Friday, May 31, 2013

I Recommend ...

I don't often do this. Really.

But Turner Classic Movies will be showing a really good — and underappreciated — Walter Matthau movie tonight at 7 (Central).

It's called "A New Leaf," from 1971, and it was actually written and directed by Elaine May, who co–starred with Matthau.

May apparently tried (unsuccessfully) to have her name removed from the credits when the studio made considerable changes. In spite of those changes, the movie remained a dark and extraordinarily funny story about marriage, money and murder.

I don't want to give too much away because the fun of watching "A New Leaf" is experiencing it for yourself, but I feel I must give you at least a taste.

Matthau, you see, played a thoroughly self–absorbed playboy who had wasted his inheritance and had no marketable skills.

His first thought was to commit suicide — "All I am, or was, is rich," he lamented, "and it's all I wanted to be" — but he couldn't bring himself to do that so he went for his second option — he had to borrow money from his uncle to keep up appearances while he tried to find a wealthy woman to marry. If he found such a girl and married her in a certain length of time, he would pay back his uncle and resume his extravagant lifestyle.

If, on the other hand, he failed to find someone to marry, his uncle would seize all his assets, and he would be poor. But that was no worse than the predicament in which he found himself. That did not really sink in, though, until his gentleman's gentleman observed that "in a country where every man is what he has, he who has very little is nobody very much."

So Matthau reluctantly embarked on his journey to find a mate — and had no success at first.

(While I know I'm going at this out of sequence, I must say that I think one of the funniest moments in a movie filled with funny moments comes early when Matthau's financial adviser, played by character actor William Redfield, tries to tell him that he is broke.

(He explains to Matthau that he has even dipped into his own pocket at times to cover bills for which Matthau had insufficient funds. He did this, he says, so he could have the satisfaction of knowing that he did not in any way contribute to Matthau's inevitable poverty.

(Matthau, of course, seems oblivious to what his adviser is telling him, insisting that he explain why shares of a stock that he owned had been sold without authorization. Those shares had been sold to raise funds to cover debts.)

But then he met Henrietta Lowell (May), an isolated and eccentric young heiress, and he set about wooing her. To the amazement of his uncle, he won their wager by marrying May — but was already planning her demise for their honeymoon. However, his plans went unexpectedly off the track, thanks to a number of obstacles, not the least of which was the zany cast of supporting characters played by the likes of James Coco and Jack Weston.

And, if you only know Doris Roberts as the 60–ish matriarch of the Barone family for whom housework was a labor of love in Everybody Loves Raymond, you owe it to yourself to see her when she was about 40 and playing a paid housekeeper whose primary occupation was finding creative ways (which had nothing to do with love — except for the love of money) to supplement her already–extravagant pay.

Roberts and the rest of May's household staff were not eager to share their cash cow with Matthau — and Matthau had no intention of sharing it with anyone.

Inevitably, there was a clash, and I'm sure you can guess which one won — but it's still fun to watch it happen.

What is even more fun to watch is the effect of May's endearing personality on Matthau in spite of his worst intentions.

Roger Ebert, the movie critic who died recently, wrote that "A New Leaf" was "hilarious and cockeyed and warm."

That about sums it up. Don't miss it.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

A Different Kind of War Story

Sgt. Schulz (Sig Ruman): How do you expect to win the war with an army of clowns?

Lt. Dunbar (Don Taylor): We sort of hope you'd laugh yourselves to death.

I don't remember how old I was when I first saw "Stalag 17," the Billy Wilder war comedy/drama that premiered 60 years ago today.

What I do remember is that — for awhile — I thought "Stalag 17" was the inspiration for Hogan's Heroes, a sitcom that was popular when I was little. Both, after all, were set in POW camps during World War II, and both had German sergeants named Schultz.

(Also, the camp in Hogan's Heroes had a name that was reminiscent of the movie — Stalag 13.)

But the Schultz in Hogan's Heroes was a buffoon whereas the Schulz (note the absence of the t) in "Stalag 17" was a by–the–book German soldier.

And, in nearly every respect, the plot and tone of each was different from the other — significantly so.

Consequently, I'm not nearly as inclined to see a solid link between the movie and the TV show

Hogan's Heroes was played strictly for laughs, usually at the expense of the incompetent Germans. That was probably easier to do with two decades separating the end of the war and the debut of the TV show. By that time, it was easier to joke about the Germans and the war.

Not quite eight years had passed since the end of the war when "Stalag 17" was showing on America's movie screens. The memory of Hitler and his regime was still fresh — still raw — in 1953.

There was more drama in "Stalag 17" — reflecting, perhaps, the respect that still existed for a Germany that had thrust the globe into two world wars in the 20th century. But, by the 1960s, that respect seems to have dissolved into ridicule — we beat the Germans twice in this century seems to have been the attitude by that time. Hogan and his co–prisoners were capable of doing anything they wanted to do; even if Schultz found out about something, he could be bribed into keeping his mouth shut.

The prisoners stayed there entirely by choice. It was presented as a patriotic thing, really. They could have escaped easily at any time, but they could influence the outcome of the war where they were.

Sometimes they used that to their advantage, setting up the Germans to discover some alleged breakout, giving the inept Nazi commandant and his easily influenced sergeant a chance to boast that no one had ever escaped from their prison camp.

But mostly they used it for the benefit of the Allied effort.

Sgt. Schulz, on the other hand, was a no–nonsense soldier, and the prisoners he ruled definitely were not there by choice.

Sure, there were slapstick moments, but I wouldn't call "Stalag 17" a slapstick movie — whereas Hogan's Heroes was often a slapstick sitcom.

Mostly, I guess, the comedy of "Stalag 17" came in the form of one–liners and sight gags — but there was a generous portion of drama in it as well.

William Holden, who had so many fine performances in his career, may have given his best in "Stalag 17" as the prisoner who was suspected by his bunkmates of being the informant responsible for the Germans' advance knowledge of many things, like the escape attempt of two young Americans who were gunned down outside the camp and the presence in the barracks of a radio that was used to monitor developments in the war.

