Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Yes, Marilyn Could Do Drama



"The female race is always cheesing up my life."

Jed (Richard Widmark)

Even though she was before my time, I am a fan of Marilyn Monroe.

My admiration goes beyond her obvious physical appeal. I think she was a talented actress, too, unappreciated during her life and still so decades after her death.

And I thought I had seen all of her movies — until one day a few years ago when I happened to see "Don't Bother to Knock" being televised. I realized I had never seen it before so I watched it. That movie, which premiered 65 years ago today, was definitive proof of talent that did not depend on good looks.

In that sense, I was reminded of Grace Kelly in "The Country Girl."

Like Kelly, Monroe was always beautiful, but there were variations to her beauty. Sometimes she was glamorous; in "Don't Bother to Knock," I guess her beauty was more understated. It would take concentrated effort to mar her beauty, but you could drape her in clothes that were rather plain and that would bring her beauty down a notch or two.

That, I would say, is what they did in "Don't Bother to Knock."

And Monroe reciprocated with a riveting performance.

It was part of her character. At first she came across as shy and demure. Her clothes were plain. Her demeanor was almost unassuming. But that was all deceptive.

Her character wanted to wear nice clothes and expensive jewelry. But she, like so many others then and now, did not feel she could ever have the finer things she desired. Some people turn to lives of crime to gain the things they want in life. When the audience first saw her in "Don't Bother to Knock," Monroe's character was content to take risks but not necessarily to commit crimes. Well, not exactly, but we'll come back to that.

She was Richard Widmark's love interest. He was on the rebound after being jilted by Anne Bancroft, who was the real glamour girl, a sultry lounge singer. Bancroft had had a fling with Widmark, decided it was one of those things and wrote him a Dear John letter. In this case, I guess you'd call it a Dear Jed letter.

Jed came to New York to try to talk Bancroft out of it, but she didn't budge. Back in his hotel room, Jed looked out his window and saw Monroe across the courtyard, wearing clothes and jewelry that belonged to her employers for the evening, an out–of–town couple (Jim Backus and Lurene Tuttle) who hired her to babysit their daughter (Donna Corcoran) while they were attending a banquet downstairs.

Widmark and Monroe agreed to have a liaison in Monroe's room. Widmark was unaware that the young girl was sleeping in the adjacent room until the girl walked in on them.

As the evening progressed, Widmark became more and more aware that Monroe's character was mentally unstable. At one point, he thought Monroe would push the child out an open window — modern audiences would probably be shocked to see no barriers of any kind on upstairs windows — no rails or bars or anything at a time when air conditioning was still a rare luxury and the only relief to be found on a hot night came from open windows.

I'll leave some of the intricacies of the plot for you to discover for yourself, but Monroe's character continued to descend into a mental state in which she was convinced that Widmark was actually her deceased fiance.

She also bound and gagged the child with whom she had been sitting that evening. Turned out she had a history of mental issues. She had been institutionalized after her fiance's death. She had tried to kill herself, too, by slashing her wrists.

"Don't Bother to Knock" was a mostly forgettable movie, I suppose. The characters lacked emotional depth, and there wasn't a lot of context given until near the end (which, I suppose, was typical of film noir).

But Monroe's performance as the psychologically fragile Nell undoubtedly was influenced by Monroe's own experiences with her mother. That alone would make "Don't Bother to Knock" worth watching.

It was Monroe's first truly dramatic effort after appearing in 17 other films, mostly comedies, and it was a few years before the comedies for which Monroe is best remembered — "The Seven–Year Itch" and "Some Like It Hot."

It was Bancroft's debut.

Monroe's wasn't the first film portrayal of a mentally disturbed individual — but seldom has it been as honest.

Friday, July 14, 2017

The Timeless Tale of Lou Gehrig



"All the arguing in the world can't change the decision of the umpire."

Lou Gehrig (Gary Cooper)

Of all those who have worn the pinstripes of the New York Yankees, few have worn them with as much distinction as a man who never played an inning of major league ball, Gary Cooper.

