Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Movie Musical's Last Stand?



Billy Flynn (Richard Gere): This is Chicago, kid. You can't beat fresh blood on the walls.

It probably isn't obvious to modern movie viewers, but, for awhile, movie musicals were frequently recognized as the best movies of the year — at least by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

But, after "Oliver!" won Best Picture in 1969, no musical won Best Picture again until 2003, when "Chicago," the film that was released 10 years ago today, beat, among others, the second installment in the "Lord of the Rings" film trilogy.

And, as a matter of fact, "Chicago" is the most recent musical to be nominated for Best Picture. (That isn't surprising, really. Musicals represent a much smaller segment of filmmaking than they once did.)

(As a one–time newspaper copy editor, I get a kick out of the way that newspaper front pages in movies always have banner headlines for the very story that the movie happens to be about. It will be that way in the filmmakers' universe even if the president is assassinated at the same time or nuclear tensions reach an all–time high.)

Renée Zellweger, who played Roxie, a housewife who coveted a career in show biz, and Catherine Zeta–Jones, whose character, Velma, already had a career in vaudeville, were the focal points of what was a truly satirical story.

Both women were accused of murder. Initially, Zellweger killed her lover after learning that he did not have the show business connections he told her he had, that he had only told her that in order to sleep with her. She convinced her husband (played by John C. Reilly), who showed up after the fact, to take the fall for her, claiming that the man was a burglar.

But Reilly's character got cold feet, and Zellweger was taken to the county jail, where she crossed paths with Zeta–Jones, who was in custody for killing her husband and her sister, and Queen Latifah, the jail's unethical matron who lived by one rule — when you're good to Mama, she's good to you.

Enter Richard Gere, who played Billy Flynn, a smooth operator of a lawyer of whom it was said he had never lost a case in which he represented a female client.

[BILLY (as Roxie)]
Oh yes, oh yes, oh yes we both
Oh yes we both
Oh yes, we both reached for
The gun, the gun, the gun, the gun
Oh yes, we both reached for the gun
For the gun.


[BILLY and REPORTERS]
Oh yes, oh yes, oh yes they both
Oh yes, they both
Oh yes, they both reached for
The gun, the gun, the gun, the gun,
Oh yes, they both reached for the gun
For the gun.

Of course, it helped if the client did and said everything as Billy instructed.

And Roxie was eager to do precisely that.

The story was clearly told with one tongue pressed firmly against the cheek. With music titles like "Cell Block Tango," "Mister Cellophane" and "Funny Honey," what would you expect?

If your answer was "bawdy musical," I'd say you were right.

If you haven't seen the movie, I will try not to let any cats out of the bag.

Let's just leave it at this:

When the final credits rolled and the last notes of the last song faded away, Roxie and Velma had patched up their jailhouse differences and appeared ready to take on the world together.

Roxie was skeptical until Velma observed that "there's only one business in the world where that's not a problem at all: show business."

Roxie couldn't argue with that. A partnership had been born.

And the groundwork for a possible sequel (although, whether that was ever a realistic possibility, no sequel has materialized in the last 10 years) had been laid.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Doing the Dirty Work



Harper Lee's novel, "To Kill a Mockingbird," is one I would recommend to anyone.

One of my journalism students says he requires his children to read it when they reach a certain age, and I applaud him for that. More parents should encourage their children to read.

But that's another issue entirely.

Today is the 50th anniversary of the debut of the movie version of "To Kill a Mockingbird," and I would recommend it to anyone as well.

But I would recommend reading the book first.

The unavoidable lesson of the story is that there are people in the world who do society's dirty work, and that is something that isn't always appreciated as it should be.

There are those who do the physically dirty work, of course — the ones who have to collect and sort through trash or debris, for example — and the ones who must do the psychologically dirty work — for example, the people who carry out state–mandated executions or whose work requires them to persuade juries to impose such death sentences.

Atticus Finch, the hero of "To Kill a Mockingbird," was such a person, another character observed — a man who was born to do society's dirty work. He was a defense attorney, and he had the most thankless job imaginable in the Depression–era South. He had to defend a black man charged with raping a white woman.

In half a century, the film has been praised repeatedly. The American Film Institute ranks it #25 on AFI's Top 100 movies list — and deservedly so.

AFI ranked Gregory Peck's Atticus Finch as the top film hero of all time, and that's a tough one to argue with. In both the book and the movie, Atticus was good and honest, the kind of man whose word was his bond, who felt actions spoke louder than words and who never felt inclined to draw attention to his actions.

If one were to choose a character from a book or movie to admire and to emulate, there could be none better than Atticus Finch.

There are many great scenes in "To Kill a Mockingbird," but, if I had to choose one that I simply had to see, it would be the one where Atticus shoots down a rabid dog in the street. From quite a distance. With a single shot.

His son, who was embarrassed because Atticus declined to play football for the Methodists and chafed at Atticus' refusal to let him have a gun, was astonished and it showed.

"What's the matter, boy?" the sheriff asked him. "Didn't you know your daddy is the best shot in this county?"

Atticus was full of surprises. But, in many ways, he was as transparent as glass. He was the essence of nobility because he was so unself–conscious about it.

Miss Maudie (Rosemary Murphy) saw what Atticus was and tried to explain it to his son at a point in the story where the injustices of the world were painfully clear.

"Some men in this world are born to do our unpleasant jobs for us," she said. "Your father is one of them."

It may be the most moving line in the movie — because it is so direct.

The book still holds up after half a century. So does the movie — and Gregory Peck's performance.

A Bonding Experience



Melvin (Jack Nicholson): Sell crazy someplace else. We're all stocked up here.

I don't know why I have always enjoyed watching "As Good As It Gets," which made its big–screen debut 15 years ago today.

Maybe because it is so in–your–face honest. I sort of think it was that quality that made "As Good As It Gets" so appealing — even if, at times, it became brutally honest.

The story dealt with an unlikely threesome — an obsessive–compulsive, a waitress and a gay artist — who shared a bonding experience.

Melvin: Carol the waitress, Simon the fag.

It was at a time when Hunt was a hot property in Hollywood. She had been on a hit TV series ("Mad About You"), and she had had a hit movie ("Twister") before she made "As Good As It Gets" — and she was in another hit movie ("Cast Away") a few years later. But she had never been nominated for an Oscar before.

That changed 15 years ago.

Nicholson's credits speak for themselves. He had not only been nominated for Best Actor Oscars before he made "As Good As It Gets," he had actually won one — for "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."

On that occasion, he made movie history — of a sort. It was the first time in more than 40 years that a movie had won Oscars for Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay.

With "As Good As It Gets," Nicholson made a different kind of history. He and Hunt both won Oscars, which isn't nearly as uncommon as a sweep of the big five, but it is still a rather rare achievement.

Of the two, Hunt's triumph may have been the more surprising. Nicholson, as I said, took home the Oscar more than 20 years earlier (and again for Best Supporting Actor in the 1980s), but Hunt, a first–time nominee, was at least a bit of a surprise, I suppose, considering that one of her rivals was Kate Winslet for her performance in the titanic blockbuster "Titanic" and three other women who were movie veterans.

But Hunt really brought qualities to her role that weren't necessarily in the script.

Everyone remembers Nicholson's lines — like his response to a fawning receptionist who wanted to know how he managed to write female characters so well ("I think of a man, and I take away reason and accountability").

Or the time Nicholson told Hunt she made him "want to be a better man."

