THE GIRL RIGHT NEXT DOOR (Mary Tyler Moore, R.I.P.)

She had the same job in the sixties and seventies that Ginger Rogers had in the thirties and forties and Jennifer Aniston (who will be the last) had in the nineties and yesterday.

The job description was simple: Dancer’s grace, improbable cheekbones, trouper. Must be able to hang with the kooks without becoming one. Must be able to represent the normals without forgetting you belong to us, improbabilities and all.

Of the thousands who applied, only a handful–mostly children of Show Biz–managed to grab a moment.

Only those three were able to make a career of it.

And, of those, our Mary may have had the hardest job, if only because we asked her to represent “normalcy” at the moment when the concept was shifting at light speed from the old paradigm to the new.

The new paradigm is no paradigm at all. Normalcy is the new tyranny. But that isn’t her fault. We couldn’t have asked for better representation.

Of course, like any woman who resolves too many contradictions without seeming to sweat, she was deemed “difficult.” Any good looking female who makes it look easy while holding that much power over our imaginations is bound to get a reputation. (Ginger was a puppet, Jen a lightweight. It’s always something). Personally I never cared. If being difficult was what it took for her to be what she was, then it was worth every bottle of Pepto every producer in Hollywood ever poured down his throat.

She did such a good job of being difficult that, before all was said and done, she was one of the handful to ever be part of the DNA of two iconic television shows, one of which carried her name, and had a host of Emmys, a Tony, an Oscar nomination and most everything else we could throw at her. If we didn’t throw anything at her for her portrayal of Mary Todd Lincoln in Gore Vidal’s Lincoln–which was probably the finest performance of her career, so good that, just be existing, it kept Sally Field’s turn in the more recent Spielberg movie from ever lifting off–it was probably because not enough of us could make the shift in our minds.

Not that I imagine too many people ever thought she was “really” Laura Petrie or Mary Richards, in the way that we thought James Garner just might be Bret Maverick or Jim Rockford. But that only made her more improbable, not a whit less valuable. Actors, after all, the iconic ones at least, have the reverse job of most who seek space in our heads, including other actors. We’re forced to measure their value separately. For them, it is not the being, but the doing that matters. It’s the doing that matters–to us and to them–even in those rare instances where we dare to suppose their being and doing are one and the same.

It wasn’t finally important for Mary Tyler Moore to be Mary Richards, any more than it was for James Garner to be Jim Rockford. It was only important for them to do.

And the vital thing for those of us in the cheap seats–be it Broadway balcony, metroplex cushion, or the recliner in the den–was to be allowed to eradicate the distance in our minds for that time that they chose to represent us.

No one represented us more, or longer, or better, when, not so very long ago, there was an “us.”

YEARNING TO BREATHE FREE (At the Multiplex: December, 2016)

New category…where I write about new movies I actually see in the theater.

Hell or High Water
(D. David Mackenzie, 2016)

and…

Manchester By the Sea
(D. Kenneth Lonergan, 2016)

Jeff Bridges and Michelle Williams are pretty much the only two working actors I’ll pay full price to see act in a theater anymore. (I’ll pay to see Jennifer Aniston, but that’s mostly to see what she’s doing with her persona, of which being even a very good actress is not the most essential part). Especially since Williams tends to make the kind of movies that rarely play around here, I don’t expect to get many chances to see them both in the same month. Some day they should do a movie together. Maybe he could play her dad. I’d pay to see that.

Bridges saves Hell or High Water even though he’s coasting. He hasn’t reached the state of post-Lonesome Dove Robert Duval yet, where he just plays the same guy over and over and looks sleepier and cootier every time out, but there’s a lot of his Rooster Cogburn (True Grit) in his Texas Ranger, Marcus Hamilton, here. And, though I’ve only seen clips of it, I suspect a lot of his Bad Blake (Crazy Heart) as well. In theory, the movie should have a lot of other things going for it. The plot is a nice twist on the Robin Hood theme, the writing and directing are efficient, if hardly inspired, and the rest of the cast is good enough to get by, with Gil Birmingham a standout as Bridges’s Half-Indian/Half-Mexican partner.

There’s fun to be had. It didn’t bore me, a quality which, at today’s prices, I don’t take for granted.

It didn’t grab me either, hard as it kept trying. The best chance it had at pulling me in was with a soundtrack that tried a little too hard to match the desolation of its West Texas setting. The comparisons to The Last Picture Show, noted by a number of critics as a nice metaphor for our current bleak state of the national heart, are not entirely off base.

The problem is, it stays metaphorical. The connection never hurts and that’s where I know the right soundtrack could have helped because the one selection that strikes all the way home–the one that plays out with Texas losers Chris Pine and Ben Foster (the Howard brothers…nice joke for the Jesse James crowd) running down the dusty roads listening to a radio that, for once, plays something that sounds like it came from that dust–is so perfect it throws the rest of the movie off stride.

I don’t usually concede that anything Elvis did so well was done better elsewhere and I don’t concede it here. But it does fit the setting better. There’s a quality in Waylon’s voice–and Waylon’s alone–that nails the wasteland spirit of the new Texas dirt the way Al Green’s voice once nailed Black America’s Crack Epidemic, and Patty Loveless’s voice nailed Hillbilly America’s Meth-driven White Death, years before they actually happened.

Anybody who knew enough to put one Waylon song in this should have known enough to give him the whole show.

If they couldn’t do that, they should have hired Michelle Williams and given her one big scene. That’s just about what she gets in Manchester By the Sea, Kenneth Lonergan’s drearily well-made chamber piece set on the other side of the country in contemporary New England.

It’s not the first time she’s blown the nihilism clean out of a movie. She did it in a better movie called Me Without You as far back as 2001, and, more recently, in 2008’s Incendiary, which was not as good.

