Tuesday, December 30, 2014

'Of Mice and Men': Steinbeck's Tale Wasn't P.C.

Lennie (Lon Chaney Jr.): I wish we had some ketchup.

George (Burgess Meredith): Whatever we ain't got, that's what you want!

(1939 is widely regarded as the greatest year ever for the motion picture. Ten movies were nominated for Best Picture that year, and today I take a look at the last of those 10 movies to hit the theaters.)
"Of Mice and Men," which made its debut 75 years ago today, was a gritty tale — and, frankly, a rather unlikely project for producer Hal Roach, who was mainly known for his comedies. But because of a lawsuit, Roach agreed to produce a film version of the John Steinbeck story.

The main characters, George (Burgess Meredith) and Lennie (Lon Chaney Jr.), were traveling ranch hands, trying to collect enough money to buy their own place. Well, that was George's dream. All Lennie wanted to do was "tend the rabbits." Lennie seemed gentle enough, but he just didn't know his own strength — which was considerable.

They were mutually dependent. Lennie was mentally handicapped but possessed remarkable physical strength. George was the idea guy, the brains of the outfit. Lennie had an obsession with soft things, an obsession that caused some problems. George told Lennie they were "bad things" that he mustn't do, and Lennie lived in fear of violating George's rules.

"Of Mice and Men" was remade twice, the last time in 1992. I sometimes wonder if it could be made a fourth time — and I usually conclude that it couldn't because, on the surface, it seems to fail the politically correct litmus test.

The theme of abuse — of a mentally retarded man, of a black man, of a self–absorbed woman — might pass the test, but the almost stereotypical treatment of those characters could negate their effectiveness in the 21st century.

Steinbeck himself observed, for example, that the young and pretty wife of the boss' son was "not a person, she's a symbol. She has no function except to be a foil — and a danger to Lennie." For that reason, Steinbeck gave her no name in the book, but she had one in the movie — Mae. To pass muster in the 21st century, I think her character might need to be fleshed out even more.

Played by Betty Field in the 1939 movie, Mae wasn't as one–dimensional on the screen as she was on the pages of Steinbeck's novella. She was still a shallow character — but she was played smartly by Field, who was appearing in only her second movie.

A problem for the P.C. crowd might also be the callous treatment of the aging dog. The dog's owner was persuaded to let one of the hands shoot him because he was old. It neatly foreshadowed the end of the book and the movie, when George killed Lennie in what might almost be seen as a mercy killing today.

I don't want to spoil it for you if you haven't read the book or seen the movie. But you should do both if you have done neither, and, if you have only done one, you should do the other. "The Grapes of Wrath" wasn't the only thing that Steinbeck ever wrote — but it was the only one that became a Best Picture winner.

I've seen all 10 of the movies that were nominated for Best Picture in 1939, and, with this blog post, I have now written about all 10 as well. I don't disagree that the winner, "Gone With the Wind," was a great movie, but if I had been alive at the time and I had been given a vote, I think I might have voted for "Of Mice and Men." I thought the story was better, and, actually, I thought the acting was, too, even though the acting wasn't recognized by the Oscars.

For people of my generation, Meredith was already an established star of movies and TV. We have rarely seen him when he was as young as he was in "Of Mice and Men," but he was barely in his 30s when it was made.

Chaney was already a movie veteran, having appeared in nearly 60 movies by the time "Of Mice and Men" was made. His claim to fame is his work as the Wolf Man in the 1940s, but, before he did that, he lobbied for — and got — the role of Lennie.

I didn't realize, as a child, that one of the cartoons that always entertained me was, in fact, a vicious parody of Chaney's performance. I laughed at it, not knowing what it was spoofing. Since I have seen "Of Mice and Men," I know why my father laughed, too.

It feels wrong to laugh at it now. I guess that is the influence of the P.C. crowd, but, really, it isn't fair to hold Steinbeck or Looney Tunes to modern standards when they functioned in the world that existed more than 70 years ago.

So laughing at the Looney Tunes cartoon may be something of a guilty pleasure, like laughing at some of the skits on Saturday Night Live.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Why Didn't 'Hunchback' Receive More Oscar Recognition in '39?

"I'm about as shapeless as the man in the moon."

Quasimodo (Charles Laughton)

Several film versions have been made based on Victor Hugo's "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," but few would deny that the version that premiered 75 years ago today was the best — even if it took considerable liberties with the source material.

How could it not be great? It starred Charles Laughton, a two–time Oscar nominee and one–time winner, and pretty newcomer Maureen O'Hara, appearing in only her fourth movie. The story was based on one of Hugo's best–known works.

And RKO Pictures constructed on its movie ranch a huge (and expensive) re–creation of medieval Paris and Notre Dame Cathedral — specifically for the making of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame."

Yet, even at a time when the Academy Awards allowed as many as 10 movies to be nominated for Best Picture, "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" wasn't one of that year's nominees.

How could such a thing be possible?

Nor was Laughton nominated for Best Actor — and, in addition to giving an Oscar–worthy performance, he had to wear a ton of makeup at a time when Los Angeles was experiencing one of the most severe heat waves in its history (daytime highs were often close to 110°).

I think he could have been nominated instead of Mickey Rooney, who was nominated for "Babes in Arms." But that's just my opinion.

How could such things have happened?

Be forewarned, ye who have read Hugo's book. There were differences between the book and the movie, apparently dreamed up to suggest similarities between 15th–century France and 20th–century Europe. Consequently, the bad guy in the story, Jehan (played by Cedric Hardwicke), was not the lustful religious charlatan of the novel. In the book, his name was Claude, and he was an archdeacon; his brother was named Jehan.

The names were reversed in the movie — why, I do not know. The characters weren't really changed. The bad one was still powerful; he just wasn't a powerful religious figure.

In the context of the times in which the movie was made, Jehan was a tyrant, a stand–in for Hitler, destroying printing presses for fear they would encourage the people to think for themselves.

I guess that was an easy conclusion for the screenwriters to reach. After all, the villain of the piece, whatever his name, was a persecutor of gypsies — among others.

And O'Hara's character, a gypsy dancing girl, aroused passions in Jehan, passions he could not control.

Laughton played Quasimodo, the hunchback who rang the bells (and had been deafened by them). He could speak, but he didn't often want to.

Except when he was with Esmeralda (O'Hara).

Esmeralda was sweet and kind — and, to be blunt, a bit naive. In Hugo's book, she was about 16. O'Hara was 19 when the movie premiered. Pretty close as these things go in Hollywood.

When Quasimodo was pilloried for abducting Esmeralda, it was Esmeralda who brought him water. I guess she was influenced by the fact that, although Quasimodo was physically repulsive and regardless of his shortcomings, she could see that he represented man's noblest virtues in this passion play. In a rather obvious juxtaposition, Jehan was nefarious and sexually inhibited.

If you have read the book but haven't seen the movie, I should also warn you that many of the secondary stories were discarded, presumably to focus attention on the relationship between the dancing girl and the hunchback.

Still, the movie captured the flavor of the story well enough. Too bad the same couldn't be said of its showing at the Oscars.

"The Hunchback of Notre Dame" received only two Oscar nominations — and won neither.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

The First Ride on the Good Ship Lollipop

Shirley Blake (Shirley Temple): My daddy could fly better than anyone in the whole world, couldn't he?

James "Loop" Merritt (James Dunn): That's right, better than anyone in the whole world. You know, your daddy and I were pals ever since we were about as big as you are. That's why I'm your godfather.