Cooper portrayed Yankee great Lou Gehrig in "The Pride of the Yankees," which premiered on this day in 1942.

I'll save you from doing the math. That's 75 years ago, but the story itself is timeless.

Not only was he the pride of the Yankees. Gehrig was the pride of humanity, and it is a story that seems to be too good to be true — until you realize it is true.

Well, there were some details that only an expert of some kind would know — like the fact that even though Gehrig's jersey number could be seen in re–creations of World Series play from the 1920s, the Yankees did not start using numbers until the very end of that decade. Or the fact that some of the car models that were seen in the movie did not exist at the time when they were supposedly in use.

But Gehrig was, if anything, more noble in real life than he was in the movie. And there was no better choice to play him than Cooper, the 11th–greatest male movie star, according to the American Film Institute.

Cooper made a career of playing characters, both real and fictional, that were worthy of admiration.

He played Sergeant York, a real–life hero from World War I. After he played Gehrig, he played fictional hero Will Kane in "High Noon."

The American Film Institute included all three roles in its list of the top 50 movie heroes of all time. Deservedly so, too. If Cooper had not died in 1961, he might well have been cast to play Atticus Finch in "To Kill a Mockingbird," judged by AFI to be the most heroic part in movie history — but I'll tell you the truth. It is hard for me to imagine anyone other than Gregory Peck as Atticus.

To get back to the casting of "The Pride of the Yankees" ...

There were times when Cooper wasn't quite right for the part — like when he was supposed to be playing Gehrig during his college days. Cooper was in his 40s, simply too old for that. It would have been better to have a younger actor play the younger Gehrig — perhaps the movie's producers couldn't find one who looked enough like Cooper.

Other than that, though, he was perfect for the part. Teresa Wright was perfect in her role as his wife, and Walter Brennan, a three–time Oscar winner who appeared with Cooper in "Sergeant York," was ideal as sports writer Sam Blake.

Cooper and Wright were rewarded with Oscar nominations for their work. Brennan was not.

In all "The Pride of the Yankees" received 11 Oscar nominations but only won one — for Best Film Editing.

For me the defining moment of Cooper's performance was not the re–creation of Gehrig's farewell to baseball but rather when the character visited a hospitalized child and promised to hit two home runs for him in a World Series game.

Turned out there were some inaccuracies in that tale, but that really doesn't bother me. It was the kind of thing Gehrig would have done. It was just the kind of guy he was. Like when he delivered his "Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth" speech less than two years before his death.

He knew he was dying. Where many people would be thinking only of themselves and the unfairness of their situation, Gehrig's heart was full of gratitude for the love that surrounded him in Yankee Stadium that day.

He never seemed to think of himself. He was always thinking of the other guy. And when that Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day was held at Yankee Stadium in 1939, his words reflected gratitude for what was given to him, not bitterness over what had been taken away.

Those of us who are less saintly can only hope to face our deaths with that kind of dignity.

It took a special actor to bring that to the big screen, and Gary Cooper was a special actor. As great as he was as Sergeant York and Will Kane, his performance as Lou Gehrig may have been his finest.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Is There Anybody Out There?



"The universe is a pretty big place. It's bigger than anything anyone has ever dreamed of before. So if it's just us, seems like an awful waste of space. Right?"

Ellie (Jodie Foster)

I am not a science fiction fan. That is something I have said frequently — but I do like good stories, which is something I also say frequently, and I feel that, if you're going to make a science fiction movie, make it plausible.

In my mind, implausible science fiction is something like "Sharknado" or some similar monster wreaking havoc on civilization. Such sci–fi stories are entertaining but not once will you think that it is something that could really happen.

I like science fiction that makes a clear connection to the actual human experience. Violence and destruction need not be part of the equation, particularly if they originate with a make–believe monster. In fact, I prefer it if they do not.

See, I don't believe that a good story needs splashy special effects. And a science fiction story doesn't need to promote the worst kind of fear. The best science fiction stories explore ideas.

Film critic Roger Ebert made an interesting observation after he watched "Contact" again many years after seeing it for the first time. "'Contact' is a film that takes place at the intersection of science, politics and faith," he wrote. "Those are three subjects that don't always fit easily together."