She does it again here and could have probably done it for Hell and High Water if somebody had just asked.

I imagine she has done it in a few other movies I haven’t seen–much as I admire her for taking this task on, and much as I believe it’s necessary for somebody to take it on, I really have to be in the mood for this stuff. When she picks up her Oscar next spring it will be for blowing nihilism out of whatever movie she’s been in for fifteen years running and because it’s her turn. God bless her for that. The best thing about that, if it happens, is that it will just be possible the thing is being done in time to save her sanity. I can’t believe she can take much more of this.

She’s so good in that one big scene that she actually allows Casey Affleck’s previously bewildered performance to finally come together–to merge the ruined man he’s become in the movie’s present with the vibrant man we’ve seen in the movie’s flashbacks.

And when he wins his Oscar this spring (assuming his alleged tendency to abuse women doesn’t catch up with him first) he should really thank Michelle Williams.

Because, without changing a single thing more, his performance stays together the rest of the way. By the end, I almost liked a couple of the people I was supposed to like. I even almost liked him. The only thing lacking by then was nerve.

What it needed, as the last scene played and gave way, yet again, to the dreary score, was one perfect kick in the modern gut. One song that nailed everything in place and turned the whole thing from a chamber piece into something worthy of Michelle Williams showing up, yet again, to save the day.

What it needed was something to reestablish the filmmaker’s true fake vision, to show that he didn’t really believe everything would be alright in the godforsaken land he had just gone to such mighty lengths to portray in so much excruciating detail.

Of course, the song that would have nailed it all in place came straight into my head. They really should call me in to help out with this stuff.

Since they don’t, sometimes I just have to turn the sound off in the movie theater behind my bloodshot eyes and let the right song play in there and walk out with a grim smile on my face.

I was never more right than I was this time. By the time I hit the parking lot, I had convinced myself I had almost been in the presence of greatness.

 

MY FAVORITE HEIST FLICK: COMEDY DIVISION (Not Quite Random Favorites…In No Particular Order)

I have a thing for heist flicks. I have such a thing for heist flicks that I find it hard to believe I’ve operated this blog for four-and-a-half years without writing about at least one of them at length.

Today, I’ll fix that.

Heist flicks can be broadly defined: What’s a kidnapping movie but a heist flick about a stolen body? There must be some kind of horror film division where souls are filched eh? Westerns about land grabs? Yeah, I’ve heard of those.

You can stretch “heist” almost as far as you can stretch “noir.”

Forget all that. I’m sticking to the basics.

For the purposes of this little exercise, the heist flick concept will be limited to stories about some person or persons trying to steal some form of loot.

That ought to keep it simple.

And within that basic definition there are two fundamental approaches: Comedies and tragedies.

I’ll get to the tragedies later. Today I’ll stick to the comedies.

Better yet, I’ll stick to a period that stretches from the early sixties to the early seventies, when nearly all the best comedy heist flicks were made.

There were good ones before (Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief, from 1955, a likely model of inspiration, comes directly to mind).

And I’m sure there have been good ones since (can’t think of any off-hand but the world’s a big place and I don’t like to say never).

But the best were nearly all made in those golden years between 1963 and 1971, when so many other pleasant things were going on, most of which these films never acknowledge.

They did have certain themes in common beyond the obvious heist structure. They all kept a fine balance between real comedy and real suspense…something Hitchcock himself only managed a few times. They all had genuinely clever plots that bordered on the feasible without inviting too much realism in  And they all had a developing love story at their center, which mirrored and enhanced both the comedy and the suspense.

My favorite is my favorite because it did the best job of balancing the love story with the rest. And considering who all and what all was involved in defining the genre, that’s saying something.

So….taking the best in chronological order (any other order would be an exercise in absurdity) and saving the very best for last:

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Charade (1963)
Director: Stanley Donen
Love Story: Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn
Heist Object: A Stamp (sort of!)

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Topkapi (1964)
Director: Jules Dassin
Love Story: Peter Ustinov and His Sorry Life
Heist Object: Emerald-encrusted Dagger

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The Moon-Spinners (1964)
Director: James Neilsen
Love Story: Hayley Mills (not the character she played so much as the actress) and the Isle of Crete.
Heist Object: Pearls (which have already been stolen…is there such a thing as a Reverse Heist Flick?)

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Kaleidoscope (1966)
Director: Jack Smight
Love Story: Warren Beatty and Oh! Susannah York
Heist Object: Casino Cash

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How to Steal a Million (1966)
Director: William Wyler
Love Story: Audrey Hepburn and Peter O’Toole (she made a romantic lead out of him…no small feat)
Heist Object: Paintings

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Waterhole #3 (1967)
Director: William Graham
Love Story: James Coburn and Margaret Blye’s Daddy (played by Caroll O’Connor…it’s complicated…a horse named Blue also figures prominently)
Heist Object: Gov…ern…ment…Gold

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Two Mules for Sister Sara (1969)
Director: Don Siegel
Love Story: Clint Eastwood and Shirley MacLaine (she made a romantic lead out of him…not even Audrey Hepburn could have managed that!)
Heist Object: Government Gold…it was a thing then.

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The Italian Job (1969)
Director: Peter Collinson
Love Story: Michael Caine and Noel Coward (though Margaret Blye once again makes for a lovely distraction)
Heist Object: Mafia Gold…being protected by the Government (a nice twist)

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Kelly’s Heroes (1970)
Director: Brian Hutton
Love Story: Telly Savalas and Donald Sutherland (No attempt to involve Clint in that end of it this time. Telly and Donald were wonderful actors…but they were no Shirley MacLaine).
Heist Object: Government Gold (though this time it’s the Nazi government)

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Dollars (aka $) (1971)
Director: Richard Brooks
Love Story: Warren Beatty and Goldie Hawn (though a subplot involving Gert Frobe and a gold bar also works beautifully on many levels)
Heist Object: Safety Deposit Boxes….that belong to crooks..and a nice way to close down the concept’s golden age!

