Lady Sings the Blues
The most celebrated singer-turned-actor performance ever might be Frank Sinatra in From Here to Eternity. It revived his career and was a turning point in his legacy as he moved from a teenybopper idol to the more mature crooner he is best remembered for today (and he followed it shortly with another important performance in The Man with The Golden Arm). But Sinatra had been acting in musical films for years (On The Town). In terms of degree of difficulty, for a first major role Bjork’s performance in the torture-fest sorta-musical Dancer in the Dark is certainly impressive and many singers have gone on to have their film careers eclipse their singing success (Cher, Mark Wahlberg, Will Smith, and to some extent Bing Crosby and Barbra Streisand). But the most audacious acting debut from a mega-star singer has to be Diana Ross taking on the role of troubled iconic jazz singer Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues. Directed by journeyman director Sidney J. Furie (The Ipcress File, The Boys in Company C) and based on Holiday’s own (said to be mostly fictional) autobiography, Ross throws herself into the role with aplomb, having to go to emotional depths that would challenge even the most veteran thespian. The film also made a kinda-star of her leading man, Billy Dee Williams, and helped establish a movie career for stand-up comedian Richard Pryor. Executive produced by Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr, it was the first flick made under the Motown banner and it would also prove to be the apex of the the historic record company’s forays into filmmaking.
Lady Sings the Blues is a mostly typical music bio in that it's one of those classic “rags-to-riches-to-total self destruction” stories. No matter how many times I’ve seen this kind of tale, if the lead performance is dynamite, I’ll buy in. I don’t know how much of it is actually true but it’s still a doozy of a rollercoaster ride. After being raped as a girl, Billie took the only jobs that seemed to be available for a young black woman during The Depression: a cleaning woman and a prostitute. She eventually talked her way into singing in a little smokey nightclub where she meets her dream man, Louis (Williams), and catches the attention of a couple of white musicians who take her on the road to build up her name and also turn her on to drugs. The film seems to be more fascinated with Billie’s messy and ugly personal life than her voice, which most experts rate as one of the most seminal and important of the twentieth century. As Billie climbs the stardom ladder she is met with racism and humiliation, with her devoted but frustrated husband Louis lending support. (Though he comes off as Mr Wonderful here, it’s been reported that in real life Billie’s husband was just as much of a creep as the other men who exploited her. Ironically he was a technical advisor for the film, which may explain the whitewash.) Billie continues to sing her way to the top, but she falls deeper and deeper into heroine addiction. Her only friend appears to be her piano player (real life junkie Pryor, excellent here in a supporting role). Of course Pryor would reveal his own special kind of genius later with his two landmark concert films, Richard Pryor Live in Concert and Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip. Hospital stays, arrests and even true love aren’t enough to end the torture for Billie. Though she does have a triumphant Carnagie Hall comeback show, it’s still a story of another legend dying young.Continue Reading
Situated somewhere in the middle of two closely related movie trends of the 1970s - the "All-Star Cast Disaster Movie" (The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno, Earthquake) and the "Terrorist Disaster Movie" (Two-Minute Warning, Skyjacked, Black Sunday) - Rollercoaster from 1977 nestles nicely in its own netherworld, not realizing that the genre was running out of steam (Beyond The Poseidon Adventure anyone?). Although the "Disaster Movie" would continue to reemerge in Hollywood for decades under new guises (Independence Day, 2012, Dante’s Peak, etc.), its Golden Age was really when a guy like George Kennedy or Charlton Heston was at the rudder and stars from Hollywood’s Golden Age were still available to be carted in on their wheelchairs to make an appearance and collect their checks. Rollercoaster did manage to dig up a couple of legends (Richard Widmark and Henry Fonda) and a sorta cult name actress (Susan Strasberg, maybe more famous as the daughter of Actor’s Studio guru Lee Strasberg), along with a pair of '70s names (George Segal and Timothy Bottoms). Director James Goldstone, whose most important credit may actually be the second pilot of the Star Trek TV series, manages to employ some Alfred Hitchcock cat-and-mouse tricks to generate suspense and give a dying genre a last gasp of breath.
