Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Restoration or Redemption? Or Both?

"We live in an age when many are made fools and many are deceived."

Lady Celia (Polly Walker)

"Restoration," which premiered on this date in 1995, was an historical drama set in the 17th century at the time that King Charles II was returned to the English throne following 11 years of Oliver Cromwell's dictatorial rule.

The new era was a mass of contradictions. While giving its subjects unparalleled (to that time) discovery, exploration and individual freedom, it also bore witness to natural disasters and antiquated medical practices. If you think science and superstition clash in the 21st century, you should read about it 350 years ago.

The movie followed a young doctor (Robert Downey Jr.) who came to be in Charles' (Sam Neill) favor when he saved the king's favorite dog. He wasn't trained in veterinary sciences, but, nevertheless, he saved the dog. That opened the door for the young doctor to be appointed to care for the king's dogs — and, in the process, enjoy a narcissistic lifestyle — until the king arranged for him to marry the king's favorite mistress, Lady Celia (Polly Walker). Why would the king do that? Well, it was a diversionary tactic, intended to deceive another of Charles' mistresses.

So he went through with the sham of a wedding. Only one complication — Downey's character was smitten with Lady Celia. For this, the king banished him from the court. He returned to his life as a physician at a Quaker sanatorium.

"Michael Hoffman's 'Restoration' plunges us into the heart of 17th–century England, and the court of Charles II, who followed the austere Cromwell years with a riotous time of sensual excess," wrote film critic Roger Ebert. "The film has many virtues, but for me the most enchanting is simply the lust with which it depicts a bold and colorful era in history."

Downey's character managed to transfer his lust from Lady Celia to an Irish mental patient named Katharine (Meg Ryan), with whom he conceived a child. Katharine died during childbirth when the baby proved too large to deliver in the conventional way so Downey's character performed a 17th–century C–section — sans anesthetic.

Ebert liked the fact that the story was played out against the backdrops of the Plague and the Great Fire of London. I agree — in the same sense that the burning of Atlanta gave an historical context to the events in the lives of those depicted in "Gone With the Wind."

Downey's character was profoundly influenced by what he encountered in the Plague, and he matured before the audience's very eyes. Ebert wrote that it was "the key emotional arc in the film."

"Restoration" told a timeless tale. It was set in 17th–century England, but it could have been at any time and in any place. It wasn't the story of the king. It was the story of the doctor and his maturation from a self–centered youth to a man.

"What the film evokes is an age that must have been supremely interesting to live in," Ebert wrote. "Sometimes I think that modern travel and communication have destroyed the mysteries by which we live. The people in this film occupy a world of unlimited choice, playing flamboyant roles, relishing in theatricality, mixing science with superstition, discovery with depravity."

When I watched it for the first time, it occurred to me that a better title might be "Redemption" because that really was what the story was about. But it was also about the restoration of a previous life that had been taken from Downey's character.

"Restoration" won both of the Oscars for which it was nominated — Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Spellbound by Hitchcock and Salvador Dali

"Women make the best psychoanalysts until they fall in love. After that they make the best patients."

Alex (Michael Chekhov)

I know that many movie aficionados regard "Spellbound," an Alfred Hitchcock psychological thriller that premiered on this day in 1945, as a classic, but probably the majority of modern movie watchers wouldn't know anything about it.

And that makes me wonder if, even with its reputation among those in the know, perhaps "Spellbound" is Hitchcock's most underrated movie. It is even underrated with some who are in the know. The American Film Institute, for example, did not include "Spellbound" in its list of the Top 100 movies of all time.

Even in its own time, "Spellbound" was overlooked by its peers. To be fair, it did achieve something that comparatively few Hitchcock movies achieved. It was nominated for several Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director, but it only won one — for its music. The music for "Spellbound" was appropriate, as it almost always was, for a Hitchcock movie, but the only on–screen work that was recognized with a nomination was Michael Chekhov in a supporting role.

That wouldn't have been nearly as egregious if, as was frequently the case with a Hitchcock movie, the stars weren't A–listers of their time — but "Spellbound" starred Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck. Now they weren't the A–Lister's A–listers. There were stars in Hollywood who probably rated a little higher than Bergman and Peck on the A–list scale — but not many.

And both were nominated for Oscars that year — but for performances in other movies.

Bergman played a psychoanalyst at a mental hospital, where the director was being forced to retire after an extended absence for exhaustion. His replacement was played by Peck — who, it was observed by his colleagues, brought little baggage with him. Physical baggage, that is — although that distinction was not made by any of the characters, and only in hindsight could it be correctly interpreted.

That assumes, of course, that the viewer would remember a snippet of dialogue in the first 15 minutes of a two–hour Hitchcock movie. Verbal clues were tossed into Hitchcock movies so casually that such details could be missed even after several viewings, and that was especially true of "Spellbound," which was not only psychological in its nature but was about the study of psychology and evaluation of mental disorders. Listening to psychoanalysts speak in such a movie can reach a point where it's all white noise for the ordinary viewer.

I don't remember how many times I saw "Spellbound" before I made that connection about the baggage. I had probably seen "Spellbound" at least three or four times by then, and I consider myself reasonably intelligent.

Speaking of connections, Bergman and Peck apparently made a connection of their own when the movie was being made. They were both married — to other people — when they made "Spellbound," yet they had a brief affair during that production. Their relationship may have been known to their relatives and/or friends, but the public had only its own suspicions, whatever they may have been, until 1987, five years after Bergman's death, when Peck confessed in an interview.

That answered some questions about the obvious chemistry between the two on screen.

There was obviously something strange about Peck's character — or at least it seemed strange to his colleagues, who embarked on waves of psychobabble about whether Peck's character was really who he claimed to be. In true Hitchcockian fashion, it was suggested that Peck had murdered the doctor he claimed to be and had assumed his identity. That turned out to be correct. Bergman's diagnosis, that Peck was an amnesiac, also turned out to be true.

And there was always the tiniest sliver of doubt that couldn't be easily explained, not matter how many psychoanalysts contributed ideas.

That is what made "Spellbound" such a good movie. It was what succeeded in all of Hitchcock's works — the element of what some would call plausible deniability.

Sure, Peck might well be guilty, but what about ...?

The crowning touch may have been a dream sequence designed by Salvador Dali that was just loaded with psychiatric symbols.

Too bad Hitchcock wasn't making color movies at the time. A Salvador Dali–inspired dream sequence was just meant to be done in color — kind of like the imagery from "Vertigo."

That alone would have been hypnotic, a unique experience for moviegoers in 1945. The mystery, on the other hand, wound up being rather routine, I thought. It wasn't one of Hitchcock's best — but the performances of the actors deserved more recognition.

Not Exactly the Santa Fe Trail

"I have given you fair warning. You can keep your heads or lose 'em as you wish."

John Brown (Raymond Massey)

If you have never seen "Santa Fe Trail," which made its debut 75 years ago today, I guess it is important to know something before you do see it.

The movie has nothing whatsoever to do with the real Santa Fe Trail, which was a 19th–century transportation route that ran from Franklin in western Missouri to Santa Fe in northern New Mexico.

Rather, it was a pretty basic account of the events surrounding John Brown's raid at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia) — about 800 miles east of Franklin — less than two years before the start of the Civil War.

(Well, I suppose a rather tenuous connection could made from the fact that the trail started in Missouri and the railroad that would replace the Santa Fe Trail as a commercial route couldn't be built until Brown was driven from neighboring Kansas, an event that was re–created in "Santa Fe Trail," but making that mental connection would require the viewer to know certain details about American history that were never explored in "Santa Fe Trail" and a garden–variety moviegoer in 1940 was no more likely to know than one in 2015.)

It wasn't entirely literal history, by any stretch of the imagination, but it was a rousing good story, and it had a great cast.

It had Errol Flynn in it so audiences knew it would have lots of action and romance.

