Sunday June 19, 2022
A Special Paul McCartney 'Known For'
What is Paul McCartney known for, according to IMDb?
Thanks for coming.
Why “Vanilla Sky” by the way? Because Paul did the title song.
What could go in place of “Vanilla Sky”? I don't know. “Help!” maybe? “Let It Be”? The new “Get Back”? How about “Live and Let Die”? He did the title track to that one, too, and the song was a top 10 hit in the U.S., U.K., Canada and Australia. “Vanilla Sky”? It went to No. 62 in Japan. That's it. Charted nowhere else. Nowhere. Else.
Happy 80th, Paul.
Saturday June 18, 2022
Dreaming of Ed Norton's Summer Blockbuster
I was reading an entertainment magazine about the new big summer franchise movie starring Ed Norton. It was ... no. Except he didn't see it as a sequel. And it wasn't a sequel. It was just a big movie starring Norton and directed by the same director of that summer franchise movie. They were being reteamed for the first time. In fact, they'd already made the sequel to the franchise movie with a different director, and Norton implied he thought it was better with a different director, and kinda sorta disparaged this new movie. but I was thinking the opposite. I liked the new movie better than the sequel to the summer blockbuster.
I was reading all of this in a small movie room—one of many. They were like the old MTVs of 1980s Taipei, with framed posters and pictures of movie stars on the wall. One room was dedicated to Heath Ledger. The girl who ran it got weepy at the thought of him.
Monday June 06, 2022
What Is Thomas Dixon Jr. 'Known For'?
Here we go again.
So what is Thomas Dixon Jr. known for?
If you ask that of most people, they’d go “Who?” But if you ask that of someone who knows a little something of film history, not to mention racial history, they might say, “Isn’t that the guy who wrote the book that became ‘The Birth of a Nation’?"
Yes. In 1905, Thomas E. Dixon Jr., a lawyer-minister, published a celebratory novel of the Ku Klux Klan called “The Clansman,” which D.W. Griffith adapted into the 1915 epic “The Birth of a Nation,” one of the most innovative and controversial films of all time. It was screened at the White House and Pres. Woodrow Wilson called it history written with lightning. It expanded the boundaries of what filmmakers could do. It also helped resurrect the Klan in the 20th century, leading to untold death and misery. When Dixon died in 1946, the headline of his obit in The New York Times read: THOMAS DIXON DIES; WROTE ‘CLANSMAN.’ It is what Thomas Dixon was, and is, known for.
Except, of course, on IMDb.
Because apparently a day hasn’t gone by when we all haven’t argued about the legacy of “The Mark of the Beast.”
So how do the other movies rate ahead of “Birth of a Nation”? According to IMDb, the algorithm that compiles its “Known For” titles weights various factors in a filmmaker’s career, including:
- The importance of the job (director > production assistant)
- The frequency of the credit (if you’re mostly a writer, writing credits matter more)
- The type of title (movies > TV shows)
- The popularity of a title (based on page views/awards/user ratings, etc.)
- The importance of the credit (starring > supporting)
I assume it's those first and fifth factors that are screwing up Dixon's result, since he directed “Mark of the Beast” and “Fall of a Nation.” He also produced “Beast.” It’s his one production credit. So he wrote, produced and directed “Mark of the Beast.” So, by the algorithm’s logic, it must be important. Meanwhile, “Birth,” directed by D.W. Griffith, was only adapted from Dixon’s novel. He didn’t even get the screenplay credit for it. So, per 5) above, it takes a ding.
You know which of the five isn’t weighted enough? That fourth one. I think IMDb is ignoring its own data. Here are the numbers for those top “known for” credits for Dixon that indicate user and cultural engagement:
|Title||Quotes||Trivia||Photos||Connections*||Critic Reviews||User Reviews|
|1.||The Mark of the Beast||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|2.||Gods of the Machine||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|3.||The Fall of a Nation||0||4||11||2||1||2|
|4.||The Birth of a Nation||26||80||87||256||79||379|
* I.e., references in other movies and TV shows
I mean: Holy fuck.
