Monday, September 30, 2013


In an earlier post this month, I wrote that I'd have more comments on this year's The Great Gatsby.  Baz Luhrmann directed and co-wrote the remake.  Leonardo DiCaprio starred as Jay Gatsby.  I felt the movie was good, not great.  More style than substance because of the direction and writing.  I saw it twice.  I saw it twice in flight over the summer as I crossed the country for auditions and a few days of freelance work.  The main reason I watched it a second time is because I was totally hooked by the powerful performance Joel Edgerton gave as Tom Buchanan. As I wrote in the previous post, Edgerton should be considered for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination.

It was a stand-out performance and a smart interpretation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's privileged, racist brute.  He's the wealthy, athletic man married to the woman that Jay Gatsby has loved for years -- Daisy Buchanan.  He's married to Daisy but having an affair with Myrtle.  She's married too.  Her husband is a garage mechanic who seems pretty exhausted and beaten down by life.  Myrtle's engine is humming.  She wants more from life.  In this remake, Myrtle is played by Isla Fisher.  Luhrmann had a good cast assembled.  But he gets in the way.

I came from a world of presenting music videos.  I worked on VH1 for three years as a veejay and a talk show host.  I spent hours introducing new and vintage music videos.  Luhrmann cuts his major motion pictures like they're 4-minute music videos, riddled with multiple quick edits and product placement.  Baz Luhrmann has become the Cecil B. De Mille of opulent party scenes.  He stuffs his movies with eye candy that takes the attention away from the actors and the story.  He makes things too lush and obvious.  The constant quick cutting in his The Great Gatsby got on my nerves.  Sitting through it was like being at home with kids on Easter Sunday afternoon after they've eaten way too much candy.  Everything and everyone looks very, very pretty but you just wish they would all stop jumping around and be still for a couple of minutes because they're all jacked up from a sugar buzz.  Can't he take a lesson from George Cukor, Billy Wilder, Vincente Minnelli and Fred Zinnemann?  Give the actors good text and let their talent with the dialogue drive the scene.  Let the camera rest on them. No need to cut every 3 to 5 seconds.

The way Luhrmann had Myrtle costumed was way too obvious.  Good for a Madonna video.  Bad for the movie.  Here's what Mrs. George Wilson wears as she walks through her husband's garage to greet rich Tom Buchanan.

I guess the intent was to make her look like a box of Christmas chocolates marked down to half price after New Year's Day in a neighborhood drugstore.  What husband with a fully functioning brain would not suspect something was up?  That dress has everything but little hearts and arrows pointed to her vagina with the word "Whoopee!" printed over it.

There was a 1920s adaptation of The Great Gatsby starring Warner Baxter as the mysterious millionaire but only a few minutes of that silent film exists today.  The first sound version was a Paramount Pictures release in 1949.  Not an excellent film but it's got something going for it.  I saw it a couple of years ago and really dug Alan Ladd in the title role.  Ladd was a major star at Paramount in the 1940s and early '50s.  He's referenced to William Holden as broke screenwriter Joe Gillis during a Paramount studio pitch meeting in the first 20 minutes of Billy Wilder's Sunset Blvd.  Ladd excelled in film noir tough guy roles.  Tough guys who wanted to be loved.  The Great Gatsby was tailored to fit his popular screen persona and it was a fine fit.  What Alan Ladd had that Robert Redford lacked in the 1974 remake co-starring Mia Farrow was a believable gangster vibe plus a look of romance and fatalism in his eyes.  DiCaprio worked hard but even he didn't have that little extra edge Alan Ladd possessed as Gatsby.

In Ladd, you believed that this guy romantically longed for Daisy Buchanan and that his pursuit of The American Dream involved some hardcore criminal activity in his past.

