Sunday, August 31, 2014

A Familiar Tale

Jerry (Fredric March): I can't tell you how often recently I've found myself thinking about dying. 'Dying' to you is something that happens to old relatives, but it's a very intimate business to me. I don't expect you to understand this, but in those moments when I'm suddenly impossible to live with, that's probably what's at the bottom of my bad temper.

"Middle of the Night," which hit U.S. theaters on this day in 1959, was a reminder that there really isn't anything new under the sun — and it reminded viewers of that in many ways.

Fredric March, nearing the end of his career, played Jerry, a recent widower. He was lonely so he threw himself into his clothing business to keep his mind off such things.

Kim Novak played one of his employees, Betty, a recently divorced secretary. She married too young, mostly because everyone else was getting married, and discovered quickly that she had made a mistake.

They sort of fell into each other's arms.

How many Jerrys and Bettys have I known in my life? Quite a few, it seems. They come in all shapes and sizes.

They weren't always dealing with the emotional baggage of a deceased spouse, as Jerry was. More often, they were coming off a bad marriage, like Betty was — or, at least, a bad relationship.

But sometimes, they were trapped in unhappy marriages and found some comfort with each other.

Sometimes the relationship was between an employer and an employee. Sometimes they were co–workers. Sometimes they were neighbors or classmates.

Sometimes there was a genuine relationship; sometimes it was fake and coerced.

Sometimes there was a considerable age difference, as there was in "Middle of the Night." Jerry was 56. Betty was 24. (In reality, March was 61, and Novak was 26.)

It was an Everyperson story.

And if all those minefields were navigated successfully, there was still the matter of relatives. "Middle of the Night" threw that into the mix as well.

Jerry, although widowed, had a sister living with him and a daughter living nearby. Both were deeply involved in his life and worried about him — and felt increasingly alienated from him the deeper he got into his relationship with Betty.

Initially, Jerry brought some typing work to Betty's home and was drawn into her personal life. His interest and attention kindled something in Betty, too. Jerry struck her as fatherly, and she reacted positively to his encouragement.

But he was falling in love with her, and she wasn't as interested in him as he was in her. He protested that it was "the age thing," and Betty acknowledged that it probably was — but I felt she was much closer to the truth when she admitted that she didn't really know what love was, that she might have been more likely to fall for him if he had clearly been "on the make."

Perhaps against her better judgment, Betty acquiesced to Jerry's rather timid advances (at least compared to those a woman could expect from a man who was "on the make"); for a time, they were in a relationship together. At that point it became a fascinating character study; the two sort of reversed roles. Betty, who had been the vulnerable and sort of needy one at first, became the independent one who really didn't need the relationship, at least not as much as Jerry did. Jerry, who had been the strong yet empathetic one at first, became the needy one who couldn't function without the relationship. It brought up all his loneliness issues, all his abandonment issues, all the things he had repressed since his wife died.

As Jerry feared, it was the "age thing," at least to an extent. In such cases, doesn't it always seem that the older person is the last one to see what was so obvious to everyone else? March did a splendid job of portraying a man in that kind of dream state.

It occurs to me: If the movie had been made a decade later, it might have been promoted as a creative take on the generation gap of which so much was said in those days.

Jerry suffered when he learned that Betty, who had said she wanted to avoid a relationship before "someone" was hurt, had been seeing her ex.

He was playing a game he hadn't played in decades — and the rules were different than he remembered. He was frustrated, and it boiled over into other areas of his life.

Betty was scared by the negative side of his personality that emerged after she agreed to marry him. She was a decent enough young woman, but she was hardly a saint. When he lavished her with gifts, Betty told him she felt "like a tramp." Her mother, self–absorbed and indifferent, was of no help; nor was her mother's friend.

As a young man, Jerry may have been the one to whom exes turned for what is known today as a "booty call." This time, he found himself on the other side of that fence — and he didn't care for it. He broke up with Betty and went home to his sister, who was not happy that he was so sad, but she was glad the relationship appeared to be over.

In the end, though, Jerry realized that he felt alive when he was with Betty. "There weren't enough hours in the day for me," he said near the end before reconciling with her — and the on again, off again wedding appeared to be on again.

That left me wondering several things: Will they find happiness? Will the daughter allow Betty to inherit Jerry's money? Will his sister give up the Upper West Side apartment and move back to Brooklyn? Will Betty's mom and friend stop undermining her? And can Betty stop having sex with her ex?

There was no sequel so those questions were never addressed.

But I think I know how they would have been answered. I've seen this story played out before — in real life. And in some other movies, too.

As he did with his TV script for "Marty" a few years earlier, screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky expanded his original story into the big–screen version of "Middle of the Night."

They were similar kinds of stories, really.

The results weren't quite as astonishing. "Middle of the Night" received no Oscar nominations whereas "Marty" won Best Picture.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

'Mary Poppins' Was a Musical Moneymaker

"Kindly do not attempt to cloud the issue with facts."

George Banks (David Tomlinson)

Fifty years ago, it was still possible to win an Oscar for acting in a musical that was, essentially, written for children.

Julie Andrews proved that, winning Best Actress for her performance in "Mary Poppins" over some formidable competition: Anne Bancroft, Sophia Loren, Debbie Reynolds and Kim Stanley.

"Mary Poppins" was nominated for 13 Oscars in all and won five. Few musicals have had the kind of influence on the culture that "Mary Poppins" had. For years after they saw "Mary Poppins" at the theaters, kids everywhere were singing "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," "A Spoonful of Sugar" and "Chim Chim Cher–ee" as effortlessly as any of the older, more traditional (and, perhaps, in some quarters, better known) songs of childhood.