And here’s what makes it all worse. The three movies ahead of “Birth”? They don’t exist. There are no extant copies of “Beast” and “Fall.” As for “Gods of the Machine”—you notice there’s no date on it? That’s because it was never made. It’s classified as “in development,” from someone named Matthew Collins, who made one short film called “War!” in 2014, and who supposedly based his characters for “Gods” on some of Dixon’s characters. That’s why Dixon gets a credit. Because some guy who made one short film in 2014 said his new movie includes Dixon’s characters. So when are we going to see this epic? Who knows? It was last updated five years ago: April 3, 2017. I doubt it will ever be made
Yet somehow, according to our preeminent film site, Thomas Dixon is known for this non-existent movie more than he’s known for one of the most famous movies of all time.
What a fucking joke, IMDb.
Friday May 27, 2022
Ray Liotta (1954-2022)
I first saw him in “Something Wild” as the ex-con hubbie of Melanie Griffith and he scared the shit out of me. I next saw him in “Field of Dreams” as the heavenly “Shoeless” Joe Jackson playing baseball in the Iowa cornfields, and he scared the shit out of me. Then it was “Goodfellas,” playing lead character and narrator Henry Hill, a kid from the neighborhood who becomes a wise guy, rats, and has to live out the rest of his life in suburbia “like a schnook,” and it was Joe Pesci who scared the shit out of me. That was one of the things that amazed me about that film—that Ray Liotta didn't scare the shit out of me. Of the wiseguys, he was the nice one.
He didn't get an Oscar nomination for “Goodfellas”—he was never nominated, in fact—but Pesci did, and won, and his career took off. Liotta? I'm looking at his IMDb page right now and the early '90s are full lof lead roles in forgetful movies. In “Article 99” he plays a compassionate doctor working with vets. In “Unlawful Entry” he plays a creepy cop obsessed with Madeleine Stowe. In “No Escape” he plays an Army captain convicted of murder and sent to a hellish prison. In “Corrina, Corrina,” he plays a 1959 widower who hires Whoopi Goldberg as a nanny. In “Operation Dumbo Drop,” he plays an Army captain who delivers an elephant to a Vietnamese village. I didn't see any of these movies. I doubt many people did.
I saw “Copland,” with Stallone, but... Apparently he was on a killer good episode of “Just Shoot Me,” playing a Christmas-obsessed Ray Liotta. Then bits and pieces in other people's movies: “Blow,” “John Q,” “Bee Movie,” “Observe and Report,” “Sin City 2,” “Kill the Messenger.” Sometimes he popped, sometimes he didn't. He did for me in “Marriage Story,” as the 40th-floor attorney who is too cutthroat for Adam Driver until his own nice-guy lawyer, Alan Alda, gets burned. Then Driver says, “I need my own asshole.” Cut to Liotta. He should've played these roles more: fierce guys who cut through the shit.
He puffed out in his later years and his piercing eyes seemed smaller in his head, but when he was young he was beautiful. Apparently he died in his sleep in the Dominican Republic filming another movie. “And now it's all over,” as Henry Hill said. Just 67. Another guy in his 60s.
Last night, in honor, Patricia and I watched “Goodfellas” again. It's one of the great movies, with one of the great endings, with one of the great examples of nonstop movie narration. It will live as long as people care about movies.
Monday March 14, 2022
A 'Known For' Quiz
IMDb's problematic “Known For” algorithm is back, and this time it's a quiz!
Can you guess who this actor is?
Here's a hint: I associate him with none of these movies. But I do associate him with several fairly popular films from the 1980s. Am I wrong? Is the algorithm? Here are some of the factors that “may” (IMDb's word) count toward “Known For” designations.
The job performed on the title (a credit as director will have more weight than a credit as production assistant).
Our mystery guest is mostly an actor: 97 credits. He's directed two things. He's produced six. The above are all for acting.
The frequency of credits for a particular job in the context of the person's filmography (writing credits may have more weight for someone who is more frequently credited as a writer than as a producer).
Actor. See above. So far it's working.
The type of title (a credit for a theatrical feature has a different weight than a credit for a short film or a TV series).
Our mystery guest did have a semi-popular TV series in the 2000s but that didn't make the cut. But I associate him more with that series than with any of the above. Problems appearing.
The popularity of the title (this takes into consideration the number of hits/page views, the average user rating, any awards won by the title and several other indicators).
OK, this is where it starts getting crazy. Obviously “Dark Knight” is a popular title, and maybe “Foxcatcher” a little. But the other two? Not at all. And the movies that are missing? The ones I associate him with? More so. Here's how each of these movies rank, in terms of this guy's overall filmography, compared with the movies I associate him with:
|Movie||Popularity||User Rating||No. of Votes|
|Live By Night||7||12||9|
|The Dark Knight||1||1||1|
|Movie||Popularity||User Rating||No. of Votes|
“Dark Knight” aside, most of my movies trump the “Known For” movies by IMDb's own criteria.
