Monday, June 28, 2010

Remembering Jack Lemmon

Nine years ago yesterday, Jack Lemmon died.

Young moviegoers may only remember him as Walter Matthau's sidekick in the far inferior (and nearly three decades overdue) sequel to "The Odd Couple," as well as the original "Grumpy Old Men" and its sequel.

And it is true that his screen partnership with Matthau (and the friendship it spawned) was one of the most successful in Hollywood history. Over the years, they were in 10 movies together — 11 if you count "Kotch," in which Matthau appeared and Lemmon directed.

It's been a long time since I've seen "Kotch," but I think Lemmon had a cameo role in it. That isn't the same thing as co–starring with someone, though, is it? For that matter, it is hard for me to include "JFK" among the films in which they appeared together. They were both part of an ensemble cast so neither was the star, and their characters never interacted.

"JFK" was an exception to the rule in another way. Lemmon and Matthau seldom appeared in dramas together. Most of the time, they appeared in comedies. The first time was in the mid–1960s, in a Billy Wilder comedy, "The Fortune Cookie" — in which Lemmon played a cameraman who was injured at a football game and Matthau played his shyster lawyer brother–in–law. Matthau won an Oscar for his performance — and deservedly so — although Lemmon often played his straight man.

But Lemmon did have a career that was separate from Matthau, a career that paired him with many of the greats of filmmaking, both in front of and behind the camera. And it was a career that often took him in dramatic directions.

About 10 years before making "The Fortune Cookie," Lemmon was cast as Ensign Pulver in "Mister Roberts," eventually winning an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. The role allowed him to appear with legends like Henry Fonda, William Powell and James Cagney.

A few years later, he appeared in what may have been Billy Wilder's comedic masterpiece, "Some Like It Hot," in which he was paired with Tony Curtis, Marilyn Monroe and Joe E. Brown, who delivered the film's memorable final line in the clip at the top of this post.

He was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor for his performance in that film, as he was the following year for his role in "The Apartment," another Wilder film that cast him with Shirley MacLaine and Fred MacMurray.

In 1962, Lemmon was nominated for Best Actor again — this time for portraying a recovering alcoholic in "Days of Wine and Roses." That role may not have been as much of a reach for him as many no doubt thought at the time. Both he and director Blake Edwards reported drinking heavily while the film was being made, and both men, as well as Lemmon's co–star, Lee Remick, eventually sought treatment for alcohol abuse.

In that film, I suppose, it could truly be said that life imitated art — to an extent. I don't think Remick's character sought treatment in the film, but Lemmon's did.

A decade later, Lemmon finally received the recognition he had long deserved from the Oscars, receiving a Best Actor award for his performance in "Save the Tiger," in which he played an executive doing whatever he could to preserve the lifestyle his failing business had made possible — even to the point of considering arson to destroy the warehouse and win an insurance settlement.

As much as I always enjoy watching Lemmon in his comedic roles, I have always had a special fondness for the dramatic roles he played in the next couple of decades. Some were widely recognized, others were not.

And, while each of those dramatic roles was unique, there was an honesty in Lemmon's performances that told the audience that what he said and what he did were genuine — men in these conditions, knowing what they knew and believing what they did, would behave as Lemmon did.

"The China Syndrome" attracted a lot of attention at the time, in part because its theatrical release was followed closely by a nuclear accident in Pennsylvania. Talk about life imitating art. When one of Lemmon's co–stars, Michael Douglas, appeared on The Tonight Show shortly after the accident, Johnny Carson said to him, "Boy, you sure have one hell of a publicity agent." Perhaps, but Lemmon was the one who was nominated for Best Actor. Jane Fonda was nominated for Best Actress.

Lemmon was nominated again the following year for "Tribute," in which he played a terminally ill man trying to reconnect with his estranged son, played by Robby Benson. In some ways, the role always reminded me of his performance in "Save the Tiger." Each character was trying to retain or recapture something of personal value.

