Monday, February 17, 2020

Kirk Douglas, A Champion Indeed

In the classic western, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Wyatt Earp worries about the health of a cantankerous dentist-turned-gambler, Doc Holliday. Holliday has a nasty cough that’s not getting better, and his serious boozing is not likely to cure it. It’s probable he doesn’t have long to live. Still, says Earp to Halliday, “You’re just ornery enough to live to a ripe old age.”

This line hit home for me, because it is delivered by Burt Lancaster (playing Earp) to someone who did indeed—despite several dramatic setbacks—live to a ripe old age. Doc Holliday, of course, is played by the late Kirk Douglas, who left us last week at the impressive age of 103.

Douglas’s up-from-the-gutter career began on the stage. Helped by his drama school classmate Lauren Bacall to land Hollywood roles, he won a featured part in his first film, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, in 1946. Other early films included the noir classic Out of the Past. I was surprised to find Douglas part of the ensemble of a rather creative (if sappy) 1949 romantic drama, A Letter to Three Wives, in which three female friends find their marriages endangered by a sexy rival. It’s not easy to buy Douglas, known for his on-screen macho intensity, as a meekly dissatisfied schoolteacher who feels threatened by his wife’s high-paying career. But his very next film, Champion, sealed his reputation: playing Midge Kelly, a ruthless young boxer who’ll do anything to succeed, he’s unforgettable. This film marked his first of three Best Actor nominations. The second honored his performance as a tough-as-nails Hollywood producer in 1952’s The Bad and the Beautiful; the third recognized his ambitious but (to my mind) unconvincing turn as painter Vincent Van Gogh in 1956’s Vincente Minnelli extravaganza, Lust for Life.  

Douglas’s years of friendship with fellow star Burt Lancaster are reflected in the John Sturges western I mentioned earlier, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. This 1957 flick is a classic of its era. From the moment that Frankie Laine’s voice begins to warble the film’s mournful theme song while the camera sweeps across the Technicolor plains, we know we’re in good hands. The cast is filled with Golden Age standouts like Jo Van Fleet (as a bad girl with a heart of gold), Earl Holliman, and a very young Dennis Hopper (whom Lancaster tries to persuade to give up his gunslinging ways). But the film’s focus is on the gradual bonding of its two male stars: Lancaster as the noble, peace-loving, slightly sentimental Earp and Douglas as the erratic, self-destructive, but always gutsy Halliday. More than thirty years later, Lancaster and Douglas again shared the screen, this time in a slapstick comedy, Tough Guys, about ageing buddies who’ve spent three decades in the clink for trying to rob a train and now—upon their release—must figure out how to make their way in the modern world. It’s all pretty silly, but it’s striking how their roles haven’t changed much, with Lancaster still the romantic and Douglas the devil-may-care goofball.

Not everyone liked Kirk Douglas in his prime. I know a woman with longtime industry connections: in speaking of  why she mistrusted Douglas she was wont to say, “He really is Midge Kelly.” Maybe so, but late in life (following some serious physical and emotional challenges) he devoted himself to religious exploration, meeting regularly with a noted L.A. rabbi to study the faith of his fathers. After two major strokes, he wrote and worked on behalf of stroke victims, and was known for building playgrounds for needy L.A. kids. All hail!  

Friday, February 14, 2020

Sketch to Screen-- Hollywood's Oscar Nominees Talk Costuming

By the time you read this, the 2020 Oscar results will be in the books, and  the world will know who has taken home the golden statuette for Best Costume Design . Could it be Mark Bridges, who outfitted the Joker in his wine-red suit? Or Jacqueline Durran, for her color-coded gowns reflecting the prim nineteenth century world of Little Women? Perhaps the winners were Christopher Peterson and fifteen-time nominee Sandy Powell, joining forces on the 6,000 period costumes needed for The Irishman. Or Mayes C. Rubeo, a first-time nominee who made a big impact on a small budget (I loved those telltale spectator pumps) with Jojo Rabbit. Or maybe Arianne Phillips, who captured the Hawaiian shirts and the laid-back styles of 1969 for One Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood.

Sitting at my computer on the morning of the Oscar ceremony, I didn’t know who had triumphed. But I was thinking back to a very special event I attended on Saturday, February 8. Called “Sketch to Screen,” it was a celebration of costume design, sponsored by UCLA’s David C. Copley Center for Costume Design, along with Swarovski, the crystal company that is now enjoying its 125th year in business. The highlight of the afternoon was a spirited panel led by UCLA professor and costume historian Deborah Nadoolman, herself an Oscar nominee for the over-the-top designs in Coming to America. All six of this year’s nominees were present on-stage, and Nadoolman’s smart questions led them to reflect in colorful terms on their profession.

