Tuesday, March 24, 2015

A Legendary Pair in a Trio of Tales

Film is full of famous duos: Laurel and Hardy, Tracy and Hepburn, Bogie and Bacall. Each pair of names conjuring recognizably distinct personalities (usually opposites that compliment one another) and memorable cinematic moments specific to their unique chemistry together. But when Sophia Loren was coupled up with Marcello Mastroianni in the 1954 Italian comedy Too Bad She's Bad it was the beginning of an on-screen relationship that would span half a century in over a dozen films making the couple the most recognizable faces of Italian film. Both achieved international fame and recognition individually. Loren was the first actress to win an Oscar for a foreign language performance with 1961's Two Women and Mastroianni has more Oscar nominations for foreign language performances (3 Best Actor nominations: 1962's Divorce Italian Style, 1977's A Special Day, and 1987's Dark Eyes) than any other performer. But the two worked best when they were together, especially loving and fighting in the Italian sex comedies that brought them to the attention of audiences. 

And perhaps their most iconic cinematic moment occurred in this week's film for Hit Me With Your Best Shot from Nathaniel at The Film Experience, Vittorio De Sica's triptych Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language film Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow. You better believe my best shot comes from that scene, which we'll get to soon enough (not to tease you, but you'll know it when you see it - even if you've never seen the film). Because the film is broken up into 3 stories, each set in a different Italian city, there are actually 3 Best Shots this week. And that famous scene isn't even in the best section of the film! That distinction belongs to the film's first section about Adelina of Naples.

When things are broken up into multiple parts, there's always gonna be ones that stand out more than the others. At almost an hour, "Adelina" is longer and more interesting than either of the other 2 stories in the film that I wish they had just added 30 minutes or so and made the film all about this. (But then we would've missed out on the film's famous last scene, which I would not be okay with.) The first story in the film is about a perpetually unemployed husband and a wife that sells cigarettes on the blackmarket. To avoid serving time in jail, she is eternally pregnant thanks to a law that prevents her from being arrested if she's nursing or with child. 

The shot I've chosen as my Best from this section shows Loren's Adelina along the steps of Naples, where she appears everyday to sell her illegal wares. Usually surrounded by the other women that work in her profession, they have all scattered to the wind when it's announced that the police are on their way. All leave expect Adelina. A sole figure, standing her ground and taunting the officers with her Get Out of Jail Free card:

There is very little in life that Adelina has control over. She and her family are virtually penniless. She must work to feed her growing brood, otherwise they starve. But in this moment with her head held high, cradling her child against her bosom - she has the power. And she relishes every moment of it.

In the film's second (and least successful) part, Loren plays Anna of Milan, a wealthy woman in a loveless marriage with a powerful man (his name is literally on ever billboard in the city, proclaiming his importance). She begins a fling with another man, out of boredom more than spite, who she picks up to go for a drive in her Rolls-Royce. Unlike Adelina who fights for and savors her small position of power, Anna, decked out in expensive furs and Christian Dior, takes all she has for granted. She tells her lover Renzo there is a profound emptiness inside her and for a brief minute the shallow woman becomes contemplative:

It's the only instance of the story where Anna becomes anything close to being sympathetic. After Renzo accidentally crashes her car, she reveals her true feelings. There is an emptiness inside her, but it is of her own making. Her greed and superficial cares have made her dead inside. What I love in this instance is that Renzo reaches his hand out to her as if trying to save her, but the cold look on her face and steadfast gaze in the distance shows that she's too far away to ever be saved by anyone - least of all him. 