My family had the soundtrack, and my brother and I listened to it over and over. Even though the movie had been away from the big screens for years. Surely, we weren't the only ones!

Just about every child must have recognized Mary Poppins with her trademark umbrella, especially when she was descending over the London skyline. It's kind of hard to forget a thing like that.

In the movie, the enchanting Mary Poppins was retained to be the nanny for two children who had a reputation for running off nannies. But things just had a way of working out for Mary Poppins.

So she came to work in the Banks household — the family patriarch, the aptly named Mr. Banks, was a banker. Turned out Mary was a close friend of a jack–of–all–trades by the name of Bert (Dick Van Dyke). Bert happened to be in her neighborhood, and their interplay suggested that they had been friends for a long time. Long enough, anyway, for Mary Poppins' abrupt arrivals and departures to come as no surprise to Bert. Apparently, he'd seen it all before.

I never had the opportunity to see "Mary Poppins" on the big screen. I saw it on my family's TV, and I loved the whole movie, but my favorite scene involved Ed Wynn as Uncle Albert who floated in the air when he laughed.

Uncle Albert loved to laugh; appropriately, his song was "I Love to Laugh."

The songs in "Mary Poppins" were all first rate. "Chim Chim Cher–ee," sung by Bert as a chimney sweep (one of several jobs he had during the movie), won the Oscar for Best Song.

It's been a long time since I have seen "Mary Poppins." In fact, I probably haven't seen it all the way through since I was a child. But even now, when I see a clip of a song, the lyrics come easily to my mind, summoned forth from wherever they were buried in my brain. I couldn't have recited the lyrics a few minutes before, but hearing the music and seeing the images brings it all back.

That was the magic of "Mary Poppins," which was the jewel of Walt Disney Studios when Disney was alive. It was the top moneymaker of 1965, bigger than "The Sound of Music," which also starred Andrews, bigger than "Goldfinger," bigger than "My Fair Lady."

Of course, those were the days when movies could — and did — stay at theaters for months, even years.

No one could blend live action with animation the way Disney could, and that was the kind of thing that made money for Disney over and over again — but never quite as well as in "Mary Poppins."

However, I would never underestimate Andrews' contributions to the movie's success.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

'Wagons East' Was Candy's Least

"Wagons East" premiered 20 years ago today, a fact that undoubtedly would not be noteworthy if not for one thing — it was John Candy's final movie role. He died while it was being filmed.

"It is possible he never appeared in a worse [movie]," wrote Roger Ebert. "The producers claim he finished all his key scenes before his unexpected death on the location, but that's hard to believe because his character is an undefined, vague figure and isn't even required to be funny most of the time.

"That's easy in this film,"
Ebert observed, "which is one of the least amusing comedies I've ever seen."

I haven't seen all of his movies, but I feel safe in saying "Wagons East" was Candy's least in every sense of the word.

Clearly, I'm in Ebert's camp on this. I didn't see the movie at the movie theater. I saw it on a rented video with some friends of mine. There were occasional polite (even nervous) chuckles but no real belly laughs, you know?

Boy, was I glad I didn't blow a lot more money just to see it on the big screen.

I suppose the humor — if it can be called that — had its audience. My best guess was that it was trying to duplicate "Blazing Saddles," but it achieved only a faint copy at best.

There were a lot of jokes about gays and hookers, physical humor, pratfalls, that kind of stuff. No humor that required any real thought — to execute or comprehend. We get it, I wanted to say. It just isn't funny.

The premise was that a group of settlers had decided to return East, and they hired Candy to be their wagonmaster. Comedian Richard Lewis played a banker who was tired of being robbed in the lawless old West. John C. McGinley played a gay bookseller. Ellen Greene, who first drew attention in "Little Shop of Horrors," played a hooker.

You get the idea, I am sure, what kind of folks made up the wagon party — and, consequently, the kind of humor it inspired.

As I say, it just wasn't funny.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Follow the Yellow Brick Road

"There's no place like home; there's no place like home; there's no place like home."

Dorothy (Judy Garland)
(#23 on the
American Film Institute's list of the Top 100 movie quotes)

(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 sixth of those 10 movies to hit the theaters.)
I don't know how old I was the first time I saw "The Wizard of Oz." Probably 5 or 6. I do know that it was long after it made its general theatrical debut on this date in 1939. My mother and father might have seen it at the theater — they were children then — but maybe not. It wasn't a blockbuster in 1939. That came later.

I don't remember much about that experience — except that the winged monkeys scared me enough to give me bad dreams for several nights.

I still think of that whenever I sit down to watch "The Wizard of Oz." I thought about it back in February when I watched it during Turner Classic Movies' annual salute to the Academy Awards, "31 Days of Oscar."

And I concluded that there are some movies that are so closely linked to childhood that every time we see them, we feel almost as if we are children again. "The Wizard of Oz" is such a movie — for me, anyway.

See, there are parts of that movie that I appreciate as an adult that escaped me as a child; even so, I always feel like a child when I watch it — at least a little bit and for a little while. I suppose that is part of the movie's enduring magic.

I'm sure I don't have to recite the plot for you. Surely, everyone has seen "The Wizard of Oz" at least once — probably more than that — so I may simply refer to specific scenes. Warning: This will not, in any way, be written sequentially. I probably will jump around a lot. (So hang on. It's apt to be a bumpy ride.)

