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.

A Slice-of-Life Movie

When I was growing up, Neil Simon was probably the biggest name in the playwrights' world universe.

I admired many writers as a young man. Most were writers of nonfiction, but among the fiction writers, Simon was in a league by himself. Even those who did not read much — and there were (and are) many of those — Simon was known for his many works that were brought to the big and small screens.

Like anyone, Simon has missed the target on occasion — but he's had more hits than misses. He may have been hitting his stride 35 years ago today when "The Goodbye Girl," made its theatrical debut.

The title was an example, I think, of what made Simon so popular. His characters always seemed to have occupations that were exotic — when compared to most humdrum, routine jobs — and sometimes it seemed that the common man could have very little in common with them.

But those characters weren't seen as distant because they were always facing very human predicaments, things to which anyone could relate. They were multi–dimensional.

In "The Goodbye Girl," Marsha Mason played a former Broadway dancer who became known as the Goodbye Girl because of all her failed relationships. The story found her living in the apartment of her latest ex (who had skipped out) with her precocious 10–year–old daughter, Lucy (Quinn Cummings).

Younger viewers may only know Mason as Martin Crane's love interest on Frasier in the late '90s. Similarly, they may only know Dreyfuss as Mr. Holland. And they probably don't know Cummings at all.

But, in "The Goodbye Girl," they played people with whom audiences could sympathize. Dreyfuss played his role so well he was rewarded with an Oscar for Best Actor.

Mason, Cummings and Simon were all nominated for Oscars, and the movie was nominated for Best Picture, but only Dreyfuss won.

And it really wasn't hard to understand why. Dreyfuss had been showing up on TV and in movies for about a decade, but he had rarely been the featured star (exceptions had been 1975's "Jaws," 1977's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and a few others).

Cummings, of course, was a bit of a newcomer. If she had won for Best Supporting Actress, she would have been in exclusive company — a few years older than Tatum O–Neal was when she won the Oscar for "Paper Moon," and she was a couple of years older than Anna Paquin was when she won Best Supporting Actress for "The Piano."

But all that is irrelevant because, of course, Cummings did not win. I suppose there is an argument to be made that, if Cummings had won the Oscar, she might have become more of a presence in movies than she became. Most Oscar winners do.

But, as I say, Cummings did not win, and she hasn't appeared in a movie in more than 20 years.

Dreyfuss, who did win, has appeared in many movies since then, and he has become a familiar face to moviegoers in the process.

It wasn't just the acting that drew me to this movie, however. As is true with most of the movies that I really like, a lot of its appeal is in its witty dialogue. We can thank Simon for that. He put some great lines in the characters' mouths.

For example, early in the movie, when Mason and Dreyfuss are still testy with each other, Dreyfuss's character says, "I love listening to you talk. I hate living with you, but your conversation is first rate."

Dreyfuss had the most immediately memorable lines — or perhaps he made them memorable with the quality of his acting — but I discovered, upon reflection, that many of Mason's lines had a staying power of their own.

For instance ...

When Mason's character tells her daughter to be tactful in her interaction with Dreyfuss.

"What's that?" Lucy asked.

Without batting an eye, Mason replied, "Lie!"

Or when Dreyfuss — in what could only be charitably referred to as his first negotiation with Mason — suggested that she was a "sharp New York girl."

"No a dull Cincinnati kid," Mason replied, "but you get dumped on enough and you start to develop an edge."

"The Goodbye Girl" was a real slice of life.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Casablanca is 70? I'm Shocked!

There are some lines from "Casablanca" that I heard so often when I was growing up that it sometimes seems as if I have always known them.

Those lines have become cliches, I suppose.

And it tends to make me lose my perspective a little, to forget when I first saw "Casablanca" — but, in the end, I always remember.

I'm not sure of my age — must've been about 12 or 13, I guess — but I remember the night. It was a Friday night in late autumn, and the local PBS channel was showing "Casablanca" with no interruptions.

The night was cool and kind of damp. My father built a fire in the fireplace, and my mother made some popcorn, and I settled in, wrapped in a warm blanket, to watch the movie with my parents.

I've seen it many times since, and I like it. I also like Humphrey Bogart, but I would pick two, maybe three, of his movies as my favorites before I would pick "Casablanca."

