Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Obscure Movie Quote

From  THE SOUND OF MUSIC as written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola:

"Leave the nun.  Take the cannoli."


Tuesday, February 19, 2013

On TO BE OR NOT TO BE (1942)

"What a Shylock you would have been."  ~A compliment in TO BE OR NOT TO BE.

"All the world's a stage."  A troupe of Polish actors knows this is a famous quote from William Shakespeare's As You Like It.  This troupe will be thrust into a deeper, darker realization of Shakespeare's line when it winds up in a theatre of war.  This 1942 comedy, directed by Ernst Lubitsch, makes me laugh out loud and there's one scene so beautifully acted in a tense situation so cleverly written that it puts tears in my eyes.  We meet this troupe in Warsaw in the summer of 1939.  Warsaw is still at peace.
The stars of the company are The Turas.  There's Joseph...probably making The Bard spin in his grave like a pinwheel with his portrayal of Hamlet...and his glamorous wife, Maria.  She has a special place in her heart for the fans.  Especially the young male fans.
Lubitsch guided Jack Benny and Carole Lombard through performances that rank among their best film work.  This film obviously had a great impact on young Mel Brooks when he saw it.  Watch Mel's The Producers.  The "Heil myself" line that he gave to the actor playing Hitler in the "Springtime for Hitler" number?  He didn't borrow that business from To Be or Not To Be.  He stole it from the opening scenes of this Lubitsch classic.
Carole Lombard and Jack Benny shine as flirty Maria and the jealous Joseph.  The company is in rehearsals for "Gestapo," a satirical play about the Nazis.
When the political climate changes, the government is threatened by the arts.  The company is ordered not to do the new play because "...it might offend Hitler."  That means insecure Joseph puts on tights again to take to the stage as Hamlet.
His "To be or not to be" soliloquy is the cue for a handsome young pilot to visit Mrs. Tura in her dressing room.  Robert Stack played the brave, courtly and damn cute pilot.
Joseph wants to become famous for his wooden Hamlet.  Maria wants to be wooed by a handsome pilot.  The pilot wants to romance Poland's famous stage actress.  The company wants to lampoon Hitler onstage.  And Greenberg wants to play Shylock in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice.

I love Greenberg.  He's a stock actor, a regular guy who is in the profession for the love of the art.  He's not obsessed with becoming a star.  He loves acting.  He loves fellow actors.  He loves the classics.  He loves comedy.  As Greenberg says, "A laugh is nothing to be sneezed at."  To a company member who's always too theatrical and over the top in his performances, Greenberg says "What you are, I wouldn't eat."  His best friend in the company, Bronski, has been cast as Hitler in the satirical "Gestapo."
Bronski knows of his friend's desire to play Shylock.  When Greenberg first recites some of the famous "If you prick us, do we not bleed?" speech, he and Bronski are backstage in period costumes and carrying spears.  When he does it a second time, they're both outside shoveling snow.  The climate is very different in Poland then.  Twenty minutes into the comedy, war is declared.  That's the inciting incident.  It changes the actors lives and sets them, as a company, on a different course.  It's the Arts vs Bigotry.  The actors risk their lives -- and still get laughs -- as they hurl themselves into the war effort utilizing their skills as actors to fight the Nazis.  An escape is needed.  All their lives are in danger.  They are trapped in their theater.  A plan is hatched.  Greenberg is the only one who can make the plan work.  Without hesitation, he accepts the challenge.  The challenge is -- to make a dream come true in a nightmare situation.  He will do Shylock's speech again.  The third time is a charm.

