Friday, March 29, 2024

“Airplane!”: Don’t Call Them Shirley

When I was a young married, there arose (just a stone’s throw from 20th Century Fox Studios) something called Kentucky Fried Theatre. The invention of three antic young men from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the theatre housed a popular sketch comedy show called My Nose. This oddball title allowed the trio to place ads in the Los Angeles Times announcing, “My Nose Runs Continually.” An ambitious fellow named Lorne Michaels once showed up in the audience with an NBC honcho, Dick Ebersol, whom he was trying to interest in the prospect of a network comedy series. Ebersol was convinced, and the result was (ta da!) Saturday Night Live.

 Meanwhile the three Kentucky Fried Theatre cut-ups moved from the live stage into movies. They soon struck comic gold with their 1980 release, Airplane! By this point, Jim Abrahams and brothers David and Jerry Zucker were no longer starring in their own material (playing onstage such goofy roles as a strip-teasing Mister Rogers, who removes his jacket and shoes but doesn’t stop there). Instead the artistic ménage à trois was responsible for both writing and directing a $3.5 million movie that took in a reported $171 million worldwide, and was inducted into the National Film Registry in 2010 for its cultural and aesthetic significance.

 These three madcap writer/directors have just come out with a behind-the-scenes memoir, Surely You Can’t Be Serious”: The True Story of Airplane. It was my pleasure to hear David Zucker speak in person about how the film came to be. This was the era of all-star disaster movies like Airport (a crisis in the air!),  The Poseidon Adventure (a crisis at sea!), and The Towering Inferno (a crisis in a big building!)  Arthur Hailey, whose novel begat the film Airport had earlier contributed to the screenplay of a 1957 thriller called Zero Hour! Its hero is a disgraced World War II flyer who—while a passenger on a long-distance flight—must unexpectedly take over the cockpit of a large jetliner when passengers and crew are felled by food poisoning. Sound familiar? Yes, this basic plot shows up in extremis in Airplane!, with the addition of some outrageous sight gags, some deliberately corny jokes, and a blow-up autopilot named Otto.

 When Zucker and company went to cast their movie, they took the matter seriously in all senses. They had no desire to follow in the footsteps of funnyman Mel Brooks, who stocked his casts with outsized performers like Dom DeLuise. Instead they looked for the sorts of straight-arrow actors who would have starred in serious B-movie action dramas like Zero Hour! That film had featured Dana Andrews and Sterling Hayden. In Airplane! Zucker Abrahams Zucker (informally known as ZAZ) showcased the work of Leslie Nielsen, Peter Graves, and Robert Stack, none of whom had a reputation for zany comedy. For their leading lady, the stewardess whose heart Robert Hays is trying to win back, they found Julie Hagerty. It was her very first movie role, and her wide-eyed innocence fit in nicely with the insanity going on all around her. (Zucker discloses that another candidate for the role was Sigourney Weaver, who came to her audition in full 1940s stewardess garb, and then started making demands for script changes.)  

 Why was basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar cast as First Officer Roger Murdock? Because this was an era when sports stars were being shoe-horned into cameo roles in major movies. Zero Hour! in fact used as one of its pilots a famous retired footballer, Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch. Surely Kareem wore his wings well. But don’t call him Shirley.

Monday, March 25, 2024

The Making (and Mocking) of a President: "Dave"

 In this country, we’re fast approaching the every-four-years Silly Season, when candidates go to insane extremes to convince voters not to support their opponents. (Given the nature of the 2024 U.S. presidential candidates and their proxies, insanity is truly the name of the game.) Last evening, I decided to turn away from political realities by watching a 1993 film that finds great humor and heart in a  presidential what-if.

 In Dave, which came out in the year of Schindler’s List, Kevin Kline plays U.S. President Bill Mitchell,  a cold-hearted man with an eye for pretty young bed-warmers. It bothers him not one whit that his behavior has permanently estranged the First Lady (Sigourney Weaver), who only pretends to be part of a happy presidential couple. But his misbehavior catches up with him when, in bed with a cute member of his staff, he suffers a severe stroke. His cagey chief of staff (the always-slightly-reptilian Frank Langella) has no wish to undermine his own power by handing the reins of government over to the squeaky-clean vice-president (Ben Kingsley, of all people).l His solution is to elevate a convenient look-alike (also, of course, played by Kevin Kline) into the presidency. Kline’s Dave, who runs a Georgetown temp agency, is naturally at first awed by the honor of pretending to be President Mitchell. He’s naïve about the personalities of the powers that be, and overwhelmed by the thrill of actually occupying the presidential suite in the White House. (When he lifts up a phone receiver to make a call from the Oval Office, he feels the need to ask if he needs to dial 9 first.)

