Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Heading into a Cul-de-Sac

Roman Polanski and the American film industry have had an unusual relationship. Polanski has been a Hollywood hero (for directing such major hits as Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown), and a Hollywood victim (for losing wife Sharon Tate and their unborn child to the Manson murder ring). In 1977 he evolved into a Hollywood fugitive, the result of a lurid sexual escapade with a thirteen-year-old girl at Jack Nicholson’s Bel-Air home. Though he continues to win acclaim, even in Hollywood, for such deeply moving films as The Pianist (2002), he is still today considered a fugitive from the U.S. justice system. It’s not my place here to either condemn or excuse Polanski’s behavior. Suffice it to say that he’s an extremely talented director, and one whose childhood traumas probably influenced his distinctive taste for the perverse. After all, as a six-year-old Jewish child in Krakow, he witnessed his parents being hustled off to Nazi death camps, then lived for years in foster homes, pretending to be part of the Roman Catholic majority.

 Before Polanski arrived in Hollywood, he shot much-acclaimed films both in Poland (Knife in the Water) and the United Kingdom. The psychological horror of Rosemary’s Baby was preceded by Repulsion, a British film starring Catherine Deneuve as a beautiful but sexually stunted young woman obsessed with a fear of men’s desire for her. Repulsion was Polanski’s first film in English. A year later, he made another film he had co-scripted. Called Cul-de-Sac, it was something he once declared was one of his proudest achievements.

 Cul-de-Sac is both very simple and very odd. Set in and around a centuries-old castle-like structure on a Northumberland island, it is in some ways a tone-poem that focuses on ancient stones and the lapping of the sea.  In this stark setting, we come to know three people. One is a middle-aged man, apparently retired from a successful business career, who has retreated to this castle to paint, raise chickens, and enjoy the good life. He’s played by Donald Pleasence, the bald-headed British actor often cast in sinister roles. (See, for instance, his portrayal of a villain in a James Bond flick, You Only Live Twice; he also played the psychiatrist in Halloween) Here he’s not sinister so much as weak, a man physically and emotionally incapable of defending hearth and home. That home includes his second wife, the young and beautiful Fran├žoise Dorl ac (Deneuve’s sister in real life), who seems to like stripping off her clothing in the presence of other men. This oddly-coupled pair hardly expects the arrival of a two-bit gangster hiding out after a botched robbery. He’s played by Lionel Stander, a refugee from Hollywood in the blacklist era, after years of playing sidekicks in films like  Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and A Star is Born. Stander was a big man, broad of shoulder and deep of chest, whose trademark was a distinctively gravelly speaking voice. In his presence the diminutive Pleasence shrinks to nothing, and the interplay of the trio (punctuated when a few more unexpected guests turn up) is sometimes funny but always ominous.

 Cul-de-Sac, which won top prize at the Berlin Film Festival, will not be to everyone’s taste. Though one trailer I saw promised that it would be “fun” for moviegoers, I doubt that most Americans looking for a good time at the cineplex would find this their cup of tea. It reflects the era’s nihilistic sense of alienation, as seen in the work of playwrights like Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter. But if you like the macabre, this one’s for you.


Friday, September 10, 2021

The Several Faces of Laura

 Laura? She’s the face in a misty light, footsteps that you hear down the hall, the laugh that floats on a summer night. These words come from Johnny Mercer’s memorable lyrics to “Laura,” a jazz standard that was written by David Raksin to underscore Otto Preminger’s 1944 romantic thriller of that name. It was because of that evocative music that I ended up watching Laura once again.  

 When the “Laura” theme turned up on my classical music station, I immediately recalled the Preminger film. In my mind’s eye, I could easily picture the cast: Gene Tierney as the beautiful but potentially tragic Laura; Dana Andrew as the clean-cut cop who falls in love with her portrait; Judith Anderson as her cold-blooded aunt; Vincent Price as the parasitic Shelby Carpenter. Most of all, I recollected Clifton Webb’s matchless portrayal of newspaper columnist Waldo Lydecker, whose involvement in Laura’s sad fate is more complex than it first appears. Lydecker, of course, is a smug little man known for his sharp wit and vicious tongue. As he quips, discussing his writing methods, “I don’t use a pen. I write with a goose quill dipped in venom.” He’s the character who has most of the film’s best lines: no wonder Webb was the sole acting nominee from Laura in a year that also featured Gaslight and Double Indemnity, along with unlikely winner Going My Way.

