Friday, August 31, 2018

Spike Lee and the Birth of a Black Klansman

Fancy seeing a Spike Lee movie (or – better – a Spike Lee joint) in which the hero is a cop! Lee, has raised a few hackles in the African-American community by focusing not on police brutality against unarmed black men but on the heroics of some Colorado Springs cops (both black and white) who joined forces in the Seventies to strike a blow against white supremacists. Which is not to say that Lee’s new film, BlacKkKlansman, has no contemporary resonance. Lee never lets us forget that the racist right-wingers he portrays in the film are still very much with us. (The specter of Charlottesville dramatically hangs over the movie, as doe rhetoric coming out of today’s White House.)

How to reconcile Lee’s personal politics with the demands of this story, based as it is on the real-life experiences of Colorado police detective Ron Stallworth? The key is to see Lee’s film, like the behavior of his real-life characters, as an exercise in role-playing. It’s hardly that Lee is insincere. It’s just that he’s many things: a political provocateur, a highly gifted filmmaker, an intellect who can see multiple sides of an issue, someone who values the opportunity to entertain as well as to enlighten. I’ve loved the early Spike Lee  movies, like the powerful Do the Right Thing, but over the years I’ve tended to lose interest.  In this new film, which was acclaimed at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, Lee successfully combines fun with moral indignation, puckish comedy with high drama. It’s a brilliant performance.

 The spectacle of Lee juggling many masks with this film fits right in with the behavior of his characters. Stallworth (John David Washington) sometimes chafes at the distance between himself as an undercover police officer and the earnest young black-is-beautiful types with whom he associates when off duty. But he can gleefully pass himself off as a Ku Klux Klan aspirant because his telephone voice doesn’t betray his color. (As he confidently explains to his chief, he’s fluent in both the Queen’s English and jive.) Meanwhile Flip, the fellow officer chosen to represent Ron for in-person hang-outs with the Klan, turns out to be Jewish. In one of the film’s many striking moments, Flip (Adam Driver) ponders the fact that consorting with racists -- and being required to voice ugly racist sentiments himself -- has reminded him for the first time in his life of the ethnic background he’s always largely ignored. Suddenly, he muses, he can understand the need for heritage, for ritual. The word “ritual” stood out for me in this context, because the behavior of the white supremacists shows that they too need it, as a way to shore up their misgivings about their own failings. They’re a pretty sorry lot: a drunk, a restless soldier, an angry little man. That explains the appeal of donning a pointy hood and robe, and joining forces with like-minded others for a cross-burning. It’s essentially putting on a mask and playing a role, in order to convince the world that you’re more than you might seem.

Lee, as a filmmaker, fully knows the power of cinema to shape our conscious (and unconscious) minds. That’s why he brilliantly makes use of film clips from Gone With the Wind and (especially) Birth of a Nation, to explain the romanticism embedded in the white supremacist‘s all too black-and-white view of the world. He also has fun with the image of the African-American gangsta type, as embedded in blaxploitation films like Shaft and Superfly. How lucky we are to have someone of his caliber exploring our complicated interracial world.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Exit Laughing: The Movies of Neil Simon

In two days, we’ve lost two very different men I consider American heroes. John McCain lacked for nothing when it came to courage and valor: brave in wartime, he later bucked political tides in the U.S. and had the guts to make friends across the aisle. Neil Simon wasn’t called upon for acts of physical bravery. But in writing 32 Broadway plays and almost as many screenplays, he increasingly used his comic gifts (not to mention the details of his own uneasy upbringing) to comment shrewdly on life in 20th century urban America.

I have a special affection for Neil Simon’s brand of comedy because over the years it has brought so much joy to my own family. Take, for instance, The Odd Couple, which started life in 1965 as a hit Broadway play. This story of a slob and a neat-freak rooming together after the breakup of their marriages resonated so strongly with audiences worldwide that in 1968 Simon adapted his script for film. (This is the rare movie comedy that begins with a serious stab at a suicide attempt.) Walter Matthau found movie stardom by recreating his Broadway role as the slovenly Oscar, while Jack Lemmon took on Art Carney’s stage role as Felix. But what my parents and I loved best was the TV version that took to the airwaves from 1970 to 1975, starring Jack Klugman and Tony Randall. Remarkably, Simon’s simple premise led to years of hilarity on this series as well as several follow-up shows, one of them an animated series involving a fastidious cat and a sloppy dog.

Screen versions of Neil Simon comedies brought serious accolades for a number of actors. Maggie Smith won her second Oscar for her hilarious turn in California Suite. Comic George Burns, almost 80, nabbed an Oscar and launched a brand-new acting career as an over-the-hill vaudevillian in The Sunshine Boys. In 1977, when Simon wrote The Goodbye Girl directly for the screen, I doubt he suspected that this amiable romantic comedy about another sort of odd-couple living arrangement (between a hard-luck dancer and a neurotic actor) would garner five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay. Perhaps the evening’s biggest surprise was young Richard Dreyfuss winning the Best Actor statuette over the much more serious and more celebrated Richard Burton (for Equus), as well as  Marcello Mastroianni, John Travolta for Saturday Night Fever and Woody Allen for Annie Hall.