Greenberg is "cast" to do Shylock for the worst audience imaginable.  The theater is packed with critics who could kill his performance.  Literally.  Greenberg and company are in a theater full of Nazis.  Also attending that particular performance is The Füehrer.
In the corridor, company members in costumes from "Gestapo" blend in with clueless Nazis.  Greenberg causes a ruckus as a Jewish dissident.  Totally in the moment and with absolute fearlessness, he delivers a most passionate performance of Shylock's "If you prick us, do we need bleed?" speech to Bronski as Hitler.  There's Greenberg -- in modern dress, in a theater, using his real life to inform his most important performance ever -- and he's brilliant.  He gives urgency, fire and life to Shakespeare.  He makes the old dialogue sound new.  Greenberg shows why Shakespeare's work lives on.
His commitment to his craft, his love for the arts and his fellow actors are at their peak here.  His performance is so good that it saves lives.  Today, so many young acting hopefuls seem mainly concerned with getting on a Red Carpet, making a fashion statement and going to the party afterwards.  They're not concerned with craft.  They don't have a touch of Greenberg.  He was about doing the work.  Taking a risk.  Greenberg's bravery and passion in that scene always put tears in my eyes.  There's so much richness in that inspired scene.  It works on more than one level.  There's the bravery of Greenberg, the brilliance of the actor's being "in the moment" while putting Shakespeare in a contemporary setting, the cleverness of that acting troupe and the proof that the arts can save lives.  Theater is a great, sharp weapon against ignorance and hate.  So is film.
Felix Bressart played Greenberg.  He graced a couple of other Lubitsch classics.  In Ninotchka, he played one of the Russian comrades to Greta Garbo's lead charcter.
The movie musical remake of that was Silk Stockings with Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse.  Bressart and James Stewart were co-workers in The Shop Around the Corner.
The musical remake of that was In the Good Old Summertime with Judy Garland and Van Johnson.  Then it was remade in the 1990s as You've Got Mail with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.  To Be or Not To Be was also remade.  Mel Brooks starred with his wife, Anne Bancroft, in the Mr. and Mrs. Tura roles for the 1983 remake of the same name.
The remake brought Charles Durning a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination.

Shakespeare is referenced at least three times in the Lubitsch original with his Hamlet, Julius Caesar and The Merchant of Venice.  A mint print of To Be or Not To Be is now available thanks to the Criterion Collection.  Check this one out.  The first 20 minutes alone have more laughs, wit, originality and energy than some 2-hour modern comedies I've paid money to see.  Today, young actresses who want to do screen comedy should study Carole Lombard.  She was a master at it.  I love Lubitsch's To Be or Not To Be.



I bet Shakespeare would've loved it too.  Thank you, Criterion.









Monday, February 18, 2013

Dorothy vs Scarlett and Ninotchka

Here's a fact for Black History Month:  Quvenzhané Wallis is the youngest nominee for Best Actress in the history of the Academy Awards.  In the Oscar race at age 9 for her performance in Beasts of the Southern Wild.  Last week, I watched The Wizard of Oz on DVD.  If little Ms. Wallis is a Best Actress nominee for that film, then Judy Garland should have received her first Best Actress Oscar nomination for the The Wizard of Oz.  She deserved to be in the race opposite Vivien Leigh for Gone With The Wind and Greta Garbo for Ninotchka.  Her soulful, memorable and moving performance as Dorothy Gale is the heart of this great musical adventure.  It endures as touching, truthful work.
So much is known about the movie's back story.  We know that MGM studio execs attempted to borrow little big star, Shirley Temple, from 20th Century Fox for the project.  Temple was the right age but wrong for the role.  We know that "Over the Rainbow" was almost dropped from the movie.  It went on to win the Oscar for Best Song, became a hit with the public and was Garland's signature tune for the rest of her life.  Some obvious elements seem to have been overlooked.  In that 1939 release, Judy Garland was a kid working with seasoned show biz veterans twice her age and older.
Ray Bolger, "Scarecrow," was in his mid-30s.  Bert Lahr and Jack Haley, "Lion" and "Tin Man," were in their 40s.
Frank Morgan, "Professor Marvel" and "The Wizard," was nearly 50.  Judy Garland was 16 and not yet a star when cast as Dorothy.  She was a screen newcomer at MGM, a cute girl with an amazingly mature voice.  She was Betsy Booth, the Broadway hopeful gal pal and never the girlfriend in Mickey Rooney's popular Andy Hardy franchise.  The emotional depth and womanliness of her voice was evident when the sang a special arrangement of "You Made Me Love You" as a girl writing a "Dear Mr. Gable" fan letter to Clark Gable in Broadway Melody of 1938.  Unlike 20th Century Fox's Shirley Temple, she wasn't a leading lady.  The contract player was still being groomed and doing good work.  Young Judy had a major responsibility on her shoulders as a teen actress hoping for stardom.  As Dorothy Gale, not only did she have to act and be believable in a role that she was a few years too old for (her developing bustline had to be obscured), she had to introduce an original movie score by celebrated songwriters Harold Arlen and E. Y. Harburg.