(In fact, Holden won his only Best Actor Oscar for his performance in "Stalag 17." I suppose it is a matter of personal opinion whether that performance was better than the ones he gave in "Sunset Boulevard" and "Network," the other movies for which he was nominated for Best Actor, but that is the one that was honored, and the quality of his competition for the award — Richard Burton, Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando and Burt Lancaster — is beyond dispute.)

Suspicion of Holden's character finally led the other prisoners to beat him up — one finds it hard to imagine the prisoners in "Hogan's Heroes" beating up Col. Hogan (or even feeling compelled to do so).

The prisoners in Hogan's Heroes had a quiet confidence that they were far superior to their captors. The prisoners in "Stalag 17" were much less secure and much more vulnerable. Their situation was real, and I guess I always assumed that their humor was more of a coping mechanism.

Anyway, when the prisoners learned what the audience had known for awhile — that the apparently All–American boy (Peter Graves) was the informant — they set him up permanently.

I guess that is an example of what I so often heard when I was a boy in Arkansas — "What goes around comes around."

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Day the Laughter Died

Words really can't express how shocking it was to hear 15 years ago today that comedian Phil Hartman was dead.

It wasn't really a shock to hear that someone from Saturday Night Live was dead. The public had already been conditioned to that to some degree with the deaths of John Belushi in 1982, Gilda Radner in 1989 and Chris Farley in 1997.

There was already something of a perception that people with SNL connections were somehow more likely to die young than their peers.

But Hartman really didn't fit the profile. He was nearly 50 years old, and he had neither a history of risky behavior nor a life–threatening disease.

What wasn't generally known was that his wife was unstable.

And, fueled by drugs and alcohol in the early morning hours of this day in 1998, she shot Hartman to death while he slept, confessed to at least two people that she had killed her husband, then turned the gun on herself.

Most of the people who have studied homicide and suicide will tell you that men are far more likely to use a gun than are women — at least when it comes to suicide. I'm not sure about homicides. I'm not really sure how one would classify this case — except to say it was a tragedy.

Frankly, I'm not sure I would have used the word tragedy to describe what happened 15 years ago. Most people probably would describe it as a tragedy; I guess it depends on how one defines tragedy. I think of a tragedy as being something that is beyond human control — a natural disaster.

In that context, it was hard to know how to classify the Hartman murder–suicide. Was it beyond anyone's power to control, like a hurricane or an earthquake? Or perhaps it could have been prevented if people who knew Hartman's wife was unstable had done something instead of remaining silent.

Such silence may have been the real tragedy. Or perhaps Brynn Omdahl Hartman concealed her condition from everyone. Maybe that is what made it tragic — the fact that there may have been no way for anyone to see it coming, perhaps not even Hartman's closest friends.

There are still — and will, I fear, remain — so many unanswered questions.

With Belushi, I think there were always suspicions that his life might end the way it did. Naturally, his death was met with grief but not necessarily shock.

Farley's weight issues were well known and, apparently, his substance abuse problems also were known among his friends and family. In hindsight, the two were a volatile mix.

Radner's ultimately fatal battle with cancer was not a secret — but neither was it widely known so her death might have been a surprise to some.

But Hartman's death was totally unexpected.

I remember when word of his death reached the office where I was working. Everyone seemed quieter, more subdued than usual. Even those who probably didn't watch SNL often, if at all.

There probably weren't many of them in those days.

Periodically, of course, SNL has had low ratings, typically when it has gone through major changes in the cast.

But back in the mid– to late 1980s and early to mid–'90s, I guess, just about everyone watched it — when Phil Hartman and Dana Carvey were on the show.

There were others, too, but everyone tuned in mostly to see those two. Personally, I always think of Carvey posing as Ross Perot and Hartman posing as his running mate, Admiral Stockdale, in an SNL skit during the 1992 presidential election campaign.

They were also funny in a brief but memorable segment of a longer skit when Carvey played Jimmy Stewart visiting his old Hollywood pal, Ronald Reagan (played by Hartman), in the White House.

But Hartman made a name for himself doing other portrayals. For example, I don't know if anyone else on SNL portrayed Reagan. I'm sure someone must have, maybe even someone I ought to know but whose name escapes me now, but I was just as entertained by Hartman's portrayal of the Gipper as I was by Dan Aykroyd's portrayals of Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter.

And I thought his portrayals of Bill Clinton were side–splittingly funny. Of course, I grew up in Arkansas, and I watched from up close — I was a young reporter covering one of his gubernatorial campaigns — as Clinton's then–flagging political career got a jump start.

So I suppose some things that I found especially funny were things that most casual observers would miss. Hartman picked up on those things.

That was my first thought when I heard that Hartman was dead. I thought of him as Clinton, and I thought that I would miss that a great deal.

That was a rather selfish way of looking at it, I guess. And I have felt bad about that in the last 15 years, but the truth is that I did miss him in the last years of the Clinton presidency — and in the more than 10 years since Clinton left the White House.

I assume that, if Hillary Clinton is elected president in 2016, former President Clinton will come with her to the White House, which would have been a situation too rich with possibilities for Hartman and the SNL writers to ignore.

But that is speculation (and, too, it presupposes that a nearly 70–year–old Hartman would either remain with SNL for two more decades or return as a guest).

The real loss was suffered by Hartman's two children, both under 10 at the time and now in their 20s. They will begin to inherit their father's estate when they turn 25 — the oldest turns 25 next year — but they have had to grow up without their parents, and that is a loss for which no amount of money can compensate.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Winning Over the West

One of the things I have come to understand about my generation is that we are unique.

I suppose everyone feels that way about his/her generation, but I think it is particularly applicable to mine.

I don't think the people of my generation fully grasped that our time was the prime of the classic rock era. Too many of us grew up thinking that what we had was no different from what other generations had, but that wasn't true. Other generations didn't have Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones.

Led Zeppelin.

