Movies postsMonday August 27, 2018
Neil Simon (1927-2018)
He was ubiquitous when I was growing up—both the playwright and the screenwriter. Every week my brother and I watched the TV version of his hit movie which was based on his hit Broadway play, and which was called, in the opening TV credits, “Neil Simon's The Odd Couple.“ It was divorced men in New York City but my brother and I—kids in the Twin Cities—still identified. I was a Felix and my brother an Oscar. We had to live together. We had to share a room. Clean guys will be Felixes and messy guys Oscars for decades to come. He named us.
My father, eventually a divorced man, too, and doing a bad Walter Matthau, repeated the last line of this back-and-forth many times:
Oscar: Now kindly remove that spaghetti from my poker table.
Oscar: The hell's so funny?
Felix: It's not spaghetti, it's linguini.
[Oscar picks up the plate and hurls it against the kitchen wall]
Oscar: Now it's garbage.
Simon's first Broadway hit, “Come Blow Your Horn” in 1961, was about two brothers, and how the younger yearns for the playboy life that the older is realizing is empty. It was always about relationships with him. It was about yearning for what we don’t have—a lithe Cybill Shepherd suddenly appearing on your honeymoon. It was about opposites: sloppy vs. neat; conservative vs. liberal; east coast/west coast; calm and volcanic.
In just 10 years of hit plays, he went through the heterosexual relationship life cycle:
- before (“Come Blow Your Horn”)
- during (“Barefoot in the Park”)
- after (“The Odd Couple”)
- after the after (“The Sunshine Boys”)
I should revisit some of this. When was the last time I saw “The Goodbye Girl” or “The Cheap Detective”? A more recent watch, “California Suite,” I thought was half of a great movie, and again it was the opposites that attracted me: the calm men (Alan Alda, Michael Caine) and frenetic/worried women (Jane Fonda, Maggie Smith). One couple is divorced and bicoastal; the other is still at it even though he’s gay. It’s a moving, farsighted portrayal of a closeted gay man. These two great vignettes are sadly sandwiched among slapsticky bits.
I caught bits of him in the ’80s (“Max Dugan Returns”; “Biloxi Blues”) but lost track by the ’90s. I’ve heard “Broadway Bound” is particularly good; ditto “Lost in Yonkers.”
The following scene was shared on social media today. It's Oscar talking to Felix:
You leave me little notes on my pillow. I told you 158 times I can't stand little notes on my pillow! ‘We are all out of Corn Flakes. -F.U.’ It took me three hours to figure out that ‘F.U.’ was Felix Ungar!
My father thought the line so good he wondered if Simon named the character that just for the joke. He always wanted to ask him.
She Has a Name. It's Elaine. Not Tootsie or Toots or Sweetie or Honey or Doll. Elaine May.
The following quote is from the oral history, “Powerhouse: The Untold Story of Hollywood's Creative Artists Agency” by James Andrew Miller. The speaker is Dustin Hoffman. He's talking about the work necessary to massage the script for “Tootsie” into something that Sydney Pollack would be interested in directing:
So we were finally getting somewhere. But then Sydney called and said he was very disappointed, and that Larry [Gelbart] wasn't successful enough on the draft for him to do the film. He sent me the draft and I agreed. We knew we needed a new writer, and I told my lawyer Bert Fields we were in trouble. He suggested Elaine May, and got me together with her. Elaine read the script and she was extraordinary. She hit it on the head; she understood what we were trying to do. She came up with my roommate and that the girlfriend has to have a shithead as a lover, and she has to have a kid, and a father who falls in love, and she said, “I'm telling you right now, you have to have a girl already in your life and I'm going to write her with Terri Garr in mind.” She was amazing, wrote it in three or four weeks, and that was it. Whatever was missing, we knew we could correct during shooting.
Look at all she added. That's a lot of the story. And guess what? She was incredited. No onscreen credit. According to the above, she actually made the movie possible, and her reward was whatever they paid her and “Thanks, Toots.” Meanwhile, for decades, people have been slapping Larry Gelbart on the back. All of this for a movie about how women get screwed in the workplace.
At least it explains why Hoffman did “Ishtar.”
Xi Jinping Hearts Hollywood
Jonathan Landreth at China Film Insider has a piece on the possible film habits of the president (for life?) of China. Not much is really known. In fact, so little is known that Landreth is relying on a 2010 Wikileaks dump that includes a summation of a conversation between Xi and then U.S. ambassador Clark Randt—from Randt's perspective:
Exactly 10 years ago at Randt's Beijing residence, the future President of China revealed that he was a fan of Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan and Martin Scorsese's The Departed (adapted from the Hong Kong cops-and-gangsters classic, Infernal Affairs). The cables said that Xi “particularly likes Hollywood movies about World War II,” declaring, “Hollywood makes those movies well, and such Hollywood movies are grand and truthful. Americans have a clear outlook on values and clearly demarcate between good and evil. In American movies, good usually prevails.”
