At the Movies

At the Movies: Florence Foster Jenkins

September 10th, 2016 15 Comments



Normally I see movies years after they’ve been released, but a concatenation of disasters and stresses in both households caused Dan Bronson (Confessions of a Hollywood Nobody) and his wife to suggest we all go out to dinner together and take in Meryl Streep’s latest movie. I am so glad we did. Run, do not walk, to see Florence Foster Jenkins. You’ll almost certainly have to run to catch it before it gets yanked out of theaters because it’s the kind of film that will be largely ignored by the movie-going public today, revered and acclaimed at the Academy Awards tomorrow, and appreciated by viewers for decades to come. It’s absolutely brilliant.

I had never heard of her, but Florence Foster Jenkins was apparently a well-known tragi-comic figure in Manhattan during the first half of the twentieth century. She was what is described as a socialite, which basically means she was smart enough to have been born to the right family with plenty of the right stuff. She was also apparently born with a certain degree of skill as a concert pianist, being good enough to have performed as a child at the White House for President Rutherford B. Hayes. After that, the details of her life quickly descend down the scales from comedy to tragedy.

This is not the place to write a complete biography, but putting it in a nutshell, a combination of syphilis contracted on her wedding night from her first husband and/or an injury to her arm put an end to her career as a pianist, but not an end to her love of music or her desire to perform. She had the money to be able to afford the very best vocal instruction, but sadly, whatever skills had emerged from her fingertips did not emerge from her mouth. Instead, what did limp out was a sequence of unholy sounds that made her an object of ridicule among virtually everybody unfortunate enough to hear her sing, which included—because of her wealth and social position—some very famous people, some of whom stifled their laughter publicly because they wanted to get their hands in her purse, some of whom stifled their laughter publicly for social reasons, and a few of whom stifled their laughter, publicly and privately, because of such quaint, old-fashioned virtues as loyalty, love, and a genuine appreciation of her great generosity.

Not much comedy there, I hear you cry. Enter writer Nicholas Martin, director Stephen Frears, Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg, and a cast of literally hundreds of pitch-perfect performances.

In real life it is unclear to what extent Florence Foster Jenkins realized she was a comic figure or to what extent her brain had been addled by the syphilis, making her oblivious. In the movie, while Nicholas Martin and Stephen Frears tip their artistic hats to that ambiguity, they wisely move their plot forward through the device of Hugh Grant’s increasingly frantic efforts to protect this unfortunate but well-intentioned woman, so that the movie becomes a magical and delicate balance between tragedy and comedy. And that is, obviously, the very best of all possible balancing acts.

Hugh Grant’s layered performance as Florence Foster Jenkins’ second husband is hands down the finest work he’s ever done (and he has done a lot of excellent work), playing a man who almost certainly started many years earlier as just another garden-variety leech, but who now has to balance his natural inclinations against his very real love of this pathetic, ridiculous, vulnerable woman. The dance he does with a pretty young thing at a wild party at his apartment is, by itself, worth the price of admission.

Simon Helberg, as the concert pianist struggling to balance his musical sensibility and artistic ambition against his sense of loyalty and his soft heart, practically steals the movie. The scene where he first hears Florence Foster Jenkins sing—if you can call it that—and the sequence of emotions that cross his face, from stunned disbelief to incredulity to rising hysteria, as his hands continue to mechanically play the accompaniment, is, by itself, worth the price of admission.

And Meryl Streep. I’m sure there must be some things Ms. Streep does not do better than anyone else (possibly her income taxes, diesel engine maintenance, mounted cowboy shooting, cryptanalysis) but none of them have anything to do with acting. She is, simply, the best there ever was. The scene when she sings (again, I use that word loosely) for the first time, Dan and I both became completely hysterical and I thought Darleen might have to leave the theater, and yet those scenes are balanced against moments so poignant you ache for her. It is no secret that many an actress’s singing has been “sweetened,” some by my gifted bride, many by the great, recently deceased Marni Nixon and other talented anonymous singers, but according to Darleen, the most difficult thing for a good singer to do is sing badly. I have no idea if Ms. Streep did her own atrocious singing or if she was ____________ (fill in the opposite of “to sweeten”), but the scenes of her in full costume, butchering opera, are, by themselves, worth the price of admission.

Unlike its eponymous title character Florence Foster Jenkins never strikes a false note.

At the Movies: Carol, Bridge of Spies

January 20th, 2016 20 Comments

Cate Blanchett

Tom Hanks


In a spirit of wild self-indulgence, Darleen and I watched two movies recently, two movies that both take place in the 1950s, both featuring some of the greatest talent alive today, both with breathtakingly beautiful and moody photography, and both ballyhooed as potential Oscar material. There the resemblance ends.

I normally make it a rule not to review any book or movie I don’t like. Why bother? It’s so very difficult to create anything, and after you’re done, it’s so very easy for any mean spirited fool with a wicked wit to tear down what you’ve created, and I don’t wish to be lumped into that smug, acid-tongued category. To quote the great Elizabeth Ashley (defending Tennessee Williams): “Sir, is it not the way of curs and mongrels always to chew on the tails of champions?” There are never enough champions, and always far too many curs and mongrels and I have no desire to swell their ranks.

But there are parallels here that bear scrutiny and the very thing that makes one of these movies so forgettable is the thing that makes the other so very unforgettable.

Carol is a lesbian love story starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. I was aware of who Miss Mara is, but I had never seen any of her work. As for Cate Blanchett, I have only seen a little of her work (Elizabeth, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Bandits, Blue Jasmine) but enough to think Australia ought to declare her a national treasure, or that the American government should kidnap her and claim her as our national treasure. It doesn’t hurt that she has one of the most extraordinary faces ever to grace the screen, with eyes that hint at secrets you’ll never know, and that wonderful, mobile, tragic mouth.

So all in all, I was looking forward to Carol.