Heck, even the title of the movie comes from one of his lines — speaking to a psychiatrist's waiting room filled with patients, he said, "What if this is as good as it gets?"

But Hunt's lines were frequently the most sincere. Most likely, they were intended as setup lines for Nicholson, but so often Hunt did things with her eyes or her voice that conveyed so much more — and told the audience so much more about the character.

The Extraordinary Life of a Silent Film Icon



Today is a milestone anniversary in the story of Charlie Chaplin.

On this day in 1977, the silent movie icon died in Switzerland at the age of 88.

And 15 years later, on this day in 1992, a movie about his life (directed by Richard Attenborough) made its debut.

I couldn't say how old I was when I first saw a Charlie Chaplin movie. Not very old, I'm sure. I just know that I have always enjoyed his work.

Nor am I sure how long I have admired Richard Attenborough.

It probably began whenever I was first exposed to his work as an actor, but who knows which film that was? He was acting in movies long before I was born so it may have been in a movie that was shown on TV (i.e., "The Great Escape") or it may have been a movie I saw at the movie theater ("Doctor Dolittle").

I'm sure my first introduction to Attenborough was not through a movie he directed — that was probably "Gandhi," and I know I was aware of him long before that.

Attenborough is mostly retired now. He is, after all, 89 years old, and he hasn't participated in the production of a film since 2007. It was an increasingly rare occurrence at that time, and Attenborough's brother said last year that he probably won't be making any more movies.

That is, indeed, a shame. His skill as a director surely exceeded his talent as an actor, and "Chaplin," his biopic that was released 20 years ago today, is a fine example of that.

As I have written here before, I truly admired his biopic of Gandhi — but Gandhi's life was so publicly inspiring that it always seemed to me just about anyone could hit that softball out of the park.

Chaplin's life story was a lot more challenging — but, in its way, every bit as inspiring.

As I say, that life ended 35 years ago today. I can't say with any certainty that I remember what was said about the timing of the release of the movie about Chaplin's life, but I'm just about convinced that it wasn't coincidental.

I must say, though, that I found Robert Downey Jr.'s frenetic portrayal of Chaplin to be revealing in unexpected ways — not the least of which was the obvious, albeit unspoken, comparison of Downey to his subject.

For all his talent, Chaplin had a private sort of greatness, and I suppose the same could be said of Downey.

Lisa Kropiewnicki of AllRovi wrote that the movie was "a thoughtful mixture of melancholy and humor, juxtaposing Chaplin's private loneliness and loss with his professional comedic talents and fortitude."

That's probably an accurate assessment of both Downey and the man he portrayed. But Downey's downfall after "Chaplin" really is another story, isn't it?

I can't help reflecting on the irony, though.

Downey was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance as Chaplin, yet Chaplin was seldom recognized with an Oscar nomination during his life (although he was given an honorary Oscar five years before his death).

Chaplin was a "genius," said George Bernard Shaw, and he was the world's best–known movie star by the end of World War I.

Twenty–two years after Chaplin's death, he was named the 10th–greatest male star of all time by the American Film Institute

Downey's performance was a fitting tribute to Chaplin's remarkable life, warts and all.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Robin Williams Show



"Goooooooood morning, Vietnam! Hey, this is not a test! This is rock and roll! Time to rock it from the Delta to the D.M.Z.!"

I've been following Robin Williams since his "Mork and Mindy" days.

Few people have been as manic in public as Williams, and there have been few professional opportunities for him to let his wild side take over completely.

(I suppose one could argue that Williams only has one side, he is just judicious with its wildness.)

But I'm inclined to think that Williams' portrayal of disc jockey Adrian Cronauer had to be one of those opportunities. And he took advantage of it.

I've heard that most of Williams' radio broadcasts in the movie were improvised, and that would make sense.

Who else, after all, would think to say this while imitating Walter Cronkite?

"I just want to begin by saying to Roosevelt E. Roosevelt, what it is, what it shall be, what it was. The weather out there today is hot and shitty with continued hot and shitty in the afternoon. Tomorrow a chance of continued crappy with a pissy weather front coming down from the north. Basically, it's hotter than a snake's ass in a wagon rut."

How about this?

"What's the demilitarized zone? It sounds like something from the Wizard of Oz. 'Oh no don't go in there!' 'Ohhh wee ohh. Ho Chi Minh.' 'Oh look you've landed in Saigon. You're amongst the little people now.' 'We represent the ARVN army, the ARVN army. Oh no! Follow the Ho Chi Minh trail! Follow the Ho Chi Minh trail!' "

Who else would be irreverent enough to say this?

"Here are the headlines. Here they come right now. Pope actually found to be Jewish. Liberace is Anastasia and Ethel Merman jams Russian radar. The East Germans today claimed the Berlin Wall was a fraternity prank. Also the pope decided today to release Vatican–related bath products. An incredible thing, yes, it's the new Pope On A Rope. That's right. Pope On A Rope. Wash with it, go straight to heaven."

Certainly not the real Adrian Cronauer, who reportedly was nowhere near as hyperactive as Williams' character. I've heard he used no comedy in his broadcasts and simply left Vietnam when his tour of duty ended.

(Williams' Cronauer was taken off the air and given an honorable discharge provided he left quietly under shadowy circumstances.)

The real Cronauer story transferred to film wouldn't have made enough money to cover the producers' bus fare anywhere.

But the Williams treatment resulted in an Academy Award nomination.

He didn't win the Oscar (he lost to Michael Douglas). He deserved the nomination, though — it was, after all, his show, and his performance was dazzling — but he might not have been nominated if he hadn't been surrounded by a top–notch supporting cast.

Of all the noteworthy acting talent that provided that support, I think my favorite was Forest Whitaker as Eddie Garlick. Whitaker had been around for awhile — I first remember seeing him in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" — but I had never seen him like he was in "Good Morning, Vietnam."

For lack of a better term, Whitaker was Williams' sidekick, his straight man.

"No," Whitaker said at one point, "he's not all right. A man does not refer to Pat Boone as a beautiful genius if things are all right."

At another point, speaking of the stuffed shirt character (Bruno Kirby) who took over on–air duty when Cronauer was ushered out, Whitaker said, "We got one letter from a man who thought that Hauk's comedy was 'visionary and interesting.' The other 1100 calls say that the man can't do comedy to save his dick! That's a direct quote, sir."

And, boy, could he deliver a straight line.

But he could deliver punch lines, too. Like when he was asked why Bob Hope wouldn't come to Vietnam.
"He doesn't play police actions, just wars. Bob likes a big room, sir."

Now, that's a punch.

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Next Level



Mid–December has been a good period for Dustin Hoffman.

As I observed earlier this week, mid–December is when some of his best movies were released — "Tootsie" and "Wag the Dog" observed milestone anniversaries a few days ago.

Hoffman had been appearing on stage and screen for several years, but "The Graduate," which was released on this day in 1967, was his first major role.

It was a truly remarkable performance — especially since Hoffman was 30 when it premiered. If you're too young to remember the 1960s, that was the time when the admonition "Don't trust anyone over 30" was popular with young Americans, and Hoffman's character, from all appearances, was well under 30.

He gave every indication of being a traditional college student — i.e., one who entered and completed college after finishing high school rather than one who entered the work force out of high school and returned to school several years later. He came from an affluent family, the kind of family in which it would be expected that children would go on to college after completing high school.

