Friday, November 30, 2018

And Here's to YOU, UC Berkeley . . .

I’m recently back from Berkeley, California, where (in the wake of the horrendous fires that destroyed the town of Paradise) students were walking around the famous University of California campus wearing surgical masks to protect themselves from breathing dirty air. How times have changed! When I was of college age, student-activist types didn’t seem to be worrying about the wear and tear on their bodies as they let themselves be dragged through the streets in anti-Vietnam protests. And I well remember one scruffy young woman boasting that she was newly able to stomp out cigarettes with her bare feet.

I’m by no means making fun of the Camp Fire and its victims (nor of student activists, for that matter). I’m just waxing philosophical about the thought that colleges and movies don’t always mix. Actually, I was in Berkeley at the invitation of Virginia Williams of the newly re-named  Graduate Hotel (formerly the Durant). Berkeley has a featured role in The Graduate (it’s where Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin Braddock goes in pursuit of his dream girl, played by Katharine Ross). And so I was asked to speak on The Graduate in the comfy hotel lobby, after which the film would be screened. The best laid plans of mice and men . . . .  Because of the smoky skies, the Big Game between Cal and Stanford was cancelled, and expected hotel occupancy dropped from 80% to 30% for the weekend. So I delivered my talk to two bartenders and a small handful of attentive guests.

The production team of The Graduate was equally disappointed when they appealed to the university’s chancellor for permission to film on campus. Trying to be persuasive, they got a studio executive who was active in the Berkeley alumni organization to plead their case. He thought a reference to the bad publicity generated by the raucous campus Free Speech Movement of 1964-65 would do the trick, suggesting in his letter that “the intended beauty of color photography would place the University in a better light contrasted with the hours of newsreels recording only Sather Gate Plaza. Berkeley would appear as the stable, respectable, educational community it is.” This appeal didn’t work, and so the filmmakers were forced to get creative. That’s why (with one very small exception) the campus scenes in The Graduate were all shot at a rival school, the University of Southern California.

Which is not to say that Berkeley doesn’t appear in The Graduate. Hoffman was filmed roaming Berkeley’s famous Telegraph Avenue, spying Elaine emerging from the legendary Moe’s Books, and rushing up the steps of an ivy-covered Berkeley frat house. There was even a covert (or, in movie parlance, “stolen”) shot of Katharine Ross, as Elaine Robinson, sauntering across the campus’s Sproul Plaza.

Though The Graduate was filmed in the spring and summer of 1967, the film contains barely a single glimpse of the sartorial style—or the political angst—we associate with the late Sixties. Only a young couple emerging from a Telegraph Avenue jewelry store (he with bushy hair and sideburns, she in miniskirt, floppy hat, and carrying a small baby), seem part of the hang-loose generation I associate with college life circa 1967. Katharine Ross would later marvel at the ironic fact that, while filming a novel published in 1963, “we were still in the fifties mentality.” At the very time that cast and crew were shooting in Berkeley, said Ross, “the Summer of Love happened in San Francisco, and Vietnam was about to blow the country apart and change us all forever.”

              This post is for Virginia Williams of the Graduate Hotel as well as Bel McNeill, bookseller extraordinaire at Bel and Bunna’s of Lafayette, California. We sure had fun, didn't we?

Monday, November 26, 2018

Nicolas Roeg and William Goldman: Hail and Farewell

It’s sad how quickly we’re losing members of the greater Hollywood community.  We can’t call them men who died before their time: each lived to a ripe old age, and enjoyed honors and accolades galore. Still, the film industry will long feel their loss.

Nicolas Roeg, born in 1928, is said to have decided  on filmmaking as a career mostly because he lived across the road from a British movie studio. He started as a tea-boy (a job that doesn’t exactly exist in America), and moved up to be a clapper-loader, which is the lowliest of cinematography jobs. Eventually he was hired as second-unit cinematographer on David Lean’s classic Lawrence of Arabia, but the relationship with Lean went south when he was fired from Lean’s equally monumental follow-up, Dr. Zhivago. He served as cinematographer, though, on films by such greats as François Truffaut (Fahrenheit 451), John Schlesinger (Far From the Madding Crowd), and Richard Lester (Petulia).

But for me Roeg’s most meaningful cinematography credit was on Roger Corman’s The Masque of the Red Death. By the time my former boss shot Masque in 1964, he had already made a name for himself by way of several features based on the eerie tales of Edgar Allan Poe. Starting with House of Usher in 1960, Corman directed and produced such chillers as Pit and the Pendulum, Premature Burial, and The Tomb of Ligeia.. But I’m not the only Corman fan who’s convinced that Masque of the Red Death is the very best of Corman’s horror epics, and part of the reason is that Roeg’s camerawork perfectly captures the kaleidoscopic yet somber mood.

