Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Weddings Under Starry Skies

I’m newly back from a large and festive wedding. No, I wasn’t at Windsor Castle, watching Prince Harry exchange vows with his American bride. I was much closer to home, in an enchanted grove in San Diego, rooting for two lovely young people who -- in front of family and friends – were officially becoming a couple.

Harry and Meghan certainly didn’t lack for onlookers. For one thing, the eyes of the world were on them, via television and the global news media. And their ceremony was also witnessed in person by scores of VIPs, some of them heirs to thrones, others royalty of a far different sort. I did a small informal count of celebrities in attendance. A few were from the sports world: Serena Williams, David Beckham (of course, the latter is married to a former Spice Girl.)  But many of the big names in attendance have a Hollywood connection. No surprise that the guest list included such TV folk as Gabriel Macht and Gina Torres, both of whom are featured on bride Meghan Markle’s former TV series, Suits. In addition, there were a number of British-born performers: James Corden, Idris Elba, Carey Mulligan, Joss Stone. And, inevitably, George and Amal Clooney, whose showbiz mystique (him) and international credentials (her) apparently make them welcome guests everywhere. And let’s not forget the presence of her royal highness, Oprah Winfrey.

In comparing Oprah to British royalty, I’m being only half facetious. Oprah may spring from humble roots, but she’s a monarch nonetheless: a queen of daytime TV, movie drama, print media, and everything else she touches. (The book publishing industry counts on her to make best sellers when she announces her picks for Oprah’s Book Club.)  Like Great Britain’s Elizabeth II, Oprah can get by with a single name, and she doesn’t even need a roman numeral. After a particularly memorable Oprah speech at the Golden Globe awards, there was serious public chatter about her becoming the next U.S. president. But I think it would be more fitting to give her a throne.

The irony, of course, is that the American republic has always resisted establishing a monarchy. George Washington had to fight hard against those who wanted to proclaim him the new nation’s king. Still, Americans are entranced by royals, whether hereditary or elected. We dote on royal weddings, perhaps even more than the Brits who have to pay for them (see how one of the biggest turned into a Fred Astaire musical). And we like best those politicians and their spouses – the Kennedys, the Reagans – who seem to bring an aristocratic glamour into our country’s highest office. But such majesty is often in short supply in the White House, and most Americans look to Hollywood to fulfill their need for beauty and panache. The early movie moguls knew this well, which is why they worked so hard to find likely candidates and supply them with star mystique. In the old days, stars like Joan Crawford were carefully tutored, expensively dressed, lovingly photographed, and shielded from anything that might detract from their pristine images.

Today we think we want a more honest approach. We’re used to seeing photos of superstars in their grubbies (or in nothing at all): they hold onto the sometimes-clunky names they were born with, and seem to delight in behavior that’s outside the boundaries of good taste. (Roseanne Barr, I’m talking to you.) Still, I think we need celebrity culture to add romance and excitement to our workaday lives.  The union of the English prince and the American TV star had both. Long may they thrive.

This post is dedicated to Sarah Hoffman and Taylor Lucas, with best wishes for much happily-ever-after.

Friday, May 25, 2018

War is Hell: a Memorial Day Memory

The upcoming Memorial Day weekend seems an apt time to look back on my years as story editor to Roger Corman at Concorde-New Horizons Pictures. In that era, circa 1986 through 1994. many of our action thrillers were set among the jungles and rice paddies of Vietnam. Some of our most prolific screenwriters were Vietnam War vets who could write accurately about military weapons and reproduce the slang of grunts in the field. I myself had no similar war experience to call upon when I was tasked with finishing up the script of a Concorde writer who’d dropped the ball on one of our projects. But I did my best, and Beyond the Call of Duty became one of my six Concorde screenwriting credits.

Roger Corman’s Vietnam movies were all shot in the Philippines, where Roger’s buddy -- the legendary Cirio Santiago -- had access to weaponry, jungle foliage, and legions of actual Filipino soldiers who were only too happy to put on Vietnamese uniforms and die dramatically for the cameras. Authenticity was never more than the vaguest of goals. But my writing colleague Frank McAdams is capable of much better. Frank, after thirteen months in Vietnam, entered UCLA Film School. He wrote Stagecoach Bravo, based on his own Marine Corps experience, as his thesis film, and it went on to win the prestigious Samuel Goldwyn Screenwriting Competition. Later, after years of teaching screenwriting, he published The American War Film: History and Hollywood. More recently the University Press of Kansas put forth his Vietnam Rough Riders: A Convoy Commander’s Memoir (2013).

