Monday, March 30, 2009

Oscar-Winning Composer Maurice Jarre Dies at 84

Film composers seldom achieve household–name status, and French composer Maurice Jarre's name probably wasn't that familiar to many moviegoers.

But he will be remembered in the annals of filmmaking for composing Oscar–winning scores for three of Sir David Lean's classic films — "Lawrence of Arabia," "Doctor Zhivago" and "A Passage to India."

Jarre, who died Sunday at the age of 84, received eight Academy Award nominations. Other composers were nominated more frequently, but only half a dozen won the Oscar more often than he did.

The last time he was nominated for Best Original Score was for his work on the 1990 film "Ghost," but he lost to John Barry, who was responsible for the score for "Dances With Wolves."

Jarre's death is a reminder of the importance of a score to a well–done movie. And it is a loss to movie lovers everywhere.

Warren Beatty Turns 72

As incredible as it may seem, today is Warren Beatty's 72nd birthday. I still think of him as being the Hollywood sex symbol he was when I was a teenager in the 1970s.

When Beatty's name is mentioned, some people will tell you they think of "Splendor in the Grass," his film debut from 1961. Or they may remember his performances in "Bonnie and Clyde" (1967) or "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" (1971) or "Shampoo" (1975) or "Reds" (1981).

Still others may just think of him as the younger brother of actress Shirley MacLaine.

Turner Classic Movies is honoring Beatty by showing five of his films tonight, starting with the one that I always think of when I think of him:
  • "Heaven Can Wait" (1978) at 7 p.m. (Central).

  • "The Fortune" (1975) at 9 p.m. (Central).

  • "The Parallax View" (1974) at 11 p.m. (Central).

  • "Bugsy" (1991) at 1 a.m. (Central).

  • "Mickey One" (1965) at 3:30 a.m. (Central).
Movie buffs may be less familiar with "The Fortune" and "Mickey One" than they are with the others, but they might be regarded as hidden treasures.

"The Fortune" may have suffered from bad timing. Co–starring Jack Nicholson, it was released after "Shampoo" and before Nicholson's "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" so it may have been lost in the shuffle, but it had a lot of things going for it — a setting and a cast that were reminiscent of "The Sting," a screenplay by the author of "Five Easy Pieces" and a director (Mike Nichols) who had already been the director of films like "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" "The Graduate" and "Carnal Knowledge."

"Mickey One" may be the most obscure of the bunch. It was directed by Arthur Penn, who is noted more for directing "The Miracle Worker," "Bonnie and Clyde," "Alice's Restaurant" and "Little Big Man."

Beatty has appeared in only a couple of movies in the last 15 years. This is a rare opportunity to see him in his prime.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

In Memory of Peter Ustinov

My mother always enjoyed Peter Ustinov's performances, and one of her favorite Christmas movies was "We're No Angels," a somewhat obscure film from the 1950s (please note, I'm not referring to the Sean Penn-Robert De Niro film of the same name that was released in 1989).

This film starred Ustinov, Humphrey Bogart and Aldo Ray as convicts on Devil's Island who conspire to escape aboard a ship that is docked in the harbor during the Christmas season. The men are "lifers" — Bogart is a convicted forger, Ustinov is doing time for murdering his wife and Ray is a rapist. They are accompanied by a never seen but often mentioned poisonous pet snake named Adolphe who resides in a small box/cage that is always carried by Ray.

The convicts manage to escape the prison and hide out at a small shop owned by the Ducotel family. They need new clothes and money for their escape and plan to wait for the right moment to take what they need from the store — but they develop a fondness for the family, especially their daughter Isabelle (played by Gloria Talbott, who later became the mother of Megan Mullally of "Will & Grace"), and that complicates matters for them.

As the convicts and the audience soon learn, the Ducotels are about to be visited by cousin Andre (played by Basil Rathbone) who owns the store and is coming to audit the books. Isabelle thinks she is in love with Andre's nephew, who happens to be coming with him, and the convicts decide to help her woo the young man, but the nephew rejects her in order to stay in his wealthy uncle's good graces.

The convicts decide that Andre must be put on trial — a subject with which they have personal experience. In a hilarious scene, the convicts hold a mock trial for Andre in which Bogart plays the judge, Ustinov plays the defense attorney and Ray plays the prosecuting attorney. The defendant, notably, is absent throughout, and his conviction is a foregone conclusion.

