Thursday, June 2, 2011

Paris to Die For (2011)

I am a screenwriter with a love of obscure movies, hence this blog. In fact, the more obscure the movie, the more inclined I am to write about it. Stanley Donen’s Charade (1964) is a famous romantic thriller. How many know or remember such similar one-name romantic thrillers from the mid-sixties as Stanley Donen’s Arabesque (Gregory Peck and Sophia Loren), Philip Dunne’s Blindfold (Rock Hudson and Claudia Cardinale, and a clever plot device that was later recycled by another Universal motion picture, Sneakers), Ronald Neame’s Gambit (Michael Caine and Shirley MacLaine) and Jack Smight’s Kaleidoscope (Warren Beatty and the incomparable Susannah York)? Gambit is currently being remade with Colin Firth in the Michael Caine role.

Several years ago, I came across a letter written by Jackie Kennedy, when she was Jacqueline Lee Bouvier, in which she wrote about the possibility of going to work for the CIA. This was in May, 1951 when she was a recent college graduate. Being a writer, my imagination was piqued and I immediately envisioned Jackie as the star of her own mid-sixties romantic thriller. I saw her as a neophyte CIA agent in Paris—her favorite city—getting in and out of trouble with the aid of a handsome young Frenchman, who was a company stringer. The story would take place in 1951 with Jackie and her Frenchman racing around the City of Light from the Opera House to the Gare de Lyon, the Windsor Estate, the House of Dior, the Jeu de Paume Museum and, finally, Notre Dame cathedral in search of a mysterious document left behind by a dead Russian defector. The whole idea coalesced in my head in less than fifteen minutes.

Then came the difficult part—taking my idea and transforming it into a fully fleshed-out story. For some reason, I never thought seriously about writing it as a screenplay. Instead, I decided to try my hand at writing a novel. The thing came out in a burst and in no time I had written the first six chapters (approximately 15,000 words) and a detailed thirteen-page outline of the whole story.

But as I read it over, there was something I found unsatisfying. Something was missing—a woman’s touch to help bring the main character fully to life. And so I approached several professional writers I knew with an eye toward a possible collaboration. When they all fell by the wayside, I decided to turn to craigslist. I thought to myself, after all, people place ads here to sell furniture or find love. Why not place an ad asking for a published female author to collaborate with me?

As you can expect, I received many responses. Most of them were from the usual craigslist crackpots. But several were from professional writers. Of them, I chose to work with a woman living in Florida, who was the author of one novel and several works of non-fiction. She liked what I had written and, to her credit, rolled up her sleeves and got right to work with me on the book.

Six months later, the book was finished. One month after that, our agent sold the manuscript. In fact, we were offered a two-book contract for this book and its sequel. And now, at long last, that first book, PARIS TO DIE FOR, is about to be published (under the pen name Maxine Kenneth). And with an idea that took flight based on my original homage to those obscure movies of the mid-sixties. The finished book hews very closely to those original six chapters and 13-page outline. I like to flatter myself by thinking that the late Peter Stone, screenwriter of Charade, would appreciate this project.

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Screenwriters (1968)

The English screenwriting team of Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais have been writing for six decades, which is an incredible accomplishment in an industry where ageism is a dirty little secret. They helped define the English cinema of the sixties with their ingenious script for Michael Winner’s The Jokers, about two brothers (Oliver Reed and a pre-Phantom of the Opera—and very skinny—Michael Crawford) who hatch an audacious plot to steal the Crown Jewels from the Tower of London. During this period, they also wrote Winner’s Hannibal Brooks (1969), which featured the unusual pairing of Oliver Reed and Michael J. Pollard, plus an elephant, and Michael Tuchner’s Villain (1971), a crime melodrama starring Richard Burton as a homosexual gangster based on the real life Ronnie Kray.

The dynamic duo went on to create the TV series, Porridge (1974), about life in an English prison, which was Americanized as the Jose Perez TV vehicle, On the Rocks (1975). As the years followed, Clement and La Frenais moved seamlessly between TV and the movies, adapting Jonathan Gash’s Lovejoy books as a TV series, as well as creating a TV version of Jonathan Coe’s wonderful seventies coming of age novel, The Rotters’ Club. For the movies, they wrote scripts for Alan Parker’s The Commitments (1991), based on the Roddy Doyle novel, Brian Gibson’s Still Crazy (1995), featuring a hilarious Bill Nighy as a burnt-out rocker (and predating a similar role he played in Love Actually), and Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe (2006). The first two movies are about the music business, and the third is a movie about the sixties, refracted through the music of the Beatles.

They also wrote Danny Cannon’s Goal! The Dream Begins (2005), based on the true story of a teenager from the L.A. barrio who became a football star for Manchester United, and Roger Donaldson’s The Bank Job (2008), an old school crime movie starring Jason Statham. And they are still going strong today; their latest film, Killing Bono, will be released in 2011.

In 1968, Dick Clement directed his only feature film, Otley, which he and Ian La Frenais adapted from the comic spy novel by Martin Waddell. It starred Tom Courtenay as an innocent man who becomes caught in the machinations of two different spy organizations, one working for the British government, the other not. Otley is an antiques dealer, kicked out of his apartment by his landlady and in search of a place to crash. He is not above lifting the occasional piece of bric-a-brac, which is what gets him in trouble in the first place, after he pockets a cigarette lighter in the shape of a wooden shoe that turns out to be the movie’s McGuffin. Otley is the forerunner of the equally disreputable Lovejoy, played to a fare-the-well by Ian McShane in the TV series.

