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Monday March 18, 2024

Norman Jewison (1926-2024)

Yeah, I thought he was Jewish, too. It was the name, the fact that he directed “Fiddler on the Roof,” the kindly disposition. Go know.

He was nominated best director three times without winning, though one of his films won best picture: “In the Heat of the Night.” Jewison lost out to Mike Nichols, who'd directed “The Graduate.” Did that make it better for Jewison ... or worse? I assume the former but it's got to stick a little, particularly since that was a rare schism back then. The last time it had happened was 1956, I think: George Stevens got it for “Giant,” but “Around the World in 80 Days” won best picture. The Academy gave it to the old hand and the new tech. In 1967, they gave it to the new kid and the traditional fare.

His three nominations were in three different decades: 1967 for “Heat,” “Fiddler” in 1971, “Moonstruck” in 1987. What's his best? “Fiddler” is his highest-rated on IMDb (8.0), followed by “In the Heat” (7.9), then “The Hurricane” (7.6) and, oddly, “And Justice for All” (7.4). I say oddly because the day Jewison died, January 20, before we'd heard the news, we were watching “And Justice” and couldn't finish. We got halfway through. It just seemed too over-the-top to be interesting. 

I should see “Moonstruck” again. It's a helluva oeuvre. He started out doing '50s TV, and not even the television playhouses. More musicals and glitz. Then he graduated to romcoms with a '50s veneer (“Send Me No Flowers”) before breaking bigger, or more serious, with Steve McQueen in “The Cincinnati Kid.” His mid-70s outpout is all over the place: from “Jesus Christ Superstar” to “F.I.S.T.” Meanwhile, Hollywood kept going to him, a Canadian, for movies about race in America: “In the Heat of the Night,” “A Soldier's Story,” “The Hurricane.” He was tapped for Malcolm X's story, too, but Spike Lee said nuh-uh. He kept getting entrusted with new stars: Stallone in '78, Nic Cage in '87, Robert Downey Jr. and Marisa Tomei in '94. Sometimes it worked.

Posted at 07:27 AM on Monday March 18, 2024 in category Movies   |   Permalink  

Thursday February 22, 2024

Schindler's Gist

The Hollywood Reporter has posted an oral history on the making of “Schindler's List,” which is both fun and sobering. Here's a sobering quote from Ralph Fiennes:

FIENNES I was getting ready to do a scene. I was standing, not shooting, but I had my SS uniform and coat on, and a little Polish lady came up and said something, smiling. I had at that time befriended a lady called Batia [Grafka], who was the head of props and was Polish. This woman said something, and Batia's face clouded over. I said, “What did she say?” Batia said, “She said, 'The Germans weren't such bad people.'”

And here's one that's touches the heart. Steven Spielberg talking about his friend Robin Williams:

SPIELBERG Robin knew how hard it was for me on the movie, and once a week, every Friday, he’d call me on the phone and do comedy for me. Whether it was after 10 minutes or 20 minutes, when he heard me give the biggest laugh, he’d hang up on me.

The Williams one reminds me of this great story about Mel Brooks. The Fiennes one reminds me of Faulkner's line: The past isn't dead; it isn't even past. 

Posted at 01:21 PM on Thursday February 22, 2024 in category Movies   |   Permalink  

Saturday February 03, 2024

Carl Weathers (1948-2024)

When I lived in Taiwan in 1988 I was friends with a guy named Karl F., a Black American, and during that summer we had some interesting discussions about race. At one point the movie “Action Jackson,” starring Carl Weathers, came up, and Karl was 100% behind it. He exuded such pride in it, and in Weathers, that it made me a little jealous. Because I didn't have anything like that. Because I had everything else. Most movie leads were white men like me (or not at all like me), so “white” wasn't just a meaningless distinction, it wasn't a distinction at all, and I didn't see myself in any of them. I certainly didn't have pride in any of them. For Karl, there was just Carl Weathers, and so, yes, he was his guy. And sure, Eddie Murphy was one of the biggest stars on the planet at the time, and Denzel was on the rise, but Weathers was the one who'd just joined the Sly/Arnold/Chuck pantheon. As he should have much sooner.