Shirley Blake: And then one day he cracked up and went away to Heaven, didn't he?

James "Loop" Merritt: That's right.

Shirley Blake: I'll bet when I'm a pilot, I won't crack up.

James "Loop" Merritt: When you're ready to be a pilot, we'll get you a big non–crackable ship.

Shirley Temple was 6 years old when "Bright Eyes" premiered on this day in 1934. She had already made more than two dozen movies, many of them one– and two–reelers, but 1934 was her breakthrough year as a featured performer.

"Bright Eyes" wasn't her breakthrough movie — that was "Stand Up and Cheer!" which made its debut nearly eight months earlier — but it did introduce the public to the song with which Temple was most closely associated, "On the Good Ship Lollipop."

The movie began with Shirley and her movie mom (Lois Wilson) living in an affluent household. Shirley's mom wasn't a member of the family. She was a maid, widow of an airplane pilot who "cracked up." Most of the family members were insufferable snobs — except for wheelchair–bound Uncle Ned (Charles Sellon), the wealthy patriarch.

Shirley and her mom were still close to the other pilots, especially Loop (James Dunn), who was Shirley's godfather, and it was while riding in an airplane with those pilots that Shirley first sang "On the Good Ship Lollipop."

The story took place around Christmas. Shirley went off with her pilot friends; the plan was for her mother to join them later, but she was hit by a car while crossing a street and died. Loop took Shirley up in an airplane and broke the news to her in the clouds.

I haven't seen all of Temple's movies. But I gather it was a rather familiar formula that may well have been introduced for the first time in "Bright Eyes." Temple was cute and endearing while the other children around her were, well, less so.

There was only one other child in "Bright Eyes," a bratty little girl named Joy.

She was played by an actress named Jane Withers, who went on to a pretty lucrative adult career as Josephine the Plumber pitching Comet cleanser on TV in the 1960s and 1970s.

As I understand it, Withers was quite popular as a child star, too. She had bit parts in about half a dozen movies in the early 1930s, then she landed a part in "Bright Eyes."

My understanding is that she was reluctant to take the part because she had to be so hateful to Temple's character. It was her big break, though; she went on to make more than two dozen movies in the 1930s and another 16 in the 1940s, usually playing characters that were friendier and more innocent than the one she played in "Bright Eyes."

Sounds like a real Hollywood success story, doesn't it? Well, don't make the mistake of thinking that Withers has led a completely charmed life. She has had her difficult days, too. She lost her husband in a plane crash and her son to cancer.

She and Temple were not exactly friends when they made "Bright Eyes," but they did become friends later and remained friends throughout their adult lives.

When Temple died in February, Withers told The Hollywood Reporter that "[i]f it hadn't been for Shirley Temple being the cutest, most adorable little girl in the world, and they needed an opposite — and, boy, I sure was it — in Bright Eyes, I might've ended up selling hats in Atlanta, Georgia, my hometown, or something else. ... I can't say enough good things about her."

Friday, December 26, 2014

Christopher Cross' Debut Album

In December of 1979, Christopher Cross released his first album. The cover bore only his name and a rather pastoral painting of a flamingo — which, by the way, popped up on his other albums, too. The flamingo became something of a symbol for him.

It was soft rock, as the hits from the album verified, one by one. But, you know, that was OK because Cross never pretended to be doing anything else. As soft rock albums go, this one was darn near flawless, and it was helped by the presence of some of the top talent of the day to back him up — Don Henley of the Eagles provided some vocals as did Nicolette Larson, J.D. Souther and Michael McDonald of the Doobie Brothers.

Those who are eternally possessed of a teenage mentality will recall some of the tracks, like "Never Be The Same," in which the song's narrator laments the end of an affair and repeatedly pledges to live out his days alone.

Looking back, the song reeks of the angst of a teenager mourning the end of his first love affair. Those of us who survived our teen years and our first loves — and that is most of us — will say that, while painful, they aren't as extreme as Cross' music makes them seem.

At the time, though, the song seemed to rejuvenate a sagging radio industry. "Never Be The Same" was Cross' third Top 10 single from the album. It said nothing profound, but one can still imagine millions of broken–hearted teens listening to it endlessly and convincing themselves that the song was written for them.

What rubbish.

The first Top 10 single from the album was "Ride Like the Wind," which got as high as #2 on the charts. It was followed by "Sailing," which became the top–selling single in August of 1980.

"Sailing" went on to be named the Song of the Year at the Grammy Awards and probably was what propelled the album to Album of the Year, beating Pink Floyd's "The Wall." I guess that was where things changed for that album and me. See, at first I thought Cross' album was pleasant enough, and I had no serious objections to it until it aced out Pink Floyd at the Grammys.

When that happened — and for quite awhile thereafter — I would switch off my radio if I happened to be driving around and one of Cross' songs came on. I would rather drive in silence than listen to Christopher Cross after his simplistic music won awards that should have gone to Pink Floyd.

I felt it was a clear case of commercialism triumphing over the obvious best choice — and I went from being able to tolerate songs from the album to not even being able to do that.

I can report that I have overcome my objections, and I can listen to tracks from that album now. I can even appreciate them for what they are/were.

They have their place.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Thoughts on 'Sex and the Single Girl'

Helen Gurley Brown (Natalie Wood): You know, when you smile like that, you do look like Jack Lemmon!

In 1962, Helen Gurley Brown's "Sex and the Single Girl" was a best–selling self–help book that encouraged women to become financially independent and to experience sex outside the traditional marriage relationship.

The movie that was released 50 years ago today had the same title and its lead character (played by Natalie Wood) had Dr. Brown's name, but that was just about all the two really had in common.

Tony Curtis played the managing editor of STOP magazine, a real rag of a publication, who wanted to get a scoop on Brown. He had already published an article alleging that Brown was a virgin, and that article had damaged her reputation. Half a dozen of her patients had quit on her, and Brown was intent on suing Curtis, who wanted to interview Brown but had no luck.

So Curtis' character impersonated his housemate (Henry Fonda) who worked in women's hosiery, pretending to be having marital problems so he could get closer to Brown. In the reality of the movie, Fonda actually was having problems with his wife (Lauren Bacall).

And where would a Tony Curtis movie be without a car chase? That's how "Sex and the Single Girl" concluded: with just about everyone involved in a car chase and then living happily ever after (apparently).

Much of the movie was a farce about mistaken identity, sort of a single–joke "Midsummer Night's Dream." I have never read Brown's book, but it only inspired the screenplay, most of which apparently was written by Joseph Heller. Brown got partial credit for the story, but that may be because it was her book's title, not its content, that inspired it.

It wasn't clever. It wasn't thought provoking. It was mostly silly and contrived. It wasn't Heller's best work.

At one point, Fonda was accused of bigamy, which turned out to be false. That set up lots of cheap jokes about fidelity. To be honest, I had to wonder how stars of such stature as Fonda and Bacall got roped into this project.

In the interest of full disclosure, I admit that I laughed out loud when Brown compared Curtis' character to Jack Lemmon in "Some Like It Hot," but that sort of thing didn't happen very much. Curtis and Lemmon, of course, were co–stars with Marilyn Monroe in "Some Like It Hot" — and there are folks who will tell you it was the best comedy ever made. (That is hard — but not impossible — to dispute.)

I don't know if that is true, but I know that the talent in "Some Like It Hot" was superior to the talent in "Sex and the Single Girl" — at least when you compare how the talent was used.