But what has Xi said about Chinese directors? The Wikileaks cables told us that he was confused by Zhang Yimou's court intrigue, Curse of the Golden Flower, lumping it together with Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, dramas that “all are the same, talking about bad things in imperial palaces.” Xi told Randt: “Some Chinese moviemakers neglect values they should promote.”
I'm curious if Xi thinks the likes of “Wolf Warrior II” and “Operation Red Sea” help make up for this dearth—if these movies reflect the Chinese values he would like to promote. I get the feeling: yes.
But what I particularly like? Xi sees traditional values and good vs. evil absolutism in Hollywood movies, which he applauds. Right-wing American critics don't, and condemn Hollywood for being liberal. Think on that. The good vs. evil absolutism that pleases authoritarian rulers is weak tea to American conservatives.
Person of Interest
Earlier this month, I wrote more than 1,000 words on a shitty movie, “Mark Felt,” which is basically “All the President's Men” from Deep Throat's perspective, but I forgot to add this. It's a small thing, barely worth mentioning. But I'm going to mention it.
It's from a late-movie meeting between Felt and an unnamed CIA figure played by Eddie Marsan. They sit on park benches. Without many wasted words, we get the sense that the agency man knows Felt is Deep Throat. He's warning him. He says he‘ll cover for him as long as he can, then reminds him: “Presidents come and go. The CIA stays, the FBI stays. We are the constants.” It’s a good scene.
So what's my problem? This line from the agency man:
Time magazine's Person of the Year is going to be Richard Nixon. I thought you'd like to know.
The line has the vibe of something Ben Bradlee says at the end of “All the President's Men”: “Have you seen the latest polls? Half the country hasn't even heard of Watergate. No one gives a shit.” I.e., You‘re risking all of this but Nixon’s as popular as ever. No one gives a shit.
I'm fine with the ATPM echo. I'm fine with “No one gives a shit,” because no words are truer, sadly. I'm not fine with one word.
Person of the Year? In 1972? That just leapt out at me. Watching, I thought, “It didn‘t become Person of the Year until when? The 1980s? At least? Before that it was ’Man of the Year.' Or ‘Woman.’ Or ‘Men’ or ‘Women.’” I was right. And wrong. Time didn't change it to “Person of the Year” until 1999. More than a quarter century after that scene.
I know. It's a tiny detail. But you get the details right. Because some of the details—as here—tell you the story of the culture.
Missing the Twin Towers
There's a moment in the new HBO doc “Spielberg” (recommended but slightly disappointing) that made me almost sputter in disbelief. I think, in the tradition of my family, I even yelled at the TV. Fact-check with Patricia when you get the chance.
The moment concerned “Munich,” a film I defended back in 2006, mostly from (of all people) Leon Wieseltier, who accused it of being manipulative, tedious, and—its real crime to Wieseltier—“soaked in the sweat of its idea of evenhandedness.” I.e., It didn't laud the Israelis enough nor demonize the Palestinians enough. It was ambiguous on something Hollywood is not usually ambiguous on: revenge.
That ambiguity is now praised from the talking heads in the doc, including film historian Annette Insdorf, who says the following:
The end of this film is not celebratory—rejoicing in the death of the enemy. It is incredibly quiet. And only on the second viewing did I realize the twin towers were revealed at the end.
That's when I sputtered in disbelief. Because even in defending “Munich,” I quibbled with parts of it. Particularly that part:
As Avner [Eric Bana's character] walked with the New York City skyline behind him, including, eventually, the World Trade towers, the camera should have followed him and faded out; instead it ignored Avner and stopped with the towers in center-frame. Spielberg is always underlining points that would be more powerful without his help.
Insdorf missed what I thought was way too obvious.
And I think it was too obvious because I anticipated it. “Munich” is a movie about the difficulties (logistically and morally) of tracking down terrorists, and it was released four years after 9/11, and so that more recent tragedy is never far from our minds. And in the movie's final scene, as our hero talks to his former Mossad handler (Geoffrey Rush) with Manhattan in the distance, in the late 1970s, you don't have to be Einstein (or Kael) to think, “Spielberg's gotta have the World Trade Center in there.” And he did. And for a second I was happy ... until his camera stopped on it. Until he underlined what I felt should've been subtler.
I look at the shots now and think, “Maybe I overreacted.” But I still can't believe Insdorf underanticipated. Seriously, how do you miss that?