Friday, July 07, 2017

blasphemy & sacrilege!

Or, Rain already, rain on her parade! Do it!

Willam Wyler's "Funny Girl" (1968) is the final candidate for my disruptive Hall of the Overrated. Perhaps this is a premature end, considering the many other titles that I would have liked to tackle here. "Independence Day"! "Rain Man"! "The Silence of the Lambs"! The list goes on: Films that other moviegoers (and critics) have enjoyed and even obsessively loved.

"Funny Girl" is also the third title on the list that belongs to my favorite genre - the film musical, particularly the film musical that's an adaptation of a stage play. At the risk of seriously dating myself, I should note that I saw all three shows in their original Broadway productions - "West Side Story" as a kid and, later, "Cabaret" and Funny Girl" as a young adult.

But more about that later.*

During its lifespan, the movie musical was routinely overseen by people with music backgrounds but, every so often, Hollywood would assign one to director not connected with the genre but a solid craftsman nonethless: 
  • Howard Hawks - "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes"
  • Fred Zinnemann - "Oklahoma!"
  • Henry Koster - "Flower Drum Song"
  • Francis Ford Coppola - "Finian's Rainbow" (and, later, "One from the Heart")
  • Sir Carol Reed - "Oliver!"
  • Sidney Lumet - "The Wiz"
  • Milos Foreman - "Hair"
  • Sir Richard Attenborough - "A Chorus Line"
  • Martin Scorsese - "New York, New York"
  • Peter Bogdanovich - "At Long Last Love"
  • John Huston - "Annie"
  • Michael Ritchie - "The Fantasticks"
Some of these pairings worked (Hawks, Zinnemann), some didn't (Lumet, Attenborough). In the case of "Funny Girl," Columbia brought in the estimable William Wyler (he of "Ben-Hur" fame, as well as "The Best Years of Our Lives" and "The Children's Hour," among many other varied films) and teamed him with the star of the 1963 Broadway show, Barbra Streisand. And, apparently, there was a power struggle over exactly who was the film's auteur - its seasoned director or its driven leading lady.

Caught in the middle is the movie itself which is at once big and splashy and gaudy - and also lengthy and lethargic. At its best, it's highly disappointing. Not that the original show itself was that great, apart from Streisand's showstopper-after-showstopper performance. She was the only reason to see it. As for the material, it served simply as an opportunity for its composer, Jule Styne, to repeat the same formula (a vaudeville-based musical biography) that worked so successfully for him with "Gypsy" a few years earlier. But there's really no comparison at all.

"Funny Girl," which chronicles both the personal and professional life of Ziegfield star Fanny Brice, remains  merely a serviceable musical comedy that, both on stage and on film, has functioned strictly as an over-the-top showcase for its star. This was made apparent when the material was blown up to 70mm proportions for the film. Wyler's camera is ruthless.

Unless you are an avid Streisand fan or have a deep appreciation for the kind of broad performance she delivers, his movie is something of a trial to sit through. And little is more deadly than its first 15 minutes.

Streisand enters an empty theater in full Grande Dame mode, looking pained and full of regret and ready to share the struggles of her journey. Cue to flashback. Now looking younger (in an anacronistic way, circa 1968), she performs what's supposed to be a novelty number, "If a Girl Isn't Pretty," with character actresses Kay Medford (as her mother) and Mae Questel, but the way it's staged here, the song is downright funereal.

So who made the decision to open the film this way? Wyler? Streisand? Producer Ray Stark? Or Isobel Lennart, who wrote the scripts for both the play and the film? Or was it one of those decisions by committee?

Matters don't improve as Streisand is indulged by a beached Wyler - dancing a fractured version of "Swan Lake," trying to balance herself on roller skates, playing a pregnant bride and acting coy with Omar Sharif.

And then there's the faulty lip-syncing - which is actually kind of funny.

In spite of its bloat, "Funny Girl" plays like a watered-down version of Styne's previous hit. Picking Wyler to direct this material was probably a ploy to give the film something of a pedigree and I guess he delivered that. But for all its razz-a-ma-tazz, "Funny Girl" feels stillborn and that's probably because of Wyler. He was the wrong choice. In comparson, Mervyn LeRoy - who directed the 1962 Warner film version of "Gypsy" - had an active background in (and feel for) vaudeville and it shows. And it helps that he made such titles as "Gold Diggers of 1933," also for Warners.

* Note in Passing: "Gypsy" was another show that I saw as a kid, the original production with Merman. I often think about the musical shows I saw growing up. It was a natural part of my youth. So when did it become a gay thing to enjoy musicals? Exactly when did men begin to define their masculinity by the movies they watch?  I ask because my wife and I each had fathers who loved musicals, both on stage and on screen  No big deal.

Both took their families to tryouts of new musicals in Philadelphia and both loved "Oklahoma!," "South Pacific" and "The Music Man" on screen. A musical was just another type of movie to see.  This week, a Western. Next week, a musical. And the week after that, something with Clark Gable or Doris Day. It simply didn't matter. A movie was just a movie.