We took it for granted, you see. It was all around us all the time, and I guess we all assumed that it was normal, that it was like that for everyone.

You can listen to the studio albums that were produced in those days — and kind of get a feeling for what the excitement was like.

But to really experience what people of the time experienced, you need to hear what a band sounded like in front of a live audience. Unfortunately, there aren't that many live performances from the late '60s and early '70s that were preserved — and even fewer that are truly representative of the experience.

Led Zeppelin released a double album in the mid–'70s that was all right, but it wasn't entirely satisfying — to the fans or the band. I had that album, and I listened to it, and I liked it well enough — but only, I suppose, because I had nothing with which to compare it.

Ten years ago today, I did. And, frankly, I found the album from the '70s to be wanting.

On this day in 2003, a triple CD, "How the West Was Won," was released. It was a compilation of the best live recordings from two Led Zeppelin shows in southern California in 1972. In the liner notes, none other than Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page said the recordings were of the band at its best.

For many years, portions of those concert recordings were only available on bootleg albums.

If you can remember any part of those early days of the '70s, you're sure to remember songs like "Stairway to Heaven." It was then — and almost certainly still is today — Led Zeppelin's most recognizable song.

And you can hear it live on "How the West Was Won" — 9½ minutes' worth. In fact, the album itself contained more than 2½ hours of classic Zeppelin being performed live.

Hard–core Zeppelin fans could complain that the CD didn't include songs like "Thank You" or "Communication Breakdown," both of which had been around longer. But "Stairway to Heaven," which had just been released a few months before, has become the band's signature song.

Failure to include a live recording of that song might have been a deal breaker. Many fans probably would not have invested in the triple CD if "Stairway" had not been included.

Truth be told, many fans probably wouldn't have invested in that live collection if it had included songs from Zeppelin's later albums like "Presence" and "In Through the Out Door." Unfortunately, though, the shows from which the tracks were taken were too early to include songs from 1973's "Houses of the Holy" or 1975's "Physical Graffiti."

In that sense, "How the West Was Won" stands as something of a time capsule, a glimpse into the not–so–distant musical past.

More than a decade after the performances on "How the West Was Won," Led Zeppelin performed in a reunion as part of the Live Aid concert in July 1985. Zeppelin performed three songs on that occasion — "Whole Lotta Love," "Rock and Roll" and "Stairway to Heaven."

Those are, arguably, Zeppelin's most popular songs, and all three were included on "How the West Was Won."

That should tell you a lot.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Concluding the First Star Wars Trilogy

It is really difficult to make a truly strong movie trilogy.

Sustaining the momentum is the problem, and that third installment really seems to be a stumbling block. I can understand that. Most of the time, it seems to me it is best to let a great movie stand unencumbered by a mediocre followup ... or two. I can think of only a few really good sequels, let alone a third edition.

But that doesn't keep people from trying to recapture lightning in a bottle anyway.

To an extent, that is what I thought when "Return of the Jedi," the third Star Wars movie, was released 30 years ago today.

As I have written here before, the original "Star Wars," which was in theaters in 1977, caught most people by surprise. It was based on a sci–fi novel that few outside the sci–fi followers demographic group knew anything about with a cast of largely unknown actors.

If memory serves me correctly, "Star Wars" started off slowly, then gathered momentum in the summer months of 1977. By the time I saw it, talk of a sequel had gained momentum, too. I don't remember exactly when it was announced that a sequel — 1980's "The Empire Strikes Back" — was being made or when it was announced that a trilogy of films eventually would be completed.

My guess would be that the trilogy plans were announced first — mainly because my memory is there was a lot of talk of a trilogy well before "Empire" made its theatrical debut. Certainly, there was talk of a third movie when I was making plans to see the second.

And, to be fair, I thought the sequel to "Star Wars" (which was subsequently renamed "A New Hope" with all of the movies in the series considered episodes of George Lucas' Star Wars franchise) was pretty good.

I suppose my attitude at the time could best be summed up in a comment I heard one moviegoer make as we left the theater — "What a wonderful movie! I can't wait to see how it ends!" Everyone who saw "The Empire Strikes Back" was prepared to be left hanging for another three years.

I didn't grow up in the age of movie serials — my parents did so I suppose they could tell you if the Star Wars trilogy of the late 1970s and early 1980s did a good job of re–creating the experience.

I can only speak of how I felt about "Return of the Jedi" in the context of the movies that preceded it.

I am no sci–fi fan. I do like some books and movies in the genre, but that is usually because the book and/or movie offers more than splashy space battles or strange intergalactic creatures.

And, at its core, the Star Wars story was always about the struggle between good and evil — within cultures, within galaxies, within individuals — more than it was about space. Space was merely the backdrop.

"Return of the Jedi" did a pretty good job of tying the loose ends from the first two movies together. In those first two flicks, for example, Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) always faced a hard choice between two suitors (Harrison Ford and Mark Hamill). When Luke (Hamill) and the audience learned that Luke and Leia were siblings, that opened a face–saving way for Luke to bow out and Leia and Han Solo (Ford) to be a couple.

I guess movie audiences always had the feeling that Leia and Han would wind up together. Han was the roguish swashbuckler type, the bad boy who always seems to get the girl — in real life as well as the movies. Luke, meanwhile, was the honorable, dependable country boy who fought his father and then redeemed him.

(Incidentally, Fisher has confirmed that a personal trainer is helping her prepare for the seventh Star Wars film, and Ford apparently has all but acknowledged that he will participate in the movie, too, which should be interesting. I'll bet no one imagined a geriatric Leia and Han 30 years ago.)

"Return of the Jedi" was a reminder that a Lucas project, like a Steven Spielberg project, could be counted upon to give moviegoers more than a taste of the latest bells and whistles in moviemaking. It certainly delivered in that regard.

I have always thought the special effects in "Return of the Jedi" — while modest by 2013 standards — represented the state of the art at the time. In fact, I felt the special effects were the real stars of "Return of the Jedi." The scene I always think of is the heart–stopping, high–tech (and high–speed) bike chase through the trees. The actors were merely along for the ride.

