Monday, July 28, 2014

perfect

Garner and his co-star Audrey Hepburn, decidedly not in character for their roles in William Wyler's "The Children's Hour"

James Garner is one of those effortless actors perennially taken for granted during the years, the decades, that he performed in film after film, genre after genre.  When he died on July 19, at age 86, one could sense the collective sigh, "Oh, yeah, he was great!," tinged with a little regret.

He wasn't appreciated enough as an actor and one could take from his easy-going manner that he really didn't care about that.  In his off-screen life, he had accomplished the things in life that really matter.  Jim - it seems right to call him that - was a former Marine who won two Purple Hearts during the Korean War and he was married to his wife Lois for 58 years.  Fifty-eight years. And without a single hint of scandal.

As a leading man, he had it all.  A model leading man: Tall, dark and handsome.  Based on looks alone, he should have been the kind of guy easy to dislike, if it weren't for his easy accessibility and, yes, likability.

Garner and his "Great Escape"co-star, Steve McQueen, were both popular TV actors who managed to break into movies at a time when TV actors had scant credibility/bankability.  Garner was a contract Warner Bros. TV player and his boss, Jack Warner, was known for drawing a clear line that divided his feature film players from the TV employees in his stable.

The latter rarely crossed over. But Warner put Garner in "Sayonara," "Darby's Rangers" and "Cash McCall" before lending him out to the Mirisch Bros. for his first serious role in William Wyler's "The Children's Hour" (1961).  In direct contrast, Garner followed that with a game, spirited turn in the wry Kim Novak comedy, "Boys' Night Out" (1962) for MGM.

Showing his antic side in Norman Jewison's delicious "The Thrill of It All"

Then came 1963, during which he starred in no fewer than four films - the aforementioned "The Great Escape," by John Sturges, Arthur Hiller's "The Wheeler Dealers" and two with Doris Day, Norman Jewison's "The Thrill of It All" and Michael Gordon's "Move Over, Darling."  A year later came the Paddy Chayefsky-scripted "The Americanization of Emily,"  also directed by Hiller. And Jim Garner was no longer just a "TV actor."

Scores of films of varying quality followed, both the known -"Grand Prix," "Victor/Victoria," "Marlow," "Support Your Local Sheriff" and "Skin Game" - and the unknown -"The Pink Jungle," "The Art of Love," A Man Could Get Killed" and "How Sweet It Is," with Debbie Reynolds. (That's Jim with Debbie in the photo below.)
Four of of his more interesting efforts were George Seaton's tricky "36 Hours" (1965), based on a Roald Dahl story and co-staarring Eva Marie Saint and Rod Taylor; Delbert Mann's "Mister Buddwing" (1966) with a script by Dale Wasserman (author of the play "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest") and which Mann shot as a New York indie (despite the MGM imprimatur); his Oscar-nominated role in Martin Ritt's "Murphy's Romance" (1989) and Robert Benton's nifty murder-mix-up, "Twilight" (1980, co-starring Paul Newman, Gene Hackman and Susan Sarandon.

I also have a very soft spot for "They Only Kill Their Masters" (1972), a playful whodunit romp directed by the ever-underrated James Goldstone and co-starring Katharine Ross and, in her last major role, June Allyson.

Turner Classic Movies is devoting its entire schedule today to Jim, starting ... now.
 Garner and Rod Taylor doing very well by author Roald Dahl in "36 Hours"

Saturday, July 26, 2014

ron & jason

Some trivia...

Both Jason Robards and Ron Howard made their film debuts in the 1959 Anatole Litvak drama, "The Journey," about a group of travelers from the West stranded at a Budapest airport, detained by an intimidating Major Surov (Yul Brynner, of course) and his seriously armed men.

Robards, then billed as Jason Robards, Jr., played the love interest of the film's female lead, Deborah Kerr, and Howard, age five and then billed as Ronny Howard, was one of the sons of Anne Jackson and E.G. Marshall.

Some 20 years later, after spending those years acting on television and in movies, Howard would become a filmmaker - and he would ultimately direct his former co-star Robards in not one, but two films, "Parenthood" (1989) and "The Paper" (1994). Robards would be the only actor from Howard's past who would appear in any Ron Howard movie.

Andy Griffin?  No, he was never directed by Howard, despite their long-standing professional relationship.  Robert Preston and Shirley Jones, who appeared with Howard in Morton DaCosta's "The Music Man" in 1962?  Nope.  (It's something that Jones complains about - jokingly - in her cabaret act.)  Henry Fonda, the star of "The Smith Family," a short-lived TV series that he did with Howard in the 1970s?  Absolutely not. No, only Jason Robards.