No, they don't, and especially not today when we are so sharply divided along those very lines.

For that reason, I tend to think that "Contact" could not be made today. Too many groups would be offended by something that was said or done — or both — in the story. Any director who took on such a cinematic challenge would almost certainly end up with something that, at best, faintly resembled his/her original vision.

I have always felt that movies were a special kind of free speech, of self–expression. To be intimidated into not doing or saying something in a movie is a denial of one's free speech. As always, of course, there are limits to free speech. One cannot, after all, do the theatrical version of yelling "Fire!" in a crowded public place.

But as long as that line is not crossed, filmmakers should be permitted freedom of expression.

I agreed with Ebert; the movie was a lot bolder than I first thought.

The main character was Foster, who played a scientist searching for evidence of extraterrestrial life. Foster's character was an atheist who pursued an interest she had cultivated since childhood, inspired by her father who reasoned that, in the vastness of space, it would be a waste if the only intelligent life to be found existed on our planet. Beyond science she had no apparent faith in anything.

Representing faith was Matthew McConaughey, a Christian philosopher and member of a panel charged with selecting someone to travel in a space transport, the schematics for which had been provided to the Earth by aliens many light–years away. He was looking for much the same thing Foster was, but he readily admitted that whoever was sent to explore the heavens had to have faith in God — and that, as far as he was concerned, disqualified Foster.

The political part was represented by Tom Skerritt, the president's science adviser who wanted to halt the funding for the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) program for which Foster's character worked because he believed the objective was pointless.

Ebert described Skerritt's character and his ilk as "see[ing] aliens, God and messages from space all in cynical political terms. They justify their politics with the catch–all motive of 'national defense.'"

There was a time — not really so long ago — when discussions of religion or politics simply weren't done in public settings and comparatively rarely in private — at least not in the sense of whether one was good or evil for holding certain beliefs. But that time had gone long before "Contact" was made, and whereas, as Ebert wrote, "Hollywood treat[ed] movies like a polite dinner party: Don't bring up religion or politics," the subjects had been raised routinely in the movies for years before "Contact." If anything, the animosity between religion and politics has grown more intense in the intervening years.

In short, "Contact" is a movie that still has relevance to new audiences. And, in the tradition of the best science fiction movies I have seen, it raised questions as it entertained. It retains its ability to challenge once deeply held convictions.

In the movie, Skerritt was originally chosen to pilot the space vehicle, but a terrorist leveled it. A second vehicle, about which the public had known nothing, was revealed, and Foster's character was given an opportunity to operate it in space.

Then, after Foster experienced what seemed to be a remarkably revealing journey but may only have been an hallucination, she was forced to concede that, contrary to her earlier public remarks, maybe she did have some kind of faith in something after all.

An incredulous panel member said to her, "You come to us with no evidence, no record, no artifacts. Only a story that to put it mildly strains credibility. Over half a trillion dollars was spent, dozens of lives were lost. Are you really going to sit there and tell us we should just take this all on faith?"

Foster replied, "Is it possible that it didn't happen? Yes. As a scientist, I must concede that, I must volunteer that."

Under questioning from a panel member (James Woods), Foster admitted that she had no evidence to support her story, that she might have hallucinated the whole thing and that, if she had been on the panel, she too would be skeptical.

"Why don't you simply withdraw your testimony," Woods demanded, "and concede that this 'journey to the center of the galaxy' in fact never took place?"

"Because I can't," Foster replied. "I had an experience. I can't prove it, I can't even explain it, but everything that I know as a human being, everything that I am tells me that it was real! I was given something wonderful, something that changed me forever, a vision of the universe that tells us, undeniably, how tiny and insignificant and how rare and precious we all are! A vision that tells us that we belong to something that is greater than ourselves, that we are not, that none of us are alone! I wish I could share that. I wish that everyone, if only for one moment, could feel that awe and humility and hope. That continues to be my wish."

In other words, science and faith are not mutually exclusive. Perhaps they have been explaining the same things in different ways.