But I could live with that. Lucas and Spielberg have always been like wide–eyed kids whenever technology gave them a new toy to play with. They can hardly wait to have a film project in which to try it.

The part about "Return of the Jedi" that I found objectionable was the way new creatures were introduced into the story — flimsy, transparent excuses for commercial mass–marketing of Star Wars toys. The introduction of the gremlinesque Yoda in "The Empire Strikes Back" was only the first step in an evolving strategy that included the creation of the teddy bear–like Ewoks who fought alongside the rebels in "Return of the Jedi."

As I say, the first "Star Wars" caught everyone by surprise, and marketers had to scramble to catch up. By the end of 1977, there were Star Wars action figures and lunchboxes and that sort of thing, but I've known enough sales people in my life to know that most of them must have viewed the summer months of 1977 as a lost opportunity — one they were determined not to let slip through their fingers again.

When "The Empire Strikes Back" was still in the planning stages, I'm sure those sessions included marketers who could tell the people who would be writing the script and designing the costumes what the surveys of the day indicated would be most popular with various demographic groups.

And high on that list, I believed then (and still believe today), was what surveys indicated would appeal to children. That was an approach that was refined in "Return of the Jedi" — and greatly expanded upon 16 years later when the first episode in the prequel trilogy hit the theaters.

And yet ...

In many ways, I felt that "Return of the Jedi" may have been the most adult–oriented of all the Star Wars movies, not just the ones from 1977 to 1983. For example, it took a long, hard look at Luke Skywalker and the hatred that burned within him. Given Luke's passion for fighting the Empire and being the ultimate Jedi warrior, I guess audiences had long suspected there was a seething rage within him, and "Return of the Jedi" confirmed it.

There were some fearsome visions in that movie when Luke confronted the truth.

I'm sure they inspired some nightmares for younger viewers. "Return of the Jedi" may have inspired a successful line of toys, but it wasn't quite a kiddie movie.

There is a lingering perception that "Return of the Jedi" was the weakest of the series' original three movies, but I think that is truly a relative matter.

There was a segment of the population that could be counted on to come to the theaters no matter what anyone else said about it. By 1983, Star Wars devotees knew what to expect from a new movie in the series, and they simply would not allow themselves to miss an opportunity to watch Hamill and Ford wave light sabers or spaceships wage laser battles.

To bring non–Star Wars viewers to the theaters — which it did, earning more than $400 million at the box office — it had to have more. It needed a plausible story.

It was weak in parts, but it was entertaining enough to be a worthy finale for a successful movie trilogy.

Gilmour's Solo Debut

If you were a teenager in the 1970s, the odds are pretty good that you heard Pink Floyd at least once — whether you were a casual listener or a devoted fan.

For the casual listener, Pink Floyd probably meant songs like "Money" or "Time."

For people with more exposure to Pink Floyd, there was a lot more to listen to. But, in the late 1970s, there was a lot of movement going on within Pink Floyd. Roger Waters was promoting an idea that eventually became "The Wall," Pink Floyd's double album from 1979, and members of the band were working on individual projects.

David Gilmour, who had been with the band since 1967, was working on a solo project that was first released on this date in 1978. He wasn't leaving the band — he was just stretching his creative wings a bit.

My memory is that the main track from that album, "There's No Way Out Of Here," got a lot of radio air time that summer.

And Gilmour, in addition to being a well–established guitarist, had a voice that was perfect for songs like "There's No Way Out Of Here," which was similar to classic Pink Floyd tracks like "Wish You Were Here."

Frankly, I never understood why his solo debut wasn't more highly regarded. I thought it was a pleasant enough album, easy to listen to, accessible even for non–Floyd fans.

Possibly at times, though, the songs on the album sounded a bit too Floyd–like. "There's No Way Out Of Here," for example, sounded like a Floyd demo that, for whatever reason, was left off a Pink Floyd album and never revived.

Casual Floyd listeners wouldn't have picked up on that, I suppose, but dedicated Floyd fans — and experienced music critics — may have. I certainly saw similarities in songs like "Raise My Rent" and "So Far Away" — but, to be totally honest, the whole album sounded like Pink Floyd outtakes to me.

Reasonably short outtakes, admittedly, but outtakes nonetheless.

At that time in my life, that appealed to me. Pink Floyd's most recent album at that time was "Animals," an album I have grown to appreciate more as I have matured, but, at the time, I found the long tracks to be somewhat tedious. While I always appreciated the unconventional nature of Pink Floyd's music, I was drawn to the more traditional album arrangements of "Wish You Were Here" and "Dark Side of the Moon."

I guess I was more predisposed to like albums with a single track that took up an entire side of a record if that record was made by Yes, which was always more of a symphonic experience for me, anyway.

By the way, technically, "There's No Way Out Of Here" was a cover. It was originally recorded by another band a couple of years earlier.

But few people were aware of it at the time, and fewer still probably are aware of it today.

And for Floyd fans, it is worth noting that "Short and Sweet," a song that was co–written by Gilmour, strongly resembled "Run Like Hell," which would be included on "The Wall" the very next year.

Talk about coming attractions.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Standing Up to Vigilante Justice in the 19th Century

Major Tetley (Frank Conroy): This is only slightly any of your business, my friend. Remember that.

Gil Carter (Henry Fonda): Hangin' is any man's business that's around.

If someone asked me to pick my favorite Henry Fonda movie, that would be a tough assignment for me.

I have admired Fonda for a long time, and I like nearly all of his movies.

But, while his movies are great, the problem with many of them is that they have lost much of their relevance with the passage of time.

Not so director William Wellman's "The Ox–Bow Incident," which premiered 70 years ago today. Its topic is timeless — mob rule and vigilante justice, which, sadly, the human race never seems to outgrow — and, even though it is set in the Old West, it is still more a drama than a western and could have been set in any place at any time.