To think that Bottoms started the decade off with two great movies (The Last Picture Show and The Paper Chase), in Rollercoaster he plays “Young Man,” a zombie-like psycho who is blowing up rollercoasters around the country in order to extort a million dollar ransom from the companies that own the parks. After an explosion on a rollercoaster, ride-inspector Harry Calder (Segal) is the first to figure out that this was no accident. He’s a regular guy with a teenage daughter (Helen Hunt, in her first movie) whom he often pawns off on his girlfriend (Strasberg), and a deep anti-authority complex, to the chagrin of his hateful boss (a brief Fonda clearly trying to up his SAG pension numbers). Bottoms makes Segal his point man as he threatens more bombings and the FBI joins him, with the angriest FBI head-man of all time (played by the one time great Widmark, who just spews intensity here) who seems to hate Segal even more than Fonda. The highlight is an intense scene in an amusement park, as Segal is forced to deliver money to Bottoms and instead ends up carrying a bomb onto a coaster. It all leads to Segal having to argue with the dumbbells in charge of the investigation and a showdown with the terrorist who looks to ruin the upcoming 4th of July festivities at one of the many possible amusement parks in America (and he does end up slightly disrupting the big Sparks concert at Six Flags Magic Mountain).Continue Reading
The DVD of the 1953 Hollywood version of Julius Caesar directed by the underrated Joseph Mankiewicz (All About Eve) has been relegated to old-time Shakespeare buffs and students not wanting to sludge through actually reading the play. And yes, it looks a little stagey and feels a little dated and stiff, but it’s still a politically relevant play and has one of the most fascinating casts ever assembled for a Shakespeare adaption. Headlined by a young buck in only his fourth film, Marlon Brando absolutely dominates the veteran cast around him and proves his genius. His performance alone makes the film more than watchable, and luckily there are a few other treasures to be found in it.
The now familiar plot goes something like this... worried the head dog of Rome, Julius Caesar (Louis Calhern), was getting a little too powerful, his fellow politicians decide to kill him, led by the conniving Cassius (John Gielgud). Even Caesar’s good friend Brutus (James Mason) is convinced to join in the plot for the best of the Republic. The Senators all take turns stabbing Caesar (done mostly just off screen). After his death, Mark Antony (Brando), who was not part of the cabal and admired Caesar, is allowed to give a speech at his funeral only after agreeing to not implicate anyone. Brutus must deal with the nagging guilt, his still conspiring allies, and his wife Portia (Deborah Kerr). When Antony delivers the famous “Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears speech” he convinces the crowd, using pure sarcasm and coded words, who is to blame for the murder. The speech is the centerpiece of the film and then it becomes a literal war between Antony and the conspirators who are all turning on each other.Continue Reading
Lost In America
Three comic masterpieces in a row is enough to put you on the higher rung of American humorists. The Marx Brothers had that run with Horse Feathers, Duck Soup and A Night at the Opera. Mel Brooks had The Producers, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein (with the less vital The Twelve Chairs mixed in). WC Fields had that amazing trifecta of You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man, The Bank Dick and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break. Preston Sturges, Charlie Chaplin and Woody Allen are three more legends whose hot streaks went beyond three. Albert Brooks, an underrated comic genius of recent generations, is the forgotten man. Throughout the '70s he shined as a cutting edge stand-up comic and made groundbreaking short films for that first season of Saturday Night Live. He made his writer/director feature film debut in 1979 with Real Life, a wonderfully uncomfortable comedy that predicted the coming of reality TV. He followed it with Modern Romance, often called Brooks’ Annie Hall, a deadeye take on both Hollywood and love. And then finally maybe his most perfect gem, Lost in America, the most biting satire of Ronald Reagan’s "greed is good" 1980s yuppie culture. (A less sophisticated comic mind like Steve Martin poked fun at the culture with L.A. Story, but was actually embracing the superficiality.)