I’m sure there are one or two from the time period that I either haven’t seen or have forgotten.

Plus the one I won’t mention until I’m naming my favorite (though those who are sufficiently hip to the genre or the period can guess from that faux-noirish top photo, which I found myself unable to resist).

I’m sure there are other films in the same vein and of the same quality that were made outside this time period, but, again, laying aside Hitchcock in lighthearted mode as the obvious source for much of this, I either don’t know about them or haven’t seen them.

So I’ll stick to my premise.

There was a special hybrid of comedy/suspense heist films…and almost all the best ones were made in the space of a turbulent decade.

Few were made before, probably because whatever turbulence filmmakers felt the need to channel was then best channeled through the device of romantic comedy or some other form of farce. It’s no accident that most of the heist films I named above, and the favorite I’ll name below, were superb romantic comedies as well. And it’s no accident that the old forms of romantic comedy, including the screwball kind, were falling out of fashion, both critically and commercially, at the same time the heist comedy romances flourished.

Something had to plug the gap between marriage-as-the-object-of-desire and marriage-as-nothing-at-all.

What better than loot?

Later on (and by later, I mean a year or two), this whole approach became problematic because the gap closed and marriage was no longer even part of the gold standard. More to the point, the presumption that marriage itself was both the logical and desirable end of any love story–even one involving loot–simply became untenable as a cultural assumption.

And once a cultural assumption becomes untenable it loses its force as a narrative device. That might be why subsequent attempts to remake some of these films fell completely flat. (The Trouble With Charlie, Jonathan Demme’s reboot of Charade, may be the worst film ever made by a director of his talent. I do not say this lightly. The remake/sequel of The Italian Job is fun for about five minutes. That’s about the length of time it takes to transition from the end of the original to the sequel part. I haven’t seen the remake of my favorite, but the fact that it stayed in development hell for years hasn’t made me any way anxious to fill this little gap.)

The other thing that hasn’t made me anxious to see a remake of my favorite–not even when Jennifer Aniston was attached to it for a while–is that my favorite is perfect.

There is never a reason to remake anything that’s perfect.

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Gambit (1966)
Director: Ronald Neame
Love Story: Shirley MacLaine and Michael Caine (who, in the romantic lead department, needed less help than any man not named Cary Grant, meaning, for once, Shirley didn’t have to work at being anything but Shirley).
Heist Object: The Bust of the Li Szu…or is it?

Gambit is the type of film that makes the crit-illuminati throw up their collective defenses. It’s always spoken of fondly but–horrors!–never taken seriously.

And since the job of the crit-illuminati is to shape the expectations of the rest of us–and I’m as susceptible as the next person (or was in youth anyway…I didn’t start out mistrusting everyone), I had to see it about ten times before I realized just how much better than really good such things can be.

Such things can tell us…things.

If we let them.

I’d never let that spoil the fun, though.

What makes this film good–really, really good–are the usual things that make movies really good. Great actors making difficult things look easy. (Watch the magnificent aplomb of the great Herbert Lom as he goes through a series of emotionally complicated shifts in character and perspective without making the least bit of fuss. You’ll have to make a point of watching because, even then, he’ll never let you catch him at it.) Real movie stars, Shirley MacLaine and Michael Caine in this case, in the glory of youth. Good tight writing and direction from established pros (Ronald Neame is a British version of Martin Ritt–all he ever seemed to do was make wonderful movies).

All that’s a given.

What gives the film force, though, a force that has carried through however many dozen viewings I’ve had a chance to give it, is that Caine’s Harry Tristan Dean and MacLaine’s Nicole Chang, spend the movie finding something that really is better than all the money in the world (and we know this because all the money in the world is what Lom,  playing “the world’s richest man,” has). Namely, each other.

It really was acting, of course, and acting of the highest order. Neither Michael Caine or Shirley MacClaine were exactly known for being the monogamous type.

But they, and everyone involved in all of these films, came out of cultures that valued forms of permanence, including especially the form that starts with “til death do us part.” And, having mastered the one art every great actor has to master, that of observation, they play out Gambit‘s romantic implications with such natural ease that the deepest cynic would have no trouble believing their characters will make some form of “til death do us part,” work…or that it will leave a hole in the world if they do not.

Those kind of assumptions are all lost now and that’s the real reason nobody makes this kind of movie stick anymore. It’s certainly not for lack of trying and, amidst all the usual blogging/facebooking/tweeting/think-piecing laments about the absence of “basic story-telling” in modern narratives (be it film, stage or page) no one really wants to acknowledge the underlying reason, because it would mean admitting it as part of the price of “freedom,” in this case, the freedom to live in a world where “til death do us part,” and “well, as long as you won’t be here in the morning,” carry the same cultural weight.

It might or might not make for a better world. We’ll find out soon enough because right now we’re living in the afterglow of a cultural collapse which hasn’t made its own force felt as economic or military collapse. Here’s hoping we’ll be the first people to avoid facing the usual consequences.

But, however it works out in the “real” world, it sure makes for a hole in the world of narrative fiction the meantime. “Stories”–as opposed to the shiny-object distractions filmmakers (and novelists and playwrights), now strive to deliver across the board, often with an impenetrable layer of “seriousness” ladled on top–depend on cultural assumptions, the value of “til death do us part” being one of the principals that sustained basic narratives for about five thousand years, from the birth of narrative, until yesterday.

Right up to the moment Gambit was being made in fact.

Which is why a light entertainment from the mid-sixties carries more weight than we have any right expect, and not just because Shirley MacLaine, the actress of her age, gets to be as good as she was in any of her richly deserved Oscar-nominated performances.