A word or two must be said about the movie's director, Robert Zemeckis — although those thoughts have mostly been expressed by Ebert, who wrote that Zemeckis' work "often employs daring technical methods."

Ebert observed that Zemeckis mixed animation and live action in "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" years before computer–generated imagery progressed from short to feature–length films and seamlessly inserted Forrest Gump into historic footage (something Woody Allen did in "Zelig" more than a decade earlier).

In "Contact," Zemeckis did something similar, inserting actual news anchors from CNN into the movie, reporting on this development in space travel. Zemeckis even inserted footage of then–President Bill Clinton into the story. Clinton's part was real. He wasn't performing in the movie; his words weren't about what the audience had just seen, but what he said certainly made sense within the context of the story.

Consequently it seemed real — until you remembered that you had seen nothing of this in the news.

Zemeckis didn't just break the fabled "fourth wall." He knocked it down.

"Contact" received only one Academy Award nomination (Best Sound), but, in keeping with the rest of the evening, lost to "Titanic."

Sunday, July 09, 2017

Scenes From the Swamp



This pearl of wisdom comes, as so many do, from the Bible. It is from Ecclesiastes: "What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun."

Truer words were never spoken, especially in connection with the American political culture. Rabid voters who exhorted Donald Trump to "drain the swamp" may not have realized that the swamp really isn't new. Heck, you put that many politicians into a single building, and you're bound to have some pretty unsavory things going on.

And there have been at least 100 elected lawmakers in the Capitol since George Washington's day.

For as long as I can remember, I have been drawn to political fiction — maybe because there is so little of it and even less that is truly good. That really shouldn't be the case. After all, politicians are still people like you and me — motivated by the same virtues and vices. And a good political novel is about those strengths and weaknesses that we all possess. The people in it just happen to be in political professions.

You'd think there would be more good political fiction than there is. Or at least I would. I mean, they say that prostitution is the world's oldest profession — but the practice of politics has to be a close second. Some people would say there is no difference between the two.

Let's be clear here. I am not referring to novels that explore political themes — I would include such books as "The Grapes of Wrath" and "The Manchurian Candidate" in that category. I'm talking about books that examine the political process from behind the scenes, the legislative maneuverings, that sort of thing.

I recall when I was in college I took a political science course, and my teacher spoke about the Allen Drury series. I was pleased to participate in the conversation, having read all five volumes of the series less than a year before. But then my teacher told us of a 19th–century trilogy by Benjamin Disraeli that essentially did the same thing with the British Parliament. I have wanted to read those books ever since, but I have never found them, not in a bookstore, not even in a library.

If I had been able to read them, I am certain I would have found that they were much like Drury's books. The issues would have been different, but the legislative tactics would have been much the same.

Drury's books were rich in detail and full of compelling portraits of the men and women who walked Washington's corridors of power. The stories and the characters are as relevant today as they were when they were written. I would expect the same of Disraeli's trilogy.

But anyway ...

My mother was the most well–read person I ever knew, and she was aware of my interest in political fiction. As I have observed here before, she introduced me to "Advise and Consent," the first in Drury's series of political novels. Published in 1959, it was about the Senate maneuverings — on both sides — over the president's nomination of a particular individual for secretary of State.

It was a cutthroat atmosphere, one in which a senator's youthful indiscretion — a homosexual relationship — was exploited via blackmail. If that seems implausible today, it wasn't more than 50 years ago.

In the book, the senator (who represented Utah — then, as now, a conservative state) committed suicide in his office.

Drury had extensive experience covering national politics, which lent credibility to his stories. His political novels were fictional, but the plot of "Advise and Consent" was inspired by a true, tragic tale. Five years before "Advise and Consent" was published, Lester Hunt, a Democrat senator from Wyoming, committed suicide in his office.

Some Republican colleagues wanted Hunt to announce that he would not seek re–election and threatened to reveal that his 24–year–old son had been arrested for soliciting sex from an undercover male police officer — first such offenses typically were handled quietly in those days. Hunt's son was convicted and fined in 1953, and the story barely made it back to Wyoming; in April 1954 Hunt announced he would seek re–election. The threat to use his son's arrest and conviction against him in the campaign prompted him to abruptly announce that he would not seek re–election after all, ostensibly because he was worried about the impact this would have on his wife's health, then Hunt committed suicide shortly thereafter.

