Friday, September 29, 2023

Dealing with The Cincinnati Kid

 Last spring I was honored to appear on Kelsy Norman’s podcast, Speeding Bullitt, which deals with all things Steve McQueen. Though  I don’t pretend to be a McQueen expert, I was invited to speak about my book on The Graduate, because of Steve McQueen’s unlikely reaction to seeing Dustin Hoffman catapulted into stardom via his hang-dog portrayal of Benjamin Braddock. (Five years later McQueen and Hoffman starred together in Papillon. It was not a match made in heaven.)   

 Like the rest of the world, I’ve seen a fair share of Steve McQueen films, including The Magnificent Seven, The Thomas Crown Affair, and of course Bullitt. But I’d never seen The Cincinnati Kid (1965) until yesterday, when I plucked a DVD off a library shelf. No motorcycles here, but otherwise it contains a fair sampling of what McQueen is all about: stoicism, machismo, a glint of humor, a fierce determination to come out on top. And, underneath, a small hint of potential for tenderness.   

 The Cincinnati Kid is about high-stakes poker players trying to best one another in New Orleans. I’ve seen the film compared to The Hustler (1961) if you swap McQueen for Paul Newman and a desk of Bicycle cards for a pool cue. I’m hardly a poker player, and can’t tell a full house from a straight flush, so it was hardly easy for me to appreciate the subtleties of the on-screen game. But what really set my mind buzzing was the film’s supporting cast, which seemed to encompass the whole history of Hollywood.

 In The Cincinnati Kid (with McQueen of course playing the title role), the kid’s #1 card-playing nemesis is Lancey “The Man” Howard, played with panache by none other than Edward G. Robinson. Robinson, who’d starred as a Capone-like crime boss in Little Caesar back in 1931, was then 72, near the end of a long and distinguished career. (His last film was Soylent Green, filmed just before he died in 1973). I won’t soon forget Robinson’s dignity as well as the deep, resonant voice he brought to this film. Caught somewhere in the middle is another card player, Shooter, played by the great character actor, Karl Malden. Malden had won a Supporting Actor Oscar for A Streetcar Named Desire and was nominated for another for On the Waterfront.

 Among the additional players at the table during the Big Game are Jack Weston as Pig, Cab Calloway as Yeller, and Jeff Corey as Hoban. Weston is a familiar face, a specialist in playing nebbish-y roles. Calloway, mostly known as a singer and band-leader, once ruled the airwaves with his “Minnie the Moocher,” though he doesn’t sing here. Corey, blacklisted during the HUAC years, was later famous throughout Hollywood as an acting coach whose students included some of the industry’s biggest names. And the sinister card shark determined to take down his rivals by any means necessary was portrayed by one of Hollywood’s most sinister bad guys, Rip Torn.

 Then there are the women. Pretty blonde Tuesday Weld was about 22, near the beginning of an up-and-down career, when she played the Kid’s main squeeze, the loving and innocent Christian. Ann-Margret, not long after her breakout role in Bye Bye Birdie (1963) but long before her Oscar-nominated performance in Carnal Knowledge (1971) is the sultry, dangerous Melba, a vamp if there ever was one. But for me one big thrill was the presence of former-cutie Joan Blondell, who’d made her screen debut back in 1930. Her part isn’t large, but as a dealer nicknamed Lady Fingers she’s a pleasure to watch flipping those cards.



Tuesday, September 26, 2023

The Rocky Road to Stardom: Sylvester Stallone and Talia Shire

At my gym, while putting in my time on the elliptical machine, I found myself watching a “Rocky” marathon. First there was the climax to Rocky V, featuring a brutal free-for-all in an alley, then ending with an inspirational moment on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art between the man himself and his actual real-life son. (There were no supertitles on the gym screen, so I lacked any helpful dialogue. But with a movie like this one it’s impossible not to know what’s going on.)

 Once Rocky 5 had come to its heart-tugging conclusion, the original Rocky started up, so I could watch a younger, chunkier Sylvester Stallone fight his way out of a meat locker and into a nation’s hearts. I’m not exactly a boxing fan, but in 1976 I was swept away by the experience of seeing Rocky in a packed theatre. (Remember when?)  It’s one thing to experience a fight film while lounging on your couch; it’s quite another when hundreds of people are gathered in a darkened hall, all of them rooting for the same outcome. I’ll never forget the feeling of celebration when Rocky held his own, as though he had fought for US as well as himself.