Good and necessary as Caine is (as good and necessary as it gets), it’s her show, just the way the old screwballs were always the woman’s show.

For starters, she gets to use her dancer’s body more than most dancers do in actual musicals. From the tight little walk that the movie’s opening tracks through a crowded Hong Kong street, you could be forgiven for believing she’ll get right to it. Instead, she spends the next twenty minutes being the one thing you would bet Shirley MacLaine could never be, which is bo-r-r-r-ing, If you spend the whole time waiting for her to move a muscle in her face, don’t blink or you’ll miss it.

It might be the best pure acting job of her career, because the joy (as opposed to fun, which this movie always is) starts when she starts to talk and it turns out she’s a girl who really, really likes to talk. Shirley MacLaine on a movie screen could never be boring when she talked, because she never talked like anyone else. Here, once she starts, she talks a blue streak and even Michael Caine, completely in control to that point, has to run to keep up.

After that, it becomes a game of romantic yin-and-yang. Every time he gets dumber, she gets smarter and, when she finally gets dumber again, he gets smarter again just in the nick of time. And we realize that if he gets dumber a little more often than she does, it’s because she’s seen more of the world than he has…and maybe even more than he thinks he has.

So, yeah, for all those reasons and more, Gambit is my favorite comic heist flick. But it’s also my favorite because it’s a reminder that, when we bother to look back, the moment of our forgetting is tantalizingly near.

It’s as if we could still reach back and touch it, maybe even reclaim what we’ve forgotten if we wanted to. One moment, movies like this seemed simple, even inevitable. The next moment, what we call “now,” they seem impossible.

So, now, whenever Gambit nears its end, and the actress of the age just gone by starts once again talking about “all that Mongolian clay,” I’m no longer sure whether to laugh or cry.

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Then Nicole arrives, and she climbs into the heavily protected cage. But she sets of the alarm.The last bit’s the tell…because, across an uncrowded room that’s taken their whole lives to reach, it’s obvious the Li Szu is no longer the object of desire.

MY FAVORITE HAIRCUT (Not Quite Random Favorites….In No Particular Order)

jfonda1It was called a “shag.” Some prefer “hairstyle” but don’t worry. Either way it’s nothing I ever had. This is not about me. Just about what I like.

There having been only three famous women who ever truly rocked it above and beyond the call of duty, I was just going to post some pictures of them. (I’m sure some of the many men who wore it, David Cassidy, Rod Stewart, et al, touched the souls of those of other persuasions, male and female. If so, peace be upon you. As for me, I am what I am and make no apologies.) But, in doing a little research, I found out my favorite haircut had a specific and pretty inspiring history.

To the extent such things can be spiritually copyrighted, it was invented by a Hollywood hairdresser named Paul McGregor for Jane Fonda’s character in 1971’s Klute. I encourage you to read the full story at the link, where, among other things, I learned that Warren Beatty, much to McGregor’s bemusement, claimed he modeled the lead character in Shampoo after him.

That might be another story for another day when I write about movies that defined the seventies. Klute and Shampoo will definitely be on the short list for consideration.

(And whether that was really where the shag began I don’t profess to know. Not my bailiwick. You got other ideas, feel free to share.)

For now, the part that interests me most is Fonda’s own reaction to the cut. Again, you can read the whole thing at the link, but basically, she saw it as a path to freedom, specifically freedom from her super-controlling husband/director Roger Vadim, who liked for her to wear hairstyles he approved.

I’ll buy that.

And, if so, it was not just mine and a lot of other people’s favorite haircut but maybe one of the more important cultural statements in modern history.

The Fonda who was perpetually cowed by men like Vadim could never have become Hanoi Jane. which, in itself, might have been a blessing. However pure her intentions, she did no worthy cause any favors in the role. And the less said about her eighties-era aerobics empire, the better. (Okay, I’ll say this much: those workout videos were as emblematic of Reagan-era ethics as visiting Hanoi was of counterculture ethics half a generation earlier–once unleashed, Jane got around.)

But she also never could have become, for a decade or so, starting with Klute itself, the bravest actress in Hollywood, a place where genuine bravery is always in short supply. She didn’t keep it up, but, while she was in flight, she went places nobody went before, at least not in big Hollywood productions that reached far outside the art-house circuit.

(For how far outside that circuit a Hollywood star can have an impact, I’ll just repeat something my mother told a woman on the phone who was going on about Jane’s political shortcomings right after we had seen 1978’s California Suite: “Well honey that may be true, but I’ll tell you one thing. She’s forty years old and she came out wearing a bikini and there was not one ounce of fat on her.” In our world, you always got credit for being a trouper. Next to that, being a commie didn’t seem so bad.)

For all the best and worst of it, out of Fonda’s own mouth, we can thank the shag.

Which leaves the real question hanging.

Did she who rocked it first rock it best?

Well….

Let me first say that, when it comes to haircuts, “shag” has developed a very fluid definition. So fluid it basically includes every shoulder length hairstyle you can think of, including the most famous post-shag hairstyle of ’em all “The Rachel.”

Nothing against the Rachel, but no matter how many millions donned it, it only ever really belonged to one person–and she hated it. Too much trouble. I’ve expressed my admiration for Jennifer Aniston plenty here before, but the Rachel is not a shag, let alone the shag.

The true shag, as befitting its source and inspiration, was both bold and democratic. If I’m giving it the strictest definition, I’m saying if I didn’t see it in the halls of my high school, circa 1974, it ain’t a shag.

Which brings me to Fonda’s competition.

Until recently (meaning this week) I always considered this competition to consist of one woman and one woman only–a woman who was really famous in England in 1974, but was completely unknown in my rural southern high school until she showed up on Happy Days a few years later.

