Friday, October 30, 2020

A Very Hugh Grant Scandal


 He’s cute and cuddly, with floppy hair, baby-blue eyes, and the gobsmacked look of a lovestruck teenager. The Jeopardy question would be: Who is Hugh Grant? Actors, of course, are not identical to the roles they play. But after seeing (more than once) such charming British films as Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, and Love, Actually, I find it hard not to associate Grant forever with his signature romantic roles.

 But Grant is (gulp!) sixty now, and more than ready to put those adorable personae behind him.  He was ambiguous as the supportive (though philandering) husband of Meryl Streep in 2016’s Florence Foster Jenkins. And he’s moved much further into dark territory of late with such TV fare as A Very English Scandal, presented by Amazon Prime in 2018. It is a three-part enactment, directed by the always worthy Stephen Frears,  of an actual political scandal that mesmerized the British press and the British public in 1976-1979.

 Grant (who was a very cute, very young British prime minister in Love, Actually) here plays Jeremy Thorpe, a Member of Parliament who is moving rapidly into the leadership of the upstart Liberal Party. Charming and cocky, he deftly conceals ongoing homosexual flings (wholly illegal in England until 1967) while appearing in public as a progressive statesman with a bright future. In 1961, while visiting a country estate, Thorpe meets a naive 21-year-old stable boy named Norman Josiffe, and feels a strong attraction. When Norman shows up in London, out of work and desperate, Thorpe installs him in an apartment and seduces him into the life of a kept man. Norman (in the stunning performance of Ben Whishaw) is a chap who’s destined to cause trouble. Mentally unstable, he craves beyond anything to be loved and to have that love acknowledged. Though Thorpe was once smitten enough to write him passionate letters, he also recognizes Norman as a liability to his political future. That’s why he eventually cuts Norman loose . . . but there is hell to pay.

 Norman—who now calls himself Norman Scott—tries on various post-Thorpe lifestyles, succeeding briefly as a male model and party-boy. He also, briefly, gets married . . . as does Thorpe, twice. But the always erratic Norman wants public recognition of the affair, as well as a reinstatement of his essential National Health card, which would threaten to expose the true nature of his past Thorpe connection. Stymied by Norman’s growing coziness with the tabloid press, Thorpe comes to an important conclusion. He wants Norman Scott dead.

 Norman doesn’t die. In fact the real Norman Scott is alive and well, as revealed in the series’ inevitable final crawl. But far be it from me to disclose the grim outcome of Thorpe’s skullduggery, as well as the results of the trial that gripped the United Kingdom in the late 1970s. Why is this scandal so “very English”? Perhaps because it tells us a great deal about the English talent for keeping up a façade, whatever the circumstances. And it also implies many things about British class distinctions, and how these enable the upper classes to live lives of their own choosing, while also skirting social and sexual standards to which they merely pay (stiff upper)lip-service. 

 For me both Wishaw and Grant were revelations. I don’t know Wishaw’s work, though I’ll certainly be looking out for it in future. As for Grant, who also stars with Nicole Kidman in this year’s new series, The Undoing, who knew he’d be so good at being bad?

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Fosse/Verdon: Giving ‘em the Old Razzle-Dazzle

It’s no secret that I love musical theatre, whether on stage or on the screen. Thanks to the pandemic, I haven’t attended a stage musical since early in the year, and some of the award-winning productions to which I was enthusiastically looking forward are now, I guess you could say, gone with the wind. This past summer, the skillfully-made video version of Hamilton helped remind me how much I love literate stories that are fueled by song and dance. Basically, though, I’m reduced to watching old movies from my childhood in order to feed my theatregoing habit.

 But of course there’ve been some dividends from my recent hours of TV-watching. For one thing, I got to catch up with a mini-series that had always intrigued me. Fosse/Verdon first aired in eight parts on FX, beginning in the spring of 2019, back when the world was considerably saner than it is now. It’s a close-up look at two giants of stage and screen: director/choreographer Bob Fosse and his everloving wife, Gwen Verdon. I had read about the personal lives of these two—their turbulent marriage, Fosse’s chronic philandering along with  his dependence on drink and drugs, Verdon’s struggles to assert her independence of her spouse—in Sam Wasson’s excellent Fosse biography, published in 2013. But a book can’t convey the impact of Fosse’s landmark choreography, nor Verdon’s incandescent stage presence.

 Thanks to the well-staged mini-series I got to relive some of the pair’s theatrical highlights. These include Fosse creating Verdon’s sexy solos as the temptress Lola in Damn Yankees; Verdon communicating to the Sweet Charity taxi-dancers Fosse’s radical vision of the “Big Spender” number; Verdon flying to Berlin on short notice to help Fosse launch his screen directing career with Cabaret (and discovering upon arrival that he’s sleeping with someone else). One of my favorite moments shows how Verdon’s softer approach succeeds in conveying to performers the staging ideas that Fosse’s truculent manner can’t communicate. As she modestly explains it, “I just know how to speak Bob. It's my native tongue.”