He became a star at the wrong time, didn't he? He played professional football for a few years, first with the Oakland Raiders, and then, after he was cut, with the Canadian Football League, but he had his eye on acting, and began with a bang: In 1975, he appeared in 10 filmed roles, mostly TV. I might've seen him on “Good Times” as the jealous husband of the sexy neighbor that wants J.J. to paint her in the nude. I definitely saw him in that all-football episode of “Six Million Dollar Man,” when Steve's friend Larry Csonka gets kidnapped before the big game. Weathers was busy in '76, too, appearing in episodes of “McCloud,” “Starsky & Hutch,” “Barnaby Jones,” and ... what was it again? Oh yeah. A little thing called “Rocky.” It was filmed in the spring, released in late fall, and became a phenomenon. It was also the first time I'd ever heard the word “sleeper” applied to a movie. Initially I thought it was an insult—a movie that made you fall asleep—but my father corrected me.

The Times obit has a good story on how Weathers got the part of Apollo Creed. He was reading with someone introduced as a non-actor, and felt he didn't do well enough. “They were quiet, and there was this moment of awkwardness — I felt, anyway,” he said. “So I just blurted out, 'I could do a lot better if you got me a real actor to work with.'” Except the guy he was reading with was Sylvester Stallone. Rather than be insulted, though, Stallone was amused, and liked Weathers' fire, and felt it would be good for Apollo. He wasn't wrong. “Rocky” was not just the No. 1 box-office hit of 1976, it was nominated for 10 Oscars, won best picture, and basically remade what movies would be. Happy endings, Hollywood endings, became de rigueur again. Post-triumph, Weathers graduated from episodes of “Delvecchio” and “Streets of San Francisco” into co-starring roles in films like “Force 10 From Navarone.” Seriously, check out that poster. Is there a more late-1970s movie cast? It's post-“Jaws”/post-“The Deep” Robert Shaw starring with post-“Star Wars” Harrison Ford and supported by post-“Rocky” Carl Weathers and post-“Spy Who Loved Me” Richard Kiel. Toss in some internationals (Edward Fox and Franco Nero), add a pretty face (Barbara Bach), and you've got your WWII movie. And Weathers is there. He's on the poster. He's on his way.

And then not. In the four years from 1975 to '78, he'd done roles in 24 different productions. And in the seven years from 1979 to 1985? Five—and three of those were reprising his role as Apollo Creed in Rockys II, III and IV. So only two other roles in seven years. What happened?

I assume he was hoping to star in movies. I assume he was looking for good roles. “I'm looking for longevity in my career,” he told journalist Vernon Scott, in a July 8, 1979 UPI piece. “I aim high and I'm doing my damndest to get where I want to be.” But then we entered the Reagan years, our one-step-back years, and I guess the roles, certainly the “aim high” roles, dried up for Black actors. In 1981, he was fourth-billed in the Charles Bronson/Lee Marvin movie “Deathhunt”; four years later, he was the titular “Braker”—a TV pilot about a Black cop that never made it to series. That was it.

In 1986, Weathers redid “Defiant Ones” for TV, played “Fortune Dane” for six episodes, then joined the ultra-macho cast of “Predator.” Apparently that led to “Action Jackson,” which didn't do poorly at the box office: $20 mil, 49th best for the year. It was also the biggest movie for its producton company, Lorimar Film Entertainment. So why no sequel? Lorimar went under that summer. Weathers couldn't catch a break.

In the '90s he did a lot of TV: nine episodes of “Tour of Duty,” 44 episodes of “Street Justice,” 28 episodes of “In the Heat of the Night.” Then he was tapped by Adam Sandler, a big “Rocky” fan, to play Chubbs, the one-handed golf mentor in “Happy Gilmore.” Since, he played himself on “Arrested Development,” Combat Carls in “Toy Story 4,” and Greef Karga in the Star Wars series “The Mandalorian,” for which he was nominated for an Emmy. It was his first. An entire film franchise, “Creed,” was also borne out of a supporting character he created. How often does that happen? Never, I'm thinking. 