That would be this woman:

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..who did not even cause a buzz in my part of the world when she made the cover of Rolling Stone in January, 1975. Believe me, if anybody had seen this, word would have gotten all the way around:

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So if nobody liked Jane, nobody had heard of Suzi, and nobody else wore the cut with sufficient flair to inspire imitation, why were so many girls sporting one? Utility maybe, but, in high school, that ain’t enough. In high school, at least for it to spread like that, somebody has to make it cool.

And, until this week, when I was searching around Pinterest on an unrelated topic, I had somehow completely forgotten who made the shag cool in my part of world in 1974. Then I happened across a few key photos that unlocked the memory gate.

Everybody in my high school knew who this woman was. And everybody liked her. Girls especially. Working class girls most especially. There was a reason she was the Country Music Association’s Female Vocalist of the Year for 1974. Country girls were her first major audience. And they didn’t just like her music.

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For the record: The girls in my part of the world kept on copying Olivia Newton-John’s hairstyles for the rest of the seventies.

Farrah Fawcett’s soon-to-be legendary do?

Never saw one anywhere but on television.

Now, as to who was the absolute best?

Come on. You think I’m gonna make that pick?

I’m country. Sort of.

I’m a lot of things. Sort of.

I ain’t stupid.

Kudos, though, to Suzi, for pretty much sticking with it, decade after decade.

And for always being a reminder that a thing of joy is beautiful forever.

NEXT UP: MY FAVORITE COMEDY HEIST FLICK

THE LAST TEN MOVIES I WATCHED….AND WHY I WATCHED THEM

I haven’t done any hard statistics on this, but the vast majority of my movie-watching these days is revisiting movies I’ve seen before and a fair amount is revisiting movies I’ve seen many times.

This habit has grown over the last ten to fifteen years and intensified a bit in the last year or so after I suspended (and ultimately disconnected) my television service. I might go a month without seeing anything new and I now tend to treat movies like music, so watching favorites is more like listening to familiar albums than, say, re-reading a novel.

Like albums, movies tend to draw me back for certain very particular reasons–the parts I never get tired of. Hence, the “why I watch” bit. I’m offering this up as a snapshot of the kind of thing I engage with and very rarely write about. And if I very rarely write about this stuff it isn’t because it’s not worth writing about, it’s just because there isn’t enough time in the world….So, for fun, in reverse order, ten days, ten movies:

Dec. 8–Scaramouche (1952, George Sidney, Umpteenth Viewing)

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For Eleanor Parker; for the greatest sword fight in movie history; and for one of the sweetest and bitterest final scenes. Besides, it was my birthday (very early hours). I was also impressed this time around by the scenes in the National Assembly, which present the real fight boiling underneath the burgeoning French Revolution as one between the aristocrats and the wannabes. A timeless theme if ever there was one and hardly relegated to the French (let alone the Hollywood version of the French), though they’ve certainly made an art form of it.

Dec. 6–Life of Crime (2014, Daniel Schechter, 2nd Viewing)

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For Jennifer Aniston, who reinforced everything I said here, and, yes, still definitely should have played at least one of the female roles in American Hustle.

Dec. 5–Saskatchewan (1954, Raoul Walsh, 2nd Viewing)

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For the scenery; for the measured and reasonably complex view of both Native American politics and the White Man’s code of military honor; for some fine action scenes involving canoes, of which there can never be enough;and for the memories of happy days a good friend and I spent honing our “It-ain’t-really-a-western-unless-Shelley-Winters-or-Joan-Blondell-shows-up” theory, which, for those of us born within a certain time span, has turned out to be surprisingly durable.

Dec. 5–Wagonmaster aka Wagon Master (1950, John Ford, Umpteenth Viewing)

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For a cast that, even within the context of John Ford’s oeuvre, reminds me remarkably, almost painfully, of the vanished people I grew up among (and no, they weren’t Mormons). That, plus all the usual reasons for watching any of Ford’s numerous masterworks. To take just one such: The long, gliding scene that begins with Joanne Dru’s showgirl turning down an invitation, offered at a “squaw dance,” by one of the outlaw band who have hitched a ride with the Mormon wagon train, and ends with the man being tied to a wagon wheel and whipped by the Mormons while the stoic Navajo elders look on. I’d have to revisit my Shakespeare to be sure, but it might be the most remarkable piece of compressed narrative that exists in any form.

Dec. 4–The War Wagon (1967, Burt Kennedy, Umpteenth Viewing, though the first in a very long while)

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For the memories; for “Mine was taller.”; and for Kirk Douglas finding all those different ways to jump on horses from every conceivable angle without, so far as I could tell, mangling his manhood!.

Dec. 2–7 Men From Now (1956, Budd Boetticher, Umpteenth Viewing)

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For Gail Russell; for Lee Marvin (“I was wrong Clete. He wasn’t half a man.”); for Randolph Scott’s finely wrought study in stoicism; and for the peerless storytelling, delivered with haiku-level perfection.

Dec. 1–Star Wars (1977, George Lucas, Umpteenth Viewing)

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Just gettin’ ready.

Nov. 30–Casablanca (1942, Michael Curtiz, Umpteenth Viewing)

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For Rick and Ilsa and Frenchie. And to hear Dooley Wilson sing “As Time Goes By.” What, there are other reasons? Sure, but who needs ’em.

Nov. 29–An American In Paris (1951, Vincente Minnelli, Umpteenth Viewing)

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For Leslie Caron, dancing or not, and for the glories of the vanished studio system.

Nov. 28–The Truth About Spring (1965, Richard Thorpe, Umpteenth Viewing)

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For Hayley Mills, decked in denim; for more deathless lines than I ever found in a classic screwball (“Tommy, if you dare shoot Ashton, I’ll never cook for you again!”); for the evocation of every Florida kid’s dream-life; for “Here’s one they won’t get. Here’s one for freedom.”; and for a chance to tell the lingering shade of that lucky little so-and-so, Jimmy MacArthur, who got out of the last frame with Hayley once and Janet Munro twice: “I ain’t sorry you’re dead!” and half-hope he won’t be able to decide whether I’m kidding. Oh, yeah, and: “Of Catfish Key….Da-h-h-ling.”