 I first met Stallone when he was an aspiring actor and I was Roger Corman’s “ace assistant” (in Corman parlance) at New World Pictures. He had come in that day in 1974 to interview for the role of a comic baddie, Machine Gun Joe Viterbo, in the original Death Race 2000. I first saw him, dressed all in black, looming out of the darkness of a seedy lunchroom to say hello to the film’s director, Steve Carver. Following his hilarious stint in Death Race, he acted again for Steve, playing Frank Nitti in Corman’s Ben Gazarra-starring Capone.

 It says something about the Hollywood of that era that Rocky’s lady love also had a Roger Corman connection. Talia Shire had, back in 1970, played a major part in one of Roger’s last AIP films, the aggressively countercultural Gas-s-s-s- Or It Became Necessary to Destroy the World in Order to Save It. Along with such up-and-comers as Bud Cort, Ben Vereen, and the late Cindy Williams, she played one of a group of young hipsters fleeing from a poison gas intended to wipe out everyone over 25. In 1972 she had a much starrier role as Connie Corleone in The Godfather, for which she received an Oscar nomination.  (It didn’t hurt that her brother Francis Ford Coppola was the director.) When Rocky came along, she was cast as the hero’s shy love interest, Adrian, which earned her a second Oscar nod, this time for Best Actress. Both films went on to have sequels, and so her career seemed assured.

 But by the time I signed on as the story editor at Corman’s Concorde-New Horizon, Talia was clearly becoming tired of mediocre roles in forgettable films. In 1995 she was welcomed back by Roger with an opportunity to direct an erotic thriller called One Night Stand. She was pleasant to work with, but I barely recall the film: we made so many, and sometimes they all seemed alike. In any case, this was her one and only directing gig. But the memories returned as I watched her in a bittersweet low-budget film, 2008’s Dim Sum Funeral, in which she plays a deceased Chinese matriarch’s close friend and factotum. There are some tender moments and some funny ones, along with some exotic funerary rituals, and Shire does her best to look as though she’s giving it her all.   


Friday, September 22, 2023

Chasing After “The French Connection”

Some years ago, backstage at the West Hollywood Festival of Books, I chanced to chat with William Friedkin. It wasn’t much of a conversation: I was hardly a fan of The Exorcist, and didn’t have much in the way of insider questions to pose to the famous director. Nor did he seem to really welcome my interest in his career. Still, he was an Oscar winner, and a leading light among the New Hollywood filmmakers of the 1970s. So the news of his passing sent me to re-watch his most acclaimed thriller, 1971’s The French Connection.

 Despite its title, most of this down-and-dirty film is set in the mean streets of New York City. In early scenes I was pleased to see a few genuine glimpses of the Vieux-Port of Marseille, where some European baddies are planning a major drug deal, sending $32 million worth of heroin to the Big Apple in the trunk of a car being shipped across the Atlantic. By the time they and the dope arrive, two scruffy NYPD detectives (played by Roy Scheider and the Oscar-winning Gene Hackman) are on their trail, and most of the film becomes a cat and mouse game, with the cops pursuing the “frogs” through dingy alleyways and traffic-heavy streets. The mid-film chase involving a hijacked commuter train pursued by Hackman (as “Popeye” Doyle) in a commandeered sedan is what stood out in my mind from my long-ago first viewing of this film, and it’s just as exciting now, some fifty years after the initial release. (Wow! – the woman with the baby carriage really sets the heart athumping.) But there are lots of other great action sequences as well.  I’ve read that in directing this film, Friedkin took his inspiration from the French thriller Z, in which director Costa-Gavras filmed a fictional story about a political assassination in documentary fashion, thus heightening its drama. As Friedkin was to put it, “It was a fiction film but it was made like it was actually happening. Like the camera didn't know what was gonna happen next.” With Z as a  model, he shot The French Connection similarly, using a sense of rawness and uncertainty to pump up the adrenaline of audiences.