And some variety made movies even better. But not anymore. Men now think that their sperm count or testosterone level will shrink if they watch a musical. This phobia was driven home by Larry David who wrote an episode of "Seinfeld" - episode 17, season four, to be specific - titled "The Outing," in which George (Jason Alexander) purchases two tickets to a "Guys and Dolls" revival as a birthday present for Jerry (Seinfeld).

One for him, one for Jerry.

Uptight that anyone would think he is gay, Jerry screams in his unique Seinfeldian way, "Isn't that a lavish Broadway musical?"

To which George responds, "It's 'Guys and Dolls,' Jerry, not 'Guys and Guys'!"

"The Outing" first aired February 11, 1993 and matters haven't changed.

Sadly, it's gotten much worse.

*  *  *  *  *

~Barbra Streisand and Kay Medford in "Funny Girl"
~photography: Columbia Pictures / Rastar Productions 1968 ©

~Jason Alexander and Jerry Seinfeld in "The Outing"
~photography: Castle Rock Entertainment / NBC 1993 ©

Thursday, July 06, 2017

unapologetic blasphemy!

Or, the movie deeply in love with itself

The word iconic is thrown around rather loosely these days by the entertainment media. Last May, a host of one of the TV entertainment magazines - maybe "Entertainment Tonight," perhaps "The Insider" - was going on and on about a new short that's a sequel to an "iconic movie."

I never watch these shows but I sat down in anticipation. I had to know the name of the classic movie involved. Finally, the title was revealed.


"Love Actually" (2003) is one of the last films I reviewed professionally and I hold it solely responsible for my leaving a career that so many deluded movie buffs covet. I retired in 2004 while I was still healthy and relatively young. I remember sitting there thinking, "Life is way too short."

I couldn't take the relentless assembly-line release of films anymore, especially when so many were so bad but yet still managed to attract adoring audiences. Case in point: This posh British romcom - the romcom to end all romcoms - which I credit with my much-craved liberation.

"Love Actually" was the first film directed by Richard Curtis who, up to that point, was known largely for his scripts, most notably "Notting Hill" (1999) and "Bridget Jones's Diary" (2001). (Next up: his script for Disney's live-action remake of "The Little Mermaid.") Curtis has since helmed only two other titles - the not-bad "Pirate Radio" (2009) and "About Time" (2013), which is curious considering the on-going popularity of "Love Actually."

Headed by a huge (and hugely impressive) A-list cast, Curtis' film is about eight couples dealing with love and misunderstanding in London during Christmas. That's right, eight couples - that means 16 major characters, not one worthy of my time. And their problems really aren't problems.

Curtis' starry cast is ill-used, with many formerly companionable actors suddenly/surprisingly annoying. Emma Thompson's familiar precise enunciation takes on a superior edge here, while reliable Bill Nighy is unappealingly smug. Hugh Grant resorts to his trademark tics. He stutters and flails in a performance that seemingly threatened to bring his career to an end - until his winning return in "Florence Foster Jenkins."

And Laura Linney, the film's token American, is sadly wasted in a rather insulting role. There are many other talented actors involved, but I'll stop here. (Oh wait! I should also note an unctuous child actor under foot.)

The film is precious and so self-satisfied it seems to be constantly hugging itself. When my review drew hate mail, I asked around about its seductive powers and was told that it was a "gender thing" - that only women can truly appreciate it. But that explanation only further depressed me.

Thanks to the vagaries of studio release patterns, "Love Actually" opened the year that HBO's "Sex and the City" ended its run and it apparently benefited from the timing. It inherited Carrie Bradshaw's audience.

Sure, "Sex and the City" could also be annoying but its appeal was always apparent - and, unlike "Love Actually," I never had the urge to slap it.

*  *  *  *  *
~Liam Neeson and Thomas Brodie-Sangster in "Love Actually"
~photography: Peter Mountain/Universal Studios 2003 © 

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

still more blasphemy!

Or, Willkommen! Bienvenue! . . . Go Away!

The movie version of "Cabaret" (1972), as recklessly deconstructed by one Bob Fosse, is a film musical for people who don't like film musicals.

Traditionalist friends who are avid fans of the genre tend to frown upon it. That's because it really isn't a musical - not in the traditional sense. True, it has singing and it has Fosse's idiosyncratic choreography, but neither is strictly/seamlessly integrated into the narrative. Its numbers are "staged."

The songs that were sung off-stage in the play were either eliminated or reconfigured for Liza Minnelli to sing on stage at a tawdry little club.

What I'm saying is that "Cabaret" isn't a "book musical" wherein the numbers are required to carry forward the plot and advance character development - you know, where characters simply break out into song.

This is what your average moviegoers doesn't understand or like. While people have no problem suspending disbelief for the brainlessness of comic-book and superhero movies, the idea of one character singing to another is seen as ridiculous. But fantasy is fantasy. There's no difference.