Which brings us to the last segment of the film in which Loren plays Mara of Rome, a high-class call girl that begins a flirtatious, but innocent  relationship with her young neighbor, a priest in seminary school. Unaware of her profession, the boy becomes infatuated with her. But when his grandmother denounces the harlot in front of him, he spurns his family and refuses to continue his priestly studies. Mara, feeling guilty about the ensuing events, vows to light candles and remain celibate until the young man returns to school. Which makes it all very difficult for her main client. Luckily she's not above giving a little taste, which brings us to the film's climax and most famous moment. The Striptease:

I almost went with a single shot of Loren, when she turns around with a shocked look after almost taking off her bra - remembered what she promised. But decided that a two shot of the famous actors was much more fitting. And I realized that I had created my own tease in revealing Mastroianni in my procession of shots. Nowhere to be seen in "Adelina", the hint of a hand in "Anna" and finally the big reveal: Loren and Mastroianni together at last. And the scene is the best of the entire film - there's a reason it's so well remembered. Loren scorching hot, every inch the sex symbol she is, seductively rolls down her stocking while giving Mastroianni a come-hither look. But the best part is the juxtaposition of Loren's very adult-like pose with Mastroianni's child-like one. His face resting in his hands, as eager and excited as a young boy seeing a pair of boobs for the very first time! The scene is so famous that years later when the two co-stars appeared in Robert Altman's Pret-a-Porter, they recreated the striptease, but this time Mastroianni falls asleep before Loren can even finish. Able to poke fun of the legend that had built around them over the decades, Loren and Mastroianni's chemistry, like all of film's great duos, is as apparent then as it was in Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

Monday, March 16, 2015

Irish Truths: Me, My Dad, and Maureen O'Hara

St. Patrick's Day is not generally the sort of holiday that makes people get nostalgic or think fondly of family. Those warm feelings are usually reserved for more popular holidays like Thanksgiving or Christmas when familial bonding and the giving of thanks is pretty much mandatory. But when Nathaniel from The Film Experience chose The Quiet Man (1952), John Ford's Oscar-winning love letter to Ireland, as this week's film for Hit Me With Your Best Shot in honor of that Irish holiday, there was only one thing that immediately came to my mind: My Dad.

All of my memories and associations of John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara's tempestuous courtship amid the Emerald Isle are always colored by thoughts of my father. His fondness for the film - which ranks as one of his all-time favorites - has overtaken anything else that I associate with the film. I can remember him watching it when I was younger on a VHS copy that we owned. At that time I was intrigued by older films but not exactly enamored with them as I've since become and wondered what about this particular movie made my dad have such affection for it. I recently just wrote about the film in honor of Maureen O'Hara being awarded the Honorary Oscar in November, but was disappointed that I hadn't asked him to share his thoughts on it with me. When the film came up this week,  I could think of no better time to actually ask my father to share his thoughts on The Quiet Man and have him pick his favorite shot from this much-loved classic:

"There is no doubt that John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara had roles that were perfect with each other. From their first movie together to the last one they starred in together, the two of them were completely believable as lovers and/or spouses. In each movie there was always banter, spats and misunderstanding, and conflicts that real couples experience in the course of their relationships. But, like real couples' experiences, often, but not always, there is a reconciliation that occurs when the couple finally realize that the conflict doesn't override the deep love that they share. In all 5 of the movies starring John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara that is the basic plot, but with them, the story always seems real and believable, and their relationship just plain works.

In "The Quiet Man", the chemistry between ALL the characters is prominent throughout the film from beginning to end. When in Ireland, one expects the Irish to behave as they do in "The Quiet Man". Whether it is actual, I couldn't say, but there is a certain cleverness in relating their view of everyday life. Sarcasm with undertones of truth. As far as a favorite scene, that would be too difficult to ask me to pinpoint. I can, however, narrow it to a few scenes that touched me or made me chuckle. 

 A scene that depicts a view of an "Irish truth" is when Sean Thornton rejoins Michael O'Flynn after Mass and his first conversation, although one-sided, with Mary Kate Danaher. O'Flynn lets Sean know it's a sin to be "playing pattyfingers in the Holy Water", which is an Irish Catholic truth. Another "Irish truth" is in the same scene when Sean asks if Mary Kate is married. O'Flynn responds as a big brother relating his experiences of fiery redheads to caution his younger, inexperienced brother with, "that is no joke Sean... with those freckles and red hair". 