It seemed to me, when I saw the movie for the first time, that "The Graduate" was all about expectations, what was expected of someone and what was not expected. And 1967, with the emerging "generation gap" and the growing rebellion of the young of that time, provided the perfect backdrop for such a story. The music of Simon and Garfunkel was the icing on the cake.

Now, just because one is a traditional college student does not mean one follows the same path as his/her classmates. And Benjamin Braddock's post–college path was almost certainly not like the one many of his classmates followed.

"Mrs. Robinson, you're trying to seduce me. Aren't you?"

Benjamin was drifting, both in fact (in his parents' pool) and metaphorically, and he drifted into an affair with the wife of a family friend (Anne Bancroft), a situation that became even more complicated after he was introduced to her daughter (Katharine Ross) and fell in love with her.

It was already pretty comical. Clearly not very experienced in that sort of thing, Hoffman's clumsy meandering through the minefield of extramarital relationships was amusing in its way.
"It's like I was playing some kind of game, but the rules don't make any sense to me. They're being made up by all the wrong people. I mean no one makes them up. They seem to make themselves up."

In hindsight, I guess, it was an unbeatable combination — Mike Nichols, not too far removed from his directorial triumph with "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" in the director's chair producing a film on a topic that was the hottest around.

The Birth of the Feature-Length Animated Film



"It's kind of fun to do the impossible."

Walt Disney

By the time I was born, Walt Disney had an established reputation as the first — and last — word in animation.

My memory is that Disney and family entertainment were synonymous terms — and it was implied that animation was a big part of that although I have vivid memories of seeing Disney productions that had no animation whatsoever.

Hand–drawn film animation is a pretty crowded field (although perhaps the field is dominated by computer graphics artists today) — but, like anything else, it had to start somewhere.

And, 75 years ago today, it did.

Animated films had been around for awhile, but they had been in the short–feature form. My parents saw them in theaters when they were children; my generation knew them as Saturday morning cartoons. But, until this day in 1937, no one had made a feature–length movie in that format. And no one had produced an animated feature film in full color.

It's likely that animation would have progressed eventually, anyway, although I think it is equally likely that it would not have come as far as quickly as it did if not for Walt Disney.

And the root of that, it seems to me, has to be "Snow White," which premiered on this day in 1937.

It's hard to imagine the mindset, but the primary objection to the project was the belief that no one would be willing to sit through a 90–minute cartoon. Critics called the project "Disney's Folly" — yet, five years ago, the American Film Institute recognized it as one of the Top 100 movies of all time.

But Disney was a master showman who understood his audience better than almost any of his contemporaries. He knew that, for feature–length animation to be commercially successful, he needed to appeal to adults as well as children.

"Snow White" combined more realistic human features in the prince and Snow White, who faced the most dramatic circumstances, with the cartoonish dwarfs, who provided most of the comic relief.

One can argue that, with its tale of Prince Charming awakening a slumbering (and beautiful) Snow White with a kiss, the story and characters perpetuated stereotypes under which women have struggled for the last 7½ decades.

But, recently, Judith Welikala and Emily Dugan wrote in The Independent of how Disney's female characters have — to borrow an old advertising expression — come a long way, baby.

(I suppose it could be argued that they might not have come as far as they have in Disney movies if Disney had not died in 1966.)

The heroines of Disney's early movies, wrote Welikala and Dugan, had to have "a handsome prince, a tiny waist, a pearly white smile and an urgent need to be rescued."
Queen: Magic mirror on the wall, who is the fairest one of all?

In three–quarters of a century, they have evolved to be more independent, more self–reliant. More liberated.

Princess Merida of this year's "Brave," they observed, is "the first Disney princess who does not have a love interest."

That may be, as a columnist and Disney historian told Welikala and Dugan, more a reflection of the times. Women were more dependent on men in the 1930s. They entered the work force during World War II and many were reluctant to leave it after the war ended.

More and more women found themselves having to make the choice between their professional and personal lives. Although women were frequently told they could "have it all," most have found it a tricky — and elusive — accomplishment.

In many ways, "Snow White" is a glimpse into the values that prevailed in the 1930s — much as TV shows from the 1950s are said to epitomize that time in our social history — a time when children were told fairy tales they continued to believe into adulthood.

Kind of a time capsule — in full color.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Unsinkable Titanic



Last April, on the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, I watched the 1997 James Cameron film that was based on that event — and, ultimately, matched records for both Academy Award nominations and wins.

That film was released to theaters 15 years ago today.

I guess I hadn't watched that movie all the way through since I saw it on the big screen, but the movie brought back all kinds of memories of the time when I saw it.

I was deeply, passionately in love with a woman from my office, and we had just begun what turned out to be a very brief relationship — sort of like a shooting star one sees on the deepest of dark nights. It was a confusing, mysterious relationship that ended abruptly and painfully. Even now, there are things about it that I don't understand — and I'm not sure I want to so I don't think about her much.

But the centennial earlier this year of the actual Titanic's sinking — and now the anniversary of the release of that record–setting movie — have forced me to think about Liz and that time in our lives.

When "Titanic" made its debut, she had left town to spend the Christmas holidays with relatives in another state, and I didn't know she had returned until I received an e–mail from her. She was almost casual in her e–mail. She didn't announce "I'm back!" She just launched into a conversation.

(If she is still living, that's probably how she texts with the people in her life when she returns from a trip somewhere. She probably just picks up threads of weeks–old conversations — as if the intervening gap had never happened.)

"Have you seen Titanic yet?" she asked me. "I saw it the other day. It was really good."

I hadn't seen the movie yet, and I tried to get her to go see it with me, but she declined. She encouraged me to see it, but once was enough for her, she said.

So I went to see it alone — and first thought, when I walked into the viewing room at the multiscreen theater, that I had walked into the wrong room by mistake. On the screen were scenes from an undersea exploration, and I didn't make the immediate obvious connection — that this was a modern–day expedition to the wreckage site on the ocean floor.

I almost walked out to look for the correct viewing room when I saw some of the ship's wreckage, and I put two and two together.

Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio): Do you trust me?

Rose (Kate Winslet): I trust you.

Actually, I saw the movie twice in the first few months of 1998. The second time was with a woman who had been my first serious girlfriend many years earlier. She and her husband were in Dallas for some sort of professional conference, and I wound up taking her to see "Titanic" one Saturday afternoon while he was in a conference session.

That was weird and wonderful at the same time. I had rarely seen her since we broke up, but we got caught up on things quickly, and going to see a movie with her again really felt like old times — minus the awkward pressure of the teenage years. We treated each other like the old friends we were instead of the old lovers we used to be. She had been married for several years by that time, anyway, and she and her husband had had two children together.

Our lives had gone in different directions, and we both knew that. There were no attempts to recapture a past that was long gone, but we both were interested in each other and earnestly hoped the other was happy. I confided in her that I was in love, but, at that point, the relationship was sputtering. In my heart, I didn't think it would last much longer.

And it didn't. It went down — although not quite as spectacularly as the Titanic did.

But that's another story, anyway.

The re–creation of the sinking of the Titanic was about as accurate as it could be. I had read quite a bit about that event before I saw James Cameron's movie, and everything I saw lined up with what was known at the time.

The success of "Titanic" brought international acclaim for Leonardo DiCaprio, who was not nominated for an Oscar for his performance. His co–star, Kate Winslet, was nominated, but her performance was not generally well regarded. In fact, she was panned by many.

But, frankly, any talk that linked DiCaprio and/or Winslet to the blockbuster was a shot in the arm for their careers.

