Friday, May 29, 2020

Getting Down with “What’s Up, Doc?”

In the midst of a pandemic, a zany movie comedy sounds like a refreshing change of pace. And they don’t come more zany than What’s Up, Doc?  This 1972 screwball comedy helmed by Peter Bogdanovich is clearly meant to evoke such golden-age delights as Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant romping with a pet leopard in Bringing Up Baby. In line with that 1938 classic, What’s Up, Doc? features an outlandishly mismatched couple—he a stuffy academic, she a full-blown kook—who fall for each other in the course of some dizzily nonsensical adventures. In What’s Up, Doc? the leads are played by Ryan O’Neal, coming off of the seriously saccharine Love Story, and Barbra Streisand, already an Oscar winner for Funny Girl.

He’s Howard Bannister, a bespectacled midwestern paleontologist who’s come to San Francisco in hopes of a grant to research the musical achievements of cavemen striking igneous rocks. (He’s also under the thumb of a domineering fiancée, played in her feature film debut by the late, great Madeline Kahn.) The interloper who eventually unleashes his wild side is Judy Maxwell, an outrageous young woman who seems to have no other motive than to cause complete and utter chaos in Howard’s life, for his eventual betterment, of course. San Francisco plays itself, complete with cable cars, dizzyingly steep hills down which to careen, and a bay into which all the main characters will inevitably fall.

The script of What’s Up. Doc? has a remarkable pedigree. One of its credited screenwriters is Buck Henry, only a few years removed from his brilliant script for 1967’s The Graduate. Also contributing to What’s Up, Doc? were David Newman and Robert Benton, who’d written Bonnie and Clyde. So three screenwriting icons from 1967 had a hand in scripting What’s Up, Doc?, which is -- not surprisingly -- crammed full of action and wit.

So why didn’t I enjoy it more? Maybe it was my fragile mood. Still stuck in quarantine, I’m not easily amused. And though the actors played their parts with conviction, I didn’t like them enough to root for their eventual success. One particularly sour note for me was Madeline Kahn’s portrayal of the shrewish fiancée, Eunice. With her heavily lacquered hair (a wig, as we discover) and her braying voice, she is the classic stereotype of the marital shrew, from whom the red-blooded American boy-man needs to be liberated. But in watching the film, I couldn’t entirely forget how its maker, Peter Bogdanovich, had dumped his wife and longtime artistic partner, Polly Platt, for Cybill Shepherd while making his previous film, The Last Picture Show.

Bogdanovich, barely 30, was – on the heels of The Last Picture Show – the hottest thing in Hollywood. It was the era of the youthful auteur, the Boy Wonder so hip that anything he touched turned to showbiz gold. That description fit Bogdanovich (a Roger Corman alumnus who’d directed his first feature in 1968) like a glove. Not only did he aspire to write, produce, and direct—he also found a way to be a featured performer, as he was in his big Corman break-out film, Target, where he shared scenes with Boris Karloff. To put it bluntly, the guy had (and still has) chutzpah.

This is certainly revealed in the film’s trailer, in which Bogdanovich, and not his stars, is the central focus. Sure, it’s intended to be spoofy, mocking the “voice of God” narration that insists the young director is “using the camera as Heifetz uses a Stradivarius.” But Bogdanovich’s cleverness is the whole point of this over-the-top exercise. For me, anyway, enough is enough.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Shedding a Tear for Those Who made Us Laugh

Alas, no Fred Willard on this poster

Yesterday was Memorial Day, a traditional time for Americans to remember those who lost their lives on the field of battle for the sake of our democracy. Sometimes I observe the day with posts about films like Glory, Dunkirk, and Apocalypse Now, movies that celebrate great hard-fought victories or explore those conflicts in which American lives were sacrificed in vain. This year, given the challenges we’re all facing, I’m going another route. One day after Memorial Day, I’m paying tribute to men and women who are no longer around to amuse us, to lift our spirits in dark times. Yes, I mean entertainers.

Some will associate Jerry Stiller with Seinfeld, or The King of Queens. And of course it’s well known he was Ben’s dad. But oldster that I am, I associate him with his wife and comedy partner Anne Meara, and their very funny radio spots plugging Blue Nun wine. The wine itself was mediocre, but the popular ads—in which he offers her “a little Blue Nun,” and she assumes he means a Catholic sister (see below for an audio clip), helped the distributors sell more than a million cases.

We’re also saying farewell to Fred Willard, the lovable master of mediocrity. (The New York Times described his specialty as playing men “gloriously out of their depth.”) He earned four Emmy nominations on behalf of his roles on Modern Family and Everybody Loves Raymond. But he’d spent 30 years in the entertainment industry before he leaped into the public consciousness through Christopher Guest’s semi-improvised comedies, including Waiting for Guffman and A Mighty Wind. Everyone’s favorite Fred Willard portrayal is doubtless that of the clueless TV commentator in Guest’s 2000 hit, Best in Show. Offering color commentary at a prestigious (read: snooty) dog competition, Willard cheerfully reminded viewers that in some nations dogs get eaten.

