Friday, September 30, 2022

Running Wild with Jonathan Demme and Friends

Ever since the untimely death of Ray Liotta four months ago, I've been trying to get hold of Liotta’s 1986 breakout performance in Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild. Three years before he played a ghostly Shoeless Joe Jackson in Field of Dreams, four years before he went to the mattresses as Henry Hill in Goodfellas, Liotta was indelible as a former high school classmate of Melanie Griffith’s Lulu, a man with a hair-trigger temper and a great enjoyment for mayhem. He must have made quite an impression on my fellow movie-lovers. When—after his death at age 67--I started requesting the film from my local library, it took four months for it to end up in my DVD player.

 It was worth the wait.  After Hours, shot by Demme in 1986, is described online as an “action comedy.” But that designation doesn’t begin to suggest the film’s antic impact. At first it’s indeed very funny, showing a Wall Street financial nerd (Jeff Daniels) who can boast a big and very recent promotion falling under the spell of a gaudily-dressed party girl, played by Melanie Griffith (she of the babyish voice and the body that just won’t quit). This mismatched pair embarks on suburban adventures that feature alcohol, handcuffs, reckless driving, and thrill-seeking of all varieties. But just when we’re thoroughly enjoying their unlikely fling, the tone of the movie starts to shift dramatically. Griffith’s Lulu is not quite the carefree gal she seems to be, nor is Daniels’ uptight yuppie entirely telling the truth about his own placid homelife. And then there’s Liotta, showing up as Ray Sinclair at Lulu’s Pennsylvania high school reunion. Ray is handsome, charismatic, and alarmingly volatile, and when he appears the movie takes a left turn from which there’s no going back.

 It was Demme’s goal, at this fairly early point in his directing career, to try to meld screwball comedy and film noir. His bold experiment with a midpoint shift in tone made me, when I first saw the film, slightly queasy. This time around, I enjoyed Demme’s directorial sleight of hand for what it was. The film is a wild ride, and its unpredictable quality—in an era when we can generally figure out what’s coming next on our movie screen—now strikes me as hugely refreshing. I don’t always agree with the late Roger Ebert, but I love his description of Something Wild: “This is one of those rare movies where the plot seems surprised at what the characters do.” Exactly right!

 One of the most memorable aspects of Something Wild is the role played by Griffith’s costumes and hair stylings.  Clothes, in this film, do make the man  . . . or, in this case the woman. The sexy vagabond of the early scenes—with her brunette bob and her jangling jewelry—is suddenly transformed, later in the film, into a honey blonde who favors toned-down makeup and prim white frocks. Lulu’s costume changes signify the revelation of the various layers of her complicated psyche. There’s one more major costume shift at the tail-end of the film. It’s a final twist that many critics find arbitrary and not needed, and I think they’re right. But that’s the challenge of a script as eccentric as this one: knowing when to stop.  

 The film’s score ranges from the classic to contributions by such pop icons as Laurie Anderson and David Byrne. Unsurprisingly, the featured track is “Wild Thing,” performed in various versions. .A hip surprise is the cameo appearances by indie iconoclasts John Waters and John Sayles. They too can be considered something wild.







Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Howard Hughes, Melvin Dummar, and the American (Dollar) Dream

Jonathan Demme’s Melvin and Howard is a small movie about small people, unless you count reclusive zillionaire Howard Hughes, whose massive shadow hangs over the whole enterprise. Dennis Bingham's Whose Lives Are They Anyway? The Biopic as Contemporary Film Genre cites Melvin and Howard as the first film in the subgenre "biopic of someone undeserving.” The undeserving someone in this case is Melvin Dummar, the Utah man who, after Hughes’ death in 1976, popped up as a major beneficiary of Hughes’ vast estate by way of a mysterious handwritten will unearthed at the headquarters of the Mormon Church in Salt Lake City. The so-called Mormon Will was eventually judged a blatant forgery. But through a number of court hearings Dummar continued to insist that he’d rescued Hughes in the Nevada desert in 1967, giving a needy old man a friendly lift to Las Vegas.

 Melvin and Howard is a fanciful riff on that slice of history, taking Dummar’s story at face value. (Hollywood veteran Bo Goldman won an original screenplay Oscar for his lively telling of the tale.) It begins with a scruffy and  maniacal Howard Hughes (played with his usual panache by Jason Robards) gleefully racing his chopper through the desert, before the fun ends with a spectacular crash. Hours later, garage mechanic Dummar happens along in his truck, stops to take a leak, and discovers the fallen tycoon. Throughout their ride, Hughes remains taciturn and cranky, until the chatty Dummar gets him to singing a favorite old song, “Bye Bye, Blackbird.” At journey’s end, after Hughes reveals his identity (and borrows some cash), they go their separate ways.