DiCaprio and Winslet were just appearing on moviegoers' radars at the time. Consequently, they generated the most talk.

But I felt that perhaps the most unheralded member of the cast was Gloria Stuart, who was a mere toddler when the actual Titanic sank and whose career began decades before her co–stars were born.

She played the old version of Rose, who appeared on the screen more often in the person of Winslet.

But Stuart's Rose had the wisdom that comes with age. Winslet's character was a teenager, flighty and uncomprehending about many things. It was hardly surprising when the dialogue that came from her mouth was inane.
Rose (Kate Winslet): It's so unfair.

Ruth (Frances Fisher): Of course it's unfair. We're women. Our choices are never easy.

Old Rose, on the other hand, had this reasonable response when told that no evidence of Jack being on board the Titanic had ever been found.

"No, there wouldn't be, would there? And I've never spoken of him until now. Not to anyone."

That, I suppose, was the net result of the Rose character's wisdom as she matured.

But even Stuart was capable of similarly schmaltzy dialogue — thanks to the writers.

"A woman's heart is a deep ocean of secrets."

That was a bit much for me, but it came near the end of the movie — and apparently it struck a responsive chord with many of the women who saw it.

And I had to admit that it didn't take anything away from what I thought had been a pretty good performance.

The Academy apparently agreed. Stuart was nominated for Best Supporting Actress (she lost to Kim Basinger). The actress who played Stuart's younger self, Winslet, also lost (to Helen Hunt).

Those were the exceptions to the rule. "Titanic" was nominated for 14 Oscars — and won 11.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Gender Bender



Dustin Hoffman to Geena Davis: What kind of mother would I be if I didn't give my girls tits ... tips?

Almost 15 years to the day after the debut of Dustin Hoffman's breakthrough film, "The Graduate," the moviegoing public was treated to a performance for which Hoffman had no apparent experience.

Of course, when Hoffman made "The Graduate," he wasn't exactly a perfect fit. He was 30 years old with one year of junior college under his belt, playing a recent college graduate.

But that was nothing compared to the movie he made that premiered 30 years ago today — "Tootsie."

No actor has a hit every time out, but, in the 15–year period between "The Graduate" and "Tootsie," Hoffman enjoyed what can charitably be called more than his share of success. He got four Oscar nominations (one win) and appeared in five movies that were nominated for Best Picture.

That bears absolutely no resemblance to the character he played in "Tootsie."

That character, Michael Dorsey, was an actor — but that really was where any similarity between Hoffman and the character he played ended.

Michael Dorsey was a struggling actor. Like Hoffman, he had a great deal of talent, but he was hard to get along with, and folks just didn't want to work with him.

That's not an exaggeration. His reputation was so bad that he had to assume an entirely new identity (and a different gender) to find work.

Enter Dorothy Michaels.

As Dorothy, he was able to secure steady employment on a soap opera, and his masculine attitude (interpreted as a brand of feminism) was a surprise hit with the show's viewers.

But there were down sides.

One of Dorothy's co–stars was attracted to her, as was the father of another co–star (Jessica Lange) with whom Michael desired a relationship.

To be sure, there was some gender bending going on.

And what I liked best about "Tootsie" was its honesty. It acknowledged that both genders labor under misconceptions about the other — and both have something to learn from each other.

"I was a better man with you as a woman than I ever was with a woman as a man," Hoffman told Lange at the end. "I just gotta learn to do it without the dress."

That sums things up pretty well.

How to Change the Subject



Tracy (Kirsten Dunst): What would they do to me if I did tell someone about this?

Conrad (Robert De Niro): They could come to your house in the middle of the night and kill you.

I thoroughly enjoyed "Wag the Dog," which debuted on this day in 1997, and to no small extent because I understood and appreciated the nature of the title. But it did require a little explanation.

When I first heard the title, I thought it was the name of a character — you know, like Bozo the Clown. Logically, I figured that it was a dog named Wag and, if the title character was a dog, it must be a cartoon — you know, kind of like Felix the Cat — although perhaps not (this was around the time that "Babe" was in the theaters).

But then I discovered it was a variation of the old saying that "the dog wags the tail, the tail doesn't wag the dog."

When applied to a political context — as it was in this movie — it meant to distract public attention from a matter of great importance to focus on a matter of lesser importance — or, in the case of this movie, a matter that didn't really exist.

In the movie, the president is facing the voters in his bid for re–election. Foolishly, he sexually assaults a member of some Firefly Girl group that is visiting the White House in the closing days of the campaign, and he needs the help of a spin doctor played by Robert De Niro to get him over the hump (as it were) to Election Day.

(In my own defense, the plotline encouraged some really bad puns.)

De Niro, in turn, recruits a Hollywood producer (Dustin Hoffman), who is bitter over never receiving the recognition he craves for the work he has done, to help him create a phony war to distract attention from the abuse allegations.

And, thus, an elaborate deception was born.

Hoffman's character put together such an impressive visual depiction of a war that he himself observed it was "the best work I've ever done in my life, because it's so honest."

Well, honesty was relative.

Or, in the words of the movie's producers, "Why does a dog wag its tail? Because a dog is smarter than its tail. If the tail were smarter, the tail would wag the dog."

Hoffman's undoing was in not being satisfied with the knowledge that it was his "best work." He wanted the credit that had been denied to him throughout his career.

"You're playing with your life," De Niro's character warned him, but he wouldn't listen — and he wound up dying shortly thereafter, officially of a heart attack while sunning himself by his pool.

Overseeing all of this was Anne Heche's character, Winifred the presidential adviser who acted as the buffer between the president and everything else. At times, she was severely tested, as when she was informed that the hand–picked "hero" of the fictional conflict — played by Woody Harrelson — was an unsavory sort who had been convicted of raping a nun.

"Oh, God. Oh, God. Oh, God," she kept muttering.

Hoffman assured her that, as long as the "hero" took his medication, "He's fine."

What if he doesn't take his medication, Heche's character wanted to know.

"He's not fine."

To be fair to Hoffman's character, he did design a credible war backdrop for the cover story, enlisting Kirsten Dunst to play a peasant girl running from assailants with a kitten in her arms (the kitten and the scenery and sound effects would be edited in later — Dunst was told to run through a sound stage carrying a bag of tortilla chips).

In a classic example of the misdirection used by the spin doctor and his associates, De Niro's character urges people like the press secretary to make up denials about non–existent rumors — such as the one about the B–3 bomber.

There is no such thing, of course, and no one had been talking about it, but De Niro's character still protests that he doesn't know how such rumors get started — and the direction of the conversation is changed.

Roger Ebert made an intriguing observation in his review of the movie in the Chicago Sun–Times: "It's creepy how this material is absurd and convincing at the same time. ... Even when a conflict is real and necessary ... the packaging ... is invariably shallow and unquestioning; like sportswriters, war correspondents abandon any pretense of objectivity and detachment, and cheerfully root for our side."

Coincidentally, the movie came out around the same time that Bill Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky was in the news, and he was facing impeachment. The Clinton administration also engaged in some saber rattling against Iraq — which critics alleged was an attempt to shift the focus of the public conversation. It was, they said, a real–life "Wag the Dog."

"['Wag the Dog'] is a satire that contains just enough realistic ballast to be teasingly plausible," Ebert wrote, "like 'Dr. Strangelove,' it makes you laugh, and then it makes you wonder."

It still does.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Fun With Aaron, Tom and Jane



Aaron (Albert Brooks): Wouldn't this be a great world if insecurity and desperation made us more attractive? If needy were a turn–on?

