Tuesday, August 27, 2013

All the Small Things

Cinema is full of great pairings: Laurel and Hardy, Tracy and Hepburn, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. But none have made so great an impression with so few pairings as the cinematic partnership of Robert Redford and Paul Newman. The duo only made 2 films together, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and The Sting (1973) – both directed by George Roy Hill – but it's hard to imagine the one actor without the other. Oh, sure, they had successful careers separately beforehand. Newman had 4 Oscar nominations under his his belt before teaming up with Redford – who was doing alright himself having received the Golden Globe already for New Star of the Year (Whatever happened to that category? I bet the Zac Efrons of the world were wishing it was still around...) But somehow the two together just clicked. Their combination of star wattage, rugged good looks, and good-natured banter became synonymous with the Buddy Film genre. And their first outing together as a couple of real-life bank/train robbers, happens to be the subject of this week's edition of Hit Me With Your Best Shot from Nathaniel over at The Film Experience

I guess the same can be said about this blog post...
I haven't watched the film in over 10 years and while I remember it being mostly enjoyable (Redford and Newman really are very good together. Star powers unite!) not much about it this time around clicked for me. It takes an awfully long time getting anywhere and I'm not entirely sure it has any destination at all in mind. 

Entire stretches of the film seem like mostly filler – granted, beautifully shot, Academy Award-winning cinematography filler – but, filler, nonetheless. The first 10 minutes are shot in sepia tone for no other reason than it looks old-timey. The repetitive "chase" sequence seems to go on forever and seems to draw more attention to the majestically shot mountains and rivers rather than bringing any useful insight into the characters or, you know, advancing the plot along. And then right in the middle of the film we get a completely unnecessary movie montage of Adventures in New York (in sepia tone, naturally). And I haven't even mentioned the groovy music video within the film for the Burt Bacharach penned, B.J. Thomas sung, Oscar-winning song, "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head". But it just so happens that my choice for Best Shot comes from that moment in the film.

The song is arguably even more famous than the movie itself. Although, it seems to exist in the film for the sole purpose to win an Oscar. It does show how Katharine's Ross school teacher has more of a bond with Newman's Butch Cassidy than she does Redford's Sundance Kid, but it doesn't amount to anything as the film's focus is on the male relationship. And she doesn't end up with either of them anyway (uh, spoiler alert? Like I said, it doesn't matter. That's not the point of the film). But mostly its a moment for Newman to do a lot of mugging for the camera and show off some impressive tricks on a bicycle, while Ross pretends to be amused. But stuck in the middle of it all is this breathtaking shot:

It jumps out from the rest of the scene because it seems so out of place. All her previous shots in the scene are of big, toothy laughs that seem like forced joy regarding Newman. This shot is so pensive and thoughtful as if we're catching a glimpse into the inner workings of her mind. It's a real moment captured on screen. It doesn't even seem like Ross is aware of the camera on her – which makes it even more exciting. For a fleeting instant we get to see the artifice stripped away to show the actress' humanity. And amid a film full of big stars and bigger set pieces (no offense to Redford and Newman), its this little thing that counts.

Friday, August 23, 2013


I haven't been very good at recapping the amazing people who've come out to Fire Island this summer (having only written up Bruce Vilanch's visit). But addition to Margaret Cho, John Waters, Lynda Carter (Wonder Woman as chanteuse), and last weekend's brilliant Chita Rivera (Chita gave an incredible performance both nights and I feel really honored to have spent the weekend with her), the event of the summer just might be this coming weekend's guest. A true living legend (at 92 years old, no less!) and an one-of-a-kind personality will be making her way to the island. If you couldn't guess from the headline: it's Miss Carol Channing, herself.

With her saucer eyes lined with the world's longest false lashes (no wonder drag queens love to impersonate her), her often intimated voice (that voice! a mixture of baby doll and just the right amount of crazy), and her kooky, off-the-wall persona, there really is no one quite like Carol Channing. I'm not really sure what she is or where she came from (she really does seem like one of those people who was destined for stardom – fully formed as her own unique, distinct person. Imagine if she was just some lady in your hometown. You'd likely steer clear of her – the town kook. Luckily fame lends a note of respectability. It's not crazy but eccentric). She truly is Larger Than Life. (Which just so happens to be the title of a 2011 documentary about her. If you've ever wondered why she became such an icon, watch the film and wonder no more.)