One great lesson I learned years ago in acting classes taught by Tony-winning actress Joanna Gleason (Sondheim's original Broadway cast of Into the Woods, Dirk Diggler's mother in the movie Boogie Nights), is that a good song as like a monologue set to music.  It gives information about a character.  It moves the story.  "Over the Rainbow" sets the tone for Dorothy's emotional and physical journey.  It reveals all her inner longing.  The song is a monologue that she beautifully delivers in the first 20 minutes of the movie.  That simplicity, that depth, that wistful innocence bring us into Dorothy's soul.
She's not a child of privilege and entitlement.  She hasn't always known happiness.  She lives on a Kansas farm obviously hit hard by the Great Depression.  She helps take care of that farm.  And what happened to her parents?  We never know.  She lives with her Auntie Em and Uncle Henry.  And Toto too.  She's a good girl and a loyal friend.
We're often so delighted by the movie that we don't realize how difficult an assignment teen Garland had and brilliantly accomplished.  We have to believe that Dorothy believes in all these fantastic characters and all these fantastic events.  Shirley Temple's movie characters were usually precious and precocious youngsters that folks wanted to take care of, adopt, pamper and spotlight musically on their radio shows.  She was spunky.  Judy played a poor, sweet kid that a wicked witch wants to torture and put to death.
We have to believe in all her affections, all her fears in the Land of Oz.
We have to believe that the frightened girl's love for a friend in need would be strong enough to summon up the bravery to save his life and overcome her fear of being killed by the Wicked Witch of the West.  Dorothy thinks of others. Not only of herself.
If young Judy Garland's performance doesn't work in The Wizard of Oz, the whole film suffers.  She's 16.  A high schooler.  And she has to carry a big budget Hollywood movie from the top studio in town.  That would be a major, daunting task dramatically.  She had to carry it with new songs.  Musicals are hard work.  She had new music and special effects to deal with in this complicated production.  It's an action/fantasy musical.  When I was 16, I had a tough time just dealing with gym class.  The word "iconic" is tossed about frequently today by entertainment journalists, but it really does apply to Garland's performance as Dorothy.  For 1939, it's proven to be as famous and memorable as Vivien Leigh's Oscar winning dramatic turn as Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With The Wind.  Both films were directed by Victor Fleming.  Both Scarlett and Dorothy were strong females determined to get back home.  Being in my 50s, I'm of that generation that waited eagerly for the annual presentation of this classic on network television.  It was usually around Easter time.  And it was the only time it aired during the year.  This was before VHS, DVDs, DVR and cable television.  That annual presentation was indeed a very special broadcast for us youngsters.  We were enraptured every single year and we were awed by it, even though most of us watched Dorothy's adventures in black and white.  Not every home had a color TV at that time.  The Oriental is a revival movie theater on the East Side of Milwaukee.  The Wizard of Oz played there when I lived in Milwaukee.  That was in the early 1980s.  The place was packed -- mostly with babyboomers who'd grown up watching it on TV and now brought their youngsters to see it.  I sat next to a former co-worker who brought his little girl.  He and I had never seen The Wizard of Oz on a big screen.  The Oriental had a gorgeous print.  The colors popped.  Being that we were now grown, my buddy and I had known heartbreaks and disappointments.  We knew what it was like to try to find your way back home in some fashion.  We'd battled negative forces like the Wicked Witch in our adult lives.  Right before Dorothy meets the Scarecrow, he and I both said, "Wow."  What hit us?  How long the Yellow Brick Road stretched  up and down hills was before she found Scarecrow.  He whispered to me, "Look how far she's come."  To this day, when Dorothy says to Scarecrow, "I think I'll miss you most of all" before she leaves Oz altogether, I feel this -- it's not because she loves Tin Man and Lion any less.  It's because Scarecrow travelled the road with her the farthest.
When Dorothy awakens in her room in Kansas, we have to feel that we survived that difficult and often dangerous journey with her.  We have to feel the lessons she's learned.  We must believe her poignant declaration, "...there's no place like home."
Judy Garland was given a special Juvenile Academy Award for The Wizard of Oz.
Her first Oscar nomination came for a spectacular 1954 musical/dramatic performance.  She sang about another road.  "The road gets rougher, it's lonelier and tougher..." were lyrics in "The Man That Got Away," the torch song she introduced in A Star Is Born.
The Best Actress Oscar went to Grace Kelly for The Country Girl.  It should've gone to Judy for George Cukor's masterful musical remake of a 1937 classic drama.
Harold Arlen co-wrote new hit songs for her to sing in that film too.  For an "Only in Hollywood" item, here's one for you:  Judy Garland's Oscar-winning actress/singer daughter, Liza Minnelli, was once married to Jack Haley Jr., son of the Tin Man actor.  The Wizard of Oz made Garland famous.  In the 1940s, she was one of MGM's brightest, most beloved and most talented stars.  As for Garland's Dorothy, if you've seen Beasts of the Southern Wild, go watch The Wizard of Oz again.  If Ms. Wallis is in the running for the Best Actress Academy Award of 2012, Judy Garland should've been a nominee for the adult-sized Oscar as Best Actress of 1939.  It's quite a performance.