I was also looking forward very much to Bridge of Spies. It too stars national treasures: ours (Tom Hanks) and England’s (Mark Rylance) along with Amy Ryan and Alan Alda, neither of whom are exactly slouches in the talent department, and it was directed by Steven Spielberg who, it is generally conceded, has some talent himself in the directing department, to the tune of three Academy Awards. But primarily, I was looking forward to it because it deals with the famous Cold War incident where Francis Gary Powers and his U2 were shot down by the Soviets, and how Powers was eventually released in exchange for three Russian spies.

At least, that’s the story I grew up with, because my father helped catch one of those spies in a convoluted Cold War caper that penetrated even some of my five- or six-year old consciousness. (Men—FBI agents—sitting in front of old-fashioned reel-to-reel tape recorders set up in our basement; occasional odd incidents involving a Russian gentleman who came to our house, usually late at night, but who once made the mistake of letting himself in somehow during the day while we were out and who got pinned against the wall by our one-eyed Boxer for his pains, the Boxer who is in the photograph with me on my bio page; my father leaving alone at odd hours when normally he would play with us.) Alas, none of that is in the movie, and who knows now what the truth was then? Certainly not I.

There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays, as Kipling reminds us, and even more ways of telling stories on page or on screen, but the one inviolable rule is that while you may tease and tantalize your audience with mysteries of many kinds at the outset, you must, must, ultimately provide resolution. It’s Chekhov’s gun: if you mention (or show) a gun, you must then use it at some point, otherwise, why bother showing the damn thing in the first place?

Carol violates this rule, both figuratively and literally.

Figuratively, we are presented with two women, each in her different way trapped within a life she longs to escape, whose paths cross. And after that everything begins to fall apart. Why are these women trapped? Each of them is a stereotype of stifled, mid-fifties discontent; each longs for more than what life in that era is willing to allow them, but we are never given any backstory for their respective discontent. Rooney Mara longs to be a photographer, but what’s stopping her? Is it her own lack of any kind of color, any spark of divine fire? Is it her lesbian tendencies? Is it some other quantity or quality lacking within her? It sure as hell can’t be the American fifties themselves, as the film implies, because the arts were one of the few paths open to women back then. And while we are shown the problem, we are never shown the reason why she feels so trapped by her job and her boisterous boyfriend, or even given a clue why she can’t satisfy her artistic longings. Are they meant to be a symbol of her sexual longings?

Cate Blanchett is even more of a stereotype, albeit a colorful one: the woman trapped in a loveless marriage of wealthy convenience, who is torn between her love for her daughter and her longing for some kind of real love, which in this case means lesbian love. But what is behind that stereotype? What are the causes? What, other than lesbianism, sets her aside from ten thousand other women in that day and age? We are never given a clue or even anything specific enough about her to make her a unique individual.

Unfortunately, everything else in the movie contributes to the same sense of being shown stereotypes instead of real people. Cate Blanchett’s husband has appeared (more interestingly) in every John O’Hara, John Cheever, or John Updike short story. The daughter she adores is a generic child with no more individuality than a wooden clothing mannequin in the window of Saks Fifth Avenue. New York City, specifically Manhattan, the most majestic, most iconic, most metropolitan place on earth, is reduced to Anytown, USA. The wealthy suburb where Cate Blanchett and Kyle Chandler uneasily and alcoholically share a mansion becomes Anysuburb, USA. Even the beautiful, rich, productive land that lies between the Atlantic and central Iowa is wasted; we see little unsatisfying glimpses of it during long, silent driving sequences which could be filled with the beauty of the land outside and with information about the protagonists inside, information that would make both of these women come to life with individuality.

It’s not the performances; it’s Phyllis Nagy’s writing that is lacking in this film. She shows us two women who are intriguing and then fails to deliver on her promises, reducing them to stock symbols of societal repression devoid of individuality. Even when a chrome-plated Smith & Wesson with mother-of-pearl grips is carefully shown in Cate Blanchett’s suitcase, implying that at least now we will see something out of the ordinary, if not unique, there is no satisfying conclusive use of that revolver. It proves, like the film itself, to be empty, empty and lugubrious.

And the opposite is precisely what makes Bridge of Spies not merely a brilliant portrait of the exact same era, but one of those films where you could have set fire to my chair and I wouldn’t have left. The Cohen brothers, Ethan and Joel, together with a young man (his photograph makes him look all of fourteen) named Matt Charman don’t waste an instant or a word: everything either drives the plot forward or establishes character.

A perfect example is a little scene where Tom Hanks is lost in the still war-torn streets of East Berlin and is suddenly surrounded by five or six young thugs who steal his overcoat. Hanks plays the real-life lawyer, James Donovan, who was recruited (bullied into?) defending a Soviet spy (Mark Rylance) and then recruited (bullied into?) negotiating the trade of that spy for Francis Gary Powers. Hanks plays the scene as impeccably as he plays everything he has ever done, a courageous man in a bad situation, trying to stay alive, but instead of just handing them the overcoat, he negotiates, finally trading the coat for directions to the office building he has been looking for. That little scene, all by itself tells you all you need to know about James Donovan. Let’s put it this way: because of that scene, when I looked up James Donovan and found he had been later recruited (bullied into?) into negotiating the release of 1,113 prisoners of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba, I wasn’t at all surprised to learn he came back with 9,703 men and women. I have a mental image of Fidel Castro throwing his hands in the air and saying, “Oh, for God’s sake! Give this guy whatever the hell he wants and get him out of here before he talks me into making Cuba another American state!”

It’s that kind of glimpse into a man’s personality that I would have loved to have seen in Carol. Even the photography, rich and moody in both films, becomes specific in Bridge of Spies. I was in Berlin back in those days. I’ve seen Checkpoint Charlie and I’ve seen if not those specific streets, certainly others just like them, and that’s what it was like back in the late fifties. The opening scenes in Brooklyn are precisely that: Brooklyn, and nowhere else on earth. Tom Hank’s James Donovan is unique and singular in all the world. Mark Rylance’s spy is so uniquely drab and colorless he becomes colorfully fascinating. James Donovan’s three children are specific and singular. And Amy Ryan has a moment at the end where she has just heard the news about what her husband has done, what he has accomplished for his country, and she stands in their bedroom looking at his exhausted sleeping figure on the bed, looking at the man who holds no more mystery for her than any man has ever held for his wife, and you can see the wonder, the pride, the love. That’s specificity. That’s what Carol lacks.

