Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Sunday in the Park Without Stephen

Oh, the joys of a Sondheim musical! But I’m actually talking about another Stephen. You see, I’m newly back from a writers’ conference in New York City. On a beautiful  Sunday afternoon, I waited in Bryant Park for two hours to meet with  a fellow writer. Alas, he never showed. (Later I found out he’d been hospitalized. Of course I hope he gets well soon!)

 But Sondheim is much in my mind right now because I’ve just seen a terrific revival of the great man’s waltz operetta, 1973’s A Little Night Music, at the Pasadena Playhouse. What does this have to do with movies? Quite a lot, actually. This complicated story of thwarted and consummated love was based by Sondheim and book author Hugh Wheeler on the rare Ingmar Bergman romantic  comedy, 1955’s Smiles of a Summer Night. As in the Bergman film, events transpire on  the midsummer evening when, in the Swedish countryside, darkness never quite comes, but lovers strongly feel the urge to merge. Once Sondheim’s musical version became a worldwide stage hit, Hollywood came calling. Sondheim, a great lover of film, was all for it.

Stage director-producer Harold Prince signed on to direct the 1977 film version, which was distributed by my former boss, Roger Corman, a B-movie guy who in that era was looking to participate in classier projects. 

 Unfortunately for filmgoers, much of the casting tried a bit too hard for Hollywood pizzazz.. While male actors like Len Cariou reprised their stage roles, the all-important women’s parts were given to actresses popular with TV  and movie fans. That’s why Diana Rigg, well known in that era for playing Emma Peel on TV’s The Avengers, was given the key supporting role of  Countless Charlotte, the bitter wife of a philandering dragoon. And the leading part, that of a glamorous but ageing actress who has discovered she longs for true love (and who gets to sing “Send in the Clowns”) went to no one but Elizabeth Taylor. I’ve never managed to see the whole movie, which was roundly panned by critics and shunned by audiences. But the YouTube clip of Taylor stiffly talk-singing through that dazzling song (see below) is easy to ridicule.

 A Little Night Music was not the only Hollywood film based on a Sondheim musical, but it was one of the first. In the Sixties, two Broadway musicals for which he’d provided lyrics, West Side Story and Gypsy,  became big-budget films, with varying degrees of success. His knockabout musical comedy, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, became a frenetic Zero Mostel vehicle in 1966.  Seven years later, Sondheim—a great fan of mysteries and word games—collaborated with actor Tony Perkins on the script for a twisty, bitchy non-musical called The Last of Sheila. For Warren Beatty’s comic-strip spinoff,, Dick Tracy (1990), Sondheim was hired to contribute five songs. One of then, “Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man)” was seductively sung by Madonna, in the role of Breathless Mahoney: it ended up winning Sondheim his one and only Oscar.

 Of the two major Sondheim musicals that have been made into movies thus far,  Sweeney Todd (a 2007 film starring a well-cast Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter) has its moments, notably a deadpan droll “By the Sea,” with a scowling Sweeney on the sand at Brighton, fully dressed in his funereal black suit. An all-star Into the Woods (2014) , with Meryl Streep as the Witch, approaches the power of the original. But fantasy, which works beautifully on stage, is much harder to carry off at the movies. 


 With best wishes to S.M. Silverman


Friday, May 26, 2023

Imitating the Inimitable: the Loss of Loud, Proud Tina Turner

So another icon has left the building. Yesterday’s newspapers brought word that the great Tina Turner had passed away at age 83.  I never saw her perform in person, but her recordings and over-the-air performances were plenty to convince me that as a singer, dancer, and all-around bad ass she was one of a kind. To me, and to many others, she will always be “Proud Mary” for real.

 Which, of course, is why Hollywood snapped up the opportunity to portray her onscreen. In the 1993 biopic, What’s Love Got to Do With It?, Tina was played by Angela Bassett, while Laurence Fishburne took on the role of Tina’s talented but sometimes ruthless husband, Ike. (Both were nominated for Oscars.)  Though she criticized the film’s many inaccuracies, Tina herself praised Bassett’s performance, later writing in a 2003 Time  magazine tribute to Bassett, “Angela, the first time we met, you didn't look, sound, or move like me—that came later after you worked so hard to make it happen. But even then, I could see that the young woman standing before me had strength, determination, and big, big dreams, just like me.”