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (Wait Until Dark on Campus)

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i had occasion here to write about the last time I watched Wait Until Dark, the 1968 thriller starring Alan Arkin and Audrey Hepburn. I’ll stand by everything I wrote there, but this week brought another interesting experience with the same movie.

FSU has a very nice Student Life Center, with a stadium-style movie theater on one side and a smaller theater in a room across the hall with folding chairs, DVD projection, crappy sound and, as of this visit (I hadn’t been in a couple of years) two separate screens, side by side in the same room.

I guess the extra seating is courtesy of the place getting more popular. On my two previous visits, there was one screen and maybe twenty people in attendance. Both sides of the room were packed for this one, maybe a hundred people total.

I didn’t learn anything new about the movie itself and the viewing experience was, as I expected, less than ideal. But the time I spent trundling down there, hiking from the nearest parking lot (no sense expecting a government institution to do something logical like stick parking spaces near the campus movie theater and, as a long ago habitue of the previous rat-trap theater I can assure you it was ever thus), was nonetheless well spent.

What I was mostly interested in was finding out how an audience of college kids would react to an old fashioned thriller.

They reacted alright. In spades.

That wasn’t entirely a positive thing, mind you. Apparently, the new kids are conditioned to respond to every strong emotion with a single emotion: Laughter.

Terror on the screen? Good excuse to laugh.

Rage? Psychosis? Romance? Unexpected plot twist?

Ditto, ditto, ditto, ditto.

I may have forgotten a turn or two, but, trust me, the response was the same.

Laughter.

Frankly, the movie’s strongest element, which is Hepburn’s nuanced portrait of a women being subjected to gradually mounting terror, was completely lost. If I hadn’t seen the movie before, I would have walked out having no idea how she handled the part because, every time she emoted, there was…laughter.

Up until the last ten minutes.

During the last ten minutes, they started screaming because they were having the be-jesus scared out of them. I don’t exactly know the reason the response was so intense. I mean, it’s a good movie and an effective chiller, but I didn’t expect any reaction to be that extreme and that universal (I might have been the only person who wasn’t screaming). But I suspect it had something to do with seeing a real person actually terrorized. It’s not something that’s ever happened much in the movies and I doubt very seriously it’s happened at all in the lifetime of today’s twenty year old college kid.

I don’t put a lot of faith in anecdotal evidence. If I did, then I’d have to conclude, for instance (on the basis of an opening day viewing of The Break-Up with a theater full of black women), that Jennifer Aniston has cachet in modern Black America on a par with James Brown in the sixties. Maybe she does, but based on everything else I know about that subject, I’d have to say that it’s more likely there are times when an audience is just in the mood.

This felt like more than that, though.

It felt like the kids who have been socially conditioned to laugh at everything were afraid for Audrey Hepburn.

So maybe her performance got through after all.

I may not have to entirely give up on the future. And, believe me, that’s a relief. Because with ten minutes to go, I was ready to do just that.

Tuesday night is Psycho, incidentally. In the big theater.

Can’t wait for that.

JENNIFER ANISTON DOES RIGHT BY THE SEVENTIES….WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM THE BELLAMY BROTHERS (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #37)

Sometime in the hurly-burly of the last few weeks I managed to catch America’s Last-Girl-Next-Door-To-Whom-We-Are-Clinging-With-All-Our-Might in her two latest.

Horrible Bosses 2 is at the multiplex, devoid of whatever spark of wit or originality the original had (not over much, admittedly, but pretty good by modern standards). This time around, Our Jen’s character has been transformed from a serial sex abuser to a comic rapist.

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And, hey, who doesn’t find that amusing?

Funny thing, though. Like pretty much anything, she’s good at it–by which I mean comic rape and winning people over. Believe me, long before this was half-done, I definitely wanted to see her do something to that same crew I was sort of rooting for the first time around.

So, yeah, I’d probably go see a Horrible Bosses 3–but only if the advance buzz has her off-ing the lot.

Better, though, when she’s given something to do, which she definitely is in Life of Crime, the festival bait (based on Elmore Leonard’s Switch) which was shown around last year, slipped into a few dozen theaters a few months back and then sent straight to video.

You know things have come to a pretty pass when a faithful Elmore Leonard adaptation, set in crapulent seventies-era Detroit, serves as a palate cleanser.

But the juxtaposition was instructive, a vivid reminder that “the seventies” are another country in a way that no subsequent decade is…the last nervous moment before the Great American Stupor–of which Horrible Bosses 2 is such a splendid example–set in.

And that juxtaposition is all down to Aniston. I’ve said it before, but it’s a shame she missed the decade she would have been most at home in. Everybody else in the movie is playing it as though 1980 had already come and gone and nothing has changed since so it might as well be yesterday.

Not this womanl. She gets that the distinction is more than a change of hairstyles:

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I wouldn’t want to post any footage from the movie. YouTube has the evil eye on me right now and, anyway, the North Koreans might not like it. But those stills convey the starting point–the core of a performance that starts brittle and ends free, a true transformation that’s way too subtle to attract raves or nominations for anything. Just another brick in the wall.

Too bad. It’s by far the best thing in a good-not-great movie and it’s about ten times as good as “it” girl Jennifer Lawrence’s much lauded, Oscar-nominated walk-through in American Hustle (another take on a period trophy wife which is truly timeless–it doesn’t owe a thing to a thing, certainly not to any possible distinctions between then and now, though I grant if Lawrence was trying to carry the Method to the logical extreme of making her own obvious boredom palpable,she succeeded brilliantly).

