Friday, July 29, 2022

Choosing the Best Man

 Watching The Best Man, based on Gore Vidal’s hit Broadway play, I’m reminded of how much has—and hasn’t—changed in American politics over the past six decades. In 1960, when Vidal wrote his play, presidential candidates for the two major parties were still chosen at raucous political conventions whose outcomes were generally uncertain. And of course everyone was white and male, except for the dutiful spouses of the candidates, who knew how to smile on cue. But much remains the same: the party hacks running the show, the reporters eager for a scoop, the fact that some candidates will do just about anything to come out on top. To be, in other words, anointed the best man for the highest office in the land.

 Within the scope of the play, the political party in question was never named. But Vidal, who had strong (and sometimes cranky) political opinions, was clearly committed to putting his own views into a lively story about political skullduggery on the highest level. The play opened early in the same year that the Democrats were planning a presidential nominating convention in Los Angeles. The folksy but ultimately shrewd former president is clearly based on Harry Truman. (He was played both on stage and on screen by the invaluable Lee Tracy, who was nominated for a supporting actor Oscar for this role.) One leading candidate, a witty intellectual, reflects the style of Adlai Stevenson, who was twice the Democratic nominee against Dwight D. Eisenhower. His chief rival, who has adopted a far more grandstanding manner, is apparently a combination of the politicos Vidal distrusted: the up-and-coming John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, et al.

 When the film was made four years later, the 1960 election was long over. But viewers can identify L.A. landmarks of the era: the Ambassador Hotel; the Los Angeles Coliseum, the Sports Arena where the real JFK accepted his party’s nomination. And the hurly-burly of the convention floor is shot very effectively, conveying a true sense of being present as history unfolds. (Franklin Schaffner, mostly known for TV in 1964, kicked off a major film directing career with The Best Man.) The two rival candidates are played by Henry Fonda—as an idealist who can’t easily bring himself to fight dirty—and Cliff Robertson, as a pragmatist with the guts to do what it takes to win.  Which of them will make the better president? The former president’s all-important endorsement is up for grabs, and there’s a lot of dirty linen around, just waiting to be aired. Far be it from me to spill all the beans, but this was the first Hollywood film ever to use the word “homosexual.” Vidal’s well-structured story keeps us continually off-balance, leading to an ending that’s both happy and sad . . . and altogether satisfactory as a way to wrap up this mesmerizing tale.

 I should mention the rest of the strong cast, which includes Margaret Leighton as Fonda’s starchy British wife, Edie Adams as Robertson’s kittenish spouse, and (surprisingly) funnyman Shelly Berman in a small but key role. There’s also Ann Sothern as the rare female party operative, one who thinks of herself as the spokesperson for every woman in America. And I don’t want to overlook the film’s producers, who include veteran Stuart Millar and his protégé, the young Lawrence Turman. Turman, who yearned to produce a hit film all on his own, got his wish in 1967, with The Graduate. Larry was a huge help to me on my Seduced by Mrs.  Robinson. He’s now 95, and I wish him continued health.


Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Taking the 3:10 to Yuma . . . and the National Film Registry

My own memories of Glenn Ford’s lengthy movie career start with a 1956 comedy, The Teahouse of the August Moon, in which he starred as a good-hearted military man dealing with cultural disconnects while stationed in a village in post-WWII Okinawa. (This adaptation of a Broadway hit – featuring Marlon Brando as a wily Okinawan native -- would surely be condemned for ethnic insensitivity today, but in its own era it was widely considered charming.)  I got to know Teahouse as a kid, and even appeared in several little theatre productions, with no apparent harm done. But it was only years later that I saw Ford in tougher fare, playing the beleaguered inner-city teacher in The Blackboard Jungle and especially the ambiguously devoted suitor opposite Rita Hayworth in Gilda.  

 Ford’s son Peter, the product of his troubled marriage to Eleanor Parker, has long been exploring his dad’s legacy. He sees in his father—who was among other things a compulsive womanizer--a dark side that his best roles exploit. Peter’s commentary on the DVD of the 1957 western classic, 3:10 to Yuma reveals that the western was Ford’s preferred movie genre. Having worked for Will Rogers as a ranch hand (while still a student at Santa Monica High School), he was highly comfortable around horses. And 3:10 to Yuma¸ adapted from an early-career story by Elmore Leonard, was one of his very favorites. Leonard is of course far better known for the noirish novels that became movies like Get Shorty and Jackie Brown. But he started out writing western stories for pulp magazines. The kernel of the story that became 3:10 to Yuma involves a rancher, an upright family man. Plagued by drought and the loss of many head of cattle, he accepts a pittance to put a notorious outlaw on a train to the Arizona city where he’s destined to stand trial. The heart of the story, and the film, is the long stretch of time spent in a Contention City hotel room where the outlaw tries to threaten, to cajole, and to bribe the rancher to turn him loose before the train arrives.