It had Olivia de Havilland in it so audiences knew they would be treated to a top–notch performance from an actress who, although her movie career was only a few years old at the time, was already regarded as being an actress in the classical mold.

It had Raymond Massey, who had been established as a classical actor for at least a decade and lent some of his personal credibility to the role of John Brown — even though, as I say, the movie is not the definitive word on the history of either the mid–19th century or John Brown.

And it had Ronald Reagan. No one knew at the time, of course, that Reagan would be elected president 40 years later. In the role of George Armstrong Custer, Reagan had a bit of a rivalry with Flynn's character, Jeb Stuart, that supposedly went back to their days at West Point.

I've been a student of American history most of my life. I will readily concede that I am not an authority on military history or military school history, and I don't know enough about Custer's individual relationships with his fellow cadets to pass judgment — but I do know that Custer had one of the worst personal conduct records in the school's history and was nearly expelled several times. Many of his demerits were received for pulling tricks on classmates so such a rivalry would not be inconceivable.

But Jeb Stuart must have been a stand–in for all those who were pranked by Custer. Stuart and Custer were never classmates. Stuart was born six years before Custer and graduated three years before Custer enrolled at West Point.

For that matter, Stuart was a West Point classmate of several people who had noteworthy military careers, according to the movie, but it played fast and loose with the facts, just as it did in its account of John Brown.

If you believed the movie, Stuart was a classmate of James Longstreet, George Pickett, Phil Sheridan and John Bell "Sam" Hood as well as Custer, but Stuart was a teenager when Longstreet and Pickett graduated from West Point, and Stuart, as I say, had been gone for three years when Custer enrolled there. Stuart was at West Point when Sheridan and Hood were there, but they graduated a year before he did. I have seen no evidence that Stuart knew either one.

Also, I have heard nothing of a romance between Stuart and the woman known as Kit Carson Holliday, the name of de Havilland's character. Stuart was married to a woman named Flora and was reportedly devoted to her until his death during the Civil War.

The only Kit Carsons I ever heard of were men. I can only assume that Kit Carson Holliday was entirely fictional.

Another inconvenient fact. When you look at pictures of John Brown in history books, he always has a long beard, but he didn't grow his beard until after he left Kansas. Nevertheless, in "Santa Fe Trail," he is portrayed with a long beard.

But Hollywood never let the facts get in the way of a good story. (Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?)

And, as I say, it was a good story.

It just wasn't literal history.

So if you are a student and you want to write a paper about John Brown or any of the other famous folks who were portrayed in "Santa Fe Trail," I implore you — don't use this movie as one of your sources.

Watch it and enjoy it. It's very entertaining.

But please don't treat it as a reputable factual source.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Telling a Tale of Two Cities

"It's a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done. It's a far, far better rest I go to than I have ever known."

Sydney (Ronald Colman)

"A Tale of Two Cities," Charles Dickens' classic tale, has been brought to the big screen many times, including a few silent versions — but it is the first sound version, which premiered on this day in 1935, to which all subsequent efforts have been compared and found, to an extent, to be lacking.

Dickens' story about the French Revolution was published 156 years ago, and it still has relevance today. Plus, in all those years, it has gained a reputation for being Dickens' most loved novel — although, personally, I prefer "A Christmas Carol."

There is no denying, though, that it may have one of the best openings any book ever had.
"It was the best of times,
it was the worst of times,
it was the age of wisdom,
it was the age of foolishness,
it was the epoch of belief,
it was the epoch of incredulity,
it was the season of light,
it was the season of darkness,
it was the spring of hope,
it was the winter of despair."

Charles Dickens
'A Tale of Two Cities' (1859)

Guess that pretty much covers it.

Of course, there are details, and "A Tale of Two Cities," both the movie and the book, tried to fill in the gaps with those details.

From the perspective of 80 years later, it is remarkable that Ronald Colman was cast in the role of Sydney Carton. It was reported that such motion picture luminaries as Clark Gable, Robert Montgomery and Leslie Howard were being considered for it.

Playing the role was the fulfillment of a long–held wish for Colman, who was willing to shave off his trademark mustache for the part. It was a sacrifice he was never willing to make again.

But Colman took the part with the understanding that he would not be expected to play the role of Charles Darnay as well. Because the resemblance between the characters of Sydney and Charles plays such an important role in the plot, the same actor has played both parts, whether on the stage or the big screen. But Colman was only interested in playing Sydney so Canadian–born actor Donald Woods was cast as Charles.

I have to admit that I wasn't sure about that part of the casting when I first saw the movie — and I still have my doubts. After all, the similarities between Sydney and Charles were not confined to their physical resemblance. It also included their shared passion for the same woman, Lucie (Elizabeth Allan).

Than, at the end, in the dramatic scene with the guillotine, Colman was able to deliver that famous line: "It's a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done."

It isn't quite at the same level as the famous speech from "Macbeth""Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow ..." — but it's close.

Colman wasn't the only first–rate actor in the production, but his name is remembered while the others are not — for the most part. From time to time, you encounter someone who does know the names of Reginald Owen or Edna May Oliver — and I suppose most folks will remember the name of Basil Rathbone, if only because it is such a memorable name and not because they actually remember one of his performances.

But many in the cast were among the most respected actors and actresses of their day.

None, however, and that includes Colman, received an Oscar nomination. In fact, the movie received only two nominations — for Best Picture and Best Film Editing. It lost both.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Mother of Romantic Comedies

Tracy (Katharine Hepburn): If you just face the facts squarely as I did.

Margaret (Mary Nash): We both might face the fact that neither of us have proved to be a very great success as a wife.

Tracy: We just picked the wrong first husbands, that's all.

I suppose it is tempting to call "The Philadelphia Story," which premiered on this date in 1940, the best of Jimmy Stewart's career. After all, he received his only Best Actor Oscar for his performance in that movie — although he was nominated for "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," "It's a Wonderful Life," "Harvey" and "Anatomy of a Murder," all favorites of mine.

Frankly, if Stewart could only win Best Actor once, I would have preferred that he win it for any of those performances instead. Don't get me wrong. "The Philadelphia Story" was good, but it just wasn't unique, at least in the way those others were. Still, its influence was far reaching.

I suppose it can't really be said that "The Philadelphia Story" performance was the best by Katharine Hepburn, who was the star of the show and was nominated for Best Actress (she had a dozen Best Actress nominations in her career), but she didn't win (Ginger Rogers won for "Kitty Foyle").

Poor Cary Grant wasn't even nominated — and his performance in "The Philadelphia Story" is regarded as his best by many film critics.
In hindsight, I guess you could call "The Philadelphia Story" the mother of romantic comedies.

"The Philadelphia Story" certainly occupies an important place in the story of Hepburn's career. She won the Best Actress Oscar in 1934 and was nominated again in 1936, but her career had been on a downward spiral prior to this day in 1940. She had even been labeled "box office poison" so it could rightfully be said that "The Philadelphia Story" was what turned her career around — and made it possible for her to be nominated nine more times and to win three.

Without "The Philadelphia Story," which was the fifth–most popular movie of 1941 (earning more than $2.3 million in North America), it is quite possible that Hepburn's career would have vanished into oblivion.

So even though she didn't win the Oscar, she probably won something that she valued more.

It was the kind of romantic comedy that was most popular in the '30s and '40s — one in which a married couple get divorced, dally with others, make their exes jealous and then get back together. Well, that's probably oversimplified for most of the movies in that genre — but it pretty much sums up the plot of "The Philadelphia Story."

And there was probably no one better prepared for the role he played in it than Grant. What the earthy John Wayne was to the western the debonair Cary Grant was to the romantic comedy.

Hepburn and Grant played a couple who apparently had married on something of a whim, then got divorced. Two years later, Grant showed up at Hepburn's home just before she was to marry someone else. Hepburn's character was a member of a socially prominent family so, naturally, her wedding drew folks from the press, one of whom was Stewart.