It was 25 years ago today that "Broadcast News" premiered.

As a journalism professor with many years of newsroom experience under my belt, I feel there ought to be something profound I should say about that. But I'll be darned if I know what it is.

Of course, my experience is exclusively in print, not broadcast, and there is a world of difference between the two. Within that difference, perhaps, is the insight that is needed to discover whatever lesson "Broadcast News" was intended to teach.

But I lacked that insight at the time, and I am afraid I still do.

Of course, I've seen newsroom romances, so the relationship between Holly Hunter and William Hurt was not, ahem, virgin territory for me. In my experience, it was a bit exaggerated at times — but, hey, can you name a romantic comedy that wasn't exaggerated?

It's the exaggeration that makes it funny. That's important in a romantic comedy.

But I kind of felt "Broadcast News" was more than a romantic comedy. It was also something of a spoof on broadcasting — not as biting as, say, "Network," but, in its way, just as prophetic.

And I guess there were no moments in "Broadcast News" that were as memorable as Peter Finch's "I'm as mad as hell" rant in "Network," but they were often just as clever — and every bit as telling.

One of my favorite lines was when Brooks was feeding information to William Hurt by phone via Hunter. He said something to her and, a few seconds later, the same thing, practically word for word, came out of Hurt's mouth.

"I say it here, it comes out there," Brooks remarked.

Hurt's presence created a romantic triangle that William Shakespeare might have envied. Brooks, naturally, was in love with Hunter, but, while she was Brooks' friend, it could never be more than that for her.

However, she was strongly attracted to Hurt, an aspiring anchorman who excelled at reading what was put in front of him and the nuances of visual appeal on camera, but he was not a reporter. He read others' prose flawlessly but often could not comprehend what the stories really meant.

Hurt's character didn't pretend that wasn't an issue for him, either. "It's not that I'm down on myself," he said. "Trust me. I stink."

And yet he was on an upward professional trajectory.

It was hard, really, to argue with Brooks' reasoning for why Hurt's character was the devil.

What do you think the Devil is going to look like if he's around? ... He will be attractive! He'll be nice and helpful. He'll get a job where he influences a great God–fearing nation. He'll never do an evil thing! He'll never deliberately hurt a living thing ... he will just bit by little bit lower our standards where they are important. Just a tiny little bit. Just coax along flash over substance. Just a tiny little bit. And he'll talk about all of us really being salesmen. And he'll get all the great women.

In many ways, that sums up my feeling about modern journalism.

Or, at least, broadcast journalism.

When I was growing up, journalists were dedicated to one thing — pursuit of the truth, regardless of who might be hurt by its revelation.

But most modern journalists — primarily on the broadcast side although there are some in print, too — give their allegiance to their political agenda, whatever that may be. For most, I guess, it is a progressive agenda, but there are some whose agenda is conservative.

Either way, a political agenda has no place in news reporting — in fact, I can remember a time when anything with the slightest whiff of partisanship was clearly labeled opinion. But a place is being made for it in news coverage by reporters who, more and more frequently, insert themselves into their stories.

There is a shallowness to that that I find disturbing. And I shouldn't be surprised when my students seek to emulate it — although it really is surprising just how often I am surprised by that.

"Let's never forget," Brooks told his colleagues at one point, "we're the real story, not them."

This is more relevant to me today than it was when I saw it on the big screen.

As a journalism professor, I am constantly dealing with students who insert themselves into the story, and I am reminded of what Brooks said to his co–workers. When journalists are on the scene, we are the real story, not them.

I have had students who would have felt entitled to be given a comment by the relative of a victim of some horrific event — and would have felt ripped off to be denied one.

When journalists are covering great tragedies, like Friday's shootings at a Connecticut elementary school, it isn't about getting the facts right. It's about having something to say first, whether it is factual or not.

And it's about looking good when we say it.

But there's more to it than that.

In my newsroom days, there was always a distinct line between editorial and advertising. There were times, I'll grant you, when the relationship could be adversarial, and that was understandable, considering that it was really a territorial squabble. Editorial always wanted to have as much space as possible, and advertising looked upon space as a commodity to be bought and sold. Something had to give.

I never worked in broadcasting, but I assume a similar dynamic was — and still is — at work in that arena, in which time was/is the commodity, not space.

Hurt's character may not have comprehended the stories he read to his audience, but he understood the concept of selling:

"Just remember that you're not just reading the news, you're narrating it," he advised Brooks. "Everybody has to sell a little. You're selling them this idea of you, you know, you're sort of saying, trust me, I'm credible. So when you feel yourself just reading, stop! Start selling a little."

For anyone who has worked in journalism, be it broadcast or print, it is a familiar tug–o–war.

And, as far as I was concerned, the greatest flaw of "Broadcast News" was its failure to address that dynamic. It got off to a great start — when Hunter's character was seen lecturing a drowsy conference audience about the declining standards of broadcast journalism.

The audience was revived when she ran a video clip of an event that had been carried by every network news program on a particular night — a clip of an extended domino run that produced exactly the opposite reaction from the one for which Hunter's character had hoped. No indignation, but plenty of appreciative "oooohs" and "aaaahs" and applause.

The point had been made, and I believed the movie's message would be the triumph of style over substance. I thought it would be a lot more like "Network."

But it quickly became a romantic comedy with broadcast journalism as the backdrop.

In that respect, it probably succeeded in entertaining the audience, like the domino clip — but, like Hunter, I felt disappointed and let down, and I continued to feel that way as the movie frequently flirted with the possibility of exploring the issues it raised but always pulled back at the last moment, going for the kind of gags you've laughed at in every romantic comedy.

The cast did a great job with what it was given, and I admit that there was a very human quality to the characters. That's important for a romantic comedy. It can't succeed if the audience doesn't care about the characters.

Still, though, I was disappointed. I really expected more of an indictment of broadcast journalism than I got, and perhaps that was unfair.

I cared — and still do care — more about my profession.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Bringing a True Crime Classic to the Screen



Last spring, I finally saw the movie "Capote" and was inspired to re–read "In Cold Blood" during the summer.

I knew this year was the 45th anniversary of the premiere of the movie that was based on that book — that anniversary is today, by the way — so I knew that familiarizing myself with the book's content again would be useful, but it never occurred to me that there might be another reason for reading it again (well, aside from the fact that it's just a darn good book).

It isn't as if there was some new effort afoot to prove the killers' innocence. The two men who were convicted of the Kansas killings were executed nearly 50 years ago. As far as I know, there has never been any reason to doubt that they were guilty. No question about that.

Logically, that should have been the end of it.

I suppose, though, that my years of work in the news business should have told me that — potentially — nothing is ever really done in this world. (Several years ago, for example, authorities exhumed President Zachary Taylor to try to determine whether his death was due to natural causes or foul play. Taylor died more than 150 years ago.)

And, sure enough, the "In Cold Blood" case is back in the news — just in time for the anniversary of the movie's debut.

It was revealed a couple of weeks ago that authorities wanted to exhume the killers' remains to retrieve DNA samples.

No one is trying to disprove the conclusion of the Kansas jury that convicted them and sentenced them to death for killing the Clutter family in November 1959. Rather, the emphasis is on a similar case in Florida about a month later.

Truman Capote's book mentions the killers' travels after the Kansas murders, including a time when they were in Florida. The two were considered suspects in the Florida murders, but they were ruled out when they passed the lie detector tests of the day.