On the run for a murder he didn’t commit, Otley finds himself alternately helped and hindered by an eccentric cast of characters, including Alan Badel as the head of a British spy organization (using the silken menace he employed so well in Stanley Donen’s Arabesque), Freddie Jones as a fey freelance intelligence operative, improbable hitman Leonard Rossiter (playing off of Courtenay’s insouciant charm as memorably as he did as the funeral director in John Schlessinger’s Billy Liar), and Romy Schneider, who is first Otley’s enemy, then his lover. In this movie, as in all her other non-French movies (Good Neighbor Sam, The Cardinal), Ms. Schneider seems to exhibit a slightly diffident air as though barely deigning to appear in a commercial motion picture; but here it works to her advantage.

Otley, as stated before, is played by the great Tom Courtenay, coming off an incredible run in Tony Richardson’s adaptation of the Alan Sillitoe novella, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Billy Liar (1964), Bryan Forbes‘ adaptation of the James Clavell novel, King Rat (1965) and David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago (1966). As respectively, a borstal boy fighting the system, a young man with an incredibly rich fantasy life, a provost obsessed with upholding military law and busting a blackmarketeer in a Japanese P.O.W. camp, and a gentle Russian student turned revolutionary general, Courtenay brings a passionate conviction to all these roles, especially the wrong-headed Billy, for whom he takes special care never to allow his character to appear too pathetic. In his review of Otley, Vincent Canby accused Courtenay of slumming his way through a movie that was not good enough for him. But Courtenay seems to be having a ball playing this slightly disreputable character. He is even asked to spend a portion of the movie with only one half of his face shaved, one of several delightful sight gags this movie traffics in.

In truth, Clement is not nearly as good a director as he is a writer. His camera placement is a bit uncertain. And his attempt at creating some Richard Lester-type slapstick comedy fails miserably. But he deftly employs Stanley Myers’ sprightly score to enhance the movie’s antic moods, especially in the title sequence, a long single take of Tom Courtenay walking down Portobello Road to the accompaniment of the song, Homeless Bones,” performed by busker Don Partridge.

In the end, what Clement does very well is chart the decline of the spy hero, which began in 1963 with Sean Connery's glamorous incarnation of James Bond in Doctor No. The next iteration of the spy hero was Richard Burton, playing the shabby burnt-out case Alec Lemas in Martin Ritt’s adaptation of John Le Carre’s The Spy who Came in from the Cold (1965). At the same time, Len Deighton's Harry Palmer, as incarnated by cockney Michael Caine in Sidney J. Furie's The Ipcress File (1965), Guy Hamilton's Funeral in Berlin (1966) and Ken Russell's Billion Dollar Brain (1968--and yes, that Ken Russell!), was a working class spy who spent as much time warring with his upper class bosses, saturnine Nigel Greene and dolorous Guy Dolman as he did the enemy (usually Oscar Homolka as the avuncular Russian KGB agent, Colonel Stock). We finally end up with Otley, about which there is nothing even remotely heroic or glamorous. The Spy who Came in from the Cold is corrosively cynical, whereas Otley the movie is merely cheerfully cynical.

As writers, Clement and Le Frenais provide an excellent take on the balkanizing of British intelligence into competing groups of spy agencies, and the Machiavellian manipulation of freelance spy organizations. In the end, Otley doesn’t save the day, expose the villain or get the girl. But he does find a place to rest his weary head. A modest goal from a writing team that has modestly, year after year, decade after decade, plied its lonely trade in unheralded fashion, but still definitely participants in the long distance run.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Death and the Movies, Part 2 (1973)

A recent informal internet poll lists the five best long-form magazine articles of all time. Two of the stories are by David Foster Wallace, one is by Neal Stephenson, one is Gay Talese’s “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” (already enshrined as the article that jump-started the New Journalism movement in the sixties) and the fifth is Ron Rosenbaum’s “Secrets of the Little Blue Box.” Originally published in Esquire in October, 1971, this article sounded the opening salvo in the hacker revolution. Apple co-founders, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, both cite the article as what first got them interested in tinkering with computers.

Throughout the seventies, eighties and nineties, Rosenbaum wrote about all sorts of interesting cultural phenomena, from the Ivy League Nude Posture Photo Scandal, to the bizarre case of the reclusive twin gynecologists who were found dead in their New York City apartment, to a visit to a Minuteman missile silo deep underground in the waning days of the Cold War. An impressive collection of his magazine journalism, The Secret Parts of Fortune, also includes celebrity profiles of Troy Donahue and Jack Nicholson in the newly minted skeptical manner of Rex Reed and Tom Burke (whose mid-seventies collection, Burke’s Steerage, also casts a jaundiced eye at the changing role of celebrity in society). But for me, the most intriguing article in this book is a piece Rosenbaum wrote for Esquire in August, 1973, “The Corpse as Big as the Ritz,” detailing a death that took place during the shooting of the western The Man who Loved Cat Dancing in Gila Bend, Arizona in 1973.