Posted at 08:55 AM on Saturday February 03, 2024 in category Movies   |   Permalink  

Friday January 26, 2024

Talking Clint, Sergio and Ennio with IMDb's Known For Algorithm

Me: I've been on a bit of a Clint Eastwood kick lately, probably because TCM/HBO has been on a bit of a Clint Eastwood kick lately. It's been fun.
IMDb's Known For Algorithm: Clint ... ? Oh, the guy who played Frankie Dunn in “Million Dollar Baby”!
Me: Um, sure? Not where I would've gone, but yes. He also directed the movie. 
IMDb: He's a director, too? 
Me: Yeah. Kept getting nominated for Oscars for it. Won three, I think.
IMDb: Huh. I guess I don't know him from that.
Me: But Frankie Dunn...
IMDb: Totally!
Me: As actor, I guess I tend to associate him more, you know, Dirty Harry.
IMDb: In what movie?
Me: Um ... “Dirty Harry”?
IMDb: Sorry. No.
Me: Also “Magnum Force,” “The Enforcer,” “Sudden Impact.” [Bad imitation] “Go ahead ... make my day.” Reagan quoted that in a speech, that's how big that was.
IMDb: Hm.
Me: On HBO, I've been watching the spaghetti westerns again. The Sergio Leone stuff.
IMDb: Ah, the “Once Upon a Time in a ...” guy!
Me: Yes!
IMDb: The writer.
Me: Huh?

IMDb: Sergio Leone. He's a writer. That's what he's known for.
Me: He may be a writer but I think he's pretty well known for being a director. “Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” etc.
IMDb: Hm. Don't know that one.
Me: You don't know Sergio Leone for “The Good, Bad and Ugly”? C'mon! It's got that iconic Ennio Morricone score: Denenenene ... wuh WA WA.
IMDb: Morricone? Ah, “The Hateful Eight” guy! Also “The Best Offer” and “The Legend of 1900”! Great stuff.

Me: Wow. And I thought you cared about film. 
IMDb: I do!
Me: But you think Clint Eastwood is best known for playing Frankie Dunn, Sergio Leone is a writer, and Ennio Morricone isn't known for composing iconic spaghetti western scores.
IMDb: Exactly. You've got to get off this spaghettios kick. Nobody knows that shit.

SPLAT! ... Wuh WA WA.

Posted at 09:13 AM on Friday January 26, 2024 in category Movies   |   Permalink  

Thursday January 11, 2024

Herman Raucher (1928-2023)

I came across this obit recently in The New York Times:

You get similar thoughts doing a Google news search. Everyone knows Raucher from “Summer of '42”:

Everyone, that is, but IMDb:

Cue face palm.

What is this monstrously titled “Heironymous Merkin” movie? The Times' obit explains:

He then collaborated with [Anthony] Newley on the script for “Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness?” (1968), which was a notorious failure. Mr. Newley, who was also the star and director, plays a singing star simultaneously making and showing a movie about his self-indulgent life.

And here's what IMDb's own numbers say about current interest in the two movies:

Movie Rating Votes  User Reviews
Summer of '42 7.2 8,933 124
Can Heironymous Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? 4.9 410 28

Let us now leave IMDb to appreciate the life and work.

I don't think I ever saw all of “Summer of '42”—just bits on television. I remember the Mad magazine satire, but there was no soups-to-nuts watching of it. I was 8 when it came out. Jennifer O'Neill dazzled, of course, even at 8, and I have a dim memory that this is when I learned about apostrophed years. Something about being confused by the title until my father told me that the apostrophe meant Ninteen forty-two. I definitely didn't know it was autobiographical—based on young Herman's experiences as a teen with a war widow in Nantucket—until today.

“'42” was such a huge hit—the fourth-biggest movie of 1971, ahead of “Dirty Harry” and “Diamonds are Forever”—that Raucher wound up doing hazy, nostalgic stuff for the rest of the decade: the Jennifer O'Neill-less sequel, “Class of '44”; a TV movie “Remember When” with Jack Warden, about the war years; “The Other Side of Midnight,” about a WWII-era love affair between lantern-jawed John Beck and French actress Marie-France Pisier. IMDb gives Raucher an uncredited credit for helping write “The Great Santini,” but Wiki quotes him saying that was never him; he tried to adapt it for a TV show but he didn't work on the movie. 