But "Casablanca," which premiered on this date in 1942, is often mentioned as one of Bogart's best. (OK, it was only released on a limited basis on this date — the more general release came the following spring — but I like to observe this date as the debut because, you see, this is my birthday — and God knows how little has happened on this date of which I can be proud).

In fact, I have a friend (whose opinions about movies are generally spot on) who says "Casablanca" is his favorite Bogart movie, and I can understand why. It's got it all — established stars, wartime intrigue, romance, even a dash or two of comedy.

There can be no doubt that many lines from "Casablanca" have become familiar cliches:
"Here's looking at you, kid."

"I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."

"Play it, Sam."

"Round up the usual suspects."

"We'll always have Paris."

Without a doubt, those are some of the great lines in filmmaking history.

They still resonate because they speak to universal truths and emotions.

But there were other telling moments in the movie that were just as true and just as filled with human emotion.

Like when Bogart's character, feeling hurt and betrayed by Ingrid Bergman (but not yet knowing the whole story), says bitterly — and with more than a little help from the booze he'd been drinking — "Tell me, who was it you left me for? Was it Laszlo, or were there others in between? Or aren't you the kind that tells?"

I'm sure that many people, both men and women, who have watched that movie could sympathize. Been there, done that.

And there were more subtle lines that you almost have to see the movie two or three times to catch.

For example, when Nazi toady Claude Rains tells Bogart he might make a play for a young woman Bogart has just jilted, Bogart says, "When it comes to women, you're a true democrat."

During the same conversation, Rains asks Bogart what brought him to Casablanca.

"My health," Bogart replies. "I came here for the waters."

Bewildered, Rains says, "Waters? What waters? We're in the desert."

Bogart shrugs and takes a drag on his cigarette. "I was misinformed."

(The irony of that probably wasn't clear to audiences in 1942 and 1943. Cigarette smoking had not yet been linked to numerous health issues.)

Or later in the movie when Rains, who has been permitted to win at roulette at Bogart's place, nevertheless is ordered by his Nazi superiors to shut the place down.

When Bogart insists on knowing the reason, Rains replies, "I'm shocked – shocked! — to find that gambling is going on here."

One of the casino employees approaches him a second or two later and hands him a wad of cash, saying, "Your winnings, sir."

(That's probably my favorite scene in the movie.)

It really is a delightful movie, and if I stumble on to it in progress, even if it is already half over, I'll probably watch it to its conclusion. I'm that way about many movies, though.

I'm also that way about certain stars. "Casablanca" had the good fortune of having a good story (albeit one that was still being written after filming had already begun) and a great cast.

No wonder it won three Oscars — including Best Picture.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

On Being Truly Thankful

Today is the last day of the four–day Thanksgiving weekend. While I did not have to travel far, I know many people did, and, for some, the act of just getting from one place to another could be harrowing.

I was thankful that I did not have to deal with anything like that.

It was, therefore, something of a bittersweet revelation for me when I realized that today is also the 25th anniversary of the theatrical release of "Planes, Trains and Automobiles."

It was an exception to the rule for a John Hughes film, I guess. Hughes was known for coming–of–age flicks like "The Breakfast Club," "Pretty in Pink," "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" and the "Home Alone" series.

But he didn't have to have children or teenagers as the stars to make entertaining movies, and "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" is a perfect example.

The fact that it was set against a holiday backdrop may have been something of a sign of things to come, but the children in "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" almost qualified as extras. They certainly weren't stars. They weren't even co–stars.

Actually, they were little more than props. Given that the movie was a story about a traveling advertising executive (Steve Martin) who was desperate to be home with his family for Thanksgiving, they were necessary props. But they weren't essential to most of the story.

When I think of "Planes, Trains and Automobiles," it reminds me of how often John Candy appeared in John Hughes' films. Hughes must have been one of Candy's favorite directors — he made eight appearances in all in Hughes' movies.

And Candy had some of his best lines as Del Griffith.

For example ...

When the two woke up in a motel room, Martin was in Candy's embrace.

"Del," he said, "why did you kiss my ear?"

"Why are you holding my hand?" Candy asked.

Frowning, Martin said, "Where's your other hand?"

"Between two pillows," Candy answered.

"Those aren't pillows!" Martin responded.