Anyway, the original 1966 stage version of the John Kander-Fred Ebb material was very much a book musical. The songs were strewn throughout the plot and they were sung by various characters. A few were staged as cabaret numbers in the notorious Kit Kat Klub, but only a few.

For their film version, Fosse and company took songs out of the narrative and away from supporting characters and gave them to the supposedly second-rate singer Sally Bowles and the creepy Kit Kat host, known only as Emcee, making them all as grotesquely lurid as possible. It's all "divine decadence!," see? Which Sally is given to shrieking at repeated intervals.

Gone was the musical tradition of songs replacing dialogue to advance the film's plot. Fosse wasn't exactly breaking new ground here. Way back in 1957, director George Sidney and his scenarist Dorothy Kingsley turned the Rodgers and Hart musical,"Pal Joey," into "An Evening with Frank Sinatra."  Except for "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" (which Rita Hayworth lip-syncs to another woman's voice; Hayworth was always dubbed), the songs in "Joey" are performances, sung before an audience.

An iconic Broadway show, finally a film, was no longer a book musical.

Actually, George Cukor's "A Star Is Born" (1954) predates "Joey" by a few years, restricting all its songs to performances either in clubs or on studio soundstages - or, in one scene, in Judy Garland's living room where she "entertains" James Mason, reenacting a musical number she shot that day. "A Star Is Born" is often hailed as a great film musical but it really isn't.

It's a great drama which just happens to have songs.

Rob Marshall's 2002 film of "Chicago" is a shrewd redefining of the book musical.  Yes, characters sing on screen, but all the musical numbers are presented as daydreams, fantasy, a way to make all the singing and dancing palatable for dim audiences.  Again, it's a musical for people who don't like/understand musicals. It's a bastardization of the book musical.

Marshall notwithstanding, the auteur behind "Chicago" was ... Bob Fosse.  But he was dead by the time "Chicago" made it to the screen and, to Marshall's credit, he didn't bother to recreate Fosse's original choreography, sparing us those annoyingly affected dance mannerisms.

"Cabaret" was Fosse's second film as a director, following 1969's "Sweet Charity," which received less-than-charitable reviews. The experience must have convinced Fosse that instead of turning "Cabaret" into another elephantine roadshow musical, he would go the art-house route.

Hiring Liza Minnelli must have seemed like a brilliant strategy, given that she had one foot in Old Hollywood and the other ensconced in the then-Hollywood New Wave (having starred with some success in Alan J. Pakula's "The Sterile Cuckoo").

But she's simply too overpowering for the role of Sally, originally created in the play and film of "I Am a Camera" by Julie Harris and in the Broadway stage version of "Cabaret" by the Harris-like Jill Haworth.

Haworth, with her slight voice, was no great singer, but neither is Sally. Minnelli turned her into a Mermanesque belter, a showstopper. Huh?

There's a great moment in the 2007 documentary "Chris and Don: A Love Story" when the writer Christopher Isherwood attends an advance screening of "Cabaret" with his longtime companion, Don Bachardy.

Isherwood created Sally Bowles. He wrote the 1945 two-part book "The Berlin Stories" (known largely as just "Berlin Stories" for some reason) that was the genesis of "Cabaret." As Bachardy tells it, Isherwood squirmed during the screening, whispering over and over again, "She's ruining it!," every time Liza Minnelli did one of her trademark Liza bits.

Isherwood's book was adapted into "I Am a Camera" in 1951 by John Van Druten ("Bell, Book and Candle" and "Old Acquaintance"), starring Harris, who would also star in the 1955 film version, in turn adapted by John Collier. There's more. Joe Masteroff did the stage-musical adaptation and Jay Presson Allen ("Marnie") is credited with the script for the Fosse film.

Got that?

For me, a book musical is the only authentic musical, a genre that has been muddied for the past two decades or so.  "Flashdance," "Footloose" and "Dirty Dancing" have all been referred to as musicals.  They aren't.

They're dancicals. Characters don't sing in these movies - they just dance.

So, let's get something straight - a film musical isn't a musical unless its characters burst out into song, and not on a stage or some dream.

"Cabaret" isn't a musical.

*  *  *  *  *
~Joel Grey and Liza Minnelli in "Cabaret" 
~photography: Allied Artists 1972 ©

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

even more blasphemy!

Or, please don't play it again, Sam

As I said in my initial piece in this series, there are certain films that movie critics and film buffs are supposed to like. It's almost obligatory if you seriously want to belong to The Club. None more so than "Casablanca."

This 1942 Michael Curtiz film has become the litmus test to weed out those who really aren't dedicated movie aficionados at all. Anyone who doesn't like it (or "Citizen Kane," for that matter) becomes immediately suspect.

Well, I don't like it although, heaven knows, I've tried repeatedly to fall in line and experience the wonder of this political romance about love and conscience and the Nazis. I've gone into innumerable rep houses during my lifetime and forced myself to drink the filmic equivalent of kool aid, but to little avail. I suppose that I'm deficient because I just can't get into it.