The relative importance of the credit among similar ones for the same title (for example an acting credit for someone who received top billing will weigh more than an acting credit for a cameo appearance).
And here's where it gets crazier. Along with his credit placement, per IMDb, I've included whether or not he's on the movie's main poster.
|Live By Night||17|
|The Dark Knight||15|
In every one of the movies I associate him with, he's either a lead or supporting. And his credit in “Movie 2” is misleading. He's one of the six leads in it. He just gets sixth billing.
Ready to find out who the dude is? Here are the movies I've hidden until now:
|Movie||Popularity||User Rating||No. of Votes||Credit||On poster?|
|Live By Night||7||12||9||17|
|The Dark Knight||1||1||1||15|
|Movie||Popularity||User Rating||No. of Votes||Credit||On poster?|
|National Lampoon's Vacation||6||5||6||5|
|The Breakfast Club||3||3||3||6||X|
Yes, it's Anthony Michael Hall.
And when you think Anthony Michael Hall, of course you think “Live By Night.” And “Dark Knight.” And “War Machine.” Doesn't everyone?
I mean, that's gotta be one fucked-up algorithm.
Here's the thing, though. While researching the above, I came across this beauty of a caveat on IMDb's explanation page for its “Known For” algorithm:
Since this is an entirely mathematical approach, some of our Known For choices may occasionally not be the best or most representative ones - if you're an active IMDbPro member, you may select your Known For titles. (italics mine)
Holy hell. So did A.M. Hall choose these films for himself? How does one know? Shouldn't there be a proviso stating so? If he did, there isn't. If he didn't, my original thought stands: that's one fucked-up algorithm.
Sunday March 13, 2022
William Hurt (1950-2022)
Hurt in “Broadcast News”: the devil then, benign now.
He kind of leapt right into it, didn't he? At least on the screen, there wasn't a lot of dues-paying. He did a couple of episodes of “Kojak” in '77, then a mini-series and another guest spot; and then it was “Altered States” (boom), and “Body Heat” and “Eyewitness” (boom boom). Now he was a star. He had a helluva run: “Big Chill,” “Gorky Park,” “Kiss of the Spider Woman” (Oscar), “Children of a Lesser God” (Oscar nom), and “Broadcast News” (nom). That was followed by “Accidental Tourst” and Woody Allen's “Alice.” And when the '80s ended, his star turn kinda did, too.
Oh sure, he did one of those privileged-men-brought-low movies of 1991, “The Doctor,” to go with Harrison Ford's “Regarding Henry,” which blah, and “Until the End of the World,” which was huh, and then he an I lost touch. We caught up with “Smoke” in 1995, which was mostly Harvey Keitel, and “One True Thing” in 1998, which was mostly Meryl Streep and Renee Zellwegger. A few years later he got another Oscar nom, this time in supporting, for playing a crime boss in “A History of Violence.” He kept veering away from the white-collar WASP roles that made him famous. Beginning in 2008, he began playing Gen. “Thunderbolt” Ross in the Marvel movies.
This is the wrong place to say it but I never quite got him. Women said he was good-looking and sexy but I never saw it or felt it. His screen personality just didn't jibe with me. It was like his characters were annoyed with things beyond the scope of the movie and maybe I felt he was annoyed with me. In real life, he came from a privileged background and maybe I felt that, too. He was just too blonde for me, and not in the e.e. cumming way. On the other hand, I thought he was great in “Broadcast News” as the shallow anchorman who would dumb us down bit by bit and ruin America. Now, of course, in the wake of Fox News and Facebook, Alex Jones and Tucker Carlson, his character seems benign. You watch it and go, “Those were the days, my friend.”
Here's a nice tribute from Mark Harris:
He was only 71. More here. Rest in peace.
Wednesday March 09, 2022
'You Keep Watching It': 'The Godfather' at 50
Dave Itzkoff: Have you rewatched the film recently?
Al Pacino: No. I might have seen it two, three years ago. It's the kind of movie when you start watching it, you keep watching it.