Roeg of course moved beyond cinematography to put his directorial stamp on a particular kind of  otherworldly feature. His films are bleak: even the one intended for children (an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Witches) has nightmarish implications. Roeg fully exploited the dark charisma of Mick Jagger in Performance as well as the unearthly quality of David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth. Don’t Look Now (1973) was once notorious for its fairly explicit sex scene between Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie, but at its heart this is a film about vain hope, as played out by grieving parents.

William Goldman, who died on November 16 at the age of 87, left us a body of work that was less exotic and more down-to-earth. What stands out is his versatility: he was a novelist, a playwright, and a screenwriter, responsible for such major hits as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Princess Bride (a family favorite adapted from his own novel), Misery (based on the work of Stephen King), and the historically important All The President’s Men. (As a young writer, he bypassed a golden opportunity when he declined to work on the screen version of The Graduate.) Whole generations of screenwriters have learned from Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade, with its sage insistence that in the film biz “nobody knows anything.”

Goldman sometimes went far afield from Hollywood, as when he published The Season (1969), a candid assessment of the state of Broadway in the years 1967-68. I personally treasure his 1990 memoir, Hype and Glory, about the year he judged both the Cannes Film Festival and the Miss America Pageant. Here’s one characteristically pragmatic except: “Narrative is only a piece of string and it’s where you choose to cut it that’s essential. Where you choose to cut it. I might pick a piece further along, or earlier. No one is right. There is no right way to tell a story, only your way.

Since I wrote this post, I’ve learned of the deaths of film director Bernardo Bertolucci and actor/magician Ricky Jay. And so it goes.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Babymaking for Royals and Commoners: “Private Life”

The big news out of Britain is that the Duchess of Sussex, better known as Meghan Markle, is with child. Ever since she wed Prince Harry on May 19. 2018, the adoring public (both in Britain and in the colonies) has been checking out her press photos for signs of a baby bump. Now, apparently, another royal baby is on its way.

The Royal House of Windsor seems never to have had any problems with fertility. When Prince Charles wed Lady Diana Spencer in 1981, she too was soon pregnant. (At age 20, she had the advantage of youth and good health when it came to producing a strapping young princeling.) That prince, William, grew up and took a bride, Kate Middleton: she was 31 when she produced the first of her three royal children. But Meghan is now 37, an age at which successful child-bearing can’t always be counted on.

Best wishes to her, needless to say. But I’ve just seen a film in which the gift of pregnancy is not to be taken for granted. Private Life (2018), from the increasingly adventuresome Netflix, was written and directed by Tamara Jenkins. She’s a gifted filmmaker, known for such well-observed family dramedies as Slums of Beverly Hills and The Savages. More important, she knows all too well what it’s like to try – and fail – to conceive a baby. After years of effort, she and husband Jim Taylor (the artistic partner of Alexander Payne) finally managed to become parents.

Parenthood is the desperate hope of Jenkins’ two main characters in Private Life. Vividly played by Kathryn Hahn (as Rachel) and Paul Giamatti (as Richard), they are New York artsy-types who probably waited too long to commit to the idea of childbearing. Now he’s 47 and she’s 41. Their union is strong, but they’re driving one another crazy as they explore the various increasingly unattractive options that lie before them. On the one hand, they’re looking into adoption, which means remaking their lives to appeal to some teenaged birth mother who may just be stringing them along. On the other hand, they’re going through an intrusive series of medical procedures that might seem hilarious if they weren’t so emotionally fraught. 

When they learn that basic biology has thrown them a curve ball, the idea of finding an egg donor first arises. And into their rent-controlled Lower Manhattan flat comes a niece-by-marriage, a spirited young college girl who may be the answer to Rachel’s anxieties about being removed from the genetic process. Sadie is sweet and eager to help, but also has a gift for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. Like, for instance, at the Thanksgiving dinner table. She also has parents who are not at all happy about her involvement in this adventure.

I won’t reveal how it all comes out, except to praise Private Life as a slice-of-life in the very best sense. Hahn (whose previous work I don’t know) and Giamatti (who has made the portrayal of middle-aged male disgruntlement into a fine art) are funny, touching, and above all real. And young Kayli Carter is a revelation as the big-hearted, big-mouthed Sadie. By the film’s end, you want nothing but the best for all these nice (but highly troubled) people.

Private Life left me feeling very grateful indeed. I hope the House of Windsor feels the same way.

And my gratitude, plus an imaginary slice of Thanksgiving pumpkin pie, to all Beverly in Movieland readers.