 Watch the movie more than once to catch the clever innuendos between the characters... and, it is between every one of the characters. Their sarcasm is always quick and sharp and makes me smile at nearly every scene. 

My Father's Best Shot

Maybe the most poignant scene for me is, after dragging Mary Kate "the whole long way" to confront her brother, Sean suggests that the marriage is over because her brother refuses to honor the age-old tradition of providing a dowry with the bride. It can be seen in her eyes at that very minute when she realizes that Sean is the man she was hoping for even though she had doubts. Just after her wedding she asks one of the characters, "What sort of a man is it that I have married?" And the reply was, "A much better man than you think Mary Kate." When Mary Kate opens the furnace door to assist Sean, she is ridding themselves of the burden of the dowry, that is when she has a new found respect for and sees Sean, her husband, clearly. Mary Kate knows what has to be done... the fight!

So, the story takes the same path as expected... the meeting, banter, spats and misunderstanding, conflict, and finally, reconciliation. John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara have a natural relationship that is evident in their movies. They interact beautifully as a loving couple rather than actors simply reciting lines. The Irish countryside is beautiful, the characters are fun, the story is believable, and, I just enjoy a story with a happy ending."

What I love most about the shot that my father has chosen is the intensity that the two actors have with each other. (O'Hara becomes so overtaken in the moment that her chin briefly begins to quiver with unbridled emotion.) You can almost see the electricity shooting between their stares, so much communicated between them without a single word uttered. And the none-too-subtle blaze between them certainly helps illustrate their fiery relationship. But I've always found the preceding event (Mary Kate being dragged across the fields) and the fight that follows to be problematic and the biggest hurdles in my ultimate enjoyment of the film. (Sorry, Dad...) For my own Best Shot, I chose another moment that captures the passionate nature of Maureen O'Hara's Mary Kate, while also celebrating her wild spirit. The moment that Sean sees her for the first time:

My Best Shot

O'Hara has said that they spent a lot of time on this scene, the first instance that we the audience and Wayne's Sean Thornton first encounter Mary Kate. She knew that if we didn't buy that Sean was drawn to her right from the start that the rest of the film wouldn't hold our attention. But O'Hara announces her arrival on screen with an air of mystery and intrigue. There's something almost mystical about Mary Kate's first appearance, the bucolic setting, the other-worldly glow around her as if she's a forest spirit that has stepped out of Celtic folklore. And it affects Sean so deeply that later in the film he tells her, "Some things a man doesn't get over so easy... Like the sight of a girl coming through the fields with the sun on her hair." And we as the audience don't forget it so easily either. But what I love most about this shot is how the film sets Mary Kate up to be this unattainable, soft-lit ideal, and then proceeds to give us a real, earth-bound woman full of contradictions, opinions, and fight. 

My father might be the first thing I think of in regards to The Quiet Man, but it's Maureen O'Hara (and her movie star entrance) that make it watchable for me. Whenever she's onscreen, I begin to see glimmers of what my father sees in it and why he loves it as much as he does. Instead of drinking green beers on St. Patrick's Day, perhaps the new tradition for the holiday should be be father/son bonding over Maureen O'Hara and The Quiet Man

Monday, March 9, 2015

How a Drag House Becomes a Home

Clear the floor for this week's edition of Hit Me With Your Best Shot from Nathaniel at The Film Experience. And, girl, you better work it! This week we strap on our best designer outfit (that was probably stolen) and dive deep into the world of 1980s ball culture in the Black, Latino, gay, and transgender community in New York City. Released in 1990, this documentary film has received something of a cult following over the past 25 years. Bringing Voguing to the public consciousness a year before Madonna would make the dance mainstream and introducing words and phrases that the gay community has been using for years that have suddenly entered the lexicon of pop culture slang. All those people throwing shade, having a kiki, and bringing <insert description> realness have the women from these Drag Houses (LaBeija, Extravaganza, Ninja) to thank. 