In honor of Miss Channing's arrival this weekend, I wanted to take a look at one of her few ventures on the big screen. Her Oscar-nominated, Golden Globe award-winning turn as Muzzy Van Hossmere in the 1967 musical comedy, Throughly Modern Millie. For whatever reason, Channing only made a handful of films (perhaps her style of acting was just too theatrical. I mean, it's certainly not subtle). Even though she originated the role of Dolly Levy in Hello, Dolly on Broadway, when it came time to film the movie, the role was given to a much too young, miscast, Barbra Streisand. Channing actually won the Tony over Streisand the year she was nominated for Funny Girl. If only she had gotten to recreate her Dolly character for the big screen. Perhaps an Oscar would have joined that Tony on the mantle. If anything, she certainly deserved to win for her joyous turn in Millie over (what I feel is one of the worst wins of all-time) Estelle Parsons in Bonnie and Clyde

Throughly Modern Millie (the basis for the 2000 Tony award-winning, Sutton Foster-career-starting, Broadway musical) is actually a bit of a mess as a movie. At a little over 2 and half hours long, it's much too long than it has any right to be for a frothy, satire of 1920s culture. And the subplot about white slavery seems racists and dated, I'm sure even at the time of its release. But if the film succeeds at all, it's due to the jolt of excitement Carol Channing brings whenever she's onscreen. Which, at almost an hour into the movie before she even makes her entrance, is just what the movie needed. 

And what an entrance. Speeding by Millie (Julie Andrews), Miss Dorothy (Mary Tyler Moore), and Jimmy (James Fox) in a black and white checkerboard painted biplane, draped in white furs and diamonds, carelessly spilling champagne in the wind, she utters a word that has become synonymous with the actress ever since:


What the hell does that mean, exactly? Shit if I know, but I love every mind-boggling minute of it.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Hollywood's Twisted Relationship

Hollywood's love affair with itself, if nothing else, has certainly produced some pretty amazing films. From the Golden Age of Hollywood: Sunset Boulevard, Sullivan's Travels, Singin' In the Rain. To the modern age of Ed Wood , The Aviator, and The Artist. Despite its narcissistic nature, it's a love affair that I definitely share. All the backstage drama, the thinly veiled characters based on real-life Hollywood figures, the juicy insider gossip that could only be brought to life from the people within the system are too much for me to resist. When you love film as much as I do, how could you not love films about filmmaking? And one such film, Vincente Minnelli's The Bad and the Beautiful released in 1952 (which, also, incidentally, is the same year Singin' In the Rain came out. Hollywood was really full of itself that year, wasn't it?) happens to be the subject of this week's Hit Me With Your Best Shot over at The Film Experience.

The film begins as three separate people receive a phone call from Paris from one Jonathan Shields. Each of them denies the call (well, one accepts the charges as long as Shields is paying, then responds with a "drop dead" before hanging up the phone). The three are soon summoned to the studio, where we learn Mr. Shields wants to work with them again. One by one (in a series of flashbacks) we learn about each person's past with Shields and the reason they've rejected him. The multi-person narrative had been used previously by such films as Citizen Kane (if you're gonna borrow, why not borrow from the best?) but it gives the film a dynamic, modern quality and won the film an Oscar for Best Screenplay. The film went on to win 5 Oscars in total (and with the little golden guy on display in the film and a special thanks to the Academy at the end of the film for the use of the statues, how could it have not won some of its own? And the love affair continues...) and has the distinction of the most Oscar wins without a Best Picture nomination.