Anyway, when I watched it most recently, I found myself questioning some parts of the story — and I had to remind myself that it is, after all, a children's story. It would help if everything made perfect sense — but this is a fantasy. By definition, a fantasy doesn't make sense. Things happen in fantasies that simply do not happen in real life — like monkeys with wings.

The movie version of "The Wizard of Oz" is so familiar that the characters need no introduction, do they?

"You are under the unfortunate delusion that simply because you run away from danger, you have no courage. You're confusing courage with wisdom."

Wizard of Oz (Frank Morgan)

Oh, and before I forget ...

Dorothy said, "Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore."

She did not say, "Toto, I don't think we're in Kansas anymore," which is how people have been misquoting it for decades.

(Wow, it feels good to get that off my chest. Kind of like knowing that Bogart actually said, "Play it, Sam," not "Play it again, Sam," in "Casablanca" but not saying anything about it.)

While we're on the subject of "The Wizard of Oz" trivia, as I said earlier, the movie wasn't successful in its first theatrical run, earning about what it cost to make. But it got in the black about 10 years later when it was brought back to theaters, and its annual airings on TV, which began in the 1950s, were moneymakers.

And this doesn't qualify as trivia, exactly, but I'd like to mention Billie Burke, who played Glinda the Good Witch of the North, Dorothy's defender in Oz. Her role didn't require her to speak many lines, but it is the role for which she is remembered — even though she is hardly ever mentioned.

She was 55 the day "The Wizard of Oz" premiered. I would never have guessed that.

For awhile, I worked in an office that encouraged employees to wear costumes for Halloween. It became a competitive thing, and groups of employees would come up with themes. Sometimes the costumes were very elaborate, very detailed. It was quite entertaining.

One year, a group came dressed like the protagonists from "The Wizard of Oz" — the Cowardly Lion, the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman and Dorothy (carrying a basket with a little stuffed dog doll in it). Everyone knew who they were, and they were the unanimous winners of the office contest.

As universal as those characters are, it's hard to believe that "The Wizard of Oz" was a big disappointment at the box office. And that iconic foursome might have been quite different.

Judy Garland is so closely associated with the role of Dorothy that most people probably can't imagine anyone else playing it. But it is my understanding that she was the second choice. The first choice was Shirley Temple, but she dropped out of the project. In hindsight, it's hard for me to imagine Shirley Temple singing "Over the Rainbow" as well as Garland — although it would be a mistake to assume that whoever played Dorothy would sing "Over the Rainbow." It was almost dropped several times.

She wasn't the first actress to play Dorothy, either. There were three other versions made before hers.

Buddy Ebsen was slated to play the Tin Woodman, but he had an allergic reaction to the metallic makeup he had to wear to play the part, and he was replaced by Jack Haley.

W.C. Fields was the first choice to play the wizard, but MGM couldn't meet his demands. He was replaced by Frank Morgan.

(An interesting piece of trivia about Morgan: The somewhat shabby coat he wore in the movie was a thrift–store discovery. It was later determined that the coat actually did belong at one time to L. Frank Baum, the author of "The Wizard of Oz."

(Apparently, his name was stitched inside it, and his widow confirmed that it did, indeed, belong to him.)

I notice little details now that I didn't notice when I was younger. Strangely, I never really noticed the winged monkeys flying away after grabbing Dorothy and Toto. Maybe I blocked that part out. Maybe I was too traumatized by my first glimpse of the winged monkeys to process their departure.

In general, though, I am impressed with the movie every time I see it. Color was still rare in the movies in 1939. Out of 10 Best Picture nominees that year, only two — "The Wizard of Oz" and "Gone With the Wind" — used it. And "The Wizard of Oz" only used it part of the time, bookending the color segment with two black–and–white segments.

That was a creative way to draw the line between the real world and the dream world. Dorothy's real world really was varying shades of gray as nearly as I could tell. Her dream world came alive with vibrant colors — the Yellow Brick Road, the Emerald City, ruby slippers — even though I've heard it said that we don't dream in color.

To be able to imagine the color scheme of a world that is not your own is a rare gift, it seems to me — whether in dreams or conscious thought.

I don't know if that's true. I honestly don't know if I dream in color or not.

Economically, the decision to use color is fairly easy to comprehend. Because of my experience working for newspapers, I know that the color process was — and, to an extent, still is — more expensive than black and white in print, and I'm sure that was the case when movies were being made in the 1930s and 1940s. It became more commonplace in both pursuits when it became more feasible.

In 1939, though, its very rarity made it an effective way to differentiate between the real and the fantasy.

I was unaware of the color part of it when I saw it the first time. My parents had just bought our family's very first TV. It was a black–and–white portable, and it was our only TV for many years so the color part of the movie looked black and white to me. I probably didn't see the color part in color until we got our first color TV.

The first few times I saw the movie, the Yellow Brick Road looked gray. So did the Emerald City and Dorothy's ruby slippers.

And I completely missed out on what has come to be one of my favorite sequences in the movie, the Horse of a Different Color that drew the coach carrying Dorothy and her friends into the city.

It's a subtle thing, really. The horse is a different color with each shift in the camera angle, but no fuss is made over it. It is hardly mentioned, except for a point when the coachman tells Dorothy, "That's the horse of a different color you've 'eard tell of."

The last time I watched "The Wizard of Oz," I counted the horse's color changes. There were six.

When I first saw the movie, those color changes probably appeared as varying shades of gray on our black–and–white set. I wonder what I must have thought ... if, indeed, I thought anything ... about that.

I never felt that I got the full effect of "The Wizard of Oz" the first time I saw it. People who first saw it in movie theaters in 1939 saw that horse changing color, witnessed the brilliance of the Emerald City and the Yellow Brick Road.

