Monday, July 30, 2012

John Travolta in "Savages"

Recently, I was one of the folks in the cineplex audience for a late morning weekend showing of the new Oliver Stone movie.  (Yes, I was taking advantage of the AMC movie theatre discount prices.)  Oliver Stone is pretty intense for starting off a sunny weekend summer's day.  It's like being on an amusement park thrill ride after having eaten a heavy German meal.  With beer.  You just want the experience to end quickly so you can get some relief.  That's exactly how I felt about Savages.  Three attractive, non-famous young actors are the leads.  Three Oscar-nominated veteran stars are the supporting actors.  It's basically about drugs, money and sex in upscale Southern California.  If you dig a movie that's drenched in excessive violence, this is the flick for you.

Here's the trio of screen veterans:  Benicio Del Toro, Oscar winner for 2000's Traffic...Salma Hayek, Best Actress Oscar nominee for the biopic Frida and one of the few women directed to a Best Actress Oscar nomination by another woman (Julie Taymor)...and two-time Oscar nominee John Travolta.  Savages is not an Oliver Stone zenith.  As a director, he's never embraced the "less is more" philosophy of filmmaking.  He claims that when he read the script to this vehicle, he said, "It's Jules and Jim meets Scarface."  That's the big problem.  Why the Sam Hill would those two subtle and subtitled 1962 French characters want to meet an overbaked Al Pacino as a violent Cuban crimelord in the first place? Tepid reviews plus recent unsavory and curious entertainment news reports about John Travolta overshadowed one of the best movie performances the actor has delivered since Pulp Fiction.  Travolta is on top of his game in Savages as the federal agent dealing with two pot-growing entrepreneur brothers in Laguna Beach.  The two brothers and the wealthy pretty blonde they both love get involved with a ruthless Mexican drug lord.  Tragedy ensues.  We go from surfside sex in Southern California to chainsaw beheadings in Mexico during the first ten minutes.
From the blonde's opening narration, we get that vibe that her two boyfriend brothers want to grow pot to make money and help people. Think "medical marijuana."  But they head in for a meeting with a deadly Mexican cartel as if walking in to pitch a product to the Shark Tank panel on ABC.  Travolta as the aggressive Dennis is like those great film noir characters who may be on the side of the law or may be the one to pull the double cross that's a staple in many film noir crime thriller classics.  Travolta is so alive, vibrant and interesting in this role.  It's a smart performance in an unsatisfying film from the director of Platoon, Wall Street, JFK, The Doors, Any Given Sunday and Natural Born Killers.
Salma Hayek plays the drug kingpin.  Or queenpin, if you will.  This is the second time a film a featured Travolta as a law enforcement figure and Hayek as a criminal.  In Lonely Hearts, based on a real-life headline-making crime story, Salma starred as a cold-blooded killer who is red-hot sexy and batshit crazy.  It may not be a great as The Honeymoon Killers, a critically acclaimed 1969 indie film based on the same crime, but I couldn't take my eyes off Hayek.  She burned up the screen as the femme fatale leading a clueless man by the nose and fully engorged penis into a life of crime.  Travolta is a detective on the case in which lonely women with money are being conned and killed.
Lonely Hearts co-stars James Gandolfini as the other detective on the late 1940's case.  Jared Leto plays the con man whose brains are mostly in his throbbing wiener.  This 2006 movie got far less publicity and studio promotion than Savages did yet it's a much better and more entertaining film.  Keep Lonely Hearts in mind as a weekend DVD rental.  Leto was a revelation as Ray, the lover to Hayek's psycho babe, Martha.
In the beginning of this piece, I referred to the recent entertainment news reports about Travolta as being "curious."  I used that word because the reports make me wonder who's got it in for actor John Travolta.  We're talking about Hollywood here.  If I was a masseuse booked to show up at a client's place and the client boldly wanted something other than a rubdown when I got there, I'd leave.  I would just pack up my work items and leave the home or hotel room.  I would not stay there, be insulted and then demand thousands and thousands of dollars months later to settle my adult male nerves.  First of all, if you're a man and you belong to a gym, whether you're straight or gay, you know this is true:  There's always that one guy who is way too naked too much of the time in the locker room.  He's there practically every day and seems to be getting fatter.  Why?  Because he spends about two minutes on a treadmill and four with a barbell.  He spends more time sauntering around the locker room butt naked, with Benny and the Jets on full display, than he does working out.  So, when you see him coming, what do you do?  You move.  You leave.  Or you mind your own business.  Unless, of course, you want to do back-up on Benny and the Jets.  I never heard a reporter question "Why are these similar stories about John Travolta coming out now and around the same time?  What's that all about?"  Trust me, he would not be the first Hollywood player who wanted a "happy ending," if  those reports are true.  Unfortunately, tabloid news helped obscure his excellent work in Savages.  To a degree, this movie is like a Nancy Grace show on cable TV or a network morning news program in regards to where the viewer's attention is directed --  dozens of innocent minorities are being killed in escalating Mexican drug cartel violence and...OH MY GOODNESS!  A CUTE, YOUNG AMERICAN BLONDE HAS BEEN MISSING FOR ONE HOUR!  QUICK!  PUT HER PICTURE ON THE SCREEN!
Director/screenwriter Oliver Stone has done better work.  But John Travolta does some of his best work since his 1994 Oscar-nominated performance in Pulp Fiction.
What a shame it's got to deal with a disappointing film around it and allegations about his private life outside of it.  Hayek and Del Toro are also good and overcome the script.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Separated at Birth