 It's rare when the lead actor in a biopic gets that kind of praise from a living subject. Which doesn’t mean, of course, that what Bassett contributed on screen should be confused with the real thing.  We move even further from reality with Tina, the jukebox musical first seen on stage in London (2018) and then  on Broadway a year later. The show, which I’ve enjoyed, neatly shapes Tina’s chronology as a way to work in most of her top songs, using them to explain the various phases of her life.

 So-called jukebox musicals have been all the rage on Broadway for some years now, giving theatregoers a chance to pretend they’ve seen some of the world’s great talents in person. Not all jukebox musicals set out to tell the performer’s own story: for instance, Girl From the North Country re-arranges 19 pre-existing songs by Bob Dylan to tell a Depression-era story about the inhabitants of a shabby Duluth rooming house. But the classic jukebox musical uses a singer’s own catalogue of hits as a way to narrate the story of his or her showbiz career. I’m thinking of the current MJ: The Musical (about, natch, the life and times of Michael Jackson) and A Beautiful Noise: The Neil Diamond Music (which includes in its cast actors playing Diamond Then and Diamond Now). Beautiful, the musical about songwriter Carole King’s eventful life, was well-received when it opened in 2014 for a five-year run. There was somewhat less love for The Cher Show (something of a hodgepodge, with three different actresses playing Cher as Star, Babe, and Lady). It only stuck around for 295 performances.

 Aside from shows that focus on a single performer, there are several that explore the dynamics of an evolving musical group.  Long-ago revues like Ain’t Misbehavin’ and Smokey Joe’s Café paid tribute to songwriters like Fats Waller and the Leiber/Stoller duo, but didn’t really focus on anyone’s biographical story. More recently, the long-running Jersey Boys intertwined the lives of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons with their musical hits, explaining how four feckless young guys from the Garden State grew and changed as they found themselves becoming cultural icons. In a similar spirit, Ain’t Too Proud has drilled in on Motown’s The Temptations.

 Is it nostalgia that endears these shows to the public? I think we all want to feel that we were truly in the room where it happened,    


Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Secrets and Lies: “City Island”


City Island is an obscure part of the Bronx known fondly as a seaside village full of quaint old houses occupied by quaint old families. The clam-diggers, as those born and raised on the island are called, tend to be workaday folks who speak loudly and plainly, with strong New Yawk accents. They don’t, though, always tell the truth.

 Case in point: the Rizzo family, featured in a well-crafted 2009 indie chockful of flawed but fascinating people. Vince (Andy Garcia) is a prison guard who tells his wife and kids he’s off to a weekly poker game when he’s really in Manhattan taking acting classes. His wife Joyce (Juliana Margulies) is restless and looking for love. Daughter Vivian (Dominik Garcia-Londo) has not told the folks at home that she’s dropped out of college and taken up a job that’s perhaps not exactly savory. Teen son Vince Jr. (Ezra Miller) has a secret kink that involves lusting after very fat women on the Internet. Everyone is sneaking cigarettes while pretending they don’t smoke.  And there’s one more secret, involving a handsome young prisoner, that threatens to tear the family apart . . . but then helps it pull itself back together.

 In this cleverly plotted dramedy, Vince’s acting coach (Alan Arkin) becomes a catalyst for all the untruths to be brought into the light of day. Arkin’s pontificating Michael Malakov dreams up an exercise in which pairs of would-be actors are required to tell one another their deepest, darkest secrets. Vince is paired with Molly (Emily Mortimer), a lively young Brit (or is she?) who encourages his dreams and listens to his long-concealed guilt about abandoning a baby son. You can guess where he finds that son, now grown.

 While dealing with that discovery, Vince is also learning to own up to his passion for following in the footsteps of his personal hero, Marlon Brando. With Molly’s encouragement, he shows up at an audition “cattle call” for a bit part in a Martin Scorsese flick. (Arkin/ Malakov is also there, pathetically awaiting his own turn to impress the big boys.) At the audition, Vince is as green as they come, but his own life experience, coupled with the canny use of an acting tip he got in an unexpected place, wins him a tiny but dramatic role in Scorsese’s latest urban crime saga. This becomes a source of pride to a family that could really use a break.

