Tuesday, March 30, 2021

The March of Time: Losing Larry McMurtry and Beverly Cleary

Movies set under western skies go back to The Great Train Robbery¸ which mesmerized viewers in 1903.  Unlike many in my generation, I didn’t grow up obsessed with cowboys-and-Indians flicks.  But I learned early on that films that call upon our collective vision of the rugged western states can have a lot to say about our lives here and now. John Ford’s 1939 Stagecoach conveyed some important lessons about the relationship of the individual and the community. William Wellman’s The Ox-Bow Incident (1942) powerfully explored social justice and the mentality of a lynch mob. In 1952, Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon focused on the courage to stand alone, even when times are tough. A decade later, Lonely Are The Brave featured Kirk Douglas as a cowboy who can’t find a way to adjust to the modern world.

 Westerns tend to go in and out of fashion. Though the early career of Clint Eastwood was heavily dependent on Old West sagas (notably the wild-and-wooly spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone), the name I most associate with westerns of all stripes is writer Larry McMurtry, who left us March 25 at the age of 84. McMurtry, who was born and died a Texan, loved chronicling his native soil in novels and screenplays that displayed a wide range. His 1962 novel Horseman, Pass By became an Oscar-winning 1963 film, Hud, about the hard-scrabble life on a cattle ranch. In 1971, he adapted his own The Last Picture Show, bringing to the screen an indelible portrait of a dying Texas town and its people. Once again actors (Cloris Leachman, Ben Johnson) took home trophies for conveying the joys and constraints of western living.

 McMurtry’s most enduring gift to television was Lonesome Dove, a Pulitzer-winning 1985 novel that became a four-part mini-series starring Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones as two former Texas Rangers who join a cattle drive. Its wild popularity among viewers and critics alike resuscitated the western genre, and led to a TV series as well as other spinoffs. But McMurtry received his highest Hollywood accolades for helping to adapt the writing of someone else. In 2005, he and longtime collaborator Diana Ossana won Oscars for turning a very short, very spare  story by Annie Proulx into a landmark film, Brokeback Mountain. Their sensitive depiction of two gay cowboys in the modern west prompted impassioned national conversation about gender roles and machismo in today’s society.

 Even in death McMurtry will surely be much discussed. Terms of Endearment, the 1983 hit film that won Shirley MacLaine her Oscar, is currently being remade by Lee Daniels, with Oprah Winfrey in the role of a Houston mom with a dying daughter. It’s based on yet another McMurtry novel, one without cowboys (though it does have a memorable astronaut character, played in 1983 by Jack Nicholson, who – yes – also walked off with a gold statuette). No question that McMurtry loved the movies, and they love him right back.

 Also on March 25 we lost another great writer. Beverly Cleary was known for Beezus and Ramona, Runaway Ralph  and other books for young readers. Her warm-hearted stories of middle-class kids are fun to read, but also seem to reflect the daily lives of genuine kids. Having a pesky younger sister of my own, I was sure that Cleary had grown up in a household much like mine. In fact, she was an only child struggling to survive an emotionally damaged mother and other serious challenges. But talent will out, I guess. Cleary, who lived to be 104, clearly came to appreciate happy families and their often-hilarious interactions.


Friday, March 26, 2021

Biopics: Hailing Two Great Ladies of Song

Hollywood always seems ready to launch another biopic. In the early days of talkies, studios rushed to immortalize famous men on film, resulting in the fawning treatment of such historical figures as Sam Houston, Abraham Lincoln, and waltz king Johann Strauss. Accuracy was not exactly the goal: a 1929 flick starring George Arliss made a long-ago prime minister of Great Britain sound like an action hero: “Benjamin Disraeli outwits the subterfuge of the Russians and chicanery at home in order to secure the purchase of the Suez Canal.” As the decades wore on, America’s top actors vied to play high-achievers whose lives were picturesquely tortured. Kirk Douglas, portraying Vincent Van Gogh in the 1956 biopic, Lust for Life, was honored with an Oscar nomination. And Anthony Quinn, as Van Gogh’s frenemy, Paul Gauguin, went home with a Supporting Actor statuette for the same film.

  Which suggests there’s gold to be gained by playing a real historical figure with a compelling life story. Like Helen Keller and her teacher Annie Sullivan: both Patty Duke and Anne Bancroft (yes, Mrs. Robinson herself) won Oscars for their roles. More recently, biopics of major entertainment figures like Richie Valens (La Bamba, with Lou Diamond Phillips), Jim Morrison (The Doors, with Val Kilmer), and Ray Charles (Ray, an Oscar-winning role for Jamie Foxx) have heaped accolades on actors while reminding us of the huge talents we have lost.

 Just two years ago, Rami Malek nabbed an Oscar for his flamboyant portrayal of Queen’s Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody. Not long thereafter, another gay rocker, Elton John, was vividly portrayed by Taron Egerton in Rocketman. These things go in cycles: now it seems to be the turn of African-American musical divas with complex family histories.

Of course I’m thinking about this year’s The United States vs. Billie Holiday, for which singer/songwriter Andra Day has already picked up a Best Actress Golden Globe. She’s also now an Oscar contender for this role. It’s a powerhouse performance, one that asks her to approximate Holiday’s unique singing style while also conveying the lady’s painful life. This is hardly the first time Holiday has been portrayed on the big screen: back in 1972, Diana Ross starred in Lady Sings the Blues, for which she too earned an Oscar nom. (In that same landmark year for Black women, Cicely Tyson was nominated for Sounder, but both lost to Liza Minnelli’s iconic performance in Cabaret). The focus for Ross’s portrayal was on Billie Holiday’s heroin addiction. This year’s film, by contrast, tells the fascinating true story of how J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI went after Holiday (even sending a young Black agent to pose as a super-fan) because of the political implications of her show-stopping ballad, “Strange Fruit.” It’s a tale worth telling, but director Lee Daniels, never known for subtlety, crams the screen with intertwining subplots, so that we’re never entirely certain who’s doing what to whom.

While Andra Day is lighting up the screens of whatever movie houses are open these days, the talented Cynthia Erivo is portraying Aretha Franklin in a multi-part segment of the cable-TV series called Genius. Less glamorous than Billie Holiday, Franklin lived a life that had its own challenges, including a domineering father who was a superstar preacher. I saw the first episode, which introduced us to the child who grew up to be the Queen of Soul as well as the young woman whose grasp of how she wanted to sing was already secure. And an Aretha biopic starring Jennifer Hudson is on its way to the multiplexes this summer. Genius indeed!