Sunday, February 17, 2013

Michelle Pfeiffer Had a Point

Did you know that Michelle Pfeiffer was originally slated to play FBI agent Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs?  Jodie Foster was her replacement.

The movie's villain will be in our homes come early April.  That's when NBC premieres its new series, Hannibal, about further adventures of the infamous Dr. Hannibal Lecter.
Hugh Dancy, a fine British actor, stars in the series as Special Agent Will Graham.
When I saw the Hannibal promo during Saturday Night Live, I immediately thought of why Michelle Pfeiffer bowed out of 1991's The Silence of the Lambs.  It wasn't a scheduling conflict.  I asked her about it and included the clip in one of my demo reels.

Ms. Pfeiffer had a point.  Did you see the 2001 sequel, Hannibal, with Julianne Moore in the role of Clarice Starling opposite Anthony Hopkins repeating his role as Dr. Lecter?
Good actors.  Good performances. But that sequel made me very uncomfortable.  I don't see the need for a sequel to every single hit movie.  Often that one story is enough.

At the end of Hannibal, after an extremely grotesque Dr. Lecter dinner party, I remembered another comment Michelle Pfeiffer made during our interview.  She said that if they'd just killed him at the end, she would've been cool with The Silence of the Lambs.

I'd love to interview her now that he's got a TV series set to premiere.  Wow.  He's like the Charlie Brown of serial killers.  Coming up in October...It's the Great Pumpkin, Dr. Lecter.

Can you imagine Hannibal Lecter on the Red Carpet?  When you ask him "Who are you wearing?," his answer would be very creepy indeed.  