And in a movie with an exceptionally fine soundtrack (the period stuff is, for once, seamlessly interpolated with the modern mood music–naturally its not available on CD), the big-smile moment comes when Aniston’s character gets high with her former kidnapper (yeah, it’s an Elmore Leonard story alright) and the just-right music is playing:

 

“ONE IN A HUNDRED MILLION” (Shirley Temple Black, R.I.P.)

That was director Alan Dwan’s famous assessment of Shirley Temple, who passed away today at the age of 85. He may have set the number a tad low.

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Shirley Temple was Hollywood’s greatest child-star by a factor of something approaching infinity but she wasn’t merely that. She mattered to the thirties on a scale that came close to matching Elvis in the fifties and the Beatles in the sixties. She was the number one box office star four years running in the moment when movies were truly at the center of the culture–bigger than they had ever been before or ever would be again. She saved a major studio (20th Century Fox) from bankruptcy (they thanked her by letting her go the minute puberty and a couple of flops came along–the suits are always the suits), and Hollywood basically created a new kind of “special” Oscar for her (the last of the dozen eventually given would go to Hayley Mills in 1960, in the last moment when “childhood” was still culturally distinguishable as something other than an annoyance one had to get through in order to start really living–the path since has, of course, led us to a place where adulthood becomes daily more childish, but that’s a story for another day).

Most of the official memorials from the industrial press have stressed that her career ended (at the ripe old age of 21) because she could no longer cut it at the box office, with the clear implication that she had little to offer once childhood had passed her by.

That’s just the usual nonsense. I’ve only seen two of her handful of post-war movies, The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (where she upstaged Cary Grant and Myrna Loy) and Fort Apache. They were as different as two movies can be but she was superb in both and both were substantial hits. Granted, she was “only” third lead each time, but those two pictures alone show how much range she had and, while she evidently made some clinkers as well, plenty of great adult careers have been built on less–and by people with less talent.

Whatever her final reasons for walking away (there was a half-hearted attempted at a TV comeback in the sixties which went nowhere), I suspect the underlying motive had as much to do with fatigue as anything else. Surely she, better than anyone, understood that America has always demanded that “the girl next door” be a particular kind of workhorse, be she six, sixteen or forty-something (as the workaholic Jennifer Aniston, who is likely to be the last of the line, is now demonstrating).

Making forty-four feature movies before you’re old enough to vote–and helping to carry a Depression-era economy on your back the meanwhile–might just be enough to make anybody put some stock in the idea that the world is larger than Hollywood.

As usual, the blogosphere has done a much better job of appreciation than the traditional media so I recommend in the strongest terms possible that you follow these links to the Self-Styled Siren and April Lane, which offer deep appreciations of Temple’s career in general and her two films with John Ford (Fort Apache and Wee Willie Winkie) in particular.

(Note: For those with strong stomachs, be sure to follow the links from the Siren to the Graham Greene piece from the thirties which basically argued that America’s love affair with Temple branded us a nation of pedophiles. Who else, after all, would make a fetish of such a hot little tot! Nice to know that Greene, standing in the long line of Brit-Scolds–not to mention the even longer line of those prone to protesting a bit too much–that are forever lecturing us about how we should run (or not run) an Empire, was really on his game even before WWII. He wasn’t one of those layabouts who waited around until their own Empire needed saving before he got his licks in!)

And, for a small sample of what the fuss was all about:

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (Christian Bale Emerges From the Holiday Shuffle….By Disappearing Into Someone Else)

Busy, scatter-shot week this.

–Saving Mr. Banks was actually charming (I feared it would only be pseudo).

–YouTube revealed that the reason Jennifer Aniston’s pseudo-strip scene in We’re the Millers fell flat in the theater was due to incompetent editing…Whew! I was worried that Jen had lost it there for a minute.

–The pseudo-hardcore of The Wolf of Wall Street proved, once again, that Marty Scorsese is the Norman Mailer of film directors (that is, an artist whose reputation for seriousness, or even basic competence, is completely mystifying) and also reminded me that he’s the only director who manages to get me actively rooting for his characters–all of them–to die. Not so much in hopes that they’ll go to some just reward as so that the movie will mercifully end. At least it was a notch up from the last time I subjected myself to one of his masterpieces in an actual theater. In that one he had me rooting against Jesus.

–Finished a biography of John Knox which I should be able to review next week and started the Library of America’s Ring Lardner collection which has put me in the exceedingly rare state of looking forward to getting up mornings.

What rose to the top out of all that–besides a lovely Christmas–was Christian Bale’s performance in American Hustle, which is so lived-in, intense and finely nuanced that he actually drags the whole movie to a level of awareness I’m pretty sure its makers didn’t think remotely possible.

The director, David Russell, is known for being quirky and here, that doesn’t really jibe with the story’s more or less classically “redemptive” structure. But, through all the stops and starts (high point, directorialy speaking, is the eerily effective use of Steely Dan’s “Dirty Work” over a slo-mo beginning, so good it survives being cut off a good minute too soon; low point is the disco scene which is not-quite-right on so many levels that explaining why would require its own post), Bale’s immersion into character somehow keeps the movie’s pulse beating.

Eventually, he literally pulls everyone else into themselves and elevates the whole enterprise. No small feat in a movie about con-men where Amy Adams and Bradley Cooper–who might not be the two shallowest performers on the planet but are certainly in the running–are the other main players and Jennifer Lawrence is laying on one of those walk-throughs (much lauded, I notice) that feel like a screen test delivered by an Oscar winner who can’t figure out why she’s being bothered when everybody knows she’s going to get the job anyway.

Like I said. It stops and starts.

Sooner or later, though, they all have to come up to Bale’s standard. It’s almost as if he left them no choice–as if his character’s reality finally became theirs.

