover to cover, and waited for my chance to have an in-depth discussion about its merits. But, though I got the job, Roger never mentioned Kracauer again.

I brought up this little story when I interviewed one of Roger’s many famous alums, the cult filmmaker Monte Hellman. Monte, who had been fairly detached throughout most of our conversation, suddenly sat up and took notice. He explained that throughout his career he had spent a good deal of time talking to interviewers like me, and that it was rare for him to learn anything new. But I had managed to surprise him. He’d had no idea that Roger was interested in Kracauer’s Theory of Film, but said:  “That happens to be one of my Bibles, so I’m very amazed at that.”   

My own hunch is that Roger, who loves being au courant about intellectual matters,, had picked up on Kracauer through Monte himself. Back in the early days, while preparing to make one of Roger’s cheapie films, the two had together driven Highway One from Carmel to San Francisco. A lot of their talk involved their feelings about Nietzsche, but I suspect Kracauer raised his head as well.

In any case, I thought about Kracauer recently while watching Monte’s most well-known film, 1971’s Two-Lane Blacktop. As Charles Taylor explains in his fascinating chronicle of movies in the Seventies, OpeningWednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You, Two-Lane Blacktop was not an indie but a genuine studio release, bankrolled by Universal Pictures as its response to the success of Easy Rider. Like Easy Rider it’s about young men in motion, traveling aimlessly across the American landscape in search of  . . . whatever. Instead of motorcyles, the taciturn characters known only as The Driver and The Mechanic roar through the Southwest in a souped-up ’55 Chevy sedan. There’s also a young woman, equally adrift, who’ll hook up with any male who happens by. Then there’s G.T.O., a middle-aged would-be hipster in a spiffy canary-yellow muscle car. He’s as talkative as the others are silent, but his self-aggrandizing stories don’t usually convey the ring of truth. A challenge is issued, and the race is on. They’ve wagered their cars’ pink slips, so the outcome ought to be important.

Except it’s not. Monte’s original cut ran 3 ½ hours. Contractually he was obliged to get his film under 120 minutes, and so he did. But what he cut was surprising. Gone were most of the film’s racing footage and the drama of combat behind the wheel. Monte retained instead the dingy diners, the small town gas pumps, the tedium of going nowhere for no particular reason. The cast was unusual too, featuring musicians James Taylor and the Beachboys’ Dennis Wilson along with another acting novice, Laurie Bird. Only the blabby G.T.O. was played by an experienced actor, the marvelously manic Warren Oates. The result is less a story than a haunting mood piece. 

Here’s a viewer comment I found on IMDB:  “This is either the best film I've ever seen, or just an interesting exercise in film-making that is ultimately of little value. The problem is that I can't decide which.” But Kracauer would have been proud.