Fonda, for example, was capable of comedy even though he was usually seen in dramatic roles. The same could be said of Bacall and Wood. That wasn't the problem. The problem was that the material in "Sex and the Single Girl" just wasn't worthy of their talents. (You couldn't say that about "Some Like It Hot.")

Maybe the producers should have been faithful to the original book.

Foundering in 'The Life Aquatic'

"Nobody knows what's going to happen. And then we film it. That's the whole concept."

Steve Zissou (Bill Murray)

Roger Ebert summed things up for me pretty neatly in his review of "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou," which premiered 10 years ago today.

"My rational mind informs me that this movie doesn't work," Ebert wrote. "Yet I hear a subversive whisper: Since it does so many other things, does it have to work, too? Can't it just exist? ... Wes Anderson's 'The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou' is the damnedest film. I can't recommend it, but I would not for one second discourage you from seeing it."

Anderson directed and produced this parody of famed ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau disguised as documentary. He achieved greater critical and commercial success with 2001's "The Royal Tenenbaums," but his style may never have been as clearly defined as it was in "The Life Aquatic."

Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) had a bizarre assortment of crew members and general hangers–on aboard.

For example ...

Zissou's ex–wife (Anjelica Huston) and her ex–husband (Jeff Goldblum) were on board — as was a fellow who believed he was Zissou's long–lost son (Owen Wilson). Cate Blanchett played a journalist who was covering the expedition. She also happened to be pregnant.

Another member of the crew crooned David Bowie songs in Portuguese.

And there was a girl who could be seen from time to time on board the ship (which looked like something dreamed up by Jules Verne). She seldom spoke and was noteworthy mostly for being topless in almost all of her screen time. Being topless had nothing to do, really, with the plot. It just seemed to be the way she rolled.

It was that kind of movie.

Seems to me everyone on board had a reason for being there that was unique (or nearly so) to him or her.

Steve Zissou was driven to track down and kill a shark that ate one of Zissou's team members.

Zissou's alleged long–lost son was there, essentially, to remove the alleged part from that description. The crew members were there because, well, it was their job to carry out whatever eccentric and obsessive mission Zissou was on. Willem Dafoe played the most prominent of the crew members.

I'm not really sure why Zissou's ex–wife (and the alleged mother of the alleged long–lost son) was there — and it is really a mystery to me why the ex–wife's other ex–husband was there at all. I'm sure a lot of it was explained when I saw it, but I saw it the day after Christmas 2004 — which was also the day of the great tsunami that killed thousands. In the aftermath of that event, which was unfolding when I was in the theater, movie details escaped me.

Anyway, along the way, Zissou's vessel encountered Filipino pirates and financial woes. And when the crew finally did catch up to the shark, as Ebert observed, "they fall silent and just regard it, because it's kind of beautiful. This could have been a scene from '20,000 Leagues Under the Sea' if Captain Nemo had been a pothead."

Like Ebert, I wouldn't discourage anyone from seeing "The Life Aquatic." In hindsight, though, it strikes me as being disjointed and unfocused much of the time — a good idea that had a lot of unrealized potential.

Monday, December 22, 2014

More Work Was Needed on Remake

"I know now that the love we hold back is the only pain that follows us here."

Pete (Richard Dreyfuss)

It's hard for me to think of "Always" (which debuted on this day in 1989) without comparing it to the movie upon which it was based, "A Guy Named Joe."

And, for the most part, I think the actors who were cast in the remake were pretty good choices, but the movie fell short of the mark.

Holly Hunter has been excellent in just about everything she has done, and she was a good choice to play Dorinda, the role originally played by Irene Dunne. Film critic Roger Ebert agreed. "The best casting in the movie is Hunter," Ebert declared, "bringing some of the same urgency and hard-bitten impatience that made her right for 'Broadcast News.'"

I like John Goodman. He's one of those guys who is funny no matter what he says or does. As far as I was concerned, he was much better than Ward Bond as Al, the colleague and best friend of the main character, Pete, who died early on and appeared as a spirit for the remainder of the film. But Goodman has been in better movies.

There were different characters who assisted Pete in his transition from the mortal world to the spiritual one. In "A Guy Named Joe," which was set in wartime, it was the spirit of a fellow pilot who had died in a fiery crash. He was played by Barry Nelson, who wasn't as good as the spirit Hap, played by Audrey Hepburn, who assisted Pete, a peacetime pilot who put out forest fires, in "Always."

Van Johnson played the guy who courted Dorinda after Pete died in "A Guy Named Joe," and it might seem like a no–brainer to prefer him to Brad Johnson, who played the role in "Always," but Van Johnson was appearing in his first movie. He wasn't as polished as he became. Brad Johnson was one up on him, having appeared in a low–budget production the year before "Always" was made, but, essentially, they were at the same point in their careers; over the long haul, it is safe to say that Van Johnson did more with his than Brad Johnson did.

It was pretty close, but I would give the nod to Van Johnson.

It was in the starring role where "A Guy Named Joe" had a decisive advantage, as far as I was concerned. Don't get me wrong. I like Richard Dreyfuss very much. I think he is quite talented, and I liked his performance in "Always."

But Spencer Tracy delivered what may have been the best performance of his career in "A Guy Named Joe."

Don't let that take anything away from Dreyfuss' performance. He was very good. But there was only one Spencer Tracy, right?

Ebert struggled with many of the same issues when he reviewed the movie 25 years ago. His bottom line about "Always" was that it suffered from a "lack of urgency."

"Even though pilots are flying into the jaws of hell," Ebert wrote, "they have an insouciance, a devil–may–care attitude, that undermines the drama."

Hmmmm. I hadn't really thought about that, but it does explain some of my ambivalence about the movie. I mean, with all the advantages "Always" had in its cast and director (well, I guess that depends on how one feels about Spielberg as opposed to Victor Fleming, who directed "The Wizard of Oz" and "Gone With the Wind" before he directed "A Guy Named Joe"), why, I wondered, did I prefer "A Guy Named Joe"?

I think it was because there was a kind of nobility, an admirable sense of self–sacrifice in "A Guy Named Joe" that was missing from "Always." Maybe that was a by–product of the war backdrop. Tracy didn't like helping someone else win Dunne's love, but it was part of his mission to "give back" to the living. He seemed to fully grasp that fact after his conversation with the general (Lionel Barrymore).

Tracy's mission went farther than just helping Dunne love again and move on with her life. His mission involved passing along his expertise as a pilot and contribute to a greater cause.

Putting out fires is an important cause, too, and Dreyfuss' character was one of the best at it, but fires are more random than war. I'm not saying that firefighters don't put everything on the line because they do, but the pressure on a soldier during wartime is unrelenting whereas the pressure on a firefighter mostly exists (it seems to me, anyway) while the fire exists.

That was the impression I got from the characters in "Always." They were dedicated to their jobs, but they were relaxed when they weren't trying to control a fire. It went in waves.

Of course, this is all speculation on my part. I was never a firefighter, and I never fought in a war.

I'm sure many of my beliefs about both have been influenced by things I have seen in movies — and movies, I will grant you, are not necessarily factual.

It just seems to me that the pressure on soldiers would be constant. Even if they are not in a battle, soldiers can't let their guard down for a second because an enemy attack could happen at any time.

The only comparable experience for pilots who fight forest fires would be during periods of extreme drought. In such times, pressure must be unceasing for those pilots.

A kind of sense of invincibility seemed to permeate the pilots in "Always."

Of course, one of the points of the story was that they were not invincible.

And I would be remiss if I didn't say more about Hepburn's contribution to the story.