It was all black and white to me, and it wasn't the same. By the time I saw the horse of a different color — in color — it was anticlimactic to me.

In all, "The Wizard of Oz" was nominated for six Oscars and won two — Best Original Score and Best Song ("Over the Rainbow").

Monday, August 18, 2014

Lombard Was Too Screwy to Be Accepted in Soap Opera Roles

No wonder Clark Gable fell in love with Carole Lombard. She was a real live wire.

She was bright and pretty and vivacious. Professionally, she was the highest–paid actress of the late 1930s and is often mentioned as having defined the screwball comedy genre. (I don't know if that was completely true. There were a few other actresses who excelled in that genre, too.)

But by this point in her career, apparently, she was trying to show her range as an actress. Earlier in 1939, she played a dramatic role in "Made For Each Other" opposite Jimmy Stewart. Seventy–five years ago today, she appeared in "In Name Only" as a woman in love with a married man (Cary Grant) who couldn't get a divorce from his wife.

It was a more leisurely approach to film production than Lombard took only a few years earlier. In the early '30s, it wasn't uncommon for her to be in five or six movies a year. Perhaps the slower pace allowed her the freedom to spread her wings in search of an Oscar.

And that — winning an Oscar — seems to have been her goal at this stage of her career. If she hadn't died in an airplane crash at the tender age of 33 (while raising money for America's World War II effort), who knows? She might well have won one — at least one.

But she received her only Oscar nomination in 1936 for "My Man Godfrey." "In Name Only" didn't bring her a nomination, but its soap opera–esque plot probably seemed like it might have been the road map to a future statuette.

In 1939, though, audiences didn't seem to be ready for a new Carole Lombard — at least, one who was new to the audiences she so often entertained in her screwball comedies of the '30s.

She was certainly a different actress in the eyes of moviegoers who went to see "In Name Only" 75 years ago. Gone was the wisecracking actress with her rapid–fire rejoinders moviegoers had come to know.

In her place was a more serious actress in more serious roles. In "In Name Only," she played a young widow raising a daughter; she encountered Cary Grant on horseback while she was fishing. She wasn't really fishing, she explained, just using the fishing motion for exercise.

One thing led to another and, before you knew it, they were sharing her lunch. She had plenty — six sandwiches and a piece of cake. "I have a big appetite," she explained.

And, again, before you knew it, they were in love. Sometimes it happens that quickly, I suppose. (Well, not to me, but that really isn't the point. This is, after all, the movies, and you can't dawdle over deciding whether you're in love in the movies.)

Of course, there were a few obstacles to overcome. The most significant was Grant's wife (Kay Francis), who made it difficult for the viewers to decide how they felt, I suppose. From the first time they saw the movie, viewers must have struggled with that. I did the first time I saw it. Still do when I see it again. At times, Francis evoked empathy. At others, hostility. Talk about a juicy role.

It really was an intriguing performance. Her character was the kind of manipulative individual nearly all of us encounter at some time in our lives — the kind of person who, if caught telling a lie, will tell an even bigger one to confuse the issue.

It was a delicious part to play. Francis' self–absorbed character would change her mind on things at the drop of a hat — like whether to give Grant the divorce he needed so he could be free to marry Lombard.

She kept the audience guessing. At times, she seemed like a reasonable person — but then she seemed to remember what her true interests were, and she became a completely different individual.

Francis and Lombard had a confrontation in the hospital, where Grant's character was recovering from pneumonia. In that scene, Lombard's character came across as good and caring; she wanted Grant to recover, even if that meant she had to leave his life forever. She was generous and self–sacrificing, the kind of character the Oscars have always liked to honor.

Francis, on the other hand, was clearly self–centered. Francis' character had fooled everyone, including Grant's wealthy parents, and she told Lombard she intended to get what she could from them.

She didn't realize, as she was saying that, that her in–laws were standing right behind her. They heard every word, and her father–in–law told his daughter–in–law — of whom he had been supportive — to her stunned face that she would get nothing from him. Then the parents, with Lombard, left Francis behind and the audience watched as the door slowly closed on Francis in much the same way the door closed on Diane Keaton at the end of "The Godfather" almost 35 years later.

Lombard's attempts at dramatic performances enjoyed some moderate success, but, eventually, she returned to comedic roots in her final movies, and audiences seemed to be relieved, coming back to the theaters to see her. It was too bad that she got typecast like that in the public's mind. I thought she had a lot of talent — she was great in the screwball comedies, but she could give dramatic performances, too.

Maybe she just needed a script that rose above soap opera predictability.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Uncle Buck's in the House

I really miss John Candy.

He's been gone 20 years now, and, while I didn't care for most of the movies he made in his last years, he did make some movies that I enjoyed, movies that made me laugh.

One of them was John Hughes' "Uncle Buck," which premiered 25 years ago today.

Buck was the black sheep of the family, I guess. He was jobless, living in an apartment and making a living by wagering on fixed horse races. But, when his sister–in–law's father had a heart attack, he was the only one to whom they could turn since they were in a new city. They had three children who needed someone to look after them while their parents were with their grandfather in another state.

"He's crude. He's crass. He's family," the movie posters declared. What the heck? It was an emergency.

Jean Louisa Kelly played the oldest daughter, Tia, a teen who did not like having to answer to her uncle — mostly, I suppose, because he didn't get along with her boyfriend, Bug.

"First or last?" Buck asked when he heard the boy's name.

"First," Tia replied.

