Friday, March 31, 2023

Consider Yourself a Fan of “Oliver!”

The Sixties were big years for BIG musicals. In an era when television was on the rise, these costly extravaganzas showed off the pleasures of large-scale spectacle that only a movie screen could accommodate. Winners of the Best Picture Oscar during the Sixties included such dazzling and ambitious entertainments as West Side Story (1961), My Fair Lady (1964), and The Sound of Music (1965). And other nominees included Mary Poppins and Funny Girl.

  But wait! Wasn’t there another Broadway musical smash that ended up nabbing the Best Picture Oscar after the film version was released in 1968? Yes, indeed, but Oliver! was something of a horse of a different color. That is to say, Lionel Bart’s stage musical version of the Charles Dickens novel originated not in New York but in London. Musical theatre has always been considered an intensely American art form. But Oliver! showed, long before Andrew Lloyd Webber, that the forces behind British theatre could triumphantly learn from their American cousins.

 In adapting Oliver Twist, set among pickpockets and thieves on the loose in Victorian London, Bart (the talented son of Jewish immigrants from Galicia) toned down the casual anti-semitism of Dickens’ original story. He cut back on but did not eliminate the gruesome aspects of Oliver’s milieu, while making sure to keep intact the almost cloying Dickensian sweetness that shows itself in such highly sentimental songs as “Where is Love?” Though Bart’s plot contains the grimmest of murders, as well as a heart-tugging reunion, what audiences remember best is the liveliness of Fagin and his gang of young hoodlums, who certainly seem to enjoy their work snatching the  plump purses  of London’s well-heeled citizenry.

 I understand the original stage production made good use of a stylized unit set that didn’t pretend to depict a genuine London street scene. But film, of course, is a far more realistic medium, and the film’s producers aimed for a visually arresting canvas, crammed full of Victorian detail. When the Artful Dodger encourages shy young Oliver Twist to “Consider Yourself One of Us,” he leads the boy on a romp through crowded Covent Garden streets where grocers and other vendors ply their wares. (In a warehouse full of hanging sides of beef, the pair even romp straight through a large carcass that a butcher with a large cleaver has just divided in two.)

 The director in charge of all this on-screen activity is Britain’s Carol Reed, much admired for such gritty urban dramas as The Third Man and Odd Man Out. I don’t pretend to be an expert, but I believe this was his only musical. Still, he knows a thing or three about teeming cities, and there’s no one better at ratcheting up suspense. In portraying London’s seedy underbelly, he gives this Oliver! a genuine sense of looming terror that’s rare for musical entertainments.  On the flip-side, when Oliver enjoys a brief respite in the home of a wealthy man, we see (to the strains of “Who Will Buy?”) the street filled with a whole magical parade of bandsmen, milkmaids, and other handsome, healthy folk.

In the where-are-they-now? department, the adorable boy who plays Oliver is now happily retired from showbiz and working as an osteopath. Jack Wild, the impish scalawag who earned an Oscar nom as the Artful Dodger, remained an actor, but succumbed at age 53 to drink and drugs. Oliver Reed, who played the murderous Bill Sikes, similarly cut his life short through reckless behavior. But hurrah for Ron Moody, a deliciously nimble and mischievous Fagin, who survived to the ripe old age of 91.  





Tuesday, March 28, 2023

The Catch-22 of Translating a Hit Novel to the Screen

At the end of the Sixties the book that everyone was reading was Joseph Heller’s darkly satiric World War II novel, Catch-22.  And the movie that everyone was watching was The Graduate, the outrageous romantic comedy directed by Mike Nichols. So there was little surprise, when word spread that Nichols would be directing a screen version of Catch-22, that audiences couldn’t wait to see the results.

 Nichols’ film, released in June 1970, unfortunately pleased almost no one. This despite the fact that it was a serious effort to translate a complex, almost hallucinatory, novel to the screen.  The Writers Guild of America did nominate Buck Henry’s script as the best screen drama adapted from another medium, but it didn’t win. That same year, M*A*S*H, a much more popular depiction of the truism that “war is hell,” took home a WGA Award for comic adaptation. Perhaps it was the success of M*A*S*H, featuring a lively rendering by Robert Altman of a behind-the-lines Korean War story, that undercut Catch-22’s box-office chances. Or  perhaps the brilliant, bitter Catch-22 just couldn’t work without Heller’s sparklingly ironic prose.

 Still, it was a worthy attempt. Nichols, who’d shown such visual flair in The Graduate, had fun depicting the almost operatic lift-off of WWII era bomber jets. Having used the songs of Simon and Garfunkel to great effect in The Graduate, he mostly avoided music in the far more serious Catch-22, but at one key point tried an outlandish reference to the opening strains of “Thus Spoke Zarathustra,” familiar to anyone who’d seen 2001: A Space Odyssey. (And, in that era, who hadn’t?)  