There was nothing, really, that I could have seen that would have prepared me for "Missing," a movie that was inspired by the true story of the disappearance (and, as it turned out, execution) of an American journalist during the Chilean coup of 1973 — although the character did have certain qualities that he shared with the other two.

Lemmon played the father of the missing journalist. His son (played by John Shea, who is better known, perhaps, for his TV work) and his son's wife (played by Sissy Spacek) were virtually polar opposites of the ultra–patriotic Lemmon, who came to search for his son believing his son had been at least partially responsible for his disappearance, only to conclude that he and his family have been lied to by their own government.

Lemmon's career continued on a dramatic arc in the 1980s. Late in the decade, he appeared in a made–for–TV film based on the death of a young girl in an Atlanta pencil factory near the turn of the century. The case formed the basis for a new documentary about the case on PBS last fall. But I don't think there have been any new developments since Lemmon was nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance as Georgia's governor, who sought in vain to prevent the lynching of the plant manager.

Then, in 1991, Lemmon was reunited in film with Matthau when both appeared in Oliver Stone's "JFK." They were never on screen together, as I mentioned earlier. Their real–life counterparts — Lemmon played a private investigator, Matthau a U.S. senator — were both from Louisiana but, otherwise, had nothing apparent in common.

Lemmon resumed his comedic ways in the last 10 years of his life, doing the "Grumpy Old Men" movies and the sequel to "The Odd Couple," but he continued to impress me with his dramatic performances, most of them on television.

An exception was his turn in 1994's "Short Cuts," another ensemble production, in which he played a man haunted by his past infidelity and his inattention to his son who seeks to reconnect with his son when his grandson is in the hospital.

A few years later, he appeared in a TV remake of "12 Angry Men," playing the role Henry Fonda played in the movie 40 years earlier. Then, in 1999, he appeared in a TV remake of "Inherit the Wind," playing Spencer Tracy's role. In both productions, he co–starred with George C. Scott.

There are times when it is hard for me to believe Lemmon has been gone for nine years. But he has.

That's a shame. I always thought he had more to say to us.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

The End Must Be Near

For nearly 17 years, it went by the name Sci–Fi Channel — or some variation — but just about a year ago, the name was changed to Syfy.

It began its existence devoted to science fiction and fantasy programming. My interest in those genres is somewhat minimal so I rarely watched Sci–Fi — but I always tuned in on the Fourth of July and New Year's Day to see at least part of the channel's traditional Twilight Zone marathons, which typically ran for two or three days.

I don't know when this tradition began. I first became aware of it about 10 years ago, purely by accident, and I've been watching the marathons ever since. For many years, the channel showed only episodes from the series' original run back in the late 1950s and early 1960s — but last Fourth of July, Sci–Fi devoted half of its three–day marathon to seldom–seen episodes from the series' second run in the mid– to late 1980s.

Just after last year's marathon, the channel changed its name. Why? Well, I can only assume from what I have read that the channel wanted to broaden its appeal. Sci–Fi apparently was too restricting, drawing only the fringe elements of the audience.

Science fiction and fantasy haven't been discontinued on the network, we have been assured, but reality programming and more mainstream entertainment have enhanced roles in the channel's marketing strategy. Hence, World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) will be added to the lineup in October.

Last year, the founder of the Sci–Fi Channel said, "The name Sci Fi has been associated with geeks and dysfunctional, antisocial boys in their basements with video games and stuff like that, as opposed to the general public and the female audience in particular. ... We spent a lot of time in the '90s trying to distance the network from science fiction, which is largely why it's called Sci Fi."

Presumably, the moniker Syfy — which, apparently, was chosen because it is the way it would be written in a text message — makes the channel appear less geeky and more appealing to mainstream viewers, especially females. It is intended to be visually unique while still pronounced the same, although some have taken to derisively pronouncing it "Siffy."

The change had no discernible influence on the tradition of the New Year's Twilight Zone marathon so it caught me by surprise recently when I went to Syfy's website to look at the Fourth of July schedule to see when my favorite episodes would air.

