Tuesday, May 24, 2022

A Portrait of “The Duke” (No, NOT John Wayne)

That’s the great thing about British actors: you can always count on them to put on a jolly good show, especially when they’re portraying common folk from the provinces. The unfortunate thing is that you can’t always understand what they’re saying. Those working-class North of England accents are just too thick to allow an American to catch every delightful word.

 It’s worth it, though, to see Jim Broadbent portray a cranky taxi driver from Newcastle upon Tyne, with Dame Helen Mirren shedding her usual glamour to play his exasperated wife. Broadbent’s Kempton Bunton is a World War II vet, circa 1961. Neglecting his job, he’s now spending most of his energy on a quixotic campaign to end government laws that require citizens to purchase a license in order to watch the telly. While his wife Dorothy scrimps and scrubs as a housekeeper for a more upper-crust family, he continues his fiery one-man crusade, eventually getting thrown in the clink. It’s not that he can’t personally afford a license, he insists. He’s campaigning on behalf of the common folk, especially the elderly and military veterans, who haven’t the wherewithal to tune into the BBC.

 Behind his shenanigans (he’s also taken up playwriting) is a sad family story: a teenage daughter has died in a bicycle accident, and he blames himself for gifting her the bike. So what may seem like a quirky comedy is in many ways a film about grief and the different ways it affects those who’ve suffered terrible losses. That’s part of what’s pulling husband and wife apart, making her angrily stoic and him expansively emotional.

 The story as we see it on-screen hinges on a late Goya portrait of the Duke of Wellington, on temporary exhibit at London’s National Gallery. When this art treasure ends up in Bunton’s hands, he hides it in the back bedroom of his row house, planning to use the reward money to carry on his activism. Instead he’s hauled into court, charged with grand theft and a host of other major crimes, and faces a serious prison sentence.

 What’s fascinating is that the story of Kempton Bunton and the Duke (the one a commonplace man, the other a powerful aristocrat) is entirely true. It was brought to the producers’ attention by Bunton’s grandson: he never knew his grand-dad, but was in possession of family artifacts as well as family secrets, and insisted that the script of The Duke stay true to what actually happened. According to an instructive article in the Los Angeles Times, every scene and every character detail of the subsequent film accurately reflect the Buntons’ own actual behavior. Family possessions, like a photo of the deceased daughter, were used as key pieces of set dressing. So I can assume that the sweet moment when husband and wife put aside their grievances and spontaneously begin to dance together in their modest kitchen did not come out of a screenwriter’s fertile imagination, but rather indicates something about the private lives of this usually warring pair.

 Why is a small film like this one worth making—and worth seeing?  We all love grand movies that unleash the power of spectacle. The big screen is possibly at its best in giving us big vistas and big emotions. But the joys and sorrows of everyday people can be equally worthy subjects. As my favorite multiplex disappears (yes, another victim of COVID), I’ll remember watching The Duke in a real movie theatre. It’s not an experience I hope to replicate anytime soon.


Tuesday, May 17, 2022

The Ballad of Joel and Ethan Coen


The indefatigable film historian Joseph McBride has now tackled the work of my favorite filmmaking duo, Joel and Ethan Coen. Having written his share of huge door-stop biographies (Frank Capra, John Ford, Billy Wilder, et al), Joe is now devoting  himself to critical assessments of some of Hollywood’s then-and-now greats. The new book is a slim volume called The Whole Durn Human Comedy: Life According to the Coen Brothers.

 I turned back to McBride’s book recently after having watched one of several films that the Coens wrote but did not direct. A British TV movie called Gambit (2012), dealing with high-stakes shenanigans in the London art world, seems to contain the brothers’ trademark blend of suspense and black humor. Starring a stellar  cast from both sides of the pond—Colin Firth, Alan Rickman, Stanley Tucci, Cameron Diaz—it promised to be an enticing romp, along the lines of their Intolerable Cruelty. Unfortunately, without Joel and Ethan’s deft directorial touch, the film seems less buoyant than leaden. The plot (as overseen by director Michael Hoffman) twists and turns, but to little avail. McBride is right when he generalizes that “Coen scripts directed by others tend to go disastrously awry.”

