Tuesday, April 30, 2024

A Heartfelt Ode to Lovers and Other Strangers

Yes, I’m a bit of a sucker for wedding movies, especially those that suggest that it’s possible to achieve wedded bliss. Lovers and Other Strangers came out in 1970, when I was heading toward marriage myself. I’m not sure this little film acknowledges the possibility of happily ever after, but it’s both romantic (at times) and extremely funny (often).

 Two of the writers of this film are Renée Taylor and Joseph Bologna, a married couple who presumably knew the territory. They first launched this comedy on Broadway, where it was a hit of the 1968 season, with Taylor in a key role. She doesn’t appear in the film, which was co-written by David Zelag Goodman, but the three shared an Oscar nomination for their screenplay. (By the way, Bologna passed on in 2017, but Taylor is still around at the ripe old age of 91.)

 The centerpiece of the film is the wedding of two attractive young New Yorkers, Susan (Bonnie Bedelia) and Mike (Michael Brandon). Though their parents don’t know it, they’ve been sharing an apartment for a year. Now, on the eve of their wedding, Mike isn’t sure he wants to change the status quo. But Susan, who seems to have good insight into the working of her boyfriend’s mind, cheerfully proceeds with the gown fitting and other plans for the elaborate out-of-town nuptials to which they’ve committed. In the course of their pre-wedding errands, we come to know their families. Mike’s lower-middle-class Italian parents (Beatrice Arthur and the Oscar-nominated Richard Castellano) seem in many ways to be a mismatch: she’s devoutly Roman Catholic and he has had a few extramarital flings, but doesn’t see the point in going to confession. Yet though they bicker constantly and don’t pretend to be entirely happy with one another, they’re unified in their horror that older son Richie is on the brink of divorce. (Hhis pretty young wife is Diane Keaton, in her first film role. She’s a romantic who laments that since a year or two of marriage, Richie’s hair no longer smells like raisins.)

 Meanwhile Susan’s affluent Irish-Catholic parents (Gig Young and Cloris Leachman) present themselves as an attractive married couple. This is a façade, however, because the very smooth Hal is juggling his marital commitments and a fling with the woebegone Kathy (Anne Jackson). Kathy, alas, always seems to be weeping in the bathroom as Hal weasels out of promises to divorce his wife. And there’s one more screwball coupling, between a hot-to-trot cousin (Bob Dishy) and a ditzy bridesmaid (Marian Hailey) who’s really into Camus and Khalil Gibran. (When she mentions taking part in the recent student protests on the campus of Columbia University, he’s impressed that she’s an Ivy Leaguer. No, she earnestly explains, she was one of the “outside agitators” there.) 

 With all this going on, it’s remarkable that the wedding comes off as planned, leaving us hoping that at least one couple will find joy in holy matrimony, at least for now. The film won favor both from audiences and Oscar voters, earning three nominations. (Its only victory was for its song, “For All We Know,” which became a hit for The Carpenters and a staple at weddings from that day to this.)

 An eerie postscript: Gig Young, the one-time Oscar-winner who plays the straying father of the bride, was married five times. His last marriage, in 1978 when he was 64, was to a 31-year-old German magazine editor. Three weeks later, he apparently killed his wife and then himself. So much for happily ever after.









Friday, April 26, 2024

Linking Up on the Links: “Tin Cup”

When it comes to golf, I don’t know a birdie from a bogey. So a movie that’s all about golf should not speak to me. Still, I was a big fan of Ron Shelton’s baseball-related directorial debut, Bull Durham (1988). Four years later, Shelton made playground basketball sexy in White Men Can’t Jump. So I was curious to see what he could do on the golf links, especially since Tin Cup (1996) reunited him with the star of Bull Durham, Kevin Costner.

 I’m not always a Kevin Costner enthusiast, especially in films that require him to be solemn and heroic. (See, for instance, Dances with Wolves.) In Tin Cup he’s quite the opposite: something of a grifter who just happens to have remarkable golf skills, but is too much in love with crazy bets and show-offy gambles to make a real career out of a sport he loves. Shelton describes his Roy “Tin Cup” McAvoy as a archetypal American hustler-conman-loser who has a gift for self-destruction. To my surprise, he reminded me a great deal of Jimmy McGill, Bob Odenkirk’s talented but sleazy lawyer in the TV series, Better Call Saul. (The two men even have a similar look: clean-cut but diabolical.) The film ends up with Roy in a position to win—to everyone’s astonishment—the U.S. Open, but the outcome is not what you might expect.

