MAGIC MAN (Stanley Donen: R.I.P.)

Few directors, producers or choreographers were responsible for as much Hollywood iconography as Stanely Donen, a master of all three roles, who passed away today at the age of 94.

Gene Kelly singing (and dancing) in the rain. Fred Astaire dancing on the ceiling. Gwen Verdon generating steam heat. Audrey Hepburn asking Cary Grant how he shaved in there. The Seven Brides being swung by the Seven Brothers. Donald O’Connor makin’ ’em laugh.  Kelly and Frank Sinatra hitting the town in their sailor suits. Hepburn catsuiting through a Paris nightclub in the name of Emphaticalism.

One could go on. Even if you’ve never seen the movies, most of those images will ring a bell.

With Kelly, he both reinvented the Hollywood musical and extended its natural lifespan by a generation, no easy task in a post-war era that already prized realism (if not cynicism) above all else. With Hepburn, he made a signature musical (Funny Face), a Hitchcock homage (Charade) that was better than all but a handful of the Master’s own and perhaps the best film anyone has made about marriage (Two for the Road), giving her a chance to do what everybody knew she could do and a few things nobody thought she could. Besides the superstars, Debbie Reynolds, James Coburn, Walter Matthau, Geoge Kennedy, Bob Fosse, were among the many whose careers got a jumpstart in Donen’s films.

And all of that happened because from the late 40s to the late 60s he had the surest touch in the game.

After that his career went into a tailspin, never to recover as we set about throwing everything away and forging our own way to Paradise without the benefit of what all the poor hidebound Past could teach us.

I’m betting whoever’s in charge of the next life is looking at his resume along about now and saying “Well, we can’t blame him.”

Never mind us, though. and what all we didn’t do. No future worth living in will forget him.


Jennifer Aniston has a movie out this week. A couple of years back, when The Switch opened, I rounded up a few typical quotes from the media’s heavy thinkers. And even though We’re the Millers is pretty clearly headed for “hit” status, nothing has really changed.

So…first a few quotes from back then:

“OK, something will go wrong, like Jennifer Aniston will have one too many total flops, but she’s still a member of that club. And she will still manage to … like a star forming in the universe, things will swirl around her and it will suddenly solidify into another vital tasteless rom-com, a little glitter next to the Crab Nebula,” (Rupert Everett, coherent as ever, 12/30/10)

“Overall Jennifer Aniston has been in as many movie flops as hits so Rupert Everett may have a point.” (Joe Dorish, 12/30/10)

The Switch, a new movie in which Jennifer Aniston is impregnated by Jason Bateman and a turkey baster, grossed an abysmal $8.3 million this weekend, good enough for 8th place at the weekend box office, behind the likes of Lottery Ticket and Nanny McPhee Returns. Is this officially the end of Jennifer Aniston’s run as a major movie star? Or was she even one to begin with? The critics are turning against her.

“Marketing genius’s Bill Simmons was the first to put Aniston’s career under the microscope in his column last Friday. Noting that only two of Aniston’s last eleven releases have been solid performers at the box office, Simmons points to the ‘Angelina/Brad/Jennifer love triangle, which is like Brett Favre’s comeback/retirement/comeback routine multiplied by 10, but has been cruising along for twice as long’ as the crucial element to Aniston’s success. She may never have opened a picture on her own, but by staying in the tabloids she guarantees ‘built-in publicity buzz for every crappy movie she promotes.’ Personal strife, according to Simmons, is Aniston’s bread-and-butter. Without it, she would have already faded to the ‘B- and C-list obscurity’ of her former “Friends” co-stars.

“A Mystery For The Ages: Patrick Goldstein of The Los Angeles Times isn’t sure how Aniston’s movie career can be considered over when she never had one in the first place. ‘When it comes to enduring mysteries,’ observes Goldstein, ‘it’s hard to come up with something more mystifying than how Jennifer Aniston became a movie star…She’s made an almost-unbroken string of forgettable movies that have rarely made a lot of money.’

“Critic-Proof At Hollywood Elsewhere, Jeff Wells calls Simmons’ rundown of Aniston’s woes ‘the best piece of analysis I’ve read about any actor’s career in a long time.’ It was even more welcome, Wells suggests, since those inside the industry are plagued by Aniston-fatigue. ‘I could argue that the failure of ‘The Switch’ to make more than $8.3 million at 2010 location ($4125 per screen average) betokens or foretells the gradual collapsing of the Jennifer Aniston brand,’ writes Wells, ‘or I could just let it go. I’m glad that Bill Simmons didn’t.’