— from “The Godfather at 50: 'It's Taken Me a Lifetime to Accept It and Move On,'” in The New York Times
Truer words. I remember renting it in the mid-90s, on VHS from Video Isle, a great little video store about a block from where I lived in the Fremont neighborhood of Seattle. I think I'd seen the movie once or twice at that point, liked it enough, but this is the moment where I fell. Sunday evening, getting ready to return it, I rewound the tape, and then felt this tingle, this urge. “I'll just rewatch the opening, the 'I believe in America,' and the pullback to Brando. OK, just the wedding. Oh man, Tom in Hollywood. And the Turk. And Brando's shot. Michael at the hospital. 'You know my father? Men are coming to kill him. Now help me, please.' Looking at his unshaking hands. Then the pull in to Michael taking over.”
Readers, I rewatched the whole thing.
I haven't rewatched it in the last few years. Maybe it's too ingrained? There's not a lot left where I go, “Oh yeah, this.” But if I did start watching it, I'd keep watching it. Pacino's right. It's that kind of movie.
Friday February 18, 2022
What is Francis Ford Coppola 'Known For'?
Yesterday, Francis Ford Coppola was trending on Twitter because of a good GQ article on him 50 years after directing “The Godfather.” I like this quote:
“There used to be studio films. Now there are Marvel pictures. And what is a Marvel picture? A Marvel picture is one prototype movie that is made over and over and over and over and over again to look different. Even the talented people—you could take Dune, made by Denis Villeneuve, an extremely talented, gifted artist, and you could take No Time to Die, directed by ... Cary Fukunaga, extremely gifted, talented, beautiful artists, and you could take both those movies, and you and I could go and pull the same sequence out of both of them and put them together. The same sequence where the cars all crash into each other. They all have that stuff in it. And they almost have to have it if they're going to justify their budget. And that's the good films, and the talented filmmakers.”
Well, I don't know if “No Time to Die” is good, exactly. I thought the opposite.
Anyway, it lead me to IMDb and ... oops, they did it again:
That producer fixation. Not a directing credit in the bunch. I wound up tweeting the below to the amusement of half a dozen:
Me: So what's Francis Ford Coppola known for again?
IMDb: Oh, he's a great producer! He produced “Apocalypse Now,” “The Conversation” and “The Godfather Part II.”
Me: That's impressive. Did he do anything else?
IMDb: Yes. He got thanks in “The Godfather”!
Me: Thanks? For what?
IMDb: Just ... thanks.
Me: Much clearer now.
Seriously, that “Thanks” is the chef's kiss of IMDb idiocy. Give me a year and I could never have come up with something as assanine as saying Francis Ford Coppola is known for—not directing “The Godfather,” one of the greatest movies ever made, but receiving thanks for ... what was it again? ... oh, its 2007 restoration. And yet IMDb's “Known For” algorithm found this without any effort at all. Ping! There it was. And to the algorithm's credit, Coppola does have more “Thanks” credits (43) than “Director” credits (37), so, really, at the end of the day, isn't that what he should be “known for”?
Someday I'll stop this. Just not yet. Just not yet.
Tuesday February 01, 2022
Will Rogers, Cantor
Watched “The Great Ziegfeld” for the first time a few days back (review up soon) and in the Ziegfeld Follies heyday we got a shot of this marquee.
My thoughts went:
- Will Rogers was a cantor?
- Will Rogers was Jewish?
- Ohhhhh, Eddie Cantor and Will Rogers.
Both men are played by actors, or impersonators, and both aren't bad: Buddy Doyle is Cantor, singing “If You Knew Susie” (unfortunately in blackface) while A.A. Trimble, a Midwest salesman, plays Rogers backstage, talkin' homespun and doing rope tricks. Fanny Brice, another Follies favorite, plays herself. Yet another Follies favorite, Bert Williams, is only namechecked. I guess they figured Cantor's black face was enough.
The movie is, at three hours, way too long, and too hokey, but it won an undeserved best picture.
Saturday January 29, 2022
More Censored Chinese Endings to Classic Hollywood Movies
“Big Nurse ain't so bad, right?”
Apparently China has broken the first, second and third rules of “Fight Club”: It's gotten everyone talking about “Fight Club.”
In case you haven't heard: It was recently discovered that on a Chinese streaming service, Tencent, the ending to the dystopic, cultish 1999 Brad Pitt-Ed Norton movie has been changed/censored. Instead of the Narrator (Norton) realizing that Tyler (Pitt) is a figment of his imagination, and he and the girl, Marla (Helena Bonham Carter), watching the tall financial buildings around them blowing up and imploding like a precursor to 9/11, we get a title card with the following revision:
“Through the clue provided by Tyler, the police rapidly figured out the whole plan and arrested all criminals, successfully preventing the bomb from exploding. After the trial, Tyler was sent to [a] lunatic asylum receiving psychological treatment. He was discharged from the hospital in 2012.”