Now the Florida case is being examined again — and at least one area newspaper, the Sarasota (Fla.) Herald–Tribune, doubts that the two events are connected.

Well, that's another topic — to be resolved at a later date.

Today's topic is the 45th anniversary of the premiere of the movie that was based on "In Cold Blood," and moviegoers who hadn't read Capote's book probably had no idea that the killers ever went to Florida after they killed the Clutter family in Kansas.

It was never mentioned in the movie.

And there have been allegations for years that Capote invented some things to fit the story he wanted to tell. It was, as he described it, a "nonfiction novel," the story of an actual event but with many of its elements novelized — conversations, the sequence of events, etc.

In short, there are reasons to doubt that "In Cold Blood" told the whole truth.

But, even if it wasn't the whole truth, it still was a compelling story. The physical evidence of the killers' guilt is overwhelming so there is no reason to think the wrong men paid for the crimes.

And if Alvin Dewey, the investigator who pursued the killers, was as determined as John Forsythe portrayed him to be, few were going to quibble about the details of conversations or personalities.

I get the impression from what I have read that Dewey, who died in 1987, was, indeed, a dedicated lawman — and he may well have been a friend of the Clutter patriarch, Herb Clutter, and, as such, may have been particularly motivated to find his killers.

But Dewey also was a friend of Capote's — well, he became one in the course of Capote's research into the case — and it is possible, even likely, that remarks he made to Capote, whether speculative or factual, became part of the narrative.

It is also possible, as the Lawrence (Kans.) Journal–World pointed out more than seven years ago, that the Alvin Dewey of Capote's book was a composite character, combining the heroic efforts of several investigators into one character.

By nearly all accounts, Dewey was a driven, dedicated lawman, and the success of "In Cold Blood" brought him worldwide recognition. But his glowing literary treatment may simply have been the result of good P.R. Even if he didn't know that the book would become the best–selling true crime book of all time, Dewey may have been savvy enough to know the value of any good publicity.

And Capote was only too willing to provide it. Capote "needed a primary character," a retired police officer told the Journal–World.

Well, he sure got one with Alvin Dewey.

And he provided the model true crime writers have been following ever since.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Global Pandit's Lessons


George Harrison (left) and Ravi Shankar (right) were greeted
at the White House by President Gerald Ford on Dec. 13, 1974.


This hasn't been a good time for music legends.

Last week, jazz great Dave Brubeck died, and yesterday it was sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar.

Both men were in their early 90s so their deaths were not unanticipated. Yet their passing leaves a tremendous void in music.

I saw Shankar perform once.

It was nearly 40 years ago. My father, a college professor, was on sabbatical in Nashville, and Ravi Shankar came to the Vanderbilt campus and performed there with his entourage one evening.

My father, a fan of Shankar's music, took the whole family to see him. I was too young at the time to appreciate a whole evening's worth of the sitar player's music, but I knew who he was. He was an inspiration to George Harrison before and after the Beatles broke up, and he rubbed elbows with violinist Yehudi Menuhin, a classical musician my father admired.

He influenced other genres, too, but his roots were in traditional Indian music. His Western audiences were seldom well versed in it — I remember giggling when I watched "Concert for Bangladesh" and the audience, not knowing what it had just heard, applauded when Shankar and his colleagues finished warming up.

"Thank you," Shankar said. "If you liked the tuning so much, I hope you'll enjoy the playing more."

In such a gentle, good–humored way, he taught his audiences about the music of his native land.

In India, he was called Pandit, which means teacher — or, more accurately, scholar — but I never felt he was seen as a teacher in this country. At least, not as a traditional teacher. His manner was too informal, too relaxed. Too inclusive.

He wanted all his listeners to understand the deeper meanings behind Indian music, and he was frustrated in the 1960s and 1970s when, following his introduction to American audiences through Harrison and the Beatles, he found his concerts being attended largely by drug–using counterculture types.

Still, the world was his classroom. His lessons may have been understated, but they had staying power. Teaching others about Indian music was something he long wanted to do.

"The idea of helping Western listeners appreciate the intricacies of Indian music occurred to him during his years as a dancer," writes Allan Kozinn in the New York Times.

He taught Western listeners all the time, whether it was through his concerts or his recordings — including his score for "Gandhi" — or his actual work with students.

Sadly, many modern listeners may only know Shankar as the father of Norah Jones, also a musician who has done her father one better by winning a Grammy — nine of 'em, in fact.

I'd like to think much of her success was due to the education she received at the University of North Texas — where I got my master's degree — but I know most of it is in the genes.

That may not be such a bad legacy, though. Jones continues to attract listeners, and, in turn, they learn who her father was. That knowledge may inspire some to learn more about his life.

And the pandit's lessons continue.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Of Sand and Sun



I've heard it said that movie theaters promoted drinks more heavily than food when "Lawrence of Arabia" was showing.

Their logic was that all that sand and sun would make patrons thirsty. Pretty sound reasoning, don't you think? I've never looked up any figures on concession sales at movie theaters — I don't even know if it is possible to acquire that kind of data, anyway — but "Lawrence of Arabia" premiered 50 years ago today — smack dab in the middle of the Christmas season, which can be quite cold in most locations in the continental U.S. (and Alaska, too, which had been a state for a couple of years by that time).

If the combination of desert scenery and promotions for drinks drove cold drink sales up at that time of year, that was quite a trick.

Of course, that was in the days before multi–screen theaters. In those days, when a theater got ahold of a box–office hit, it stayed there indefinitely, so it is quite possible that such promotions were more successful a few months later.

Well, whatever the influence on drink sales may have been, "Lawrence of Arabia" made more money than any other movie released in 1962, and there were several greats — "Dr. No," "To Kill a Mockingbird," "How the West Was Won."

David Lean's "Lawrence of Arabia" outdid them all, making more than twice as much money as its nearest competitor, "The Longest Day."

The American Film Institute ranked it among the Top 10 movies of all time in 2007.

The beginning of the movie may have been a bit unsettling for some moviegoers, but it really was no different from the beginnings of other biopics, like "Gandhi" or "Amadeus" two decades later.

It started at the end of the story, when T.E. Lawrence died in a motorcycle accident in 1935, then flashed back to Lawrence's time in the Middle East, where he aided the Arabs in their rebellion against the Turks.

In the role that established him as an actor, Peter O'Toole brought the enigmatic British officer to life.

"Sweeping" is a word that is often used to describe the sprawling kind of film that "Lawrence of Arabia" really was. It isn't always appropriate, but, in this case it was, especially with Maurice Jarre's Oscar–winning score that really did sweep over the audience.

O'Toole was helped considerably by being surrounded with an all–star cast. For modern moviegoers, Alec Guinness will be virtually unrecognizable in his role as Prince Feisal — but he gave his usual stellar performance.

Omar Sharif made his film debut in "Lawrence of Arabia" and cemented his reputation in the movie community a few years later with his performance in "Doctor Zhivago."

Yes, it was a great cast. But it was O'Toole's performance in the title role — which was nominated for but did not receive the Best Actor Oscar — who truly made the picture the classic that it was.

It was, without question, a great role. And a challenging role, too. The same character that called himself "an ordinary man" also successfully encouraged others to fight, imploring them to "[Take] no prisoners!"

It took a special acting talent to make that work on the screen.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Imagine ...



Today is the 32nd anniversary of the shooting of John Lennon.