The stage was set for some high–society conflicts. In fact, "the stage" is an appropriate noun to use because "The Philadelphia Story" began life as a stage play. Hepburn acquired the film rights to it with the intention of using it as her comeback springboard.

Mission accomplished.
Macaulay Connor (Jimmy Stewart): Doggone it, C.K. Dexter Haven. Either I'm gonna sock you or you're gonna sock me.

C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant): Shall we toss a coin?

If you've seen a documentary on the golden age of moviemaking, you have probably seen the memorable scene early in the movie when Grant's character, as he leaves Hepburn, puts his palm on her face and pushes her back inside the house. In conversations I have had with movie fans, that scene is probably second only to the one in which James Cagney grinds grapefruit into Mae Clarke's face in "Public Enemy" on the Most Memorable scale.

Kind of similar scenes. But not entirely.

"Public Enemy" wasn't a madcap romantic comedy, though, and "The Philadelphia Story" was. I'll leave all its quirky twists and turns for you to discover for yourself. That's the real fun of it.

Judy Holliday Was No Dummy

Billie (Judy Holliday): You're just not couth!

Harry (Broderick Crawford): Yeah? Well, I'm as couth as you are!

Judy Holliday wasn't the movies' first dumb blonde, and she certainly wasn't the last. But she may have been the best.

Let's be clear here, though. Judy Holliday was not dumb. She was said to have had an IQ of 172. That would put her in the ballpark with Albert Einstein, whose IQ is unknown but is estimated to have been between 160 and 190, and just behind Leonardo da Vinci, whose IQ was estimated to be between 180 and 190. That's pretty impressive company.

But she knew how to play dumb. She won the Oscar for Best Actress for playing the dumb blonde in "Born Yesterday," which premiered on this date in 1950. For a comedy, it garnered quite a few Oscar nominations — for Best Picture, Best Director (George Cukor), Best Screenplay, Best Black and White Costume Design — in addition to Holliday's. When she smiled for the camera, her twinkling eyes seemed to be saying, "You know, this is really an act. I'm a lot smarter than I seem."

"Born Yesterday" is a movie I never tire of watching — and what a treat it must have been for audiences 65 years ago to go to the theaters the day after Christmas and see Judy Holliday co–starring with William Holden and Broderick Crawford.

Kind of reminds me of Christmases when I was a child, and my parents would take my brother and me to the movies either on Christmas Day or the day after Christmas.

I don't think we ever went to a theater during the Christmas season and saw a movie that is regarded as a classic today, though, and I know for sure that we never saw a trio as talented as Judy Holliday, Broderick Crawford and William Holden.

Even so, Christmas always seemed to me to be a smart time for a studio to release a movie that seemed destined to be a blockbuster — or that the studio simply wanted to draw bigger audiences — but they didn't really seem to do that much when I was growing up. They do it a lot more now.

It was an interesting shift for Crawford, who won a Best Actor Oscar for "All the King's Men" the year before. In some ways, though, it was the same character. They were both manipulators; Willie Stark was just better at it than Harry Brock. Maybe the product that Willie Stark was selling (himself) was more highly regarded than what Harry Brock was selling (junk) — although, given the reputation politicians seem to have always had, that seems to be backward, doesn't it?

Of course, the story did take place in Washington, D.C., which was where Harry was trying to buy a congressman.

For that matter, Holden hadn't yet been nominated for an Oscar when he made "Born Yesterday," but he got his first Oscar nomination for his performance in "Sunset Boulevard," which was in theaters only a few months earlier — and probably was still showing in many theaters in that pre–multiscreen cineplex era when movies could and did show at the same theaters for months.

Initially, Harry hired Holden's character to smooth Holliday's rough edges and instruct her in some of the finer points of government and history.

That way she could converse intelligently with Harry's clients. But she learned a lot more than he expected her to learn from Holden.

In the process, they fell in love.

And Holliday's character showed millions of Americans what being a liberated woman was about — a couple of decades before the phrase became a part of modern American lingo.

Holliday played the role with true panache.

And, really, I would expect no less from someone as smart as she was.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Dining on Integrated Turkey

We all get busy with other things at this time of the year, don't we? Sometimes to the exclusion of things we really want to do as opposed to those things that we feel we must do or that we feel obligated to do. Funny thing about obligations. People don't always put a priority on the right one.

Well, yesterday (Christmas Eve) was such a day for me. I got busy with other things and entirely neglected to write about something that I have been intending to write about — a special Christmas episode of the Bewitched television series that premiered 45 years ago yesterday.

Better late than never, I suppose.

It was called "Sisters at Heart," and the story was written by some two dozen black high school students in South Los Angeles after they paid a visit to the Bewitched set at the invitation of series star Elizabeth Montgomery and her director and husband William Asher. It dealt with racism and prejudice at a time when that was rarely addressed on television.

It was about a black co–worker of Darrin's (who was played by this time by Dick Sargent) and his family. The co–worker was about to leave on a business trip, and his wife was going with him. They were going to leave their daughter with the Stephenses while they were away, and they brought her over to the Stephens home prior to their departure.

That was terrific as far as Tabitha (Erin Murphy), the Stephenses' daughter, was concerned. The two girls were friends, and Tabitha liked the idea of having a sister, albeit temporarily. Tabitha, as children do, latched on to the idea and started telling people that she and her house guest were sisters. Her friend played along with the game.

Anyway, while the other girl and her parents were in the house, another visitor dropped by. He was the owner of a toy company, and Darrin had been trying to win his advertising account. The visitor's unannounced arrival was deliberate; the goal was to find out if Darrin had any secrets he wanted to conceal.

Samantha was busy with her youngest child when he arrived so he only met the wife of Darrin's colleague, her daughter and Tabitha. Tabitha's friend told the visitor (Parley Baer) that she and Tabitha were sisters. Based on their brief conversation, his assumption was that it was a biracial marriage. It turned out he was a racist, and he wanted Darrin removed from the account.

Tabitha also told a child in the park that she and her friend were sisters, but the child told her they couldn't be sisters because their skin colors were different. Tabitha decided to resolve that and cast a spell on the two, giving them polka dots. When Samantha discovered what Tabitha had done, she insisted that Tabitha reverse the spell, which she tried to do but could not. The reason why was unclear until Samantha deduced that Tabitha didn't really want to reverse the spell because she wanted the two girls to remain sisters.

When Samantha explained to the girls that they didn't have to look alike to be sisters, Tabitha was able to reverse the spell.

The spell, of course, blew the cover on the Stephens family secret about Samantha and Tabitha being witches — but only to Tabitha's friend, not her parents or the owner of the toy company.

At a Christmas party at the Stephens house, Darrin's boss told him that the owner of the toy company wanted him removed from the account. During the party, the owner of the toy company realized his mistake, that it was not a biracial marriage, and he told Darrin's boss (David White) that it was OK for Darrin to work on the account after all.

When Samantha learned why Darrin had been rejected initially, she decided to teach the toy company owner a lesson and cast a spell on him. He saw everyone in the house as black — himself included when he looked in the mirror.

On Christmas Day, he returned to the Stephens home. The black family was visiting, and the toy company owner apologized to them all for his bigotry and expressed remorse for his racism.

His apology was accepted, and he was invited to share Christmas dinner with them. "We're having integrated turkey," Samantha told him, "white and dark meat."

Montgomery said it was her favorite Bewitched episode, and it isn't hard to understand why. Bewitched was about dealing with prejudice — the prejudice of the mortal world against the wiccan one — and Montgomery opened and closed the episode by telling the audience the episode "was created in the true spirit of Christmas ... conceived in the image of innocence and filled with truth."

In Bewitched, witches were a put–down minority. But all minorities are not — pardon the pun — created equally.