1962's Billy Budd star and General Zod from Superman IITerence Stamp as Ralph/"Bernadette" in 1994's, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queeen of the Desert (a performance I hoped would bring him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor)...

...and Brett Butler, comedian and star of the 1990s ABC sitcom, Grace Under Fire.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Overlooked by Oscars: Dana Andrews

A biography of actor Dana Andrews comes out this September.  My birthday is in September.  If I got a copy of that book as a birthday present, I would be ever so grateful.  I've done previous blogs on actors who did years of solid work but were never blessed with an Oscar® nomination.  I'm adding Dana Andrews to that list.  Handsome, talented, overlooked by Oscars and under-appreciated -- that's how I feel about the actor who often entertained me when I was a kid and got home from school, the actor who reflected my broken heart years later in my adulthood.  He was a pro at playing the ordinary guy with extraordinary depth of emotions that he tried not to let others see.  But we saw it.
I grew up in Southern California, a child of the 1960s.  When I got home from school, there was local movie host Ben Hunter on KTTV/Channel 11 with his Movie Matinee and local CBS/Channel 2 had the Early Show movie leading into the local evening newscast.  There was the Million Dollar Movie on KHJ/Channel 9.  Classic movies aired frequently on local TV then.  Since Gene Kelly was a guy, I assumed that the man who played the detective in Laura was Gene Tierney.  My mother explained that Dana Andrews was the detective and Gene Tierney was the leading lady.  "See?  He's Dana Andrews," Mom pointed out one time when the 1944 murder mystery aired.  I loved Dana Andrews as the best friend to Danny Kaye's Up in Arms character.  It's a 1944 showcase for Danny Kaye's musical comedy talents, but Andrews doesn't get eclipsed by Kaye's fresh-from-Broadway star power.  He complements him as the best friend of hypochondriac Danny Weems, the lovable dork who gets drafted.  They're both fit enough for Uncle Sam.
Joe is a great friend, faithful and true.  Danny's in love with a sweet young lady who really has no romantic feelings for him.  He's her friend.  She does fall for his butch best buddy, Joe.  Notice how Andrews tries to conceal his mutual attraction to her so as not to jeopardize his friendship with Danny.  Friendship is as important to him as true love.  He protects his buddy in the barracks when he's bullied because of his hypochondria.  Dana Andrews was the best friend that everyone of us grade school bookworms wished he had.  Up in Arms was always fun after-school viewing.  The Ox-Bow Incident was the film that made me aware of Andrews' acting depth. We had to read the story in high school.  In the 1943 film adaptation directed by William Wellman, Henry Fonda stars in this western about lynch mob mentality and civil rights.  It's the dark side of the coin to Lumet's 1957 film starring Henry Fonda, 12 Angry Men.  Dana Andrews is the husband and father who is one of three men unjustly accused of a crime and lynched in The Ow-Bow Incident.  Like Joe in the Danny Kaye musical, he too is faithful and true.  Knowing that he'll soon be hung for a crime he didn't commit, he not only pleads his innocence but also passionately defends the other two men -- a Mexican and a feeble-minded old man.
Before his hanging, Donald Martin writes a letter to be delivered to his wife.  An older member of the mob, one who doesn't agree with the lynching, reads the letter.  He describes it as "...kind, understanding...beautiful."  We know, from Andrews' performance, that those qualities exist in Donald Martin.  We must feel that his untimely death is a tragedy and a sin.  Donald Martin is "the conscience of humanity," to quote words from his letter.  The letter is read aloud by Gil (Henry Fonda) at the end of the story.  If we don't feel those qualities about Donald Martin from the actor playing him, if we don't sense that he's a light about  to be brutally turned out, the whole film falls apart.  That letter will have no deep emotional impact now matter how brilliantly Henry Fonda reads it.  As Donald Martin, Dana Andrews is the heart of The Ow-Bow Incident.  In Laura, he's once again on the side of justice.  "I suspect nobody and everybody.  I'm merely trying to get at the truth," says tough New York detective Mark McPherson.  He is just too cool in this role.  The cop in control.  The guy who looked like he was born the wear a fedora.  Clifton Webb got an Oscar nomination for this classic.  Andrews should have too.
McPherson distinguished himself in a shoot-out newspapers called "The Siege of Babylon."  He took bullets to the leg yet still kept going in and captured a gangster.  Laura is a tale of obsession.  McPherson's inner conflict is that, the more he investigates the life of a beautiful career woman who was reported murdered in Manhattan, the more he seems to be falling in love with her.  He shows his vulnerability as he struggles with the irrationality of his feelings.  He feels like he's losing his self-control.  Is the detective becoming as obsessed with Laura as the killer was?
Andrews show us McPherson at odds with a truth about himself and McPherson in control.  Barry Fitzgerald was a double Oscar nominee for the same 1944 film performance.  He was nominated as Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor (winning over Clifton Webb) for playing the older curmudgeon Irish priest in Going My Way.  Academy nomination rules were  changed after that.  I'd have given Fitzgerald one nomination and made Dana Andrews a contender in a category for Otto Preminger's Laura.