There I said it: I. Just. Can't. Get. Into. It. It's that simple, although for the longest time, I couldn't understand why, given that it is adored by so many people and revered by professionals who probably know more than I do.

Consequently, this essay will be short and (relatively) sweet because I really can't think of much to say about Curtiz's much-loved "classic."

Each time I've experienced it, I'd sit there and then my mind would start to wander. Instead of "reading" the film, I'd find myself making mental notes about what I have to do afterwards - call my wife, pick up the dry cleaning, get the car washed. You know the drill.  Meanwhile, the film on-screen was being ignored. I'd wager that I've tried watching "Casablanca" more than a dozen times but I'm lucky if I make it to the movie's middle.

Bottom line: I just don't care.

Belatedly, I've reasoned that my reaction has something to do with a resistance to the film's star, Humphrey Bogart (he of the clenched teeth), and his rather stiff acting style, which isn't very companionable or natural.

Frankly, Bogart's iconic stature as an actor has always baffled me.

Again, I just don't get it - either him or his film. However, I'm sure there will be many more attempted viewings of "Casablanca" in my future.

And more mental lists.
*  *  *  *  *
~Humphrey Bogart in "Casablanca" 
~photography: Deutsche Kinemathek / Warner Bros. 1942 ©

Monday, July 03, 2017

more blasphemy!

Or, "Smoke on your pipe and put that in!"

Today's pick for my newly-founed Hall of the Overrated is, yes, the venereable "West Side Story" (1961) which, as Hollywood legend has put it, was initially directed by stage hand Jerome Robbins exclusively before studio favorite Robert Wise was brought in by the suits and took over.

If you bother to check out the TV listings in your local newspaper, you are probably aware that televised movies get star ratings that are immutable.  They never change - never - even though movies themselves change regularly in relation to our evolving perception of them.

Star ratings often caused trouble with readers when I was a working critic because, at times, I'd change the rating that I appointed to a film. Writing under the pressure of a deadline can make one hasty and, occasionally, a months or two after I reviewed a movie, I'd come to the realization that I had a different opinion of it and would adjust the rating accordingly.

All of this is in preamble to noting that "West Side Story" has been given four stars ever since it went to television. It's automatic. Well, it may have been a four-star movie in the '60s but not anymore. It would be helpful (but time-consuming) if newspapers actually considered giving aging films a second look. Me? I can't watch it anymore. Frankly, it makes me cringe.

Yes, I know, the Leonard Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim score is exquisite and the choreography by Robbins is electric and remains revolutionary.

But that's about it.

The film's problem? Simple. It's the awful script.

Critic Sam Adams put it best a few years ago in his critique of a DVD release of WSS for Philadelphia's long-gone City Paper: "The new disc includes a booklet featuring Ernest Lehman's script in its entirety, though it's a mixed blessing at best since the cornball book (by Arthur Laurents) of the original stage musical has always been West Side's Achilles heel. Being stuck with Laurents' dialogue probably cost Lehman the screenplay Oscar, the only one for which West Side was nominated and didn't win."

Yes, the dialogue.  The expression "daddy-o," invoked frequently in the film, was already dated even before the movie went into production.

I agree also with Sam's assessment of the unfair lambasting of the film's two romantic leads, particularly Richard Beymer as Tony. As concocted by Laurents, Tony is a patently unplayable character. None of the actors I've seen in the role has been very credible. Tony simply makes no sense - a supposed gang member who behaves like a refugee from a seminary.

And speaking of the dialogue, it doesn't help that Beymer is saddled with Laurents' most purple lines, which Lehman misguidedly preserved.

He's not alone. Poor Natalie Wood gets her share of bum dialogue, too. Thanks to the script, particularly the dialogue, the acting in WSS is painful; Wood and Russ Tamblyn are the film's only two convincing performers.

As for the songs, there have been decades of complaints about the fact that the singing voices of both Wood and Beymer were dubbed. True. But wait! Everyone's singing voice in the film is dubbed, thanks to associate producer Saul Chaplin. He was noted for wanting "perfect voices only" when it came to musicals. This gets weird in "West Side Story": Tamblyn's singing voice was dubbed by fellow cast member Tucker Smith - so that when Tamblyn sings and Smith sings, it sounds like the same voice.

Why?  Because it is the same voice.

Even Rita Moreno, a trained musical-comedy star, was dubbed in part (by Betty Wand). I'd like to know why exactly? But, unfortunately, Chaplin is no longer around to explain his hang-up. Perhaps Rita can enlighten.
Speaking of the music for WSS, when Stephen Sondheim appeared on "Inside the Actors Studio" on September 11th, 1994, host James Lipton brought up Sondheim's reservations about his lyrics for the show.

Lipton: "I've heard you disparage your lyrics for 'West Side Story,' but I would give a great deal to have written, 'Oh, moon, grow bright and makes this endless day endless night.'"

Sondheim: "It's fine until you remember that it's sung by an adolescent in a gang."


On the plus side, Boris Leven's production design is a masterwork, as are the credits by Saul Bass who also served as visual consultant. Thanks to their contributions, the film remains as arty today as it was back in 1961.