I was stunned when I found that, while there will be a marathon on that channel for the Fourth of July, it will be dedicated to episodes of The Greatest American Hero.

Maybe the Fourth of July marathon has been moved to another holiday. Maybe it has been discontinued. I don't know.

All I know is, if Syfy wants me to remain in its audience — even in what was my limited, usually twice–a–year way — it's doing all the wrong things.

And if anyone from Syfy is reading this, I have only one word of advice: Bring back Twilight Zone.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Scariest Villain Who Was Hardly Seen

As I observed last year, it was on this day in 1975 that the practice of heavily promoting the summertime theatrical release of a motion picture (i.e., a "blockbuster" movie) began.

And I guess there was no more harrowing film sequence that could have ushered in that era than the opening of "Jaws."

Actress Susan Backlinie was only on the screen a few seconds, really, but her character's violent death while taking a moonlight swim resonated with audiences as surely as the infamous shower scene in "Psycho" 15 years earlier.

I presume, though, that, as audiences projected themselves into each situation, they could imagine circumstances in which they could get away from a knife–wielding intruder, even if they appeared to be cornered, naked, in a shower. It was much more difficult, if not impossible, to imagine being attacked in the ocean by a shark — and managing to escape.

It couldn't have surprised anyone who had read Peter Benchley's novel upon which the film was based. The cover illustration of a young woman swimming along the surface while a shark, its mouth agape, rises from the murky depths has become iconic.

That illustration was used in the movie posters so I can't imagine that the opening sequence surprised many of those in the audience who had not read the book — but, even so, I always wondered how many people were genuinely shocked by what they saw.

Admittedly, they saw very little of the shark.

And that, I suppose, is what made "Jaws" truly terrifying — the menace lurking in the murky depths, unseen until it was too late.

It's interesting, isn't it, that both of those fearsome images involved water — the life–giving substance, cleansing, refreshing, restoring. On a hot summer's day, when one is grimy and sweaty, there may be nothing more appealing than a cool lake or stream. I've never been a big fan of beaches — I guess they've always been too crowded for my taste — but I suppose most beachgoers fancy the beach as a large swimming pool.

And a pool isn't usually threatening — unless you're behaving recklessly.

But there was nothing reckless about the young woman's behavior at the opening of "Jaws." You may draw whatever conclusions you like about her moral behavior, skinny dipping at night — and originally intending to do so with a young man she had just met — but, as I understand it, sharks are drawn to movement, and she was doing that alone (and, it can be assumed, she would have been doing even if she had been wearing a bathing suit and her male companion had not fallen on the sand and remained there in a semi–conscious stupor, unaware of the struggle she was waging for her life not far away).

Of course, the actual shark in "Jaws" wasn't real. He was a mechanical shark that was given the name Bruce — after, as I understand it, Spielberg's lawyer.

I suppose there's some significance to that — perhaps adequately explaining it calls for someone who is certifiably anti–lawyer, and I'm not sure I belong in that group. I mean, I recognize the need for lawyers. They don't just exist to run up outrageous bills. They do provide a legitimate, specialized service — one for which I hope I will have little use in my life, but that's beside the point.

Later, I guess you could say Benchley "saw the light." In his later years, he claimed that the image of the shark as man's predator was false, and he warned that they were endangered by man's aggressive treatment of them and their environment.

"Jaws," he said, could not be written today with the shark cast as the villain. "[I]t would have to be written as the victim for, worldwide, sharks are much more the oppressed than the oppressors."

That may be true, but I read "Jaws" back when it was a bestseller, and I'm sure I would get the same chills down my spine if I read it again today.

The movie still does that to me.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

'Hot in Cleveland' Left Me Cold

OK, I'll admit it.

When I was an adolescent, I had a crush on Valerie Bertinelli. I guess she was cuter when she was 15. Or maybe I was more easily stimulated then.

In the '90s, I guess I kinda liked Jane Leeves. I enjoyed the Frasier series — still do — but I felt more attracted to the character of Roz (Peri Gilpin).

Wendie Malick? Never gave her much thought.