The setting is all too human — a small town in 19th–century Nevada is plunged into fear when word spreads that a local rancher has been murdered and at least a portion of his livestock may have been stolen. The sheriff is out of town, and his deputy takes it upon himself to form a posse. Fonda and his sidekick, Harry Morgan, are drifters who get swept up in the mania and are enlisted to assist in the pursuit of the "killers."

Before the posse leaves town, a judge instructs its members to bring the suspects back for a trial. He also tells them that the actual creation of the posse by the deputy is illegal. In the dead of night, the posse encounters three strangers, who are unable to verify that their herd was purchased fair and square. The absence of a bill of sale is enough for the mob and its leader, an ex–officer in the Confederate army, to find the men guilty and sentence them to death by hanging.

Dana Andrews, Anthony Quinn and a senile old man played by Francis Ford protested that they were innocent, but their pleas fell on mostly deaf ears — and Fonda and Morgan participated in the lynch mob that ended their lives.

But that was decidedly not the end of the story.

After the three men had been hung and the lynch mob returned to town, it was discovered that there had been no murder after all. The three men had been executed for nothing.

Fonda was in his finest "The Grapes of Wrath" Tom Joad mode, at one point telling the Confederate officer (after the officer informed Fonda that the lynchings were "only slightly" his business), "Hangin' is any man's business that's around."

But there are few more elevating moments in American cinema than when Fonda reads aloud the letter written by one of the condemned men (Andrews) to his wife explaining what was happening.

I always thought one of the best touches was how the angle of the camera shot obscured Fonda's eyes with the bill of Morgan's hat as he read the letter. It subtly reminded viewers that justice is blind in America — or, at least, it is supposed to be.

"My dear wife, Mr. Davies will tell you what's happening here tonight. He's a good man and has done everything he can for me. I suppose there are some other good men here, too, only they don't seem to realize what they're doing. They're the ones I feel sorry for. 'Cause it'll be over for me in a little while, but they'll have to go on remembering for the rest of their lives. A man just naturally can't take the law into his own hands and hang people without hurtin' everybody in the world, 'cause then he's just not breaking one law but all laws. Law is a lot more than words you put in a book, or judges or lawyers or sheriffs you hire to carry it out. It's everything people ever have found out about justice and what's right and wrong. It's the very conscience of humanity. There can't be any such thing as civilization unless people have a conscience, because if people touch God anywhere, where is it except through their conscience? And what is anybody's conscience except a little piece of the conscience of all men that ever lived? I guess that's all I've got to say except kiss the babies for me and God bless you. Your husband, Donald."

The project was special to Fonda and Wellman — so special that they both agreed to work on lesser studio projects in return for being allowed to make "The Ox–Bow Incident." Fonda, of course, went on to appear in other great films in his career, but for Wellman it was a peak he never reached again.

It is safe to say "The Ox–Bow Incident" wasn't a blockbuster at the box office in 1943. Its budget of $565,000 seems modest by modern standards — but so did its profits.

Thankfully, though, time has been much kinder to "The Ox–Bow Incident" — at least as far as perception is concerned. It is much more likely today to be regarded as one of the great movies of all time.

It was a nominee for Best Picture at the Oscars in 1943 (the last time until 2009 that more than five movies were nominated for that award) and lost out to "Casablanca" — which is a great movie, but I don't think it had the same kind of moral to teach.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

You've Come a Long Way, Baby

Director Jane Campion deserved recognition for 1993's "The Piano" — and she was nominated for an Oscar.

She wasn't the first woman to be nominated for best director (that distinction belonged to Lina Wertmüller some 17 years earlier), and she wasn't the first female director to win the Oscar (that was Kathryn Bigelow some 16 years later).

She did, however, win an Oscar for best original screenplay.

I'm inclined to think that no female director has ever taken on a project that was so risky as bringing "The Piano" to the screen.

It was risky for many reasons, largely because of its portrayal of a strong female with no voice (an intriguing element of a story set at a time when women who were not mute had no voice in anything) whose hand in marriage was promised by her father to a farmer from New Zealand (Sam Neill). With little more than her young daughter and her piano, Hunter's character embarked on the arduous journey from her native Scotland to New Zealand.

Hunter's and Neill's marriage was a loveless one, but Hunter's character found love outside her marriage with a neighbor (Harvey Keitel). Neill's discovery of his wife's infidelity prompted him to take the drastic step of hacking off one of her fingers with an axe, thus depriving her of the ability to play her piano (or so he thought).

For that matter, I'm also inclined to think that few actresses have faced a greater challenge than Holly Hunter faced in playing the mute Ada. I always thought it was a special kind of acting challenge, and the Academy rewarded it with the Oscar.

I can only presume that it must have been a considerable challenge for Hunter to say the things her character needed to say — but without articulating them. I'd been impressed with Hunter's talent before I saw "The Piano." I was filled with even more appreciation after I saw it.

Hunter's 11–year–old co–star, Anna Paquin, won the Oscar for best supporting actress. And her performance, as Hunter's spiteful daughter, certainly rang true.

Paquin remains the second–youngest winner of Best Supporting Actress. Tatum O'Neal, who won the Oscar 20 years earlier for her performance in "Paper Moon," is still the youngest–ever recipient.

It was a haunting story, particularly if one compared the setting of the late 20th century (when the film was made and released) to the setting of the story in the mid–19th century.

I didn't see it when it was in the theaters. Instead, I saw it at home on TV a couple of years after it was released. As a result, I have no firsthand knowledge of how women in movie audiences reacted when they first saw Hunter's Oscar–winning performance. If they held her 19th–century character to 20th–century standards, that wasn't fair.

But if Hunter's performance made them think about and appreciate the strides women had made in the intervening century and a half, that would be more than fair.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

A Fairly Ordinary Act of Fatherhood

"The president temporarily handing over power to his political enemy? I think it's a fairly stunning act of patriotism ... and a fairly ordinary act of fatherhood."

Will Bailey (Joshua Malina)

One of the things that I really liked about The West Wing when it was on the air was the way the writers managed to work little history and/or civics lessons into the plots.