"What's his last name?" Buck asked. "Spray?"

If you think you've seen Kelly before, you probably have. She played Rowena, the gifted high school singer, in "Mr. Holland's Opus," and she has made quite a few TV appearances.

You're more likely, though, to be familiar with the work of Macaulay Culkin, the actor who played her younger brother. Culkin became famous when "Home Alone" hit the theaters the next year.

Their younger sister was played by Gaby Hoffmann. She probably wasn't familiar yet to audiences in 1989. "Uncle Buck" was her second movie. She made her movie debut four months earlier as Kevin Costner's daughter in "Field of Dreams." She had a part in "Sleepless in Seattle," and she's been involved in more projects as she's gotten older.

Uncle Buck wasn't perfect. He made his share of mistakes, but he had a heart of gold.

I wish I had had an Uncle Buck when I was little. Uncle Buck was the kind of guy who made a kid feel special on his birthday. He made a huge stack of pancakes — and punched out a clown for showing up drunk.

He cared. He might have had an unorthodox way of showing it, but he did care.

Buck's brother and sister–in–law really weren't important characters in the story. They were necessary as props for the story, but, once the audience had seen them and knew they existed, it really wasn't important for them to be around much anymore — and they weren't. Buck's girlfriend (Amy Madigan) and his brother's neighbor (Laurie Metcalf), on the other hand, were important to the story.
"Marcie Dahlgren–Frost. Dahlgren is my maiden name, Frost is my married name. I'm single again, but I never bothered to remove the Frost. And I get compliments on the hyphen."

Marcie (Laurie Metcalf)

Kelly's character, who already resented her parents for uprooting the family, tried to cause problems for her uncle by making Madigan believe he was having an affair with Metcalf.

But everything was resolved in the end. The younger kids loved their Uncle Buck almost from the start, and the teen gave him her grudging respect.

The audience did, too, and I have to think Hughes had a lot to do with that. He worked with Candy maybe half a dozen times and always seemed to bring out a sympathetic side to his characters. Through the course of his career, Candy always seemed to be better suited for supporting roles where he could be lovable. When cast in leading roles, inevitably he seemed to be the joker.

Except when Hughes was directing.

Other than "JFK," which gave Candy a chance to showcase his versatility as an actor within an ensemble cast, I don't think I was especially fond of any of the movies he made in the last five years of his life.

With the exception of "Uncle Buck."

Friday, August 15, 2014

The Start of Woodstock

It's been a strange week.

Forty–five years ago today, the Woodstock music festival began in New York. I had planned to focus on that — and yet, all week, my thoughts have been on Robin Williams.

I wrote about the Woodstock anniversary extensively five years ago so I don't need to spend a lot of time on it this year — never intended to, really — except to note the anniversary.

But I've been thinking about Williams, who had just turned 18 and recently finished high school when the festival was held. Did he go to it? I doubt it. He lived in Chicago and Detroit when he was very young, but the family moved to California when he was 16, and I doubt that he went all the way across the country for a music festival — although he may have. Nearly half a million people showed up; it wouldn't surprise me if a few came from the West Coast.

Considering his age, I'm sure the movie and the three–record album were influences on him, as they were for just about everyone else in his age group, even if he wasn't there.

Swami Satchidananda Saraswati opened the festival with its keynote address (I guess you could call it that). That probably sounds odd, given that everyone who was there came to hear the music.

Probably 99% of the weekend — which stretched into the following Monday — was devoted to music from all sorts of performers (at least, when it wasn't raining) and the festival ended memorably, with Jimi Hendrix giving an amazing performance to a much–depleted audience.

But the festival began, before Saraswati's remarks, with Richie Havens.

His performance of "Freedom" still sends chills down my spine — and I have seen it countless times and heard it even more.

He played for a couple of hours late that August afternoon.

There are other memorable moments from the festival, too. I wrote about many of them five years ago.

Woodstock launched some careers, as Katie McLaughlin writes for It was the first public appearance for Santana and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.

It has been said by some that Woodstock was the last gasp of the '60s, and there may be some truth in that. Certainly it was the last gasp of the communal '60s when the emphasis was on peace and brotherhood.

Why was that? I have asked — and I have been told it was because virtually the only drugs being used that weekend were pot and acid, neither of which brings out the violent and aggressive sides in people like alcohol and cocaine.

Is that the reason? I don't know. At least one person was using heroin that weekend, and he overdosed. Another person died of a burst appendix, and still another was in a sleeping bag and was run over by a vehicle so the weekend did not pass without incident but there were no fights. Lots of sex, as McLaughlin writes, but no fights. Hundreds of thousands of kids, strangers to nearly everyone there, spent the weekend together in peace and harmony.

And then, of course, there was Jimi Hendrix, who closed out the show on Monday morning. About half the crowd had left by that time. The ones who left early missed what may have been the most memorable performance of all. Well, they released a double CD of his show 25 years after the fact.

It was an innocent time, but it was losing its innocence. Only a week earlier, the Manson family had committed seven horrific murders in two consecutive nights.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Death of a Funny Man

"Comedy can be a cathartic way to deal with personal trauma."

Robin Williams
Parade magazine
September 2013

I heard about Robin Williams' death on the radio when I was driving home late this afternoon. Like just about everyone else, I was stunned by the news.

And then I started thinking about it, and I wondered why I was stunned. Why are we all stunned when we hear that someone famous has died — whether by his own hand, as this death appears to be, or by some other cause? Celebrities really aren't any different from anyone else. They feel pleasure and pain. They get sick, and they die — just like ordinary folks you never met.