Before Hollywood, he was a “Mad Men”-era adman, writing copy for Disney, while also working on plays and TV scripts for “Alcoa Hour” and “Studio One.” One of his plays was apparently adapted into an early 1960s Elvis movie? That's odd. He adapted his own work into “Sweet November” with Anthony Newley. That led to “Heironymous Merkin.” After that, he wrote the seminal “Watermelon Man” but clashed with director Melvin Van Peebles. That's when Robert Mulligan took to his “Summer of '42” script that had been kicking around for 10 years. 

Godspeed. Say hi to Chris. Ignore IMDb on the way out.

Posted at 02:01 PM on Thursday January 11, 2024 in category Movies   |   Permalink  

Saturday November 11, 2023

Dixon Redux, or Afterbirth of a Nation

Victory! Yours, mine and ours. On IMDb, our preeminent movie website, Thomas Dixon, the man who wrote the book and play upon which “The Birth of a Nation” is based, is once again known for writing the book and play upon which “The Birth of a Nation” is based:

Here's how it looked last year and most of this: “Birth” was nonsensically, idiotically, fourth.

This was always the most egregious of IMDb's algorithmic “known for” idiocies, so I'm glad they fixed it. Sadly, it looks like a one-off. Everything else is the same. Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks are still best known as producers, Bernardo Bertolucci is best known as a writer, and Peter Bogdanovich is best known for playing “DJ (voice, uncredited)” in “The Last Picture Show.” Boris Karloff isn't known for “Frankenstein,” Bo Derek isn't known for “10,” and Henry “The Fonz” Winkler isn't known for playing the Fonz of “Happy Days.” 

Plus “Gods of the Machine” is still up there for Dixon—a movie that's been “in development” for several years now, by a man who's never made a feature film, but who apparently uses some of Dixon's characters in this probably never-to-be-made movie. And yet it's the third-most popular thing Dixon is known for. Because algorithm.

Posted at 04:31 PM on Saturday November 11, 2023 in category Movies   |   Permalink  

Sunday October 22, 2023

Burt Young (1940-2023)

Stallone and Young in the sleeper hit of 1976.

When did I first see Burt Young? He always seemed part of my film/TV landscape in the 1970s but he'd actually just started getting roles. His first credit (of 166) was in an episode of “The Doctors” that aired in Oct. 1969, and then he was into the 1970s; and then he came to embody a kind of gritty, slobby 1970s aesthetic. But when did I first see him? “Rocky” was in March 1977, just after I'd turned 14. Was anything before then?

Here are the best options, per his IMDb page:

  • “Across 110th Street” (1972): Great movie, but I didn't see it until my 30s in the 1990s
  • “M*A*S*H,” S2, Ep7, “L.I.P.: Local Indigenous Personnel”: So memorable in this (more later) but I didn't start watching “M*A*S*H” reguarly until Season 4—though there's a chance I saw this in rereuns before March 1977
  • “Chinatown” (1974), one of the greatest movies ever made, and he's there at the beginning and end in a pivotal role, but again, I didn't see “Chinatown” until my 30s
  •  “Cinderella Liberty,” “The Gambler,” “Hustling,” “The Killer Elite:”: Nah, I was a kid

I'll cut to the chase: I think it was in a first season episode of “Baretta,” which I watched all the time: S1, Ep10, “Keep Your Eye on the Sparrow.” In it, he played Willie, a mentally challenged adult, and a childhood friend of Baretta's, who may be behind a string of robberies. It aired April 9, 1975. When I first saw “Rocky,” I might've even thought, “Hey, it's Baretta's friend!” There's some part of me that thinks I thought that, but I could just be fooling myself.

The point is, I don't remember any episode of “Baretta” anymore. But Paulie? He's imbedded forever. 

Here's the thing people forget about “Rocky”: It was at the exact fulcrum of gritty, realistic '70s movies and the crowd-pleasing, sequel-laden blockbusters Hollywood movies became. The first half was gritty slice of life; second half, he goes the distance, gets the crowd and the girl, etc., and, because it was a huge hit, the No. 1 movie of 1976, it led to “Rocky II,” “III,” “IV,” “V,” “Balboa,” and the first three “Creed” movies. It helped lead us away from gritty realism and the kinds of movies Burt Young was great in.