 Following some success on his college golf team, Roy has made a life for himself running a driving-range in an out-of-the-way desert spot called Salome, Texas, where the greens are hardly green, and armadillos are an occasional hazard on the course. (The movie opens with a series of colorful roadside signs including this one: “Last chance to hit golf balls fore 520 miles.”) Not much concerned about money, Roy hangs out with a scruffy group of golf buddies, drinking beers, making creative wagers, and giving the occasional golf lesson to a newbie. Such a one is Dr. Molly Griswold (Rene Russo), a feisty and attractive clinical psychologist who shows up with hundreds of dollars’ worth of questionable golf gear. She’s dating Roy’s college nemesis, David Simms (Don Johnson), now a star professional golfer who holds charity tournaments and never misses a chance to needle Roy about his less than stellar accomplishments on the links. Naturally, Roy and Molly can’t fight their growing attraction, especially when she discovers (natch!) that big-hearted, charitable David is really a jerk behind the scenes.

 Though I delighted in Roy’s devil-may-care personality, Dr. Molly didn’t work for me. Yes, she has colorful moments, but the character seems less a reflection of true human behavior than a construct by a screenwriter looking to find an original take on his leading lady. Her backstory is a  jumble of romance with an Amarillo cowboy, years selling real estate, and suddenly a newly-minted psychotherapy degree. Frankly, it just doesn’t wash, though the romantic capitulation, when it comes, is jolly good fun, even while it leaves Roy’s caddy/guru/best friend out in the rain for a very long time.

 That best friend is played by Cheech Marin, best known for his drug-friendly comedy routines with partner Tommy Chong. His role as Romeo Posar gives him the opportunity to be wise, to be funny, even to sing and to dance in sexy style with Roy’s ex-girlfriend, a bodacious stripper. I would be remiss in not mentioning Cheech’s off-screen passion for collecting Chicano art. He boasts the largest such collection in the world, and in 2022 joined with the city of Riverside, California to open The Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art, Culture & Industry.    


Monday, April 22, 2024

The 20th Century Fox of the Future

Growing up in a pleasant corner of L.A. called Beverlywood (no, I had nothing to do with that), I was quietly thrilled by the proximity of a famous movie studio. Yes, 20th Century Fox was about a mile from my home. It was exciting to drive west on Pico Boulevard and see the gates through which celebrities entered, along with huge posters for such coming attractions as Cleopatra, The Sound of Music, and Star Wars. In later years,  my husband- to-be, along with members of my family, took part in the mammoth parade down a fake New York street that was intended to be the high point of 1969’s Hello, Dolly!

 Of course, time marches on. Starting in 1963, much of Fox’s rambling backlot was sold to developers, resulting in the building of hotels, condo towers, and a high-end shopping mall known collectively as Century City. (Such brand-new boulevards as Avenue of the Stars played into the movie-star motif.)  Then, after a series of ownership changes, most of the studio (including its intellectual property) was purchased by Disney in 2019. Today the complex is known as 20th Century Studios: it houses Fox productions, maker of The Simpsons as well as other television favorites, and is also used as rental space for additional TV and movie projects.

 Unlike such storied Hollywood properties as Universal Studios, Fox has never been known for public outreach. Touring the lot is generally not an option, unless you have specific business on the premises. But today that’s starting to  change. A project called Fox Future is being organized to preserve and enhance the remains of one of Hollywood’s oldest studios, and the first to commit itself wholly to the production of sound films. Among the plans: the resurrection of the Fox Research Library, which—like most of the old studio libraries—had been shamefully allowed to disperse over the decades.

 In tandem with Fox Future, the heroic L.A. Conservancy devoted itself on a rain-splashed recent Sunday (yes, it does rain in  SoCal) to educational tours of the lot. We glimpsed the commissary once visited by Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev (who there learned with dismay that his planned visit to Disneyland had been cancelled out of security concerns)), and were allowed inside a famous scoring stage. We gawked at giant murals commemorating the studio’s greatest hits, like Gene Wilder and Teri Garr romping through Young Frankenstein as well as Marilyn Monroe flirting with Tom Ewell in The Seven Year Itch. Perhaps most charming were the earliest buildings on the lot, from the days when Hollywood studios pampered their über-famous contract players with private cottages tailored to their individual tastes. Still standing in the so-called Artist’s and Writer’s Village are several cozy but elaborately outfitted bungalows now used as office space but once dedicated to some of the studio’s brightest stars. Will Rogers’s once-upon-a-time bungalow still has its American Southwest flair. Next door  is what originally was meant to look like a wee Irish cottage. It was apparently built for the popular Irish tenor, John McCormack, who made several films in the early 1930s. Eventually, it became the

home-away-from-home of one of Fox’s biggest Depression-era stars, Shirley Temple. Here’s one of my very favorite factoids from a tour docent: little Shirley was such a worldwide favorite that she frequently received gifts from overseas fans. One admirer in Australia sent a brace of live kangaroos. Soon they were hopping all over the lot, but ended  up being corralled  in an historic lily pond near the studio’s original main building. (You can’t make this stuff up!) 


