Monday June 21, 2021
Is a Good Comedy Better than a Good Drama?
OK, nerd alert: I keep a spreadsheet of movie awards, guild and otherwise, and how they match up against the Oscars, and update it each season. Mostly best picture stuff. Anyway, in the last Oscar crush, my eyes wandered over to the Golden Globe Awards for Drama and Comedy/Musical, and I kind of idly scanned the list. And then not so idly I began to realize that generally I preferred the GG winners for Comedy/Musical (usually thought of as a frivilous category) over the GG for Drama (serious and important).
Here they are since 1970. My preferences are in yellow. If there's no yellow, it's a wash (“Nomadland,” “Borat”), or I haven't seen one of the movies ('Beauty and the Beast,“ ”Green Card,“ ”Arthur,“ ”The Turning Point,“ ”Fiddler on the Roof“).
|2020||Nomadland||Borat Subsequent Moviefilm|
|2019||1917||Once Upon a Time ... In Hollywood|
|2018||Bohemian Rhapsody||Green Book|
|2017||Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri||Lady Bird|
|2016||Moonlight||La La Land|
|2015||The Revenant||The Martian|
|2013||12 Years a Slave||American Hustle|
|2011||The Descendants||The Artist|
|2010||The Social Network||The Kids Are Alright|
|2008||Slumdog Millionaire||Vicky Cristina Barcelona|
|2005||Brokeback Mountain||Walk the Line|
|2003||Lord of the Rings||Lost in Translation|
|2001||A Beautiful Mind||Moulin Rouge|
|1999||American Beauty||Toy Story 2|
|1998||Saving Private Ryan||Shakespeare in Love|
|1997||Titanic||As Good As It Gets|
|1996||The English Patient||Evita|
|1995||Sense and Sensibility||Babe|
|1994||Forrest Gump||The Lion King|
|1993||Schindler's List||Mrs. Doubtfire|
|1992||Scent of a Woman||The Player|
|1991||Bugsy||Beauty and the Beast|
|1990||Dances with Wolves||Green Card|
|1989||Born on the 4th of July||Driving Miss Daisy|
|1988||Rain Man||Working Girl|
|1987||The Last Emperor||Hope and Glory|
|1986||Platoon||Hannah and Her Sisters|
|1985||Out of Africa||Prizzi's Honor|
|1984||Amadeus||Romancing the Stone|
|1983||Terms of Endearment||Yentl|
|1982||E.T. The Extraterrestrial||Tootsie|
|1981||On Golden Pond||Arthur|
|1980||Ordinary People||Coal Miner's Daughter|
|1979||Kramer vs. Kramer||Breaking Away|
|1978||Midnight Express||Heaven Can Wait|
|1977||The Turning Point||The Goodbye Girl|
|1976||Rocky||A Star is Born|
|1975||One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest||The Sunshine Boys|
|1974||Chinatown||The Longest Yard|
|1973||The Excorcist||American Graffiti|
|1971||The French Connection||Fiddler on the Roof|
I would've assumed a landslide for Drama, but it's 18-15 in favor of Comedy/Musical. Your mileage may differ.
Love that the raunchy Burt Reynolds prison/football comedy ”The Longest Yard“ got a Golden Globe. There should be more of that. And paired with ”Chinatown"? That's a fun year. If you had to do a double-feature, which year would you go with? I like '72, '74, '82, '14 and '17.
Sunday June 20, 2021
Love Is Just a Four-Letter Word
“You know, it was probably a stupid thing to do, not letting her play, but you can't be wise and in love at the same time, so I hope she sees the light sooner or later on that.”
-- Bob Dylan, talking about not letting Joan Baez go on stage with him during his disastrous 1966 tour of England, in Martin Scorsese's great 2006 documentary “No Direction Home,” which is currently steaming on Netflix. I've seen the doc three, four times, but tonight the highlighted just leapt out at me. This is around the time in the doc Joan Baez talks about stealing Dylan's song “Love Is Just a Four-Letter Word.” Later Dylan hears it and goes “Huh ... pretty good song,” and she has to tell him, “You wrote it, you dope.” All of that is part of the doc's idea that a young Dylan somehow tapped into our collective unconscious. Which certainly explains why he was so wise at ages 21, 22, 23.
Saturday June 19, 2021
Hader Does Conan '15
This made me happy the other night: Hader does Conan. From 2015.