Saturday, February 16, 2013

Free This Jennifer Hudson Biopic

Where did her movie go?  It played in Canada.  Where is it?  Simon Cowell didn't think she had the star quality to advance on TV's American Idol but Hollywood saw it.  Jennifer Hudson landed a dream role in the movie version of Broadway's Dreamgirls.  She was the talented and complicated Effie, the back-up singer seen on the far right.
After years of disappointments, Effie's talent and a new attitude bring her to center stage.
The performance earned Jennifer Hudson the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress of 2006.
In between 2006 and her recent appearance on NBC's Smash singing with the show's star and fellow American Idol loser, Katherine McPhee, Ms. Hudson went dramatic.
 
It was a major big screen assignment.  She played Winnie Mandela opposite Terrence Howard, Best Actor Oscar nominee for 2005's Hustle & Flow.  Howard co-starred as young Nelson Mandela in Winnie.  This film focuses in the early years of the woman who became the wife of the now-globally famous ex-prisoner and South African anti-apartheid activist.  Winnie was supposed to supposed to be released in 2011.  Here's the trailer.

Then word came that it would come out in 2012.  It didn't.  Heck...Nelson Mandela was released before this movie was.  Has anyone seen it?  Is it available on DVD?  It screened at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2011.  I'm really curious to see how Jennifer Hudson handled the Winnie Mandela role in that biopic drama.

If you've seen Winnie, leave me a short review.  Happy Black History Month.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Where Is Linda Fiorentino?

She sizzled in The Last Seduction, a 1994 indie drama with a 1940's film noir attitude.  Linda Fiorentino picked up the torch from actresses such as Barbara Stanwyck in 1944's Double Indemnity and Kathleen Turner in 1981's Body Heat and ran with it.
This was one smart, boldly sexy performance by a skilled new movie actress playing a hot-looking babe who's about as safe as a scorpion.  For The Last Seduction, she was a Best Actress nominee for the BAFTA Film Award, the British equivalent to our Academy Awards.  She was voted Best Actress by the New York Film Critics Circle.
Linda Fiorentino was a terrific femme fatale.  Then, also like Stanwyck, she proved she was just as fabulous handling some goofy comic situations.  Think of Stanwyck's Christmas in Connecticut and Ball of Fire.  Fiorentino kept up with the guys and got big laughs as the Men in Black doctor.  With Oscar nominees Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, she tackled the situation of criminal space aliens in disguise in New York City.
She was as delightful in this 1997 hit as she was dangerous in The Last Seduction.
After I saw her Men in Black performancce, I thought Hollywood should utilize her like it did Barbara Stanwyck.  Not that I advocate remaking all the classics.  But, if anyone had decided to do yet another remake of Preston Sturges' The Lady Eve, Linda Fiorentino would've been perfect as the lovable vamp cardshark Stanwyck played.
Not many actresses could switch easily from film noir to screwball comedy.
Stanwyck could.  I felt that Linda Fiorentino could too.  By the way, The Lady Eve was remake in the 1950s with musical numbers.  Mitzi Gaynor and George Gobel took on the Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda roles.  Sturges rewrote his original screenplay.
David Niven co-starred as the dad of the duplicitous lady in The Birds and the Bees.
In 1999 and 2000, I hosted a weekly show on cable in New York called Metro Movies with Bobby Rivers.  Our show put a spotlight on a lot of independent filmmakers -- known and trying to become known.  We did a feature on the comedy, Dogma.  Fiorentino co-starred with Chris Rock in this 1999 satire about religious beliefs and behavior.
Again, she got laughs.  Kevin Smith wrote and directed this indie film.  Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, George Carlin, Alan Rickman and Salma Hayak are in it too.  The story revolves around two renegade angels on earth who are trying to re-enter heaven.
We interviewed cast members on our show.  Linda Fiorentino was just as and warm and funny in an interview as she was on film.  Where did she go?  Why didn't Hollywood do more with her?  Why isn't TV doing something with her?  I sure would like to know.



Angela Lansbury, Happy Birthday!

She got three Oscar nominations for outstanding dramatic performances.  She became a top star of Broadway musicals.  She was the star of one...