You'd think a movie about the decadence and economic disparity of the west would fit the Communist Chinese narrative, but apparently not. Also, whoever wrote the above didn't seem to know that Tyler didn't really exist. Also, they didn't have it copy-edited by a native speaker, since they make the classic ESL mistake of leaving out the indefinite article. They play into the stereotype.
Anyway, the whole thing makes me wonder how China might change the ending to other classic Hollywood movies.
Kay went to police and all the Corleone family was arrested. She remained loyal to Michael, and visited him, and he promised to go straight. He was discharged from prison in 1977 and returned to making a living in the olive oil import-export business. Fredo became a successful manager in Las Vegas. Connie remarried to a nice man.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
McMurphy was only faking the lobotomy and he was fine. Then he and Bromden realized that Big Nurse was strict but big-hearted and they decided to behave themselves for the good of society. They were discharged from the hospital in 1981.
Noah Cross convinced Jake that the irrigation project was a glorious project that will bring many benefits to the people. Katherine is his granddaughter and Evelyn misspoke before. They were all happy to be together. When Jake suggested getting an American meal, Noah told him, “Forget it, Jake, let's go to Chinatown.”
Alright, this kind of thing isn't my forte, but, in my defense, the whole thing seems beyond satire. Joseph Breen had nothing on these guys.
Wednesday January 12, 2022
What Is Peter Bogdanovich 'Known For'?
Peter Bogdanovich died last week at age 82. Here are some of the headlines:
- CNN: Peter Bogdanovich, the Oscar-nominated director of 'The Last Picture Show,' dead at 82
- The New York Times: Peter Bogdanovich, 82, Director Whose Career Was a Hollywood Drama, Dies
- Variety: Ellen Burstyn Remembers 'Last Picture Show' Director Peter Bogdanovich: 'He Loved and Understood Film Better Than Anyone'
Director, director, director. And here's what he's “known for” according to the algorithms of IMDb:
One out of four. Given IMDb's known-for history, I suppose we'll take it.
Tech geeks are kind of screwing up the knowledge of the world, aren't they? “Since Peter Bogdanovich has more acting credits, he's mostly an actor. Since Steven Spielberg has more producing credits, he's mostly a producer. That's what they're known for.”
Sunday January 09, 2022
Dreaming of Mark Hamill
A dream from the other night.
I had just finished a writing project, needed to do more, but wanted to clear my head so I went for a bike ride. Mid-ride I thought I’d pop in over to Mark Hamill’s house. We were friends—kind of. We’d just done something together earlier that day. Even as I was riding over there, though, I was thinking, “Does this pop-in make sense? Who does pop-ins anymore? And I don’t really know him that well.” But my momentum kept me going. I knew it was a bad idea but I kept moving forward. His house was a big house like the Ollermans near Lake Harriet, I rang the doorbell and came inside. There was a distinguished older man wearing a suit and standing just off the doorway in a book-lined den. He asked me what I wanted and I asked if Mark was home. He hesitated, and—figuring Mark had a lot of fans showing up unbidden and unwanted—I said, “We’re friends. I’m Erik. We just went to …” and then mentioned the place we’d been to earlier that day. He nodded and called for Mark.
Mark and I were in our twenties. He wasn’t happy to see me.
Me: Hey, sorry for popping in like this.
He: Uh huh.
Me: I was just writing and needed a break.
He: Uh huh.
Me: Probably wasn’t a good idea.
He: Uh huh.
Me: I … should probably just go, right?
He: Uh huh.
Then I was outside, walking down the stairs to my bike, chastising myself. I had known it was a bad idea. Why had I kept going? I picked up my bike and tried to find the bike path again. There was a public bike path that wound through their backyard but it seemed one way. Everyone was going around the big house and that wasn’t the way I wanted to go. But it’s the way I wound up going.