Friday June 18, 2021
Movie Review: A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935)
I’d always assumed James Cagney wanted to be in the 1935 Warner Bros. production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” as a chance to to do something different than the usual gangster, grifter, or hot-shot pilot roles he played. But according to biographer John McCabe, and Cagney’s own memoir (as told to McCabe), he had no real desire to play Shakespeare. “It was not, he said, his cup of tea,” McCabe wrote.
So then I wondered if Warners cast him as Bottom, the fool who becomes a literal ass, as punishment for forever fighting them over pay. You act like a stubborn mule, we’ll cast you as a stubborn mule. Nope again. Jack Warner wasn’t really involved in the casting, while Hal Wallis wanted character actor Guy Kibbee for the part.
So how did it happen?
Max Reinhardt. He directed a lavish version of the play on Broadway, took it on the road, and when Wallis saw it at the Hollywood Bowl he was inspired enough to suggest making it a film. (He was also inspired enough to put the girl playing Hermia under contract: Olivia de Havilland. One out of two ain’t bad.) And it was Reinhardt who insisted on casting Cagney. “Few artists have ever had his intensity, his dramatic drive,” he said. “Every movement of his body, and his incredible hands, contribute to the story he is trying to tell.”
Shame it didn’t work out—for either of them.
Reinhardt was primarily a stage director. His film work was minimal and dated: just three short photoplays in Germany in the early days of the silents. From Cagney’s memoir:
Because Reinhardt was essentially a spectacle director … he remained largely on the sideline while Bill Dieterle directed. Reinhardt, so used to broad stage gestures, made some of the actors do things that were, I thought, ridiculous for the screen. We used to stand back, watching him, and say, “Somebody ought to tell him.”
I'm curious if Reinhardt directed Cagney in this manner because he brings way too much energy to the role. He’s breathless from the beginning and it gets worse. And when he imitates the storm? Talk about broad stage gestures. Somebody ought to have told him.
Bottom’s personality here, the braggart, isn’t that different from some of Cagney’s successful roles— “Blonde Crazy” and “Devil Dogs in the Air” to name two—so it's a little odd that it doesn’t work. The theater troupe Bottom is part of, which is led by Peter Quince (Frank McHugh), is set to perform “The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe” during wedding-day celebrations for Duke Theseus and Queen Hippolyta, but they’re all hopeless. That’s the gag. Bottom is the big fish in the little pond, and he gets cast as one of the leads, Pyramus, but he wants to play him as tyrant rather than lover. Then he wants to play the other lead, too. Then he wants the lion’s part. When Quince tries to placate him by saying he’d be too fierce a lion, he suggests a dovelike lion.
It’s tiresome. When is Cagney ever tiresome? Here. I guess it’s partly the broad gestures and breathlessness, but it feels like there’s something else. The glint in his eye is missing. He’s stupefied and selfish rather than joyous and looking for an angle.
You know the overall story. Different groups converge in the woods on a summer night, where they’re toyed with by spirits and faeries:
- Hermia and Lysander (de Havilland and Dick Powell) are leaving to get married against her father's wishes
- They are pursued by Demetrius (Ross Alexander), who loves Hermia, and Helena (Jean Muir), who loves Demetrius
- Bottom’s theater troupe meets to practice the play
(The theater kids never interact with the young lovers, do they? Just with the faeries. Maybe that’s another problem: Quince’s troupe is not relevant to the main storyline.)
Meanwhile, the king of the faeries, Oberon (Victor Jory), is angry with his queen, Titania (Anita Louise, quite lovely), who has become enamored of an Indian changeling, and he wants to punish her for it. So he instructs his magic sprite, Puck (Mickey Rooney), to rub a love-in-idleness flower on her eyelids when she’s asleep, so that when she wakes she’ll fall in love with the first thing she sees. (He’s hoping for an animal.) Oberon then hears Demetrius lambasting Helena, and he instructs Puck to do the same to such a cruel man. It’s this latter order that creates chaos: Puck thinks Lysander is Demetrius and causes Lysander to fall madly in love with Helena. A correction with Demetrius means both men are now pursuing Helena rather than Hermia, and Helena thinks they’re making fun of her, while Hermia accuses Helena of stealing her man. Arguments, fights, ensue.
On his own, Puck transforms Bottom’s head into that of an ass, causing the rest of the troupe to flee in terror. Initially unaware of the change, Bottom sits waiting for them to return. He sings to himself, which awakens Titania, dabbed with the magical flower, and she falls for him.
For all the Shakespearean misunderstandings, most everything happens the way Oberon wants: He gets the Indian changeling, gets Titania back, and orders Puck to fix everything else. Puck does. Kinda. Yes, Bottom is restored, as is Lysander, but Demetrius remains in love with Helena. I guess we assume that’s for the good—it allows all four young people to be happy—but it doesn’t say much for his free will. Imagine if the spell was removed when Demetrius was 60. Poor guy.