She was, as I have said, the spirit who helps Dreyfuss make his transition to the spiritual world. I've been a Hepburn fan for many years, and I was deeply saddened by her death at the age of 63.

She was the third–greatest movie actress, according to the American Film Institute.

And Hap's understated way of breaking the news to Pete — while she was cutting his hair in the woods — was really delightful.

"I don't want you to think that I'm doubting your good faith," Pete said. "I just want to get one thing clear, okay?"

"Okay," Hap relied.

"Am I dead?" Pete asked.

"That's right," Hap answered.

"I'm dead?" Pete asked again.

"Right," Hap replied again.

"Keep the sideburns," Pete said. "Boy, what a jerk I turned out to be. Dead! And now I'm sitting in the woods, getting my hair cut."

"Always" was only modestly successful commercially (unlike most Spielberg productions), which may be why Hepburn wasn't nominated for an Oscar. Of course, her part was really just a cameo appearance, but it was her final movie role. Seems a shame for a great actress like that to go out without even a nomination for her final performance.

Of course, at the time, no one knew it would be her last performance.

Actually, "Always" received no Oscar nominations so it isn't as if Hepburn was denied something her colleagues received.

So the Oscar shutout wasn't really a surprise. It wasn't an original story, and the cast, while good, didn't really make a major impression.

Ultimately, I had to agree with Ebert's conclusion: "The result is a curiosity: a remake that wasn't remade enough."

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Fighting a War at 'Twelve O'Clock High'

General Frank Savage (Gregory Peck): [on stalling the transfer paperwork] There can be trouble in this.

Major Harvey Stovall (Dean Jagger): I don't think so, sir. I never heard of a jury convicting the lawyer.

People who only know Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch owe it to themselves to see his performance in "Twelve O'Clock High," which premiered on this day in 1949.

Atticus Finch, of course, was the heroic character in "To Kill a Mockingbird," the #1 hero on the American Film Institute's list of heroic characters from the movies.

AFI also listed its top villains, and, for much of the movie, Peck's performance might well have made him a candidate for it as far as many viewers were concerned. Truly, his character, General Savage, seemed, at first, to be aptly named, but as the movie went on, the audience saw that General Savage was merely doing his job — leading a talented but tired and demoralized group of pilots during the early days of World War II.

History tells us the Allies won World War II, but the outcome was far from certain when "Twelve O'Clock High" was set.

Actually, the movie began in what was then the present day — 1949 — and Dean Jagger, playing an attorney from America, was on vacation in Britain. As he passed an antique shop, he noticed a rather unextraordinary Toby Jug in the window and went in to ask about it.

He was convinced that it was the same jug that had been used to silently announce bombing raids to the crews at the nearby British station where Peck's character and Jagger's character had served.

So he bought it and took it with him to the base, now abandoned, but the main structures were still there.

From there, the story was told mostly in flashbacks — to the early 1940s when Peck's character took command of the base and was forced to deal with disciplinary problems among the men. His methods did not make him popular at first, but, gradually, the men began to see the wisdom in his actions.

During the war, Jagger's character had been an accomplice to Peck's character — in many ways, providing the same kind of support to Peck that Ben Kingsley's character gave to Liam Neeson's character in "Schindler's List."

I suppose it is kind of ironic for me to say that because, like "Schindler's List," "Twelve O'Clock High" was based on a true story. Peck's character was, by and large, the big–screen version of Col. Frank Armstrong, but his character was really a composite of the experiences of several wartime commanders.

Peck earned his fourth Academy Award nomination for his performance in "Twelve O'Clock High," but it was Jagger who took home the statuette — for Best Supporting Actor — topping John Ireland, James Whitmore, Arthur Kennedy and Ralph Richardson.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Completing 'The Godfather' Saga

"There are many things my father taught me here in this room. He taught me: Keep your friends close but your enemies closer."

Michael Corleone (Al Pacino)

"The Godfather Part II," which premiered on this day in 1974, was that rarest of all movies — a sequel that surpassed the original.

I thought the original movie was great, and there were even some things I liked about Part III, but Part II was a complete story, even though it actually told a couple of stories at once.

When you have seen it, though, you understand why it had to be that way. I assume that nearly everyone who saw it had seen the original movie, and those viewers needed to know how Don Corleone had come to America. They also needed to know what happened after the conclusion of the original "Godfather."

What happened in "Godfather Part III" was not so important for viewers to see. That, I believe, is what was really the problem with that movie. The Corleone family saga was complete with the sequel that premiered 40 years ago today.

Since the advent of home video, I have believed it is best to watch the movies back to back. Only then can you truly see the evolution of Michael Corleone from the family golden boy, the college man and ex–Marine, to the cold, callous successor to Don Corleone's criminal empire. Only Michael lacked the common touch his father possessed, to quote film critic Roger Ebert. "And because he has misplaced his humanity," Ebert wrote, "he must suffer."

I have heard some people say that this was Robert De Niro's first movie. I even thought that myself for awhile. It wasn't, but it might as well have been. De Niro, who is certainly considered one of the finest actors of his generation, did not get off to an auspicious start. He appeared in a few noteworthy movies, but it was his role as young Vito Corleone that captured the attention of the movie–going public.

The more I have watched "The Godfather Part II," the more convinced I have become that Nino Rota's music deserves much of the credit for how it has been perceived. Anguished, rousing memories of the past and awakening strong emotions, the score stirs viewers to feel things that they normally would not feel when watching a crime drama. Viewers typically do not regret the end of a brutal empire that systematically seized its power through murder and bribery and all the things that usually go into the construction of a crime family.

But De Niro's contribution should not be underestimated — and Rota's music, manipulating the viewers in ways few scores have accomplished, played an important role in that. Rota's Oscar for Best Original Dramatic Score was richly deserved. (I will never understand why he wasn't even nominated for his work in "The Godfather.")

The success of "The Godfather Part II" was also due in part to the fact that so many of the original cast members returned. Not only Pacino but Robert Duvall as Tom Hagen, Diane Keaton as Pacino's increasingly alienated wife and so many others.

Nevertheless, the first two "Godfather" movies wouldn't have been what they were without director Francis Ford Coppola. It was Coppola's vision that united the stories, an impressive cinematic achievement.

'All That Jazz' Told a Creative Tale

"It's showtime, folks!"

Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider)

I remember seeing "All That Jazz" for the first time. After I saw it, I earnestly believed it should be the Best Picture winner. At the time, I thought it was the most creative movie of 1979. Still do, for that matter.

If that was the only factor in choosing a Best Picture, then I would believe, as I did when the Academy Awards were given out the following spring, that "All That Jazz" got robbed. But I have come to realize that there are many factors to consider, and, if I had to choose the Best Picture of 1979 today, I probably would go along with the choice that was made ("Kramer vs. Kramer").

The absence of a Best Picture statuette took nothing away from "All That Jazz," which received nine Oscar nominations — and it did win four of them (Best Original Song Score or Adaptation Score, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design and Best Film Editing).

It did well in the technical categories, but it came up empty in the major awards — Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor — and that is where it lost the battle to "Kramer vs. Kramer."

I was really impressed with "All That Jazz." As I have written here before, the era of the Hollywood musical really ended in the '60s and, with the exception of 2002's "Chicago," practically no musical has been so well received by both critics and garden–variety moviegoers since. "All That Jazz" was an exception — in a sense. I mean, it was pretty well received by critics and did reasonably well at the box office, but it suffered from the audience's general fatigue with heavy movies in the late 1970s. It fell far short, for example, of the public's reception of the more light–hearted "Grease" the year before.