They conclude that Andre must be executed, but they can't decide how to accomplish it — until Ray suggests that Adolphe should be the instrument for achieving the goal. That leads to the clip I have attached to this post.

Ustinov died of heart failure five years ago today, less than three weeks before his 83rd birthday.

He had a wonderful sense of humor. A few years before he made "We're No Angels," Ustinov won a Golden Globe award for his portrayal of Nero in "Quo Vadis." Half a century later, shortly before the invasion of Iraq, he told an interviewer, "I don't know whether I played Nero or whether I played George W. Bush."

And once, during an interview, he was asked what he would like to have written on his tombstone. He replied, "Please keep off the grass."

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Not Exactly Politically Correct

Mel Brooks has been around a long time.

He's 82 years old now. He began his career as a comedian, then found his niche behind the scenes, writing for Sid Caesar and Carl Reiner (who supposedly based the character of Buddy Sorrell on "The Dick Van Dyke Show" on Brooks). He went on to create the popular TV show, "Get Smart," before moving on to full-time film work.

His best films were often irreverent, and one of them, "Blazing Saddles," will be shown tonight on American Movie Classics at 9:15 p.m. (Central). But AMC, as I have noted here before, edits the films it shows so many of the best moments may be cut or bleeped or whatever. For that reason, I have attached a clip of one of the funniest sight gags at the start of this post.

As far as I'm concerned, though, no discussion of Brooks' work is complete without a story about Brooks, preferably one that is told by Brooks himself.

And here is one of the best, from May 1992, when Brooks was a guest during the final week of Johnny Carson's tenure on "The Tonight Show." Watch it, enjoy it, then watch "Blazing Saddles."

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Teensy ... Or Was It Weensy ... Dies

You probably aren't familiar with the name of Marilyn Borden. But she and her twin sister, Rosalyn, played "Teensy" and "Weensy," the twin daughters of a country sheriff in an episode from the fourth season of "I Love Lucy."

"They're as alike as two peas in a pod," said co–star Tennessee Ernie Ford of the two plump 22–year–olds. "Or two watermelons in a patch."

Rosalyn died in 2003.

And today, Marilyn died, at the age of 76, in Modesto, Calif. She was the last surviving cast member of that "I Love Lucy" episode from 1955.

The "Borden Twins," as they were known professionally, had a fairly successful career. Always supporting players, they appeared with several famous performers — Lucille Ball, of course, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Andy Williams, Sammy Davis Jr., Jimmy Durante, Bea Arthur and Bob Newhart.

And, by the way, says Marilyn was "Teensy." I guess Desilu must have cast them alphabetically!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Natasha Richardson Dies at 45

Earlier today, I wrote about the medical misfortunes that have been afflicting people in the acting profession.

One of the people I mentioned, Natasha Richardson, has passed away at the age of 45. She was the daughter of Vanessa Redgrave and the late Tony Richardson. She was the wife of actor Liam Neeson.

As I mentioned earlier today, she was taking a skiing lesson at a Quebec resort on Monday and fell. At first, she appeared to be all right, but she experienced head pain and was taken to a hospital in Montréal. On Tuesday, she was transferred to a larger medical center in New York. At last report, her family was at her side and she was in critical condition.

At some point today, the decision apparently was made to take her off life support. Doctors say this is not an unusual occurrence. People with severe head injuries can appear to be perfectly fine after the incident, but it is not unusual for their conditions to suddenly deteriorate.

I knew her situation was dire, but I really didn't expect her to slip away so quickly.

I probably haven't felt this shocked since Princess Diana was killed in 1997. And, like Princess Diana, Richardson leaves behind two young sons.

Tonight, I've been reading Richard Corliss' superb tribute to Richardson in TIME. If, like me, you can't initially recall many of her screen performances, they will come back to you when you read this piece.

And it concludes with an all-too-human observation: "Her loved ones don't care that Natasha Richardson was famous, and a child of fame," writes Corliss, "only that she is gone."

Bad Times for Actors

These haven't been the best of times for people in the acting profession.
  • Actress Natasha Richardson fell during a ski lesson Monday at a Canadian resort.

    At first, she appeared to be all right, but later she complained of head pain, was taken to a nearby hospital, then was taken to a larger medical center in Montréal. Yesterday, she was taken to a New York hospital, where she has been reported to be in critical condition.