As returning World War II veteran Fred Derry, Dana Andrews delivered one of the several memorable performances in the Oscar winner for Best Picure of 1946, William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives.  Academy Awards also went to Wyler for Best Director, veteran actor Fredric March for Best Actor and real-life disabled WWII veteran, Harold Russell, for Best Supporting Actor.  Andrews is in peak form here.
Like Joe in Up in Arms, Fred values friendship and is faithful to that friend who may be the object of bullying.  Like Donald in The Ow-Box Incident and Det. McPherson in Laura, he has a high regard for truth and justice.  March won his second Best Actor Oscar thanks to this film.  In it, he again plays a man who undergoes a change of personality when he drinks too much of something.  We see this in 1931's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (his first Oscar), his Norman Maine in the original A Star Is Born, The Eagle and the Hawk and Merrily We Go to Hell.  Out of uniform and back in civilian life, relationships change.  We see conflict.  Al is blunt about the imperfections of others but blind to his obvious drinking problem.  America has changed now that the worst is over.  The war has ended.
Sergeant Al Stephenson returned to a nice home and a bank executive job.  Life is tougher for Fred.  He can't find work, his short and loveless marriage is on the brink of collapse and he's met someone very dear.  Her protective dad doesn't approve.  Her name is Peggy,  Sleeping off some homecoming drinks, he's invited to spend the night at the home of Al Stephenson (Fredric March).  Fred Derry has a nightmare.  He cries out during the nightmare.  He's flying a fighter mission.  He's watching friends die in combat.  This is our most graphic introduction into the horrors the three returning veterans faced and endured in war.  The person who hears the nightmare and tenderly awakens Fred from it is Al's compassionate daughter, Peggy (beautifully played by Teresa Wright).
In this moment, Peggy has gotten to know Fred Derry better than his own wife does.  She'll come to care for him more than his wife does.  It's a gripping and touching scene.  As March did in The Eagle and the Hawk, Andrews excels in a scene where the horrors of war give one a nightmare with his eyes wide open.  I can't take my eyes off this scene.  Then there's the bomber plane graveyard scene.  A signature of William Wyler films is a sequence that has little or no dialogue yet is one of the most important sections of the film.  It sets a tone and/or reveals an element of character.  Think of the opening of The Letter with Bette Davis as the privileged married Englishwoman pumping six bullets point blank into her lover, Davis' Olympus Ball dance in Jezebel, her stillness as the greedy Southern wife whose husband crawls upstairs as he suffers a heart attack in The Little Foxes, the chariot race in Ben-Hur and the open of Funny Girl as Fanny Brice walks from the street into a Broadway theatre and then faces herself in a backstage mirror.  This too is a key scene without dialogue.  Dana Andrews understands Derry's heavy emotional weight here.  He carries it expertly.  As a viewer, I understood his feelings in that field of used goods.  Man and out-of-service flying machines were one.
In the mid-90's, I lost my partner to AIDS.  Just like so many men in World War II, he died young.  About a year after his funeral, a friend remarked to me that I'd probably have a deep connection seeing the Tom Hanks movie, Philadelphia.  It's a good film but it doesn't crystalize my feelings that way Dana Andrews' performance in The Best of Our Lives does.  Not that I ever served our country in uniform the way Fred Derry did, mind you.  But I did feel like I was serving on one side of a cultural war in America at the height of the AIDS crisis.  In being caregiver to my partner and helping others also stricken, I felt like I was doing what was just and true.  It wasn't about sex.  I was caring for someone, keeping someone from being bullied, making sure he got fair treatment.  I was important to him.  I felt vital.  I had a mission.  After he died and, thanks to new medications, the AIDS crisis slowly disappeared from the headlines, I felt like Fred Derry did in that bomber graveyard.  I helped fight someone's battle but now I was alone and there didn't seem to be any use for me in the community anymore.  The worst was over and my services were no longer needed.  Folks had moved on to new business.  When the displaced veteran sits in the nose of one plane, you feel the horrors of battle filtering through his memory again.  That catches and breaks my heart.  Dana Andrews is brilliant in this classic film.
If the under-appreciated Dana Andrews had been an Oscar nominee for just one performance in his film career, it should have been for The Best Years of Our Lives.  He's as powerful, as memorable as Fredric March was.  To me, even more so.  It's my favorite Dana Andrews film performance.  With all the humiliation and heartbreak this war hero from the wrong side of the tracks experiences when he comes home, Fred never feels sorry for himself.  He never hates life.  He remains loyal and present to his friends.  When he stands up for  the disabled Homer at his wedding, we are not surprised.  That's what Fred would do.  He want some happiness for Fred.  When he, free of his floozie wife, turns and gazes at Peggy as the marriage vows are read, I get tears in my eyes.  We know Fred will survive another battle -- and he won't be alone when he does.
What a good actor Dana Andrews was.  So versatile in musical comedies, westerns, film noir, dramas, thrillers, love stories and sci-fi movies.  I've grown up with his work.  It has entertained me.  It has enlightened me.  It has touched my heart.  It has reflected my heart.  Hard to believe he was never nominated for an Academy Award. is sponsoring a Dana Andrews Blogathon ...
...and I'm honored to have been asked to contribute to it.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Revisiting "Shane"