Some of the stories told in Frank’s memoir were already familiar to me from conversations we had had over lunch. There was, for instance, the major who took it upon himself to withhold from his troops those movies (like The Graduate and Dr. Strangelove) he considered offensively countercultural. But the episode that really stood out for me in Frank’s book began when, while in the process of writing a letter, he heard a commotion coming from the neighboring hooch (or canvas-walled living quarter). Peeking inside, he discovered a young Marine holding an M-16 rifle on eight U.S. Army officers and South Vietnamese Rangers. Hopped up on booze or drugs (or both), this Marine was mourning the deaths of two buddies by threatening the lives of eight men who were on his own side in the conflict. His weapon was set on full-automatic, and bloodshed seemed inevitable until Frank stepped in and managed to disarm him. For this gutsy act Frank received the Army-Marine Corps Medal. He continues to marvel that, in a few seconds’ time, he managed to prevent the sudden deaths of eight comrades-in-arms.

This dramatic real-life episode came back to me when I heard about the death of an actor named R. Lee Ermey. Ermey, who died this past April at age 74, was an actual Marine Corps drill instructor during the Vietnam era. After moving into acting, he found fame as the foul-mouthed  gunnery sergeant in the opening scenes of Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 military drama, Full Metal Jacket. The foul but funny language Ermey’s character uses to intimidate new recruits was drawn from his own Marine Corps experience. It’s a raw and powerful way to open a film, especially when it culminates in one of the newbies suddenly turning on  this man who has never let up on him. The resulting bloodshed slams home Kubrick’s war-is-hell message. Like Frank’s story of the young Marine, it reminds us that in wartime there’s death around every corner, and it sometimes comes from places we don’t expect.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

A Visit to a Mean and Frozen SpongeBob

June 10 is date of 2018’s Tony Awards ceremony, Broadway’s answer to the Oscars. As usual  Hollywood will doubtless gets its due. Such familiar TV and movie folks as Amy Schumer, Andrew Garfield, Tony Shalhoub, Michael Cera, and Denzel Washington (who’s earned raves for a revival of Eugene O’Neill’s classic The Iceman Cometh) all earned acting nominations. But I was especially struck by the entries in the Best Musical category. Though the musical revivals being honored this year (My Fair Lady, Carousel, Once On This Island) all began life on a stage, every single new musical on the 2018 list of nominees is an adaptation of a film property. It feels as though no one dares to launch a musical these days unless its basic premise and characters have been vetted by movie audiences. Given the cost of putting on a Broadway musical, I guess that makes some sort of sense. But for those who love discovering new musical stories, it’s disheartening that originality seems to be dead.

So what are these candidates for Best New Musical? Inevitably, there’s a stage adaptation of the Disney mega-hit, Frozen, with writer/lyricists Kristin Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez enhancing their Oscar-winning film score (“Let it Go”) with additional songs. In recent years, Disney has added to its coffers by turning its film successes into Broadway extravaganzas (see The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, etc. etc.), and so a stage version of Frozen—a story beloved by little girls everywhere—was an easy sell. Surprisingly, Frozen will not be a big winner on Tony night. It is only nominated in three categories.

A very different kind of film adaptation is up for 11 awards. This is The Band’s Visit, a stage adaptation of a small, charming Israeli film about an Egyptian troupe of amateur musicians who find themselves stuck in a small desert town in the Negev, reliant on the hospitality of Israeli locals. The good-hearted film hints at the power of music, which gives its transformation into a stage musical a kind of artistic logic. Serious Broadway pros are involved on the production end, and critics feel this is a class act – and the show to beat. 

But wait! Two other new musicals have racked up 12 nominations apiece. Decidedly NOT good-hearted is Tina Fey’s stage adaptation of her own 2004 hit, Mean Girls. I’m told the musical, like the film, has a wonderful sardonic edge, as well as a point to make: both are based on Fey’s reading of a genuine how-to book, Rosalind Wiseman’s Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boys, and the New Realities of Girl World. Like most things Fey touches, this show is golden, and could well take home the top prize. (Its lyricist, Neil Benjamin, was responsible for both music and lyrics on what might be the epitome of the movie-to-Broadway musical, the perky and forgettable Legally Blonde.)

And, yes, there’s SpongeBob SquarePants, a big-budget musical that borrows characters and settings from the Nickelodeon cartoon series, which itself became a 2015 film. The always acerbic L.A. Times drama critic calls SpongeBob a play “spun from pop cultural pabulum.” And there’s no question that a show about the happy denizens of Bikini Bottom is going to be bright and cheerful, instead of intellectually challenging, Still, it obviously has its partisans.

But as someone with a close relative who hopes to make his career writing musical theatre, I trust there’s still room for projects unconnected to movies past and present. Here’s hoping audiences can still be surprised and delighted by a brand-new stage experience.