Well, anyway, the three of them are co–stars with Betty White (who was way before my time) in a new "sitcom" on TVLand. The show made its debut last night.

Now, I know that a series' first episode is seldom one of its best. Its primary purpose is to introduce the audience to the main characters and, perhaps, lay the groundwork for running jokes. In what I suppose could be called best–case scenarios, folks who are involved in the production of a new series hope viewers will continue to tune in because they are intrigued.

If that was the objective, they missed the target with me, I'm afraid. The premiere episode was aired twice, and I watched it twice — but I haven't decided if I will watch it again. Most of the "humor" came across as a lot of man–bashing — when it wasn't cliched humor about age and promiscuity.

Not that there would be anything wrong with that ... except that it lacks much of a context. The whole premise of the show is that the three younger women, who appear to have been relatively untouched by the economy, are on the way from Los Angeles to France for a vacation when their plane is forced to make an emergency landing in Cleveland.

Instead of simply waiting in the airport for the next available flight, they wander into the city and find themselves at a working–class bar — where the men think they're hot and are convinced they're light eaters because they only order chili fries.

Ultimately — and inexplicably — they decide to rent a house in Cleveland instead of going to Paris for the month. Along the way, many jokes were made, none of which struck me as particularly funny. But perhaps that's just a matter of personal taste.

Maybe Hot in Cleveland will be a smash hit. All four of the women who star in it have been involved, in one way or another, with hit shows before.

But it will be awhile before I watch again.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Original Slasher Flick Turns 50

"We all go a little mad sometimes."

Norman Bates
Psycho (1960)

It was 50 years ago today that Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" premiered on America's big screens.

It contained what is, arguably, the most famous scene in movie history — the shower scene in which Janet Leigh is stabbed repeatedly by a shadowy, seemingly female figure.

And untold millions were reluctant to take showers after they saw it — like those who saw "Jaws" for the first time 15 years later and thereafter refused to go to the beach.

The slasher flick was born.

And, in the half–century that has followed, it has seemed that no horror movie, whether it had any redeeming qualities or not, was worthy of the designation if it didn't include at least one scene in which someone, usually a young female, was violently — and, usually, fatally — assaulted while in the most vulnerable position possible — either naked and, frequently, in the shower or while sleeping in some scanty, revealing outfit.

Few movies have that kind of societal influence, and fewer still have had the capability of wielding that kind of influence for so long. But Hitchcock seemed to make a career out of that kind of thing. "Psycho" may have been the most flagrant example, but I'm sure even something as unthreatening as the appearance of a sparrow or a wren made some people nervous after they saw "The Birds." Even a modest aversion to heights became exaggerated in many minds after seeing "Vertigo." No doubt the possibility of mistaken identity took root in many active imaginations after watching "North by Northwest" or "To Catch a Thief."

(One can only imagine what Hitch in his prime might have done with home computers and the internet and identity theft. But modern suspense–movie audiences seem to require more explicit nudity than their forebears, and I suspect Hitchcock might have been a little uncomfortable. He came from a different generation. He cast beautiful people in his movies, but only once, to my knowledge, was any nudity [briefly and from behind] visible in one of his films.

(Maybe that was the influence of the times. Maybe he would have felt freer to use nudity in his films if he had been born 30 or 40 years later. Certainly those directors who openly sought to emulate him didn't hesitate to use nudity in their films, even if it was an anonymous double.

(I have heard, actually, that the infamous shower scene in "Psycho" did not show Leigh naked. She wore a flesh–colored bodysuit, and some parts of the scene were accomplished using either a body double or some sort of mannequin. In truth, when you watch that scene, it is often hard to say who — or even what — you are seeing.)

And, well, I guess the less said about admittedly guilty pleasures, like the voyeurism in "Rear Window," the better.

But "Psycho" was different.

Hitchcock created many brilliant suspense films, most of which were unique but, until "Psycho," a few things were generally true of all the films he made:
  • When someone was killed, there was usually some sort of clear external motivation — be it financial gain or freedom from a disagreeable spouse or whatever.