I fear that, these days, "West Side Story" is effective only in the artificial setting of a legitimate theater. It has to remain stagebound to work.

It can't withstand the close-up scrutiny of the merciless camera. 

Note in Passing: About dubbing, I have nothing against it, but personally, I get a kick when a genuine movie star, one not known as a vocalist, sings in a film. I can overlook the occasional bad note. I love movie musicals but I'm no purist. Yesterday, I referred to Audrey Hepburn's rendition of "Moon River" in "Breakfast at Tiffany's," which is so much better than the perfect but soulless voice (of Marni Nixon) that comes out of her mouth in "My Fair Lady." Hepburn, unlike a lot of stars, had a particularly distinctive speaking voice. You can't change it for a musical because you have a need for perfection. It can potentially distort an overall performance. Luckily, Audrey Hepburn was enough of a pro - a true world-class actress - to overcome the unwise decision to play around with her voice in "Lady."
*  *  *  *  *

~Rita Moreno and Natalie Wood in "West Side Story"
 ~photography: United Artists / Mirisch Corporation 1961 ©

Sunday, July 02, 2017


Or, daring to dislike a movie that everyone else loves...

In a piece that ran about a decade ago in The San Francisco Chronicle, the paper's spirited movie critic Mick LaSalle casually referenced the Deborah Kerr-Cary Grant tearjerker, "An Affair to Remember" (1957), confessing that he had never seen it. A seemingly innocent, honest admission, right?

Well, some Chronicle readers were outraged, the situation underlining one of the misconceptions that your average moviegoer has about film critics. In this case, it's the impression that one crucial requirement for the job of reviewing movies is that the critic has seen every film classic ever made.

Mick cleverly responded to his enraged readers with a 2008 column devoted to five other lauded films he had never seen, including (gasp!) the anointed "To Kill a Mockingbird" (1962) by Robert Mulligan. Of the five, he was truly enthusiastic about only one and was actually quite tough on "Mockingbird," as well as Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey"(1968), one of the more amusingly overrated titles in movie history.

Mick astutely (and tersely) nails both movies in his essay.

Which brings me to another curious belief embraced by moviegoers - namely, that a critic has an obligation to endorse a film deemed "a classic" by those critics who have preceded him/her. You know, gold-standard titles such as ... "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "2001: A Space Odyssey."

This particular notion provokes my inner contrarian, feuling an idea. The Passionate Moviegoer was conceived as something of a site of dissent - to negotiate on behalf of the overlooked, underrated and misunderstood. It's largely about films and movie people too often dismissed with facile, derisive amusement. You won't find the usual suspects here. There's been no fawning over "Citizen Kane," for example, and there never will be.

While this goal remains intact, I've been inspired to upend it by challenging movies considered sacrosanct - those select films deemed "classics" or described as "iconic."  In short, instead of defending underrated films, I'll scrutinize the overrated. And, yes, acceptable boundaries may be violated.

These are classic films/popular movies whose entitled status never fails to befuddle me - works I've seen more than once over the years, largely in an effort to comprehend the decades-long fuss that has surrounded them.

But where to start? There's Arthur Penn's "The Miracle Worker" (1962), a film that's so overacted and theatrical that it makes me nervous, and then there's Frank Capra's "irresistible" charmer, "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946), a movie that I find highly resistible. I know, I know. Blasphemy!

Many other titles also annoy me and, while no two are alike, they all have one basic feature in common: Their wide appeal simply evades me.

For the next week, I'll profile one title per day - and, given that my views will be contrary to popular opinions, feel free to disagree. Let's start.

And so, my inaugural pick is...

                                    Drum-role, please! 

                                                        ..."Breakfast at Tiffany's" (1961)!

Speaking of charm, it's the one word usually invoked to describe this Blake Edwards film which, for me, is actually rather charmless.

My hunch is that the charm attributed to the film has more to do with its beloved star, Audrey Hepburn, than with the material at hand.

But Hepburn is hardly charming as Truman Capote's heroine, Holly Golightly.  For me, it's the first time she wasn't charming in a film - perhaps because she was encouraged to be a little too charming (there's that blasted word again!). Full disclosure: Audrey Hepburn has long been a personal favorite. Nevertheless, she's miscast as a simple hillbilly-turned-outrageous New York party girl and she's not very believable as either.

And yet, somehow, this became Hepburn's Signature Role.

"Breakfast at Tiffany's." Hmmm. Exactly what is it?  I've spent years - no, decades - trying to figure this out. I mean, is it a comedy? Not really. It's certainly silly but I could never locate a genuinely witty moment in it. 

Or is it a drama? Well, at certain points, it tries to be but it's really not very dramatic either. I doubt if even Edwards himself could have satisfactorily explained what it's supposed to be. It lacks the organic qualities necessay for even a select subgenre such as a "dramedy."