The connection has never been acknowledged or addressed by the media, arousing my curiosity.  What was it like for Robards to be directed by someone he first met when that person was a just five-year-old?  I had a chance to broach the subject with Robards shortly after "The Paper" was made.  He answered with only one word: "Surreal."

I never had a chance to interview Howard during my career but I've often wondered why Robards was the only person from his professional past who he'd direct.  Was there a special connection?  Was it the experience of making "The Journey" so many decades before? I'd really like to know.

"The Journey" airs on Turner Classic Movies at 10 a.m. on Sunday (July 27).

Friday, July 25, 2014

the film musical: the song score

The singular director Hal Ashby with his two stars

In its continuing efforts to redefine - and endear - itself to a disturbingly disloyal public, the film musical remains ever resourceful.  In one of its incarnations, it resorted to the "song score" as a way to introduce songs to a narrative.  You know the drill:  Instead of a film's characters themselves singing on screen, the songs are rendered by off-screen surrogates.

The result is essentially the same:  We - the audience - learn what the characters feel, and are thinking, through song.

This was a popular particularly ploy in the 1970-80s and is perhaps the template for this form is Hal Ashby's unique "Harold and Maude" (1971) which had iconic Cat Stevens songs laced so enticingly throughout.

The songs of the Bee Gees drive the lovely plot of Waris Hussein's "Melody" (1971), which reunited Mark Lester and Jack Wild, the young stars of "Oliver!" (1968), in the Alan Parker-scripted tale of two best friends and the fetching girl (Tracy Hyde) who comes between them.

And Paul Simon's wonderful songs underlined the pseudo-autobiographical script he wrote for Robert M. Young's "One-Trick Pony" (1980).

There are more, I'm sure, these predecessors of the "jukebox musical," but the titles evade me.  Can you suggest one? Or perhaps two?

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

the film musical: just for the fun of it


Last October, my wife and I trekked to the Papermill Playhouse in cozy Millburn, New Jersey to see the stage musical version of  Andrew Bergman's 1992 film comedy, "Honeymoon in Vegas," entirely motivated by Ben Brantley’s enthusiastic review in The New York Times.

I could barely remember the film (except for the bit with The Flying Elvises), but the production promised songs by the estimable Jason Robert Brown, who wrote the scores for the much-admired cult musical, "Parade," and the then-imminent "The Bridges of Madison County."

Anyway, the encounter was sheer bliss - and a reminder of exactly what's been missing from musicals both on-screen and on stage.  It came to me that the light, fluffy musical - the musical comedy - was long gone, replaced by sober, serious fare in which characters suffer to songs that can't hummed. I'm thinking specifically of "Dreamgirls" and "Les Misérables," shows that decidedly do not invite toe-tapping.

With a cast headed by Tony Danza (in the James Caan role) and terrific newcomers Rob McClure and Brynn O’Malley (standing in for Nicolas Cage and Sarah Jessica Parker), "Honeymoon in Vegas" was a throwback to joys of "Bye Bye Birdie" (the stage production, not the infantilized 1963 film) and "Bells Are Ringing" (both the play and film), musicals that made you feel good.  We've had only two film musicals of that sort in recent years - Adam Shankman's "Hairspray" and Phyllida Lloyd's "Mamma Mia!"

Typically, the critics complained.  The miserables, indeed.

Note in Passing:  There's been no word about the retro "Honeymoon in Vegas" opening on Broadway so far, but with Ben Brantley behind it, I'd say that it's future is fairly certain.  I can't wait to see it again.

Monday, July 21, 2014

the film musical: reconstructed steps

 The "A Secretary Is Not a Toy" number from "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" - Dale Moreda recreated Bob Fosse's trademark moves for the film.

One of the more annoying curiosities of the modern film musical is that, save for Rob Marshall's "Chicago" (2002) and Adam Shankman's "Hairspray" (2007), dance has been all but removed from the genre. But then both Marshall and Shankman are former choreographers.

There are "dancicals," of course, a separate film form wherein characters sway, spin and skip to music but don't sing. They only dance.

Actual movie musicals, however, now routinely eliminate the moves. If you listen to the soundtrack of Alan Parker's film of "Evita" (1996), your imagination runs wild with visions of dust-raising choreography.  But watch the film and the only dancing on screen is a brief waltz shared by stars Madonna and Antonio Banderas.  And that's about all that Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter do in Tim Burton's "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" (2007).  (Burton not only dropped all the dances, but for some bizarre reason, also eliminated the musical's chorus as well.)

