Tuesday, March 29, 2022

The Deaf and the Tone-Deaf: Oscars 2022

As we reached the close of The Power of the Dog, a fellow moviegoer turned to me and said, appreciatively, “Well, I never saw that coming.” By contrast, eventual Oscar Best Picture winner, CODA is, for all of its obvious charm, is a movie about which you’d have to say, “I certainly saw it coming.”  Meaning: that happy ending, one that reduced me and everyone else to tears, was tacitly guaranteed from the start. We viewers were rooting for this endearing, if beleaguered, family to move onward and upward, and of course we got our wish. There’s nothing like a feel-good film to lift your spirits and make you think more kindly about your fellow human beings. We need uplift in these terrible times, and CODA gave us what we craved, with both hands.  

 Which was certainly one reason for its Oscar win on Sunday night. It was also a night that was woefully short on surprises. As for the winners, we certainly saw them coming. Prognosticators have become so acute at ferreting out voting patterns that virtually every award had been correctly predicted in advance. (Suspense? We don’t need no stinkin’ suspense.) It’s partly for that reason, I suspect, that viewership for the ceremony continues to drop. If the biggest unknown of the evening is whether one of those glamorously-low-cut ladies will accidentally tip out of her top on-camera, the event is in big trouble.

 Instead of suspense, we got a large dose of identity politics, with virtually every big winner giving a shout-out to some oppressed group. Please don’t get me wrong: Hollywood’s history is full of shameful treatment of groups outside of the mainstream, and I rejoice that films are being recognized for introducing us to cultures and lifestyles that have previously been mocked or overlooked. But I still deeply feel that film awards should be about ART, not simply about the redress of social wrongs. That’s why I personally would not have given a screenwriting award to a film (CODA) that sets up serious challenges for its protagonists—an onerous legal mandate that a hearing person must be aboard the Deaf family’s fishing boat at all times, a sense that the family is isolated from the hearing community without the hearing daughter present to smooth away misunderstandings—and then, after she’s accepted into the college of her dreams, simply sweeps the problems away in a wash of good feelings. This is not to diminish CODA’S power, but only to point out the lapses in its craft.

 Of course an Oscar ceremony must work as popular entertainment, not simply as an industry’s recognition of its current leaders. And this one worked hard to amuse the folks at home, shortchanging the winners in various below-the-line categories to have more time for hectic, splashy production numbers (what’s with the chartreuse violins?) and celebrity appearances (what’s with the sports world’s Tony Hawk and Shaun White?) Which brings me to the moment that’s been seized upon by the media. Comic Chris Rock, a presenter, made a silly and apparently pointless crack about the cropped “G.I. Jane” haircut of Will Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith. Upon hearing this, Smith leaped from his front-row seat and pounced on Rock, in what looked at first to be a planned comedic attack. Then, for us at home, the sound went out.

 No joke: Smith was furious at Rock’s mocking reference to his wife’s alopecia. It was a grotesque moment, especially when soon followed by Smith’s tearful acceptance of his Best Actor statuette. Ungainly, sure—but also a welcome distraction from the tried and true.      


Friday, March 25, 2022

All in the Family: “Big” and “A Few Good Men”

Years ago, when I was a camp counselor, one of the kiddies was Lucas Reiner, youngest child of comedy legend Carl. I confess I kept an eye on little Lucas, waiting for him to say something funny. Lucas has since turned to screenwriting, but it’s his older brother who has gone on to a major Hollywood career. Rob Reiner started as an actor, first in local little theatres and then as Mike Stivic (aka Meathead) on TV’s groundbreaking All in the Family (1971-1979). But it was not long before Rob tried his hand at directing. Starting with the hilarious mockumentary, This is Spinal Tap (1984), he particularly excelled at comedy, helming such classics as The Princess Bride (1987) and When Harry Met Sally . . . (1989).

 Gradually, though, Rob Reiner approached less light-hearted material, starting with a grand-guignol-style horror flick, Misery, based on Stephen King’s nightmarish novel. That was 1990; two years later Reiner garnered his only Oscar nomination, as producer (as well as director) of A Few Good Men. It’s a film I finally caught up with on a recent plane flight. Sure, I already knew the movie’s most famous exchange (“I want the truth!” “YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH!”), but I wasn’t prepared for how riveting this courtroom thriller proved to be. A Few Good Men has a complicated, dialogue-heavy script (it was Aaron Sorkin’s first screenplay credit), and it deals with the arcane issue of a Code Red among U.S. Marines at Guantanamo Bay. But Reiner keeps things moving, and the film certainly made my hours in the friendly skies fly by.