For some strange reason, I suppose we believe they will live forever. Of course, they don't.

People were shocked when Elvis died and when Michael Jackson died. They were shocked when Princess Di was killed in a car crash in a Paris tunnel. All three — as well as other famous people, like John Belushi — died young, younger than Williams. Kurt Cobain was much younger than Williams when he died by his own hand.

Sometimes they do take their own lives, you know, just like some ordinary folks. Some people have a hard time with that. Celebrities have everything the rest of us can only dream about, don't they? What reason do they have to kill themselves?

Depression and suicide don't respect fame or fortune. I've known some people who took their own lives. The fathers of two my boyhood friends killed themselves — one was quite a bit older than Williams, the other was quite a bit younger. The brother of one of my closest friends took his own life.

The only thing that separates the famous from the ordinary is that they did whatever it was that they did in full view of the world. Ordinary folks don't have audiences judging their every move during a working day. Life isn't "The Truman Show."

Otherwise, I heard someone say on the radio, the famous are no different from the rest of us — except for the fact that most have money. That's a pretty big factor with the economy we've had for the last six years. Take it from me. The lack of money has been at the root of most of my problems for the last half dozen years, and I can understand how a person could be driven to take his life when it seems he will never crawl out of the financial pit in which he finds himself.

Apparently, that money thing was a problem for Williams, too. When the investigation into his death is over — and, reportedly, the coroner will issue a statement tomorrow following an autopsy that presumably is being conducted as I write this — it may turn out that something else was behind Williams' death. But I have heard several people speak tonight of how depressed he had been recently — and that despondency appears to have been rooted in how much money he had lost in two divorces.

Whatever the reason for Williams' death, whether he caused his own death or he met his fate accidentally, I am sorry for those he leaves behind who must cope with his sudden loss.

For Robin Williams, whose struggles with drugs and alcohol were well documented in his lifetime and who sought help for his problems only a month ago, it is over now. Whatever pain he felt, whichever inner demons tormented him, that is in the past. It is those he leaves behind who will need help now. He had three children — all adults now, but much younger than they should be to have lost their father.

I have heard many people tonight reflecting on Williams' great movie performances — and, to be sure, there were many of them. He was always entertaining, whether it was on the big screen or the small one. My first exposure to Robin Williams was in his breakout role on TV's Mork & Mindy. He was an astonishing talent. I don't know if he fully realized it. In my experience, people seldom seem to appreciate the qualities that others admire in them.

If Williams didn't know how special he really was, there are plenty of folks who will spread the word long after the shock of his death has worn off.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Plunging into 'The Abyss'

"It's not easy being a cast–iron bitch. It takes discipline and years of training. A lot of people don't appreciate that."

Lindsey (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio)

In 1989, James Cameron was still about a decade away from unimaginable fame and fortune as the Oscar–winning director of "Titanic."

Several years earlier, he had worked on special effects for an eminently forgettable movie called "Piranha II: The Spawning" — which, I suppose, was his first foray into aquatic cinema.

But 25 years ago today, his first directorial exploration of the sea — "The Abyss" — hit the big screen. (OK, he might have been inspired by the relatively recent discovery of the Titanic's remains.)

I do not use the word exploration lightly. It was truly a deep–sea adventure, a journey into the inky depths of the ocean. In fact, it went deeper than "Titanic" ever did — and introduced moviegoers to a Steven Spielberg–esque world far below the surface.

Actually, the inhabitants of that underwater world rivaled, in many ways, the extraterrestrial characters Spielberg cooked up for audiences over the years. That was appropriate because the premise of the movie was that the crew of a still–experimental underwater oil drilling platform (led by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, whose character designed the platform) was called in to investigate a suspicious nuclear submarine crash. The suspicion was that the crash was caused by extraterrestrials.

To contact these extraterrestrials, they had to explore a deep underwater canyon.

Meanwhile, they had another set of problems with one of the crew members who was growing increasingly paranoid. And, to top it off, Mastrantonio's character was paired with her ex (Ed Harris), the rig's foreman. All of that gave the story a suitably soap opera atmosphere — as well some underwater intrigue.
Virgil (Ed Harris): Hippy, you think everything is a conspiracy.

Hippy (Todd Graff): Everything is.

Still, I thought it was an absorbing movie with a story that was accessible even to those who were not sci–fi inclined.

I've heard that Harris nearly drowned while making "The Abyss."

Apparently, he ran out of oxygen when he was filming a scene where he had to hold his breath underwater for an extended period of time. He signaled that he needed oxygen, but the safety diver was hung up on some cable and couldn't get to him. Another crew member gave Harris a regulator, but it was upside down, and Harris got water instead of air. Finally, he got a regulator in the right position and was able to breathe again.

I've heard he broke down in tears later.

My understanding is that "The Abyss" did not use many stunt people. The actors were certified to dive before filming started and did their own diving. That accounts for the sense of realism — as well as, perhaps, stories I have heard of how raw emotions became during filming.

Mastrantonio has refused to talk about "The Abyss" in interviews. "'The Abyss' was a lot of things," she reportedly said. "Fun to make was not one of them."

"The Abyss" received four Oscar nominations and won one (Best Visual Effects).

Monday, August 04, 2014

The Mother of all Tearjerkers

Edward Randolph (Otto Kruger): Once you find the way, you'll be bound. It will obsess you, but believe me, it will be a magnificent obsession.

"Magnificent Obsession," which made its premiere 60 years ago today, has a few reputations of which you should be aware if you decide to sit down and watch it.