I suppose racism and wiccaphobia (if such a word exists) aren't entirely comparable. I mean, one can't easily conceal one's race — the way, for example, one can conceal (although not always easily) one's sexual orientation. Consequently, I guess wiccaphobia has more in common with homophobia than racism — Bewitched often proved as much in the characters' efforts to hide Samantha's wiccan abilities.

But the argument can be made that prejudice is prejudice, whether it is on the basis of things that are seen or things that are unseen (or, perhaps, assumed).

Precisely because prejudice and bigotry were hardly ever addressed on TV before 1971, when All in the Family made its debut and made social relevance a key component of TV, "Sisters at Heart" was almost unique in its approach to its topic. Ironically, in these politically correct times, it would probably be viewed as insensitive if it premiered today because some of the characters appear in blackface.

As it so often is with political correctness, that is a classic case of failing to see the forest for the trees.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

A 19th-Century Forrest Gump

"I was an honored guest so they gave me a special treat: boiled dog. Now I will admit, dog is greasy, but you'd be surprised how downright delicate the flavor is — especially when you're starving."

Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman)

The last time I watched Arthur Penn's "Little Big Man" — which premiered on this day in 1970 — it occurred to me that Little Big Man (Dustin Hoffman) was the 19th–century version of Forrest Gump.

He was always where big things were happening in the West — just like Forrest Gump kept showing up at the White House ... after he showed up on the infamous occasion when George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door in an attempt to block the integration of the University of Alabama.

Forrest Gump was always rubbing elbows with the big names of 20th–century history, with presidents and would–be presidents, often in the news footage of the day. Little Big Man wasn't around too many big names. He was almost always around the practically anonymous Indians who tried without success to resist the invasion of the white Europeans.

The only big name I can think of who encountered Little Big Man was Gen. George Armstrong Custer (Richard Mulligan).

Film critic Roger Ebert wrote that "Little Big Man" was "an endlessly entertaining attempt to spin an epic in the form of a yarn." He was right.

"It mostly works," Ebert observed. "When it doesn't — when there's a failure of tone or an overdrawn caricature — it regroups cheerfully and plunges ahead. We're disposed to go along; all good storytellers tell stretchers once in a while, and circle back to be sure we got the good parts."

In "Little Big Man," they were all good parts.

"Hoffman, or Little Big Man, gets around pretty well," Ebert wrote. "He touches all the bases of the Western myth. He was brought West as a settler, raised as a Cheyenne, tried his hand at gunfighting and medicine shows, scouted for the cavalry, experimented with the hermit life, was married twice, survived Custer's Last Stand and sat at the foot of an old man named Old Lodge Skins (Chief Dan George), who instructed him in the Cheyenne view of creation."

And that, in a nutshell, was Little Big Man's character — except he answered to Jack Crabb when he came West as a settler or when he found himself among other whites.

The "yarn," as Ebert put it, was told by Hoffman's character at the age of 121. Yes, you read that right. And it worked quite well. Extremely well.

"The yarn is the most flexible of story forms," Ebert observed. "Its teller can pause to repeat a point; he can hurry ahead 10 years; he can forget an entire epoch in remembering the legend of a single man. He doesn't capture the history of a time, but its flavor. 'Little Big Man' gives us the flavor of the Cheyenne nation before white men brought uncivilization to the West."

It would be hard to pinpoint what kind of movie it was. It was a comedy, a drama, a satire, a tragedy. Sometimes it was just one; at other times, it was a mix of two or more.

One thing it was not was literal history.

And Ebert observed that the story was circular. "All the characters who appear in the early stages of the film come back in the later stages, fulfilled. The preacher's wife (Faye Dunaway) returns as a prostitute. The medicine–quack, already lacking an arm, loses a leg (physician, heal thyself). Wild Bill Hickok decays from a has–been to a freak show attraction. Custer fades from glory to madness. Only Old Lodge Skins makes it through to the end not merely intact but improved."

The really ridiculous thing about "Little Big Man" is how it was all but overlooked by the Oscars.

Chief Dan George was nominated for Best Supporting Actor (which he lost) — and that was it. Even the schmaltzy "Love Story" got seven nominations.

Well, it wasn't the first time that a more deserving movie got snubbed by the Oscars.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Who Knows What the Tide Could Bring?

"We both had done the math. Kelly added it all up and knew she had to let me go. I added it up and knew that I had lost her. 'Cause I was never gonna get off that island. I was gonna die there, totally alone. I was gonna get sick or get injured or something. The only choice I had, the only thing I could control was when and how and where it was going to happen. So I made a rope, and I went up to the summit to hang myself. I had to test it, you know? Of course. You know me. And the weight of the log snapped the limb of the tree, so I couldn't even kill myself the way I wanted to. I had power over nothing, and that's when this feeling came over me like a warm blanket. I knew, somehow, that I had to stay alive. Somehow. I had to keep breathing. Even though there was no reason to hope and all my logic said that I would never see this place again. So that's what I did. I stayed alive. I kept breathing. And one day my logic was proven all wrong because the tide came in and gave me a sail. And now here I am. I'm back. In Memphis, talking to you. I have ice in my glass. And I've lost her all over again. I'm so sad that I don't have Kelly. But I'm so grateful that she was with me on that island. And I know what I have to do now. I gotta keep breathing. Because tomorrow the sun will rise. Who knows what the tide could bring?"

Chuck (Tom Hanks)

If the general story of "Cast Away," which premiered 15 years ago today, seemed familiar to you, it should have. It was based on a poem ("Enoch Arden") that was written more than 150 years ago by Alfred, Lord Tennyson when he was England's poet laureate.

It served as the basis for a number of movie projects long before "Cast Away," which premiered on this day in 2000, was made. In the silent era, D.W. Griffith made a film called "Enoch Arden," as did Christy Cabanne. An Australian movie named "The Bushwackers" was made in the 1920s.

Then, after talkies had been around for about a decade, Cary Grant and Irene Dunne appeared together in a movie called "My Favorite Wife" in 1940, which was being remade with Marilyn Monroe and Dean Martin as "Something's Got to Give" in the months before Monroe's death in 1962. When that project was canceled, a remake was made with Doris Day and James Garner called "Move Over, Darling."

Another movie from 1940, "Too Many Husbands," starred Jean Arthur and Fred MacMurray. It was remade more than a decade later as "Three for the Show" with Jack Lemmon and Betty Grable.

And 1946's "Tomorrow Is Forever" starred Claudette Colbert and Orson Welles — and was the first credited film appearance for Natalie Wood.

All those movies were inspired by Alfred, Lord Tennyson's poem, which was about a fisherman who went to sea and was shipwrecked. He was missing for 10 years, then was rescued, only to find upon his return that his wife (and presumed widow) had married his childhood friend, with whom she had had a child. Not wishing to spoil her happiness, he never revealed his identity to her and died of a broken heart.

Each adaptation had different circumstances — and, in some, it was the wife, not the husband, who was marooned on an island — but it was basically the same story — a significant other was missing and presumed dead.

The story usually picked up after that significant other had been rescued, but "Cast Away" was different. The viewers followed Chuck (Tom Hanks), a FedEx employee whose plane went down in a storm, through his years of isolation on an uncharted island.

The audience had no idea what had become of Chuck's girlfriend, Kelly (Helen Hunt), until he was rescued and brought back to Memphis (which, for those of you who do not know, is the base city for FedEx). It was then he learned that Kelly had married someone else after she had given up all hope of finding him alive. It wasn't a childhood friend. It was Chuck's dentist.

Hanks was nominated for Best Actor, which I thought was appropriate, and he lost, which I didn't necessarily think was appropriate. I thought Hunt deserved a nomination as well — not for Best Actress, because she didn't have nearly enough screen time for that, but as Best Supporting Actress (hey, if Beatrice Straight could win for five minutes of screen time in "Network," why not Hunt?). Her part was important to the beginning and the end of the story.