 According to Peter Ford, his father, then at the height of his celebrity, was first offered the role of the straight-arrow rancher. It eventually went to Van Heflin (who’d played a similar nice-guy role in Shane), so that Glenn Ford could show off his wily charm as the outlaw. You almost believe him when he insists he’s not as much of a troublemaker as his reputation implies. The scenes between the two men in that hotel room do a great job of ratcheting up the tension as, out on the street, Heflin’s supporters melt away out of fear of Ford’s gathering cronies. There’s something of High Noon in the ticking-clock plotting, though good and evil are not nearly so clearly demarcated as they were in that Gary Cooper classic. Among the Ford character’s virtues is a genuine gallantry toward women (there’s a high-octane encounter between him and a pretty but lonesome barmaid played by Felicia Farr). He’s also able to truly recognize the heroism implicit in  Heflin’s stubborn insistence on holding to his end of a bargain.

 3:10 to Yuma was remade in 2007, with the main roles played by born-again westerners Russell Crowe and Christian Bale. Naturally, the new film featured much more bloodshed and much more corrupt behavior than the original, but critics and audiences seemed reasonably impressed. It was the 1957 original, though, that has found a home in the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” 




Friday, July 22, 2022

What Goes Around Comes Around: “360”

One thing we’ve learned in the era of COVID is that we’re all in this together. Particularly as we return to international travel, we’re re-discovering (via transmitted infections that are now running rampant around the globe) that, in the famous words of John Donne, no man is an island. That’s one of many thoughts that came to me in the wake of watching Fernando Meirelles’ 2011 film, 360. This structurally ambitious drama (it’s not for nothing that Meirelles once studied to be an architect) was written by the eminent Peter Morgan, best known for such royal projects as The Queen, The Crown, and The Last King of Scotland. Critics and audiences were not charmed by 360, and I can understand how the film’s intricacies will seem to some overly calculated. But my late-night viewing of this unheralded film left me with much to mull over.

 In some obvious ways, 360 owes a debt to Arthur Schnitzler’s notorious 1897 play, La Ronde. Schnitzler broke international taboos by depicting diverse pairs of lovers (a soldier, a housemaid, a young gentleman, and so on) before or after coitus. One of the pair in each scene moves on to another tryst in the next, hinting that sexuality knows no boundaries of class and economic status Eventually we come full circle, with the prostitute-character from the very first scene bedding the nobleman introduced near the end.  (Schnitzler does not concern himself with relationships transcending conventional gender roles, but his play outraged audiences of his own day and led to attacks on his character and his ethnicity.)

 In 360, too, many of the interlocking relationships are based on sex, but characters are considerably more complicated. As in: the British familyman played by Jude Law, while on a business trip to Vienna,  has nervously set up an assignation with an ambitious would-be prostitute from Slovakia. By chance it doesn’t happen,  but she re-enters the film much later, making a killing (so to speak) as part of a scheme to rob a ruthless gangster-type. Obviously, part of the film’s point is that you never know what will happen when you intersect with other human beings. Sometimes, in fact, great things may come to pass, if you’re only brave enough to seize the day. (Says one newly-emboldened character, “If you see a fork in the road, take it.”) On the other hand, audacity can also lead to tragedy. One memorable strand involves a young Brazilian (Maria Flor) living in London. Fleeing her two-timing lover, she boards a plane to fly home, meeting on the way a  wistful old Brit (Anthony Hopkins) searching for his long-lost daughter. Their brief encounter is enlivening to both of them, but an unexpected weather delay in the Denver airport puts her in the path of a convicted sex offender (Ben Foster) who’s desperately trying to control his illicit desires, at the same time that she’s experimenting with carefree hedonism.

 The production leans hard on a stellar international cast speaking a babel of diverse tongues. (Several of the characters are tied together by their serious struggles to learn English.)  360 was shot on location in Britain, France, Austria, and elsewhere, suggesting the degree to which our world has shrunk due to airline travel. Stylistically, Meirelles does wonderful things with glass panels and reflecting surfaces. In diverging from Schnitzler’s La Ronde, it feels modern in both its story and in its film aesthetic. I could pick it apart, but why do that? Frankly, I do not want to spoil my memories of a splendid diversion from my own humdrum summer days.