(Ray Gustini, The Atlantic 8/23/10)

“Overall Jennifer Aniston’s biggest rival in Hollywood and in real life is Angelina Jolie and without any doubt Angelina Jolie is a bigger celebrity and a bigger box office movie draw.” (Joe Doris, 12/30/10)


Jennifer Aniston’s actual career (not counting animated voice parts, cameos, pre-fame Z-budget appearances, etc.) (NOTE: Also not updated to include the most recent releases by either her or Angelina Jolie as there is not world enough and time…These are the stats as they stood when The Switch was in theaters three years ago):

Aniston–Total Number of movies: 24

Number which made back production budget on domestic box office alone: 17 (including 9 of her last 11….including The Switch)

Number which made an overall profit based on public accounting: 18

Angelina Jolie’s actual career (ditto):

Total Number of movies: 25

Number which made back production budget on domestic box office alone: 5

Number which made an overall l profit based on public accounting: 11

There are probably about ten thousand theories as to why virtually no one questions Angelina Jolie’s status as a “real” movie star even though she:

1) Has turned a profit well less than half the time.

2) Has earned back the production budget a staggeringly low 20 percent of the time on domestic box office (the best measure of whether the American public–which, believe me, is the only one any of these “pundits” remotely care about–actually goes for somebody).

3) Has had numerous major outright flops: At least seven by my count, and while no one can hold her directly responsible for all of them, you ultimately have to take the blame if you’re going to get the credit for the hits. (BTW: I clinically define “major outright flop” as any movie that lost what even Hollywood is likely to consider a whole lotta money.)

4) Has needed the foreign box office to lift her to profitability more than half the paltry number of times she’s managed to achieve it. (Granted foreign money is just as bankable as domestic, but I have a feeling that the “club” Rupert Everett seems to know so little about would rather have it be the gravy than the meatloaf.)

Leaving aside the hallucinatory quote above about the relative “celebrity” status of the two**, there are probably another fifty thousand theories as to why virtually no one (in the media at least) concedes that Jennifer Aniston is–or ever has been–a “real” movie star, even though she:

1) Has turned a profit 75 percent of the time (to Jolie’s 44 percent)

2) Has earned back the hard-core production budget (the number all business people care about first and foremost in every for-profit enterprise ever designed by man) on domestic box office alone 71 percent of the time (to Jolie’s 20 percent) in a career of almost exactly the same length.

3) Has had only one verifiable outright “flop” (i.e., Rock Star) in fifteen years (Note: you could add Wanderlust since, though neither was the sort of colossal flop Jolie has specialized in).

4) Has only once (Rumor Has It) needed the foreign box office to earn back the basic budget on her extremely high percentage of profitable movies (she’s otherwise strictly fallen or risen on domestic box office except for the break even Office Space, which I lifted to the profitable category on the safe assumption that its returns from DVD sales and rentals are somewhere close to obscene. For the record, I gave Jolie a break on several close calls as well and with far less reason.)

Since I haven’t seen my own particular theory laid down anywhere else in the course of my extensive (though by no means exhaustive) research, I’ll just say that this serious disconnect from reality might just possibly have something to do with the kind of movies Aniston makes.

By “kind of movies” I mean the genre (mostly romantic comedy) but also the actual plots.

Those usually involve her choosing a man over a boy (see Picture Perfect or Rumor Has It–where the boy is a fifty-ish Kevin Costner–for prime examples) or, more commonly, forcing a boy to become a man (see The Switch and The Breakup and, subsequently, both Wanderlust and We’re the Millers, not to mention the Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler vehicles).

Or, as she says in Office Space: “Come back when you grow up.”

Since she says some version of this in practically every one of her movies, I don’t think it’s an accident that a media dominated by arrested adolescents to whom these are probably the most frightening words in the English language (with “marketing genius” Bill Simmons being a poster-child example) consistently dumps on the movie star who, on screen at least, keeps insisting they should grow up, while giving a pass to the movie star–once heralded by many serious people as the actress of her generation, a judgment most of them would likely now rather have you forget–who has just as consistently pandered to teen-age fantasies (see Salt, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, the Lara Croft franchise, Wanted and Gone in 60 Seconds–a list which, oh by the way, accounts for every one of Jolie’s major American hits.)

Nor is it any way surprising that the schoolboys keep congratulating each other in print on their own tough-mindedness in rebelling against what is actually the prevailing narrative. That’s all very standard stuff.