And the two leaped out of bed and engaged in some macho talk about football.

OK, nearly everyone remembers that scene ...

But when I think of "Planes, Trains and Automobiles," I think of the character Candy played — Del Griffith, the gregarious traveling shower ring salesman, always ready with a joke — and hiding the fact that he was a lonely man in a world where couples are the norm.

I remember a scene in which Candy and Martin were talking, and Candy observed, "When I'm dead and buried, all I'll leave behind are some shower curtain rings that didn't fall down."

Martin replied, "At the very least, the absolute minimum, you'll have a woman you love to grow old with. You love her, don't you?"

Wistfully, Candy answered, "Love is not a big enough word for how I feel about my wife."

And the two toasted their spouses — "To the wives!" — even though Martin's character did not know Candy's wife had been dead for several years.

Neither did the audience. But the secret was revealed near the end of the movie.

And it taught everyone an unexpected Thanksgiving lesson on being truly thankful.

Friday, November 16, 2012

A Close Encounter

When I was growing up in Arkansas, there was a domed movie theater in a shopping center in the nearby city of Little Rock that always seemed to have the latest hit movies.

It was in the era before the multiplex theaters with a dozen or more screens. In those days, most theaters only showed one movie at a time.

And if anyone had asked me where I would like to see any movie, that was the place I would have chosen.

This theater had a very futuristic name to go with its futuristic look — Cinema 150. And it was such a great place to see a movie — it was designed so virtually no one's view of the screen could be obscured by a person sitting in front and with a state–of–the–art sound system that could make anything sound good.

I'm told the Cinema 150 went out of business many years ago. That both saddened and surprised me. We live in the age of, as I mentioned before, multiplex theaters, and Cinema 150 was not designed for that — so the fact that it went out of business didn't particularly surprise me because I never figured that a single–screen theater could survive in the modern environment.

But I was still surprised because, frankly, I just never imagined Cinema 150 not being there.

And I was saddened because so many of the movies that I still love today were movies I saw for the first time at Cinema 150 — even if they weren't always recent releases (and many of them weren't).

Some of those movies are regarded as classics; others, I suppose, would fall under the heading of guilty pleasures. Most fall somewhere in between, I guess. But when I see them now, those films always bring back warm memories of afternoons and evenings spent with friends and family.

On this occasion, I have been thinking of the time I first saw "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," which premiered on this date in 1977.

I saw "Close Encounters" at Cinema 150 — the perfect place, I remember thinking at the time, to see a sci–fi flick like that — a few weeks after it premiered.

And I saw it with Karen, my girlfriend. At that time in my life, I judged whether a day was good by how much of it I spent with Karen.

That was — indisputably — a good day. In my mind at the time, nothin' could be finer.

We drove to Little Rock one Saturday evening — as we often did — and went to Cinema 150 to see the movie. When we emerged after the movie was over, we walked from the theater to my car, which was parked about midway through the parking lot.

On our way, there was a sudden clap of thunder. Karen and I looked at each other, and, wordlessly, we made a mad dash for the car, arriving and unlocking the doors only a few seconds too late to avoid getting drenched in the downpour.

We sat in my car for a few seconds, staring at each other, our mouths hanging open, and then we both began laughing simultaneously. And we hugged each other.

And then we drove home, talking all the way about the movie and our eerie trek from the theater to the car when it was over.

I don't remember now what we talked about. Points of the plot, I suppose. Maybe we spoke of lines of dialogue from the movie. Steven Spielberg's movies always have lines that I remember long after I've forgotten points from the movie.

One of my favorites at the time (and still today) was when Richard Dreyfuss' long–suffering wife, Teri Garr, said to him, after being dragged from her bed at 4 in the morning to stand in the middle of nowhere waiting for whatever it was (and, at that point, only the audience really seemed to know what was going on) to return, "I remember when we used to come to places like this just to look at each other ... and snuggle."

At the time, I was a teenager in love, and I couldn't imagine being so obsessed with anything that it would distract my attention from my love interest — yet that was precisely the case with Dreyfuss when Garr made that remark. And I remember pondering that in the theater, temporarily losing track of the story.

(Karen had her own distractions, particularly her weakness for "little ones," and there was none cuter in any of the movies we saw together than the young feller who played Melinda Dillon's son.