These are the facts: in January, 1973, the movie The Man who Loved Cat Dancing was doing location work around Gila Bend. The Travelodge there had been taken over by cast and crew. The stars of the movie were Burt Reynolds, who was on his way to becoming the number one male box office star of the seventies, and Sarah Miles, the respected English actress, who was married to playwright (A Man for All Seasons) and screenwriter (Lawrence of Arabia), Robert Bolt. Miles was accompanied by her young business manager, David Whiting, who was found dead on the morning of the 28th in her hotel room of an apparent overdose of pills. But a search of his room revealed blood all over the place, and an autopsy showed an unusual star-shaped injury on the back of his head. Miles told the police that she had been forced to call for Reynolds’ help the night before after Whiting had tried to assault her. She had spent the rest of the night being comforted by Reynolds in his room.

According to Rosenbaum’s story, this Whiting was a real character, a borderline con man who had a fixation with having the best of everything in life. He basically stalked Sarah Miles (even though that term and that pathology had yet to be recognized) and scammed his way into a position in her life as business manager. He, Miles and the fifty-year-old Robert Bolt enacted some kind of bizarre triangular relationship that was right out of a Harold Pinter play (although for Whiting’s part his fixation with Miles was based more on celebrity worship than sex). During the making of Cat Dancing, the possibly suicidal Whiting seemed to have become estranged from Miles and grown increasingly jealous of her relationships with others, especially Reynolds.

An inquest eventually cleared both Reynolds and Miles of any wrongdoing in the death of Whiting. But some unsettling, unanswered questions remained. Did Whiting really attack Miles that night? Where did all the blood in Whiting’s room come from and how did he come by that star-shaped injury? And were Reynolds and the married Miles having an affair while they were making Cat Dancing?

As a thematic template for his article, Rosenbaum makes use of The Great Gatsby. Whiting’s mother cites that book as the subject of her late son’s honors’ thesis as an English major at Haverford College. She quotes the famous passage from the end of Gatsby: “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

Among the dead man’s itemized possessions was a dog-eared copy of Fitzgerald’s autobiographical The Crack-Up. Rosenbaum’s uses one of Fitzgerald’s most famous short stories as the basis for his article’s title. And he comes to the unspoken conclusion that turns Whiting into a Gastbyish figure (in true Gatsby fashion, he even “sprang from his Platonic conception of himself”) who was destroyed by the people he wanted so desperately to emulate. Just substitute Burt for Tom and Sarah for Daisy and the equation is complete.

Even though, in the end, Rosenbaum is straining for meaning, there is something so apt about the comparisons. At this time, The filming of The Great Gatsby was underway, and no movie was more hotly anticipated. The media was seized by Gatsby fever. Robert Redford was playing Gatsby, which seemed the perfect fusion of actor and character. There were numerous product tie-ins to the movie (Gatsby’s shirts and kitchenware). And there was squabbling between the movie’s two producers, David Merrick and Robert Evans, as each sought primary credit for the project. Evans famously claimed that the book had been brought to his attention by his then wife, Ali MacGraw, who loved Gatsby and dreamed of one day playing Daisy in a movie adaptation.

And something about Fitzgerald was definitely in the air at that time in the early seventies. Nancy Milford’s moving biography of Zelda Fitzgerald, Zelda, was riding high on the Bestseller List. And, in January 1974, NBC broadcast F. Scott Fitzgerald and ‘The Last of the Belles,’ a combination Fitzgerald biopic and dramatization of one of his most famous short stories. The TV movie starred Richard Chamberlain as an elegant but dissolute Scott, Blythe Danner as a troubled Zelda, and, in the adaptation, a radiant young unknown named Susan Sarandon as Ailie Calhoun, who was herself, a fictional version of Zelda.

Of course, the movie version of The Great Gatsby was a tremendous flop when it was released in the spring of 1974. Redford found the unplayable part of Gatsby beyond his abilities as an actor. The other actors (Mia Farrow, Sam Waterston, etc.) seemed equally stymied by their roles. Only Bruce Dern as Tom Buchanan and Karen Black as his working class mistress, Myrtle Wilson, exhibited any signs of genuine life. The screenplay by Francis Ford Coppola was too literal-minded and the direction by Jack Clayton was surprisingly inert, although the cinematography thrilled the eye by reproducing that distinctive color known as Maxfield Blue. The color was named after its creator, magazine illustrator Maxfield Parrish, whose work was undergoing a revival in the psychedelic seventies (posters of his work could be found adorning many a dorm room wall—including mine). Both producers ended up disowning the movie. The plain truth of the matter is that Gatsby as a novel is unadaptable and should never have been made into a movie in the first place.

As to the movie version of The Man who Loved Cat Dancing, which was released in June, 1973, the reviews were not kind. Thanks to Whiting’s death, the movie had a jinxed feel to it and was dumped by M-G-M. The story of Whiting’s death had been broken by gossip columnist Rona Barrett and made headlines for several weeks afterwards. Nobody could look at the movie without thinking of Whiting’s sad fate, and Reynolds' and Miles' possible role in his death. This was before the tabloidization of the media (and society at large) and today the same story would have been stoked to a white-hot intensity by the tabloid media and the internet.

But viewing the movie today is an almost pleasant surprise. It is not unentertaining. Burt Reynolds commits himself and gives a serious, non-smirky performance as a Civil War veteran who joins a gang of train robbers in order to raise money for the children he has been kept from. Sarah Miles plays a rancher’s unhappy wife who is captured by the gang and ends up being liberated by Reynolds’ character. She finds out that Reynolds’ big sin is having married an Indian woman, the Cat Dancing of the title, then killing her after finding her in the arms of another man. The real surprise of the movie is George Hamilton, who is cast against type as Miles’ controlling husband. (And speaking of obscure films, you should seek out last year’s My One and Only; despite its terrible title, this is a wonderful movie about George Hamilton’s peripatetic teen years before he became a movie star.)