Hunt wasn't the only real–life personality that could be seen in the pages of "Advise and Consent." Many book reviewers observed that the nominee for secretary of State bore a strong resemblance to Alger Hiss.

I don't know if Drury covered the Hunt tragedy or not, but I do know that he was part of the Washington press at the time. Thus he was able to write a story inspired by observations of actual events.

But when he began writing his sequels — the first of which, "A Shade of Difference," was published 55 years ago — Drury started to incorporate more and more supposition. In his books, Drury was constantly asking, "What if?" His answers usually conformed to his conservative philosophy.

"A Shade of Difference" examined the maneuverings between delegations to the United Nations (and, consequently, the problems they caused for the U.S. in its Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union) rather than the Congress and racial tension surrounding school integration in the American South. As in real life, issues overlapped in the "Advise and Consent" series.

In that sense, the "Advise and Consent" series was truly the forerunner to the West Wing TV series — especially in its early seasons.

For awhile — largely due to issues with Drury's estate — the books went out of print after his death in 1998. But in recent years the books have been reissued in paperback and eBook editions.

Read 'em while you can. They may become scarce again someday.

Nothing new under the sun.

Thursday, July 06, 2017

The Birth of the Beatles



This is a milestone anniversary in the annals of 20th century music.

For it was on this day in 1957 that John Lennon and Paul McCartney, perhaps the most successful songwriting team in history, met for the first time.

Three years before forming the Beatles, Lennon and his band, the Quarrymen, were performing for the second time. They were providing the music at a church festival. McCartney was there.

Lennon asked McCartney to join the band, and he did — even though his father and aunt didn't approve of Lennon. They considered him to be beneath them — although McCartney's father allowed the band to practice in his home.

It was through McCartney that Geoerge Harrison joined the band. McCartney recommended him to play lead guitar, but Lennon thought he was too young (14 at the time). Harrison won him over by playing "Raunchy" on the top deck of a bus in Liverpool.

Ringo Starr joined the band later.

It was 60 years ago today, though, that the nucleus of the band that would dominate popular music for a decade and beyond was born.

Sunday, July 02, 2017

A Love That Would Not Be Denied



"There must be something between us, even if it's only an ocean."

Nickie (Cary Grant)

I'm not the kind of person who is interested in romantic movies.

But, as a writer, I do appreciate a good story, even if it is a romance — and "An Affair to Remember," which made its debut on this day in 1957, was both.

It was such a good story that more than 35 years after it was playing in theaters, it was mentioned frequently in "Sleepless in Seattle," sparking something of a revival. How much of a revival? Well, sales of the video tape went up by some 2 million copies.

Make no mistake, though. "An Affair to Remember" was melodramatic, and the story might not seem as good if someone remade the movie, scene for scene, today. You would certainly have to make some concessions. The world of 1957, after all, was quite different in many ways from the world of 2017, but I think it could be done.

In some ways, it might even be better.

Take, for example, the addiction so many people have to smartphones. Every day I see people walking along on sidewalks with their eyes glued to their smartphone screens, completely oblivious to what is going on around them. Late in the movie when Deborah Kerr's character was struck by an automobile while she was crossing the street, the reason that was given was that she was in a hurry to her meeting with Cary Grant at the Empire State Building and simply wasn't paying attention. It would certainly be plausible for her character to be so engrossed in her smartphone that she walked into oncoming traffic — but it might imply that the woman was more interested in her smartphone than the rendezvous she was on her way to keep.

(Actually, "An Affair to Remember" was a remake of a 1939 movie starring Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer, "Love Affair.")

Yes, an updated story could be an improvement, but how could you top the casting of Grant and Kerr? Actually, Grant might have been paired with Ingrid Bergman or Doris Day. Both were considered for the role — and both would have been good, although their interpretations of the role would have been different. And "An Affair to Remember" would have been a different movie.