And was anyone grittier and more realistic in the first “Rocky” than Paulie? Stallone was strong and handsome, with Paul McCartney eyes, and his Rocky was too much of a sweetheart to become a thumbbreaker for the mob. Even the mob was nice: “Here's some money, Rock, don't worry about it.” But Paulie? Ooof. Always wanting something, always insinuating himself in. Hey, Rock, take out my sister. What? You're busted! You ain't a virgin no more! That whole scene. Yikes. Throwing the turkey out the door? There's no one in that movie you wanted to hang around with less than Paulie. Who woulda thought he would last the longest among the supporting cast? Mickey died in “III,” Apollo in “IV,” Adrian after “V.” We don't see Paulie's grave until “Creed.”

During the pandemic I wound up watching a lot of old “M*A*S*H” episodes on HULU, and came across the aforemented Season 2 episode, in which Hawkeye and Trapper help a soldier marry and take home a Korean woman and their child. It's the one where Hawkeye is going after that hot new nurse, but she turns out to be racist, and so he buys back his introduction to her? Anyway, the lieutenant who's charged with looking into the matter is played by Burt Young, and he's just this sad, slobby, brutal, slice of life. Hawkeye and Trap get him drunk, and then surround him women's clothes, to blackmail him. At first it doesn't work, but then he's like “What do I care?” and signs the release but doesn't hold a grudge. He's still kind of affable. More, I was reminded that a few of my forever lines came from him. Particularly:

  • “Whu — braissiere?”
  • “Fuggetit!”

So memorable. 

Young was nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar for “Rocky,” both him and Burgess Meredith, but they lost to Jason Robards' Ben Bradlee in “All the President's Men.” (Ned Beatty and Laurence Olivier were also in the mix. Helluva slate.) The movies then went the way they went, but almost anytime they returned to something gritty, serious and New York-centric, filmmakers reached out to Burt Young: “Once Upon a Time in America,” “The Pope of Greenwich Village,” “Last Exit to Brooklyn,” “The Sopranos.”

So long, Paulie.

Posted at 01:26 PM on Sunday October 22, 2023 in category Movies   |   Permalink  

Thursday September 14, 2023

Astaire, Rogers Not Known for Astaire-Rogers Movies, Says IMDb

Our sister-in-law Jayne stayed with us last week and we all watched “Shall We Dance,” the 1937 Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movie where he plays ballet dancer Peter P. Peters, aka “Petrov,” and she plays tap dancer Linda Keene, and the songs include such Gershwin numbers as “They All Laughed” and “Let's Call the Whole Thing Off,” and we get that insane roller skate dance in Central Park. And for some reason, in the middle of it, I looked up Fred Astaire on IMDb. I forget what I was checking. Because I got distracted by this:

Right. Not an Astaire-Rogers movie in the mix.

And hers?

One Astaire-Rogers, their final RKO picture together, which was a bit of an anomaly. Per Wikipedia:

... there is none of the usual “screwball comedy” relief provided by such actors as Edward Everett Horton, Victor Moore, or Helen Broderick, it is the only Astaire-Rogers musical biography, the only one on which Oscar Hammerstein II worked, the only one of their musicals with a tragic ending, and the only one in which Astaire's character dies. 

And not exactly the first Astaire-Rogers movie I think of. That would be “Top Hat,” or “Swing Time,” or “Shall We Dance.” Apparently I'm not alone. If you sort Astaire's feature films by user rating, it goes exactly that way, with “The Band Wagon” fourth. I love “The Band Wagon,” by the way, it's his other “Known For”s that are the head scratchers—particularly when you consider that billing supposedly matters in the Known For algorithm. Astaire-Rogers movies, he's usually top-billed. For “Towering Inferno”? He was fifth-billed (Newman, McQueen, Holden, Dunaway, and everyone else alphabetically), and third-billed for “On the Beach.” He did get Oscar nom'ed for “Inferno,” so that probably pushed it up. But to No. 1? (Good trivia question: Who won the Oscar the one time Fred Astaire was nominated for an Oscar? Answer: Robert De Niro for “The Godfather Part II.” Worlds colliding.)

Her No. 1, “Kitty Foyle,” was also an Oscar turn, for which she won. Her only nom.

So our biggest movie website says the most famous dance team in movie history isn't known for dancing with each other. I expected nothing less from IMDb. 