And then we lost a blast from the distant past. When I was little, Leave it to Beaver was essential TV viewing.  It was the usual family sitcom. Among the younger generation living in the Cleaver household, there was little Theodore (nicknamed The Beaver), and his teenaged brother Wally. And, of course, there was Wally’s smarmy pal, Eddie Haskell, he who was always kissing up to the adults, while also secretly plotting mischief. Eddie was played by Ken Osmond, who died this past week at age 76. Once Beaver went off the air, Ormond found himself typecast, and he eventually quit show biz. Unlikely as it seems, he ended up as an LAPD motorcycle cop. No, not – despite rumors to the contrary – a porn star.

I also salute two actors not specifically known for comedy. Shirley Knight is most associated with stage work, but accrued two Oscar nominations while still in her twenties for roles in screen adaptations of challenging works by Tennessee Williams and William Inge. I’ll never forget her in Dutchman (1966), a terrifying indie based on a rawly racial play by Amiri Baraka (aka LeRoi Jones) A sexy white woman meets a buttoned-down black man (Al Freeman Jr.) on a steamy subway train: fireworks ensue.

On the international front, we’ve also lost the great Indian actor, Irrfan Khan, dead at 53. Most of Khan’s hundreds of credits are in Indian films, but he also appeared in such American movies as Life of Pi, Jurassic World, and—poignantly—opposite Kelly Macdonald in 2018’s Puzzle. But I’ll always love the dignity he brought to The Lunchbox, the tender Mumbai-set story of an unhappy wife whose lovingly packed lunch gets delivered to a lonely widower .instead of to her ungrateful husband.

Hail and farewell.

Friday, May 22, 2020

YouTubing Our Way Through a Pandemic: Spike Lee Pays Tribute to New York, New York

In these difficult days (boy, how I’ve come to loathe the word “unprecedented”), we’re all looking to be entertained as we hunch in front of our computers or curl up with Zoom on the living room couch. Since we cinema buffs can’t go to the movies, movies are coming to us. And if we miss live theatre, enterprising stage performers are finding ways to do what they do best and then transmitting it over the airwaves. It’s not enough, of course, but for now it will have to do.

A friend alerted me that one of her favorite New York stage companies, the Irish Repertory Theatre, was sharing with its patrons a special Zoom production of Molly Sweeney, a 1994 play by Irish playwright Brian Friel. This production, by an award-winning dramatist who’s been called the Irish Chekhov, is a far cry from the bits of song and storytelling that have been passing as theatre on my iPad of late. It’s a full two-act play, but one superbly suited to the odd-ball medium we’re all using in the era of COVID-19, because it’s entirely made up of monologues. There are a total of three characters: Molly, her husband, and the doctor who restores her sight after forty-some years of blindness. They trade off narrating her story, one that starts with joy and ends in great sadness. Because in many ways this is a play about isolation, the fact that the three characters are filmed in separate venues makes all the dramatic sense in the world. Bravo to a company dedicated to preserving and presenting the work of Ireland’s many dramatic masters.

That production of Molly Sweeney, which starred Geraldine Hughes and two talented actors, was performed on a limited schedule for a limited audience. But on YouTube, anything goes, including Broadway performers (and Broadway wannabes) performing—from their separate spaces—selections from famous musical numbers, like the opening scene from A Chorus Line. Sometimes they aspire to be timely, like this hilarious Covid-inspired version of “The Cell Block Tango” (renamed the Zoom Block Tango) from Chicago. 

In a more serious vein, the ever inventive Spike Lee—filmmaker extraordinaire—has compiled a breathtaking three-minute inematic paean to his home town. To the upbeat strains of Frank Sinatra singing “New York New York,”  he gives us a tour of all the boroughs, emphasizing the charm of their landmarks (skyscrapers, brownstones, bridges, Broadway) along with the fragile beauty of springtime blossoms. It’s only gradually that we glean the fact that the streets of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens are nearly bare, rather than teaming with life. Yes, Lee shows us that the city that doesn’t sleep has become something of a ghost town. The usual New York traffic jams are no more. Taxis have been replaced by ambulances speeding toward hospitals, where heroes in masks and gloves whisk desperate bodies into intensive care. Central Park is crammed full of medical tents for COVID sufferers, and a hospital ship is moored just offshore. It’s a poignant view of a town that has starred in hundreds (maybe thousands) of films as a place of optimism, romance, and upward mobility.(See, for instance, Woody Allen’s Manhattan.) But through it all Sinatra’s voice resonates with its signature insouciance. You can take it as irony. But the Sinatra tune also seems to suggest that New York will once again rise from the ashes. And if we can survive the pandemic there, we’ll make it anywhere.

I  love the fact that Lee wears his heart on his sleeve, and that he shares his love for New York City with us all

With thanks to Beth Phillips, Hilary Bienstock Grayver, and Susan Henry for sharing too.