Afterwards, there's the wedding celebration, at which the Quince troupe performs lamentably to the condescending amusement of the royals and rich folks.
More cynical than Gore Vidal
A few things work. The flying of the faeries is pretty amazing, and makes me wonder what might’ve happened if a major studio had attempted a superhero film in, say, the 1940s. (Superheroes not having been invented at this time.) Most of the Warners players aren’t bad, given their non-Shakespearean backgrounds, while Joe E. Brown is hilarious as Flute, one of Quince’s troupe. We even get a mid-’30s Warners vibe at times. Early on, for example, Demetrius finks on our couple to Hermia’s father (Grant Mitchell), who drags her away, leaving Demetrius and Lysander staring at each other. Lysander, with the upper hand, then does a kind of insouciant tie-loosening gesture and leaves singing to himself.
Mickey Rooney, who also played Puck on the stage, got some of the best notices, but it’s another performance that feels too broad, too loud. Even so, it had quite the effect on Gore Vidal, age 10, who was mesmerized by Rooney and sought out the play and the author. Because of this film, he claims to have read all of Shakespeare by the time he was 16. “Yes, Cymbeline, too,” he writes in Screening History, before adding, “I’m sure my response was not unique.” It’s one of those rare moments when I feel more cynical than Vidal.
Warners’ gamble didn’t do great box office but it was nominated for four Academy Awards, including best picture, and won two: cinematography for Hal Mohr (the only write-in nominee to win) and editing for Ralph Dawson. Trivia question: Name the four Cagney movies nominated best picture. This one, of course, but the other three?
Interesting the fates for these stars. Both Cagney and de Havilland broke free of oppressive Warner Bros. contracts (Cagney in '36, de Havilland in '44), helping upend the studio system. Dick Powell, singing sensation of the '30s, became a hard-boiled detective in the '40s. The rest of the lovers quadrangle were less lucky. Alexander, who played Demetrius, was a closeted homosexual who killed himself in 1937, age 29, while Jean Muir was named (along with Cagney and Bogart) by John L. Leech as a communist before the Dies Committee in 1940. She was cleared, left Hollywood in the '40s, but was named again in the 1950s and lost her livelihood in radio and TV. Her last screen credit is “Naked City” in 1962. She died in 1996.
As to the best picture trivia? Yes to “Yankee Doodle Dandy.“ No to any of the gangster flicks: “Angels with Dirty Faces,” “The Public Enemy,” ”The Roaring Twenties“ and “White Heat.” Nor to ”Love Me or Leave Me," which garnered Cagney his final Oscar nod. But yes to another movie from that year: “Mister Roberts.” I'll tell you the final one, because unless you know it you won't guess it: “Here Comes the Navy” from 1934. None won.
Bottom and Titania, both punished.
Thursday June 17, 2021
'Sure, but I wouldn't want Cagney under the same roof as one'
“Included in Jack Warner's résumé of unpleasant character traits was racial bigotry. He steadfastly resisted for decades to produce a picture with black actors playing anything other than background characters exuding subservient clichés. In 1951 Warner forced the screenwriter Ivan Goff to change James Cagney's African American roommate in Come Fill the Cup to a character played by the veteran Irish American actor James Gleason. 'You think Cagney's gonna be under the same roof as a nigger?' demanded Warner.”
-- from Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film by Alan K. Rode. The “Cup” story comes from John McCabe's Cagney bio, which I've read and referenced often. I even highlighted that particular story in my copy but I don't remember it, so glad Rode reiterated it. A few more things about “Cup”: It was Cagney's last feature with Warner Bros. (for this reason?); and it's one of two Cagney films unavailable in any form. The other is the George Arliss-starrer “The Millionaire.” If you know where to get either of these films, please drop a line.
Wednesday June 16, 2021
Ned Beatty (1937-2021)
He played idiots and geniuses, subservients and dictators, along with painfully ordinary men.
Ned Beatty was in everything when I was growing up. Everything.