Posted at 11:53 AM on Thursday September 14, 2023 in category Movies   |   Permalink  

Friday September 01, 2023

The Good, The Bad, and the Known For

Another conversation with IMDb:

  • Them: Who's Sergio Leone?
  • Me: You mean “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly” guy? 
  • The ... what? No no no, I'm talking the “Once Upon a Time in America” guy.
  • Oh sure, he directed that, too.
  • DIRECTED? Leone's not known for DIRECTING. He's a WRITER!
  • Really? I thought people thought of him as this great Spaghetti western director or something.
  • Shows what you know. He only directed like nine things. And he wrote 16. Ergo, he's known for writing.
  • Well...
  • And that other thing? “The Good, The Bad and the Whatever” you talked about? I don't know where you get your movie knowledge. “Duck, You Sucker!” Now that's the ticket.
  • I guess?
  • Believe you me.

As the great man said in better circumstances: And it just continues...

Posted at 08:42 AM on Friday September 01, 2023 in category Movies   |   Permalink  

Saturday August 05, 2023

Bernardo Bertolucci, Writer

Which he was. Won awards for it, too. But he might be better known as a director. You could say, IMDb, that that's what Bertolucci is known for. But you do you.

Posted at 10:21 AM on Saturday August 05, 2023 in category Movies   |   Permalink  

Friday July 07, 2023

Scorsese: 'Where the Hell We've Been'

“Films allow us to see ourselves—to see who we've been, how we've evolved. There may be things we don't like to see about ourselves in the past. [But] we don't really have a chance of knowing where we're going unless we know where the hell we've been.”

-- Martin Scorsese, “100 Years of Warner Bros.,” episode 3

Amen. It's why retrofitting past artifacts to current cultural values is a sin to me. (Recent example: scrubbing the n-word from “The French Connection.”) It's not only white-washing history, it's an insult to all the people who fought and sacrificed to get us where we are now. It's pretending their great work wasn't even necessary.

Posted at 12:48 PM on Friday July 07, 2023 in category Movies   |   Permalink  

Monday July 03, 2023

Alan Arkin (1934-2023)

Alan Arkin, who passed away last week of heart ailments at the age of 89, said one of my favorite lines in recent movie memory. 

In 2012, I put together a list of my favorite movie lines of the year—I was a go-getter back then—and a line from Ben Affleck's “Argo” was No. 2. In the movie, Alan Arkin plays Lester Siegel, a B-movie producer who agrees to help the CIA's Tony Mendez (Affleck) create a fake movie in order to hopefully spirit six Americans out of Iran in the midst of the hostage crisis. Anthony Lane described him as someone “so scornfully amused by Mendez’s request that he has no option but to obey it,” and at one point, he and Mendez are sharing fast food on some steps in magic-hour light and talking about life. Siegel says this:

“I was a terrible father. [Pause] It's a bullshit business. It's like coal mining: You come home to your wife and kids, you can't wash it off.”

It's a good line but the line reading is what makes it great. There's no apology in his voice, or concern about appearances, or asking for forgivness. He's past caring but still caring. Back then I wrote, “It's a mea culpa without too much culpa. ... He's describing Hollywood but he could be describing any business. They're all like that. That's why it resonates. We all carry that bullshit home.” 

But that's not the line I'm talking about.

Six years earlier, in “Little Miss Sunshine,” Arkin played Edwin Hoover, or Grandpa, a man who travels 800 miles with his absolutely dysfuctional family in a yellow van so his granddaughter, Olive (Abigail Breslin), can participate in the titular contest in Redondo Beach, Calif. Are the parents fighting? I forget. But the trip includes Uncle Frank (Steve Carrell), a gay, depressive, unemployed Proust scholar, and Dwayne (Paul Dano), the wife's son from a previous marriage, who, stymied in his wish to become a fighter pilot, has taken a vow of silence and communicates only with notepad and pen. Meanwhile, Edwin, the father's father, is living with them because he got kicked out of his senior facility for snorting heroin. Yeah, it's a bit much. But it's still fun.

On the trip, stultified and fed up, Grandpa looks over at Dwayne, this doofus kid with his doofus vow, and says the following:

Can I give you some advice? Well, I'm going to give it to you anyway. I don't want you making the same mistakes I made when I was young. Dwayne? That's your name, right? Dwayne? This is the voice of experience talking. Are you listening? 