At the Movies: Going in Style

June 11th, 2015 7 Comments

Art Carney


Certain actors were—and a few still are, thank God—so gifted that just their names on the marquee is enough to make you park your car and pull out your wallet. Or, in the case of old movies on TCM, turn off the phones, lock the doors, and curl up on the sofa with your wife and dogs and something wet in your hand.

Art Carney was one of those.

In the highly likely event that you are too young to know who Art Carney was, I will remind you that he was probably best known, and will almost certainly be best remembered for his role as Ed Norton (“Norton! You are a mental case!”) on the Jackie Gleason television comedy, The Honeymooners. And that’s not a bad thing: The Honeymooners was one of those sitcoms from the golden age of television, with scripts so charmingly zany, characters so real, and performances so brilliant, that they are as much fun to watch now, sixty years later, as they were back then. And they will still be delicious sixty years from now, which is proof of the timelessness of the best theatrical art, from Aeschylus to Downton Abbey, no matter whether it’s comedy or drama: if the playwright has caught something real, the work will endure.

Art Carney Honeymooners

But Art Carney was one of those geniuses capable of anything. Contrast his wacky, over-the-top, plastic, slapstick work as Ed Norton with his performance as the aging detective in The Late Show, or his Academy Award-winning performance in Harry and Tonto (a performance that won him the award over such minor talents as Albert Finney, Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, and Jack Nicholson). Very, very few actors are capable of that kind of range. (Jack Lemmon leaps to mind.)

So when Darleen told me Going in Style, (1979) was going to be on TCM, we got serious about comedy.

The plot, such as it is, is about three very elderly retired men, living off their meager social security checks and sharing a modest apartment, fighting off terminal boredom as they wait for God. In an effort to keep from dying of boredom, and to help out the sole relative any of them has (Art Carney’s nephew, played by the late, great Charles Hallahan), they decide to rob a bank. And we’re off to the races.

The other two retirees are George Burns and Lee Strasberg, and when the three of them are together, you are watching almost two hundred years of theatrical experience and genius honed to dry, deadpan perfection.

I don’t want to give anything away, because you really should watch this gem, but like all the best comedy, it has a bittersweet quality that takes you from laughter to tears and happily back again.

There is one scene, in Central Park, when the three old friends walk past a vaguely Jamaican street band, all bongos and congas and steel drums, and Art Carney starts to dance, to the delight of the band, the delight of his friends, the delight of casual onlookers, and to the infinite delight of the movie-goer. That one scene, by itself, is reason enough to watch Going in Style. As Darleen put it, while watching that dance, “With those three guys you don’t need a script. Just turn the camera on and let them go to town.”

At the Movies, On a Desert Island

April 27th, 2015 43 Comments

Old TV set


Darleen and I stumbled backward, who knows how or why, into one of those “what-if?” games. If memory serves, we were talking about how certain movies bear up under repeated viewing, just as there are certain books one thinks of as old friends, that one can go back to again and again, always certain of the same good company, the same warm welcome, the same comfortable patterns of emotion and delight: The Wind in the Willows, Treasure Island, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Irish RM, Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, The Great Gatsby, all of W.W. Jacobs, much of P.G. Wodehouse, most of Dylan Thomas and much of Tennyson, practically anything by Dickens, everything by Shakespeare, all those books and poems and plays that act as comfort food for us when all other diversions pale and fail.

So one of us posited the question: if you were stranded on a desert island conveniently provided with a television and a DVD player and the electricity to run them, which ten movies would you take with you to help you through your isolation?

After radical culling, the kind of culling that shows off my iron will power, my cold and ruthless capacity for abnegation, my towering strength of character, my ability to endure any kind of hardship, I have compiled my short list. It is, in no particular order:

Dr. Zhivago

The English Patient

Bridge on the River Kwai

The Third Man

A Christmas Story

It’s a Wonderful Life

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

The More the Merrier

Treasure of the Sierra Madre


To Kill a Mockingbird

Singing in the Rain

The Godfather, Parts I & II

Tom Jones

The Lion in Winter

Lawrence of Arabia

The Lady Eve

The Lavender Hill Mob

Mr. Roberts

Libeled Lady

I’m sorry. What did you say? That’s more than ten? Oh, for God’s sake. This isn’t a damned math class. People put far too much store in numbers and precision and all that nonsense. Life should be much more flexible than that.

At the Movies: High Society

February 23rd, 2015 15 Comments

Grace Kelly closeup


It’s never a good idea to stick your foot through a Rembrandt.

Each age, each generation, tries to reinterpret certain classic plays. Part of the joy of living in a metropolitan area is going to see how different actors and directors approach certain plays, using them to reflect their individual times and circumstances. Take Hamlet. Between stage and film I’ve seen at least half a dozen different productions of Hamlet, probably more, some of the filmed versions multiple times, and I regret that I never had an opportunity to view others that have been done over the years, notably David Warner’s, which got sensational reviews half a century ago. Even lesser, more contemporary plays by lesser, more contemporary playwrights are fun to go see for the second or third or fourth time, if the original script was good enough to merit reinterpretation and the director and actors are good enough to handle the material. Noel Coward would be a good example: Between Broadway, repertory, and summer stock, I’ve probably seen half a dozen productions of Private Lives, for example, and with a competent company, I’d happily go see another half dozen. Laughter is good for one’s health and for one’s immortal soul.

So why is the same not true of movies? When a movie is a classic, the worst thing anyone can do is try to top it. Who would be fool enough to imagine he could do a remake of Gone with the Wind?