Of course, Hunt won Best Actress for her work in "As Good As It Gets," and she got a Best Supporting Actress nod for "The Sessions." Many actresses would consider their careers successful if they had those to put on their resumes, and I don't doubt that Hunt is proud of her career, but I have felt strongly about this for a long time now. I really believe she deserved a nomination for "Cast Away."

"I always knew you were alive," she told Chuck when they were reunited. "I knew it. And everybody said that I had to quit saying that, that I had to let you go."

Then she said the words every person would like to hear from another: "I love you. You're the love of my life."

And Chuck replied, "I love you, too, Kelly. More than you'll ever know."

When I saw her deliver this line the first time, I wished the movie had given some attention to what was going on in what had to have been a frantic search for Chuck. That must have been a poignant story. We saw Chuck's transformation from a clock–driven courier to man isolated on an uncharted island where time was, by and large, irrelevant. But we didn't see the emotional roller–coaster ride Kelly's character must have gone through in the search for evidence of what had become of Chuck.

We only got hints of what it must have been like for Hunt's character, first from her husband when he came to Hanks' welcome–home rally and then from Hunt herself.

That part of it was never really explored in those other movies I mentioned, either. That was a missed opportunity.

Not Exactly a Christmas 'Gift'

"Miss Wilson, I don't believe in what you do. I'll just be straight with you. Not only that, I don't like it. But, we've got to the end of the road of our investigation ... and looked under every rock there is to look under ... and we'd like you to tell us what you can to help us."

Sheriff (J.K. Simmons)

"The Gift," which premiered 15 years ago today, seemed to slip in beneath most people's radars. That is a shame because it really was a suspenseful tale.

Many of those who went to see it during the Christmas season in 2000 may well have expected to see a holiday–oriented tale if all they knew of it was its title. Boy, were they in for a surprise.

Cate Blanchett played a young widow, a psychic who did card readings for people in a small town in Georgia. In the early minutes of the movie, audiences must have been certain that Hilary Swank, who played a victim of spousal abuse, would be likely to turn up dead. Instead it was Katie Holmes, the fiancee of Greg Kinnear who was having torrid affairs with apparently everyone, who turned up missing.

It was enough to give anyone a headache — and then there was Blanchett's long–dead grandmother (Rosemary Harris) who popped up to remind her to trust her instincts.

There were enough creepy things going on to make sure everyone knew this wasn't a Christmas movie.

Now before I proceed, I should try to address what I see as a conflict in terminology. I said that Blanchett played a psychic although I suppose when I was a child I would have called her a fortune teller because questions about the future are what card readings always seemed to me to be about when I was growing up. You know, questions like will I fall in love and get married? or will I be successful? Magic 8–Ball stuff.

And I gather that Blanchett's character did her share of that with many of her clients, but the clients the audience saw were always having their pasts revealed — Swank's abuse as well as the abuse of another character, Buddy (Giovanni Ribisi), who had been abused as a child by his father.

My point is that I'm not sure if psychic and fortune teller mean the same thing or different things.

It is in the area of revelation of the past that I associate the term psychic — if only because I hear from time to time of psychics being brought on to help criminal investigators who have run into a wall in their probes into disappearances.

That is what happened in "The Gift."

Holmes' disappearance brought Blanchett into the apparently stalled investigation. She had a vision of Holmes being attacked and killed and then thrown into a pond on property belonging to Swank's husband (Keanu Reeves), and that led to Reeves' arrest and eventual conviction after Holmes' body was retrieved from his pond.

This brings me to one of my quibbles with the movie. It appeared that Reeves was arrested, then almost immediately put on trial. I know the Constitution guarantees every defendant the right to a speedy trial, but that is much faster than the legal process usually works.

(Speaking as someone who, like many novice reporters, covered police and fire beats, things don't happen as quickly as they seem to happen in the movies.)

But Reeves' character wasn't guilty, as Blanchett learned in another vision, and she went to the prosecutor (Gary Cole) to ask him to reopen the case. She couldn't see who the killer was, she said, but there seemed to be no shortage of prospects, including Swank, who knew that Holmes had been sleeping with her husband and, consequently, "she deserved what she got."

Such can be the moralizing posture of a small Southern town.

When I saw "The Gift," I was inclined — and I still am — to think of it as being successful in its bid to be suspenseful, in no small part because of the cast that was assembled. Otherwise, though, I kind of felt it became a rather predictable whodunnit in the second half of the movie.

Film critic Roger Ebert was more glowing in his praise. "The movie is ingenious in its plotting, colorful in its characters, taut in its direction and fortunate in possessing Cate Blanchett," Ebert wrote. "If this were not a crime picture (if it were sopped in social uplift instead of thrills), it would be easier to see the quality of her work. By the end, as all hell is breaking loose, it's easy to forget how much everything depended on the sympathy and gravity she provided in the first two acts."

There is truth in that.

Blanchett's character provided a balance in the telling of the story — at one point Buddy told her she was the "soul" of the town, and I think the same could be said of her influence on the movie.

But what many people — mostly, I suppose, adolescent males — found and still find memorable about "The Gift" was it contained Holmes' first nude scene.

Ebert's opinion notwithstanding, the movie received no recognition from the Oscars — doesn't seem to be too surprising. The Oscars seldom give nominations to comedies or supernatural thrillers.

That doesn't mean, of course, that they aren't worthy of recognition. It's merely a long–standing Academy bias.

When the Bunker Baby Was Born

On this night in 1975, All in the Family concluded its two–part episode on the birth of Archie and Edith's grandson.

When the audience last saw her a week earlier, Gloria (Sally Struthers) was in labor in a phone booth in an Italian restaurant. The door of the phone booth was stuck, and emergency workers were trying to get her out so she could be taken to the hospital — where Archie (Carroll O'Connor) and Edith (Jean Stapleton) were waiting. Meanwhile, her husband Mike (Rob Reiner) was practically hysterical.

The admissions nurse kept insisting that Gloria hadn't arrived, but Archie, who had been in a minstrel show at his lodge when he was summoned to the hospital, was sure that he saw Gloria's name on the register and set off to find her, still wearing blackface.

Needless to say, it wasn't Gloria. The name was, as the admissions nurse had said, "Stipic," not Stivic.

The delivery scene really was entertaining. The doctor told stories about two sisters, Dorothy and Bernice, who worked as nurses at the hospital. Apparently, they lived together, but they didn't really get along too well.

At one point he instructed Gloria to push as if she were putting her foot to the accelerator of a car. Between breaths, Gloria replied, "I don't drive."

Mike, who was still hysterical, observed that Gloria was panting and pushing and still making jokes. "Isn't she terrific?" he kept saying. "You're terrific, honey!"

Bernice, who was assisting, told Mike to relax. "We haven't lost a father yet."

Mike observed that the nurse was "terrific. Everybody's terrific!"

After the baby was born, Mike went to the waiting room to deliver the news to Archie and Edith.

What followed was a scene most All in the Family watchers probably thought they would never see — Archie and Mike embracing.

Archie was a traditionalist, a man's man (at least in his own eyes) who wouldn't hug another man. But this was a special occasion for both.

I can't say whether this was one of the series' most memorable moments for the majority of its fans. I was a fan of the show, and I remember the episodes. Why, I cannot say with any certainty. Why does any episode of any series stick with people? OK, some really are special for one thing or another, like I Love Lucy's early episode in which Lucy did a commercial for a product that had a pretty high alcohol content or the Mary Tyler Moore episode in which the unseen Chuckles the Clown was killed in a circus parade and the newsroom gang attended his funeral.

But it seems to me that other TV episodes are memorable because they evoke certain emotions within the viewers. They may not have anything special to say about the topic, no lesson to teach, nothing more than observations about life.

Those two episodes were probably among the best of that season for All in the Family. Were they among the best of the series' entire run? I can't say that for certain.