You wonder what it could be. There's so much wrong with Dwayne it could be anything.

Fuck a lot of women, Dwayne. Not just one woman. A lot of women. 

I exploded with laughter. It was so unexpected. It was also the line reading. He didn't care what other people thought but he cared enough to dispense this advice. He was past caring but still caring. In his later career, Arkin mastered that tone. 

Better: It echoes something Arkin, as Dr. Sheldon Kornpett, said nearly 30 years earlier in “The In-Laws.” You know that movie, right? If you don't, I recommend it. He's being led astray by his future in-law and possible rogue CIA agent Vince Ricardo (Peter Falk), and now they're facing a firing squad in Latin America. And with death staring at him in the face, bereft, he says something like: “I only fucked four women. And two of them were my wife.” The regret Sheldon has is the advice Edwin dispenses.

Arkin's big break came on Broadway in 1963 with “Enter Laughing,” basically playing Carl Reiner, and shortly thereafter he was nominated for a best actor Oscar for playing Lt. Rozanov in “The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming” (which I have to see). Then he was terrorizing a blind Audrey Hepburn in “Wait Until Dark” before being cast as the titular “Inspector Clouseau” (following Peter Sellers), and then that great symbol of 20th century defianct impotence, Lt. Yossarian in “Catch 22.” Jeffrey Wells over at Hollywood Elsewhere writes of Arkin, “For me he was the king of fickle neuroticism and glum irreverence for decades and decades, and for decades and decades I loved him like few others.” Amen. 

Posted at 08:15 AM on Monday July 03, 2023 in category Movies   |   Permalink  

Friday June 16, 2023

Chinatown V

Its inalienable essence

One of the great takeaways from Sam Wasson's “The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood” is just how much Roman Polanski meant to the script. Writing credits are really kind of nuts in Hollywood. People who work on a thing aren't credited, people who don't work on the thing wind up with screenwriting Oscars. According to Wasson, the screenwriter for “Chinatown, Robert Towne, ”secretly employed an old college friend named Edward Taylor as his uncredited writing partner for more than 40 years,“ including on ”Chinatown.“ But their draft went on and on and on. What Towne and Taylor couldn't do is kill their little darlings. That was up to Polanski. 

The new ”Polanski“ draft was focused on its inalienable essence: Jake Gittes. He was in every scene. True to convention, the audience would never know any more or any less than their screen detective but would uncover the mystery as he did, clue by clue.

Additionally Polanski had tossed out Evelyn and Escobar's affair along with their tangential subplot; he cut many of Gittes's lowlife vulgarisms and class consciousness, reviving in their place certain hard-boiled characteristics common to the genre; he removed scenes with Cross's goons and long expositional dialogues between Evelyn and Gittes—strewn confusingly with red herrings and dense conspiratorial fogs right out of The Big Sleep. Where once the character of Byron Samples—also cut completely from the new draft—accompanied Gittes on his investigation of the retirement home, now Evelyn goes with Gittes; the change enhances their complicity, their love story, and leads nicely to bed. In Towne's first drafts, Gittes's motivation is blurred in the smokescreen of twisty misdirects. After Evelyn drops the lawsuit against him, what does the water scandal matter to him personally? In the Polanski rewrite, an answer is offered as an outraged Gittes, in the barbershop, defends the integrity of his profession, an indication that for all his sleazy divorce work, a nobler detective is waiting to emerge. The water mystery is his opportunity to do good—which, in a flourish of chilling irony, he will blunder by hindering rather than helping, near the climax of the Polanski revision. In the original, Evelyn masterminded the showdown with her father; in the Polanski revision, Gittes instigates it, creating a new scene that further demonizes Cross. Rather than tremble and repent when confronted or wither under a narcotic haze, as he did in Towne's early drafts, Cross stands firm and fully justifies his crimes: ”You see, Mr. Gittes,“ he growls in the new scene, ”most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and the right place, they're capable of anything.“

It makes sense that Polanski more than Towne would come up with that line. Polanski grew up Jewish in Nazi-occupied Europe. He knew it firsthand.

”Chinatown" wound up being nominated for 11 Academy Awards. It won one: Towne.