The movie's big scene is a party sequence staged as forced fun (meaning it's no fun at all) and then there's the odd moment when Hepburn sings (rather nicely) "Moon River," a lovely song that has nothing to do with either the film or her character. Cast-wise, George Peppard makes an unusually unpleasant leading man, Patricia Neal is creepy (but not in an interesting way) and Mickey Rooney is grotesque as Hepburn's Asian neighbor, an insulting low point for the talented actor.

But, wait! I'd be remiss if I didn't acknowledge the film's pluses.

There are two of them.

The film's opening credits, accompanied initially by a moody instrumental version of "Moon River," are beautifully evocative: Hepburn on the vacant corner of Fifth Avenue and 57th Street at dawn, dressed in a simple black gown, with coffee and a Danish in hand, staring with quiet desire into the windows of Tiffany's.

And the film's final scene involving a rain-drenched Orange Tabby named Cat is a heart-tugger. However, while it's genuinely touching, the moment comes seemingly out of nowhere and has the quality of being tacked on. It doesn't feel organic, but then, again, nothing in this film feels very organic.

Perhaps that's a polite way of calling it a mess. That said, sincere apologies to both Audrey Hepburn and Orangey, who played Cat.
Much more interesting than the movie itself are tidbits about its production. For example, about that aformentioned black dress...

It was one of only four dresses Hubert de Givenchy created for Hepburn, who had nixed wearing anything by Edith Head, the legendary Paramount designer assigned to do the film's costumes. Hepburn brought in de Givenchy, who kept things simple with his handful of designs. Clever accessorizing is what gives the impression that Hepburn's wardrobe here is extravagant, a conceit compatible with the designing poseur she plays in the film.

Also, when Paramount Pictures purchased the screen rights to Truman Capote's novella, the studio's director of choice was then-newcomer John Frankenheimer, who would be making his big-screen directorial debut, after years of working in live TV. And he would be directing a script by playwright George Axelrod. Both Frankenheimer and Axelrod agreed with Capote about who should play Holly - namely Marilyn Monroe. And Axelrod already had a history with Monroe, having written the screenplays for her back-to-back films, "The Seven Year Itch" (1955) and "Bus Stop" (1956).

But Monroe was contracted to 20th Century-Fox, while Paramount wanted its own star contract player in the role - Audrey Hepburn.  When Hepburn was signed, Frankenheimer was out of the picture, replaced by Blake Edwards.  Rumor has it that Hepburn was aware of Frankenheimer's preference for Monroe and was worried she's be uncomfortable (and hindered) working with him, but it's also been written that she was skeptical about taking on so important a role with someone who had never directed a theatrical film.

Frankenheimer eventually made his directorial debut with the Burt Lancaster film, "The Young Savages," released the same year as "Breakfast at Tiffany's."  A year later, in 1962, he directed three huge hits - "All Fall Down," "Birdman of Alcatraz" (also with Lancaster) and "The Manchurian Candidate," on which he collaborated with Axelrod.

Frankenheimer would eventually return to Paramount to direct "Seven Days in May" (with Lancaster again)  in 1964 and "Seconds" in 1966. 

Note in Passing:  Back to Leo McCarey's "An Affair to Remember" and those outraged moviegoers. From where I sit, it's hardly a classic. A "guilty pleasure" would be a more accurate (and generous) description.
*  *  *  *  *

~from top: Orangey as Cat in "Breakfast at Tiffany's" 
 ~photography: Paramount Pictures 1961 ©

An opening credit for "Breakfast at Tiffany's"
~cinematography: Franz Planer

The party scene in "Breakfast at Tiffany's" and a still of Mickey Rooney in the film 
~photography: Paramount Pictures 1961 ©

Audrey Hepburn and Orangey 
~photography: Paramount Pictures 1961 © 

Another opening credit for "Breakfast at Tiffany's"
~cinematography: Franz Planer 

George Axelrod and Marilyn Monroe on the set of "Bus Stop"
~photography: Twentieth Century-Fox 1956 ©

~below: Hepburn, Orangey and George Peppard in the final scene
 ~photography: Paramount Pictures 1961 ©

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

cinema obscura: Petri's precient "Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion" (1970)

It's high time for a major revival of Elio Petri's compelling 1970 policier, "Investigation of a Citizen above Suspicion" ("Indagine su un cittadino al di sopra di ogni sospetto"), a film whose adline read, "When you're a big man in the big city, can you get away with murder?" In fact, it's long overdue.

Or perhaps a remake. There was a time, a few years ago, when Al Pacino was reportedly interested in doing an American version of Petri's precient film, taking on the role so memorably played by Gian Maria Volontè.

The great Volontè essays an indelible character - an arrogant homicide detective known only as Il Dottore (The Doctor) who, for a lark, murders his mistress, played by the splendid Florinda Bolkan. This chief of detectives is a bully whose only motive is to prove that he can do it and get away with it, even though he deliberately (and wittily) plants an array of clues that incriminates him, and only him, for the cold-hearted, senseless crime.