This remote suburb in Northern California has a sweet yet frustrating sameness to its everyday life.  It seems to be the kind of place folks wanted to live in so they could have that sameness, that predictability that implies guaranteed peace and a trouble-free existence.  A warm, clear Saturday night found me watching a 1953 classic western on DVD while family members went to a drive-in movie to see a double feature of animated characters from Medieval days and comic book action heroes banded together to save New York City.  I watched Shane, a fine film directed by George Stevens.   I was awed by how powerful it was in the wake of America's movie theater tragedy.  You could take dialogue out of this western, say it in TV news soundbites relative to the Colorado crime, and the words would sound fresh.  Alan Ladd owned that lead role.  Perfectly cast.
Shane is a good man.  He's a mysterious, world-weary gunslinger who rides into the life of the Starrett Family.  Jean Arthur and Van Heflin star as Marian and Joe Starrett, a couple of homesteaders in Wyoming who married on the 4th of July.  Young Brandon De Wilde was Joey.  We'll see the story of Shane from little Joe's hero worshipping point of view.  His loving parents will celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary during the course of the story.  Shane's spirit is uneasy because a gun has given him a personal brand he'd rather not have.  He finds peace, for a time, living with and helping The Starretts.
Joey is fascinated with guns.  The movie opens with a beautful pristine, serene wide shot of America's natural splendor -- a vast wilderness, a mountain range, blue skies, crystal clear waters and a deer sipping some of that water.  Stevens then cuts to a little boy with a rifle.  There's Joey playing "make-believe" as he aims an unloaded gun at the deer.  He'll later mutter this complaint about his parents:  "I wish they'd give me some bullets for this gun."  The opening moment visually sums up a theme we'll get in Shane -- the rights of the innocent on the land of the free vs the power of guns when they fall into the wrong hands and how that power affects the rights of the innocent.  A strong vein of gun debate
 runs through Shane.  When Joey finally succeeds at coaxing Shane to show him how to shoot, we are just like Joey.  We aren't prepared for how rapid-fire, how quick a draw Shane is.  This gunslinger is legend.  And the gunshots are jarring.  This movie was re-released when I was in middle school.  I went to see it on a big screen for a Saturday matinee because my dad and a couple of other neighborhood dads raved about it.  I'd never heard movie gunfire that loud.  It was like stereophonic cannons going off near your theater seat.  In college, we studied Shane in one of my film journalism classes.  The professor told us George Stevens' purposely increased the gunfire sound effects to make it jarring.  He was making a point about gun violence.  He also made the point with dialogue when Shane's gunshot demonstration for Joey raises concern from Mrs. Starrett.  She knows how her little boy feels about Shane.  She's fond of Shane too.
Marian doesn't want guns becoming important in her son's life.

Shane:    "A gun is a tool, Marian.  No better or no worse than any other tool -- an ax, a shovel or anything.  A gun is as good or as bad as the man using it.  Remember that."