I never felt that it was just a TV show or just a drama. There often was, to use a word the real president likes, a teachable moment. (And Lord knows the American public can use a few history lessons.)

It was the best kind of teachable moment, really. It wasn't preachy or condescending. It was entertaining and educational at the same time.

Mind you, the series didn't always do that sort of thing, but it did it often enough, and one of the very best examples of the technique was the episode that aired 10 years ago tonight.

"Twenty Five" was the season–ending episode of the series' fourth season. A week earlier, first daughter Zooey Bartlet (Elisabeth Moss) was kidnapped while celebrating her college graduation. The president (Martin Sheen) and the first lady (Stockard Channing) were told what had happened at the beginning of the episode that aired 10 years ago tonight.

They proceeded to make the kind of mistakes that might be expected from worried parents who happen to be in the public eye 24/7. The first lady, for example, decided, after several hours, to make an appeal to the kidnappers for the release of her daughter. She was dissuaded from doing so when it was pointed out to her that it would send the message to the kidnappers that they had succeeded in creating chaos in the White House.

The president, recognizing that a distraught father is in no shape to manage the affairs of state, decided to temporarily step aside. Such a circumstance has never happened in American history, but the Constitution, with the help and clarification of the 25th Amendment, spells out the line of succession that is to be followed.

As is the tradition when a president dies in office, the immediate successor would be the vice president. But, in the West Wing universe, the vice president had resigned a few episodes earlier, and the office was vacant.

According to the Constitution, if there is no vice president, the next person in line is the speaker of the House. Just one problem there, though. In the universe of the West Wing, the president was a Democrat, and the speaker of the House (John Goodman) was a Republican.

That may have been hard for some people to imagine at the time, given the fact that, in reality, the president and both chambers of Congress were in Republican hands. If such a scenario had occurred a decade ago in the real world, it wouldn't have been a political concern for the president to temporarily hand over power to the House speaker — other than that technicality that prohibits someone from simultaneously holding positions in two branches of government.

But it was a more wrenching decision for the president and his staff in the West Wing.

It made for undeniably dramatic television. And it set up one of the most understated lines in TV series history when Goodman said to the president's staff, "Relax, everybody. Breathe regular."

That line was delivered after it was clear that the West Wing staff had been experiencing considerable angst over the invocation of the 25th Amendment. Most of them probably hadn't been breathing regular — least of all Toby (Richard Schiff), who had just become a father in a neat, if a bit transparent, secondary story line.

If anyone could understand the president's conflict, it was Toby, and he seemed to alternate between the fiercely defensive father he had just become and the dedicated public servant he was.

"There's no one in this room," he whispered to the president moments before the House speaker took the presidential oath of office, "who wouldn't rather die than let you down."

It was quite a cliffhanger — from a series that re–defined the word.

And it was a well–written story about a scenario we can all hope no president will ever face.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Hitchcock's Most Personal Work

It's my understanding that Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo" was mostly dismissed by critics when it premiered 55 years ago today.

But over the years, it has evolved and been elevated in the eyes of those critics and their successors — to the point that it is often mentioned as at least one of Hitchcock's best, if not his absolute best.

I'm not sure I would go to that extreme. There are two or three of Hitchcock's movies that I would pick over that one — but I certainly would concede that it is perhaps Hitchcock's most complex movie. It is certainly one of his most psychological movies — and that's saying something when you consider Hitch's body of work.

And it is "Vertigo," more than almost any other Hitchcock movie, that is cited as an influence for Hitch's directorial descendants in the genre.

As I say, it must rank as Hitchcock's most complex movie. It's got to be one of his most experimental.

Other movies were at least as psychologically complex as "Vertigo," but it was visually complex, too. It was the first noteworthy use of the dolly zoom technique that created the sensation of the condition that gave the film its name.

Stewart was the main attraction for moviegoers in 1958. He'd been a familiar star for more than 20 years, almost as long as his co–star, Kim Novak, had been alive. Moviegoers knew what they were getting when Stewart was in a movie, much as they knew what they were getting when the star was Humphrey Bogart or Spencer Tracy or Henry Fonda.

But Novak, who was 25 the day "Vertigo" premiered, was no newcomer. She had already been in 10 movies, including parts in "Picnic" and "The Man With the Golden Arm."

I get the feeling from having seen many of the movies Novak made before "Vertigo" that, rather than viewing her beauty as a blessing, she regarded it as a burden. That probably came in handy when she took on her role in "Vertigo." I've always felt that character was a bit shy, a little hesitant and, in some unexpected ways, vulnerable — and, yet, she was dangerous.

Novak was already conditioned to play a role that way. (Her simmering passion and cool intellectual quality served her well in "Bell, Book and Candle.")

Maybe Hitchcock knew that.

Funny thing, though. Novak wasn't Hitch's first choice; Vera Miles was. But a series of twists of fate allowed the role to practically fall into Novak's lap. First, Hitchcock had gall bladder problems, then Miles became pregnant. Hitchcock was not willing to postpone filming any further so he gave the role to Novak.

In hindsight, it's hard for me to imagine Miles in the role. Novak always seems ideal for it. Perhaps it is because I am conditioned to think of her as Judy — and my mind associates Miles with the roles she played in two other Hitchcock films, "The Wrong Man" and "Psycho."

Maybe Novak played the role so well I can't imagine anyone else playing it.

I know there was a great chemistry between Stewart and Novak, as there usually was between the male and female leads in a Hitchcock movie. Such chemistry was especially important in "Vertigo," which had a complex plot — even for a Hitchcock movie.

I guess the chemistry didn't help much when it was first released. I've been told "Vertigo" wasn't too successful at the box office.

But, as I say, in the years that have passed, "Vertigo" has come to be recognized as one of Hitchcock's best film achievements.

Hitchcock himself said it was his most personal film. I'm not sure what his reasoning was, but there is no questioning the quality of the movie.

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

It's Only a Paper Moon

Moses Pray (Ryan O'Neal): I got scruples, too, you know. You know what that is? Scruples?