(I probably shouldn’t have dared to ask that question; some arrogant jackass in a multi-million-dollar studio office might pick up on my cosmic consciousness and try to make a cable television version, or adapt it somehow to a reality show. “Ah, don’t worry about the Civil War. Nobody remembers that stuff. We’ll set it in Syria, make it the Kurds against ISIS. It’ll be great. Of course, we’ll have to show a little more flesh with the girls, but we’ll make it work. We’ll give it a lot of special effects and more heart. We’ll film it IMAX 3D.”)

There are some exceptions. Occasionally, not often, the remake is better than the original. I happen to think the Cary Grant-Deborah Kerr version of An Affair to Remember is better than the original version, Love Affair, with Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne, even though both had the exact same script and both were written and directed by Leo McCarey. The 2000 TV version of The Man Who Came to Dinner, with Nathan Lane, Jean Smart, and Harriet Sansom Harris is, believe it or not, even better than the 1942 film with Monty Woolley, Ann Sheridan, and Bette Davis. To be fair, that’s not a completely fair comparison: the 1942 version of Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman’s brilliant and wacky masterpiece was a real, filmed work, while the TV version was a film of a live performance, but—and here I’m teetering on the brink of apostasy—the performances in 2000 were better, and I’m including, even specifying, Harris over Davis.

But for the most part, it is not a good idea to stick your foot through a Rembrandt.

High Society is a musical version of The Philadelphia Story, which was a film adaptation of the Philip Barry play of the same name. On the face of it, this was probably a hell of an idea at the time. Think about it. You take a great original script and have it gracefully adapted by Pulitzer and Tony Award winner John Patrick; you get Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, Louie Armstrong and his band; you have music and lyrics by Cole Porter; you have it directed by the great director and choreographer Charles Walters… Good Lord! It’s a no-brainer, an instant hit before you even start filming. How could it not be?

Well, maybe not.

It’s not bad; it really isn’t. It just can’t compare with the original, and that’s the primary problem with it: even at its best moments, it is overshadowed by the original.

Grace Kelly was the most exquisite thing ever to grace the screen, but as an actress, she can’t compare to Katherine Hepburn.

Frank Sinatra was a hell of a good actor, and had one of the greatest voices of all time, but he’s no Jimmy Stewart.

Bing Crosby was a great, suave, all-round entertainer, with a voice second only to Sinatra’s, and with charm and grace galore, but who in his right mind could ever hope to top Cary Grant when it comes to suavity and charm and grace?

Louis Armstrong. The best there ever was, the man about whose music Wynton Marsalis once said, “When life gets you down, Louie is always there to tell you everything is going to be okay,” about whom Bing Crosby said, “American music begins and ends with Louie Armstrong.” Louie Armstrong. When I die, I want his Strutting with Some Barbeque played at my funeral. But he’s wasted in this movie. He only appears three times, only one of those is less than superficial, even—by today’s standards, if not those of the pre-civil rights 1956 era—demeaning, and even that once he plays second fiddle to Bing Crosby.

(To give credit where credit is due, his presence in the movie, and his prominent billing were the result of Crosby’s insistence, just as a few years later Frank Sinatra would refuse to honor his contract with a Las Vegas hotel until Sammy Davis, Jr. was allowed to stay in the same hotel; a typical attitude of the time, when blacks were good enough to entertain, but not to share space with whites.)

By making it a musical, and allowing time for the songs, the original script had to be cut, and certain sequences were consequently lost. Remember Virginia Weidler as Dinah Lord singing “Lydia the Tattooed Lady?”

“She has eyes that folks adore so

And a torso even more so.”

That’s cut down to nothing to allow for songs that are, with the memorable exception of True Love and to a lesser extent, You’re Sensational, not at all memorable. Yes, the performances of those songs are spectacular, but other than True Love¸ can you whistle any other tune from that movie?

My bride, the never shy or diffident Darleen, called the first half flat, and I agree. It picks up in the second half, when Grace Kelly as a very drunk and subsequently very hung-over Tracy Lord seems less artificial than she does sober, and everyone seems to pick up the pace generally, but it never takes off as a vibrant and coherent whole in the way that The Philadelphia Story does from the get-go.

Is it bad? Is it a waste of time? No, but you’re far more likely to enjoy it if you’ve never seen the original.

At the Movies: The More the Merrier

February 2nd, 2015 7 Comments

jean arthur and little dog


The More the Merrier was on television the other night and my friend Tom Davis (Why Dogs Do That: A Collection of Curious Canine Behaviors, as well as many other excellent books about dogs) reminded me that I had written a blog about Jean Arthur. I had forgotten. In fact, I had forgotten so completely that it took me a while to find what he was referring to, which was actually a review of another Jean Arthur movie, If Only You Could Cook.

If Only You Could Cook is fun, but it simply isn’t even in the same league with The More the Merrier. Just at the basic level of performance you can’t compare the two films: Jean Arthur earned her only Academy Award Nomination for The More the Merrier, and it did earn Charles Coburn his sole Oscar for his role as rascally, charming cupid bringing Jean Arthur and Joel McCrae together in spite of World War Two, in spite of an inconvenient fiancé, in spite of the FBI, in spite of themselves. (Coburn does a magnificent, solitary tour-de-farce, looking for the trousers he was trying to put on that have mysteriously gone missing, that is worth the price of admission by itself.)

That’s pretty much the plot. What makes it work so well as a movie is an incomparable script attributed to Robert Russell, Richard Flournoy, Lewis Foster, and Jean Arthur’s husband, Frank Ross. It is attributed to them, though an uncredited contributor who may or may not have been the real influence responsible for the script was none other than Garson Kanin. (Garson Kanin was the man—along with his wife, Ruth Gordon—who was responsible for some of the classic comedies of all time, including Adam’s Rib, Pat and Mike, and Born Yesterday which was originally written for Jean Arthur, but which made Judy Holliday a star after Arthur pulled out due to stage fright. Kanin is also responsible for one of the greatest and truest quotes ever spoken about Hollywood: “The Hollywood laborers, the carpenters and painters, were always perfect. Then came the technicians, the electricians and special effects men. They were marvelous. However, the higher you climbed in the system, the lower the level of competence, until you reached the head of the studio, who turned out to be an idiot.”)