The movie was director Bob Fosse's semi–autobiographical account of his life — and anticipation of what the end would be like for him (he died in 1987). He wasn't too far off. Like his lead character, Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider), he died of a heart attack.

Joe Gideon was motivated by his work, but he never felt that he measured up. That was at the heart of a conversation he had with Angelique (Jessica Lange), the angel of death.

"Nothing I ever do is good enough," Gideon said. "Not beautiful enough, it's not funny enough, it's not deep enough, it's not anything enough. Now, when I see a rose, that's perfect. I mean, that's perfect. I want to look up to God and say, 'How the hell did you do that? And why the hell can't I do that?'"

Angelique, who had probably heard it all before, replied, "Now that's probably one of your better con lines."

"Yeah, it is," he answered. "But that doesn't mean I don't mean it."

"All That Jazz" was filled with moments like that.

I guess the word that best described Joe Gideon was driven. It was why he took daily doses of amphetamines — so he could juggle his work on his Broadway show and a movie he was editing. He was just as driven in the other direction, though. A hard–drinking, chain–smoking, drug–abusing, womanizing sort, Joe was burning both ends of his candle with blowtorches. At some point, the movie's viewers realized where the movie was inevitably taking them. It was just a matter of time before Gideon's reckless lifestyle would land him in the hospital — or the cemetery.

En route, the audience watched him try to gain the approval of the backers for the content of the show, which became considerably more risque than the backers had anticipated.

Joe Gideon was always pushing boundaries.

It occurred to me once, as I was reflecting on "All That Jazz" after watching it for the umpteenth time, that Joe Gideon was probably one of those people who was told from a young age that he was special, gifted, and he would do — and be — great things.

I'm not sure if parents who tell their children such things do them any favors. In some, it may serve as catalyst to achievement, but in most, I fear, it may only encourage a sense of entitlement, a conviction that the rules and natural laws that apply to others do not apply to them. At the very least, excessive praise for things that deserve little, if any, praise fosters a belief that little effort is required from them. It gives them little to shoot for and often seems to lead them down a self–destructive path.

I have no children so what I say on this may be irrelevant, but I have come to the conclusion that it is best to let children discover for themselves what their strengths and weaknesses are and try to nudge them toward their strengths. Encourage them to confront and overcome their weaknesses — and let them learn for themselves what their talents are.

I understand parents who want to boost their children's self–esteem, but sometimes there is a fine line between self–esteem and self–absorption.

Of course, I don't know what kind of parents Joe Gideon had — but we can get a pretty good idea what kind of parent he was.

Mostly an absent one.

Viewers never saw Joe Gideon in a domestic setting. His marriage had already ended by the time the movie began, and his interactions with his daughter were confined to his workplace and his weekends with her, not a day–to–day existence.

I was very impressed with Erzebet Foldi, the young girl who played Scheider's daughter (but never, to my knowledge, appeared in another movie again). Only 13 when the movie came out, Foldi's character was the one who succeeded — sort of — in keeping Scheider's character grounded.

But she and her mother often seemed to be living in a different world from Joe. They both vividly recalled one of his conquests — "the blonde with the television show" — but he couldn't remember her name.

Perhaps more than any other time in my memory, the movies of 1979 paid attention, indirectly if not directly, to the plights of the children of divorce. Justin Henry of "Kramer vs. Kramer" became the youngest person ever nominated for Best Supporting Actor (and lost to perhaps the oldest, Melvyn Douglas) for his portrayal of a child torn by the divorce of his parents. Foldi's character had already been through that; in "All That Jazz," we got to see how she was coping with the aftermath.

I always thought one of the most engaging scenes in the movie came when Foldi and Joe's girlfriend (Ann Reinking) performed a song–and–dance routine to "Everything Old Is New Again."

Friday, December 19, 2014

A Case of White Privilege?

"It's for sure a white man's world in America. Look here: I raised that boy since he was the size of a piss–ant. And I'll say right now, he never learned to read and write. No, sir. Had no brains at all. Was stuffed with rice pudding between th' ears. Shortchanged by the Lord and dumb as a jackass. Look at him now! Yes, sir, all you've gotta be is white in America to get whatever you want."

Louise (Ruth Attaway)

I think "Being There," which premiered on this day in 1979, was Peter Sellers' next–to–last movie before his death by heart attack in July 1980.

For awhile, I believed it was his last movie — that designation actually went to "The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu" — and that thought appealed to my sense of order somehow, that he had died after giving what was arguably his finest performance as Chance the gardener.

I suppose, if I had been Peter Sellers, I would have wanted the public to remember me for "Being There," not "The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu" — nor the somewhat bizarre posthumous performance he gave via archival footage in the last of the Pink Panther movies a couple of years later.

People do have a way of remembering the last thing a writer, an actor, a musician, an artist of any kind does before he/she dies — as if there is some kind of cosmic significance to it. Sometimes there is a touch of irony, given whatever happened shortly thereafter; other than that, though, I think people attach far too much to last words or last movies or last songs or whatever. And I am just as guilty as anyone else is, I guess. I try not to be, but I'm human and I do fall into that trap occasionally.

If it had been his last movie, though, "Being There" would have been a great way for Sellers to go out.

"Being There" was a comedy that equaled nearly every comedy Sellers ever made — and surpassed most. I say nearly because, frankly, it's darn near impossible to match what Sellers did in "Dr. Strangelove." I will go to my grave believing that.

Take that one out of the equation, though, and "Being There," with its subtle and understated symbolism, is, at the very least, equal to any other comedy Sellers ever made. Why do you suppose that was so?

On the occasion of Sellers' death, film critic Roger Ebert observed, "If Mr. Sellers was correct in saying that he had no personality of his own to portray, then perhaps his performance in 'Being There' was his most autobiographical."

I think Ebert was on to something there.

"It was a virtuoso performance," Ebert wrote, "made all the more difficult because Mr. Sellers had to sustain a single note throughout the movie."

That was pretty much what Ebert wrote when "Being There" hit the theaters.

"Being There," Ebert wrote in his review about seven months before Sellers' death, "begins with a cockamamie notion, it's basically one joke told for two hours, and it requires Peter Sellers to maintain an excruciatingly narrow tone of behavior in a role that has him onscreen almost constantly. It's a movie based on an idea, and all the conventional wisdom agrees that emotions, not ideas, are the best to make movies from. But 'Being There' pulls off its long shot and is one of the most confoundingly provocative movies of the year."

That sums it up pretty well.

The story was simple, really. A mentally handicapped individual, Chance (Sellers), had been living in the Washington, D.C., home of an older man who died — Chance grew up there, actually, but I don't recall that his relationship with the old man was ever explained — and Chance had to find a new place to live so he found himself outside in the world, which created plenty of fish–out–of–water scenarios — perhaps the best of which came when Chance was approached by a group of young thugs, apparently intent on causing trouble for someone. Chance, who had a TV remote control with him (everything he had learned, other than how to tend a garden, he had learned from watching TV), repeatedly clicked the remote while aiming it at the leader of the gang.

Not surprisingly, neither the gang leader nor any of his associates disappeared when Chance did that.

Chance was rescued from the streets of Washington by the wife (Shirley MacLaine) of an elderly, wealthy and ailing industrialist (an Oscar–winning performance by Melvyn Douglas) who also happened to be a friend and confidant of the incumbent president (Jack Warden).