I say this as someone who thought Bale made the perfect Batman for Christopher Nolan because he seemed so completely devoid of all remotely human qualities–just the kind of black hole that Nolan’s “vision” needed. I assumed Bale was basically a well-chosen cabbage, but this performance opens up the possibility that he was actually acting, which–even as a possibility only–certainly puts me in my place.

May have to go back and give those a second look.

Meanwhile, I wish American Hustle had found the sense of tragedy it seems built for (but then resolutely fails to deliver). In that respect it reminded me of the recent version of What Maisie Knew and was, finally, a bit of a letdown.

But the Method so rarely delivers what it is forever promising that it would be curmudgeonly not to acknowledge how far it can go when it works. Granted I don’t catch a lot of movies in theaters (only caught these because I have a friend who was exceedingly generous with AMC gift cards for the Holidays) but this was by far the best performance I saw this year.

God, I may end up having a rooting interest on Oscar night.

Very disorienting.

I better cross my fingers and blow out some candles. The New Year hasn’t even started and I’m already seeing hob-goblins everywhere!

 

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (The Last Reincarnation of Virginia McMath…)

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…Well, in the movies, anyway, where she was known as Ginger Rogers.

There were credits after the two from the mid-fifties that I re-watched this week (1954’s hit-and-miss Black Widow and 1955’s riveting Tight Spot) but she seems to have stayed on safe ground afterwards. In any case, her days as a star who could put Van Heflin or Edward G. Robinson in second place on a lobby card were numbered.

Hollywood didn’t start throwing forty-something leading ladies over the side yesterday.

I don’t necessarily buy the notion that she was “playing against type” in this last major phase. It’s a common assessment of these two roles (which are more different from each other than either is from the hard-boiled dames she had made the first of many strong impressions with in the early thirties)and that judgment isn’t entirely wrong, just a tad simplistic.

By the time the mid-fifties rolled around, Ginger had been a sufficient number of “types”–most famously the proto-type of the wisecracking girl next door (related to–but finally very distinct from–the Screwball Dame, the Streetwalker, the Good Wife, the Girl Friday, the Victim of Cruel Fate, or the Modern Housewife, all of which she had a hand in shaping as well**) which has, in fact, turned out to be Golden Age Hollywood’s most durable and flexible archetype (if the latest exemplar, Jennifer Aniston, turns out to be the last, it will be our loss)–that finding a new one by simply playing “against” the old ones would have been next to impossible.

They were brave choices all the same.

The script lets her down pretty badly at the end of Black Widow (surprising since it was by the great Nunnally Johnson, though the fact that he was also directing may be suggestive of why directors get so much credit when movies work), and, to tell the truth, she didn’t get as much out of it as she might have. Stuck with the job of selling the bleeding obvious as a Big Surprise (always a bad thing in a plot that depends almost entirely upon its twists), she tried to make up for it by over-emoting, the mistake she had, up to that moment, been better at avoiding than all but a handful of her most astringent contemporaries.

The movie is promising, then, but finally a bit of a disappointment.

Tight Spot, released the following year, more than made up for it.

The movie’s a good one–not perfect by any means, but it grew on a second viewing, not a usual occurrence with me and noir.

And, while I noticed, and appreciated, other things, it was mostly her performance that filled the new spaces.

It occurred to me that she might have seen Sherry Conley–in prison on a bad rap like everybody else (except in her case it really might have been), a little past her prime, a little broad in the beam, and with a few snappy lines at her disposal but no more than a few and nowhere near enough to meet every occasion–as a chance to put dramatic flesh on her own archetypal Busby Berkeley-style streetwalker Anytime Annie’s comic bones.

It’s true there’s no line as good as 42nd Street’s “Who could forget her? She only said ‘no’ one time and then she didn’t understand the question,” in Tight Spot’s solid script. But there is a lot of sharp self-analysis and a complex character arc that Rogers handles beautifully at every turn.

Sherry Conley is a woman who sweats, never more than when she’s working overtime at pretending to be on top of things. She’s constantly backing and filling, looking for angles, forever assuming that any step which doesn’t send her through a trap-door only increases the likelihood that the next one will, while not forgetting the spot she’s standing on isn’t exactly safe either.

That’s not an uncommon position for a female character in noir-land.

What’s unusual about Rogers in Tight Spot–trying to make up her mind about whether to testify against a gangster who has a habit of murdering witnesses (Lorne Greene in a very sharp turn) all while falling in love with a conflicted cop (Brian Keith, good as always) in a “safe” hotel room–is that, like a lot of actual human beings and almost no Streetwalkers who show up in Movie-land, she can’t seem to get out of her own way.

She’s used to being goosed and not at all used to being liked.

Not even by us, the people in the cheap seats. Not that we’ve had much practice, this being the character who usually gets killed off in the second act, now suddenly asked to carry the thing through to the final credits.

One way to judge whether a performing artist–especially an iconic one–has taken a genuine risk is whether the result divides the artist’s devotees. I know that, to at least some extent, this result does.

I can see where it might. The risk Ginger took in this last moment of her real stardom, was the one Hollywood actresses tend to avoid like the Plague at any age.

Namely, she was willing to grate. Even in a movie that–good as it is–turns slick here and there, she never does.

Or, put another way, she was willing to play a character who tends to grate and to play her in three dimensions.

The variety of opinions as to how worthwhile this really was tend to wander all over the map and to break down more along the lines of responses to the character being worthy of any attention at all than to the actress’s choice of how to play her.

I’d say that’s the best proof that Ms. McMath–who has a pretty good claim on being the toughest nut in the history of Hollywoodland (a land and a history where I can’t conceive of any other sort of nut surviving at all)–succeeded very nicely.

(**NOTE:There’s also a rumor that she could dance a little.)