I also liked young Shelley Winters and Howard Da Silva as Myrtle and George Wilson.  This was when Shelley was still in her blonde babe days -- before she showed Hollywood her solid dramatic acting chops as the dumpy and doomed nag, Alice, in George Stevens' A Place in the Sun.  Life in the fast lane is not good for Myrtle in The Great Gatsby.
Shelley didn't need to dress up like "The Lady in Red." Her costume by Edith Head was perfect.  Just that vulgar fur wrap accessory was enough for Shelley Winters to convey what you needed to know about Myrtle.  That's what I mean about Luhrmann's work being too obvious.  Howard Da Silva played Myrtle's husband in the 1949 remake.
Jason Clarke was cast as George Wilson for the 2013 remake.

Good actor.  But, visually, as brawny and nearly as handsome as Joel Edgerton playing Tom.  I would've said to Isla Fisher's Myrtle "Girl, your husband ain't bad.  He just needs a shower and some lovin'.  Why don't you just get some beer and a pizza and stay home?"
With the extreme influence music videos, fashion and other points of pop culture have on Luhrmann's directorial style, there's a quick shot in which he has poor, clueless George holding tires.  The shot resembles this sexy Herb Ritts photo.
Yeah.  I've had purchased some beer, some pizza and stayed home.  If I was Myrtle 2013.  If I was the director/screenwriter, I would cast someone like John C. Reilly as George.  I've have dropped a visual reference to that Herb Ritts photo for George.

In the 1926 film, George was played by William Powell who'd become a 1930s star in My Man Godfrey, The Great Ziegfeld and The Thin Man.

Who would I have cast as Jay Gatsby?  Aaron Eckhart.  He could bring the same qualities and have the same edge that movie star Alan Ladd did.  Also, he's a mighty fine actor.

I believe Baz Luhrmann wanted to make The Great Gatsby appeal to young audiences, the MTV and American Idol generations.  That's his choice.  But it often felt too young -- like a college stage production of The Great Gatsby.  Tobey Maguire came off like Peter Parker of Spider-Man playing Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby.

He often was too boyishly wide-eyed listening to DiCaprio's Gatsby.

In the previous remake, I liked the gravity Sam Waterston brought to the role.  If you know him only from HBO's The Newsroom and repeats of Law & Order...yes.  Sam Waterston was once a young actor who accompanied Robert Redford as Gatsby.

As I wrote earlier, actors give good performances in Baz Luhrmann movies but they seem to be secondary.  It's all about him.  And his party scenes.  From his Romeo + Juliet (1996) to Moulin Rouge! (2001) to this year's The Great Gatsby, those scenes have gotten bigger and more extravagant.  Watching his version of F. Scott Fitzgerald, I had the feeling that background actors were going to shout "Ain't no party like a Gatsby party 'cause a Gatsby don't stop!"  With the trendy young attitude Luhrmann pumped into Fitzgerald's story, he should've listed the female lead as Day-Z Buchanan.

If Baz Luhrmann can't get any more work as a film director, he could make millions doing bar mitzvahs.  As for his film directing style, I wish he stop yelling for "More!" and try a "less is more" approach in some future work.  The actors can handle it.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

On Director Robert Benton

Happy Birthday, Robert Benton.  He has given us some sterling work on the big screen.  Mr. Benton has directed Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep and Sally Field in Oscar-winning performances.  Hoffman and Streep were Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress for Kramer vs Kramer which also took the Oscar for Best Picture of 1979.  Benton won for Best Director.  Sally Field won her now-famous "You like me" second Best Actress Oscar for Places in the Heart.  Not only a director, Benton won Oscars for his Kramer vs Kramer and Places in the Heart screenwriting.  He was nominated for his influential Bonnie and Clyde screenplay of 1967 and his often overlooked gem of a comedy/murder mystery screenplay, The Late Show.  That fun movie, starring Art Carney and Lily Tomlin, is one of the best films of 1977 with its jazzy pairing of two actors from different generations totally clicking as an unlikely couple solving a Hollywood murder.  He's a retired private eye.  She's a kooky struggling actress who hires him to find her cat.