(He wasn't a distraction for much of the movie, though. The aliens abducted him early, and he wasn't seen again until near the end.)

Ah, yes, the end of the movie. Spielberg has this knack you may have noticed. Although he is revered in an almost godlike way by many, Spielberg does make a movie now and then that is mostly ordinary — but there is always a segment in his movies that is unique, something that elevates them and gives other movies of that genre something for which to shoot.

Few, if any, manage to hit that target, but that is Spielberg's role, I guess, to provide the target — even where one may not have existed before.

In "Close Encounters," that segment came at the end, when the aliens returned, and people who had been missing for decades emerged from their spaceship.

It was a breathtakingly fantastic sequence for which I can provide no insights that haven't already been offered repeatedly in the last 35 years.

And, if you've seen it, you'll understand why the memory of that jog across a Little Rock parking lot in a cloudburst is still so vivid in my mind.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Blood is the Life

Dracula: They say you are a man of good ... taste.

I read Bram Stoker's novel "Dracula" when I was in my teens.

That already had been many years when the movie adaptation came out 20 years ago today so my memory of some passages in the book wasn't as clear as it would have been if I had just finished reading it, but my overall impression was that the Dracula of the movie (under the direction of Francis Ford Coppola) was inspired more by passion than by a desire for blood — and that marked a departure from most of the movie Draculas and generic vampires who had come before.

Gary Oldman, in the same kind of understated way that he approached the role of Lee Harvey Oswald in Oliver Stone's "JFK," played Dracula. Prior screen Draculas were very sexual beings — in a taboo kind of way; Oldman's Dracula, on the other hand, was mostly a loyal monogamist. He exhibited a clear sense of grieving for his late wife and longing for the film's heroine, the mirror image of his beloved Elisabeta (both of whom were played by Winona Ryder).

It was often hard for me to spot Oldman on screen, his appearance changed so radically.

When we first saw him, it was as the young and virile Vlad Dracula in the 15th century, flush with victory over the Turks, but he was soon plunged into despair when he found that Elisabeta, who had been falsely told of Vlad's death, had committed suicide. In his rage, Vlad renounced God, stabbed a cross, causing it to bleed, and drank the blood.

"The blood is the life," he muttered. It was a recurring theme.

Later, as the host of a young solicitor (Keanu Reeves) a few centuries later, Dracula appeared as a much older man.

Then, he was a wolflike creature, assaulting Ryder's host (played by Sadie Frost) on a dark and stormy night (really).

And then he was a young and suave man in London, pursuing Ryder (whose love interest, in her incarnation as the modern–day Mina, was played by Reeves).

In a memorable scene from that portion of the film, Oldman turned Ryder's tears into diamonds.

That was something the boyish Reeves just couldn't pull off. (And, for the record, his British accent wasn't at all convincing.)

You know, I always thought — at least until I saw this movie — that the Bela Lugosi version of "Dracula" was the truly goth production.

But as I watched Coppola's adaptation, it occurred to me that it was more goth than Lugosi's. Maybe it was the way it combined elements of "The Exorcist" and "Willard" in his confrontation with Van Helsing (played by Anthony Hopkins).

I just found it spookier — what with its variety of shadowy figures and otherworldly characters in the background of scenes.

Even the first time that I watched Lugosi's version, I giggled at lines like "Listen to them ... children of the night. What music they make." It just didn't send that chill down my spine.

But this movie did.

Coppola supposedly wanted lavish costumes to show off his cast, and he invested a lot of money toward that goal.

I guess it paid off. Eiko Ishioka won an Oscar for costume design. The movie also won Oscars for makeup and sound effects. All well deserved.

But the actors got little recognition, as I recall. Probably also well deserved.

With one often overlooked exception. I would be remiss if I did not mention Tom Waits' performance as the insect–munching Renfield.

Although I thought Dwight Frye was great in the role in the 1931 film version, Waits was better, striking just the right balance for portraying an unbalanced individual.

It was a bit of a thankless role — I'm sure Waits didn't mind, though — that really didn't see that much screen time, considering that "Bram Stoker's Dracula" was more than two hours long.

But when Waits was on the screen as Renfield, he really stole the show.

Now, if only Lugosi had been paired with Waits ...