But I would rank them in my personal Top 10 for the series.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

A Testament to Faith

"Read the newspaper. What does it say? All bad. It's all bad. People have forgotten what life is all about. They've forgotten what it is to be alive. They need to be reminded. They need to be reminded of what they have and what they can lose. What I feel is the joy of life, the gift of life, the freedom of life, the wonderment of life!"

Leonard (Robert De Niro)

I have already written about a couple of Robin Williams' movies that premiered in December, but today is the 25th anniversary of the premiere of a movie that will always be among my favorites — "Awakenings."

It surprised me, though, how much attention was given — and continues to be given — to Robert De Niro's performance. He was good, as always, but so was Robin Williams — who gave a truly sensitive performance (one that was probably surprisingly sensitive for many people). De Niro got the Oscar nomination for Best Actor. Williams was passed over.

Williams played a doctor who discovered the benefits of using a drug that had shown promising results with Parkinson's patients on victims of an encephalitis epidemic that left many people catatonic for decades. De Niro played one of the victims who now had to adjust to life in a world that didn't exist when they became sick.

The movie was an affirmation of life, both from those who portrayed the victims of the illness and those who sought to treat them.

Williams' character came to hospital with no experience working with patients. He worked with earthworms in his most recent project. It was tedious work, but he brought a rare, even for that time, dedication to his task.
Dr. Sayer (Robin Williams): It was an immense project. I was to extract 1 decagram of myelin from four tons of earthworms.

Dr. Sullivan (John Christopher Jones): Really!

Dr. Sayer: Yes. I was on the project for five years. I was the only one who believed in it. Everyone else said it couldn't be done.

Dr. Kaufman (John Heard): It can't.

Dr. Sayer: I know that now. I proved it.

But he quickly developed an empathy for his patients and a deep desire to restore a conscious life to them. When the use of L–Dopa had truly astonishing results with Leonard (De Niro), Williams' character was emboldened to seek the funding necessary to make the drug available to all of his catatonic patients.

As I say, the emphasis was on De Niro, but I really felt the heart of the story was Williams. So, too, apparently did Roger Ebert.

"Dr. Sayer, played by Williams, is at the center of almost every scene, and his personality becomes one of the touchstones of the movie," wrote Ebert. "He is shut off, too: by shyness and inexperience, and even the way he holds his arms, close to his sides, shows a man wary of contact. He really was happier working with those earthworms. This is one of Robin Williams' best performances, pure and uncluttered, without the ebullient distractions he sometimes adds — the schtick where none is called for. He is a lovable man here who experiences the extraordinary professional joy of seeing chronic, hopeless patients once again sing and dance and greet their loved ones."

This was no Mork from Ork or any of Williams' manic characters. It was a character with whom the audience could identify.

Julie Kavner played another such character, a nurse and ardent supporter of Dr. Sayer's vision. The introverted Dr. Sayer never realized what the audience had known for a long time until the end of the movie — that she loved him.

I guess that was something of an awakening in Dr. Sayer.

Sadly, the benefits of L–Dopa turned out to be temporary, and the patients were soon restored to their catatonic states — not unlike the story of Charly, Cliff Robertson's Oscar–winning role.

The manic side of Robin Williams could only be contained so long, of course, and he had a memorable Robin Williams moment during the cast press conference. Director Penny Marshall, in attempting to describe the story, kept saying "menstrual" instead of "mental," prompting Williams to step to the microphone and deadpan, "It's a period piece."

It was also a testament to faith in the human spirit and its ability to overcome just about any obstacle.

"Awakenings" received three Oscar nominations — Best Picture, Best Actor (De Niro) and Best Adapted Screenplay. It lost all three.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

The Best New Year's Eve Party in New York

On Dec. 19, I suppose many TV programs are still in Christmas mode — if they haven't been preempted by seasonal specials or movies that most of us have seen several times before.

But on this night 10 years ago, How I Met Your Mother was looking past Christmas and had turned its attention to New Year's Eve with an episode called "The Limo."

Ted (Josh Radnor) spent half of his Christmas bonus on a limo to take him and his friends to five different New Year's Eve parties. After sampling these parties, they would return to the one they all deemed the best to ring in 2006. That was Ted's plan for a magical New Year's Eve — but you know the old saying about the best–laid plans of mice and men.

One immediate hitch — Robin (Cobie Smulders) couldn't go along. She was meeting her new boyfriend for some New Year's Eve festivities. But when they stopped at Party #1, they picked up a girl Ted knew from work, and Barney (Neil Patrick Harris) picked up Natalia, a girl from somewhere around the former Soviet Union who appeared to have been doing quite a bit of drinking — and they were still 2½ hours from midnight. So that seemed to balance out.

And, with the sounds of Barney's get–psyched mix CD ringing in their ears, the group was off.

At one point on their trek through New York, they thought they saw Moby, a popular recording artist of the day, and they invited him to ride with them, but it wasn't Moby. It was just someone who looked like Moby — and he had a gun.

They let him off as soon as possible and politely declined his invitation to join him at the party he was attending. And he left — with Barney's get–psyched CD — and forever became not–Moby in the lore of the group.

I guess the story of the episode was really about Marshall (Jason Segel) and Lily (Alyson Hannigan), who got separated during the evening when Lily absolutely had to go home and take off her new shoes, but they promised each other they would find each other before midnight.

And they did, making that New Year's Eve the magical New Year's Eve Ted had been pursuing. What's more, Marshall had bumped into not–Moby and took the CD from him. He returned it to Barney.

If the Seinfeld show, which was popular a decade earlier, was a series about nothing, "The Limo" was probably the episode about nothing. It had no lesson to convey. In the end, the group rang in the new year drinking champagne in a traffic jam and agreed that just being together made theirs the best New Year's Eve party in New York.

I kind of looked at the episode as sort of a sitcom–sized version of the old road movies, not nearly as epic as "The Odyssey" or "Thelma and Louise" but filled with adventure.

And entertaining to the end.

Taming a Raging Bull

Jake La Motta (Robert De Niro): She says he's pretty.

Joey LaMotta (Joe Pesci): Yeah, well, you make him ugly.

I like black–and–white movies. I know some people don't. I've noticed that younger people are often dismissive of black and white, but they deprive themselves of some truly great movies that way — classics, whether they came out in the '30s or on this day in 1980.

That was the day that Martin Scorsese's "Raging Bull," the story of boxer Jake LaMotta, premiered — and it seemed fitting to tell the tale in black and white, just as it seemed fitting 25 years later to tell the story of Edward R. Murrow and Joseph McCarthy in "Good Night, and Good Luck" in black and white.

Both movies were based on true stories that took place at a time when color was cost prohibitive, something you really only saw on movie screens, not the much smaller screen of the television set. And you certainly didn't see color in news footage of either LaMotta's fights or the Murrow–McCarthy clashes.

But "Raging Bull" wasn't really a boxing movie, and Roger Ebert came about as close as anyone has to explaining what it was really about. He wrote that it was "about a man with paralyzing jealousy and sexual insecurity, for whom being punished in the ring serves as confession, penance and absolution. It is no accident that the screenplay never concerns itself with fight strategy. For Jake LaMotta, what happens during a fight is controlled not by tactics but by his fears and drives."

LaMotta's obsessiveness with his wife (played by Cathy Moriarty), who was 15 when they met, told the story best.

LaMotta constantly worried that she would have relationships with other men. When she made an offhand remark about one of his opponents, saying he was "good–looking," LaMotta made a point of pounding the man into a pulp, then glaring at his wife in the crowd. She got the message.

It's one of those basic, primal urges in man, I guess, to stake out a territory and be jealous of anyone who posed a threat to it, whether that territory was land or livestock — or female. It may not be the sort of thing that can be changed, as deeply ingrained as it appears to be.