Ebert was spot on when he wrote that "Being There" was based on the premise that Chance didn't understand that the world wasn't like the comfortable and predictable existence he had led before the old man's death. As Ebert observed, "life isn't television," and the only thing that Chance knew, besides television, was gardening. Listening to him talk was an exercise in doublespeak — actually, that should be doubleperception. When he spoke, people heard what they wanted to hear. "[H]is simple truisms from the garden," wrote Ebert, "are taken as audaciously simple metaphors."

Presto! A movement to nominate him for president was under way — and he hadn't even had to lift a finger. (I thought of Chance and "Being There" a lot when Ross Perot's nascent presidential campaign was being launched in 1992.)

"There are wonderful comic moments," Ebert wrote, "but they're never pushed so far that they strain the story's premise."

A satire that poked fun at all sorts of things, it rose to an entirely different level near the end when, after viewers had seen the political kingmakers promoting his candidacy while serving as pallbearers for Douglas, Chance was elevated to an altogether different — but clearly recognizable — realm.

Sellers received a Best Actor nomination for his performance. He lost, in the "Kramer vs. Kramer" wave, to Dustin Hoffman.

The Story of One Man's Family

"There's a lot of things I didn't understand, a lot of things I'd do different if I could. Just like I think there's a lot of things you wish you could change, but we can't. Some things once they're done can't be undone. My wife, my ex–wife, says that she loves Billy, and I believe she does, but I don't think that's the issue here."

Ted Kramer (Dustin Hoffman)

I remember many things about "Kramer vs. Kramer," which premiered on this date in 1979.

It was the first movie I ever reviewed for my school paper. (I'm not a film critic today so I suppose you can tell that didn't pan out.)

Looking back on it, it really wasn't much of a review that I wrote. I certainly hope I'm a better writer today than I was then, and I believe I am. (I'd just about have to be, wouldn't I?)

The thing that stood out for me then — and still stands out for me after having seen the movie again (for the umpteenth time) a few months ago — was its unflinching candor.

I knew many Ted Kramers when I was a kid. Most of the fathers of my friends were like Ted (Dustin Hoffman) — absorbed in their careers, left the child rearing to the mothers. Most of the mothers I knew did it without question. It's how they were all brought up. But one or two of the mothers I knew did what Joanna Kramer (Meryl Streep) did.

Joanna left her husband and son Billy (Justin Henry) — then, after 18 months, she came back into their lives wanting custody of her son.

Prior to her return, the focus had been on Ted's relationship with Billy and his evolution from a distant father into an involved one.

At first, he was a father who didn't really know the first thing about domestic life — until his wife left him, then he had to learn things like how to cook and how to shop. One day he was held up by traffic and consequently was late to pick up his son at a birthday party. Billy was peeved. "All the other mothers were here before you," he told his father.

Ted became a father who may have been more nervous about Billy's brief welcoming monologue at his school's Halloween pageant than Billy was.

He had no private life to speak of. Once, when he brought home a co–worker (JoBeth Williams), the co–worker had an unexpected encounter with Billy, who seemed not to notice that she was naked. After their brief hallway conversation, in which they established that they both liked fried chicken, Williams returned to the master bedroom and told Hoffman, "Kramer, I just met your son."

He already knew.

He was a father who, when his son fell from some playground apparatus and suffered a cut near his eye, ran through the streets of New York to the nearest hospital with his bleeding and crying child in his arms. It was a truly harrowing scene, and one of the finest cinematic examples of the love a father feels for his son.

I remember being struck once by the sharp contrast between Hoffman strolling self–assuredly through the streets of New York in "Midnight Cowboy" and the Hoffman who ran frantically to the hospital in "Kramer vs. Kramer" a decade later.

For nearly half a century, Hoffman has been one of America's elite acting talents.

In what may have been the most honest moment in the movie, Ted and Billy discussed Joanna's departure. Billy wanted to know if his mother left because he had been bad. Ted assured him that was not what happened.

It would have been a perfect opportunity to brainwash his son, to poison his mind and turn him against his mother, to tell him that things were different than they had really been. The audience knew how he had struggled to balance the demands of work and home, demands with which single mothers have long been familiar. And I got the sense that the audience — even many of the women in the audience — would not have held it against him if he had. Hasn't everyone — or nearly everyone — had his/her heart broken at some time?

But he didn't do that. I admired the character's integrity.

"She couldn't stand me, Billy," he confessed. "She didn't leave because of you. She left because of me."

Jane Alexander, former director of the National Endowment for the Arts, was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her performance as the sympathetic friend who started out as Joanna's confidante and became Ted's, but she lost the Oscar to Streep.

Hoffman took home Best Actor, and Robert Benton won his only Best Director Oscar. The movie won Best Picture. In all, "Kramer vs. Kramer" won five Oscars out of nine nominations. Well, I guess everyone knew it wouldn't be a sweep — unless Streep and Alexander tied, like Katharine Hepburn and Barbra Streisand did in 1968 — but that certainly was a solid showing.

Nevertheless, I was sorry that Henry didn't win. He lost to Melvyn Douglas ("Being There"), who did a wonderful job, too, but I really felt Henry did a great job of showing what divorce does to children — and how they tend to perceive things.

Adults often forget how things appear to children. Henry deserved some kind of recognition for reminding us.

Buffeted by the bitter winds of separation and divorce, Billy at first cried for his absent mother. By the end of the movie, he cried for his soon–to–be absent father. For a first–grader, he grew up a lot in between. Children don't perceive things as adults do. That should be obvious, but we adults frequently must be reminded of that. They have their own logic, and they reach conclusions in their own ways and in their own time.

Film critic Roger Ebert had a different take on it. "There is a child caught in the middle," he wrote, "but this isn't a movie about the plight of the kid but about the plight of the parents."

Ebert was right, of course. The movie wasn't examining Billy, at least not directly. It was examining his parents.

Considering the times in which we live, if someone decided to remake "Kramer vs. Kramer" today, I think it would be appropriate to examine things a little more from Billy's perspective.

Yes, I think Ebert was on to something when he observed that the movie, as its title implied, was about the parents, but divorce affects everyone in the family. Even if divorce is clearly the best long–term solution, it is often a tragedy for all concerned when it is being played out.

"Kramer vs. Kramer," as Ebert observed, was the kind of movie that could easily have demanded that viewers take sides. Whether a divorce — or a movie about a divorce — makes people take sides really depends upon what the people who are involved choose to do.

"[W]hat matters in a story like this (in the movies and in real life, too) isn't who's right or wrong," Ebert wrote, "but if the people involved are able to behave according to their own better nature. Isn't it so often the case that we're selfish and mean–spirited in just those tricky human situations that require our limited stores of saintliness?"

Couldn't have said it better myself.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

On the Brink of Nuclear War

I didn't see "The Missiles of October," the made–for–TV movie about the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, when it was first broadcast on ABC 40 years ago today.

I saw it years later when my American history teacher in high school showed it to my class on video tape. It was so long — more than two hours — that my memory is that she had to show it over three consecutive days.

It was also one of those historical dramatizations that made me wonder why it took so long for the project to become a reality. Yet, for a long time, it was the only dramatization (that I know of) of arguably the most significant event of the second half of the 20th century.

Now, having been a teacher myself, one of my first thoughts when I remember my teacher showing us that movie is that it was a great way to fill the class time without having to do too much prep work. I guess I really kind of felt that way at the time; as I have gotten older, and my perspective has changed, I see things differently. Few people really see how hard teachers work to prepare for classes, even ones in which a movie will fill the time. As a student, I didn't realize that — but, as the son and grandson of teachers, I should have known better.