Saturday January 08, 2022
Sidney Poitier (1927-2022)
According to “Belafonte’s Balancing Act,” an essay by Henry Louis Gates Jr. that appeared in The New Yorker in 1996, when Harry Belafonte joined the American Negro Theater in Harlem in the late 1940s he met another aspiring young actor, originally from Cat Island, Bahamas, with whom he quickly became friends even though they often competed for the same roles. In one production called “Days of Our Youth,” Belafonte got the lead but he also had a regular job as a janitor’s assistant, emptying garbage, etc., and one night he couldn’t find anyone to cover for the janitor job, so the understudy, his friend, went on in his place. That also happened to be the night off-Broadway producers came to the theater seeking actors for an all-Black version of Lysistrata. They tapped the understudy. Soon his friend had a starring role in the Joseph Mankiewicz movie “No Way Out,” co-starring Richard Widmark, and was on his way.
“As a result,” Gates writes, “Belafonte has long joked that [Sidney] Poitier’s career is ‘based on garbage.’” Good line.
Sidney Poitier was the first the way that Jackie Robinson was the first—but also not. After Jackie broke through he was followed by Larry Doby and Hank Thompson, Roy Campanella and Monte Irvin, Willie Mays and Henry Aaron, Ernie Banks and Frank Robinson. Baseball was forever changed. After Sidney Poitier broke through as a leading man in prestige Hollywood productions, he was followed by … um … Denzel? Whoever it was, it took a while. We got blaxploitation stars: Jim Brown and Richard Roundtree and Ron O’Neal. I guess James Earl Jones and Paul Winfield had moments, Howard E. Rollins had a moment, but the next crossover stars were comedians: Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy. So really it’s Denzel. It took decades.
The point is Sidney was alone on his journey. The point is that while Jackie stopped having to turn the other cheek in 1949, Sidney never really got the chance. Endicott notwithstanding.
He was already legendary but kind of over by the time I came of age in the mid-1970s. Historian Donald Bogle calls him “a hero for an integrationist age,” which is why he was kind of over. No one was fighting for integration anymore.
Did he ever tire of the routine? Show up, be exceptional, turn racists around? That feels like half his movies. “A Black doctor is assigned to treat two white racist suspects…” “Two escaped convicts chained together…” “A couple’s attitudes are challenged when…” “A blind, uneducated white girl is befriended by…” “A traveling handyman becomes the answers to the prayers of nuns…”
And of course: “A Black Philadelphia police detective is mistakenly suspected of…”
Mark Harris, in his obit, touches on the burden he carried:
For a movie actor, there is perhaps no crueler fate than to be forced to serve as a symbol from the first day you step in front of the cameras to the moment when, more than 50 years later, you give your final performance. Acting is about risk-taking, exploration, struggling all your life with how best to make vivid the humanity of the character you play, for better and for worse. It's hard, maybe even impossible, to do your job when the expectations of an entire industry, and of an entire race, are draped across your shoulders.
It is part of the lasting significance of Poitier that he took on a burden he never asked for not as a curse but as a responsibility, and bore it not with resentment but with unshowy solemnity.
Then there's Howard Bryant’s tweet on this scene in “In the Heat of the Night,” whose significance I missed:
Did anyone have a year like Poitier had in 1967? “To Sir With Love” was released in June, “In the Heat of the Night’ in August, and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” December. All three were box-office smashes. “Guess Who” was the second-biggest movie of the year after “The Graduate,” while the title song to “To Sir With Love”—which was basically a love song to Sidney Poitier—was the No. 1 song of the year. “Guess Who” was nominated for 10 Oscars and won two (actress; screenplay), while “In the Heat of the Night” was nominated for seven and won five, including actor for Rod Steiger, editing for Hal Ashby, and best picture. It also had the longest legs. Sidney played Virgil Tibbs two more times in the 1970s, and the concept became a TV staple in the 1980s with Carroll O’Connor and Howard E. Rollins.
He was shut out that year. Poitier received just two Oscar nominations in his career: the famous one he won, “Lilies in the Fields,” which probably had more to do with the year it was released—the year of Birmingham, the March, and the JFK assassination—than anything else; and “The Defiant Ones” in 1958. That one was a breakthrough, too: the first nomination for a Black man in any acting category. The next Black actor to win an Oscar after Poitier was Louis Gosset Jr. in 1982. The next to win as lead was Denzel in 2001. Poitier was actually more honored in England, where the BAFTAs had a “Foreign Actor” category—basically anyone not British—and where he was nominated six times: “Edge of the City,” “Defiant Ones,” “A Raisin in the Sun,” “Lilies,” “Patch of Blue” and “In the Heat of the Night.” He won for “Defiant Ones.”