Turn on “M*A*S*H,” and there he was playing Col. Hollister, a regular army priest admonishing Father Mulcahey for his kindly passivity. Go see “Silver Streak,” with Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor, and he was playing a randy salesman on the make who—wait!—was actually an undercover FBI agent. He was a country music singer-songwriter in Burt Reynolds' “W.W. and the Dixie Dance Kings” and reprised his role as Sheriff J.C. Connors in Burt Reynolds' “Gator.” He guest-starred in episodes of “Rockford Files,” “Petrocelli,” “Lucas Tanner,” and “The Rookies.” In “All the President's Men,” he was Mr. Dardis, a Florida politician who you think is giving Carl Bernstein the runaround but is actually just a busy man, and whose evidence—a $25,000 check deposted in the bank account of one of the Watergate burglars—leads W&B to Kenneth Dahlberg, Midwest finance chair for Nixon's re-election campaign, who says he got the check from Maurice Stans, the chair for CREEP, thus tying the burglars to the White House for the first time. (Yes, I've watched “All the President's Men” too much.) And he played Arthur Jensen, whose five-minute sermon to Howard Beale on the cosmology of corporations—“The world is a business, Mr. Beale”—garnered Beatty his only Oscar nomination.
He was all of those things. And every one of those performances came out in 1975/1976, when I was 13/14. And that list doesn't even take into account “The Big Bus,” “Mikey and Nickey” and “Nashville,” which were also released during those years. That's a career, right there, packed into two years.
Of course, from there, he went on to play Otis, would-be ruler of Otisburg, the candy-bar-eating, sweet-natured stooge to Gene Hackman's Lex Luthor in Richard Donner's seminal 1978 movie “Superman.” I can still quote half his lines. “It's a little bitty place.” “Are we going to Addis Ababa, Mr. Luthor?” “He's serving notice to you...,” and in tandem with Hackman, “What more could anyone ask?” (Yes, I've watched “Superman” too much.) Back in 2013, I wrote “Most people go their entire lives without having the kind of chemistry with another person that Gene Hackman had with Ned Beatty.”
And I still remember Beatty from a 1979 TV movie, “Friendly Fire,” as the father of a soldier killed in Vietnam, who, with wife Carol Burnett, search to find out why. I remember him working in the front yard when a military officer and a priest show up, and the straightforward, heartbreaking way he said, “Is my boy dead?”
I think I thought Ned Beatty had been doing this forever but 1973's “Deliverance,” which I still can't bring myself to watch, was his first screen role. I think I thought he would keep doing it forever, too. All the best movies and TV shows would have Ned Beatty in them. Alas, that was the sweet spot. It was also the sweet spot for American movies, and for my ability to take in things and remember them easily. And Ned Beatty was there, playing everything. Probably why I have such a sweet spot for him.
He died Sunday, in Los Angeles, age 83. Here's to Otisburg.
Monday June 14, 2021
My Taiwan Movie
You know those company ice-breakers where you‘re supposed to go around the room and tell colleagues something about yourself they don’t know? I usually go with this one: “I was in a 1988 Taiwanese kung-fu comedy. It was called ‘Wan nung yuandong yuen’ and I played a hui waiguoren, or bad foreigner. In a bar fight, I get a bottle broken over my head by Hu Gua, the Johnny Carson of Taiwan TV.”
With a good crowd, it usually gets follow-ups:
- No, I don't know kung fu or any martial art. I'm almost defenseless, really.
- My Chinese is so-so. It was better then.
- The bottle was a breakaway, not a real one, but yes it hurt a little.
- No, the movie wasn't a big hit. Most Taiwanese probably haven't heard of it. Most Taiwanese at the time probably never heard of it.
As for how I got involved? I had a lot of foreign friends—meaning western friends—at National Taiwan Normal University, or Shi Da, and someone at the school was contacted by someone at the movie studio, asking for foreigners, and I was invited along for the ride. I think we did all the filming over two nights, 9 PM to 5 AM or something. We had a few westerners—or maybe just one?—who knew martial arts, but he injured his foot during filming. As for why I had the honor of getting the bottle broken over my head by Hu Gua? Earlier, I was asked to do a scene where I got punched and I was supposed to fall backwards and I went all in, slamming myself against the ground. So much so they were momentarily worried about me. After that, they probably thought, “This idiot would probably be good for the bottle-breaking scene.”
Basic premise: An international sports competition takes place in 1920s China, and we‘re the pushy foreign athletes who invade a local bar one night. I show up about 18 seconds in on the left side of the screen. Hu Gua is the guy in the Boy Scout outfit who tries to keep the two sides from fighting by, among other things, quoting Confucius: <<有朋自远方来， 不亦乐乎?>> Translation: “When friends come from far away, it is indeed a pleasure.” I heard that quote a lot, actually. The Chinese were always saying it to make sure you never picked up a check.