As a chronicler of The Graduate, I’m particularly interested in the strong link between writer Neil Simon and director Mike Nichols. Nichols, casting around for a viable career after partner Elaine May broke up their sketch-comedy act, was asked to direct a very early Neil Simon play about newlyweds in a New York walk-up. Under Nichols’ assured direction, Barefoot in the Park became a palpable hit, running for 964 performances. On the strength of this play’s success, Nichols was invited by producer Larry Turman to direct his very first movie, The Graduate. He came quite close to casting the play’s leading man in the plum role of Benjamin Braddock. Though Robert Redford ultimately lost out to Dustin Hoffman, his endearing 1967 performance in the screen version of Barefoot in the Park (opposite Jane Fonda) helped move him into the bigtime.

One other Graduate connection: eight years after her slinky and audacious turn as Mrs. Robinson, Anne Bancroft was cast opposite Jack Lemmon in Simon’s The Prisoner of Second Avenue, about a laid-off exec driven crazy by life in New York City. Whodathunk she’d be so convincing as a loyal, loving, thoroughly frazzled urban wife? 

Friday, August 24, 2018

Touched by Lubitsch: Smiles on a Summer’s Night

Why Lubitsch?  It’s been a hot, sticky summer, marred in my home state by actual fires, rather than the flames of passion. So I decided to chill out with two pre-Code Ernst Lubitsch confections. Lubitsch people, it seems, live in places like Paris, sip cocktails at all hours, wear tuxedos (men) and slinky satin gowns (women), and make amorality into a fine art. They don’t all have money, but they know how to get it, or how to live beautifully without much at all. In these films from the early 1930s, made several years before the Hays Code imposed rigid moralistic restrictions) the outside world (of politics, of economics, of conventional behavior) rarely intrudes at all.

Lubitsch, a German Jew who began as an actor, came to Hollywood in the silent era, imported by Mary Pickford to direct her in a film called Rosita. Their collaboration didn’t go well, but he was soon snapped up by the major studios. His first outing as a director of talkies, 1932’s Trouble in Paradise, is considered his very best by many film historians, including my buddy Joseph McBride, whose new book is titled How Did Lubitsch Do It? This spritely comedy—which features the sexy and well-dressed triangle of Herbert Marshall, Miriam Hopkins, and Kay Francis—is the story of two grifters determined to pilfer the expensive jewels and accoutrements of a naïve but beautiful widow, heiress to a cosmetics fortune. When Marshall and Hopkins first meet over a romantic dinner in Venice, they are both posing as aristocrats. The scene in which they discover their mutual talent for pickpocketry is priceless. Suffice it to say, they steal each other’s hearts (along with a wallet, a gold watch, and a garter), but Kay Francis’s more soignée charms become for Marshall a serious distraction.

The witty screenwriter for Trouble in Paradise was a Lubitsch regular who became a Hollywood favorite: Samson Raphaelson. (Among other things, he wrote the play that ultimately became The Jazz Singer.) A different kind of writing talent was on display in Lubitsch’s next feature, 1933’s Design for Living. Though it was based on a hit Noel Coward stage comedy, the Lubitsch version had entirely different characters and structure. Coward had written the roles of two men and a woman engaged in a jolly ménage à trois to accommodate himself and good friends Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. Apparently he’d dabbled in giving them exotic backgrounds (with himself cast as a Chinese gentleman), but settled for making them posh, artistic Britishers, one male  a successful playwright, one a much-admired painter. Since the men’s longtime friendship much pre-dates the entrance of the charming Gilda into their lives, their intense attachment to one another is another aspect of the triangle, and suggests glimpses of Coward’s own not-so-covert homosexuality.

The Lubitsch version (script by the great Ben Hecht) turns all three characters into Americans abroad, first seen on a train in their down-and-out days. In a tour-de-force opening sequence, Gilda (Miriam Hopkins) first encounters the two men (Frederic March and Gary Cooper) in a third-class compartment, snoring away. Nothing daunted, she proceeds to sketch them. When they awaken to discover this vivacious young blonde and her sketchpad, all three launch into fluent traveler’s French, as they hotly discuss the merits of her work. The legendarily laconic Gary Cooper speaking French?  And engaging in sparkling repartee?  All part of the Lubitsch touch.

Director/screenwriter Billy Wilder, himself famous for such charming films as The Apartment and Some Like It Hot, posted a sign in his office: How Would Lubitsch Do It? We’d still like to know.