At the time, though, I didn't dwell on that too much. I was absolutely mesmerized by the story, and I really think that is what my teacher was shooting for with as many of us as possible. Young people's fascination with video is not a new phenomenon. We were just as fascinated, and I like to think my classmates learned something from watching the movie. Many of them just weren't good at absorbing what they read. I've always felt bad for people like that. I have loved to read ever since I learned how.

I was already familiar with the story of the Cuban Missile Crisis. I had read a lot of contemporary history by the time I got to high school, and I had seen film clips of President Kennedy from that time. I knew what he sounded like. In fact, I knew what many of the Americans in the story sounded like, and I figured I could spot a false note without too much trouble. I have now seen "The Missiles of October" several times, and I have yet to spot a false note.

And if I could do it, people who could remember that time certainly could do it, too. This movie appeared on TV about 12 years after the crisis — so anyone who was at least 20 on this night in 1974 would have some kind of memory of it. Obviously, the older one was, the greater the chance that person could remember a lot more than a 20–year–old. And, of course, some kids are more mature than other kids so it is quite possible that people who were in high school in 1974 could remember things about the crisis.

That is the risk, I suppose, in trying to dramatize an actual event with which so many people are familiar. I guess it is comparable to the post–9/11 syndrome. Eventually, I imagine, there will be many movies made about that day — after it has faded from memory — but, by and large, most filmmakers have avoided the subject, presumably because their audiences would have vivid memories of the attacks and the public statements by prominent people like George W. Bush.

That may have been the reason why so few movies have been made about contemporary events; even so, it took another quarter–century or so for the next dramatization of the Cuban Missile Crisis to be made — and I felt 2000's "Thirteen Days" was inferior to "The Missiles of October."

I guess logic says contemporary events really should be the easiest to dramatize because of the availability of film of the actual events. All you gotta do is study the film, right? But that makes the assignment even more challenging — because people who remember events tend to be very critical of re–creations of those events, very demanding. And they can be very unforgiving of what they perceive as missteps.

So I have to applaud the courage of actors and directors who accept such a challenge. Seen in that light, Daniel Day–Lewis' Oscar–winning portrayal of Abraham Lincoln isn't quite as remarkable as most of us first thought, is it? After all, he didn't have to be compared to film clips of Lincoln delivering a speech — only portraits and a few primitive photographs.

Nor did he have to live up to 150–year–old memories. Lincoln's contemporaries are long gone.

But William Devane had to be compared to not merely generic John F. Kennedy footage but the actual footage of his public statements during the crisis — and the memories of those who lived through the crisis.

(Just think what a challenge it will be someday when an actor faces the assignment of playing Barack Obama in a movie about the first black president.)

I have seen the footage of President Kennedy speaking to the nation during the crisis, an event that was duplicated in "The Missiles of October." Devane delivered a flawless version of Kennedy's New England accent and even captured Kennedy's mannerisms. Devane has always looked enough like a Kennedy to have had his own branch on the family tree, but he didn't just look the part. He was Kennedy.

I'm not as familiar with voices of many of those who participated in the real–life drama. I know what most of them looked like, and the actors playing them certainly looked the part. I can only assume that they sounded authentic as well.

I am old enough to remember Bobby Kennedy, and I can say that Martin Sheen did a superb job. He had Bobby's unique accent down. It was so good he probably could have pulled off posing as Bobby on the phone.

I had seen Martin Sheen in other movies by the time I saw "The Missiles of October" so I never associated him with that particular movie. But I did have — and still do have — a strong mental connection between the movie and Devane's portrayal of JFK.

(Of course, part of that may be his portrayal of a Teddy Kennedy–like character on a short–lived primetime soap opera in the mid–'90s.)

I don't remember seeing him in anything before I saw "The Missiles of October." I've seen him in many things since — including episodes of TV's The West Wing in which he and Sheen had a peculiar kind of role reversal, with Sheen playing the president and Devane playing a Cabinet member.

Nothing was embellished in "The Missiles of October." The dialogue (and the movie was almost entirely dialogue) came from historical sources. The audience was reminded of that from the beginning.

There were no splashy special effects, no explosions (except for grainy, black–and–white archival footage of nuclear tests). Just a riveting story.

It probably wasn't exciting enough for modern audiences, but my high school history class got swept up in the story. Oh, sure, there were a few immature giggles in the classroom early on whenever someone on screen uttered the word damn — which happened from time to time and understandably so, given the circumstances — but once the students got over that juvenile response, they got into the story.

It's still hard to believe we came so close to nuclear war. Harder still to believe we actually managed to avoid it.

And that, I think, is the mark of how good "The Missiles of October" was. Even though I knew how the story ended, I was still on the edge of my seat, wondering how things would turn out.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

A 'Cactus Flower' in Full Bloom

Stephanie (Ingrid Bergman): Mr. Greenfield, please don't handle the instruments.

Harvey (Jack Weston): I was reading the other day, a dentist in New Jersey has topless nurses.

Stephanie: I didn't know you were interested in reading.

It was simply impossible to not like Goldie Hawn's character in "Cactus Flower," which premiered on this date in 1969.

She was so sweetly earnest, almost naive. There wasn't a deceitful bone in her body — which is probably why her relationship with Walter Matthau, playing a deceitful dentist, became so distasteful for her. That wasn't clear at first. Hawn and Matthau were having an affair. Hawn was led to believe Matthau was married with children. Turned out, though, that he was a bachelor; he just told women he had a family to avoid becoming too involved with them.

But Hawn's character had a strong sense of ethics. She wanted to be married, but she would not take another woman's man and she would not stand between a man and his children. If the relationship with Matthau continued, she would eventually violate those ethics so Matthau had to go.

But it was Hawn who apparently was on the way out when the movie began. She tried to kill herself, but a neighbor intervened — and it was when Matthau learned of the aborted suicide attempt that he realized how much he really cared for Hawn.

To save the relationship, Matthau needed a temporary wife so he turned to his dental assistant, played by Ingrid Bergman, who, as it turned out, had been nursing an infatuation with her boss for quite some time. Matthau told her he needed someone to pose as his wife and assure Hawn that the relationship was over and had been for awhile. Bergman resisted at first but eventually agreed to do it.

Bergman brought two little boys with her (I think they were her nephews in the story) to her meeting with Hawn and did everything she could to sell the idea that her "marriage" to Matthau was over, but Hawn was a tough interrogator. She had to see Bergman with the boyfriend she claimed to have — he was played by Jack Weston, one of Matthau's patients — before she was convinced.

You know, even though Bergman was in her 50s when she made "Cactus Flower," it seems ironic that someone as beautiful as Bergman was a few decades earlier — in "Casablanca" and "Gaslight" and "Joan of Arc" — and was still beautiful when she made "Cactus Flower" ended up portraying a presumably plain dental assistant. But she did it well.

Perhaps so well that she was inspired to insist, five years later, that she play possibly the plainest character in "Murder on the Orient Express" — for which she was rewarded with an Oscar.

Hawn did win an Oscar (Best Supporting Actress) for her performance in "Cactus Flower" — which, as I recall, surprised some people. Perhaps not so much because of the caliber of her competition — as always, the nominees were good but none seemed to strike observers as particularly inevitable — but because the public memory knew Hawn as the ditzy blonde on TV's Laugh–In.

Stereotypes can be powerful things, and sometimes they distract from the truth — in this case, that Hawn deserved the Oscar she received. Fortunately, the Academy's voters weren't distracted from the truth.

And the truth — as it so often is — was complicated.