Il Dottore was something of a singular character back in 1970 but since then, bullies of his magnitude have become more prevalent in the new millenium, disturbingly ubiquitous, and society not only tolerates them but, for some bizarre reason, seems to celebrate and reward them - and in huge ways.

An apt mantra for 2017 would be "Getting Away With It."

That's the new status symbol among the rich and famous and, like Volontè's indelible Il Dottore, the rich and famous flaunt their disregard for the law and even common decency. They deliberately plant clues, a la Petri's film, that exist only to be blithely ignored by the rest of us.

Making us complicit in their obscene behavior.

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~top: Gian Maria Volontè as Il Dottore
~middle: Florinda Bolkan
~bottom: Volontè and Bolkan

~photography: Euro International Films and Columbia Pictures 1970 ©

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

that face

Back in the 1960s, about a decade before "Saturday Night Live," NBC had another skit-comedy series that was also political - namely, "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In." This is the show that has the dubious distinction of trivializing the presidency, courtesy of an appearance by Richard Nixon, no less, who was all too happy to exclaim, "Sock it to me! Sock it to me!"

And "Saturday Night Live" has gleefully followed in its footsteps.

"Laugh-In" had a terrific cast of newcomers on the edge of stardom - Goldie Hawn, Lily Tomlin, Henry Gibson, Eileen Brennan, Jo Anne Worley, Arte Johnson, Ruth Buzzi,Judy Carne,  Dave Madden, Chelsea Brown and Alan Sues, in addition to hosts Dick Martin and Dan Rowan - the New Martin & Lewis.

I bring up "Laugh-In" at this late juncture because it's been rattling in the mind ever since the new look-alike First Family took over the White House.  Specifically, I've been having memories of one of the show's recurring skits called The Farkle Family - about a clan whose kids all have the same damn face.

Frank and Fannie Farkle were the parents and their eight kids were ... Sparkle Farkle and her black twin Charcoal, another set of twins named Simon & Gar Farkle, Mark Farkle, Fritz Farkle, Flicker Farkle, and Fred Farkle. They all had red hair and the same freckled face, even Charcoal.

But unlike The First Kids, the Farkle kids didn't have their father's face.  No, they were dead-ringers for Ferd Berfel, the man who lived next door.

It's time NBC brought The Farkle Family out of the mothballs, perhaps making it a part of "Saturday Night Live." It's too relevant to ignore.
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~top: The First Family
~center: The Farkle Family

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

six degrees of roger smith

Among other things, Hollywood is a workplace crowded with curious connections, past and present, and Roger Smith - who sadly passed this week, at age 84 - experienced a few of his own throughout his career.

First, however, a little about Smith, an affable actor with collegiate good looks who was also a trained singer and dancer. But who would know that, considering how ill-used he was by the studios where he was a contract player?  Hollywood is also often at a loss about nurturing and showcasing certain talents, which is odd considering that "talent" is what drives it.

And exacerbating matters for Smith was a debilitating neuromuscular disease, myasthenia gravis, which prematurely ended his acting career.

He was in his mid-30s when his life changed.

Smith was always prepared for an acting career and made the decision to actively pursue it at the advice of James Cagney, whom he happened to meet while in Hawaii in 1955.  Smith was on a 30-month Naval tour of duty with the reserves there and Cagney was on location, filming "Mister Roberts." ("Mister Roberts" - Keep that title in mind. It's the first of a few connections to be covered here. There will be a Blue Book quiz following.)

Two years later, Smith went to Hollywood and appeared in several TV series before being signed by Columbia Pictures - where he appeared in such titles as "Operation Mad Ball" and "No Time to Be Young" and where he met his first wife, the Australian actress Victoria Shaw.

Unlike Smith, Shaw was groomed for stardom at Columbia.  In 1956, she was given the second female lead in George Sidney's "The Eddy Duchin Story," starring Tyrone Power and Kim Novak, playing Duchin's second wife, Chiquita. (George Sidney - keep that name in mind. A connection.)

The film is divided into two acts, with Novak dominating the first half (as Duchin's ill-fated first wife, the society queen Marjorie Oelrichs ) and Shaw the second half.  (Kim Novak - keep that name in mind, too.) Shaw impressed the critics and was named "Most Promising Actress of 1956" by the editors of Modern Screen.

Smith, meanwhile, ended his lackluster association with Columbia and was eventually put under contract by Warner Bros., which promptly cast him in the TV series "77 Sunset Strip."  There was a double-edge to this. "77 Sunset Strip" was hugely popular and ran for years, making Smith something of a celebrity, but then there was Jack Warner.

In his mind, Warner had only two sets of stars on his lot - movie stars and television stars. They never mixed and there was rarely a crossover. The movie stars at Warners made feature films exclusively; its TV stars made movies only occasionally and usually in small roles in quality films or lead roles in minor films. Smith's one major film role for Warners was 1958's "Auntie Mame," in which he played Mame's nephew Patrick as an adult.