Marian:   "We'd all be much better off if there wasn't a single gun left in this valley.  Including yours."

Later, the violent Ryker crew drives more homesteaders off the land.  Think of the opening scene.  The settlers are like the deer sipping water, causing no harm.  The angry ranchers are the gun pointed at the deer.  Ryker feels he has the right to use guns to get what he wants claiming that he's entitled to the land.  Joe Starrett calls him on that claim saying " didn't find this country."  Mr. Starrett reminds him that Indians were on it long before he was.  Starrett adds, "You talk about rights.  You think you got the right to say that nobody else has got any.  Well, that ain't the way the government looks it at."

Doesn't that dialogue from a post-Civil War story sound like it came from today's national debate about guns and civil liberties?  A. B. Guthrie, Jr. wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay.

Ryker recruits Wilson, an evil gunslinger, to help him intimidate and remove the homesteaders.  This menace is played by Jack Palance when he was new to the movies and billed as Walter Jack Palance.
Palance and young Brandon De Wilde were both Oscar nominees for Best Supporting Actor thanks to George Stevens' Shane.  Palance, after years of excellent work, would win a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for 1991's comedy send-up of classic westerns, City Slickers.  As Wilson, even animals can sense what a dark force he is.  When Wilson walks into a room, dogs get up and leave.  They don't want to be near him.
Twisted Wilson brings terror into the town at angry Ryker's invitation.  Good people are emotionally beaten down.  Settlers are leaving because of the assaults and destruction.  Shane is forced to strap on his guns and do something to protect people dear to his lonely heart -- Joe, little Joey...and Marian.  He wants Joey to grow up to be safe and good.  This is a great Hollywood western, one with a social conscience, one that makes an impact today.  Shane is the middle story of Stevens' American trilogy.  In came in between 1951's A Place in the Sun with Elizabeth Taylor, Montgomery Clift and Shelley Winters and 1956's Giant with Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean.  All three films focused on the clash of classes and cultures in America and the obstacles in making the American dream come true.  All three films earned George Stevens Oscar nominations for Best Director.  All three films earned Oscar nominations for Best Picture.
I have seen Shane before.  On a big screen, on the small screen, in a college classroom.  Saturday night, it moved me yet again.  Last week at cineplexes, I saw two new releases that weren't even half as good as this old Hollywood film.  My brother and his family were at the drive-in movies last night while I watched Shane.  They told me today that there were police at the box office inspecting each vehicle of ticket buyers.  The kids told me that the cops were checking for weapons.  That never happened at the drive-in when I was a kid.

One day, I'd like for my nephews to see George Stevens' Shane.  I'd urge many adults to see it too.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

1970s Vampire Needs New Blood

Vampire popularity continues.  First, folks spent all that money reading about and then seeing those teen vampires in Twilight stories.  These vampires pout and sparkle and hang out in fake daylight.  There's also a teen werewolf in the mix.  He doesn't have one strand of hair on his chest.  Shirtless, his torso looks somewhat like a mall restaurant order of skinless chicken breast.  But he's a werewolf.  Go figure.
Then we have the HBO series I like -- True Blood.  These vampires fall in love with, socialize with and have sex with humans.  They drink a blood substitute.  And, yes, they still suck occasional strangers like they're human Slurpees.  These are not your grandparents vampires.  They are so beyond Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee and TV's Jonathan Frid.  (I auditioned for a bit part as a vampire in one episode of True Blood about three years ago.  I was anxious about my looks because I was heavier then.  My waistline was two inches thicker.  But the casting director wanted to see me anyway.  I wondered if maybe there'd be some Vampire Weight Watchers meeting in a storyline.  My character could ask if having Italians twice a week was within his points system.)
TV also has Vampire Diaries.  Entertainment news reported that Oscar winner Russell Crowe will play Count Dracula in a film called Harker to be directed by Eli Roth.  The fang fascination continues.

