Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Stephen Sondheim: A Little Zoom Music

Stephen Sondheim, the composer-lyricist of musical theatre masterpieces, is far more associated with Broadway than with Hollywood. Still, as “the other Steven” (Spielberg) acknowledged on last weekend’s Zoom Sondheim tribute, Sondheim surpasses even Spielberg himself in his passionate devotion to Golden Age movie trivia. He’s even an Oscar winner, for contributing a song, “Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man),” to 1991’s Dick Tracy. And he’s the co-screenwriter, with actor Anthony Perkins, of The Last of Sheila, a 1973 non-musical film based on their mutual love of twisty murder mysteries.

So Sondheim’s definitely a movie fan. He’s become an active part of what might be considered Hollywood heresy: an upcoming remake of the classic 1961 West Side Story, for which Sondheim once wrote the lyrics to Leonard Bernstein’s score. He also authorized the filming of respectable versions of two of his biggest hits. The delightfully macabre Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street was filmed in 2007. Directed by Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham-Carter, the film version lost some of the stage show’s vocal richness but added some bizarre touches that Sondheim must have enjoyed. (I loved the staging of the “By the Sea” number, showing Sweeney on the sand at Brighton, still wearing his rusty black city clothes and dour expression.) And in 2014 there was a thoroughly delightful Into the Woods, Sondheim’s most fractured of fairy tales. A work of astonishing musical complexity, it reveled in the singing talents of such familiar Hollywood folk as Emily Blunt, Anna Kendrick, James Corden, Christine Baranski, and Meryl Streep.

The latter two showed up on that Zoom tribute, which celebrated Sondheim’s 90th birthday while raising funds for Actors Striving to End Poverty. Baranski and Street were joined on screen by Audra McDonald, all of them socially distancing, to get happily sloshed while warbling Sondheim’s acerbic “Here’s to the Ladies who Lunch,” from Company. I loved watching the three in their plush white bathrobes, wielding cocktail shakers like maracas, trying desperately to sing together while being far, far apart. There was also a foursome striving to bring off “Someone in a Tree” from Pacific Overtures, with one of the performers getting in character by recording his vocal from under a kitchen table. And somehow thirty musicians, led by a hardworking conductor, managed to coordinate on the jazzy overture from Merrily We Roll Along. 

It’s always a delight to hear Sondheim songs—both the familiar and the obscure—belted out by Broadway pros like Sutton Foster, Neil Patrick Harris, Kelli O’Hara, and Bernadette Peters. I also enjoyed change-of-pace performers like the wacky YouTube star Randy Rainbow, perhaps better known for his timely “Spoonful of Clorox” spoof of a certain political leader. And it was a pleasure to learn that Hollywood’s Jake Gyllenhaal really can sing.

Of course it’s no secret that non-singers have been starring in Hollywood musicals for years. At first secrecy surrounded the fact that Marni Nixon’s limpid soprano provided the singing voices for Deborah Kerr in The King and I, Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady, and Natalie Wood in The Side Story. Nowadays the trend is for performers to use their own pipes, however modest their vocal talent. Sometimes their limitations are a blessing in disguise. When Sondheim was first writing A Little Night Music, star Glynis Johns had a limited range. He kept this in mind while writing one of his best-loved ballads, “Send in the Clowns.” But when the play made a transition to film, Johns’ role was given to glamorous but not particularly musical Elizabeth Taylor, with painfully uncinematic results. 

Friday, April 24, 2020

Not Just for the Money: Hollywood Screenwriters Tell All

When I fell into the movie industry, no one taught me anything about how to write a screenplay. I was an almost-PhD in English, accustomed to reading Shakespeare and abstruse modern novels. On my first day at Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, I was handed a script – it was Charles Willeford’s screen adaptation of his own down-and-dirty Cockfighter – and told to note my thoughts on how well it worked. Somehow I managed to make a good impression. My career as a motion picture story editor had begun.

Roger, in those years, was a master at avoiding the hiring of union screenwriters, who of course were paid more than Corman peons. My good friend Frances Doel, from whom I learned the tricks of the screenwriting trade, was quite resigned to being send home on a Friday afternoon and told to come back Monday with the first draft of some screenplay for which Roger had supplied the premise. She’d slap a pseudonym on the title page, and when a credentialed screenwriter was brought in to improve on her very rough original, the identity of the first writer was our little secret. (We had to come clean just once, when the very gentlemanly William W. Norton expressed a strong interest in meeting with that original writer in order to check out some story points.)

Later, when I worked at Roger’s Concorde-New Horizons, we dispensed with WGA writers altogether. Or, at least, we weren’t WGA signatories. Plenty of writers with guild-worthy credentials but no work on hand were happy to invent new names for themselves so that they could be part of our cut-rate productions.  Henry Dominic, anyone?