Posted at 08:56 AM on Friday June 16, 2023 in category Movies   |   Permalink  

Saturday April 29, 2023

Chinatown I

Bad for glass. We're forever behind the detective who's forever behind.

I've seen “Chinatown” about half a dozen times, maybe more. It's the movie I keep returning to these days, as I once kept returning to “The Insider” or “All the President's Men.” Maybe it just resonated more during the Trump era. Forget it, Erik, it's the GOP.

I thought I got it, too. The movie is an updated film noir, except the femme fatale is the victim and the cynical private detective has no idea how awful the world is. Brilliant. I got it.

Then I read this quote from production designer Richard Sylbert in “Hollywood: An Oral History” and realized I wasn't seeing half of “Chinatown”: 

You say to yourself, “Okay, Chinatown is about a drought, so all the colors in this picture are going to be related to the idea of a drought. And the only time you're going to see green is when somebody has water for the grass.” ... All the buildings in this picture will be Spanish except one. And they'll all be white. The reason they're white is that the heat bounces off them. And not only will they all be white, they'll be above the eye level of the private eye. Above eye level means, for the private eye, that he has to walk uphill. It is always harder emotionally to walk uphill. You then decide what the colors are going to be and why they're going to be that way and what the range should be, let's say, from burnt grass, which is a terrific color, to white, which you know you're already going to deal with, to umber. Umber is interesting, because it's the color of a shadow. And in a movie like this, the more shadowy the better. You use the layers, the planes, use everything you can. All these things are available to you to structure a movie. Even opaque glass. You know what's interesting about opaque glass in a mystery? You can't quite see who's behind it, and it looks like frozen water. And in a picture where they're talking about water, it's an interesting object to get involved with. And you just keep doing that wherever you can.

How fucking brilliant is all that? Sylbert also worked on “Splendor in the Grass,” “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” “The Graduate,” “Rosemary's Baby,” “Carnal Knowledge,” “Shampoo,” “Reds,” “Frances,” “Breathless,” “Dick Tracy,” and “Carlito's Way.” Not a bad CV.

Posted at 11:29 AM on Saturday April 29, 2023 in category Movies   |   Permalink  

Friday April 14, 2023

All the Diminutives

Fun fact: Jimmy Cagney didn't like being called Jimmy. Professionally he was James, his friends called him Jim, but early on Warner Bros. tagged him with the diminutive “Jimmy,” which, in their defense, made him seem like family. He was the kid down the street, your tough little brother, your ne'er-do-well son. Ruffle his hair why don’t you.

This is well-known is you know Cagney. Less talked about: Warners did the exact same thing with his character names. For about 10 years they were, if not diminutives, at least -y or -ie names.

For his big breakthrough he played Tom Powers, but the women in the film often called him Tommy. Then Warners gave him monosyllabic names like Jack, Bert, Matt and Joe. But starting in ’32, they put all their chips on the diminutive, calling him, for his next films, Jimmy, Lefty, Danny, and Patsy. He was Chester Kent for “Footlight Parade” and Dan Quigley for “Lady Killer” but then then they were back with Jimmy, Jerry, Chesty, Eddie and Tommy. As a G-Man, he was Brick, but in “The Irish in Us” he’s Danny again. Even when he broke from Warners for two pictures, he played a Johnny (Cave) and a Terry (Rooney). Once he returned, he played, among others, Rocky (Sullivan), Eddie (Bartlett), Jerry (Plunkett) and Danny (Kenny).

That last one was “City for Conquest,” a big production that went awry, and that was it for Cagney's diminutives. Did he put his foot down? “I'm 40, c'mon, guys.” 

For the last decade of his career, he didn't have much of a choice of character names since he increasingly played real people: James Cagney (a cameo in “Starlift”), Martin “Moe the Gimp” Snyder in “Love Me or Leave Me,” a George M. Cohan reprise in “The Seven Little Foys,” Lon Chaney in “Man of a Thousand Faces,” and Admiral Bill Halsey in “The Gallant Hours.” Even his ballyooed return to movies after 20 years was a non-fiction role: Rhinelander Waldo in “Ragtime.”

I am curious if Warners gave him all the diminutives because it made business sense or because it annoyed him. He was afraid to fly and they kept making him a pilot, too.

Posted at 12:34 PM on Friday April 14, 2023 in category Movies   |   Permalink  
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