 The bulk of the film is a portrait of Dummar (well played by Paul Le Mat) as a perennial dreamer, someone who can’t hold down a job but is convinced that happy days are just around the corner. He loves wife Lynda (the adorably ditsy Mary Steenburgen in her Oscar-winning role), but can’t quite seem to provide a stable life. The centerpiece of the film is the on-again off-again marriage of these two: at one point she leaves him and their daughter to work in a topless bar. Their fortunes seem to turn when he gets Lynda onto a talent-and-game show in which (despite her tap-dancing ineptitude) she wins a large sum of money, all of which Melvin quickly squanders. The romantic allure of money, as seen in this segment,  is at this film’s very heart.  The show is called Easy Street, and its smarmy host alternates between sexual innuendo and a worshipful attitude toward big bucks. It seems all too apt that Lynda’s tap routine is performed to the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction.”

 If you’re Melvin Dummar—a laid-back guy convinced that life on Easy Street awaits if only you believe hard enough—it’s perfectly likely that Howard Hughes would leave you a fortune. The question of the mysterious will continued to dog the real Dummar’s life, which ended in 2018. Melvin and Howard, though, concludes long before that, returning to the footage of two unlikely buddies, an old man and a young one, joyfully belting out an old musical-hall tune. 

 I worked briefly with Jonathan Demme in 1974, when he’d just returned from directing his first film, Caged Heat, for Roger Corman’s New World Pictures. He moved on to some studio gigs, but Melvin and Howard was his true breakthrough, showing off his skill at capturing American life and moving him toward the big pictures, like 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs. (I’ll mention in passing his sharp ear for musical scoring.) Unfortunately he left us much too soon.  


Friday, September 23, 2022

Two Who Only Live Once

No, You Only Live Once is not one-half of a James Bond movie. (Sorry about that!) Instead it’s an early film noir, dating back to 1937, about an ill-fated couple who hit the road after the husband’s violent escape from prison. There’s a long tradition in Hollywood of movies that focus on lovers who share a passion for fast cars and lives of crime. When I was coming into my own as a film enthusiast, the unforgettable flick was Bonnie and Clyde, which used the story of two actual Depression-era bank robbers to celebrate the audacity and the undying love of  a doomed pair. Admirers of Bonnie and Clyde tend to think back to films like 1950’s Gun Crazy for a similarly enticing blend of love, sex, and violence.

 But earlier “lovers on the lam” movies, like 1948’s They Live By Night, treat crime sprees with less exuberance. Their emphasis is on social wrongs that trap basically good-hearted lovers in nightmarish situations from which violence seems the only escape. I was interested to see this hold true in You Only Live Once, the second Hollywood film of the great Austrian director Fritz Lang., whose early credits included Expressionist masterpieces like Metropolis and M. Top-billed in You Only Live Once is Sylvia Sidney, a long-lived star who would be nominated for an Oscar more than thirty years later, as Best Supporting Actress for Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams. In You Only Live Once, she’s Joan, an efficient, ebullient career gal, working for a local public defender who adores her. To his dismay, she’s head-over-heels about a young convict, who’s just won release after his third prison stint. As played by rising star Henry Fonda, Eddie is an earnest young man who’s survived a rough upbringing. Ashamed of his past misdeeds, he’s determined to marry Joan and embark on a life of sober domestic bliss.

 After a joyous homecoming, Eddie’s problems continue to mount. Though he’s been promised a steady job as a truckdriver, his unsympathetic boss finds an easy excuse to fire him. A search for another position turns futile: no one wants to trust a guy with a prison record, no matter how much he’s determined to keep to the straight and narrow. (It’s the Depression, of course, so all jobs are scarce, but the film also seems to condemn a system that offers no constructive support to those who’ve left prison walls behind.)

 For Eddie, desperate to support himself and his wife, a return to crime seems to be the only alternative. But when a local bank robbery results in several deaths he swears he had nothing to do with it. No matter: he’s tried and convicted, ending up on Death Row.

 While loyal Joan struggles to free him, his execution date nears. A last-minute exoneration by the governor ironically results in more tragedy, including the death of one of Eddie’s most selfless supporters. Soon he and Joan are fleeing into the hinterlands, living as best they can. (Somewhere in there, Joan has a baby, without ever seeming to have been pregnant or in labor: the Thirties was a great decade for sweeping physical reality under the rug.)

 You Only Live Once isn’t raw and exciting, like such later lovers-on-the-lam films as Badlands and Thieves Like Us. Instead it’s heart-wrenchingly sad, with the intense Fonda and the vivacious Sidney suggesting to the viewer how human potential is wasted when basically good people are trapped by circumstances beyond their control. All they want is to live and love . . . but you only live once.