When I returned from Tawain in 1988, I brought a VHS copy of the film to show family and friends. A few years ago, along with some other analog items, I brought it to a digital transfer station in Queen Anne so they could make a DVD of it. Then I posted that scene to YouTube.
Yeah, the subtitles needed work.
For some reason, IMDb calls the film “Kung Fu Kids Part V” but it's definitely not No. 5 of anything. Its Chinese title translates to “Almighty Athletes” or literally: “10,000 Able to Do Exercises People.” No five anywhere.
Oh, and the Chinese misfits won the international sports competition. 當然。
Here are some photos from back in the day.
I vaguely remember waiting outside Shi Da with the others and being driven (in a van?) to the movie studio on the outskirts of Taipei at about 11 PM. The above—an older period piece, a western—was being filmed as we arrived. There was no “Quiet on the set!” because they shot without sound and dubbed later.
The young Chinese guy tries to hit on the western girls until the big guy on the right objects. His name is Bobby, to which the Chinese guy says “Bo pi? Wo ye yo.” “Foreskin? I also have.” It was that kind of “Benny Hill” humor.
Here's the western kid who knew his stuff. He looks morose because he'd just injured his foot. The career that got sidetracked.
The peace sign is a gesture Chinese girls often made. It didn't mean peace; it was just something cute to do.
Getting the run-through for my 15 seconds of fame.
Here's the grainy video version before the bottle is broken. We had to do it twice because the first time the bottle didn't break properly on the first swing. So Hu Gua actually hit me in the head with a bottle three times.
Hu Gua clowning around on set. Nice to hear he's still doing well.
A common sight: western soft drinks being sold with images of western stars. Wonder who the western stars would be today? Probably K-Pop stars.
Near the end of a long night.
I have such a vivid memory of this: Being dropped off on the streets of Taipei at about 5 AM as everything was waking up. These were outside a store waiting to be brought in.
And here it is. The guy with the elongated arms, Bong Cha Cha, was my favorite. He had a Joe E. Brown quality to him.
I miss all that. I miss not knowing where life is going to take you.
Sunday June 13, 2021
Lancelot Links is Still Worried About Our Democracy
Just trying to remind myself of all the horror that went on and is still going on.
- Trump-inspired death threats are terrorizing election workers, says Reuters. Not last November or this January but this April, when it was long over except for the bullshit. Just read the lede of the piece. On April 5, the wife of Georgia secretary of state Brad Raffensperger received a text saying she “going to have a very unfortunate incident.” Mid-April it was: “We plan for the death of you and your family every day.” End of April: “You and your family will be killed very slowly.” It has to stop, Gabriel Sterling said of the Georgia situation last December. It hasn't. Trump and company make it worse every day. They're a shithole country unto themselves.
- Ambassador Kurt Volker may have perjured himself as a GOP witness during the first impeachment trial (over Ukraine) of Donald Trump, says the Washington Post. He said there was no quid pro quo, and “Vice President Biden was never a topic of conversation” in the texts he turned over. But Volker was party to a July 2019 phone call between Rudy Giuliani and a top Ukranian official in which the president's lawyer said: “All we need from the President [Volodymyr Zelensky] is to say, 'I'm going to put an honest prosecutor in charge, he's gonna investigate and dig up the evidence that presently exists, and is there any other evidence about involvement of the 2016 election, and then the Biden thing has to be run out' ... Somebody in Ukraine's got to take that seriously.” So split hairs—it's not a text. But he knew what he knew, withheld evidence, and is obviously a dangerously partisan actor. Let that be his obit.
- This seems the biggest Trump-era news story of the past week: Trump's DOJ sought the phone records of Democratic congressional leaders and their families, says the Wall Street Journal. Among those targeted: Rep. Adam Schiff and Rep. Eric Swalwell.
- Oh, Trump's White House counsel Don McGahn was targeted, too, along with his wife, says the New York Times. Apple Inc. says it turned over their phone records to the FBI in 2018. The why of it remains unknown. “... the disclosure that agents secretly collected data of a sitting White House counsel is striking as it comes amid a political backlash to revelations about Trump-era seizures of data of reporters and Democrats in Congress for leak investigations.”
- Common refrain among Dems is that history will judge Trump and his stooges poorly. Maybe. Or maybe they'll write the history the way they want it. This week The New Yorker has a piece on how maybe Roman emperor Nero wasn't as bad as we think. He just had bad PR.
“And it's still going on, Danny. In today's newspaper, it's still going on. Right outside the door of this house it's going on.” — Paul Isaacson to his son Daniel in E.L. Doctorow's “The Book of Daniel.”