 When the Coens are in charge of their own turf, though, odd and wonderful things happen: like Fargo, and Blood Simple, and Barton Fink, and Inside Llewyn Davis and O Brother, Where Art Thou? (The last of these is a clear nod to a key influence on the Coens, Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels, which argues the importance of comedy in chronicling the often-dark human condition.) But there are many—both moviegoers and critics—who consider Joel and Ethan taciturn and cynical, and it is they whom McBride is addressing in this book. He begins each chapter with a common complaint about the brothers’ films, then artfully proceeds to debunk it. Are they, for instance, the heartless cynics whom their detractors decry? Are they too fond of caricature, especially ethnic caricature, as seen in the satiric portrayals of Jewish Midwesterners in A Serious Man? Discussing that film as well as The Big Lebowski and the Southern caricatures that abound in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, McBride labels the Coens “equal-opportunity mockers.” Are they lacking in empathy for their characters? Or overly fond of a bleak nihilism that reveals their contempt for any sort of belief system? McBride’s in-depth discussions of Fargo and No Country for Old Men help disprove these claims.

 McBride ends his book with an unexpected chapter called “’Magic*Mirth*Mystery” in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.” I enjoyed the 2018 film, an anthology-style collection of 6 Western tales,  but never stopped to think of it as a compendium of the brothers’ previous concerns. But McBride insists that “like such films as John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Carl Dreyer’s Gertrud, and Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind, Buster Scruggs is a distillation of the Coens’ work, an eccentric, allegorical, and often nakedly emotional presentation of the filmmakers’ deepest thoughts and feelings.”

 The film opens with a segment in which the Coens exercise their fondness for parody and meta filmmaking. Here is a lampoon of the singing-cowboy trope, calling in every cliché of classic Westerns, including the gunfight in the main street of a sad prairie town. But as the film moves forward, it enters much darker territory, focusing on human cruelty and violent death. Its final chapter, which  hints at the Afterlife, circles back mordantly to the film’s opening, with its mock-elegiac Western ballad, “When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings.” Brilliantly macabre fun!



Thursday, May 12, 2022

A Salute to Two Jolly Good Fellows

I never met the late Robert Morse, who recently passed away at age 90. But I saw him onstage in his breakout Broadway hit, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. In this bouncy but pointed Frank Loesser musical satire, which won the 1962 Pulitzer Prize for drama, Morse combined his skills as a song-and-dance man with the personal charm that radiated through his every role. In portraying J. Pierrepont Finch, who rises from window washer to chairman of the board of the World Wide Wicket Company, Morse parlayed his trademark combination of innocence and chutzpah into a long. lively career. After winning a Tony for his portrayal, the gap-tooth Morse transitioned to Hollywood, starring in the screen version of How to Succeed and also appearing in several parts that traded on his distinctive presence. He was featured as a naïve, bereaved young Englishman in The Loved One, a satire of the California funeral industry, while also appearing in such Sixties dark comedies as A Guide for the Married Man,  Where Were You When the Lights Went Out?, and Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad. (It was the era of long titles.)

 Once these youthful roles dried up, he went back to Broadway to don Jack Lemmon’s frocks and heels in Sugar, an attempt to transfer the magic of Some Like It Hot to the musical stage. As he aged, he tried on more mature but still whimsical roles, like that of the Wizard in Wicked. His greatest stage success in his later years was playing Truman Capote in a one-actor play, Tru. But TV lovers in this century of course cherish his appearances as Bertram Cooper, the eccentric, sometimes mystical ad agency partner in Mad Men. His on-screen death (while watching a man walking on the moon) is followed, remarkably, by a fantasy sequence in which—surrounded by chorus girls—he cheerily croons “The Best Things in Life are Free.” What a way to go!

 David Birney never reached the same pinnacle of fame as Robert Morse, but I mourn him too. It’s especially sad that this dedicated actor and intellectual died of Alzheimer’s disease, at the age of 83. I first became aware of Birney in 1972, with the debut of a well-intentioned TV sitcom called Bridget Loves Bernie. The show, an update of the old Broadway chestnut, Abie’s Irish Rose, focuses on the marriage of a nice Catholic girl (Meredith Baxter) and a nice Jewish boy. Of course the in-laws aren’t happy, and hilarity ensues. Though the show was innocent enough in its intentions, it was rife with stereotypes, and many Jewish communities, worried about high rates of assimilation, were not amused. The fact that Birney’s background was in no way Jewish hardly made the naysayers any happier.

 Once the show was cancelled, Birney continued on with stage and TV roles. In 1988 he signed on for one of Julie Corman’s most ambitious projects, a screen adaptation of Issac Asimov’s outer-space story, “Nightfall.” It’s a brilliant story in concept, but it’s extremely short, so writer-director Paul Mayersberg tricked it out with details of an exotic extra-terrestrial civilization and a lot of bad wigs.  While we were making the film, I somehow met with David at a local spot called the Brentwood Country Mart for a chat. He lent me a wonderful book by the actor/writer Simon Callow called Being an Actor, and I’ve since bought it for my home library. David was serious abut his craft, and I’m sorry his life didn’t permit him more triumphs.