I always have this feeling of great sadness on this day. Every year. As soon as I remember that it is the anniversary, I remember that day. It was probably the most personal moment of my college days. It was certainly the most memorable. To this day, I can remember almost every detail of that day with a clarity I cannot achieve with almost any other day in my life — even one as recent as yesterday.

(The sole exception to that would be the day my mother died, but that is another story.)

I've grown used to that, but I wasn't prepared for the realization that, on this day a mere eight years from now, John Lennon will have been dead as long as he was alive. Sean, the son Lennon and Yoko Ono had together and about whom Lennon sang on his last album before his death, will be 45 — five years older than his father was when he died.

I still find it stunning when I think of all that Lennon accomplished in his 40 years — and all he could have accomplished had he lived.

I have always felt that was the great tragedy — all the contributions to art and music and social thought that Lennon could have and almost certainly would have made in the 1980s and beyond but were lost on that December night in New York 32 years ago.

My memory is of a melancholy Christmas that year. All my thoughts were overshadowed by the shooting of John Lennon. The Beatles, you see, played the music of my childhood. I cannot remember a time when I did not know songs like "A Hard Day's Night" or "She Loves You" — they were played so frequently on the radio when I was little.

Losing the first Beatle was a traumatic experience.

It wasn't any easier some 20 years later when George Harrison died, but at least there was some advance warning that allowed Harrison's fans to prepare themselves. He had been sick for awhile.

But Lennon's death was entirely unexpected, a real shock.

Imagine what might have been.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

A Cool Cat Who Was H-O-T



A lot of things are being said about Dave Brubeck, the jazz legend who died yesterday at the age of 91 — a day short of his 92nd birthday.

Like most, NBC News remembered his signature composition, "Take Five," the piece that became one of the best–selling jazz recordings of all time.

In the Washington Post, Matt Schudel said Brubeck was "one of the world's foremost ambassadors of jazz."

Pat Eaton–Robb of the Associated Press wrote that his "pioneering style ... caught listeners' ears with exotic, challenging rhythms."

That's pretty impressive stuff.

Well deserved, too.

My memories of Brubeck are a bit more ordinary, I suppose — at least my earliest ones. I don't know how old I was at the time, but I remember my father putting a record of "Time Out," the album on which "Take Five" first appeared, on the old turntable we used to have and listening to it, tapping his feet in rhythm.

I don't know if he saw me or knew I was there. In hindsight, I can't be sure. I don't even know if I was sure at the time. But the image has remained with me all my life. I can't hear "Take Five" without thinking of my father.

I don't know if I knew at the time what Brubeck looked like. If I did, I must have picked up on his resemblance to my father — primarily his jet–black hair and eyeglasses.

Those were the things I would have recognized when I was little, but, as I say, I don't know how old I was before I had any idea what Brubeck looked like.

When I did learn what he looked like, my first reaction probably was that he looked a lot like Buddy Holly — once again, it was a glasses–and–hair thing.

He sure didn't sound like Buddy Holly.

But, like Buddy Holly, he made his own sound. He didn't try to do what others did. He did things his way.

And both jazz artists and jazz listeners will be forever grateful.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Return to Middle Earth



"Alas, that these evil days should be mine. The young perish and the old linger. That I should live to see the last days of my house."

King Theoden (Bernard Hill)

I remember reading J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy when I was in high school. And I remember seeing an animated version of the prequel to that story, "The Hobbit," around the same time.

And I remember hearing virtually everyone say that it would never be possible to bring the trilogy to the screen with live actors. It might be possible, some conceded, to do an animated version — but even that would be a tremendous undertaking, and success would hardly be assured.

Director Peter Jackson proved them wrong.

He began doing so in 2001 with the release of the film that was based on the first volume in the trilogy, "The Fellowship of the Ring."

If it wasn't clear to most by that time, Jackson had achieved what had been thought for so long to be beyond mortal man's grasp. He solidified that status to such a degree with the release of the second film in the trilogy 10 years ago today, in fact, that I remember everyone talking about how the expected release of the final movie in the trilogy the following year was certain to earn Jackson more than mere nominations for Oscars — and so it did.

"The Two Towers" didn't do so badly as it was. After "Fellowship of the Ring" blazed the trail, "The Two Towers" was nominated for six Oscars — and won two.

Jackson wasn't nominated for Best Director, but he made up for it the next year.

I think perhaps the best thing about a great work of fiction is that each person who reads it forms in his/her own mind an image of what he/she thinks a particular character should look like or sound like.

Sometimes those images tend to resemble each other. Other times, they are wildly at odds.

I guess my image of Gandalf the wizard was probably like most people's. Jackson clearly picked up on that, casting Ian McKellen. He was precisely what I had always imagined Gandalf to be. (Of course, I suppose that was helped along by his designation in the trilogy as "Gandalf the Grey.")

Well, except for one thing, I guess. In the trilogy's prequel, Gandalf was described as a "little old man" — not exactly a dwarf but not tall, either.

In the trilogy itself, he was described as being more man–sized but still not taller than the other wizards.

But in the film he appeared to be a towering presence. Of course, that may have been in comparison to the hobbits with whom he was surrounded. After all, Tolkien did describe hobbits as being humanlike creatures but distinguished from men by their shorter stature. They were called Little People (average height about 3½ feet).

There was really no question, though, that the middle volume of the trilogy had darker, more ominous overtones than the first and third volumes — not unlike the middle film in the original "Star Wars" trilogy, "The Empire Strikes Back."

And that makes sense, I suppose. The dual purpose of the middle volume of any good trilogy is to resolve as many issues from the first volume as possible while presenting the reader/viewer with a new set of conflicts that must be resolved in the third volume.

The first volume is almost always an upper for the reader/viewer — until near the end, when some sort of cliffhanger is presented to lure the reader/viewer back. The original "Star Wars" movie didn't exactly do that — I always felt that it could have stood alone in the annals of filmmaking and probably would have if unexpectedly strong public support for it had not encouraged the making of a second film ... and a third ... and, eventually, a fourth, fifth and sixth.

My point is that there was a certain amount of ambiguity in the late '70s about whether a "Star Wars" sequel would be made. The original had no real cliffhanger — other than whether Princess Leia would choose Han Solo or Luke Skywalker.

There was no such ambiguity when Jackson made his "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. He shot all three films simultaneously, then released each individually on an annual basis over a three–year span.

He knew, when he was making the movies, that "The Two Towers" would be a dark and forbidding kind of film and, just as it was in the original books, a bridge to the brighter and more positive finale.

I've often heard it said that "The Two Towers" was the most challenging of the three movies to make, and it's not hard to understand why. It began in the middle of the story and offered no resolution at the end beyond the promise of a third installment a year later. Yet, "The Two Towers" grossed more than $900 million worldwide — more than the first movie and more than all but 19 other films ever made.

I remember reading "The Two Towers" as a teenager and being confused by the many stories that were being told. The fellowship of the ring had been split up at the end of the first book. In "The Two Towers," Frodo and Sam were continuing their journey to Mordor while the other members of the fellowship had scattered in other directions. It was easier to follow the various threads of the story when the visual element was added.

It was in "The Two Towers" that movie viewers also got their first extended look at Gollum. He was mostly a shadowy presence in the first movie, spotted and/or heard momentarily by several characters, but in the second he emerged to lead Frodo and Sam safely to the gates of Mordor, where the battle over the One Ring would be waged in the trilogy's conclusion.

Gollum's portrayal by British actor Andy Serkis perfectly captured the character in my mind. He was precisely as I had imagined when I read those books all those years ago.