I don’t know the work of Raymond De Felitta, who both wrote and directed this little gem. Apparently he’s an actor/writer/director/producer, and a jazz pianist on the side. For  his work he’s won big awards at small festivals, and his AFI thesis film, Bronx Cheers, nabbed an Oscar nomination for best live action short in 1991. More recently, City Island earned him the audience award at the Tribeca Film Festival, and in 2016  he was nominated by the Directors Guild of America for helming a limited TV series, Madoff.  So he’s a working director, and from the glimpse we get of him on the City Island DVD, schmoozing with the film’s actors over pasta and potatoes, he’s an amiable guy, one with a great affection for the ethnic mishmash that is New York.

He's also, from what I’ve read, a devoted family man. That fact fits the story of City Island, in which almost irreparable harms can be overcome by family solidarity and family love. Kudos to all involved, and especially to Andy Garcia, who believed in this project to the extent of becoming its producer. We need more like this one.

Friday, May 19, 2023

Ronald Colman: A Far Far Better Man?

My esteemed colleague Carl Rollyson is probably one of the busiest biographers around. While publishing some thirty-five books, many of them biographies of eminent literary figures like Faulkner and Sylvia Plath, he is also a retired professor, a book editor, a reviewer, a podcaster, and a chronicler of movieland royalty. I happen to know that he’s currently deep into a biography of Ronald Colman,  the British actor once revered for his mellifluous voice, his neat mustache and his gentlemanly manner. My parents loved Colman in Lost Horizon  (1937) and The Late George Apley (1947). He won an Oscar for A Double Life, also 1947.  Trying, in my way, to keep up with Carl, I’ve just watched two Colman oldies, Random Harvest (1942) and A Tale of Two Cities (1935).

 Random Harvest is based on a popular novel by James Hilton. I have no idea what that title means, but it features a British officer who has left the battlefields of World War I with a serious case of amnesia. There’s a poignant scene, early on, wherein an elderly couple from the hinterlands arrives at Colman’s British sanitarium,, hoping he’ll turn out to be their missing son. He hopes so too . . . but he’s not. Desperate to make something of his life, he sneaks out into the local town, and is promptly taken in tow by a lively young music-hall singer (Green Garson). Soon he learns to forget his missing past and forge a new life with her. But wait! Tragedy strikes again! While hurrying to a job interview he’s hit by a passing taxi . . . and his memories of his past return to him. He now knows he’s the beloved scion of a wealthy family, and they can’t wait to fold him into their posh existence. That’s fine with him, because he’s completely forgotten his marriage to Garson and their happy days in a cozy Midlands cottage. Soon he’s an important figure in the business world. But Garson, undaunted, signs on as his loyal secretary and waits for him to remember their life together. The plot thickens from there.

 Though Colman is fine as the stalwart but confused soldier, the film is really Greer Garson’s. In the novel, the reader doesn’t know that Paula Ridgeway and Margaret Hanson are the same person. But this would hardly have worked on film with a face as familiar as Garson’s. So in playing the secretary she conveys a secret yearning that works beautifully. (She won an Oscar for that same year’s Mrs. Minniver.)  Carol Burnett fans will enjoy her spoof of this film, Rancid Harvest (see below).

 I was more impressed by Colman’s leading man chops as Sydney Carton in one of David O. Selznick’s literary adaptations, A Tale of Two Cities. This typically convoluted and schmaltzy Charles Dickens novel about the French Revolution was somehow condensed by screenwriters W.P Lipscomb and S.N. Behrman (the latter famous for sophisticated comedies) into a brisk two hours. It’s an MGM “cast of thousands” extravaganza, with a horde of extras marching through the streets of a backlot Paris to tear down prison walls. (There was a well-deserved Oscar nomination for editing, as well as one for best picture.) The acting is theatrical, to put it kindly, but Blanche Yurka as Mme. Defarge, crazed with her thirst for revenge against the “aristos,” stands out. I was surprised at the eventual Roger Corman-style catfight to the death between her and Edna May Oliver as the prim Miss Pross, but it’s in the novel. Amid all this, Colman’s tortured and unlikely hero won’t soon be forgotten.