Friday, April 19, 2024

Saluting “An Officer and a Gentleman”

The recent passing of actor Louis Gossett Jr. at the ripe old age of 87 reminded me, of course, of his greatest screen triumph, in 1982’s An Officer and a Gentleman. For his portrayal of a tough drill sergeant whose brutal methods mask a tender heart, Gossett became the first African-American ever to win an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor. It was a groundbreaking moment: the role had been written for a white man, but the production team had come to recognize that Black drill sergeants were not uncommon in the post-Vietnam military services. And Gossett gives it all he’s got.

 Gossett is a marvel in the film, but so is the rest of the cast, led by Richard Gere, Deborah Winger, and David Keith. What struck me in rewatching it recently is how well it fits the dictum of screenwriting guru Paul Lucey, who advises newbies to write simple stories with complex characters.” Like the Top Gun films, An Officer and a Gentleman is all about would-be flyboys, going through a tough round of training to prepare to pilot combat jets. But whereas Top Gun, starring action hero Tom Cruise, relies heavily on aerial stunt sequences, An Officer and a Gentleman sticks close to the ground. The main thrust of its story involves a thirteen-week training session at which hopefuls (including one plucky woman) go through a series of exhausting physical and mental exercises designed to scare off those unfit to achieve their dreams of flight.

 Zack Mayo (leading man Richard Gere) is a particularly hard case. A loner who’s pretty much mad at the world, he has survived his mother’s suicide and his father’s sordid lifestyle as a drunken and womanizing naval petty officer stationed mostly in the Philippines. Having made the surprising decision to enter Officer Candidate School, Zack is determined to leave the program with no strings attached. Which is why Gunnery Sergeant Foley’s warning to avoid getting serious with the marriage-hungry local factory girls makes perfect sense to him. But somehow he makes a friend (David Keith) who is quickly smitten by a buxom blonde ready to play any trick in order to land herself a pilot. And Zack himself is soon making sweet music with her best friend, the feisty Paula (an Oscar-nominated Debra Winger).

 As week follows week, the Officer Candidates face more and more pressure, both in their training sessions and in the bedroom. (Director Taylor Hackford, who’d responded particularly to the script’s blue-collar landscape and to its complex characterizations, was frank enough with the script’s enthusiastic sex scenes that the film was originally given an X-rating.) At midpoint Zack, having tried the patience of Sgt. Foley once too often, is hounded into volunteering to quit the program. His stubborn determination—and the final, deeply emotional, acknowledgment that he has nowhere else to go—keep him from leaving of his own accord. Later, though, once he’s faced the dire consequences of a pal’s bad choices, he’s ready to leave the Navy behind. That’s when Sgt. Foley steps in again, leading to a fiercely dramatic confrontation that helps Zack put his life into perspective.

  Those who’ve seen An Officer and a Gentleman back in the mists of time will probably remember best its deeply romantic ending, when Zack (resplendent in his white dress uniform) carries off the loving Paula from her place on the local assembly line. It’s fairytale-ish, to be sure, and the filmmakers weren’t originally sold on it. But after all that’s gone before, I believe we feel we and the characters have completely earned this moment of joy. 



Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Love with an Ethnic Stranger

In 1963, the same year that Steve McQueen became America’s favorite action hero via his role in The Great Escape, he also starred in a modest romantic drama opposite Natalie Wood. Its name was Love with The Proper Stranger. It was a black-&-white indie (though released through Paramount Pictures), shot on and around the streets of New York, by director Robert Mulligan and his longtime producing partner, Alan J. Pakula. The two men, both early television veterans, specialized in small, tough, relatively low-budget films that appealed to audiences tired of Hollywood glitz and glamour. The duo triumphed in 1962 with their film adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird, which was to win three Oscars, including a Best Actor statuette for Gregory Peck. Today it seems obvious that a strong film based on Harper Lee’s classic novel would reap generous rewards at the box office. But such was not the thinking in the early Sixties, when studio films played to audiences looking for romance and fancy clothes.