But the film isn't all glitzy over-the-top fashion, expertly timed reads, and super model-inspired body contortions. At the heart of the film is a group of people that felt marginalized and ignored in society coming together and celebrating what makes them unique. I love that although there are different categories and competitions at the ball (Executive Realness! Dynasty! Banji Girl!) virtually everyone goes home with a trophy. Some might have larger trophies or, you know, actually be named the 1st prize winner - but there aren't really losers, only smaller sized trophies. 

And ultimately the balls aren't about being "legendary" or living an extravaganza lifestyle. They are about acceptance and the communal celebration of individuals forming a group that make them feel like you're not alone. So many of the young people that compete in the balls come from broken homes, longing for something better (it's a little heartbreaking to hear so many of them talk about their aspirations to be rich and famous). Their blood families usually disown them because of who they are and they end up forming new families - ones that love and nurture them. Which is why I chose for my pick this week a shot of that familial bond that happens between the young competitors. Stripped of the costumes, away from the spotlight of the ball, they are just young boys that care for one another as deeply as if they are family - because that's what they are:

But I'll let Miss Dorian Corey have the last word, since she always knows what to say and I do NOT need her reading me:

"A house. Let's see if we can put it down sharply. They're families. You can say that. They're families... for a lot of children who don't have families. But this is a new meaning of family.
The hippies had families and no one thought nothing about it. It wasn't a question of a man and a woman and children, which we grew up knowing as a family. It's a question of a group of human beings in a mutual bond."

Monday, March 2, 2015

These Are a Few of My Favorite Things

Back in December 2013 when NBC aired their live version of The Sound of Music, Carrie Underwood took to Twitter the next day to address all her detractors regarding her performance by simply responding: "Plain and simple: Mean people need Jesus. They will be in my prayers tonight..." It's the kind of response you'd expect from someone that just played a nun in training. But The Sound of Music has always had its haters. With a cast of singing adorable moppets, the spunkiest bunch of nuns this side of Sister Act, and songs about the gastronomic glory of schnitzel with noodles, there was always a danger that the sugary-sweet, goody two-shoes-ness of it all can end up making you feel queasy from all its cloying saccharine. The film's own star Christopher Plummer for years afterward would denounce the film calling it affectionately "The Sound of Mucus." But on the 50th Anniversary of the Best Picture winner, I'm here, like Miss Underwood, to tell all the mean people that don't like it to bugger off. Because, quite simply, the 1965 film version of The Sound of Music is glorious perfection.

From Julie Andrews twirling on a mountaintop to the lump that forms in my throat every time Plummer's Captain von Trapp can't finished "Edelweiss" and the entire concert hall joins him, there is not a single frame or moment that doesn't fill me with warmth and nostalgia. Perhaps because it has been engrained into me since I was a child. I watched it every year when it aired on television (I distinctly remember it at Easter time, but it has somehow shifted to Christmas) and there hasn't been a year that's gone by since I was about 6 or 7 years old that I haven't watched The Sound of Music at least once. To celebrate the film's golden anniversary and the return of Hit Me With Your Best Shot from Nathaniel at The Film Experience, I'm highlighting some of my favorite things about the film. So let's start at the very beginning...

  • It's all based on a true story

Well, like everything there's certain liberties taken with the story. Maria had actually been brought to the von Trapp home to only be a governess to one of the children. She only later looked after all of them. There were actually 7 von Trapp children but there were actually 3 boys and one girl - all have different names in the movie. The real children are Rupert, Agathe, Maria, Werner, Hedwig, Johanna, and Martina. In her autobiography, Maria says that she never really loved the Captain and that she honestly wanted to be a nun. But she loved the children and married him for them. (Not quite as romantic as the film, but I guess there's no way to write a ballad about marrying a man for his children.) But the best reminder that the musical and film are about a real woman named Maria von Trapp is that she actually appears in the film with one of the three children she had with Georg, Rosmarie, and her step-grandchild, Barbara (whose father was Werner):