In modern man, much of that instinct is contained by various factors that didn't exist or were much less pronounced centuries ago, including professions, but some professions still urge those within them to utilize such instincts. One such profession is boxing, where violence is not just permitted but openly encouraged.

It really shouldn't surprise anyone when a professional fighter resorts to violence outside the ring. It is the only way many of them ever learned to resolve any kind of conflict.

The story was told in a kind of flashback style with the present day being an aging Jake LaMotta, past his boxing days and doing standup routines to support himself, followed by reflections on his life and career.

The movie followed a recurring theme that those familiar with Scorsese's work must have recognized. Again, Ebert may have described it best: "the inability of his characters to trust and relate with women."

"Jake has an ambivalence toward women that Freud famously named the 'Madonna–whore complex,'" Ebert observed. "For LaMotta, women are unapproachable, virginal ideals — until they are sullied by physical contact (with him), after which they become suspect."

Or, as Groucho Marx put it, "I wouldn't want to belong to any club that would have me as a member."

It isn't funny, though. Jake even went after his brother (Joe Pesci) in a jealous rage.

Ebert couldn't stop gushing about the movie. He wrote that it was "the most painful and heartrending portrait of jealousy in the cinema— an 'Othello' for our times. It's the best film I've seen about the low self–esteem, sexual inadequacy and fear that lead some men to abuse women. Boxing is the arena, not the subject. LaMotta was famous for refusing to be knocked down in the ring. There are scenes where he stands passively, his hands at his side, allowing himself to be hammered. We sense why he didn't go down. He hurt too much to allow the pain to stop."

"Raging Bull" tied with "The Elephant Man" for the most Oscar nominations at eight apiece. De Niro won Best Actor, and Thelma Schoonmaker received the Oscar for Best Film Editing, but "Ordinary People," in hindsight a rather routine drama, won Best Picture and Best Director.

There are probably some Oscar voters who regret those decisions now. Certainly the folks at the American Film Institute would go along with awarding those Oscars to Scorsese and his movie. AFI ranks "Raging Bull" #4 on the all–time greatest movies list. "Ordinary People" didn't make the Top 100.

The Spirit of Christmas

"The Cranes of Maine have got your Living Brain!"

Niles (David Hyde Pierce)

In the initial part of the episode of Frasier that first aired on this night in 1995, viewers were treated to a kind of collage of Christmas jokes.

For example, during one of Frasier's radio programs, a caller called in to say he was conflicted. He was supposed to fly to Newark for the holiday, but the next flight over was to Maui. "It's calling to me," the caller (Ray Liotta) told him.

Frasier wanted to know why the caller was hesitant to go home. The caller said it was because the conversation was always the same. It wasn't about hopes or dreams. It was about the turkey.

Frasier assured him it was the same for everyone and said the important thing was to spend time with family. How would he feel, Frasier wondered, if he woke up the next morning 6,000 miles from home? The caller said that really put things in perspective. "I got a plane to catch," he said.

"Mele kaliki maka, Bob," Frasier replied.

A Christmas party was in progress at the radio station, and Bulldog (Dan Butler) had hired a stripper named Candy Cane. He tried to use her to get Frasier discombobulated while he was reading a holiday parable he had composed — but Frasier resisted.

The real story, though, was about Frasier's son Frederick, who was coming from Boston to visit his father in Seattle for Christmas. Frasier's gift order — all mentally stimulating gifts — had been sent to a Crane family in Maine by mistake — and their package, containing Barbie dolls and a cooking set, had been sent to Frasier.

Martin (John Mahoney) tried to tell Frasier that he was always giving people gifts he thought they should want instead of things they actually wanted. Martin said he knew what to give Frederick — a toy called an Outlaw Laser Robo Geek, a hot toy that was being heavily advertised. Frasier insisted that he had to give Frederick educational toys for Christmas so he and Niles (David Hyde Pierce) went to the mall on Christmas Eve (on their way to the airport to meet Frederick) in search of last–minute substitutions.

They weren't very successful — at least until they encountered a shopper who had the kind of things Frasier wanted to give Frederick, but the store where he bought them had been closed for half an hour. The shopper wanted $1,000 for what was maybe a couple of hundred dollars' worth of toys. Frasier started to haggle, but Niles reminded him of the pending arrival of Frederick's plane. So Frasier gave in.

When they got back to the apartment, it turned out Martin had been right. Frederick did want an Outlaw Laser Robo Geek.

Freddie went to bed, eager for Christmas morning to arrive, and Frasier had a heart–to–heart with his father. They agreed that picking the perfect gift is not always an easy thing. Some people are just plain hard to shop for.

A crestfallen Frasier handed a box to his father. It was his gift to him, but he said he knew his father would be disappointed. Martin tried to act pleased, thinking the garment was a robe, but Frasier corrected him — it was a dressing gown.

"Noel Coward would love it," Frasier said.

Martin gave Frasier his gift. When Frasier opened it, he teared up. "Oh, Dad," he said. "How did you know it was just what I wanted? My very own Outlaw Laser Robo Geek!"

Frasier taught its viewers a special lesson about Christmas on this night 20 years ago.

Friday, December 18, 2015

The Story of a Scoundrel

"Fate had determined that he should leave none of his race behind him and that he should finish his life poor, lonely and childless."


If there ever was a movie that proved how versatile its director was, the movie that premiered on this day in 1975, "Barry Lyndon," was such a movie.

And its director, Stanley Kubrick, was such a director.

I've been a fan of Kubrick's work for a long time, and he was very versatile. Each movie was different from the others he made. He made some comedies, he made some dramas. He explored space, he explored nuclear war, he directed scary movies. He did it all.

"Barry Lyndon" was set in the 18th century, and it told the story of an Irish adventurer.

It was one of those movies that wasn't particularly well received when it was showing at the theaters, but it has become more highly regarded in the years that have passed. In some surveys, it is regarded as Kubrick's finest work, eclipsing "Dr. Strangelove," "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "A Clockwork Orange."

Yes, I know, that is high praise, but I believe "Barry Lyndon" lived up to it. And I am a fan of all those movies.

The movie was based on a novel by English writer William Makepeace Thackeray, and apparently it followed the style of its day, which was to tell a character's life story as if it were a chronological biography, from birth to death. I never read the book, but the narrator spoiled any suspense by informing the audience of what was to come. Thus, when Barry's demise finally comes, it is no surprise to anyone.

Barry Lyndon led a checkered life, to be sure. He participated in duels, fought in war, married a countess (Marisa Berenson) and generally enjoyed the existence of a narcissist, spending his wife's money on excessive living, but eventually he was forced to end the marriage and leave England when his stepson seized control of the countess' estate.

The story was told with a detachment that may have been commonplace in the 19th century but probably came across as flat to audiences in the late 20th century. For Kubrick, though, it worked.

"Kubrick has directed Ryan O'Neal in the title role as if he were a still life," wrote film critic Roger Ebert. "It's difficult to imagine such tumultuous events whirling around such a passive character. He loses a fortune, a wife or a leg with as little emotion as he might in losing a dog. Only the death of his son devastates him and that perhaps because he sees himself in the boy."

Even though the movie took place in a different century than any of Kubrick's other movies — well, with the noteworthy exception of "Spartacus," I guess — I could see Kubrick's stylistic touches in "Barry Lyndon" that were recognizable in those other films. The camera angles he used and the way he utilized lighting in the scenes. Clearly Kubrick. His directorial fingerprints were all over "Barry Lyndon."

The great directors have certain touches that you know are theirs — and theirs alone. There may be other directors who seek to imitate them — but some things can't be duplicated.

"It is certainly in every frame a Kubrick film," agreed Roger Ebert, "technically awesome, emotionally distant, remorseless in its doubt of human goodness."

"Barry Lyndon" in the hands of anyone else would never have been the same. Kubrick was nominated for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. "Barry Lyndon" was nominated for Best Picture.