As it is, the American Film Institute judged it to be the fifth–best movie love story of all time — behind "Casablanca," "Gone With the Wind," "West Side Story" and "Roman Holiday."

Based on that, you would have to conclude that the right casting choices were made (Bergman, of course, was the female lead in "Casablanca").

To modern audiences, the story must seem almost laughable. Grant and Kerr met on an ocean liner. Although each was involved with someone else, they developed a friendship that quickly evolved into something deeper.

Upon their arrival in New York, they agreed to meet at the top of the Empire State Building in six months — if they had split up with their significant others and embarked on new careers.

On the appointed day Kerr's character was struck down by a car and taken to a hospital. In the meantime, Grant's character waited at the top of the Empire State Building for hours, finally conceding that Kerr wasn't coming.

Eventually, I suppose, the moral of the story was that love will find a way. Grant and Kerr were reunited at the end, pursuing professional interests both had suppressed for years.

"An Affair to Remember" was nominated for four Academy Awards — Best Original Score, Best Original Song (sung by Kerr's character in the movie but actually dubbed by renowned singer Marni Nixon — who also dubbed for Natalie Wood in "West Side Story"), Best Costume Design and Best Cinematography — and lost all four.

Ship of Dancing Fools



"There's no such thing as too late. That's why they invented death."

Charlie (Walter Matthau)

Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon made a wonderful comedy team. Individually, they were great; together they were even better.

And together they made nearly a dozen movies. If you want to see them at their best, though, I tend to recommend their early efforts. At some point, they began to lose their edge. Toward the end, their movies shouldn't have been made at all.

Now, that's just my opinion. I confess that there were things about some of their later movies like "Grumpy Old Men" that I thought were good, but I still think most of their later efforts shouldn't have been made.

I put "Out to Sea," which premiered on this day in 1997, at the top of that list. I know people who feel differently, and that's OK. Lemmon and Matthau were always terrific together, even when the material wasn't worthy of them.

And their efforts really were wasted in this one.

Maybe they were victims of their own success. When they were together, they were typecast in the public mind as the characters they first played in "The Odd Couple." Matthau was usually the flawed but generally affable one while Lemmon was the fussy, fastidious one — Oscar and Felix. The characters had different names — except in the thoroughly inadequate sequel the two made in 1998 — but otherwise they were quite similar.

In "Out to Sea," they were brothers–in–law, just as they were more than 30 years earlier in "The Fortune Cookie," their first (and possibly best) movie together.

But this was no sequel.

In that first movie Matthau played a shyster lawyer with a weakness for angles and loopholes. In "Out to Sea," his weakness was gambling. He liked it and he knew how to place bets; he just wasn't very good. To get away from all the folks to whom he owed money, Matthau conned Lemmon — the husband of his late sister — into accompanying him on an all–expenses–paid cruise to Mexico. But he didn't tell Lemmon the catch until the ship was on its way — Matthau had signed them up to work as dance hosts aboard ship.

Now, as I say, Matthau was a bad gambler, but he did know how to place bets. He had no clue how to dance.

Lemmon knew how to dance. By his own admission, he and his late wife had been dancing for decades.

They both ended up falling in love. Lemmon's love interest was Gloria DeHaven in what turned out to be her final movie role.

Matthau fell in love with Dyan Cannon, perhaps more because he believed her to be wealthy than because of her physical qualities. At age 60, Cannon was probably too old to be playing the kind of sexpot love interest that she did — although she did come across as younger than Matthau by comparison and was almost still capable of pulling off playing a much younger woman.

But Cannon, now 80, was one of those women who remained beautiful late in her life, and at the time "Out to Sea" was made, she still possessed attributes that the 76–year–old Matthau could appreciate. In his character's colorfully vivid way, he described one such attribute this way: "An ass so beautiful it's a shame she has to sit down on it."

The story was amiable enough, and it was always hard not to like Lemmon and Matthau, but "Out to Sea" nearly achieved the unthinkable.

"Out to Sea" should have been put out with the trash.

Just my opinion, you understand.