By the time I came of age, Poitier wasn’t doing the integrationist thing anymore; he was directing and starring in a series of comedies with Bill Cosby. I wouldn’t mind seeing those, to be honest, to see if there’s anything there. He also directed “Stir Crazy,” with Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder, a huge, huge hit. He also directed himself and his old friend, Harry Belafonte, in a western, “Buck and the Preacher.”
Two more things from Gates’ essay. At one point in the late 1940s, still scrambling, Belafonte and Poitier decided that comedy was the way to go and worked on a standup routine. Can you imagine? The comedy stylings of Belafonte and Poitier? The young actors were also befriended by acting/singing legend Paul Robeson, who was impressed with them. “I remember times,” Poitier says in the essay, “when he and I would meet Robeson in a bar on Fifth Avenue just off 125th Street, and sit there and talk.” Feels like it could be a play—a 1940s version of “One Night in Miami.” Someone should be working on that.
Friday January 07, 2022
Peter Bogdanovich (1939-2022)
One of the saddest things I’ve heard in recent years—which, let’s face it, has been a time of immense sadness—was on the TCM podcast “The Plot Thickens” when they ran a seven-part series on the life and career of director Peter Bogdanovich.
I already knew some of it, of course. Early career as a movie critic, fascination with the legends of Hollywood like John Ford and Howard Hawks, work with guerilla filmmaker and B-movie legend Roger Corman; and then that early, nearly unprecedented success as a director. In the first years of the 1970s, he came to the plate three times and he hit three homeruns: “The Last Picture Show,” “What’s Up, Doc?” and “Paper Moon.” Bam, bam, bam. The first was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including picture, director and screenplay, and two in each of the two support categories, both of which it won: for Ben Johnson and Cloris Leachman. “What’s Up, Doc?” was a comedy so it didn’t get AA consideration—though Madeleine Kahn was nominated for a Golden Globe as “Most Promising Female Newcomer” (losing to Diana Ross), and the trio of top-level screenwriters, Buck Henry, David Newman and Robert Benton, won the WGA. But “Moon” was nominated for another four Oscars, and won a supporting award for Tatum O’Neal, age 10, the youngest recipient ever.
Think of all that. Think of that high. One wonders if he thought it was all so easy. Plus the affair and then relationship with Cybill Shepherd. Dude had it all. Had anyone ever rose so quickly?
Did anyone ever fall so fast?
You know in “The Natural” when Roy Hobbs keeps hitting homeruns and then meets Kim Basinger and keeps striking out? Maybe Cybill Shepherd was Kim Basinger. Or maybe Polly Platt, Bogdanovich’s first wife and creative partner, was Wonderboy. Either way, in the next three years, he made: “Daisy Miller,” “At Long Last Love,” and “Nickelodeon.” Whiff, whiff, whiff. Yer out.
And then the sad thing. After he and Shepherd split in the late ’70s, he started up a relationship with Dorothy Stratten, a Canadian model was the 25th Anniversary playmate and then Playmate of the Year 1980. She left her husband, Paul Snider, for Bogdanovich. Less than two months later, Snider murdered her before killing himself.
Again, I already knew some of this. But from a distance I’d always assumed it was an act of jealousy. “The Plot Thickens” podcast suggests another motive.
Snider was a nothing from nowhere, and Stratten was his ride to unprecedented access, all the way to the Playboy Mansion in Hollywood, California, and face-to-face meetings with his idol, Hugh Hefner, the man who had it all. That was Snider’s real goal: to be like Hef. Apparently he was sad but fine with the breakup; he already had a new girl he was promoting. As long as the gates to the Playboy mansion stayed open.
They didn’t. In the podcast, Bogdanovich talks about an annual party held at the mansion, a “Midsummer Night’s Dream” party, where everyone shows up in pajamas. But he and Dorothy, newly minted, newly enamored, didn’t show up that summer. “Neither Dorothy nor I felt like it so we didn’t go,” he says in the podcast. Later, Hefner asked him about it. “He said, ‘Would it help if I told the husband he can’t come here except with Dorothy?’ … And this is where I made a big mistake. I said, ‘Yeah, I guess it would help.’ I thought to myself: She doesn’t want to come here and I don’t want to come here, either, but what am I going to say? No, it wouldn’t help? So I said, ‘Yeah, I guess it would help.’ And then he banned him from the mansion.”