 The large cast is a remarkable gathering of Hollywood talents. Nichols was known for his casting savvy, and we can fully believe Martin Balsam as a gruffly maniacal Col. Cathcart, Richard Benjamin as a smarmy Major Danby, Anthony Perkins as a vulnerable Chaplain Tappman, Bob Newhart as an anxious Major Major, and Orson Welles as a bloated General Dreedle. The leading role, Yosarian, is that of a neurotic cipher, and Alan Arkin is particularly good at conveying his anxiety about war, the U.S. Army, and life in general.

 Given the worldwide success of The Graduate, it’s not surprising that Nichols again turned to several performers from that 1967 film. Elizabeth Wilson (Benjamin’s anxious mom in The Graduate) has a tiny but memorable role as the mother of a dying soldier. Norman Fell (the cranky landlord of Ben’s Berkeley rooming house) is seen here as a blunt sergeant. Buck Henry, who had brilliantly adapted Charles Webb’s The Graduate for the screen while also playing a skeptical desk clerk, again performs double duty, donning  a creepy little mustache to portray Balsam’s toadying sidekick, Colonel Korn.

 Nichols also cast Art Garfunkel, a novice actor and one-half of the musical duo whose songs dominate the score of The Graduate, as the naïve young Nately. (The following year “Arthur” Garfunkel was a central figure in Nichols’ corrosive Carnal Knowledge.) Charles Grodin, who to the end of his life insisted that he’d been cast by Nichols as Benjamin Braddock but had turned the role down, plays the oblivious bombardier on Yosarian’s plane. But what of the screen’s actual Benjamin Braddock? I’ve learned that Dustin Hoffman, whose Hollywood career burst into life with The Graduate, badly wanted to play the shifty Milo in Catch-22. Perhaps Nichols was truly offended that Hoffman took on, immediately following The Graduate, the scruffy role of Ratso Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy. In any case Nichols gave the role of Milo not to Hoffman but to his Midnight Cowboy co-star, Jon Voigt.



Friday, March 24, 2023

Benny & Joon & Sam—oh my!

I admit that in real life I’m not a great fan of Johnny Depp. I’ve never been anywhere near him, but his reported behavior toward his fellow human beings (including ex-partners) is not endearing. My hackles were raised when I read in my local paper about his fury at some Sunset Strip developers. As I recall, he threatened a lawsuit against them. After all, they had dared to put up high-rise towers that would mar one corner of the panoramic view of Depp’s children when they played in their Hollywood Hills backyard high above Sunset Blvd. Not that I don’t appreciate unfettered views, but I refuse to worry about the aesthetic pleasures of Depp’s offspring.

 There’s no denying, though, that Depp is a major talent, especially in roles of a whimsical nature. His physical dexterity, coupled with a strong sense of unworldliness, helped him break through to fame and fortune in such unique early roles as that of the title character in Edward Scissorhands (1990). Three years later, though he didn’t play a title role in Benny & Joon, his performance was what you carried away from a film whose primary relationship is that between a tense young mechanic (Aidan Quinn) and his mentally disturbed sister (Mary Stuart Masterson).  After their parents’ tragic death, Benny has devoted himself to Joon’s well-being, thus inadvertently stifling the emotional development of them both. Joon’s creative rebellions make their lives together disconcerting: early on, after a frustrated housekeeper quits, Joon (wearing a SCUBA mask) is found by the local police directing downtown traffic with a ping pong paddle. Clearly, something has to give.

 That’s when Johnny Depp’s Sam comes into the picture.  An unwanted relative who’s come to stay with one of Benny’s poker buddies, he ends up tending Benny’s house while also keeping an eye on Joon. His methods are unorthodox: he uses a skateboard to help clean the walls, and a steam-iron to toast cheese sandwiches. None of this is surprising for someone who seems to have modeled himself on Buster Keaton and the silent movie clowns of the past.  It’s not long before the two misfits fall in love, and of course complications arise quickly. At one point, Joon is about to be confined to a mental hospital, barring both Benny and Sam from her life.  But, since this is fundamentally a romantic comedy, all problems (along with the cheese sandwiches) are ironed out well before the two-hour mark.

 I’m sure books can be written about the movies’ handling, over the decades, of mental illness. In popular films of my youth, like 1962’s David and Lisa and 1966’s King of Hearts, those with mental challenges are gentle souls who are perhaps too delicate for the crass world of every day but have a valuable wisdom of their own. They seem fully redeemable by romantic love, which they pursue wholeheartedly and with no fear of future consequences. In fact, the message seems to be that we’re all a bit crazy, and might as well own up to it, for the sake of ourselves and our planet. In the great scheme of things, whether a real-life Joon can build an adult life for herself with Sam’s help is surely debatable. His charm notwithstanding, he’s barely literate, and seems to live in a fantasy realm of his own making. But we’re at the movies, boys and girls,where fantasy outweighs reality every time. This is ultimately a feel-good film that made me feel very good indeed.

 A special nod to Rachel Portman’s airy musical score, which helps capture the story’s delicate magic.