 The acting is strong. I admired the highly malleable Sam Rockwell (credible here as the slim, graceful, and hugely troubled Fosse) and particularly Michelle Williams, who had me almost convinced she was the incarnation of the distinctive-looking and -sounding Verdon. The restaging of famous numbers was done with care and love. Only problem: the series tries too hard to emulate the funky surrealism of Fosse’s own semi-autobiographical film, All That Jazz. And, frankly, it’s easy to be weary of the usual showbiz tropes: the guy who craves fame but carelessly squanders his talent,  the co-dependent wife, even the adored  daughter – growing up too fast --who barely survives her parents’ legacy. (Nicole Fosse, now clean and sober, was a series producer.)  My favorite episode is one that focuses, for a change, on Verdon’s own life challenges. It  cleverly uses “Razzle Dazzle,” a song from her musical hit Chicago, to show her knowingly charming the head of an adoption agency when a natural-born baby doesn’t seem like a possibility.

 The timeline in the mini-series is creatively scrambled, so that we aren’t trapped by the occasional tedium of strict chronology. The cast is chock-full of near-lookalikes playing Fosse friends and protégées, including Neil Simon, Paddy Chayefsky, and Liza Minnelli in full Cabaret mode. Special kudos to Margaret Qualley (daughter of Andie MacDowell) whose career has taken a big leap forward recently, between her sympathetic performance as Fosse’s main squeeze, Ann Reinking and her role as a Manson groupie in Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. About her there’s more to come.


Friday, October 23, 2020

Foul Ball?: Baseball at the Movies

As I write this, my Los Angeles Dodgers and the Tampa Bay Rays are tied after the second game of a COVID-era World Series. Both their championship games so far have been heaven for baseball fans, featuring home runs galore, as well as circus catches, stolen bases, and heroics on the mound. Of course both teams badly want to win, but the Dodgers are seeking redemption for the bruising 2017 World Series in which the Houston Astros (or, as I like to think of them, the Houston Asterisks) launched an elaborate sign-stealing scheme that gave them the essential edge over my hometown boys in blue.

 Baseball has long been considered America’s game, so it’s hardly surprising that it reflects both aspects of the American character: the idealistic and the crass, the dreamer and the schemer. And baseball movies, of course, have also reflected this duality. The 2013 film 42 -- starring Chadwick Boseman as Jackie Robinson and Harrison Ford as the forward-thinking team owner who made him major league baseball’s first Black player -- is filled with a sense of hope. Two years earlier, Moneyball focused on baseball’s pragmatic side, zeroing in on the 2002 Oakland A’s and their cagey strategy for building a winning team through modern Sabermetric research.

 Back in 1992, A League of Their Own coupled baseball with budding feminism, in telling the story of an all-female professional baseball league that briefly emerged when the men were away fighting World War II. This film, starring Geena Davis as a star player and Tom Hanks as her beleaguered manager, gave us a maxim that still holds true (well, usually): “There’s no crying in baseball.”

 A stadium in a cornfield functioned as a symbol of reconciliation with the past in one of everyone’s favorite baseball movies, 1989’s Field of Dreams. Kevin Costner starred both in that film and in a 1988 flick that captured baseball’s sexy side. Remember Bull Durham? It hilariously pinpoints the way ballplayers are catnip to a minor-league baseball groupie played to a fare-thee-well by a luscious Susan Sarandon.

 Sex and baseball also mix, though more innocently, in the Hollywood rendition of a Broadway musical hit, Damn Yankees (1958). It’s the movie that asks the Faustian question: would you sell your soul to defeat baseball’s most hated team for the American League pennant? The sex angle of course is worked by Gwen Verdon, who – as the tantalizing Lola – is trying to seduce a good Joe on behalf of her boss, the Devil.

 Damn Yankees is marked by an innocent quality that puts it right in line with other Technicolor 1950s musicals. But other baseball films confront more directly the possibility of evil at the ballpark. One is John Sayles’ 1988 account of the Black Sox cheating scandal that marred the 1919 World Series. It’s called Eight Men Out, and it’s not too easy to locate.

 By contrast there’s the sometimes-inspired sometimes-annoying 1984 film rendition of Bernard Malamud’s novel, The Natural. Malamud, whose literary success stemmed from later stories about New York Jewish shopkeepers and scholars, began his career with a strange work blending baseball with Arthurian legend. Robert Redford (who else?) is the heroic but flawed baseball player with the magic bat and the near-fatal wound from long ago. This modern-day King Arthur, the mysterious star of the New York Knights, fends off a corrupt team management while also coming to terms with the women in his life. The filmmakers, desperate to make some sense out of Malamud’s meanderings, changed his ending. The result is lovely to look at, but I balk at finding it meaningful.