Except for its feminist overlay, The Man who Loved Cat Dancing is not a revisionist western in the manner of Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) or Robert Benton’s Bad Company (1972). The screenplay is by Eleanor Perry, whose ex-husband and former moviemaking partner, Frank Perry, went on to direct the revisionist western, Doc (with a screenplay by journalist Pete Hamill). Eleanor Perry’s draft was rewritten by an uncredited Bill Norton, Sr. Whoever wrote it, the dialogue is terrible and filled with too many anachronistic turns of phrase. It’s the melodramatic quality of the script that turns out to be the movie’s undoing. This is a shame since the film is filled with many breathtaking western landscapes, as one would expect from Richard Sarafian, director of the 1971 cult classics, Man in the Wilderness and Vanishing Point. In the end, Whiting’s tragic passing seems to haunt this doomed movie even more than that of the eponymous Cat Dancing.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Death and the Movies, Part 1 (1964)

Ensign Pulver is an unnecessary sequel to an immensely popular movie, Mister Roberts. Mister Roberts was based on the play by Thomas Heggen and Joshua Logan, which, in turn, was based on the World War II novel by Thomas Heggen, inspired on his own experiences as an officer on a Navy cargo ship in the Pacific Theatre. Never having seen action, Heggen’s contention is that the chief enemy for the unhappy and overworked crew of the USS Reluctant (AK-601), known derisively as the “Bucket,” was the boredom of inactivity--that and a despicably despotic captain played by James Cagney in one of his most memorable roles. Henry Fonda was Lt. (j.g.) Douglas Roberts, the cargo officer who did the most on board the ship to challenge the Captain’s authority. And his sidekick, Ensign Pulver, was played by Jack Lemmon, who won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for this career-making role. With little interest in performing his duty as Laundry and Morale officer and spending most of his time daydreaming in his bunk, Lemmon, as Pulver, was the original slacker.

In the sequel, made nine years after the original, Ensign Pulver is now played by Robert Walker, Jr., who really has his work cut out for him acting against the memory of Lemmon’s indelible characterization. Walker tries extremely hard to make the role his own, but comes off as Lemmon Lite. This is true of all the actors, who are featherweight replacements for the originals. This time out, the Captain is played by Burl Ives, a folk singer and actor who mainly uses his considerable bulk to embody the captain’s bullying manner. Doc, played so lovingly by the dapper William Powell, in the original, has been reincarnated as Walter Matthau. Matthau, two years before his Academy Award-winning portrayal as the ambulance chasing Whiplash Willie Gingrich in Billy Wilder’s The Fortune Cookie, is, of course, a wonderful actor. But he is light years away from Powell in demonstrating the quality of quiet decency that reminds us the reason wars are fought—the return of civility to the world. The screenwriters, Joshua Logan and Peter S. Feibleman, try to make up for this loss by giving Matthau’s Doc the burden of explaining the movie’s theme ad nauseum. Rounding out the crew are Peter Marshall (who would later find success as the host of the TV game show, Hollywood Squares), a very young Larry Hagman, singer (and Frank Sinatra son-in-law) Tommy Sands, as a sailor whose young daughter’s death sets the plot in motion, and, in the very minor role of Yeoman Dolan, a young actor named Jack Nicholson (immediately recognizable by his voice), and, most shockingly, Al Freeman, Jr. as an island native. There is also a love interest for Ensign Pulver, a nurse played by Millie Perkins (who became famous as the eponymous heroine in the movie version of The Diary of Anne Frank).

As a service comedy, Ensign Pulver is filled with limp gags and recycled jokes from Mister Roberts. The story doesn’t get close to good until the scene, very late in the story, where Doc, on the ship’s radio transmitter, instructs Pulver, stranded on a tropical island, how to remove the Captain’s ruptured appendix. Unlike the first movie, the sequel provides an explanation for the Captain’s bad behavior, making him less of a monster.

Despite its minor status in the history of movies, Ensign Pulver is a movie that is interestingly haunted by three deaths. The first is that of the fictional character, Doug Roberts, whose off-screen death is announced at the end of Mister Roberts, and inspires a paralyzed Ensign Pulver to perform his first act of rebellion against the captain, taking his beloved palm tree and throwing it into the ocean. Who can forget Jack Lemmon bursting into Jimmy Cagney’s quarters and announcing, “Captain, it is I, Ensign Pulver. And I just threw your damned palm tree over the side. So what’s all this crud about no movie tonight?” Cagney’s reaction to this declaration of war is priceless. We are told that Ensign Pulver begins several weeks after Roberts’ death, when the war in the Pacific is winding down, but that Pulver has once again returned to his slacker ways, making elaborate plans to get back at the captain (marbles in the overhead, etc.), but never getting up the energy to put his plans into effect. When a hurricane at sea tosses both the captain and Pulver into the ocean, they wind up on a tropical island together. There, Pulver is forced to save the captain’s life and finally achieves a more mature outlook on life after realizing the captain has become his “Chinese obligation.”

