Friday, March 30, 2018

Of Bunnies and Buns—An Easter Tail

The celebration of Easter has long been associated with rabbits: cute, fluffy, cartoonish white bunnies who hop around the globe delivering gaily-colored eggs. Getting into the spirit of the holiday weekend (which also includes the start of Passover), I’ve been thinking about the motion picture world’s treatment of bunny rabbits. There’ve been lots of filmed versions of Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit tales (or, I guess, tails), among them the 2018 live-action/CGI hybrid version voiced by such stars as James Corden, Margot Robbie and Daisy Ridley. Also from England, there’s stop-motion genius Nick Park’s full-length Wallace and Gromit adventure, The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. The British must have a thing for rabbits: Lewis Carroll’s ageless Alice in Wonderland is full of them. Hollywood has churned out well over two dozen adaptations of Carroll’s Alice story for movies and TV. Disney’s classic animated film from 1951 of course features an iconic White Rabbit and March Hare. So does the Tim Burton variation from 2010, and also the famous live-action Paramount production from 1933, featuring such mega-stars as W.C. Fields, and Cary Grant. (Charlie Ruggles portrays the March Hare.) 

Of course I can’t overlook Bugs Bunny, though that “wascally wabbit” of Warner Bros. cartoon fame is anything but cuddly. It’s a curious bit of trivia that Walt Disney first made his mark not with a mouse but with a rabbit. His “Oswald the Lucky Rabbit” shorts were an early hit for their distributor, Universal Studios. In 1928, when Disney decided to go out on his own, Oswald had to stay behind. So Walt and master cartoonist Ub Iwerks shortened and rounded Oswald’s ears, added a long skinny tail, and voila! Mickey Mouse was born.

There’s one more Hollywood rabbit I have to mention, one who meets an unfortunate end. That’s the pet bunny who gets boiled by bad-girl Glenn Close in 1987’s Fatal Attraction. If you recall, she turns a one-night-stand with married guy Michael Douglas into an obsession, with the femme becoming increasingly fatale as she tries to come between him and wife Anne Archer. Result: rabbit stew. 

The success of Fatal Attraction at the box office led, of course, to a proliferation of erotic thrillers by other filmmakers. (You could say the film and its imitators bred like rabbits.) My former boss Roger Corman was always quick to capitalize on any new, lucrative trend, and there was the added advantage that erotic thrillers are cheap to make—little stunt work, no special effects, just a whole lot of boobs and buns. That’s why I found myself, as the Concorde-New Horizons story editor, hard at work on a sexy 1990 rip-off called Body Chemistry, in which two university sex researchers indulge in some extra-curricular hanky-panky, much to the detriment of the male’s formerly happy home life. In our film, the femme fatale, Dr. Claire Archer, lives on, soon popping up in Body Chemistry II (1992) as an on-the-air radio psychologist with a yen for messing up other people’s marriages.  By Body Chemistry III (1994), leading lady Lisa Pescia had been replaced by Shari Shattuck, and Andrew Stevens had come aboard both as hunky leading man and as fledgling producer. The director of BCIII was an irrepressible satyr named Jim Wynorski.  Jim and Andrew gave me an associate producer credit, and also a featured spot as a lady seeking sexual advice on a radio call-in show. Yup, that’s a gussied up version of me stretched out beside a roaring fireplace, with a phone to my ear.

 Too bad I wasn’t on set with Andrew and the bodacious Shannon Tweed for Body Chemistry IV.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Aladdin Goes Hollywood

I will always associate Aladdin with the glitz and glamour of Hollywood—both the state of mind and the tawdry but exciting street of that name. Back in 1992 I took my kids to the historic El Capitan, the gorgeously-restored 1926 movie palace at the heart of Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, to see Disney’s animated musical extravaganza. It was preceded by a brief stage show, a reminder of the way movies used to debut in the early days. Then the film itself came on, and we were all blown away by the music, the visuals, the sheer inventiveness, and the rambunctious high spirits of this production. Robin Williams’ shape-shifting genie was of course the comic heart of the film: Genie was a role he was born to play. But everything on screen blended together in a way that was totally magical. Afterwards, we all felt so good that we found ourselves singing and dancing under that brightly lit marquee on Hollywood Blvd., which I’m sure had the local street people scratching their heads. 

Flash forward to this past weekend. In 2014, the Disney version of Aladdin became a Broadway musical, capitalizing on Howard Ashman and Tim Rice’s original lyrics and Alan Menken’s spritely score It was nominated for 5 Tony awards, including Best Musical, and the delightful James Monroe Iglehart nabbed a Tony for the featured role of Genie. (No one, of course, can hope to duplicate Robin Williams’ manic appeal, but the stage version of this role adds a jazzy Cab Calloway-style hipness that’s hard to resist.)  Aladdin is still wowing Broadway tourists, but a full-scale touring production has recently made its home in another movie palace, this one at the fabled intersection of Hollywood and Vine. The Pantages, built in 1930, to house vaudeville acts in addition to first-run motion pictures, is a masterpiece of art deco ornamentation. It’s full of chandeliers, statuary, and cunningly inlaid tile. Look up and you’ll find the ceiling is an intricate web of gilt carving, set against a blue-lit artificial sky that seems made for a magic carpet ride.  

 Once upon a time, the Pantages was the site for the annual Academy Awards ceremony, and it’s easy to feel like a movie star when you’re ushered in. The six-year-old with me was attending his first big theatrical production, and his eyes were bright with wonder. He laughed and clapped, oohed and aahed when the stage was briefly lit up by fireworks, and fortunately didn’t squirm in his seat enough to make other theatregoers sea-sick. As for me, I too was charmed. It was fascinating to see what changes needed to be made to put an animated cartoon on stage. Gone were such lively Disney-esque sidekicks as a sinister parrot, a mischievous monkey, a cuddly tiger, and a personality-plus magic carpet. Instead, Aladdin got three human buddies, Jasmine (in this me-too era) was more overtly feminist, and elaborate costume transmogrifications were part of the stage razzle-dazzle. In tribute to our Hollywood locale, Genie added a Wakandan salute to his bag of tricks, and “accidentally” pulled an Oscar statuette from his pocket instead of a magic lamp. 

After the show we strolled down Hollywood Blvd., only to discover crowds milling around an elaborate grungy “vertical trailer park.” This was a come-on for a a pop-up attraction designed to generate interest in the new Spielberg futuristic thriller, Ready Player One, which opens March 29. We couldn’t resist queuing up to tour a maze complete with flashing lights and brain-teasers. The look was dystopian, quite a contrast to the lavish exotica favored by Hollywood of old.

Boy with lamp
Vertical trailer park