Shields (Kirk Douglas in an Best Actor Oscar nominated performance) is a megalomaniacal Hollywood producer that betrayed the three. He is said to be based on David O. Selznick, who's control over films' productions was legendary. But the film within the film, The Doom of the Cat Men, that's his hit with the director Fred Amiel, played by Barry Sullivan, (and the subject of the first narrative) is said to be based on Val Lewton's Cat People. The other characters of the story – a Southern writer that goes on to win the Pulitzer Prize (Dick Powell as James Lee Bartlow) is said to be based on William Faulkner and an alcoholic actress of a famous actor father gets her inspiration from John Barrymore's daughter (and Drew's aunt), Diana. The only difference is that Diana's career was a non-starter and Georgia Lorrison, the actress in the film, goes on to be a big star. And when she's portrayed by movie star, Lana Turner, is there any question that she wouldn't be?

This was actually the first film that I've seen Lana Turner in. Of course her reputation proceeds her, but that's mainly due to the fabricated story of being discovered as "the sweater girl" and the infamy involving the murder of her mobster lover by her teenage daughter. Which is a polite way of saying, she's not really known for her acting. But, not being able to compare it to any of her previous work, I can say that she lives up to the film's title. She has a sexual energy that is anything but the girl next door (The Bad) and there is absolutely no question about her beauty. I even thought about choosing this shot as the best for no other reason than the sheer gorgeousness of it:

But the shot that I eventually chose as my Best, I feel, captures the conflicted relationship the three characters have with Shields and wraps up the narrative of the film. After we've spent 2 hours hearing their stories we find out why the three hate Shields so much. (This series is more fun if you've actually seen the film. But, if you're one of those people afraid of spoilers, just skip to the picture and create your own story about why it's the Best Shot.)  Just as Shields made it big, he dropped Amiel for a more famous director. After making Georgia a star (and winning her heart), he cheats on her with a film extra (have you no standards, sir?!) on the night of her big premiere. And poor James Lee looses his wife in a plane crash after Shields orchestrates an affair between the wife and the leading man that went down in the plane with her. But, as pointed out in the movie, the pain and rejection made them better in their fields – able to succeed in ways they wouldn't have without the betrayal of Shields. After rejecting his offer to work again, the three leave the studio. But something is still drawing them to him. Unable to resist, they pick up the phone on another line to listen to Shields' proposal:

Like moths drawn to the flame, the three are still enamored by that which they know will hurt them. But isn't every relationship in Hollywood a little masochistic? People are ruthless in their pursuit of fame and fortune. Back-stabbing, duplicity, and cheating along the way is just a part of the game. You may hurt the one's you love, but who's to say they won't be back for more. And when you have a love as powerful and persistent as the one Hollywood has for itself, the affair is just too cruel and pretty not to be over.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

A Woman's Worth

When it came time to create a film based on Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Color Purple, Steven Spielberg seemed like an unlikely choice. After all what did a white, Jewish, man that grew up in Arizona and California know about the black experience, especially from the point of view of women in the deep South? And at the time, long before his prestige pics of Schindler's List, Munich, and Lincoln would establish his place as a serious director, his filmography consisted of summer blockbusters like Jaws, E.T. , and Raiders of the Lost Ark. All great films, sure, but hardly the type of thing that showed he would be capable of bringing to life a complex story that involved rape, abuse, incest, and homosexuality. But when the film was released in 1985, not only was it the beginnings of another aspect of Spielberg's career, it was also a huge success, financially and critically. It went on to receive 11 Academy Awards that year (but is tied with The Turning Point as the most nominated film without a single win). And Miss Celie and her Blues happen to be the subject of this week's edition of Hit Me With Your Best Shot from Nathaniel at The Film Experience.

When I read the book years later (which is structured through only a series of letters), it was interesting to see how the tone of the movie differed and how much was glossed over, especially in regards to Celie and Shug's relationship. What is clearly defined as a lesbian relationship is reduced to a single kiss in the film that seems more sisterly and chaste. Spielberg also has a tendency to be emotionally manipulative – trying to wring tears without earning them (but damned if he doesn't succeed in getting those tears to flow. Celie's reunion with her her long-lost sister, Nettie, at the end of film reduces me to a blubbering fool every. damn. time). And he just can't resist little touches that seem childish or cutesy. (Which is something he still hasn't outgrown. The groundhogs in the last Indiana Jones film, anyone?!) The scene where Albert prepares breakfast for Shug seems to have taken its inspiration from a Looney Tunes cartoon.