The second death that haunts this movie is that of Walker’s father, Robert Walker, Sr. He is probably most famous for playing one of the most indelible villains in movie history—Bruno Antony in Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (9951). It is Bruno who meets tennis pro Guy Haines on a train and proposes to him that they swap murders in order to get rid of unwanted baggage (Guy’s wife, Bruno’s father). Hitchcock famously cast gay Farley Granger as the straight Guy, and heterosexual Walker as the homosexual Bruno in order to lend their relationship a rich subtext. Walker is unforgettable as Bruno. In real life, though, after playing this role of a lifetime, he got divorced from his wife, actress Jennifer Jones, who went on to marry movie mogul David O. Selznick. Walker’s life and career went into a tailspin and he died in 1951 after having a reaction to medication his psychiatrist prescribed for him. His son was eleven at the time and did not attend his father’s funeral. As an adult actor, Walker, Jr. got into the family business at around the same time as another famous actor’s son, Peter Fonda. In fact, Walker has a small role in Fonda’s Easy Rider (1969), along with his Ensign Pulver co-star, Jack Nicholson. Walker plays the leader of a commune, having jettisoned his straight look for that of a drugged-out hippie drop-out from society.

The third death that haunts Ensign Pulver is that of the character’s creator, Thomas Heggen. A graduate of the University of Minnesota Journalism School, Heggen’s sad story can be found in John Leggett's exemplary dual biography of Heggen and Ross Lockridge, Jr., author of the Civil War epic, Raintree County. Leggett caught the tragic parallels in both men’s lives and even today, 36 years after it was first published, Ross and Tom should be read by all would-be novelists as a cautionary example of what happens when an author tries to wrestle with the Bitch Goddess of Success. Heggen had one book in him, but that’s all. He became increasingly estranged from his book during the creation of the play, watching as it was taken away from him by co-writer and director Josh Logan. He tried to write a follow up to Mister Roberts, but could never light on the right subject matter. He led a Fitzgeraldian existence of wild excess in New York, but was unlucky in love. He was found dead in his bathtub in 1949, at the age of 30, a victim of an accidental overdose of pills.

Today, the J-School Library at the University of Minnesota bears Heggen’s name and is filled with Mister Roberts’ memorabilia. As a grad student in journalism at the same school, I used to study under his portrait. And wonder whether the Bitch Goddess of Success would treat me in a like manner. Douglas Roberts, Robert Walker, Sr., Thomas Heggen—good men all. But the world in which they lived was not yet civil enough to accommodate their inner-demons. If we resurrect their memory long enough, their legacy will become, as the Captain did for Ensign Pulver, our Chinese obligation.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

O Captain! My Captain! (1973, 1976, 1991)

Shout is a rightfully forgotten movie in the John Travolta canon. It was released—barely—in 1991 and occupies a space in his oeuvre between two of his greatest successes, Look Who’s Talking (commercial success, 1989) and Pulp Fiction (commercial and critical success, 1994). Shout is like a mash-up of Footloose and Dead Poets Society, both of which the screenwriter Joe Gayton seems to have studied in exhaustive detail. The story takes place in a repressive small town in which rock and roll music is looked upon as verboten. And the chief proponent of rock and roll in the story is a music teacher played by Travolta, who introduces his students to the new sound’s joyfully rebellious beat.

The story is set in Texas in the very early 1950s just as the term rock and roll was first being coined. Travolta’s character comes to a boys’ reform school in the hinterlands of Texas to lead the student band. Travlota has relatively little screen time in the movie. His character’s obvious purpose is to inspire his wayward students the same way Robin Williams does his prep school boys in Dead Poets Society. Travolta does this by introducing rock and roll music into the Souza March program the band is supposed to be rehearsing for a patriotic town gathering. In the end, he shows his lost boys that rock and roll has the power to transcend race and class and one’s own emotional limitations, the same belief that now fuels such Broadway musicals as Hairspray and Memphis.

The most rebellious student is played by James Walters. After ringing a bell in a church tower to wake up the whole sleepy town, he is arrested and taken to the Benedict Home for Boys. (That Benedict name is a gratuitous nod to the Benedict clan of George Stevens’ 1956 adaptation of Edna Ferber’s, Giant, probably the most famous book and movie about the state of Texas.) The home is run by Richard Jordan, who is the designated heavy here and serves the same tyrannical function as John Lithgow’s minister in Footloose and Norman Lloyd’s headmaster in Dead Poets Society. Of course, Jordan’s college-age daughter (played by the fetching but forever acting-challenged Heather Graham) ends up falling in love with bad boy Walters.

The movie is directed by choreographer Jeffrey Hornaday, who created the dances for Flashdance, Dick Tracy and The Marrying Man. He is clearly in love with the Texas landscape and fills his movie with gorgeously empty canvases and honeyed sunsets. His direction, though, is pokey throughout, except, not surprisingly, for the scenes that include dancing. There is a rowdy number set at a roadhouse run by Linda Fiorentino, where some of the Benedict boys show up one night after escaping from the home. The roadhouse features the blues. And when the infectious music sets the Benedict boys and everyone else onto the dance floor in a paroxysm of joy, it shows that music that appeals to the lonely makes people feel a little less lonely when it is experienced as a group. The scene is like the Eddie Barnes painting, "Sugar Shack," brought vividly to life.

In another bravura scene, these same Benedict boys pay a late night visit to the local girl’s school. They are separated by a wrought iron fence that keeps the girls in and the boys out. But when the rock and roll music begins to play, the boys and girls nevertheless pair up and begin dancing in place on either side of the fence. Several of the girls dance as though possessed by the devil. This is Hornaday’s direction and choreography at its most rapturously impressive. And the fact that one of the girls is played by a nineteen-year-old Gwyneth Paltrow (in her movie debut) only adds to the frisson of the occasion.