 One thing I learned from my local classical music station: Preminger was determined to build his film around a very different musical theme, Duke Ellington’s 1933 “Sophisticated Lady.” It’s a great tune, of course, but one that by 1944 was very well known. When Preminger, a man whose word was law on a movie set, announced to composer David Raksin his plans to use the Ellington piece, Raksin had an immediately objection. The tune, he argued, was just too familiar to evoke the mystery of Laura. Preminger gave Raksin a weekend to come up with something better. Happily for all of us, he did.

 The music, though, is not the only thing to admire about Laura . There’s its striking Oscar-winning black & white cinematography, its elegant costumes, its well-matched cast. It’s only in the afterglow of The End that the viewer stops to ponder character motivations that just don’t make much sense. The film was based on a best-selling novel by the once-hugely-popular Vera Caspary. Perhaps in novel form the murky doings of central characters might have seemed more convincing. In any case, Laura was a huge hit for Twentieth Century-Fox. When I wrote about it previously for Beverly in Movieland (March 26, 2013), I had just come from a big-screen showing of the film as part of the L.A. Cinematheque’s annual Noir City series. My friend and film noir expert Alan K. Rode was on hand to explain how Preminger became the director as well as the producer of Laura, despite a serious falling out with Fox head Darryl F. Zanuck over a previous project.

 I won’t repeat Alan’s full explanation here, except to say that Zanuck’s first choice for director was the well-established Rouben Mamoulian, who had made cinema history via his experiments with sound in 1929’s Applause, while also directing such landmark Broadway shows as Oklahoma! and Porgy and Bess. But because of questionable casting choices and an insistence that Laura’s essential portrait be painted by his own artist-wife, Mamoulian got the boot. I saw her work hanging on the walls when I interviewed an aged Mamoulian in his home, and I’m convinced that his firing was all to the good.


Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Tears and Chuckles in the Newsroom: Ed Asner Bites the Dust

It’s been a tough year for The Mary Tyler Moore Show. The workplace sitcom, set mostly in the newsroom of a Minneapolis TV station, ran from 1970 to 1977. For me it was essential viewing, as part of a Saturday night CBS comedy line-up. Though not nearly as in-your-face outrageous as 1971’s All in the Family and some of the sitcoms that followed, Mary Tyler Moore contributed to an adult kind of comedy by focusing on a young single woman more focused on her career than on her marital prospects. The show’s most endearing trait, though, was its well-established sense of camaraderie between Mary and her newsroom pals, whose interactions would seem familiar to anyone who’s ever toiled in an office setting. The grumpy boss; the eager assistant; the sardonic sidekick; the social climber; the doofus who somehow succeeds beyond everyone else’s expectations: all of these familiar types make their appearance on the show. But they’re more than simply caricatures: talented writer/creators James L. Brooks and Allan Burns make them real, complex individuals (well, maybe aside from smarmy news anchor Ted Baxter, who gives egotism a bad name). And, from all accounts, the actors playing these roles happily worked together to produce, week after week, can’t-miss TV.

 But 2021 has hardly been kind to the Mary Tyler Moore alumni. Over the years, many of the eight regulars passed away, starting with Ted Knight (much acclaimed for playing popinjay Ted Baxter) dying of cancer back in 1986, and the radiant Mary herself succumbing to illness in 2017. Two years later, we lost Valerie Harper, who was unforgettably acerbic as Mary’s lovelorn pal, Rhoda. But 2021 saw the demise of three of the series’ stars. In January it was Cloris Leachman, hilariously neurotic as the narcissistic Phyllis Lindstrom, but also an Oscar-winning dramatic actress (for The Last Picture Show). February brought the death of Gavin MacLeod, who played perennial office wiseacre Murray Slaughter, then went on to other good-guy TV roles. And, of course, last week it was everyone’s favorite newsroom boss, the crusty but fundamentally tender-hearted Lou Grant, played by the invaluable Edward Asner. Asner had a long run as Lou Grant, both on the Mary Tyler Moore Show and later heading up a serious take on newspaper journalism, called simply Lou Grant (1977-1982). So closely was Asner identified with this role that when he appeared in other dramatic contexts, as in the 1977 miniseries Roots, you couldn’t help wondering why in the world Lou Grant was commanding a slave ship.