But with all that vampire popularity and the need for work for minority actors, it didn't occur to anyone in Hollywood to remake Blacula?  What're you...kiddin' me?  The late William Marshall rocked that rented After Six® evening wear as Prince Manuwalde, the African prince who rises from the dead to turn 1972 Southern California into his personal blood bank.  Voodoo stirs him from the grave.
William Marshall put the L.A. in Blacula.  He was a macho demon terrorizing Los Angeles in one of the most memorable flicks of the blaxploitation era.
And did you see the size of that brotha's fangs?  Huge.  Bigger than Caucasian Count Dracula's. know what they say.  "Once you go Blacula, you never go backula."  This low-budget horror picture was such a hit with audiences that there was a sequel.
Marshall put the tux on again for 1973's Scream, Blacula, Scream co-starring Pam Grier.  A new young actor named Craig T. Nelson had a bit part as "Sarge."  Craig was so new, he wasn't even using the "T" then.  I say it's time to dust off his coffin and bring Blacula up to date for 21st century movie goers.  Yes, Prince Manuwalde.  Rise once again and go do that voodoo that you do so well.  Bring Pam Grier and Craig T. Nelson in for cameo roles.  Usually, in horror movies, the black characters are the first to get knocked off.  Flip the script.  Open with Blacula draining privileged, selfish, discriminating or otherwise annoying white characters.  Let the black actors actually make it to the second or third act.  Have Samuel L. Jackson play a modern day Van Helsing.  He knows what I'm talkin' 'bout.  Sam didn't make it to the end of Jurassic Park or Deep Blue Sea.  So, what do you think? Does my idea suck -- in a good way?

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Meeting Celeste Holm

She won her Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for the 1947 movie Gentlemen's Agreement.  That film, which starred Gregory Peck as a newspaperman delving into the issue of anti-Semitism, was not the only 20th Century Fox to bring Celeste Holm a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination.  The other was the one that probably came to most fans' minds when we heard that she died recently at age 95.  That film is the sophisticated showbiz tale, All About Eve.  In the 1950 classic, she was sweet Karen Richards, the wife of a successful Broadway playwright and the tolerant best friend to 40-year-old Broadway diva, Margo Channing played by real-life Hollywood diva Bette Davis.
WPIX TV/Channel 11 invited me to leave the ABC TV affiliate in Milwaukee and start an on-camera career in Manhattan.  This was in 1985.  I did celebrity interviews on a weekday show called Best Talk in Town.  One of my first in-studio guests was Oscar-winner and Broadway veteran Celeste Holm.  Our show was pre-taped.  After we'd moved from the make-up room to the set, Ms. Holm sat across from me and we were chatting as the crew attached microphones to us, checked the audio and checked the lights.  The camera guy was in his 20s, maybe early 30s.  I noticed him smiling and mouthing "Wow" as he looked up at a monitor.  In his headset, he was talking to the director in the control room.  In my earpiece, the director said "You gotta look at her on the monitor.  The camera loves her."  He wasn't kidding.  Age didn't matter.  Celeste Holm had an inner beam, a certain light that romanced the camera. People on the set who weren't even alive when All About Eve won Oscars were captivated by her camera charisma.
There was a wit, intelligence and sparkle in her eyes that didn't diminish with age.
Our interview was lovely.  She was involved with a New York City charity event.  In the make-up room, that's where I discovered Celeste Holm could be crusty, candid and wickedly funny.  I dug it.  I brought up one of her first Fox films, a 1947 musical called Carnival in Costa Rica.  She hated that movie.  The cast didn't know where the movie was going story-wise.  It was a mess.  She said that co-star Cesar Romero confided to her during production, "How are they gonna cut this thing?"  Holm's answer was "Hopefully right up the middle."  Carnival in Costa Rica also co-starred Vera-Ellen and was directed by Gregory Ratoff.  Ratoff would work with Holm again.  He played Broadway producer Max Fabian in All About Eve.  Before that musical, Vera-Ellen and Celeste Holm were two of the Three Little Girls in Blue, another musical comedy with what became a standard Fox plot:  three lovable girls seeking romance and rich husbands.  This was the Holm girl's first film.  She'd scored on Broadway as the original Ado Annie in Rodgers & Hammerstein's acclaimed Oklahoma!, but her face wasn't on this movie's posters.
A song was written for this 1946 Fox musical.  It was introduced in a Vera-Ellen dance number.  "You Make Me Feel So Young" wouldn't really click with the public and become a hit until the following decade when it would be recorded by a Celeste Holm co-star:  Frank Sinatra.  Sinatra made "You Make Me Feel So Young" his own.  He and she had terrific chemistry in two of my favorite feel-good classic films -- the MGM releases The Tender Trap (1955) and Cole Porter's musical remake of The Philadelphia Story, 1956's High Society with Holm and Sinatra taking on the Ruth Hussey and Jimmy Stewart roles.
On All About Eve, she revealed that Bette Davis didn't like her and studio head Darryl F. Zanuck didn't like her.  She loved Joseph Mankiewicz's All About Eve screenplay -- except for one line she had to say in a voiceover.  Right before Lloyd and Karen get a late night distress call regarding the ambitious and duplicitous new actress, Eve Harrington, a worried Karen remarks "How could I compete?  Everything Lloyd loved about me, he'd gotten used to long ago."  Holm told me that she never believed that last line and felt that a husband who really loved his wife would not "get used" to her.  She also let her hair down and commented that she was better friends with one of her husbands after they divorced.  Friendship was tough when they were married during her Hollywood years and he was constantly trying "to screw some extra."  A movie that she absolutely, positively loved making was the 1973 musical Tom Sawyer.  Not a widely talked about Celeste Holm picture or movie musical but we saw that one during a Rivers Family night at the drive-in when I was a kid in Los Angeles.  We loved it.  Celeste Holm was Aunt Polly.  Little Jodie Foster played Becky Thatcher.  Holm said the whole experience of making Tom Sawyer was one of the happiest of her film career.