Back to Travlota: it is interesting to watch him interact with Walters and the other Benedict boys. Having essayed the definitive high school greaser, Vinnie Barbarino, in the seventies sit-com Welcome Back, Kotter, it is touching to contemplate the adult Travolta now playing Kotter to another Barbarino and a new band of Sweathogs. The story ends with Travolta, who turns out to be a fugitive wanted for a crime he didn’t commit, giving himself up to the police in order to face the music and clear his name. His boys honor his brave decision by ditching Sousa and playing rock and roll at the patriotic town gathering. This is the equivalent of the final scene in Dead Poets’ Society in which the students show Robin Williams what he has meant to them by defying the headmaster and climbing on top of their desks. They are led by Ethan Hawke, who addresses Williams with Whitman’s immortal lines, “O Captain! My Captain!” Unable to put a stop to the rock and roll sound of the band, Richard Jordan ends up losing both his boys and his daughter to the siren call of this forbidden music.

In movies, Jordan often played captains of industry or hard men. Or both. He is Michael J. Fox’s overbearing boss in the populist business comedy, The Secret of My Success (1987). And in the 1976 NBC mini-series, Captains and the Kings (the title comes from a poem by Rudyard Kipling), Jordan plays an Irish immigrant, an escapee from the Potato Famine, who arrives in America and claws his way up the capitalist ladder until he, as a freshly minted plutocrat, stands poised to make his son the first Irish-Catholic president of the United States. Any resemblance to Joseph P. Kennedy and the Kennedy clan is purely intentional.

But Taylor Caldwell, author of the bestselling book upon which the mini-series is based, also adds a conspiratorial strain to her story. Jordan’s character, Joseph Armagh, is inducted into a secret society of industrialists who control the nation’s wealth by the covert manipulation of influential politicians. And beyond this, she posits an even more rarefied conspiracy of American and European business leaders who manipulate world affairs in the name of profit. These men give their stamp of approval to Jordan’s son’s presidential bid, then withdraw it when the bottom line indicates that their business interests would be better served by another candidate. In the end, Jordan turns on this secret society. But it is too late. His son is assassinated and Jordan, who has finally learned the meaning of love but has alienated or outlived anyone he could express this to, is left a bereft old man sitting alone in his mausoleum-like mansion. Minus the blood and the grease, it is an ending that anticipates the final act of Daniel Day-Lewis’ character in P.T. Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007).

With a huge cast and vast canvas spanning six decades of American life, Captains and the Kings was part of an umbrella NBC series broadcast on Sunday nights to feature mini-series based on best-selling novels. This was the golden age of the mini-series that also produced Roots and Rich Man, Poor Man on ABC. Other bestsellers adapted for the NBC series included Anton Myrers’ Once an Eagle (which many professional military men consider the best book ever written about the career soldier) and Norman Bogner’s Seventh Avenue. The production design of Captains and the Kings is a little on the cheesy side. The opulent interiors look totally unlived in. And most of the exteriors are done on the backlot. A scene set in New York during the Civil War was obviously shot on 20th Century-Fox’s Hello, Dolly set (the elevated subway station, always visible from Pico Boulevard as one cruised past the Fox lot, in the background is a dead giveaway). And the direction is entirely ham-handed, despite some (failed) attempts to emulate Orson Welles’ direction of Citizen Kane. But Joseph Armagh is no Charles Foster Kane, no matter how much the production wants him to be. And this is not just the judgment of hindsight. The direction and production design must have been pretty lackluster by mid-seventies standards, too.

Jordan was born into a wealthy and influential American family. He received his big acting break playing Henry Fonda’s son-in-law in the 1965 Broadway play, Generation (the two men even share several scenes in the mini-series, in which Jordan's character tries to blackmail Fonda's incorruptible senator). But his real acting breakthrough came when he was chosen to play the part of FBI agent Dave Foley in Peter Yates’ The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973). Now this movie is far from obscure. It received excellent reviews when it was first released, although it did mediocre business at the box-office. But since that time, the movie’s reputation has only appreciated and its virtues have recently been enshrined with a Criterion DVD release. So there is no reason to go into it here at length, except to say that Yates’ movie can stand alongside Sidney Lumet’s Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon and Joseph Sergeant’s The Taking of Pelham One Two Three as one of the best crime dramas of the seventies.

Jordan’s acting here is astonishing. He plays a weasely FBI agent trying to convince small-time criminal Eddie Coyle (played with great sympathy by Robert Mitchum) to drop a dime on some bank robbers he is supplying with guns in order to escape the prison sentence that is hanging over him. Jordan is electrifying as this canny, manipulative FBI agent. And in one awe-inspiring moment, he does something I’ve never seen an actor do before. In the scene set in a suburban train station parking lot, where he rushes in to bust a gun supplier played by Steven Keats (in a matching live-wire performance and who coincidentally plays the lead in the mini-series adaptation of Seventh Avenue), Jordan’s voice is so charged with adrenaline that the words come out thick and fuzzy. How did he do that? How did he work himself up to this unique emotional state? We will never know the answer. Jordan died of a brain tumor in 1993 at the age of fifty-six. “O Captain my Captain! our fearful trip is done.”