There's precious little dancing in Phyllida Lloyd's toe-tapping "Mamma Mia! (2008) and none whatsoever in Tom Hooper's funereal "Les Misérables" (2012), even though a choreographer is listed in its credits.

Gone are the days when a film musical's choreographer was as important as its, with Agnes DeMille given carte blanche by Fred Zinnemann for his version of "Oklahoma!" (1955) and Jerome Robbins translating his stage dances to film for "West Side Story" (1961).

And then there are those films whose choreographers meticulously recreated dances from the stage originals - Rod Alexander who restaged Agnes DeMille's moves for Henry King's "Carousel" (1956); Robert Tucker who traced over Jerome Robbins' choreography for Mervyn LeRoy's "Gypsy" (1962), and Dale Moreda who recreated Bob Fosse's trademark moves for David Swift's "How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying."  (Hugh Lambert also contributed choreography to the stage "How to Succeed," but his contribution was not used in the film version.)

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

the film musical: getting "serious"

John Huston with his younger cast members, including title star Aileen Quinn (center), on the set of "Annie"

As the popularity of the film musical continued to wind down, the studios picked up on an added trend: Not only was the public ostracizing musicals, but critics as well - professionals who, one would assume, have adventurous, open-minded tastes and should know better.

But as they say, never assume.

It became apparent that whenever a new movie musical opened, it would be compared - unfairly - to "Singin' in the Rain," a film which, for some bizarre, irrational reason, became the template to which all subsequent movie musicals would be compared. Yeesh!

So how do the few remaining denizens in Hollywood who actually like musicals combat critics who, sight unseen, declare every new movie musical "an unmitigated, unwatchable disaster!"?

Well, you bring in the Top Guns.  Which is exactly what the studios did.  You hire respected filmmakers, honchos, who critics would never question.

Serious filmmakers.

And so it begun, in the late 1970s and early '80s...
  • John Huston signed on to direct a really terrific film version of "Annie."
  • Sidney Lumet did his part on behalf of "The Wiz."
  • Milos Foreman - Milos Foreman! - brought his considerable skills to what is arguably the definitive version of "Hair."
  • Sir Richard Attenborough - the operative word here being "Sir" - was given the delicate task of bringing that Broadway darling, "A Chorus Line," to the big screen.
  • Francis Ford Coppola, who in his youth did "Finian's Rainbow," pursued the provocative "One from the Heart."
  • Martin Scorsese, a veritable savior among critics, dared to try his hand at an original movie musical, "New York, New York." 
  • Peter Bogdanovich developed his "new Cole Porter Musical," "At Long Last Love."
  • Hal Prince, who delighted critics with his off-beat debut movie, "Something for Everyone," decided to follow it up with a little Sondheim piece that he directed on stage - "A Little Night Music."
In the past, the critics loved these guys, but guess what.  Right!  They were all accused of making musicals that weren't ... "Singin' in the Rain."

The ploy didn't work.  In fact, it backfired.  If critics weren't going to accept a musical directed by the venerable John Huston (abetted by the very qualified Joe Layton), exactly what would they accept?

Friday, July 11, 2014

the film musical: palatable

While the film musical has generally been dismissed, disparaged and ridiculed - largely by those who don't understand it or would even bother to sit through one - there are those precious few that have enjoyed wide popularity.   These tend to be musicals in which music itself is inherent to the narrative, in which singing, dancing and performing drive the plot.

These musicals are naturally ... musical.

The most obvious case-in-point is Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly's "Singin' in the Rain" (1952), which ostensibly chronicles the transition of silent moviemaking to sound films but actually revolves around the making of a film musical.  George Cukor's remake of "A Star Is Born" (1954), although not a book musical, also chronicles the production of soundstage musicals.

Other musical/musical films that the public have accepted include Morton DaCosta's "The Music Man" (1962), about a con man selling small-town denizens on a boys' band; Mervyn LeRoy's "Gypsy," (1962), about vaudeville and the early days of burlesque; Robert Wise's "The Sound of Music" (1965) about the von Trapp family singers, and George Sidney's "Bye Bye Birdie" (1963), about a rock star's induction into the military.

The respective subjects of each of these films make all the singing and dancing palatable, even to people who say they don't like movie musicals.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

the film musical: too gay?

It's "Guys and Dolls," Jerry, not "Guys and Guys"

Exactly when did men begin to define their masculinity by the movies they watch?