  • It giddily embraces its corniness 

The party scene where all of the guests randomly sing "good-bye" to the children and then go about their business as if nothing happened? Amazing. Or how about when the film stops dead to put on an elaborate puppet show about a "Lonely Goatherd" and ends up being a highlight of the film despite doing nothing to advance the plot. And I would just like to sing the praises for a moment of "Sixteen Going on Seventeen". A song that takes place between the oldest looking teenagers to ever sing about the glories of getting older - since they've already been there. And then some. (Charmain Carr who played "16-year-old" Liesl was 22 at the time of filming.) But I've always loved this final shot after Rolf kisses Liesl and she lets out a childish "WEEEEEE!!" There's a second where the shadow makes it look like she's missing her two front teeth and I've always found it to be the funniest thing:

  • Its superb attention to detail

The film is far superior to the stage version of The Sound of Music (a singing and dancing Max and Elsa just makes no sense). But the best part of the film is how they opened it up from the movie soundstages and actually filmed in Austria. Those opening shots of the mountains taken from a helicopter that zooms down to Maria (and apparently flattened Julie Andrews in take after take), the mini travelogue brochure of Salzburg as Maria and the children perform "Do-Re-Me" around the city, gives the film a broad cinematic scope, making it feel epic. But within that wide scope are tiny intricacies that sharpen the focus and details that shade the reality. Like this dress worn by an incoming postulant nun just starting her religious order as Maria returns to the Abbey:

When Maria first meets the Captain he tells her that she'll need to change her dress. But she replies that it's the only one she has. When they enter the abbey all their worldly possessions are given to the poor. ("What about that one?" "The poor didn't want this one...") Right after the shot from the scene above, Maria confesses her love for the Captain to the Mother Abbess who tells Maria to "Climb Every Mountain" (the mountain in question being that hunky naval captain...) and return to let him know how she feels. The very next scene, Maria returns to the von Trapp household dressed in this:

Look familiar? Let's hope that young lady doesn't change her mind and ask for her things back...

  • For nuns that know how to dismantle a car engine...and a perfectly timed delivery

  • But the reason it works at all and remains so watchable 50 years later: Julie Andrews

As Carrie Underwood's wooden performance proved, no one did it better than Julie. Even Lady Gaga at this year's Oscars, when she sang songs from the movie, did it in a British accent. For no other reason than the fact that Julie Andrews is so synonymous with those songs that you just can't help singing them without Julie's lilt. No offense to Julie Christie, who I enjoy in Darling, but Julie Andrews deserved that Best Actress Oscar that year. It's not her fault that she won the year before for Mary Poppins. And as good as that performance is, this one is even better. Her performance is so sincere that it's simply incapable of feeling false, teetering on twee but never succumbing to cheap sentimentality. Coupled with her firm resolve and nurturing kindness, Andrews takes a woman who is essentially "good" and makes her interesting, while making it all look effortless. There's an entire song dedicated to how deeply flawed Maria is (which is rudely sung at her wedding. Thanks a lot, Sisters), but Andrews makes her even more endearing because of those character quirks. Her contradictions and conflicted emotions give Maria a depth not often found in traditional musicals. And amid the eye rolls and stumbles, Andrews also finds simplistic honesty and surprising moments of subtly sensual longing. Like in the shot I chose as my best:

I was surprised that I couldn't stop thinking about this shot after re-watching the film yesterday for two reasons. The first is I simply don't ever remember seeing it before. When you think of The Sound of Music, immediately your mind goes to musical numbers in the hills. As many times as I've watched it, I couldn't recall this shot ever happening and it's rare for something you know so well to still surprise you with new things. (I immediately thought maybe it had been cut from versions shown on television, but what purpose would that serve?) The other reason I loved the scene is because of the wistful quality Andrews has by gently leaning her head against the wall. It's almost as if she's trying to melt into the background and remain unobserved as her gaze silently gives away the new feelings stirring within her. It's the look of love. And like the observant Baroness, I too recognize it because it reflects my own affection for this film. And if you have something mean to say about it, well, I'll just have Carrie Underwood pray for you...