 One of the pleasures of watching movies on a coast-to-coast flight is that you can skip from one genre (or era) to another. I started my flight with a true oldie, Grand Hotel, though in the age of COVID Greta Garbo’s “I want to be alone” certainly sounded anachronistic. Then, following A Few Good Men, I plunged into the most airy of comedies, 1988’s Big, in which a boy of 13 finds himself growing overnight into Tom Hanks. It was only in retrospect that I discovered a connection between these last two films. Big was directed by the late Penny Marshall, who for ten years (1971-1981) was married to Rob Reiner. What a wacky couple they must have made! Marshall revealed her own flair for comedy first as a TV actress (Laverne and Shirley) and then as a director of movies like A League of Their Own. Big, I feel, is her comic masterpiece, energized by her insight into the way kids look at the adult world.

 Directors who come from an acting background surely have a special flair for bringing out the best in their performers.  Big wouldn’t have worked without Hanks’ antsy, exuberant, very slightly horny performance. I laughed with delight at him trying to shimmy into a pair of much-too-small jeans, and then later (at a fancy cocktail party) having his first encounter with baby corn. The film’s romantic thread, involving a very adult co-worker, avoids being grotesque because of his spot-on childlike innocence.

 A Few Good Men too is beautifully cast, starting with Tom Cruise’s cocky but secretly sensitive young Navy attorney and Demi Moore’s conflicted Naval officer. (It’s a mark of the film’s maturity that—though there’s a smoldering subtext between these two—the script never breaks away for the obligatory romance.) Smaller roles are equally well handled, but of course the film’s secret weapon is its villain, Colonel Nathan Jessup, USMC. The cat-who-ate-the-canary part of this smug, haughty martinet fits Jack Nicholson like a glove. Good show!


Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Life is a Masquerade, Old Chum: “The Major and the Minor” and ”Irma la Douce”

My colleague Joe McBride, whose Billy Wilder: Dancing on the Edge has been my recent guide to the full Wilder canon, considers Some Like It Hot a perfect film. He also views this story of two male musicians who escape a vengeful pack of mobsters by disguising themselves as woman as a prime example of Wilder’s fascination with masquerades. So it is, but other Wilder comedies also revolve around characters who transform themselves physically, with unexpected consequences.

 I’m thinking of two films from opposite ends of Wilder’s long Hollywood career. The Major and the Minor, from 1942, was the very first American movie that Wilder directed. Irma la Douce (1963) was a major box-office hit, closely following his back-to-back artistic triumphs, Some Like It Hot and The Apartment (the latter of which earned Wilder three Oscars in a single night).

 The Major and the Minor (what a wonderful title!) is a lighter-than-air comedy in which Ginger Rogers—as a young woman sick of trying to find decent work in New York City—decides to return to her Iowa hometown. Trouble is: she hasn’t enough money to pay the full train fare. But kids under 12 can ride for half-price, and so she dives into her suitcase and comes up with an outfit that (almost) makes her look like an innocent kid who’s going to be 12 next week, someone traveling west to visit Grandma. As an adult female in New York City visiting clients as a scalp-massager (!), she has run into her share of old letches. (The prime one is played by Robert Benchley, who tries out on her the famous line about getting out of wet clothes and into a dry martini.) But on the train she’s pursued by two conductors who catch her, in little-girl garb, smoking on the rear platform. Looking for a hiding place, she dashes into the compartment of Ray Milland, an Army major with a warm heart and obviously poor eyesight, who takes pity on the young tyke and insists she spend the night in his unused lower berth. He’s returning to the midwestern military school where he teaches, but his battle-axe fiancée (the general’s daughter) is less charmed than he is by little miss SuSu.

 This being a fairy-tale of sorts, our SuSu survives with her spunk intact, unmolested by either a lecherous grown-up or by the teen-aged cadets who are drooling over her charms. When she ultimately unveils herself to the major as an adult woman, he seems happy but not particularly fazed by the turnabout (No one’s perfect, right?), and they’re making plans to marry.

 Rogers’ Susan is hardly a prostitute, but her role-playing puts her somewhat in line with Shirley MacLaine’s Irma la Douce, the premiere poule of Les Halles. This candy-colored romance opens with short vignettes in which Irma is seen increasing her take by telling her johns (it’s France, so maybe they’re Jeans?) sob stories that wring from them additional francs. Irma is a terrific liar, but in her way she’s a highly principled young woman, who wouldn’t dream of cheating her mec (or pimp) out of her full earnings. When Jack Lemmon graduates from being a flic (cop) to being a mec, she shows her love for him by insisting she’s obliged to keep working, on his behalf. Which is why he has to put on an act of his own, disguising himself as a lovelorn but antique British lord who lavishes money on Irma but only wants to play double solitaire. As always, amour wins out, and with it Hollywood respectability for all concerned.