But despite all these factors, the film's likability is not diminished in the slightest. It's still wildly watchable and engaging. In fact, The Color Purple along with Steel Magnolias and Fried Green Tomatoes form a late 80's/early 90's, Southern set, film Trinity that shaped the development of every gay boy that was going through adolescence at that time. As gay men, we tend to gravitate towards stories with strong female characters and Actressexuality starts at an early stage. The film is at its best when it highlights the feminine relationships (although, Spielberg has never again made a film with such a strong female sensibility) and celebrates the power they possess. As highlighted by my choice for best shot.

For years, Celie has been repressed by her marriage to Albert (Danny Glover), who abuses her physically and mentally. After discovering that he has been hiding the letters her sister (whom he forced away after she spurned his advances) has sent over the past decades, Celie reaches her breaking point and decides enough is enough. She is leaving Albert and has finally gained the strength to stand up for herself. She curses him as she leaves, "Until you do right by me, everything you even think about gonna fail!" He follows her outside and raises his hand to strike when Celie stops him dead in his tracks:

"Everything you done to me, already done to you."

Without violence (although she came dangerously close with a razor and knife already), with the simple force of her will (and a pretty awesome hand gesture that brings to mind a sorcerer), Celie shifts the power into her favor. She finds the courage to be the woman she was meant to be: "I'm poor, black, I may even be ugly, but dear God - I'm here! I'm here."

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

My Pick's for 10 Most Memorable Performances in the Films of Hitchcock

This month (next Tuesday, August 13, in fact) would have been Alfred Hitchcock's 114th birthday (not that he would have lasted that long anyway, judging by the size of him...) and in honor of Hitch, Team Experience, of which I am a proud card-carrying member of (well, there's not actually cards), over at The Film Experience ranked our 10 Most Memorable Performances in a Hitchcock Film. The only stipulation was "Memorable" not "Best" so anyone and anything was up for grabs. (I believe a bottle of mineral ore in Notorious may have even had a mention.) I, personally, decided not to double up on Actors' performances – just one from Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, Grace Kelly, and Ingrid Bergman. I'll also be the first to admit that I'm not all that familiar with his Silent Films or the British Films of the 30s, so apologies to any of those performances I may have slighted. Anyway, on to my ballot:

10. Grace Kelly as Lisa Fremont in Rear Window
or should I say, from top to bottom: Lisa. Carol. Fremont. One of the greatest film entrances...

9. Doreen Lang as The Hysterical Mother in the Diner in The Birds
I haven't seen the film in years, but I still remember her. Just watch this clip and tell me that's not memorable:

8. Tippi Hedren as Marnie Edgar in Marnie
This part is bonkers and after watching HBO's The Girl, I have a new appreciation for Tippi and what Hitch made her go through. She says he prevented her from getting an Oscar nom for this...

7. Ingrid Bergman as Alicia Huberman in Notorious
and the longest kiss in film history:

6. Joseph Cotten as Uncle Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt
that stare...

5. Joan Fontaine as the second Mrs. de Winter in Rebecca
I think Rebecca may be my favorite Hitchcock film. And you've got to be pretty memorable when you don't even have a name in a film and you're the main character.

4. Cary Grant as Roger Thornhill in North by Northwest
You can read my write up at the post. GQ named his suit the most influential in all of cinema:

3. James Stewart as Scottie Ferguson in Vertigo
Who knew a nice guy like Jimmy could be so crazy/creepy:

2. Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates in Psycho
"We all go a little mad sometimes."

1. Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca
Simply the best:

"You're overwrought, madam. I've opened a window for you. A little air will do you good. Why don't you go? Why don't you leave Manderley? He doesn't need you... he's got his memories. He doesn't love you, he wants to be alone again with her. You've nothing to stay for. You've nothing to live for really, have you? Look down there. It's easy, isn't it? Why don't you? Why don't you? Go on. Go on. Don't be afraid..."