 One year after To Kill a Mockingbird, Pakula and Mulligan were back with a film that was in fact a romance, though hardly a conventional one. Steve McQueen plays an out-of-work jazz musician, first seen trolling for gigs at the local union hall. There he’s confronted by Natalie Wood, a pretty young clerk at Macy’s. He has no recollection of going out on the town with her, but apparently he’s left her something to remember him by. Yes, she’s pregnant. Though she’s hardly the weepy type, he’s by no means a heel eager to escape responsibility. Calling in favors from his live-in girlfriend (Edie Adams), he locates an abortionist who’ll take care of matters in an empty apartment for a substantial fee. (It’s a plot detail that’s starting to feel all too modern, now that Roe v. Wade is history.)

 In a film that makes much of ethnic identity, both Wood’s and McQueen’s characters are the products of close-knit Italian families (Yup, we’re supposed to buy McQueen’s Rocky as Italian.) Wood’s character, Angie Rossini, lives at home with a domineering brother (Herschel Bernardi), as well as an old-world mama who wants her to stay on the straight and narrow. When she can’t bring herself to go through with the back-alley abortion arranged by McQueen, she tries dating a klutzy middle-aged gent who adores her and is willing to claim the baby as his own. (He’s played by none other than Tom Bosley in his first film role, long before he became the beloved paterfamilias on TV’s Happy Days.)  Alas, the match doesn’t take.

 Meanwhile, Angie’s indomitable spunk is starting to endear her to McQueen. (Given the strong ethnic vibe in this film, it’s easy to see her as a close cousin to Cher’s Oscar-winning Loretta Castorini from 1987’s Moonstruck.) I suspect you can guess what happens at the end, though in the case of these two firebrand lovers, nothing is going to come easy.

 Mulligan and Pakula must have liked working with both McQueen and Wood. In 1965, the two actors starred in separate Pakula-Mulligan projects. McQueen took the lead in another raw romance, Baby the Rain Must Fall, while Wood played the title role in the downbeat story of a Hollywood star-in-the-making, Inside Daisy Clover. Though they made a rather gorgeous couple, they never shared the screen again.The gritty but ultimately hopeful Love with the Proper Stranger is well worth seeing, both for its atmospheric look at ethnic New York and for the pairing of two stars on the rise. (It’s fun to imagine what a McQueen/Wood baby might look like!)   


Friday, April 12, 2024

Taking a Leap with O.J. Simpson

 I once saw Orenthal James Simpson at Los Angeles International Airport, walking at a steady clip, suitcase in hand. The moment stands out for me because, at the time that I spotted him, the airwaves were filled with the famous Hertz commercials, in which O.J., clearly late for something important, dramatically hurtles over airport barricades to reach the car rental counter. That series of commercials (starting in 1975) struck a chord with the public because they captured what everyone loved about O.J. in that era: the remarkable football skills, the charm, the handsome face and resonant speaking voice.

 As a UCLA student I had plenty of opportunity to root against O.J. and his USC Trojans on the gridiron. Later, I was well aware that he’d successfully made the leap from running back to media superstar. Aside from his commercials, he did TV sports commentary, and honed his acting chops with memorable comic roles as a police detective in three Naked Gun films (from the guys behind Airplane!). Like the rest of America’s media watchers, I thought of Simpson as a big, strong guy with an endearing smile.

 That all changed in 1994 when Simpson was accused of murdering his ex-wife Nicole Brown and her friend Ron Goldman. Like millions of others, I watched on TV part of the baffling low-speed White Ford Bronco chase, in which an apparently suicidal Simpson tried to avoid the L.A. cops sent to arrest him. From that point forward, it was hard for a West L.A. person like me to ignore what was going on in O.J.’s world. At the time, I was working for Roger Corman at Concorde-New Horizons Pictures, which had its grubby offices on San Vicente Boulevard in the L.A. suburb of Brentwood. A short walk away was the neighborhood Italian restaurant where Goldman had worked and where Nicole had enjoyed her last meal. It quickly became a media hot spot, but then went out of business. And my daily drive home took me past the infamous condo where the two were stabbed to death. You can imagine how much the location’s notoriety added to the traffic on that stretch of Barrington Avenue.

 Of course all the grim excitement came to a head when the case went to trial—a “trial of the century” that would last a full year. In the course of it, many of the participants became famous,  including defense lawyer Johnnie Cochran, lead prosecutor Marcia Clark, and even judge Lance Ito (who found himself subject to comic parodies, including “The Dancing Itos” on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno). Also on the defense team was Robert Kardashian, now better known as the sire of a  fabulously wealthy social media clan. What I remember best about the announcement of the verdict was my personal fear that L.A. might erupt in civil violence. Thankfully it didn’t happen, though in many people’s minds O.J. would never be fully clear of the murder charges, despite his eventual acquittal.

Now Simpson himself has succumbed to cancer, but I suspect his fame will linger on. Once a media star, always a media star, right?