In my review of If Only You Could Cook I wrote about Jean Arthur’s vulnerability:

Jean Arthur was beautiful, but not a great beauty. She was talented, but so were many others. She was sexy, but not nearly as obviously or as much so as many others. She was charming, but so were all of the ladies of the screwball comedy genre. But what made her so singular was the combination of beauty, talent, sex appeal, charm, the voice, all of it masking a tremendous vulnerability and fragility. She obviously knew enough about herself to understand her strengths and weaknesses (she preferred to be photographed from the left only), and she said herself she loved acting, but she also was apparently so stricken with stage fright that she used to frequently throw up before filming a take. Many actresses and even some actors throw up from fear before a stage performance, but I have never heard of any other actor who threw up from fear before filming on a sound stage. It evidently became worse as she got older; she was the original choice to play the lead in Garsin Kanin’s Born Yesterday, but got so terrified she quit, making Judy Holiday a star. She had a nervous breakdown trying to do Shaw’s Saint Joan for director Harold Clurman. She walked out on two more Broadway plays, unable to stand the extreme stage fright, and finally walked out on her career. She became an acting teacher, first at Vassar (where one of her students was, supposedly, Meryl Streep), and later at the University of North Carolina, and finally retired to a reclusive life in Carmel, California where she steadfastly refused to do any kind of publicity or interview. Even at the height of her success she was as reclusive as Garbo.

These actions have, to me, all the earmarks of a very vulnerable person, and I believe it was that quality underlying the raspy wisecracks and the niceness that made her so…well, okay, charismatic.

It’s hard to reconcile that extreme vulnerability and reclusiveness with charisma, and of course I have no idea if she was charismatic in person, but there is that star quality to her when she is on screen that does not allow you to take your eyes off her.

But more than that is her talent. Director George Stevens, who knew a little about the business and talent, and who directed her in The More the Merrier, once said she, “…[was] one of the greatest comediennes the screen has ever seen.” And no less a director than Frank Capra, who directed her in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, You Can’t Take It With You, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, called her, “…[his] favorite actress.”

When you watch The More the Merrier, pay special attention to the scene where Jean Arthur and Joel McCrae sit on the stoop of their apartment building and say a bunch of meaningless words that have absolutely nothing to do with anything. What they’re saying in the scene is said with their bodies: he can’t keep his hands off her, and she desperately wants his hands all over her, but she keeps dutifully and reluctantly removing them and trying to talk. Then there is a close-up of her talking as Joel McCrae kisses her neck and she forgets not only what she was saying, but even the very word she was in the middle of pronouncing. It is an absolute tour-de-force of romantic/comedic timing, and there isn’t a man who can watch that scene without wanting to dive through the screen and back to 1943 to take Joel McCrae’s place.

That’s Jean Arthur.

At the Movies: Chinatown

August 20th, 2014 3 Comments

Chinatown poster


I hadn’t seen Chinatown since it first came out in 1974, but I watched it the other night and was, once again, stunned.

Movies are, by definition, collaborative, so it’s hard to know who should get the credit for Chinatown. The script is, in theory, where everything begins, but as anyone who has ever spent more than ten minutes in Hollywood knows, scripts are frequently only considered rough outlines, mere suggestions of a possible storyline to be changed, manipulated, altered, or simply discarded at the whim of the—pick one, or all—director, star, producer, studio executive, or possibly the stunt coordinator. (A flagrant example: The Harvey Girls, originally intended as a straight-forward Western set to star Clark Gable and Lana Turner, was abruptly changed, on the heels of Oklahoma’s success, into a musical with Judy Garland and John Hodiak. Go figure.) The bottom line is that writers in Hollywood are given considerably less respect than the panhandler loitering outside the studio gates.

(Old Hollywood joke: Did you hear about the starlet who was so dumb she slept with a writer?)

Robert Towne wrote the script. In case you’re unfamiliar with Robert Towne, he wrote, in addition to Chinatown, The Last Detail, Shampoo, and Tequila Sunrise, garnering a lengthy list of award nominations and winning an Oscar for Chinatown. He also wrote a bunch of Mission Impossible Tom Cruise vehicles and a slew of other films I haven’t seen. He knows what he’s doing, but precisely because movie making is collaborative, who can say if Chinatown would have been as brilliant if it had been directed by someone else? Woody Allen, for example, probably wouldn’t have been a good choice. As it is, Roman Polanski created movie magic, but Polanski made changes, changes Robert Towne didn’t like back then and, apparently still doesn’t like today.

Mr. Polanski may have his personal issues, but no one can deny he is a stone genius when it comes to directing. Just consider some of the films he’s made over the years: Knife in the Water, Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, Tess, The Pianist, The Ghost Writer, and those are just a few.

The performances in Chinatown are as brilliant as you would expect, from Nicholson and Dunaway down to small roles that linger in your mind even after the film is over (a snide little twerp of a clerk in the public records office; a secretary who wisely distrusts Nicholson; a cop who mocks him with a gesture; little roles, walk-ons, made memorable). The look and color of the film, the sound effects, everything is magnificent, but the reason I’m dwelling on Mr. Towne and Mr. Polanski is because of the ending.

It’s one of the most debated endings in movie history, with some people loathing it, and others—self included—loving it. Mr. Towne allegedly wrote an essentially happy ending. Roman Polanski changed it into the darker ending and, presumably, is responsible for the famous last line, a line that has long since passed into common usage as a tag line for any unpunished governmental malfeasance: “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”

The movie is based, loosely, but not all that loosely, on the historical facts surrounding the development of Los Angeles. Very briefly, Los Angeles is the metropolis it is today because a handful of venal politicians, unscrupulous and dishonest businessmen, morally bankrupt newspaper publishers, and public figures and public servants, all made themselves unimaginably rich by stealing land and water, sometimes semi-legally, mostly by graft, embezzlement, fraud, and swindling, occasionally by murder, stealing that land and water from, essentially, you and me. (All of these events were chronicled by the late Marc Reisner in Cadillac Desert, published some ten years after the movie was made, and one of the most brilliant books I’ve ever read. If I told you a history of water rights, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the Army Corps of Engineers, was a good read, you’d probably think poor old JP was getting a little gaga; in fact Cadillac Desert is so well-written it’s like a mystery novel, one that will keep you up late at night turning pages to find out what happens next.)