Celeste Holm was the first Oscar winner with whom I disagreed in person.  We started chatting about recent hit movies and actors.  I told her how much I loved Terms of Endearment and had paid to see it more than once.  She almost loved it, adding "I couldn't buy Debra Winger as the daughter."  "Why?!?," I asked.  She said, "With Shirley MacLaine as the mother?  The daughter looked too Jewish."
Movie nerd that I am, I didn't hold back on giving her my opinion on why Debra Winger worked.  You never see Aurora Greenway's late husband and Emma's father, but you hear his voice in the first five minutes of the movie as young Aurora (MacLaine) goes to check on her baby girl.  Read the end credits.  The voice of Rudyard Greenway is done by Albert Brooks -- comic actor star of Modern Romance...
...and Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominee for his performance as the skilled-but-not-handsome-enough TV journalist in Broadcast News, another James L. Brooks film that followed his Terms of Endearment.
I could totally buy that Albert Brooks and Shirley MacLaine could marry and make a baby that grew up to look like Debra Winger.  Soon it was time to go on camera.  In the make-up room, Celeste Holm was a bit of a tough-talkin' dame.  On the set in our interview, she was a duchess.  The last time I saw her, I was seated directly behind her for Chita Rivera's opening night on Broadway in her autobiographical musical showcase, A Dancer's Life.  This was late 2005.  Holm still had that inner light as she made her way into the row to take her seat.  The much-younger man holding her hand looked like he could've been a contender to play Bill Sampson opposite Bette Davis' Margo Channing in All About Eve.  During intermission, I learned that the handsome brawny man in a tuxedo with her was not a personal assistant or a bodyguard/escort.
Frank Basile was her new husband.  How'd they meet?  I'm not really sure.  But when I saw how affectionately he stroked the back of her neck during the second act, I was so jealous that I just wanted to get on a computer and write "Kiss my entire black ass,, and cancel my ad immediately."  I've been solo since 1995.  She and Frank married a year before that Broadway show opening.  To him, I send my condolences.  Celeste Holm -- what a luminous talent.  She was Broadway and Hollywood royalty.  She acted in two films that won the Best Picture Academy Award -- Gentlemen's Agreement and All About Eve.  She lent her talents to two others that were Best Picture Oscar nominees -- The Snake Pit and A Letter to Three Wives.  She was nominated for Best Supporting Actress three times.  Besides the two films highlighted in the first paragraph, she earned a nomination for the playing the French nun who chose religion over a top professional sports career in Come to the Stable.  All are worth watching.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Enjoy "Christmas in July"

Betty:  "Is it good luck or bad luck when a black cat crosses your path?"

Sam:    "That all depends on what happens afterwards."