First of all, it was a textbook drama — make that melodrama. I guess it really was more of a soap opera; it was one tragic event after another, which leads us to another reputation. "Magnificent Obsession" was a tearjerker. Make sure you have plenty of Kleenex on hand, but that shouldn't be a problem since, unless you catch it at some sort of film festival, you're most likely to see it in your living room, not at the neighborhood theater.

That will make it easier for you to access the tissues — and you won't be as self–conscious as most of the folks who saw it in 1954 must have been.

Rock Hudson was no newcomer to movies, having had two dozen credited appearances (and a few uncredited ones as well), but he hadn't had many leading parts.

Jane Wyman was no newcomer, either. She had been nominated for Oscars three times — and won it half a dozen years earlier.

When you think of the plot of "Magnificent Obsession," it seems like a parody worthy of Saturday Night Live or one of those parodies they used to do on The Carol Burnett Show.

(In fact, I can easily imagine Carol Burnett playing Wyman's part and Lyle Waggoner playing Hudson's in one of their trademark sendups. It is so vivid, in fact, that it may well have been one of the show's parodies. I may have seen it years ago and simply forgotten it.)

Hudson played a self–centered playboy whose reckless behavior led to the death of Wyman's husband, a kind and locally admired doctor. That alone was enough to alienate Wyman and her stepdaughter (Barbara Rush), but Hudson managed to win them over to an extent. Then he inadvertently caused an accident that left Wyman's character blind.

The general theme of the movie at that point became the apparent repentance of Hudson's character and his efforts to make amends. He befriended Wyman under an assumed character and fell in love with her, committing himself to the goal of becoming a doctor so he could fulfill the ambitions of the doctor whose life had ended because of his self–absorption.

Although blind, Wyman discovered who Hudson really was. She had fallen in love with him, too, but she had decided to disappear because she feared becoming a burden to him.

Eventually, after becoming a doctor, he found her and performed surgery on her, restoring her sight.

A word should be said about Agnes Moorehead, who played a personal nurse. She looked so little like the woman who played Endora on Bewitched that I remember doing a double take, even a triple take, when I saw her on my TV screen. Bear in mind, this was a decade before Bewitched premiered, and her movie career seems to have prepared her for her TV role quite well. She was seldom a lead, almost always a supporting character, and the support she gave in "Magnificent Obsession" was more than adequate.

For that matter, Hudson did respectably well in what was, at the time, a rare leading role for him. My main complaint — as I'm sure it would be for viewers today — was the material. For lack of a better word, it was corny.

At best, it was predictable. It was probably predictable in 1954 — it was probably predictable in the first screen version of the story, which was made nearly 20 years earlier.

Wyman received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress (she lost the award to Grace Kelly).

Saturday, August 02, 2014

Now, THAT Was a Surprise Ending

Cole (Haley Joel Osment): I see dead people.

I rate the effectiveness of a supernatural thriller by how long it takes me to figure out what is really going on, and I cease to be surprised by what I see on the screen.

I never reached that point with M. Night Shyamalan's "The Sixth Sense," which premiered 15 years ago today. I was completely fished in, and its now–famous surprise twist ending took me completely by — well, surprise.

I wasn't alone. Film critic Roger Ebert said he was "blind–sided by the ending."

Initially, it appeared to be the story of an isolated young boy (Haley Joel Osment) and the psychologist who was trying to help him (Bruce Willis). Willis' character had been shot by a former patient, who then turned the gun on himself, and the next thing the audience knew, Willis, seemingly healed physically but struggling emotionally, was treating Osment's character, whose case was similar to the case of that former patient.

Osment's character told Willis he could see ghosts. They walk among the living, he said. They don't know that they are deceased.

Willis' advice was for him talk to the ghosts and see if he could help them with what seemed to be unfinished business that they had to complete before they could go on to whatever was next. Osment was dubious; the ghosts scared him, but he decided to give it a try.

In his review, film critic Roger Ebert observed that "[i]t has long been believed that children are better than adults at seeing ghosts; the barriers of skepticism and disbelief are not yet in place."

I had a general understanding of that at the time, and I'm sure other moviegoers did, too. It made the story more plausible, more accessible — although I have no memory of personally conversing with ghosts as a child.

A breakthrough for Osment's character was his communication with a girl who had become ill and died. She indicated that she wanted him to take a box, which contained a video tape, to her funeral, which he did, and he gave the tape to the girl's father.

The tape, which had been made clandestinely, showed the girl's mother deliberately giving the girl tainted food, causing her death. That apparently was what was needed for the girl's soul to be at peace.

After that, Osment was able to interact with his schoolmates better than he had before, and he seemed to have learned to co–exist with the ghosts. Willis, on the other hand, was still struggling. His wife seemed to pay him no attention, and she had been the model of a devoted wife before he was shot. He was baffled.

Until he came home one night and found his wife sleeping on the couch. In her sleep, his wife asked her husband why he left her, and his wedding ring slipped from her hand. It was only then that Willis realized he had not been wearing his ring, that he was, in fact, one of the dead people Osment had been seeing.

(I hope I haven't given away the surprise ending to anyone — but it was in the theaters 15 years ago, after all!)

Just before Willis' (and the audience's) revelation, Osment and his on–screen mother (Toni Collette) had something of a reconciliation.

She had been skeptical of whatever he was experiencing all along.

One day, while they were stuck in a traffic jam, Osment's character decided the time was right to tell her what was going on, and he did. She didn't want to believe him when he said he was visited by his grandmother, but he began to convince his mother when he told her a story from her own childhood that she, apparently, had never told him before.