But it’s the tone of Chinatown that is so extraordinary, with its dark sense of menace and manipulation, its complex and multitudinous layers of corruption and obfuscation that Nicholson’s character must peel back to get near the truth. And Nicholson’s character is no glittering knight on a white horse: Jake Gittes is a sleazy private investigator lining his pockets by taking ugly photographs of husbands and wives doing athletic things in beds with people other than their spouses. He is crude, foul-mouthed, amoral, uninterested in his clients or their problems other than cashing their checks. And even after he gets sucked into the vortex his quest for truth is motivated by nothing more than a desire to clear his own name and screw the guy(s) who set him up.

So, a happy ending for this dark film? A United States Congressman buys cocaine from an undercover cop and is allowed to resign his seat without ever spending a day in prison. A United States Senator is convicted of income tax evasion and not only doesn’t have to serve time, he actually gets reelected to two more terms in office. The head of the largest and most influential bureaucratic governmental agency in America violates the law and lies under oath to Congress and is allowed to resign with pension and benefits. A United States Senator tries to ruin an American citizen and drive him out of his family business in order to cement an illegal deal with a foreign government… Those too are true stories, and the list goes on. And you want a happy ending?

Forget it, Jake. It’s Hollywood.

At the Movies: The Lusty Men

July 15th, 2014 14 Comments

Lusty Men poster

I interviewed a lady named Sheila Varian a while back for one of the magazines I write for. For those of you who don’t know who she is, she breeds and trains Arabian horses, some of the finest Arabians anywhere, but what she is probably most famous for is being the first amateur, and the first woman, ever to win the Open Reined Cow Horse Championship at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. That was back in 1961, when the modern rodeo world of (relatively) big purses and associations was just starting to hit the big time. What made her accomplishment even more astounding was that she did it all on her own Arabian. To wipe the eye of life-long cowboys who were and are confirmed, dyed-in-the-wool, born-and-bred Quarter horse men, and to do it with an Arabian was, well, epochal. But what was fascinating to me was her accounts of the rough-and-ready world of rodeo back then, a world that reminded me greatly of Garth Brooks’ famous song, Much Too Young to Feel this Damn Old:

This ol’ highway’s getting longer

Seems there ain’t no end in sight

To sleep would be best, but I just can’t afford to rest

I’ve got to ride in Denver tomorrow night


I called the house but no one answered

For the last two weeks no one’s been home

I guess she’s through with me, to tell the truth I just can’t see

What’s kept the woman holding on this long


And the white line’s getting longer and the saddle’s getting cold

I‘m much too young to feel this damn old

All my cards are on the table with no ace left in the hole

I’m much too young to feel this damn old


The competition’s getting younger

Tougher broncs, you know I can’t recall

The worn out tape of Chris LeDoux, lonely women and bad booze

Seem to be the only friends I’ve left at all


And the white line’s getting longer and the saddle’s getting cold

I’m much too young to feel this damn old

All my cards are on the table with no ace left in the hole

I’m much too young to feel this damn old

Lord, I’m much too young to feel this damn old.


It was, as the song implies, a world spent on the road (or in the hospital, depending on your luck) chasing a dream and betting your health and life on your skills and reflexes, a world where only a tiny fraction of the competitors actually come out with anything to show for all the years and pain and injury but a handful of buckles.

All of Sheila’s stories came flooding back the other night when Darleen and I watched The Lusty Men, with Robert Mitchum, Susan Hayward, and Arthur Kennedy. It’s a black-and-white, filmed in 1952, about the rodeo life, about chasing a dream, about the risks and temptations and the prices that even the lucky ones, the most successful ones, have to pay.

Robert Mitchum

I am a huge Robert Mitchum fan (I once took an acting job in a short film without even reading the script because it starred Robert Mitchum and I wanted to meet him), but I had never heard of this movie. Nor had Darleen. And that’s a shame because it deserves more recognition.

A movie, just like a novel or any work of fiction, invites you to willingly suspend your disbelief and enter into that world, and the better the fictional world is created and portrayed, the more likely you are to suspend your disbelief. The Lusty Men captured the early-1950s world of rodeo so completely, so accurately, so believably, that there were moments when I almost believed I was watching a documentary. After all, this a world where many of the details are made up of little things that Darleen and I both know, so that a throw-away line about a horse coming out of the King Ranch breeding, a line most people might not even have heard, resonated with us. I know many of the towns and rodeo grounds where the movie takes place, and it all, even most of landscapes in the background, looked authentic to me (or very close to it), something that rarely happens in old films, where snow-covered mountains suddenly appear in the distance in Oklahoma, or open oak-studded savannah is supposed to represent the lush, heavy forest of the deep south, or—my favorite—flourishing farms sprout out of the Painted Desert.

But behind the technical details of filming (and some great performances, especially Mitchum’s) was the writing, writing that absolutely astounded me. I immediately went to look up the author and…And was disappointed.

The movie credits say it was based on a novel by Claude Stanush, but unless I have somehow missed something in my research, Claude Stanush only had one novel to his name, and even that was a co-authorship with his daughter written late in his life, long after The Lusty Men. He was primarily a journalist and short-story writer from San Antonio, Texas, who managed to hornswoggle his way into a stint with Life Magazine by camping out for weeks in the office waiting room until the editor, in frustration, finally agreed to speak to him.

(The conversation, apparently went something like this:

Editor: “What are your qualifications?”

Stanush: “Perseverance.”

Editor: “You’re hired.”)