    Richardson, 45, is the daughter of Vanessa Redgrave and the late Tony Richardson, and she is the wife of actor Liam Neeson. Her sister is actress Joely Richardson. Her mother and sister reportedly visited her in the hospital late Tuesday.

  • Hard-core fans of the "Star Wars" movies may know who David Prowse is, even though his name probably is not terribly well known by the general public. He was the actor who played the physical role of Darth Vader — but the voice was provided by actor James Earl Jones.

    Prowse, 73, revealed that he has prostate cancer but is feeling "fantastic."

    He told a British radio station he had been undergoing radiotherapy at a hospital in south London and was helping its fundraising appeal.

    Prowse's western English accent was not considered suitable for the role of Darth Vader, which led to Jones being given the vocal assignment, but he is lending his voice to the effort to catch prostate cancer in its early stages. "Every man over the age of 50 should have a PSA test (a blood test for prostate cancer) and that just gives you some indication of whether you have prostate problems."

  • Her injuries are less serious than Richardson's or Prowse's, but actress Jessica Lange has been hospitalized after taking a fall at her vacation cabin in Minnesota.

    Lange, who will turn 60 next month, suffered bruised ribs, a broken collarbone and a small cut on her forehead, her spokeswoman said today, but Lange anticipates being released "imminently."

    If you're old enough to remember the "King Kong" remake that came out in 1976, well, that was Lange's movie debut. Since that time, she has been nominated for six Oscars, winning Best Supporting Actress for her performance in "Tootsie" in 1982 and Best Actress for her performance in "Blue Sky" in 1994.

Goodbye, Farewell and Amen

When I was growing up, there were many great series on television — and, with programs like "All in the Family," "The Bob Newhart Show," "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "The Carol Burnett Show", CBS may have been the undisputed champ of what could arguably be regarded as the Golden Age of Television.

But I would go so far as to say that the best show from the 1970s and early 1980s was "M*A*S*H."

Yesterday, The Hallmark Channel showed the 2½-hour final episode that was aired on Feb. 28, 1983 — and remains, more than 25 years later, the single most watched episode of a TV series in American history. With more than 106 million viewers, it was seen by more people than that year's Super Bowl and more than the highly regarded "Roots" miniseries from 1977.

I watched the show yesterday for the first time in more than 15 years, and I was reminded at many points of that time in my life — what I was thinking, what I was doing. I remember watching the show when it originally aired. I was 23 years old, and I watched it in my small apartment with an old friend from my college days.

The clip above is the scene in which the truce was announced to the long–suffering folks at the 4077th. The episode had many poignant, memorable moments for me, but perhaps the most memorable was the one in which psychiatrist Sidney Freedman coaxed Hawkeye to acknowledge his repressed memory of a South Korean woman who smothered her baby after being admonished by Hawkeye to keep the child quiet so a Chinese patrol would not discover them.

The anguished Hawkeye asked Freedman why he forced him to recall that painful memory. Freedman told him he had to let it out in the open before he could heal.

That is really what the show was about — healing. And, after 11 years on the air, it was essential for the show's devoted audience to find some closure as well.

I think it succeeded on that night in 1983. And I am confident its 251 episodes will still be relevant to audiences 26 years hence.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Ron Silver Dies

Actor Ron Silver died of cancer today.

Much has been written of his political about–face, brought on by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The event led him to abandon his lifetime of support for the Democratic Party and become an enthusiastic supporter of George W. Bush. He even spoke at the 2004 Republican National Convention.

Personally, I will not remember his politics as much as I will remember his role in my favorite political TV series, "The West Wing." Other people will tell you that they remember his performance as lawyer Alan Dershowitz in the film "Reversal of Fortune."

I didn't agree with his post-9/11 politics, but that did not prevent me from admiring his skill as an actor.

In my mind, his work as an actor and his political beliefs were two different things. I never felt that I could not appreciate one even though I disagreed with the other. John Podhoretz has written a brief yet eloquent tribute to Silver for Commentary magazine. I encourage you to take a few minutes to read it.

I mourn Silver's passing. And I'm grateful he was here.

Friday, March 13, 2009

'Frenzy' Is Worth Seeing

"Frenzy" wasn't the best movie Alfred Hitchcock ever made, but it was far from the worst.

Nor can I say it had a star-studded cast, the way "North by Northwest" or "Vertigo" or "Psycho" — or even "The Birds" — did.

It was nearly the last movie he ever made — almost. "Frenzy" was made in 1972. Hitchcock made one more movie, "Family Plot" in 1976, then he died in 1980.