Preston Sturges, on the brink of a bright winning streak of comedies that he wrote and directed through the 1940s, wrote and directed that dialogue in his simple and elegant 1940 comedy, Christmas in July.
This comedy is a classic I recommend watching now that we're still in the grips of a Recession with high unemployment rates.  Yes, it's an old movie but the heart of it still resonates.  Especially in these economic times.  It also has two excellent monologues -- one for an older actor and one for a young actress.  They might make great monologues for acting class and/or auditions.  Christmas in July is about a working class New Yorker, Jimmy MacDonald, who describes himself as "poor and unknown."  He's a good young man, a hardworking office clerk full of ideas and ambition.  Jimmy believes that you need money in order to be validated in the world and be a success.  He worries about getting married without money.  We discover this as soon as the story starts.  Jimmy and his fiancee are on the roof of his apartment building bantering about furniture.  Jimmy and Betty work for the same company.  Actors Dick Powell and Ellen Drew are perfectly cast.  They have chemistry and charisma together.  They complement each other and they do make a wonderful couple.  Drew, who should have but didn't become a big star at Paramount, glows in this role.  You know why Jimmy fell in love with Betty Casey.  She's got charm, depth and character.  We fall in love with her too.
Betty doesn't mind being poor.  She's got Jimmy and he's all the riches she needs.  But she understands his antsy ambition and self-doubt.  His sweet parents were always financially struggling.  He wants to ease the burden on his mother.  His father was "worn out at 48" and died because he couldn't afford a doctor.  Jimmy enters a new slogan contest for brand of coffee that gets lots of airtime on national radio.  The prize is $25,000.  At the office, Jimmy is so obsessed with winning the contest that he's not paying attention to his work.  He adds figures and he's been off lately.  The boss, Mr. Waterbury, calls him into his office and Jimmy admits why he's been pre-occupied.  Mr. Waterbury is a disciplined boss and also a loyal employer.  He tells his talented young employee, "I used to dream about $25,000 too."  He's giving Jimmy a life lesson based on experience.  Just because he never got $25,000 doesn't make him a flop.  "I'm not a failure, I'm a success," he states.  Mr. Waterbury adds, "...ambition is all right if it works.  But no system could be right where only half of 1% were successes and all the rest were failures.  That wouldn't be right."  He concludes by warmly telling his office clerk, "Now get the heck back to your desk and try to improve your arithmetic."  Keep in mind Preston Sturges wrote that dialogue over half a century before Occupy Wall Street.  This comes about 20 minutes into the picture right before the incident  that changes everything.  Three guys in the office, knowing that Jimmy entered the contest, send a fake telegram as a prank telling him that he won.
The prank gets out of control.  Jimmy falls for it.  Betty falls it.  The whole office falls for it.  Soon he's mistakenly given a check for $25,000 simply because he showed the gag telegram as proof to the frazzled head of the coffee company in need of a new slogan.
This comedy precedes Preston Sturges' classics Sullivan's Travels, The Lady Eve and The Palm Beach Story -- all comedies that take a look at how money or the lack of it changes the way people behave and the way people are treated.  Consider the touches of spirit and character Sturges shows in this compact comedy compared to recent huge-budgeted comedies from Adam Sandler.  Jimmy could afford (so he thinks) to buy Betty the engagement ring with an ice cube-sized diamond she sees in a store.  Betty choses something much simpler.  "I wouldn't want it to be showy," she says.  Then they buy presents for relatives and neighbors on their low-income block.  One of the first people Jimmy and Betty give a gift to is a little girl in a wheelchair.  And another thing -- when Jimmy gets the telegram, he doesn't quit his job.  He likes working for the company.  When he "wins," executives listen to his ideas and say they're good even if all his ideas aren't good.  Jimmy will be getting his own office with his name on the door.  These are exactly the benefits he believed money could bring.
Now he feels like he belongs in the world and has a place in it.  Of course, the truth will come out.  Life has pulled the rug right out from under Jimmy MacDonald.  He's no longer sure of himself.  But Betty is sure of him.  The boss doesn't think it's practical to give Jimmy the promotion and office now that he doesn't really have $25,000.  Betty declares, "It is practical, Mr. Baxter.  It's the most practical idea you ever had."  Here, Betty doesn't just speak up for the man she loves, the man she believes in, she speaks up for every young person with ideas and drive to have a shot at the American Dream.  She speaks up for the right to try and succeed, for the right to try and fail.  It's one thing to be older and know that you tried your best when you were young.  It's one thing to muff your chance when you've had it.  It's another thing never to have had the chance at all.  Betty speaks up for Jimmy's chance and ends with "His name's already on the door."
Ellen Drew delivers that one minute-long monologue beautifully.  All the love, belief and compassion Betty has gets crystalized in that plea for acceptance.  Her eyes shine with conviction and wisdom.  In Sturges' world, some of the most extraordinary people we could ever hope to meet are the ordinary people in everyday life.  People like Betty.  She's Jimmy's biggest Christmas gift in July.  That monologue in the final few minutes of the movie could work as a good classroom exercise or audition piece for 20something actresses.  The one minute-long monologue delivered by Mr. Waterbury early in the film is a perfect fit for men in their 40s or 50s.  As I've blogged before about Preston Sturges, one of the things I love most about his direction is that he gets out of the actors' way.  He's written good dialogue.  He tends to let the camera shot rest on the actors doing their work.  He does not use fancy angles or lots of cuts to add energy.  Good actors doing their work with good dialogue give the scenes the energy they need.  The shots don't feel static.  It's handsomely photographed.  Christmas in July has the black and white pearliness that seemed to be a hallmark of cinematography in Paramount Pictures of the 1930s and early 40s.  It looks smart, tailored.  What I respond to even more now in this comedy is its warmth and heart.  Preston Sturges cared about people.  That comes through in the comedies he wrote and directed.  His satires are not mean-spirited.
Christmas in July runs only about 1 hour and 5 minutes long.  Like the stone on Betty's engagement ring, it's a lovely little gem that's not showy.

Oscar Buzz for TILL

 I'm on Twitter and, in the last three weeks, there's been Oscar buzz from a few established movie critics. The buzz was that Cate B...