Addie Loggins (Tatum O'Neal): No, I don't know what it is, but if you got 'em, it's a sure bet they belong to somebody else!

Many great comedies were made in the 1970s.

I know there were some I missed, but I often feel as if I saw them all — Mel Brooks, Monty Python, Peter Sellers, Gene Wilder, John Belushi, the list goes on and on.

Ryan O'Neal even made a few noteworthy comedies in the '70s. Originally noticed for his work in dramas (especially "Love Story"), he gravitated toward comedy with "What's Up, Doc?" and "Paper Moon," which premiered 40 years ago today.

O'Neal's peak as an actor probably came in the mid–1970s. There were occasional exceptions, but mostly his film roles have been mediocre at best.

"Paper Moon," though, was and remains a delight — largely because of O'Neal's daughter, Tatum, who stole the show (and the Best Supporting Actress Oscar). Like her father, Tatum has been in few truly strong movies since "Paper Moon," which suggests that the problem for father and daughter may be that they haven't been given great material.

That definitely wasn't a problem with "Paper Moon." Like so many of the comedies of the 1970s, the dialogue crackled then, and it crackles now.

How could it not?

Set in the Depression, a Bible–peddling con man named Moses Pray (Ryan O'Neal) stops to pay his last respects to a prostitute with whom he had been, er, friendly. Among the small group of mourners is the woman's child, Addie Loggins (Tatum O'Neal), whose future has been rendered uncertain by her mother's passing. It is decided that Moses (who, some of the ladies in town have concluded, resembles Addie and might be related to her) should take Addie to her aunt in St. Joseph, Mo., since he will be going that way, anyway.

It didn't take long for Moses and Addie to learn unpleasant things about each other.

Moses learned that Addie, although only 9, was already a seasoned smoker. She didn't know the president's correct name — she kept calling him Frank D. Roosevelt (as in "Frank D. Roosevelt says we're all feeling a lot better").

And Addie learned that Moses made his living by scamming unsuspecting, grieving widows — and there was a matter of $200 that Moses owed Addie.

Addie didn't get along too well with Moses' lady friends, especially Trixie (played delightfully by Madeline Kahn). Trixie, it is safe to say, was a bit self–absorbed.
Trixie (to Addie): You already got bone structure. When I was your age I didn't have no bone structure. Took me years to get bone structure. And don't think bone structure's not important. People didn't decide to call me Mademoiselle until I was 17 and getting a little bone structure

Not all movies hold up as well after 40 years as "Paper Moon."

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Playing WarGames

"WarGames" had a lot more impact when it was released 30 years ago today than it has now.

After all, the Cold War mentality was still strong in 1983. The Soviet Union hadn't collapsed, and the Reagan administration had made winning the Cold War its top foreign policy priority.

Thus, in the late spring and early summer of 1983, movie audiences were understandably unnerved by the story "WarGames" had to tell.

Even though the Cold War ended within 10 years, "WarGames" offered a glimpse into a future that, in hindsight and for several reasons, may be even more troubling. Matthew Broderick, the lead character, had an obsession with computers and video games that was rare in the early 1980s but might be regarded as mainstream today.

About six months ago, when the shootings in the Connecticut elementary school occurred, there was general angst about the fact that the shooter had devoted much of his spare time to violent video games, a trait that is not uncommon with many young men of his age group.

In "WarGames," Broderick played a similar young man, but the havoc he wreaked in the fictional story went far beyond a single classroom or school. He had a home computer at a time when that was still a rarity in most homes, and he used it to tap into his school's computer to do things like alter academic records for himself and his love interest (played by Ally Sheedy).

He also used his computer to play the most challenging video games of that time. In pursuit of that form of pleasure, he unknowingly hacked into the Pentagon's computer system and activated a nuclear war simulation, thinking that it was merely a very realistic computer game.

Which it was — so realistic that the computer didn't know it wasn't real.

In hindsight, I suppose, "WarGames" was a bit of a gamble as far as the cast was concerned. Broderick has been in some successful films in his career, but "WarGames" was the very beginning of that career.

Sheedy, it often seems, grew up in front of the movie camera. And, in fact, she did. She has been involved in acting, in one form or another, since she was a teenager.

But "WarGames" was practically her first big–screen movie. Practically. It almost certainly was her most extensive role to date. More extensive screen time came with later films, like "The Breakfast Club" and "St. Elmo's Fire," but, for many moviegoers, this was their first real look at the young actress.

And there was a lot to like. Admittedly pleasing to the eye with her chestnut hair and athletic build, Sheedy, it turned out, was a pretty good actress, too — and that certainly contributed to the quality of the story.

But the real attraction to "WarGames" was the public's uneasiness with computers. Audiences in 1983 weren't as sophisticated as they are in 2013. The public's mindset probably was unchanged since the 1950s — when people heard the word computer in 1983, they still thought of some massive mechanical monstrosity (presumably like the one that virtually filled a room in 1957's "Desk Set") that was beyond their comprehension.

The public's general ignorance about computers made the story of an accidental nuclear war more plausible than anything that had been made in 20 years. In many ways, it was a more innocent time, a time when cable TV was still in its infancy and the commercial internet was still in the future.

Because of the amazing advances we have witnessed in the last 30 years, I doubt that the story in "WarGames" would be taken seriously today. A whole generation of Americans has grown up playing computer games and using tech–savvy lingo, and most of those folks would probably be unimpressed by a computer that took so long to learn the simple lesson of Tic–Tac–Toe.

But there is little doubt that it was highly effective in 1983.

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Roz and the Schnozzola

Kevin Kilner and Jordan Baker, married in real life,
played Steve and Paula Garrett in this episode.

Roz (Peri Gilpin): Now I'm supposed to put up with in–laws, and I don't even have a husband? That's like posing nude for your art teacher and still flunking the course.

Readers of this blog know I am a diehard Frasier fan.

I like all the episodes — some better than others, of course — but the one that aired 15 years ago tonight is one of my particular favorites.