The movie didn't receive Oscars in those categories — all three went to "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" — but it was rewarded with Oscars for Best Costume Design, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction and Best Original Song Score or Adaptation Score.

'One of the Great Recent Epic Romances'

"It's an odd feeling, farewell. There is such envy in it. Men go off to be tested, for courage. And if we're tested at all, it's for patience, for doing without, for how well we can endure loneliness."

Karen Blixen (Meryl Streep)

Long ago, it became a cliche to speak of Meryl Streep as a perennial Oscar nominee. She has been nominated 17 times for her acting. The first two were for Best Supporting Actress (she won for "Kramer vs. Kramer"), and she got a third Best Supporting Actress nomination in 2002 for "Adaptation." The remaining 14 were for Best Actress (she has won twice).

Many actresses have been nominated for Oscars multiple times. Streep's nomination for "Out of Africa," which premiered on this day in 1985, was her fourth for Best Actress. That seems like a lot of times, but it really isn't so unusual. Thirteen actresses have been nominated for Best Actress four times. Another 11 have been nominated five times each. It isn't until you get to a half dozen Best Actress nominations that you start getting into the rarefied air of Ingrid Bergman, Greer Garson, Katharine Hepburn ... and Meryl Streep.

Nevertheless, I want to say it was her performance in "Out of Africa" that was her breakthrough into that rarefied category of the truly great, legendary actresses whose bodies of work were supported by an appropriate number of Oscar nominations. Some people will tell you her breakthrough was her Oscar–winning performance in "Sophie's Choice," but that was only her second Best Actress nomination. So many actresses have been nominated twice that it really isn't a noteworthy achievement. Others will say it was her Oscar–nominated performance in "Silkwood," and I can understand that. It was very serious subject matter. I could go along with that as the turning point in Streep's career even though she didn't win.

But it almost seems preordained. The movies she has picked always seem to have Oscar Nomination scrawled on the script.

The truth about Meryl Streep, it seems to me, is that she is so versatile. The reason why she has been nominated so many times is because she immerses herself in her roles. I guess that leads to a variation on the chicken–or–the–egg questions: Is it because she selects the best movies that she is perceived to be so good, or are the movies great because she is in them?

Not all the movies in which she has participated and been nominated for her work have been nominated for Best Picture so you have to conclude from that that her success is her own, that she did not ride the success of obvious winners. After all, she won Best Actress for "The Iron Lady," turning in a great performance in a movie that was otherwise sleep inducing. Some of her movies have been nominated for Best Picture — and "Out of Africa" won — even though Streep did not. It is hard to make the argument that the movie did not deserve the recognition. Film critic Roger Ebert called it "one of the great recent epic romances."

So did "Out of Africa" make Streep better? Or did Streep make "Out of Africa" better? In the words of Forrest Gump, maybe it has been a little of both.

I think it was the chemistry between Streep and her co–star Robert Redford, who wasn't even nominated. I think the chemistry between the stars of any love story has to be natural and believable. It isn't always, but when it's good, there is virtually no limit to how successful that movie can be.

In this case, it won the Oscar for Best Picture (and half a dozen other Oscars as well) and earned more than $128 million at the box office. That's pretty darn successful.

Redford is another one of those actors who frequently seemed to be in movies that really were among the best of a given year before his career began leaning more toward directing — but you can't really apply the same question to him that is applied to Streep. Although he's given several performances that were worthy of Oscar nominations, only one — his performance in "The Sting" — was rewarded with one. His only Oscar was for directing "Ordinary People."

I'm not a fan of romance movies, but I do like good stories, and "Out of Africa" was a good story with Oscar–winning direction from Sydney Pollack, screenplay by Kurt Luedtke that was adapted from an autobiography by Streep's character, John Barry's soaring score, David Watkin's sweeping cinematography and brilliant art direction and sound mixing.

It was a complete package.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Never Having to Say You're Sorry

"Love means never having to say you're sorry."

Ali MacGraw, 'Love Story'
13th–greatest movie quote of all time,
American Film Institute

Arthur Hiller's "Love Story," which made its debut on this day in 1970, was phenomenally popular. Even after 45 years, it is still one of the highest–grossing movies in American history.

Of course, there is always a market for sappy love stories, and it doesn't get much sappier than blatantly advertising what it is in the title. Most love stories have the decency to try (or appear to try) to conceal the truth until the reader or viewer has made his/her commitment. Not "Love Story."

It was a tearjerker, all right, and proud of it. Ryan O'Neal played a well–to–do law student who fell in love with a free–spirited, even rebellious daughter of a blue–collar working man (Ali MacGraw). She called him "preppy" and "jock." He found her charming, her honesty refreshing. They fell in love. Then she got sick with what has been described as a "movie disease." The disease itself is undefined — although the implication in "Love Story" was that it was some kind of cancer — but it has shown up in many movies since — and whoever gets it is going to die. Of that, you can be sure.

And MacGraw died. There was no physical decline. She was just as beautiful when her character died as she had been when she was healthy.

"What can you say about a 25–year–old girl who died?" asked O'Neal's character in the second–most quoted piece of dialogue from the movie. "That she was beautiful and brilliant? That she loved Mozart and Bach? The Beatles? And me?"

In between, there were other issues. O'Neal's father (Ray Milland) threatened to cut off his son financially if he married MacGraw. Of course, O'Neal and MacGraw married, anyway, and then had to struggle to make ends meet. Especially after MacGraw got sick. That development forced O'Neal's character to swallow his pride and approach his father for some financial relief.

Erich Segal wrote the screenplay, then was encouraged by Paramount Pictures to write a novel from the screenplay. The novel was published on Valentine's Day 1970 and became a bestseller well in advance of the movie's release.

Film critic Roger Ebert wrote that he read the novel "in about 14 minutes flat, out of simple curiosity. I wanted to discover why 5.5 million people had actually bought it. I wasn't successful. I was so put off by Erich Segal's writing style, in fact, that I hardly wanted to see the movie at all. Segal's prose style is so revoltingly coy — sort of a cross between a parody of Hemingway and the instructions on a soup can — that his story is fatally infected."

But Ebert conceded that he felt the movie was better than the book.

Based on his assessment of the book, I would have to say that it would just about have to be better.

I never read the book, but I saw the movie once. I was unmoved. But lots of people clearly were. MacGraw's character's pearl of wisdom — "Love means never having to say you're sorry" — took on iconic qualities, and the movie's theme song, sung by Andy Williams, was a huge hit. "Love Story" captured the culture's imagination.

Addressing the point that the makers of the movie obviously wanted to move the audience to tears, Ebert wrote, "Is this an unworthy purpose? Does the movie become unworthy, as Newsweek thought it did, simply because it has been mechanically contrived to tell us a beautiful, tragic tale? I don't think so. There's nothing contemptible about being moved to joy by a musical, to terror by a thriller, to excitement by a Western. Why shouldn't we get a little misty during a story about young lovers separated by death?"

Whether it was beautiful is a matter of opinion. That it was tragic was undeniable.

It went on to inspire many other movies, which gave viewers basically the same plot but with a few modest alterations, and most were successful, although none was as successful as "Love Story," the biggest moneymaker Paramount Pictures had ever had.

Today I suppose I find "Love Story" more noteworthy as the movie debut of actor Tommy Lee Jones. He's had better roles since then, but, heck, we all have to start somewhere, right?

The thing that I find really remarkable about "Love Story" is that it was actually nominated for seven Oscars — and won one. It was for Best Music, which I have always thought was more a response to the impressive sales the soundtrack generated than the quality of the score.

But "Love Story" was also nominated for Best Picture and Best Director, and both O'Neal and MacGraw were nominated for their acting.


O'Neal lost to George C. Scott, who famously refused the award, and MacGraw lost to Glenda Jackson.

Thank God cooler heads prevailed.