But whatever his qualifications might have been, Stanush (who only died in 2011) was never a cowboy, nor even—until that one novel with his daughter—a novelist. The idea for the movie was taken from an essay he wrote while with Life. Was he so good at his research that he was able to capture the essence of rodeo life and rodeo cowboys so perfectly, so accurately, both the good and the bad? How did he learn so much about the details of horses, broncs, pick-up men, bulls, calf-roping, saddles, reatas, the endless driving from one rodeo to another, the wives, the buckle-bunnies, the broken down hangers-on, the self-destructive world outside the arenas, the whole panorama of that then small, tightly knit world?

On the suspicion that his essay-turned-movie script might have been sweetened by some other writer with first-hand knowledge of that world, I checked the credits. A total of six writers (including Stanush) were listed, three of them as “uncredited.” “Uncredited,” according to Dan Bronson ( probably means it was a case of arbitration by the Writers’ Guild. But of those six writers, one was a Brit, one was from New York, one from Tennessee, one from Hungary, and one was the Brooklyn-born, the legendary Jerry Wald, who wasn’t even really a writer at all, but rather a producer, a hustler, an “idea man,” (a guy who is paid to brainstorm ideas for everything from titles—this one is dreadful—to storylines to plot twists), and the putative inspiration for the character of Sammy Glick in Budd Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run? The only one who was even from the West (if you count a major city like San Antonio as the West) was Stanush. Not one of them knew a damned thing about cowboys or rodeo, but somehow, between them, they turned out probably the most realistic rodeo movie ever made. I’m going to assume the credit has to go to Stanush; as a journalist, he would have understood the importance of research and accuracy, but he must have spent an awful lot of time on the road doing that research.

The bottom line, however, is that The Lusty Men is a great example of the magic of Hollywood. Take an idea, add a bunch of disparate men from all parts of the globe, all of them bursting with ideas and ambition and contention, and somehow, sometimes, out of this chaos comes magic.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt to throw Robert Mitchum into the mix.

At the Movies: If Only You Could Cook

April 23rd, 2014 13 Comments

jean arthur 1



We watched If Only You Could Cook the other night. It’s one of the early screwball comedies (1935) and by no means one of the best. The premise is worthy of four Pinocchios, the script has holes in it you could drive a Peterbuilt through, the directing is only competent (William Seiter, who made his name directing excellent slapstick with the likes of Laurel & Hardy, but screwball is not slapstick), and even the great Herbert Marshall seems to have trouble with his thankless role as the millionaire executive pretending to be a butler. It has Leo Carrillo looking and sounding as if he were doing an imitation of himself, and the great Lionel Stander with his voice like a cement mixer in need of new ball bearings. Great actors and great comedians all, but none of them are enough to really make it work.

But it also has Jean Arthur, the great, the delicious, the delightful, the incomparable Jean Arthur, the beautiful, vulnerable Jean Arthur. And I think it is that last quality that defined her and made her career as much as her talent, her comic timing, and her marvelous unique, raspy/squeaky voice.

jean arthur and little dog



It’s a very difficult thing, trying to define what makes one person a star and not another. We use the word charisma, but I not sure what that means or how to define it. It has to do with talent, but it is not talent. It’s something many actors can’t define or sometimes even recognize in themselves. There is a story possibly true, possibly apocryphal, that when Lawrence Olivier and John Gielgud were doing some Shakespearean play together (Romeo and Juliet, perhaps, where they took turns alternating playing Romeo and Mercutio? some other play?) on one particular night Olivier reached a transcendent level of performance, wowing the audience and awing his fellow actors. But instead of basking in the glow of congratulations, he stormed into his dressing room and slammed the door. The other actors, dumbfounded, gawked at each other, and only Gielgud had the courage to go in and confront Olivier.

“My dear boy,” he said, “what on earth is the matter? You were absolutely, unbelievably magnificent.”

And Olivier looked up at him and said: “That’s what’s wrong. I know I was, but I don’t know how I did it.”

Of course many actors have techniques and tricks and tools they know work and work well, and they use them, but many actors never quite understand themselves what makes them so special. (On the other hand, of course, some are actually fools enough to believe their own press and think they really are special when in reality they are, at their best, dreary, and frequently loathsome.) Jean Arthur was beautiful, but not a great beauty. She was talented, but so were many others. She was sexy, but not nearly as obviously or as much so as many others. She was charming, but so were all of the ladies of the screwball comedy genre. But what made her so singular was the combination of beauty, talent, sex appeal, charm, the voice, all of it masking a tremendous vulnerability and fragility. She obviously knew enough about herself to understand her strengths and weaknesses (she preferred to be photographed from the left only), and she said herself she loved acting, but she also was apparently so stricken with stage fright that she used to frequently throw up before filming a take. Many actresses and even some actors throw up from fear before a stage performance, but I have never heard of any other actor who threw up from fear before filming on a sound stage. It evidently became worse as she got older; she was the original choice to play the lead in Garsin Kanin’s Born Yesterday, but got so terrified she quit, making Judy Holiday a star. She had a nervous breakdown trying to do Shaw’s Saint Joan for director Harold Clurman. She walked out on two more Broadway plays, unable to stand the extreme stage fright, and finally walked out on her career. She became an acting teacher, first at Vassar (where one of her students was, supposedly, Meryl Streep), and later at the University of North Carolina, and finally retired to a reclusive life in Carmel, California where she steadfastly refused to do any kind of publicity or interview. Even at the height of her success she was as reclusive as Garbo.

These actions have, to me, all the earmarks of a very vulnerable person, and I believe it was that quality underlying the raspy wisecracks and the niceness that made her so…well, okay, charismatic.

jean arthur and dog



But in 1935, when she was just beginning to come into her own in terms of ability, fame, success, recognition, she manages to be the reason to watch If Only You Could Cook. It’s not even one of her best performances, but it has that wonderful charm, that quality of being a girl a man could talk to, would want to talk to. You want to take her in your arms and kiss her, but you want to say the things that will be a natural set-up for one her quips. You want to make her laugh and to laugh with her as you hold her. That’s Jean Arthur.