At this point in the Frasier storyline, Roz was pregnant and had decided not to marry the father, who was quite a bit younger. (After Roz turned down his proposal in an earlier episode, the young man left Seattle to study in France.)

Her apartment was being painted, and Roz arranged to stay with Frasier while that was going on. Consequently, she had her calls forwarded to his phone, and one of her messages was from Paula Garrett, the mother of her lover who wanted to meet Roz before Paula and her husband departed for Paris, where they would visit their son.

Roz wasn't enthusiastic about the idea, but Frasier talked her into meeting with the Garretts briefly. It was an opportunity, he told her, to see the kinds of family traits that her child would be inheriting.

A side plot involved a misunderstanding between Frasier and Daphne over a gift Frasier gave her. It was a pair of earrings that looked like they had sapphires — but, in fact, they were colored glass. Frasier saw them and thought they looked pretty so he bought them for Daphne (Jane Leeves), not remembering that it was the fifth anniversary of Daphne coming to work in the Crane household.

When Daphne appeared to believe they were genuine, Frasier didn't have the heart to set her straight.

It turned out the Garretts had huge noses. They also had some endearing qualities, but Roz couldn't get over the fact that their noses were so large.

Neither could the members of the Crane family, who could hardly contain their mirth at the double entendres in their conversations.

For example, when Niles told the Garretts of his and Frasier's intention to attend the annual dog show, Paula said, "We love dogs. We have two Giant Schnauzers," and it was all the Cranes could do to maintain a semblance of self–control.

And, when Paula bent over to smell the fresh–baked quiche and asked if the crust was homemade or from the store, Steve said, "You'll have to forgive my wife. Sometimes she's a little nosy."

That was the point where Frasier, who had resisted any urges to laugh, lost it.

Roz: Now I know all the wonderful qualities my baby will have. A sunny disposition, a great sense of humor ... a nose like an ANTEATER!

Roz took some comfort in the knowledge that the father of her child had a normal nose — even if his parents' noses were large. But that went out the window when she was given pictures of her baby's father when he was a boy. He had had a hockey accident, and nose surgery had been necessary.

Apparently, genetics had not taken a holiday, as Roz had so desperately hoped.

Roz didn't want to show the Cranes the pictures. "I'll never hear the end of it!" she protested. Ultimately, though, she relented.

"Where is the end of it?" Niles asked.

Frasier always had a nice way of ending such a story on an upbeat note.

In this episode, Daphne came into the dining room later that night to find Roz sitting at the table staring at some pictures — these of herself when she was a child. She recited her childhood maladies for Daphne, then said, "I'm just sitting here thinking, what if my kid gets Rick's nose and my ears and eyes? Throw in my grandfather's third nipple, I might as well pitch a tent and charge admission."

Roz said she couldn't stand the thought of her child being teased, but Daphne pointed out that being teased is a part of being a kid and Roz's child would be fortunate to have a mother who understood what it was like.

I thought it was a well–written lesson in human — especially parent–child — relationships.

I've heard some people say that they didn't like this episode because the reactions of the Cranes (with the exception of patriarch Martin) were out of character for them, that they ordinarily exhibited more restraint.

But even the most restrained people can blow their cool under the right conditions, and I thought Frasier was particularly effective in showing that 15 years ago tonight.

Thursday, May 02, 2013

The Big-Screen Debut of The Odd Couple

Oscar Madison (Walter Matthau): Who wants food?

Murray (Herb Edelman): What do you got?

Oscar: I got, uh, brown sandwiches and, uh, green sandwiches. Which one do you want?

Murray: What's the green?

Oscar: It's either very new cheese or very old meat.

Murray: I'll take the brown.

Roy (David Sheiner): Are you crazy? You're not going to eat that, are you?

Murray: I'm hungry!

Roy: His refrigerator has been out of order for two weeks now. I saw milk standing in there that wasn't even in the bottle!

The Walter Matthau–Jack Lemmon movie "The Odd Couple" made its debut 45 years ago today, a couple of years after the Neil Simon–authored play was a splash on Broadway.

It is one of my favorite comedies, and I have written about it before — when it was about to be shown on TV. I'm not sure there is much I can add to that.

Except to say that I have seen it many times in my life, and I still think it is funny every time I see it. I know what's coming. I know all the best lines by heart.

But I still laugh, especially at scenes that I have been laughing at for years. Not even scenes really. I always laugh at Jack Lemmon's portrayal of the fastidious Felix, and I always laugh at Walter Matthau's portrayal of the sloppy Oscar.

They truly were an odd couple. That's what made them funny — but, frankly, Lemmon and Matthau were already funny. When they were paired up, they were even funnier.

And "The Odd Couple" wasn't even their first pairing. That was a couple of years earlier in "The Fortune Cookie," for which Matthau won an Oscar.

Matthau played a lawyer in that movie; he played a sports writer in "The Odd Couple." No matter which movie he was in or which role he played, though, he always looked like he had been sleeping in his clothes.

He didn't have much of a wardrobe in "The Odd Couple" — mostly T–shirts and ball caps — but he didn't really need much.

It was a big part of his charm, I guess.

Oscar Madison: Look at this. You're the only man in the world with clenched hair.

Of Lemmon, I guess it can best be said that he proved his talent for comedic roles in "Mister Roberts," "Some Like It Hot" and "The Apartment," but it was a different kind of role in "The Odd Couple."

Lemmon got his share of laughs in "The Odd Couple," to be sure, but most of the time, I guess, he was Matthau's straight man, feeding him setup lines.

Like when he and Oscar were talking about the fairer sex in a bowling alley, and Felix remarked, "Funny, I haven't thought of women in weeks."

"I fail to see the humor," Oscar replied, gazing longingly at a group of excited young women jumping up and down after one of them bowled a strike.

My favorite exchange may have been when Felix said, "I think I'm crazy."

"If it makes you feel any better," Oscar said, "I think so, too."

It was one of the great film partnerships of all time.