The clincher was when he said that his grandmother had told him his mother had visited the grave and had asked a question. Her answer, Osment said, had been "Every day," but he didn't know the question. A visibly emotional Collette told him.

Osment, wrote Ebert, "is a very good actor in a film where his character possibly has more lines than anyone else. He's in most of the scenes, and he has to act in them — this isn't a role for a cute kid who can stand there and look solemn in reaction shots."

That's true, although Osment did do essentially that in his previous important movie, "Forrest Gump." Of course, he was only 5 years old when that movie was made. He was 10 when he made "The Sixth Sense" and, presumably, more mature.

Ebert had more praise for Osment's performance — and Willis'. "Although the tendency is to notice how good he is, not every adult actor can play heavy dramatic scenes with a kid and not seem to condescend (or, even worse, to be subtly coaching and leading him)," Ebert wrote. "Willis can."

"The Sixth Sense" was nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Osment) and Best Supporting Actress (Collette) but won none.

Friday, August 01, 2014

Killing Time

"That's no ordinary look. That's the kind of a look a man gives when he's afraid somebody might be watching him."

L.B. Jeffries (Jimmy Stewart)

I have written here before of my fondness for Alfred Hitchcock's movies.

I've seen most of them on TV, but "Rear Window" was an exception. In 1984, it was re–released to theaters to celebrate its 30th anniversary, and I took advantage of that opportunity. In fact, I remember going to the theater to see it. I couldn't tell you the exact date, but I remember the experience of seeing that movie in a theater — and not one of today's multi–cubicle screens but a single–screen theater like the kind that existed when "Rear Window" was first released.

It has always made me regret not having seen more of Hitchcock's movies on the big screen — because that really is where they should be seen. Well, most of them, anyway. Hitchcock's work predated the wide–screen format; because of that, I'm not sure if his early works are more impressive on a big screen than they are on a television screen. Some might be; others might not.

All of Hitchcock's wide–screen films probably should be seen on the big screen — at least once.

Anyway, that was the conclusion I reached after I saw "Rear Window" at the theater. It premiered 60 years ago today, but it was fresh and new to me when I saw it in 1984. I thought I was in love with Grace Kelly before I saw "Rear Window," but she was breathtaking when I saw her on the big screen.

I felt there was an electric kind of attraction between Kelly and Jimmy Stewart. I really regret that their only movie together was "Rear Window." Don't get me wrong. It was a great movie, but it was a one–shot wonder. They could have been one of the great movie teams of all time.

The American Film Institute rated "Rear Window" 48th of all time. AFI also named it 14th among the thrillers. Besides, the movie matched the #3 actor and the #13 actress of all time, according to another AFI list.

Who could ask for anything more?

"Rear Window" had the benefit of Hitchcock (nominated for an Oscar for his direction) and screenwriter John Michael Hayes (also nominated for an Oscar). That combination produced possibly the best of Hitchcock's movies. Well, that is what I have heard some critics say; that isn't a conclusion I would reach because I tend to think that "North by Northwest" is Hitchcock's best. My second choice probably would be "Psycho" or "Vertigo" — and then "Rear Window."

They're all good, certainly worth seeing on a big screen. (If I have a cinematic bucket list, it would include seeing those other three Hitchcock movies on a big screen before I die. Actually, I'd like to see them all that way, but if I can only see three, those are the three I would choose.)

The movie dealt primarily with voyeurism. "It's wrong, we know, to spy on others," wrote critic Roger Ebert, "but after all, aren't we always voyeurs when we go to the movies?"

Stewart's character was stuck in his apartment while he recuperated from a broken leg. A successful photographer, he filled his days by spying on his neighbors through the lens of his camera. The audience saw everything he saw. When he dozed off and missed things, the audience did, too.

His only regular visitors were his nurse (Thelma Ritter) and his girlfriend (Kelly). They were skeptical at first when he suggested that one of his neighbors (Raymond Burr) had apparently killed his wife, but Stewart's character persuaded them.

It didn't require much persuasion. Kelly's character was already eager to get Stewart's character to commit to her. It seemed like she would do just about anything to score points with him. "How far does a girl have to go before you notice her?" she asked at one point.

"Well if she's pretty enough," Stewart replied, "she doesn't have to go anywhere. She just has to be."

He insisted that "I'm not exactly on the other side of the room." They were locked in a passionate embrace at the time, which made it difficult to dispute what he said, but, nevertheless, Kelly begged to differ.

"Your mind is," she said. "When I want a man, I want all of you."

And I had to give it to Stewart's character. He kept his mind on the mystery he was trying to solve. Most men probably wouldn't have that kind of will power. I wouldn't. Not with Grace Kelly in my arms.

A lot of things have changed since "Rear Window" was made, and, if someone found himself in Stewart's position in 2014, he might not be able to use the same camera tactics that Stewart did — like using the flash to blind Raymond Burr when he was lured from his apartment and confronted the wheelchair–bound Stewart.

I had never seen Burr in a bad–guy role before. When I was a child, my father used to like to watch reruns of Perry Mason and Ironsides on weekend afternoons, and I watched them with him. As a result, I had an image in my head of Burr as the kind of guy who investigated and/or prosecuted crimes. He wasn't the kind of guy who committed crimes.

But, in "Rear Window," he was. At least, he was the kind of guy who could murder his wife and then try to dispose of her body. Stewart had reached that conclusion on his own; his problem was that he didn't have the kind of evidence that courts like to have.

"Rear Window" received four Oscar nominations, including (as I said earlier) one for Best Director (one of five for Hitchcock).