 I was surprised to learn that the budget was a modest $1.5 million, though the filmmakers went $300,000 over. But because of what was, even in the Seventies, modest budgeting, Friedkin couldn’t hire a glamorous star like Paul Newman or Steve McQueen. Tough guys Lee Marvin, Peter Boyle, James Caan, and Robert Mitchum turned down the Popeye role, which eventually went to Hackman. He had Hollywood cred, including a Supporting Oscar nomination for Bonnie and Clyde in 1967, but The French Connection is what truly put him on the map.

 Though Popeye and his partner are based on specific New York cops, I was surprised this time around to recognize that the film makes little effort to characterize them outside of their on-the-job behavior, Popeye’s pork-pie hat, and his leering way of challenging others: “Do you pick your feet?” Frankly, they seem to have no life beyond their profession. Their language is raw and their behavior is often beyond the pale. In fact we learn that a former partner of Popeye’s died when one of his hunches backfired. Even when Popeye and Cloudy ultimately triumph, there’s a painful irony: the final crawl makes clear that none of the drug-runners they’ve brought down ever really faces serious punishment, and the kingpin of the whole operation gets away scot-free. Just another day in the life of New York’s Finest.

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Whale Watching: Discovering “Whale Rider”

Flying back from a seaside vacation, I found myself watching a film that made a major splash in 2002: Whale Rider.  This Germany/New Zealand co-production, filmed in the seaside town where the source novel is set, depicts Maori life in a way that is respectful and heartfelt. Yes, of course this film—like so many dealing with native cultures—can be deemed inspirational, but there’s no sense here of a quaint neverneverland where problems are magically solved because everyone’s heart is pure. Whale Rider feels very much of the present day, and what magic there is evolves out of the characters’ deep desire to serve their ancient community.

 Whale Rider begins with an earthly tragedy. As a female voice narrates the proud history of the Maoris in New Zealand, we see a woman in labor in a modern hospital. She’s carrying twins, but the male child dies at birth, taking his mother with him. The twice-bereaved father-to-be, shaken to his core, departs the community, leaving his infant daughter, Pai, to be raised by her grandparents.

 Flash forward 12 years. Pai is a smart, inquisitive girl deeply invested in her native culture. But though she shares a strong bond with her grandfather, known as Koro, he feels obligated to bar her from the deepest traditions of their tribe. Koro is revered as a local spiritual leader, one steeped in the old ways, but now he’s seeking a worthy successor. The dead grandson was to fill this role, but a girl-child can’t be trusted to step into the position. You can easily figure out what happens: despite his efforts to train the boys of the community, they all fall short. (When there’s a key diving challenge meant to establish a future leader, one backs out because he’s got a cold, while another can’t even swim.) Meanwhile, Pai, whose love of the community is so great that she gives up a chance to join her father in Europe, is severely scolded when she tries on her own to pick up the traditional Maori skills. But of course when the chips are down she comes through brilliantly, and the film ends in reconciliation and victory.

 One great achievement of Nicki Caro’s direction is that it never seems merely sentimental. The ending is triumphant, but it’s not Disney-style happily-ever-after. Pai’s grandfather, played by New Zealand treasure Rawiri Paratene, is a particularly complex character, both lovable and occasionally ruthless. His interactions with young lead actress Keisha Castle-Hughes are  sometimes endearing, sometimes disturbing, always of interest. Behind him is Vicky Haughton as his wife, Pai’s grandmother, who at first seems mild but has her own sort of quiet strength. There are other strong characterizations as well, notably Pai’s tortured father, who skips out of his parents’ world to find himself as a visual artist in Germany, and also her ingratiating good-time uncle who turns out to have surprising skills of his own.

 But the success of this film stands or falls on its young lead actress. The story goes that Keisha Castle-Hughes, daughter of a Maori mother and an Anglo father, had never acted before. She went directly from an Auckland classroom to a role that required her to be strong, sensitive, and always convincing. So impressive is she that, among many other honors, she was the then-youngest female to be nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for her performance. Today she crusades for Greenpeace and continues to act (see Season 5 of Game of Thrones) and has had a complicated romantic life, bearing her first child at age 16.  Stardom doesn’t always imply good sense.