But "Frenzy" restored Hitchcock's directorial career after three straight flops at the box office in the 1960s.

You might say Hitchcock returned to his roots at the end of his career. The plot of "Frenzy" focuses on the search for a serial killer in London, not unlike the first true "Hitchcock film," a silent movie from the mid-1920s, "The Lodger."

The fact that it had no "household names" in the cast — like Cary Grant or Jimmy Stewart or Grace Kelly or Janet Leigh — probably worked in the movie's favor. Hitchcock was liberated from any concerns about preconceived notions by the audience regarding individual actors. Thus, he could focus on telling a story, which is where he excelled.

Although a product of the 1970s, "Frenzy" was true to Hitchcock's style and never descended to cheap and/or flashy special effects.

Turner Classic Movies will be showing it at 12:15 a.m. (Central) Monday night.

If you love the Hitchcock classics, "Frenzy" is worth seeing, even if it isn't as well known as his other films.

Monday, March 09, 2009

'Rocky' to be Broadcast on Saturday

Alec Baldwin is the celebrity guest on Turner Classic Movies' "The Essentials" series this month, and he has a special presentation planned this Saturday. If there are any underdog basketball teams still playing in their conference tournaments this weekend, they should watch Baldwin's movie selection this Saturday for inspiration.

It's "Rocky."

Thirty-three years after it was made, it's hard to explain to anyone who wasn't there how remarkable that movie was and how astonishing it was that it won Best Picture at the Academy Awards. It had to beat some real heavyweights — "All the President's Men," "Taxi Driver," "Network" and "Bound for Glory."

So did director John Avildsen, who took home the Oscar after beating Ingmar Bergman, Sidney Lumet, Alan J. Pakula and Lina Wertmüller.

It wasn't Sylvester Stallone's movie debut, but it was the film that really brought him to the attention of movie audiences of the 1970s. And it's the best movie he ever made. He didn't win Best Actor for his performance — he lost to the deceased star of "Network," Peter Finch. And everyone knows it's tough to beat a dead guy (think Heath Ledger) — especially when the dead guy is being recognized for a legendary performance, as Finch was.

"Rocky" can still get your blood racing, just as it did in 1976. Don't miss it.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

A Marx Brothers Treat

Well, it ain't "Duck Soup," but "A Night at the Opera" is a worthy substitute for a Saturday night.

And that's when Turner Classic Movies will be showing this classic — Saturday night at 7 p.m. (Central). Got something better to do?

The overcrowded stateroom scene (which can be viewed above) has had a fair impact on popular culture. Are you old enough to remember Cyndi Lauper? Her music video for "Girls Just Want To Have Fun" included a similar gag. And Sting re–created it in his video for "All This Time."

It has been the subject of numerous tributes on the big screen and on TV, from "Mr. Mom" to The Disney Channel to "Seinfeld."

And, decades before the Beatles became noted for "backward masking" on their "Revolver" album, the Marx Brothers were using the technique on film. There's a scene where Groucho seems to be speaking in gibberish to some dignitaries — but, if the track is played backwards, it is actually English, and he is clearly saying, "This man is accusing you of being impostors." Not bad for a flick from 1935, eh?

At the time it was released, moviegoers were urged, "Don't miss it!" because it was "[t]he funniest picture ever made!"

That may have been literally true, given the comparatively small number of films that had been made nearly 75 years ago. But, even now, few films can compare with "A Night at the Opera."

Admittedly, I still think "Duck Soup" was better — but not by much.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Hitchcock on Turner Classic Movies

Turner Classic Movies is wrapping up its annual "31 Days of Oscar" salute between now and Tuesday.

This year, each day has been arranged in academic schedules so they haven't been devoted to specific stars or directors.

But today's lineup, which is devoted to psychology, prominently features four films directed by Alfred Hitchcock. I've seen them all and can heartily recommend them all.
  • "Rear Window" will be shown at 12:15 p.m. (Central).

  • "Vertigo" will be shown at 2:15 p.m. (Central).

  • "Psycho" will be shown at 9 p.m. (Central).

  • "Spellbound" will be shown at 11 p.m. (Central).
"Spellbound," which was made in 1945, is the oldest of the four and perhaps the least well known among today's viewers, but it features two of Hollywood's greatest stars, Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck.

I've included a scene from the film above to give you a taste. I hope it will whet your appetite for more!