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Landscape (with Biplane) (1965)

Flying dreams are common. And the 1965 movie Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines or How I Flew from London to Paris in 22 hours 11 Minutes plays like one long dream of flight. It takes place in 1910, four years before the beginning of World War I and has the dusky elegiac glow of a last glorious summer in the life of a soon-to-be-fallen empire.

Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines is not an obscure movie. Back in 1965, when it was released, it was a popular success and presented in road show format by 20th Century-Fox, complete with intermission (although completely unnecessary as the movie fails to build to the necessary act one curtain closer). It was also an epic production with fourteen major characters and an almost equal number of working period aircraft. It featured an international cast of dramatic and comedic actors drawn from England (Terry-Thomas, in a role originally intended for Peter Sellers), the U.S. (Stuart Whitman, Sam Wanamaker), France (Jean-Pierre Cassel, pere of Vincent), Italy (Alberto Sordi), Germany (Gert Frobe, Karl Michael Vogler) and Japan. The story concerns a British newspaper-sponsored contest to see which international aviator will be the first to fly across the English Channel from London to Paris—an incredible feat in those pioneering years of aviation.

In the past forty-five years since its initial release, this movie has become something of a forgotten classic. It has been released by Fox as part of its family DVD collection. It is a wholesome movie, to be sure, filmed in 1965, before the censor barriers fully came down, and takes place at a time when public decorum ruled the day. But the movie mildly subverted its family-friendly status by casting two up-and-coming actors, James Fox and Sarah Miles, who had recently appeared together in Joseph Losey’s very adult The Servant (1963), Harold Pinter’s typically enigmatic adaptation of a novel by Robin Maugham (nephew of W. Somerset). Sarah Miles had also played a student who accuses her teacher (Sir Laurence Olivier) of molestation in Peter Glenville’s Term of Trial (1962).

In real life, Miles had affairs with her co-stars, Olivier and Fox, before marrying playwright and screenwriter Robert Bolt (A Man for All Seasons, Lawrence of Arabia), who wrote David Lean's Ryan's Daughter (1971) as a starring vehicle for her. In Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, she is introduced wearing trousers, a Donegal sweater and Tam o'Shanter while riding a vintage motorcycle. Her character dreams of going up in a flying machine and learning to fly, but her stuffed-shirt aviator fiancé, Fox, won’t let her because he is afraid of angering her press lord father (Robert Morley). Soon after, Miles swaps her tomboy outfit for female finery of the period—long dresses, high-button shoes, very large hats, bloomers (source of a running gag). But even though she is dressed to a period T, there is something irrepressibly contemporary about Miles that animates her character. It is also a little surprising how much she resembles the current Hollywood It Girl, Carey Mulligan. In fact, Miles began her career in 1961, the year after An Education, the movie that won Carey Mulligan an Academy Award nomination, takes place.

In addition to Ms. Miles’ performance, Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines is a rare achievement in other ways as well. For one thing, its special effects hold up very well, even by today’s CGI standards. The movie is a mix of real vintage airplanes (flown by professional pilots), model photography, and actors filmed against a blue screen background or a blue sky backing in the studio. The blue screen shots are notable for not showing the halo around actors that marred so many process shots of the period. The actors actually seem to be flying their own planes. And the model shot of three vintage aircraft whizzing right by the Eiffel Tower is still a jaw-dropping effect. Christopher Challis’ cinematography contributes to the movie’s dreamlike ambience and references some beautiful Rembrandt-like landscapes (into which one or more vintage aircraft have been interposed).

The movie owes a great debt to the silent film comedies of Mack Sennet and is filled with slapstick scenes of airplane crashes and fire trucks racing across the field to rescue pilots. The chief of the airfield’s Keystone Kop-like fire brigade is none other than Benny Hill, several years before achieving fame as a bikini babe-bracketed TV comic and master of the double entendre. (The movie also features a cameo appearance by another famous TV comedian—Red Skelton, playing a caveman who dreams of flying and several other flight-happy incarnations down through the centuries.) But as funny as these scenes are, Daryl F. Zanuck, head of 20th Century-Fox at the time, ordered director Ken Annakin and screenwriter Jack Davies to place in the forefront the love triangle composed of Sarah Miles, Stuart Whitman and James Fox.

Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines came out the same year as Blake Edwards’ The Great Race, a movie about an early automobile race from New York to Paris. It, too, mixes stars (Jack Lemmon, Natalie Wood, Tony Curtis, Peter Falk) with vintage machines—in this case early model automobiles. And in 1969, Fox released a sort of auto-based sequel, the inferior Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies (again starring Tony Curtis), but this had nowhere near the critical or box office success of its notable predecessor. Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines is a movie just waiting to be discovered by those who enjoy family-friendly entertainment, slapstick comedy, or charmingly-played love triangles. Or for those who dream of flying or wish the summer would never end.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

And Now for Something Completely Different (Rex Reed and the New Journalism - 1968)

The New Journalism began in the pages of Esquire magazine in 1963 when Tom Wolfe was stumped as to how to write an article about a recent visit he made to a California custom car show featuring the futuristic fiberglass visions of Ed “Big Daddy” Roth. Wolfe showed his editor his rough notes and it was the editor’s genius to tell the dandy in the white ice cream suit that all the magazine had to do was publish his hyperbolic rough notes. And so “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby” was born. And along with it the New Journalism.