    What distinguished "Psycho" from those earlier efforts was the fact that there was no clear motive for the disappearance (that turned out to be murder) of Janet Leigh, once the obvious suspects were cleared. Those who got too close to the truth became targets as well, which was a well–established Hitchcockian theme, but the tangential killings were not a means to obtain the money Leigh's character had stolen.

    And who could possibly imagine that that nice Tony Perkins had been assuming his dead mother's persona, dressing in her clothes, wearing a wig?

  • The violence in previous films was seldom seen. If any of it was seen, it was brief and it was not graphic — kind of like in "Casablanca," when Peter Lorre tried to escape from his pursuers and was shot for his efforts. Audiences saw the gun fired and they saw Lorre in profile. They never saw the wound or blood pouring from it or anything like that.

  • By 1960, color in movies was not the novelty it had been 20 years earlier, when color sequences were interwoven with black–and–white sequences in "The Wizard of Oz," nor was it the costly production option it was when it was used in the making of "Gone With the Wind."

    Hitchcock had used color in several of his previous movies so it's not like he was a holdout when he made "Psycho."

    But I don't think he ever used black and white again — except in his TV programs.

  • Hitchcock's movies often had psychological themes, but no other Hitchcock movie was as overtly psychological as "Psycho."

    In fact, until Leigh's character was murdered in the shower, just about everyone in the film had betrayed his/her own particular obsession — be it love or money or whatever. The most peculiar obsession, though — that of Perkins' character — was treated as a closely guarded secret, as I'm sure it would be in real life, and thus it was a shock when it was revealed at the end.
Well, horror/suspense movies have become more intense in the last 50 years, even the ones that have really sought to live up to Hitch's standards and weren't just seeking to make a lot of money from cheap exploitation.

"Psycho" has held up well, and it can still deliver chills.

Happy birthday to a classic.

Just don't think about it while you're in the shower.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

A Satisfying Single

Five and a half years ago, Rolling Stone named it the #2 greatest rock 'n' roll song of all time.

Considering that nothing has been recorded and released since that time that could even remotely be considered a threat to it, I have to assume that the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction" is still the second–greatest song in Rolling Stone's opinion, second only to Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone," which was released the following month.

Oh, did I mention that today is the 45th anniversary of the commercial release of "Satisfaction?" It became the first — and perhaps the greatest — #1 hit in the Stones' storied career.

I guess a lot of songs could be said to be Vietnam era songs, but "Satisfaction" seemed to grab the unofficial title when it was prominently used in the 1979 film "Apocalypse Now."

I've wondered which song the individual Stones would pick as representative of the Vietnam era. I'm inclined to doubt that Keith Richards would name "Satisfaction." He didn't seem to think there was anything special about it. The song's famous, distinctive guitar riff wasn't unique in the Stones' repertoire, he insisted, saying that "there is only one song — it's just the variations you come up with."

I have heard — although I've never been able to prove — that Mick Jagger once said he would rather be dead than still singing "Satisfaction" when he was 40. Maybe he did, but he seemed to come to appreciate the role the song played in his success. It was "the song that really made The Rolling Stones," he said, "changed us from just another band into a huge, monster band."

Over the years, it has become such a favorite of Rolling Stones audiences that it practically takes an act of God to prevent the Stones from playing it in their concerts. But I was present once when the Stones didn't play it — even though Jagger was not yet 40.

It was a rainy Halloween weekend in Dallas, and a friend of mine and I had obtained tickets to a Stones show in the Cotton Bowl. It had become routine for the Stones to play "Satisfaction" as their final song at the shows on their North American tour. But, on that occasion, it was raining so much and the speakers were making snap, crackle and pop sounds — and someone, perhaps someone in the band, perhaps someone in the offstage entourage, decided it wasn't safe to continue.

It was the only show on the tour that did not have "Satisfaction" as its finale.

I was disappointed that I never got to hear the Stones play "Satisfaction."