Over the summer, I was in New York for a few days of auditions and job interviews.  I stayed with my friends, Adrienne and Tony.  They urged me to watch a Robert Benton movie with them.  I hadn't seen The Human Stain when it was released in 2003.  Benton directed Nicole Kidman....
....Anthony Hopkins, Wentworth Miller (formerly of TV's Prison Break), Kerry Washington (currently of TV's Scandal) and Anna Deavere Smith in some strong material based on a Philip Roth novel.

The movie is about race, class, sex -- and truth.  One movie critic wrote that "The Human Stain doesn't quite wash..."  Not every movie released can be perfect and please everybody.  For me, The Human Stain packed a punch.  I'm so glad and grateful that Adrienne and Tony introduced me to this film.  It's got some acting that grabbed my heart and some situations that I deeply felt in my soul.  If you haven't seen it and may be interested in renting it, I'll not give away major plot revelations.  I can tell you that it opens with Hopkins as a college professor unjustly accused of racism and none of his fellow academics comes to his defense.  He's accused of using a racially insensitive old slang term referring to two black students.  However, he doesn't the students are black.  He doesn't know what color they are because they have never shown up in his class.
The teacher's life changes.  He recruits a writer, played by Gary Sinise, to help him tell his story.  The teacher is in love with a younger, complicated woman.  She's divorced from a war veteran who seems to have stalker issues.  Versatile Ed Harris, whom Benton also directed through Places in the Heart, is in very fine form in The Human Stain.

                                                                                                                                                                  The teacher tells the writer about his youth and how race affected him as a young man.  Wentworth Miller plays Anthony Hopkins' character in his early years.

How does it feel to be black in America?  Do you automatically get better treatment because you're white in America?  Are you happy to be a black person when you're treated like a second class citizen?  Can we sit together comfortably at the same table?  One of the reasons I highly recommend you see this movie is for the solid, strong performance by one of the supporting players.  Robert Benton got one hell of a good performance out of Anna Deavere Smith.  She co-stars as the registered nurse and black working mother who declares, "You need to be proud of your race."  She's like a beacon that cuts through some cultural fog and, for this performance, Anna Deavere Smith should have been an Oscar contender for Best Supporting Actress.

I've seen her do a one-woman show on stage in New York City.  I've stood next to her on a crowded subway train in New York City.  I saw her two years ago on stage at San Francisco's Berkeley Rep in her one-woman show, Let Me Down Easy.

She was simply on fire in this film role.  She really brought it home for me because my mother was a registered nurse.  Mom dressed for work exactly the same way Smith's character did.  I knew that uniform.  I grew up with that character's attitude and I heard similar words because my black mother is just as proud of her race.  Again, I highly recommend you experience Anna Deavere Smith in The Human Stain.  She's illuminating.

The whole cast is good.  Kidman gives an intensely passionate performance as this tough and weary working class woman in love with and emotionally soothed by an older man.

For classic film fans, it is obvious that director Robert Benton and his cinematographer closely watched Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in Top Hat (1935).  Coleman (Anthony Hopkins) is another film character whose spirit was impressed with, lit up by the sight of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing.  He was a Fred Astaire fan -- like Ted Danson's character in Body Heat, Dustin Hoffman as Rain Man, Mia Farrow in The Purple Rose of Cairo and Michael Clarke Duncan in The Green Mile.

In a spontaneous burst of joy, the teacher coaxes the writer to dance -- to dance like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in the iconic "Cheek to Cheek" number in Top Hat.

The beauty of this sequence is that Benton copies angles from the actual dance number in Top Hat, a 1935 classic original Hollywood musical comedy.

It's a lovely and inspired visual reference in The Human Stain.

Today, I wish Oscar-winning director and screenwriter Robert Benton a most groovy 81st birthday.  If you haven't seen any of those movies of his that I mentioned, treat yourself.

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...