Well, I suppose there were variations on the theme. But Gollum's trademark phrase — "My precious" — certainly rang true.

And "The Two Towers" performed its dual tasks well, for Gollum made the transition from being a somewhat neutral character in it to becoming a principal antagonist in the final installment the next year.

It was the successful implementation of the middle film's critical role in a trilogy, and it was best summed up, I believe, by a remark I heard a woman make as we all left the theater at the movie's conclusion:

"What a wonderful movie that was!" she said. "I can't wait to see how it ends."

Saturday, December 01, 2012

The Laughs and Loves of Fathom



In every boy's life, I suppose, there is a handful of starlets from stage and screen who serve as his mental sex objects, the ones about whom he daydreams and fantasizes.

It is part of adolescence.

One of mine — and I am reasonably sure most of the men of my generation would agree — was Raquel Welch. (The knowledge that she is now in her 70s — and even her daughter has ceased to be regarded as a sex symbol — is painful to admit. Time truly does march on.)

When I was no more than 7 or 8, I remember my friends at school passing around pictures of Raquel that they had swiped from their fathers or older brothers. They were usually publicity photos from her movies that had been clipped from newspapers or magazines, and Raquel was usually dressed provocatively, but she was never photographed wearing anything more revealing than could have been seen on any beach or city street at the time — she just filled it out better than most.

I was familiar with her face — and the rest of her — long before I ever saw her in a movie. I don't remember how old I was when I first heard her name or saw her photograph. It seems like I always knew who she was.

But I will always remember which of Raquel's movies was my first and when I saw it.

It wasn't "Fantastic Voyage" or even "One Million Years B.C.," which are the movies most people probably think of when they think of Raquel Welch.

But the first Raquel Welch movie I saw was "Fathom," which premiered 45 years ago today. I didn't see it until about five or six years after it left the theaters. I was spending the night at my best friend's house one Friday night, and we talked his mother into allowing us to stay up and watch the late movie — which, that night, happened to be "Fathom."

The plot was flimsier than the bikinis in which the (supposedly) skydiving Raquel pranced around for much of the movie.

To put things in context, this was at a time when James Bond made spy movies that were always hot commodities, and I guess I felt that "Fathom" was part imitation and part parody of the films of that day.

When I first saw "Fathom," I had not yet seen a James Bond movie — but still I recognized many references to the genre that I knew were inspired by 007 — so pervasive was Bond's influence on the culture at that time.

Fathom was recruited to retrieve an atomic device from some Chinese operatives (of whom Tony Franciosa was one — and, no, I am not going to tell you how a clearly Caucasian man like Franciosa wound up working for the Chinese. You'll just have to watch the movie). The full–time dental assistant and part–time sky diver was to parachute into the property occupied by the operatives. It was the perfect cover, Fathom was told. She was a sky diver who drifted innocently off course, and nothing would happen to her because she was a pretty girl.

The dialogue was loaded with thinly veiled sexual references and a gag about the origin of Raquel's character's name. There were times when that movie seemed to be nothing more than a bunch of inside jokes, double entendres and tongue–in–cheek references.

It became a running joke — at least for a little while — for people in the movie to ask Raquel how she came to be known as Fathom. The first time she was asked about it, she explained that a fathom is six feet. "Papa was hoping for a tall son," she said. "Papa was disappointed."

The next time she was asked about it, she said it was an acronym formed by the first initials of six wealthy uncles.

"Papa wasn't taking any chances," she said, "unlike me."

Another time she was asked about her name, she said it was "short for Elizabeth." (The joke had about run its course by that time.)

Finally, she just said, "Please don't ask me how I got the name Fathom."

Needless to say, I suppose, the writers weren't nominated for an Oscar. But neither was anything else about "Fathom."

I can't say that I watch it every time it shows up on my TV listings — but I must confess that I do have roughly the same thought every time I see it in the listings. Call it a guilty pleasure.

I wonder what kind of role model Welch was in those days. I was, of course, but a boy, and I didn't recognize things that adults did.

I responded to the things that drove many adults — and still do.

She didn't possess acting skills that made her the clear choice to play complicated characters. As a matter of fact, the character she played in "Fathom" was pretty easy to figure out.

My reaction was the same as most young males', I suppose. Probably the same as most adult males, for that matter. I mean, men may admire intellect in women, and they may appreciate qualities that are more than skin deep.

But it's still the skin — and how it is packaged — that men notice. (The 1981 movie "Looker" had its weaknesses, but its basic premise — that men are vulnerable, however subliminally, to sexual, or at least tantalizing imagery — was spot on. It didn't really point to anything, however, that had not been pointed out by others, including "Fathom.")

Welch's character relied on her looks to get whatever she wanted and to take her wherever she wanted to go. What kind of role model was that?

Oh, yeah, about the same as many of today's role models.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Being Faithful in Spirit



"No man's life can be encompassed in one telling. There is no way to give each year its allotted weight, to include each event, each person who helped to shape a lifetime. What can be done is to be faithful in spirit to the record and to try to find one's way to the heart of the man."

I can understand why the filmmakers chose to preface their movie "Gandhi" with such a disclaimer.

It is a considerable task to tell anyone's life story — let alone one as complex as Mohandas Gandhi's — but, all in all, I think director Richard Attenborough did an incredible job.

I have long been a fan of biographical movies — "biopics," as they are called in our McNugget culture that appears to regard whittling things down to a single syllable or initial or two as progress — but "Gandhi," which premiered 30 years ago today, is my favorite.

I remember reading about the movie when it was still in its casting stages and hearing that Ben Kingsley had been cast in the title role. I couldn't understand it. I wasn't familiar with his previous work — which was almost entirely, if not exclusively, in TV productions. I didn't necessarily think he was a bad choice. I just felt that the actor who was chosen to portray someone as significant to the history of the 20th century as Gandhi needed to be someone with stature in the acting community.

Actually, an actor with some heft in the acting community — Dustin Hoffman — reportedly was interested in the part, but he was offered the lead role in "Tootsie" and wound up taking that role instead.

(Among the actors I heard mentioned as possible leads before Kingsley was chosen were Alec Guinness, Anthony Hopkins, Peter Finch and Albert Finney. I don't know if any of them really were interested in the part, but, in hindsight, I don't think any of them would have been nearly as effective as Kingsley.

(And I say that as someone who has admired Hopkins' work for a long time. I thought he did a remarkable job of portraying Richard Nixon in Oliver Stone's "Nixon." I'm old enough to remember Richard Nixon, and I can say without fear of contradiction that Hopkins neither looked nor sounded like Nixon, but he had his personality down.)

Kingsley may not have brought a high–powered resume to the project, but he sure left with one. His performance earned him an Oscar and propelled him into acting's stratosphere. Ironically, Kingsley beat Hoffman for the Best Actor Oscar.

Kingsley has gone on to give brilliant performances in many movies, including another one of my personal favorites, "Schindler's List."

Gandhi himself probably would have insisted that he couldn't have accomplished the things he did without the help and support of millions. Likewise, Kingsley was surrounded by an impressive supporting cast — Martin Sheen as the journalist Walker, John Gielgud as the viceroy, Candice Bergen as photographer Margaret Bourke–White.

In fact, I heard that the extras who were brought in to line the streets in the re–creation of Gandhi's funeral procession — roughly 300,000 — far outnumbered the extras who have appeared in any other movie.

But the portrayal of Gandhi was a triumph for Kingsley. He truly was faithful in spirit to the man and his life.