All agreed that costumes are essential contributions to Best Actor and Best Actress performances. Why? Because appropriate clothing and footwear help performers connect with the time and place their characters are supposed to inhabit. Beyond this, they help the actors shape their characters’ approach to life. Said the always articulate Nadoolman, “We give actors the clothes; the actors give the world the performance.” Generally lead actors are part of the discussions about their costumes, and  try them on far enough in advance to incorporate their look and feel as they create their characterizations. But sometimes the costume is the first thing that introduces an actor to his or her part. Arianne Phillips remembers one low-budget quickie for which Malcolm McDowell admitted he hadn’t had time to read the script: the clothing she’d designed provided his first instructive glimpse of the man he was supposed to be.

The panelists all admitted they were bothered when actors insisted on comfortable modern footwear (like, for instance, ugg boots) hidden beneath period finery. The story was told about how director Stephen Frears, shooting Dangerous Liaisons in 1988, allowed Michelle Pfeiffer to wear her own cowboy boots underneath her 18th century gowns. This may have put her at ease, and but it also affected her gait on screen in a way that was far from appropriate.

Of course no one expects 100% fidelity to the hugely constricting styles of the past. And there are times, for the purposes of artistry and character exploration, when designers deviate from strict fidelity to period dress. Sandy Powell, whose designs for last year’s The Favourite were deliberately eccentric, insists, “We’re not making documentaries.”

Sometimes, though, an authentic fabric or ornament establishes the reality of an outfit. For Brad Pitt’s role in Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood, Phillips located a massive vintage belt buckle that proclaimed its wearer a proud member of the Stuntmen’s Association. This buckle, along with Hawaiian shirts, jeans, and moccasins, helped turn Pitt’s Cliff Booth into a cool customer whom audiences, and award-giving bodies, have loved.
OK, now the results are in. Congratulations to Jackie Durran for her award-winning designs – period frocks with deliberately modern touches -- for the four March sisters

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

The (2nd) Morning After the Oscars: With Love for Hair and Other Cool Things

Now that the hoo-hah is over (the jewelry is going back in the vaults, and the stagehands are sweeping up the sparkles), I guess it’s time to assess my feelings about the annual exercise in rampant narcissism and mock-humility. It was exciting, boring, funny, perverse, sweetly sad, and all-around unique, much like last year. As always, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

The victory of Parasite was a thrill, and the awarding of the top Oscar to this beautifully made, audaciously entertaining work of thought-provoking foreign-language cinema ended the evening on the highest of high notes. I loved the artful way that the film’s writer/director, Bong Joon Ho, paid tribute from the stage to grand-master Martin Scorsese. In fact, Scorsese received so many shout-outs that for much of the evening he seemed the happiest man in the audience. Until, of course, his The Irishman didn’t take home a single statuette. Which was fine by me.

The acting awards generated little excitement for me because every one of the four ultimate winners had been sweeping up accolades for months. I’m never going to be a Renee Zellweger fan, nor do I have much affection for tortured super-villains of the Joaquim Phoenix variety. But I’ve got to hand it to Brad Pitt, both for his marvelously laid-back turn in a great film, Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood, and for his wit on the podium. It’s in iffy taste to make political pronouncements while accepting an acting award in this company, but Pitt’s glancing John Bolton remark seemed perfectly timed and delivered.

But my biggest enthusiasm is for the woman who won in the supporting actress category. Like Martin Scorsese, Laura Dern has a Roger Corman connection that endears her to me. She tells anyone who’ll listen that she was conceived on the set of Roger’s 1966 biker epic, The Wild Angels¸ in which her parents Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd both had featured roles. But that’s not the only reason I like her. I’ve been appreciating her acting for years, with a special admiration for her leading role in a small 1985 indie called Smooth Talk. It’s based on one of Joyce Carol Oates’ best stories, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” Dern plays a bored, rebellious fifteen-year-old who leaves her home in search of adventure and finds far more than she bargained for. In the story as written, we’re inside young Connie’s mind; on screen Dern’s performance subtly lets us see what makes her tick.

There’s also the fact that she’s beloved by the film community: she’s on the board of the new up-and-coming Academy Museum, the opening of which was announced with much fanfare during the broadcast. As a museum donor, I attended a session where Dern interviewed the project’s architect, Renzo Piano, revealing that she can be charming and witty even without someone writing her lines. And of course the voters took note of the fact that, while awards-nominated for playing a tough-as-nails divorce attorney in Marriage Story, she also scored in the much gentler, much more maternal role of Marmee in Little Women. The lady has range to go along with her unflagging energy, and I’m delighted she got the win.

One thing more: I’m generally out of the loop when it comes to the Oscar-nominated short subjects. They sometimes play on bills around L.A., but I rarely get to see them. After the fact, though, I found it was easy to watch for free the winning animated short, “Hair Love.” Check out this crowd-funded instant classic here!