Shaw, meanwhile, languished at Columbia, where she was oddly relegated to B-movies which were half-heartedly released. (Some were pretty good: Sam Fuller's "The Crimson Kimono.")  Finally, the studio announced that Shaw would be the title star of "The Notorious Landlady," a comedy slated for a big summer release in 1962, but by the time that film reached the screen in '62, the lead was ... Kim Novak, Shaw's "Eddy Duchin" co-star.

Roger and Victoria, who had three children together, divorced in 1965. Shaw, who would go on to marry and divorce actor Elliott Alexander, died in her native Sydney, New South Wales, Australia in 1988 of emphysema.

The year of his divorce from Shaw, Smith was cast by Warners in another TV series ... "Mister Roberts."  He played the title role created on stage and film by Henry Fonda.  Yeah, that was the movie James Cagney was making years earlier in Hawaii where he encouraged Smith to try acting.

Smith met and married his second wife, Ann-Margret, in 1967 and they were together exactly 50 years, until his death on June 4. When Smith developed myasthenia gravis and his career ended, he devoted his attention to his talented wife whose career he managed throughout their marriage, giving her the courage to expand her goals and challenge herself, guiding her into such films as "Carnal Knowledge" and "Tommy," both of which brought her Oscar nominations - as well as "Joseph Andrews," directed by Tony Richardson, "The Outside Man" with Jean-Louis Trintignant, Richard Attenborough's "Magic" opposite Anthony Hopkins and the TV version of "Dames at Sea."

Ann-Margret, of course, had two huge back-to-back hits at the start of her career - "Bye Bye Birdie" and "Viva Las Vegas." Both movies were directed by - ta-da! - George Sidney.

That's right - George Sidney, the director who showcased the first Mrs. Roger Smith in "The Eddy Duchin Story." Perfectly circuitous, right?

Note in Passing: One final connection... Roger Smith actually got to appear opposite James Cagney in two films, both for Universal-International: "Man of a Thousand Faces," the Lon Chaney biopic, and "Never Steal Anything Small," a musical with Shirley Jones.

Naturally, Smith was not called upon to either sing or dance in that.

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~top: Roger Smith with Joanna Barnes in a scene from "Auntie Mame"
~photography: Warner Bros. 1958 ©

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~middle: Smith and Victoria Shaw at the Coconut Grove in the 1950s

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~bottom: Smith and Ann-Margret in the 1970s

Friday, June 02, 2017

"it looks like a good day for a hangin', gil, and gettin' us some god-fearing prairie justice!"

Not surprisingly, William A. Wellman's brilliant 1943 film, "The Ox-Bow Incident," came to mind as seemingly everyone in the media - and anyone who has access to a computer - gleefully piled on the comedienne Kathy Griffin for her adolescent prank involving the severed head of Donald J. Trump. The media just stopped short of suggesting tar and feathers.

"The Ox-Bow Incident," based on a novel by Walter Van Tilburg Clark, is a tight, 75-minute attack on America's deeply-seated intolerance and its lynch-mob mentality, both of which are clearly alive and well in 2017.

Americans thrive on hero reduction and especially love to place blame.

In the past couple days, ugly words have been enthusiastically tossed about in response to Griffin's act:

 "Disgusting!"  "Stupid!" "Immature!"

But aren't these the same, exact words, used by the same, exact people, against Griffin's alleged victim for the past 100-plus days?
The worst offender has been CNN, whose suits seemingly tripped over their feet to announce that CNN was firing Griffin.  Huh?  Since when is Kathy Griffin an employee of CNN?  She appears on CNN only once a year - co-hosting a New Year's Eve bash with CNN's Anderson Cooper.  So she was fired seven months before her next single appearance on CNN?

How convenient for CNN, which has been the primary target of the current administration's war on the media.  I mean, CNN and the new, invented expression, "fake news," are now irrevocably linked, thanks to Donald J.

"Hey, guys, a good way to break this link is to throw Kathy Griffin under the bus. Let's fire her and impress the administration." To exacerbate matters, Griffin's good friend, Anderson Cooper, made a statement distancing himself from her.  You know, guilt by association.  Not good.  Media people know that it's smart to lick the hand that feeds them.

Much of the chaos of the past two days is emblematic of Donald J.'s reign, which is designed to incite people and then attack them for being incited.

Kathy Griffin is a stand-up comic, noted for doing and saying the inappropriate and going over the edge. But when she does or says something that's poorly-thought-out, it has no real consequences. Her target, on the other hand, is also noted for doing and saying the inappropriate and going over the edge - and the consequences of his actions, also poorly-thought-out, have the power to reverberate for decades.

OK, Griffin joked about a severed head (which, I think, will be a popular Halloween prop this year) and Donald J. joked about "grabbing pussy."  So which is worse?

The last time I checked, Kathy Griffin isn't our Commander in Chief.

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~top: Dana Andrews as Donald Martin, Paul Burns as Winder and Henry Fonda as Gil Carter in "The Ox-Bow Incident"
~photography: Warner Bros. 1943 ©

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~middle: Donald J. Trump

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~bottom: Kathy Griffin