 Like all other fans, I have my favorite episodes. One is the much-acclaimed “Chuckles Bites the Dust,” in which a local TV clown has dressed up as a peanut for a local parade, only to be mauled to death by a confused elephant. The heart of episode takes place at Chuckles’ funeral, where the staff of WJM desperately try to keep from laughing at the whole tragic but absurd situation.  But in tribute to Ed Asner, I just watched the series’ last two episodes. In one, Mary and Lou try – at long last – to get romantic, but quickly realize that their work relationship makes courtship impossible. The very last show of all highlights the dispersal  of the WJM team after an ownership change and mass firing. The valiantly unsentimental Lou can’t help blurting out, “I treasure you people.” Personally, I feel the same way.

 Kudos to sole survivor Betty White. She’s 99 now: may she continue to live long and prosper. Right now I don’t want to lose any more of the show’s alumni.




Friday, September 3, 2021

Wagging the (Hot) Dog: Barry Levinson Discovers His Calling

 Today—as California moves toward an outrageous recall election and U.S. military spokesmen tapdance around the situation on ground in Afghanistan—it’s not easy to keep politics out of my head. Which is why I returned to one of my favorite Barry Levinson films, Wag the Dog. Partially written by the always razor-sharp David Mamet, and shot in a remarkable (for a star-studded Hollywood flick) 29 days, it is a black-hearted look at how the political process can be manipulated to shape public opinion.

 You see, the President of the United States has slipped off to the Oval Office with a young female Firefly Scout. The press has gotten wind of it, and the election is less that two weeks away.  POTUS’s loyal staffers, desperate to salvage his re-election campaign, call in top spin doctor Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro), who knows that a big international distraction is what’s needed. Like, maybe, a war with Albania? Such an undertaking needs some Hollywood pizzazz, and Brean knows exactly who to call: producer Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman). Motss, still miffed that he’s never won an Oscar, plunges eagerly into this new project, even though he’s been warned he will never publicly be able to claim credit. The heart of the film involves examples of Stanley’s inventive handiwork, like a video clip of a bogus Albanian maiden – with kitten inserted via CGI – telling the camera how badly she needs American intervention to help save her homeland. (She’s played by Kirsten Dunst, looking particularly fetching in her peasant rags.)

 When the CIA, in league with the President’s political rival, announces that the non-existent war is over, Brean and his team come up with one final burst of inspiration, in the form of an American soldier supposedly left behind on the field of battle. An Army prison supplies them with the soldier, Sergeant William Schumann, around whom they create an entire heroic mythology involving a nickname, The Old Shoe, and a sentimental ballad theoretically dug out of the archives of the Library of Congress. (Sung by none other than Willie Nelson, it launches a whole campaign of old tennis sneakers being tossed onto telephone wires, in honor of the brave lad.) 

 I won’t spoil the film’s ending, except to note that Wag the Dog was released in theatres a scant month before a certain U.S. President was making headlines for his Oval Office frolics with a zoftig female intern. And not long thereafter, that administration was bombing Sudan’s Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory. Life imitating art?

 Barry Levinson, who’s still very much an active Hollywood presence, started out as a screenwriter, then made the leap into the director’s chair. His biggest moment as a director probably came in 1989 when he won the Oscar for helming Rain Man. But I’m partial to his 1982 debut film as a writer/director, one that helps capture the Baltimore of his birth. When you’ve been watching classic Hollywood movies, full of snappy dialogue and carefully choreographed movement, Diner seems almost loosey-goosey. This tale of six buddies who hang out afterhours at the local diner is basically a character study, one that conveys a sense of improvisation by its young cast. They’re out of school and restless: even sporting events and marriage pale before the pleasure of being in one another’s company over a plate of fries. Kevin Bacon, Steve Guttenberg, Paul Reiser, Mickey Rourke, Daniel Stern, and Tim Daly have all gone on to major Hollywood careers. But they’ve never been better than in this warm-hearted ode to the American boy-man who hasn’t figured out how to grow up.