At the Movies: Lone Survivor

February 28th, 2014 7 Comments

Lone_Survivor_poster   Back in the golden days of classic Greek theater, when Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides were ruining their health and tearing their hair out dealing with narcissistic actors who complained they didn’t have enough lines, or it would be better if their character did it this way, or couldn’t they move here instead, there was a tradition of violence taking place off-stage. This was done, in part, because the Greeks of the classical era knew very well that nothing they could show would ever be as appalling as what the audience could imagine.

Fast forward roughly two and a half millennia to, oh, let’s say the days of Simon & Simon, when television censors demanded all violence be sanitized, made tasteful and decorous, so that a man might be beaten, stabbed, shot, and thrown off a rooftop, but when the camera closed in on his dead body, all the audience saw was a delicate little trickle of stage blood from one corner of his primly closed mouth.

Now fast forward again roughly two and a half decades to the over-the-top movies of, oh, let’s say director Quentin Tarantino and producer Harvey Weinstein, where mindless and meaningless violence is glorified almost as an independent art form in and of itself. (Remember Steve Martin as the producer of ultra-violent movies in Lawrence Kasdan’s Grand Canyon? “Where are the brains? When he shoots him the script calls for brains splattering against the window. Where are the goddamn brains!? Am I the only one who’s trying to be true to the script here?”)

I am not a fan of the Quentin Tarantino/Harvey Weinstein oeuvre. In part, I find their movies moronic, and in part, having been shot twice, I have no need to be titillated by their grotesqueries. (To be fair to both of them: I briefly attended an acting class where Quentin Tarantino was a student, back in the early eighties, and found him highly intelligent and quite funny in a quirky sort of way. And Harvey Weinstein, in spite of his tasteless and morally bankrupt hypocrisy in making a fortune exploiting gratuitous violence with guns and now vowing to destroy the NRA for being violence-mongers—never mind the complete inaccuracy and dishonesty of that assessment—has actually made some delightful and life-affirming movies, notably Shakespeare in Love, The English Patient, and Chocolat.) Nothing shown on film can ever be as horrifying as either reality or imagination. Do us all a favor, please: don’t sanitize it and don’t glorify it. Don’t even show it. Take it off-stage.

Which brings me to quite the most violent film I have seen in a long time, possibly ever, a movie so graphically violent that my friend, screenwriter Dan Bronson, simply couldn’t watch it. The difference is that this is violence for a very specific cinematic purpose, violence seen from the point of view of the men committing it and to whom it is committed. It is violence portrayed in a way that vividly brings home an understanding of the PTSD returning vets have to deal with.

Lone Survivor is based on the non-fiction book of that name, written by the eponymous Navy Seal Marcus Luttrell, played in the movie by Mark Wahlberg. The plot, very briefly, revolves around a four-man Seal team sent out to kill a Taliban leader. In a complete fluke, two Afghan boys and an old man, herding goats in the mountains above their village, stumble onto the team, and the characters in the movie, like the real-life members of the team, are thrust into the greatest moral dilemma any man can face, a moral dilemma worthy of Sophocles or Aeschylus or Euripides. There is no question about the loyalties of the three Afghans; even with no understanding of a word they say, it is clear they will run back to their village and alert the Taliban. The mission has been jeopardized, and the only possibility for the Navy Seals to even have a minute chance of success, or even to survive, is to kill or neutralize the civilians. They quickly distill their choices down to killing the villagers outright; tying them to trees, with the certain knowledge they will freeze to death during the night or be eaten alive by wolves; or letting them go.

From a purely historical perspective, I found this to be the single best moment in any movie I have seen in memory. How do ordinary men make such decisions? It is war, and in all wars from the beginning of recorded history until very recently, the rules have been very simple: there are no rules. We want this land, wealth, whatever, and we simply kill or enslave everyone who stands between us and our goal. I have an unnerving memory of a national hero from World War Two, a man whose name is now a household word for all we revere in our warriors, telling me once how he bombed a town in Germany (we bombed without concern for civilians back then, remember?) and the next day, knowing the survivors would be burying their dead, he went back and strafed the funeral procession, killing the women and old men and children who had escaped his bombing.

Today, war has changed. There are rules of engagement, ludicrous Marquis of Queensbury rules for fighting against people who still fight by the old, bloody non-rules of Tamerlane and Attila and Genghis Khan. We are supposed to surgically destroy the soldiers while simultaneously winning the hearts and minds of the widows and orphans we create. It is perhaps the stupidest philosophy of war ever known. And yet…

And yet, what would you have done?

One of the things Lone Survivor does is to put you there on that mountain, with the means, the motive, and the opportunity for doing what should be done, what must be done, not merely for the sake of the mission, but for the sake of life itself, and asking you if you have the stomach for it. Could you kill someone to save your life? It’s not an abstract question. It’s not a question of death at a tastefully sanitized distance, from the cockpit of a plane, or from a sniper’s position eight hundred or a thousand meters away. It’s not death in the unambiguous throes of combat, killing the man who is lunging at you with your death in his hands. It’s not a moral question of saving the lives of your wife and children as the door bursts open in the night. It is playing God in the most agonizing possible way, Abraham cutting his own son’s throat, the boy’s eyes looking up in disbelief, incomprehension, three Isaacs helpless before you on a mountainside in Afghanistan. Watching, you know what the smart thing is, as do the ordinary young men who have been put in this position. You know very well that to let those three Isaacs live is to seal your own fate, to make your own death an immanent and gruesome reality.

What would you have done?

The rest of the movie is devoted to the frantic and hopeless attempts of these young men to stay alive, and it concludes with the equally random fluke of Marcus Luttrell’s survival. And at the very end, there is a montage sequence of the actual soldiers who were killed on that mountain, real-life snapshots and a video of one of them from their civilian lives, with beloved mothers and fathers and wives and children, a happy dog who will never again see the man who makes his life, and that montage brought Darleen and me to tears.

What would I have done?

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