And I’m not passing a blanket judgment on the movies themselves. I like having my teen-aged fantasies pandered to as much as the next Earthling and Aniston’s rom-coms, while collectively more worthwhile than her critics care to admit, are certainly a deeply mixed bag.

I’m just suggesting that the manner in which a conversation dominated by middle-aged white males clinging to eternal boyhood consistently cooks the books between these two is a convenient window into a certain collective mind-set.

And one more good reason why no one should ever trust the purveyors of said mind-set on this or any other subject.

**–I don’t recall the exact quote, but I heard Adam Sandler, who is at least as big a “celebrity” as Angelina Jolie, give an interview when he was doing the publicity for Just Go With It and he basically said: “If you’re under any illusion about being famous, go stand next to Jen for thirty seconds.”

….And just how Aniston has gotten away with being both Debbie Reynolds and Elizabeth Taylor is a topic for some other day when I want to contemplate the cheap and gaudy possibility of Camille Paglia’s head exploding.



I don’t want anybody to get the wrong idea. I enjoy these lists. I just find the narrowness of their scope kind of simultaneously amusing and frustrating. I mean, do they have to always end up being more about the herd-like mentality of professional critics than about the medium itself?

One reason I think these lists (and it happens the same way with books and records) arrive virtually devoid of idiosyncracies is that the process itself is narrow. If I understand it correctly, everybody submits a list of ten, from which of final list of fifty or a hundred is compiled. So I propose a new method:

Instead of listing a “top ten” have each critic send a list of “films I couldn’t possibly in good conscience leave out of my top ten if I knew I didn’t have to impress anyone else.” Some people might list four or five films, some people might list two hundred.

This way, instead of a completely arbitrary number, what you would be getting is a list of films that critics care most deeply about–and I bet at least a few more surprises would percolate to the top. If not to the top ten, then at least the top fifty.

So, strictly for fun:


The Passion of Joan of Arc
The General (any Keaton really….But the paucity of entries here tells me I am way-y-y-y behind in my silent film watching)


Gone With the Wind (Yes, it’s all that. Deal with it.)
Drums Along the Mohawk
The Bank Dick
Pygmalion (No way I’m leaving Wendy Hiller off this list)
Stage Door
Top Hat
Carefree (Ginger doing “The Yam” and shooting skeet. Fred hanging in. That is what I call art.)
Young Mr. Lincoln
The Rules of the Game


The Maltese Falcon
Citizen Kane
The Curse of the Cat People
Double Indemnity
That Hamilton Woman
The Lady Eve
Shadow of a Doubt
They Were Expendable
His Girl Friday
The Asphalt Jungle
The Pirate (You keep Debbie Reynolds. I’ll keep Judy Garland)
White Heat
Out of the Past
The Fallen Idol
Fort Apache

The 1950s:

Clash By Night
Beat the Devil
The Big Heat
Roman Holiday
High Noon
A Streetcar Named Desire
In A Lonely Place
The Searchers
Kind Hearts and Coronets
3:10 to Yuma
A Star is Born
The Sweet Smell of Success
Gigi (You keep Debbie Reynolds. I’ll keep Leslie Caron)
Tiger Bay (No way I’m leaving Hayley Mills off this list, though if I really had any guts I’d include The Truth About Spring)
The Naked Spur
Some Came Running
Paths of Glory

The 1960s:

The Best Man
The Misfits
Cape Fear (The Night of the Hunter was pure abstraction. Max Cady? Him I recognize. And him I fear.)
Swiss Family Robinson (The only film I know for certain Lucas and Spielberg have seen all the way through. Too bad their numberless acolytes have not.)
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
The Miracle Worker
Dr. Strangelove (Can’t believe Kubrick made my list twice)
The Americanization of Emily
The Apartment
The Graduate
Medium Cool
Gambit (You can never have too much Shirley MacLaine)
The T.A.M.I. Show (Just FYI: If you held me to two, it would be this and The Searchers)

The 1970s:

The Conversation
McCabe and Mrs. Miller
The Bad News Bears (Can’t leave out my autobiography. The Rebel Without a Cause of the seventies, except way funnier. And way sadder.)
I Wanna Hold Your Hand

The 1980s:

The Long Good Friday
Blow Out

(NOTE: I’m not actually opposed to the idea of more recent films being as great as films of the more distant past. I just don’t feel qualified to judge past a certain point because, frankly, I don’t get out much.)