I ask because my wife and I both had fathers who loved musicals, either on stage or on film.  No big deal.  Both took their families to tryouts of new musicals in Philadelphia and 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, a comedy with Clark Gable and Doris Day.  It simply didn't matter.  A movie was just a movie - and some variety made movies even better.

The decline of the movie musical can be directly blamed on men who refuse to see one with their wives or girlfriends, who worry that "the guys" might find out and who think their sperm count or testosterone level will shrink if they watch Meryl Streep and company cavort in "Mamma Mia!"

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 Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfuss) and her friend Sharon (guest star Paula Marshall) overhear a curious conversation between Jerry and George (Jason Alexander), who are sitting in an adjoining booth in Monk's.  They sound like a gay couple and Elaine decides to milk that impression for all its worth, even though Sharon is interested in Jerry and vice versa.

Matters come to a head when George purchases two tickets to a "Guys and Dolls" revival for Jerry for his birthday. One for him, one for Jerry.

Already uptight that Sharon thinks he's 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'!"

That episode first aired February 11, 1993 and matters haven't changed.

Friday, July 04, 2014

the film musical: by the book

Sinatra, on stage, in "Pal Joey" 

More on film musicals! The previous essay - "preferable in black-&-white? - generated a response from wwolfe who brought up the idea of "the book musical."  That's a musical in which songs are carefully woven directly into the narrative, replacing dialogue to advance the film's plot.

Zita-Jones and Zellweger, fantasizing, in "Chicago"

For me, a book musical is the only authentic musical.  "Flashdance," "Footloose" and "Dirty Dancing" have all been referred to as musicals.  They aren't.  They're dancicals.  Rob Marshall's 2002 film of "Chicago" is a shrewd redefining of the book musical.  Yes, characters sing on screen, but all the musicals numbers are presented as daydreams, fantasy, a way to make all the singing and dancing palatable.  It's a musical made for people who don't like musicals - a bastardization of the book musical.

Liza, on stage, in "Cabaret"

On stage, "Cabaret" was a book musical.  But when Bob Fosse filmed it in 1972, all the songs were restricted to the stage of the Kit Kat Club.  They were performances.  The songs sung off-stage in the play were either eliminated or reconfigured for Liza Minnelli to sing at the club.

Fosse wasn't breaking any new ground.  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 Rita Hayworth's "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" number (which she lip-syncs in a shower), all the songs in "Joey" are performances, sung before an audience. Plus there's one dream sequence.  An iconic Broadway show, finally a film, was no longer a book musical.

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.

Got that?

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

the film musical: preferable in black-&-white?


The movie musical is, innately, the most artificial of film genres. 

Characters suddenly bursting into song!   Or dancing unabashedly in parks and on sidewalks!  Really?  Nobody does that in real life.

The form, arguably, had its widest acceptance when filmmaking itself was somewhat artificial.  During the Depression and the years immediately following, the films of Shirley Temple and the RKO musicals of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were shot in black-&-white, a format which, by its very nature, divorced the story being told on screen from any hint of reality.

We had black-and-white figures set against black-&-white landscapes and living in homes with black-&-white décor.  Not at all like real life. 

The black-&-white cinematography made it easier to suspend disbelief and, by extension, to accept all the carefree singing and dancing.

This was "make believe" in the truest sense.

But as movies matured and became technologically advanced, the artificial was replaced by something closer to reality.  With the advent of color, the characters on screen were no longer stick figures but real people and everything that surrounded them was less primitive and simplistic. Or seemed so. Audiences began to bring a different perspective to movies. 

What was clearly a fantasy now seemed real.  

Initially, the movie musical was the chief beneficiary of all these advances.  Color cinematography, the widescreen format and stereophonic sound all seemed to be invented with musicals in mind and, in the 1950s, these adornments were exploited to the hilt by the studios, particularly MGM.  But as film progressed and became more aggressively realistic, some moviegoers were starting to notice the ridiculousness of film musicals.  Street toughs doing pirouettes on dirty New York streets!  A young nun twirling and trilling high up on the Swiss Alps! Really?

Again, nobody does that in real life.

Of course, this stuff works well on stage precisely because of the stage setting which keeps us always aware of the artifice - of the play-acting.

Die-hard musical fans (count me in) may have orgasms over such moments, and some movie critics and Academy members, too.  But you can sense the average moviegoer becoming clenched and pulling away. While the films of “West Side Story” and “The Sound of Music” were both hits, they marked the beginning of the end of the movie musical. 

Tellingly, their success didn’t generate more movie musicals, but fewer.