 But Dave, for all his aw-shucks manner, is not exactly a fool. He believes in his country’s mission, sees true honor in helping the genuinely needy, and quickly discovers that as President Mitchell he’s positioned to do an end-run around his malevolent chief of staff. There comes a time, though, when the situation of a missing, ailing  president has to be permanently resolved. And Dave’s inventive solution, which I’m sure takes most viewers completely by surprise, allows for a happy ending that’s at least semi-credible, given all that’s gone before.

 It's well known that comedies, even excellent ones, are generally overlooked when Oscars are handed out. The year of Schindler’s List also produced a number of other seriously great films, like The Remains of the Day, The Age of Innocence, and Philadelphia, the AIDS-related drama for which Tom Hanks won his first Oscar.  Dave was nominated for exactly one Academy Award, a well-deserved nod to Gary Ross for his original screenplay, which beautifully sets up all the craziness to come. (As a longtime teacher of screenwriting. I salute him.) The screenwriting Oscar, though, went to Jane Campion, for her extraordinarily inventive work on The Piano. (Other losers in that category were Ron Nyswaner for writing Philadelphia and Nora Ephron—among others—for scripting a romcom classic, Sleepless in Seattle.)

 Politics American-style is a funny business. The year of Dave’s release into theatres was also the year that William Jefferson Clinton entered the White House. When the threat of a presidential impeachment arose in Dave, audiences of the time were well aware that a U.S. president had never been impeached since Andrew Johson in 1868. That was to change in 1998 following the notorious Monica Lewinsky affair, and of course we all know which president was impeached twice during his single term in office.

 What’s going on our country today is no laughing matter. But I’m grateful that Dave finds some humor in unthinkable news from Washington.



Friday, March 22, 2024

The Daze of Wine and Roses

For many of us, “Days of Wine and Roses” is primarily a ballad, best known in a 1963 rendition by pop singer Andy Williams. It’s got a noble pedigree, featuring Johnny Mercer’s lyrics set to a Henry Mancini tune.  Over the years it’s often been recorded, and has become a jazz standard. It won a Grammy for 1963 Song of the Year, as well as an Oscar for its appearance in the film of the same name.

 It’s that 1962 film I want to focus on now, partly because it, and the Playhouse 90 teleplay that preceded it,  have recently inspired a musical version (now running through the end of this month) that features some of Broadway’s best and brightest. The music is by Adam Guettel, with book by Craig Lucas, both of whom have impressive resumés and reputations for producing serious dramatic work. (Their prime collaboration is the musical version of another sensitive movie drama, The Light in the Piazza.) The female lead is the much-honored Kelli O’Hara, and her male counterpart is another Broadway veteran, Brian d’Arcy James. The score, which does not include the Mancini/Mercer ballad, is gorgeous, and I’ve heard the staging is highly inventive. But the fact that the play was originally scheduled to run through April 28 suggests it has not caught fire with audiences, and I wonder how most of us will ever manage to see it.

 Days of Wine and Roses, directed by Blake Edwards from a JP Miller screenplay, takes a close look at how lives are destroyed by alcohol abuse. In this it makes a fascinating contrast to the early classic of the genre, Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend. The 1945 Wilder film, starring Ray Milland, is an unforgettable close-up look at a man who, over the course of two harrowing days, nearly destroys his life because of his addiction to the bottle. By contrast, Days of Wine and Roses has a much larger canvas. It unfolds over a number of years, encompassing periods of binge drinking, sobriety, and relapse.  It’s also about a romantic couple, whose relationship to alcohol first enhances and then destroys their marriage. The leads are played by Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick, both of whom give award-worthy performances. Both were indeed nominated for Oscars, but lost out to Gregory Peck (To Kill a Mockingbird) and Anne Bancroft (The Miracle Worker) in a strong year. Shockingly, the film’s only win was for that featured title song, perhaps because this was also the year of Lawrence of Arabia, The Music Man, Sweet Bird of Youth, and The Manchurian Candidate.

 What I’ve found fascinating, both then and now, is the way marriage and alcoholism are shown to be strange bedfellows. Lemmon’s character, San Francisco public relations exec Joe Clay, is a bon vivant type, one who enjoys social drinking and uses liquor to fuel his relationship with clients. When he falls for teetotaler secretary Kirsten, he makes Brandy Alexanders a central part of their exuberant courtship. Over time, both begin to depend on liquor in their domestic relationship: when one pulls back, the other is resentful. Eventually after their cravings have taken a toll on their professional and social lives, the marriage itself implodes, leaving two lost souls in its wake.

 The year 1962 was a long time ago, but this film (despite its black-&-white cinematography) still feels modern. I’ve read it had a powerful long-term effect on its cast and crew, many of whom had their own addictions to face. (Within the film, Alcoholics Anonymous is an important presence in one character’s shaky but genuine recovery.)