The New Journalism employed novelistic techniques to tell a story or portray a subject. The scene, as opposed to the fact, became the basic unit of this form. Wolfe followed his initial offering with profiles of moonshiner turned race car driver Junior Johnson, “The Last American Hero is Junior Johnson, Yes!” (adapted into the 1973 movie The Last American Hero starring Jeff Bridges as Johnson and prominently featuring the Jim Croce classic, “I’ve Got a Name”), and Phil Spector, “The First Tycoon of Teen.” The latter includes the famous incident where the high-strung record producer demands to be let off a jetliner about to take off because he’s convinced everybody on board is a loser and the plane is sure to crash. (Conversely, Wolfe would later use the traditional tools of the journalist to sell the reality of his novels, such as The Bonfire of the Vanities.)

In 1966, the trajectory of the New Journalism in Esquire was fixed with the publication of Gay Talese’s “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” in which is recorded for posterity that famous confrontation between Old Blue Eyes and science fiction writer Harlan Ellison. In Huntington Hartford’s Show magazine, Gloria Steinen produced “A Bunny’s Tale,” her account of going undercover as a neophyte Bunny at Hugh Hefner’s New York Playboy Club (this article was the basis for a TV movie starring Kirstie Alley as Ms. Steinem). And in the New Yorker, Truman Capote published early chapters of what he would later refer to as his non-fiction novel, In Cold Blood.

It is very odd to think of movie critic and gossip writer Rex Reed in the same pantheon as these gods of New Journalism. But, in reading his Do You Sleep in the Nude?, a 1968 collection of articles originally published in The New York Times, New York Magazine (when it was the Sunday supplement of the eternally mourned Herald Tribune), Cosmopolitan and Esquire, one could make a case that Reed was also trying to change journalism by pushing back the frontiers of what was permissible in the celebrity interview. His method is artful in its simplicity: he simply sits back, observes his subjects and allows them to reveal themselves to him.

Reed was no mere handmaiden of the celebrity flack. Like Sidney Falco with J.J. Hunsecker, he was more than happy to bite the hand that fed him. Reed’s interview subjects are an unusual mix of Old Hollywood (Lucille Ball, Buster Keaton), New Hollywood (George Peppard, Sandy Dennis) Broadway (Leslie Uggams, Gwen Verdon), legends (Marlene Dietrich, Lotte Lenya) and literary figures (Robert Anderson, Marianne Moore), with some occasional oddball ringers let in such as Governor Lester Maddox and the Living Theatre. Many of the New Hollywood types, such as Shirley Knight and Peter Fonda, seem to have an ambivalent attitude towards fame and success. And in similar fashion, Reed seems to have an ambivalent attitude about many of those he is interviewing. Reading this collection, one gets the sense that Reed’s journalistic persona was a work in progress, drawn to the glamour of the world he was covering while, at the same time, trying to penetrate its glitzy surface to find out what really lay underneath it.

Born in Texas, Reed seems to gravitate towards Southern subjects, such as Carson McCullers and Tennessee Williams. He interviews the sick and elderly McCullers right before the release of the movie adaptation of her Reflections in a Golden Eye (an all-star disaster from 1967 directed by John Huston and starring Marlon Brando, Elizabeth Taylor, Brian Keith and introducing Robert Forster). Reed does a wonderful job of describing McCullers’ life at February House, a Brooklyn literary collective of the forties made up of Christopher Isherwood, Richard Wright, W.H. Auden, Jane and Paul Bowles and--improbable but true--Gypsy Rose Lee (working on her novel, The G-String Murders), all living and working under the same roof. Reed’s account of life at February House is infectiously written and reads like a coming attraction for Sherill Tippins’ February House, published almost forty years later. (A musical adaptation of the book is currently in the works.)

The less said about Reed’s interview with Williams, the better. Inspired by the famous playwright, he strains for effect trying to emulate Tennessee’s inimitable Southern Gothic voice, as though he had overdosed on beignets at the Café du Monde (which in itself is an infelicitous imitation of Williams’ style). Similarly, when he writes about Italian film director Michelangelo Antonioni, Reed sounds like a lost character in one of Antonioni’s movies.

Reed’s portrayal of New Hollywood is generally more revelatory than his overly reverential depiction of Old Hollywood. The sole exception is Ava Gardner, who gets off the all-time greatest putdown of Frank Sinatra when describing his marriage to Mia Farrow: “I always knew Frank would end up with a boy.” Reed manages to capture those on the cusp of fame. He interviews Warren Beatty right before Bonnie and Clyde (elusive, as always) and Mike Nichols right before The Graduate (pretentious, as always). But Reed digs and gets Nichols to reveal his impoverished existence before he hit the big time with Elaine May.

And every now and then, Reed perfectly manages to capture both the subject and the time he is writing about, such as this description from his poolside interview with Peter Fonda, before the success of Easy Rider: “Lying on his back, talking to a tape recorder, getting it down straight, the sun burning into his skin, with imported Helena Rubenstein ‘Bikini’ lotion turning his tan to butterscotch and a four-inch scar slashing across his stomach where he once shot himself with a gun when he was ten years old, drinking Carlsbad beer while fourteen Bozak-610 speakers played Vivaldi and Ravi Shankar and ‘Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,’ throwing it up to the hills above the tennis courts.” This is one impressive sentence, even if there is no subject or predicate in sight. And, if nothing else, this is all the proof we need that Reed should have been a card-carrying member of the New Journalism—like those others, he wasn’t afraid to break the rules to get to the truth of something.