Evil Comes to Town

The filmography of The Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, is filled with so many iconic films and moments that it seems almost ridiculous to think that it all come from the twisted mind of one man. Brimming with indelible images that shook up audiences and influenced the art of filmmaking even to this day, his work is forever engrained in the echelon of pop culture. The infamous shower scene in Pyscho (which caused Janet Leigh to declare she only took baths from that point on). Cary Grant being chased down by a plane all alone in a cornfield in North by Northwest. Tippi Hedren being attacked in a phone booth by rabid birds. Just last year, his Vertigo overtook Citizen Kane for the top spot in Sight & Sound's list of the greatest films of all time. But of all his films, the one that Hitch himself claimed for his favorite was one that is perhaps not as well-known (but wildly loved among cinephiles), starring Joseph Cotten and Teresa Wright: 1943's Shadow of a Doubt. The film is the subject of this week's Hit Me With Your Best Shot over at The Film Experience. And while I wouldn't call the film my favorite of his works, it certainly ranks among the greats.

The first of his films to have a truly American setting, Hitch was fascinated by small-town Americana and the values of everyday life - especially when villainy disrupts the tranquility. Thorton Wilder, the playwright and author of perhaps the definitive take on the subject of the American way, Our Town, wrote the original screenplay – making the film (much like Joseph Cotten's mysterious Uncle Charlie is to the Newton family of the film) almost a wicked relative to Wilder's play.

That wicked relative in the film, Uncle Charlie, has come to stay with his sister and her family in Santa Rosa, California (where the film was actually shot) much to the delight of his niece and namesake,  Charlie (Teresa Wright). His niece had just been thinking that some sort of adventure was needed to stir the family out of its rut and a visit from her beloved uncle (whom she's so similar to that they are almost telepathic. In fact the first shots of the pair of Charlies mirrors each other with both lying on their bed, staring at the ceiling) was just what they needed. But soon young Charlie, after a visit from a pair of detectives following her uncle, begins to suspect that the uncle she adores might in fact be the Merry Widower Murderer – a killer that preys on wealthy, older women.

There are glimmers of truth throughout the film that hint at the evil that lies within Uncle Charlie. The first dinner when he is reunited within the clan brings forth a ring for young Charlie. While admiring it (along with some intense incestuous flirting), she soon finds an engraving that reveals the true owner of the bauble. Later, in her bedroom (again with the incest), a seemingly playful game where young Charlie tries to steal back a newspaper article Uncle Charlie has hidden, turns a little too harsh when his grip on her slowly becomes a bit too rough and forceful. But, the moment where Charlie's facade begins to crack and he shows his true self is my pick for Best Shot.

At another dinner, sitting around the family table, Uncle Charlie's sister mentions the women of her club and what Charlie will speak about at their meeting. Charlie comments on how the women in the country are different from the women of the city. And as he begins to speak, the camera pulls in tighter and closer to his face just as the words become more twisted and deprived.

Uncle Charlie: The cities are full of women, middle-aged widows, husbands dead. Husbands who've spent their lives making fortunes, working and working. And then they die and leave their money to their wives. Their silly wives. And what do the wives do – these useless women? You see them in the hotels - the best hotels - every day by the thousands. Drinking the money. Eating the money. Losing the money at bridge. Playing all day and all night. Smelling of money. Proud of their jewelry, but of nothing else. Horrible,  faded, fat, greedy women.
Young Charlie: They're Alive! They're Human Beings!

Uncle Charlie: Are they?

And that icy stare, directed at Charlie, but really as if he's staring directly at us – piercing our souls with his hatred – cuts right through you. Hitchcock builds the momentum to where just the turn of his head is enough to make you jump. But the horror is more terrifying because it's real. It's your blood relation, sitting around the comfort of your dinner table, disturbing the sacredness of that familial ritual. There's evil that lurks in the hearts of men and it hits close to home. And perhaps the film is Hitchcock's favorite because he knows that having you question whether you really know the person sitting right next to you is the most frightening feeling of all.