According to people who knew Snider, that’s what did it. It wasn’t the divorce from Dorothy; it was the banishment from the mansion which came about because of a surfeit of politeness. Hef wanted to hang with Stratten and Bogdanovich, they didn’t want to hang with him but were too polite to say so, and Snider was dangled as an excuse. Who wants to hang with whom? Yeah, I guess it would help.
It wasn’t jealousy. It was access. Horrifying.
And then Bogdanovich kept going down; he kept finding tragedy. Dorothy had a bit part in his next film, “They All Laughed,” which starred Audrey Hepburn, Ben Gazzara and John Ritter, but he thought 20th Century Fox didn’t have much confidence in the film and would give it just a limited release. So he purchased the distribution rights, created his own distribution company, and distributed it himself. And lost millions. He declared bankruptcy in 1985.
In the 1980s, Bogdanovich directed “Mask,” which was respected, and the Rob Lowe comedy “Illegal Yours,” which wasn’t. In the’90s he tried to return to form with a sequel to “Picture Show.” Nope. Then the backstage comedy “Noises Off…” Worse. Then tragedy again. He directed “The Thing Called Love,” starring River Phoenix, who died of a drug overdose in the middle of its release. The movie lost millions.
And that was that. Bogdanovich wound up doing TV movies. He began to act more regularly, most famously playing the shrink’s shrink in “The Sopranos.” His directing projects in the 2000s often focused on sudden Hollywood death or sudden media disgrace: 1920s producer Thomas Ince, 1960s legend Natalie Wood, baseball great Pete Rose.
In the last year or two I spent a lot of time with Bogdanovich. I bought and read his books of interviews with Hollywood legends, “Who the Devil Made It” (about directors) and “Who the Hell’s In it” (actors). I bought and watched (several times) his 2018 documentary on Buster Keaton, “The Great Buster,” and hoped for more such docs from him—love letters to Hollywood artists.
His life would make a great movie. In the 1970s he was called a Wellesian wunderkind, which, rather than a compliment, should be a curse, considering what happened to Welles, and now what’s happened to Bogdanovich. “Follow your bliss,” we are told and Bogdanovich did. It worked for a time.
Saturday November 27, 2021
Birbiglia, Barth, and the Problem with Protagonists
On the Friday-morning drive back from spending Thanksgiving in Port Townsend, Wash., I listened to the episode of Mike Birbiglia's “Working It Out” podcast with Bill Hader. Or I relistened to it, since I'd listened to it when it first dropped last summer. Back then, I was doing my usual walk—from the First Hill neighborhood where I live, along Columbia Avenue, which is one of those “walkable” pandemic streets, to Madrona Park along Lake Washington. It's a not-bad hike, about two and a half miles one way, with a lot of public stairs at the end. You have to do the “Rocky” thing on the way back.
Anyway, that first time I remember laughing my ass off, and thinking, “I have to post about some of this when I get back.” But then life.
Yesterday's drive back was quite lovely: foggy, cool, and misty-rainy in the early morning. I took this shot when I was on the ferry to Seattle, which gives an idea of it:
Looks gray, but it was beautiful.
And I had great company. I still laughed my ass off, and learned, or relearned, life lessons, or art lessons, such as Bill Hader's via the “South Park” boys: The story isn't “This, and then this, and then this.” It's “This, so therefore this, so therefore this.” Here's the bit I wanted to post about last summer and never got around to. Mike Birbligia tosses out some stuff that isn't even going into his standup; he's thinking essay. It's one after the other, and they're all takeoffs on the idea that life is like a movie, although sometimes it's more specific. Example: “Life is like a Pixar movie: It's so good but then you think, 'What age is this for?'”
But my favorite, and Bill's, too, judging from his laughter, was the first:
Sometimes life is like a movie: Your friend dies, and it's crushing, but some part of you thinks, “Well, I guess he wasn't the protagonist.”
That's brilliant and cold and hilarious, and it suggests the screwed-up way we view our lives and our stories. John Barth wrote a bit about this, too, in his 1958 novel, “The End of the Road,” when one character lectures another about how we're all the protagonist in our own lives, and how our stories exacerbate this by narrowing the focus to a single point of view. “'Hamlet',” the character says, “could be told from Polonius' point of view and called 'The Tragedy of Polonius, Lord Chamberlein of Denmark.' He didn't think he was a minor character in anything, I daresay.” One wonders if this is where Tom Stoppard got the idea for “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead,” which plays off of all of that. As does Birbiglia in his podcast.
Anyway, just wanted to pass along.
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