But I was pleased that its absence made the show I saw unique.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

The Last One Standing

Actress Rue McClanahan died today. She was the third of the four principle characters on the sitcom The Golden Girls to pass away, leaving only Betty White.

White is more than 88 years old now, and, arguably, she has never been more in demand than she has been lately. Last month, she hosted Saturday Night Live. In a couple of weeks, she will appear in a brand–new sitcom on TVLandHot in Cleveland — in which her co–stars (Valerie Bertinelli, Wendie Malick and Jane Leeves) are between 29 and 39 years younger than she is.

In all, White's career has lasted 70 years. It outlived her three marriages, and now it has outlived her three Golden Girls co–stars.

McClanahan was never the star of her own show. Her career could best be summed up as a collection of supporting roles ...

... at least until she was cast as Blanche Devereaux in The Golden Girls. She had been Bea Arthur's co–star on Maude in the 1970s, but, on The Golden Girls, she was one of four equals. And it earned her an Emmy Award in 1987.

White won an Emmy for The Golden Girls, too, and five others between 1952 and 1996 — and who knows? There may be another one in her future.

I guess we'll need to wait a few weeks to see what kind of response Hot in Cleveland receives.

But we already know that, to borrow a line currently being used in TVLand's promotions for its new show, Betty White is "white hot."

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

R.I.P., Dennis Hopper

It was sort of anticlimactic Saturday when Dennis Hopper died of prostate cancer.

Oh, I was sad to hear the news. But I had been expecting it, the same way I had expected the death of Farrah Fawcett last year.

Hopper's death was not out of the blue, like Michael Jackson's a few hours after Farrah's. I was sorry to hear that Hopper had died, but I was prepared for it. It was not a shock.

I will miss him, though.

So many of his performances resonated with me, whether I saw them on the big screen or on TV. He was truly a gifted actor who gave much of himself to the parts that he played. Sometimes he paid a price for that openness, that honesty, that outside–the–box naivete with which he sometimes seemed to approach his projects, but I am glad he lived long enough to see his work recognized with his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

I can't remember the first Hopper performance I ever saw. What I do remember is the many times I was touched by what he did — and I am astonished when I realize that he co–starred with James Dean in two of his three movies. Dean was an actor who was greatly admired by Hopper — and he has been dead more than 50 years.

Jason Ankeny wrote, for the allmovie website, that Hopper's "odyssey" — and that certainly is a good word for it — was "one of Hollywood's longest, strangest trips."

Hopper never won an Oscar, but some people will tell you that he, along with Peter Fonda and Terry Southern, should have received one for their original screenplay for "Easy Rider." (Instead, William Goldman took home the Oscar for his screenplay for "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.")

But, as Calvin Wilson wrote in the St. Louis Post–Dispatch, the movie was a "touchstone for a generation" that "captured the national imagination."

As good — and perhaps as deserving — as Goldman's screenplay was, no one ever said anything like that about "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid."

"Easy Rider" may be Hopper's creative legacy. He wrote it, directed it, co–starred with Fonda and Jack Nicholson in it.

But another part of his legacy is his turn as a photojournalist in 1979's "Apocalypse Now," which is considered truly brilliant by many today, but it didn't do much at the time to reassure people of his stability. And that was something with which he had been struggling.

As always, he did other things between his most memorable or noteworthy achievements, but the next time he showed up on the mainstream movie audience's radar was when he appeared in "Hoosiers" as the reluctant — and alcoholic — assistant coach.

He got an Academy Award nomination for that one, too — for Best Supporting Actor — but, again, he came home empty–handed.

Did Michael Caine deserve that statuette? How about the others who were nominated?

You can judge for yourself tonight on Turner Classic Movies at 7 p.m. (Central). It just so happens that TCM is showing "Hoosiers," followed by "Rocky" and then "The Natural," thanks to guest programmer Rich Eisen of the NFL Network.

The timing of this showing of "Hoosiers" is purely coincidental. It was scheduled long before Hopper died.

But it seems to me there could be no better way to remember the life and career of Dennis Hopper than by watching his Oscar–nominated performance.