Hawn has never been the greatest actress who walked the earth. But she was convincing — and she was not nominated for Best Actress Who Ever Lived. She was so convincing that observers struggled to differentiate between Goldie Hawn the person and the airhead she played on Laugh–In. Like Suzanne Somers a decade later, she was much smarter than the characters she played.

"Cactus Flower" was filled with unexpected surprises — not unlike the cactus that Bergman kept on her desk.

One infrequently sees a flowering cactus, but it does happen, even in the most inhospitable of environments. The cactus that Bergman's character kept on her desk didn't bloom often, but, when it did, it was a sight to see.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Portraying Progress in the South

Miss Daisy (Jessica Tandy): How are you?

Hoke (Morgan Freeman): I'm doing the best I can.

Miss Daisy: Me, too.

Hoke: Well, I reckon that's about all there is to it.

"Driving Miss Daisy," which was shown for the first time on this day in 1989, was a truly special movie about human relationships. Roger Ebert observed that it was "a film of great love and patience, telling a story that takes 25 years to unfold, exploring its characters as few films take the time to do."


It reminded me in many ways of the South in which I grew up. My grandmother was a lot like Miss Daisy — not nearly as wealthy (in fact, you couldn't call my grandmother wealthy at all, but she lived comfortably) nor was she Jewish (she probably would have bristled at that comparison), but still I saw many similarities. My grandmother's generation came of age when the so–called "N word" wasn't used so much as a slur but more as a description. What made it disparaging was any other words that one might say with it, but I never got the sense from my grandmother or her contemporaries that they meant anything negative, not even by implication, when they used it.

I'm not a linguist, but I've noticed in my life that Southerners seem to be more prone than most to give words their own pronunciations that kind of sound like the original words ... but aren't. Not really. It doesn't really seem to be an inability to pronounce the words correctly. I'm not really sure why, but, in a Southerner's hands (or, rather, mouth), a word like nuclear is frequently pronounced nuke–U–ler (George W. Bush took a public beating when he said it that way, but he was hardly the first Southerner I heard pronounce that word that way). A word like Massachusetts becomes Massa–TOO–shetts (some people with whom I went to school and who I respect to this day pronounce that word that way). Theatre becomes thee–AY–ter. And so on.

Actually, I've always thought of it as more of a country dialect than a Southern one. Maybe that's because the town in which I grew up was more rural than urban. (Things have changed there, as I have mentioned here before.)

But as I've gotten older I've come to think of it as linguistically lazy.

Not all Southerners speak that way, of course, but many do — and you can point out to them that they are mispronouncing words, but they will be completely unconcerned about it — which drives me nuts.

I put words like the "N word" in that category, at least in regard to its origin and my grandmother's generation's use of it. They grew up at a time when the socially accepted word for black Americans was Negro. As I understand it, the word black was the "N word" of that time. I find that interesting because in at least one language (Portuguese), the word negro actually does mean black. It replaced the word colored as the preferred word. (For awhile there — and I mean a very short while for it seemed to fall from public favor rather quickly — the preferred term was Afro American, then black was in favor for a long time before African–American became fashionable.)

My grandmother and her friends used the "N word" the way Mark Twain used it in "Huck Finn" — neither good nor bad unless so designated by the use of additional words. While it probably always had a disparaging angle, it seems to me that the "N word" only became entirely derogatory sometime in the mid–20th century.

But, anyway, Southerners really do seem to have this tendency to shorten words. The word Indian, for example, was often pronounced Injun in the 19th– and 20th–century South, and I honestly believe that is how the word Negro evolved into the "N word." I know that, while my grandmother and her friends used the "N word" frequently, it was intended as a description, not a slur. It was an adjective much of the time, and even when it was a noun, it usually wasn't meant disparagingly.

Of course, that doesn't mean that they didn't believe that there was some sort of racial order in the world — in which whites occupied the highest rung and all the other races were beneath them. In fact, I'm quite sure they did. They didn't really articulate it; they just accepted it as the way things were (and probably with an unexpressed sense of gratitude that they had been born on that higher rung — but probably without any sense of indignation that such a caste system should exist at all in America).

I have often wondered what my grandmother and her friends — or Miss Daisy — would have thought of a world in which the American president was black. Would they have tried to change their language to fit a new world? Would they have resisted? Or would they have struck some sort of personal compromise, using politically correct language in public and language they were raised with in private?

I'm sure they would have become defensive if it was even hinted that they might be prejudiced — just as Miss Daisy did. But they lived in a South that really doesn't exist anymore. The blacks in the movie — Morgan Freeman and Esther Rolle — held positions in Southern society that were consistent with what I observed as a child. They drove cars, and they cleaned homes. Some cooked meals and others carried trays at restaurants and country clubs. Some carried bags at airports and train stations. Their children and grandchildren went to schools that were separate from the ones the white children attended.

You might think from what I have written that the "N word" played a major role in "Driving Miss Daisy." In fact, it did not. I may be mistaken, but I really don't think the "N word" was ever used in "Driving Miss Daisy." But the initially segregated society and the evolving attitudes about race were clear to see without it.

Miss Daisy (Jessica Tandy) was an elderly, well–to–do woman when the story began, a widow who had a black woman (Rolle) doing the cooking and cleaning for her (Rolle made something of a career of playing a servant — as TV's Florida Evans). Miss Daisy's son (Dan Aykroyd) wanted to hire someone to drive her wherever she needed to go, and he offered the job to Freeman.

Miss Daisy didn't think she needed a driver, but that was beside the point.

"You'd be working for me," Aykroyd said. "She can say anything she likes, but she can't fire you."

And, while she didn't always say so directly, she made it clear that she didn't want Freeman around and that she had made up her mind that she didn't like him. But he hung around anyway and, eventually, won her over for trips around town. That evolved into longer trips. A bond had formed.

By the end of the movie, she told Freeman he was her best friend. In the context of their history, that was quite an admission for her to make. I have long thought it was symbolic of the genuine shift in racial attitudes that I have witnessed in the South in my lifetime. As enlightened as the rest of the country likes to think of itself and as backward as the rest of the country likes to tell itself that the South is, the truth is that the South has made remarkable strides in half a century.

And "Driving Miss Daisy" was mainly about a time that preceded that half–century. Seen in that context, the inescapable conclusion is that the South has far outpaced the rest of the country. It can be fairly argued that the South had farther to go than the rest of the country — but it still doesn't receive adequate credit for what it has achieved.

I remember watching the Oscars the following spring. "Driving Miss Daisy" had nine nominations, and it seemed likely to be a big night for the movie. It was — but not as big as you might expect.

Deservedly, Tandy won Best Actress for her performance, and the movie won Best Picture (but director Bruce Beresford wasn't even nominated). It also won Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Makeup. Four wins ain't bad.

Freeman was nominated for Best Actor but lost to Daniel Day–Lewis ("My Left Foot"). Aykroyd was nominated for Best Supporting Actor but lost to Denzel Washington (for "Glory"). Bruno Rubeo and Crispian Sallis were nominated for Best Art Direction (but lost to Anton Furst and Peter Young for "Batman"). Elizabeth McBride was nominated for Best Costume Design (but lost to Phyllis Dalton for "Henry V"). Mark Warner was nominated for Best Film Editing (but lost to David Brenner and Joe Hutshing for "Born on the Fourth of July").

I suppose it's a matter of opinion whether the awards that went to others were the right choices or not. Awards are like Top 10 lists — they were made to spark heated discussions, and the Oscars have a history of rewarding some and ignoring others that most critics and moviegoers would not.

I just felt "Driving Miss Daisy" deserved more than it received.