Although I have six Roger Corman screenwriting credits, I’ve never been a WGA member. Still, the guild sends me the occasional check (compensation for overseas screenings of films I’ve written), and I have the greatest respect for the pros who deserve every penny they’ve earned by crafting my favorite movies and TV shows. And I’m happy to endorse a recent publication of the Writers Guild Foundation, edited by screenwriter Daryl G. Nickens. It’s called Doing It for the Money: The Agony and the Ecstasy of Writing and Surviving in Hollywood.

How-to books about screenwriting are a dime a dozen, and I wouldn’t recommend this one as a primer. Though several brief sections offer the reader “Secrets of the Hollywood Pros,” the book’s strength does not lie in providing specific advice on such things as formatting and loglines. Instead, the core of Doing It for the Money  is a series of short essays by award-winning writers on how they’ve handled their own yen to tell stories on the screen. They’re writers, after all, so they express themselves with heart and wit. They’re funny, and often inspirational.

My very favorite section is  by Glenn Gordon Caron. He was once a newbie on a TV sitcom writing staff, led by a man named Steve. Everyone loved Steve’s work, but one week it was Caron’s turn to churn out the first draft. Instantly, the cast turned hostile, refusing to have anything to do with this interloper’s script, and insisting that Steve step in and fix it. Steve, who knew a good script when he saw one, told Caron to re-submit the same draft but add the word “revised version” to the title page. Suddenly everyone was onboard, and Steve announced that Caron had made many of the great fixes himself. With his reputation and his morale saved, Caron went on to a long career, including the wonderful Moonlighting. Like most Hollywood writers, he wasn’t doing it just for the money. .

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Hiding in Plain Sight: “The Two of Us”

As (thanks to the COVID pandemic) we self-isolate from the outside world, it’s easy to compare ourselves to Anne Frank and her family, sheltering in that tiny attic. Big difference, of course: the Franks and others like them were hiding from human enemies, who’d be glad to ship them off to death camps if they ever showed their faces. The distinction between a virus and a flesh-and-blood foe is obvious. Viruses don’t care who gets in their way. Humans choose their victims, selecting some, letting others go on with their lives, untouched.  During the dark days of World War II, the revelation of who you were could mean your death at the hands of someone who hated you solely because of the accident of your birth.

These thoughts occurred to me at a timely moment: tomorrow is a day set aside to remember the victims of the Holocaust,. A slew of Holocaust movies, from both American and European filmmaker make clear what social isolation is REALLY like. One that was released back in 1967 comes from France. Claude Berri’s The Two of Us  is striking because it’s a Holocaust film without death camps and  without serious violence. In fact the world it shows us is for the most part fairly pleasant.

It’s 1944, and a Jewish family living in Paris under the Vichy regime is having a hard time keeping a low profile. The Langmanns’ nine-year-old son Claude is a mischievous boy who always seems to be getting into minor trouble. For his own protection, and theirs, his parents reluctantly ship him off to live in the countryside with the elderly father of a friend. They’ve schooled him to take on a new surname, to pretend to be Roman Catholic, and (above all) never to let anyone see him unclothed from the waist down.

Pépé Dupont, whom Claude quickly learns to call Grandpa, is a man of the soil. He’s so uncouth and so earthy that Zorba the Greek would seem like a suave urbanite by comparison. Claude’s first glimpse of him occurs at his kitchen table, where he’s feeding his large elderly dog with a spoon. Pépé  (memorably played by the award-winning Michel Simon) has a good heart: alone among those in his community he’s become a vegetarian, rather than eat any of the beloved rabbits he and his wife raise. But if he loves animals, he’s less sure about people. He hates many of them on principle: the Communists, the English, the Americans. Above all, he has no use for Jews, whom he pictures in terms that might have come straight from a textbook for Nazi children. Jews, he insists, are easy to smell out.  Claude of course keeps silent about his own background, and soon he and Pépé are enjoying a warm familial relationship.

If this were an American movie, there’d be, toward the end, a big revelation scene in which Claude’s masquerade would be uncovered and lessons would be learned. Instead The Two of Us ends on an ambiguous note: we’re simply not sure if Pépé ever becomes aware of the deception, nor do we know the extent to which Claude’s “innocent’ questions about Jews are asked with an ulterior motive. Frankly, I liked the way the film left me with matters to ponder. One of them is the fact that Claude Berri, making his directorial debut, was born to Jewish immigrant parents and named Claude Berel Langmann. In 1944 he was nine year old. This film doesn’t claim to tell HIS story, but he surely knew in his bones the world he showed on screen.