The first step in embracing an Albert Brooks film is deciding whether or not you can stomach him. The guy plays some of the most neurotic and deeply insecure characters in movie history, and as David Howard in Lost in America, he’s as obnoxious as ever. The movie opens with him laying in bed with his wife, Linda (Julie Hagerty, fresh off another comic masterpiece, Airplane!). He can’t sleep; he has second thoughts on the much bigger house they just bought and he’s excited with anticipation for the big promotion he is expecting to get at the advertising agency he has worked at for eight years. He assures her once that promotion comes he will no longer be the uptight husband he can’t help being. Linda is a study in understanding, but the next day she breaks down to a co-worker wondering if she can go on like this. To his shock and disappointment, instead of the promotion, he is transferred to New York. He throws a massive tantrum and is fired. In a sorta melt down, he convinces himself that he has been freed from the rat race and talks Linda into quitting her job too. They make a plan: sell the new house, cash out all their stocks and bonds, leaving them with $180,000 to live on for the rest of their lives (this was considered a lot in 1985), buy a motor home to escape from Los Angeles and travel the country (just like Easy Rider!), and maybe settle in a lighthouse in Connecticut where they can paint and write and no longer have to worry about ambition. Deal! First stop, Las Vegas, for a wedding vowel renewal. A monkey wrench is thrown into the works though. While David sleeps, Linda gambles away their entire fortune in a casino. It’s even more downhill from there as they head East and now must rediscover themselves without the comfort of the nest egg.Continue Reading
Dances with Wolves
It’s easy to be cynical about Dances with Wolves. Some might call it a three hour goody-goody vanity project for director and star Kevin Costne. Some may laugh at his blown-dry '80s mullet. For most, its worst crime was beating Goodfellas for the Oscar for Best Picture back in 1990. It’s no Goodfellas, but don’t blame Costner; blame the stupid Oscar voters and take Dances with Wolves for what it is. For the less cynical it’s hard not to be totally engrossed, even mesmerized, and eventually heartbroken by the film. Dances with Wolves was beautifully shot by cinematographer Dean Semler, who earlier shot the amazing The Road Warrior (1981) and would later shoot the stunning Apocalypto (2006). The film uses its South Dakota/Wyoming landscapes beautifully to elicit the loneliness of the frontier and the self-reliance of Native American culture.
I’m not sure if there ever was a “Western” before that so strongly presented such a powerful Native American point of view. After decades of offensive Indian stereotypes and John Wayne, by the late '60s attitudes were changing and the Western was evolving. Even John Ford tried a sympathetic approach to the plight of the Indians with Cheyenne Autumn (1964). There was Paul Newman’s half-breed gunslinger, Hombre (1967). Richard Harris was a Brit who took over a tribe in A Man Called Horse (1970). Dustin Hoffman brought a pro-Indian satire to the genre as Little Big Man (1970). Sergio Leone had a lot to say with Duck, You Sucker (1971). Ulzana's Raid (1972) went out of its way to showcase the brutality of the white man, and Clint Eastwood had an interesting fresh take on old stereotypes with The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976). Since that golden age of “revisionist Westerns,” Jim Jarmusch got all post-moderny (or something) with his Dead Man (1995). Now, generally, the Indian is no longer automatically the bad guy or a monster. But what really makes Dances with Wolves notable is, though it stars a white man and the Indians are supporting characters, the film still manages to bridge cultural divides as well, if not better than any of its predecessors.Continue Reading
British director Alan Parker’s third film, the high school musical Fame, has spawned a television series, a musical play, and a remake, not to mention inspiring reality competitions, the TV show Glee and other assorted bores about singing and dancing teenagers. What’s been forgotten is Fame works best as a gritty New York drama about teenage life in 1980. Parker, having just come off shooting the harrowing Turkish prison drama, Midnight Express, is no dance choreographer turned director. He’s a realist. Parker seems to be more inspired by the social realism of his countrymen Ken Loach and Alan Clarke rather than the Hollywood musical style of Busby Berkeley. He originally came out of television advertising and is often associated with popular English filmmakers of his generation like Adrian Lyne, Hugh Hudson, Ridley Scott and Tony Scott, who all started off in commercials and brought a shiny sheen to their films in the eighties. Although much of their work in that period (including Parker's) looks like champagne ads, Fame still resembles the unpolished look of seventies docudramas over the more purified work that followed. Fame is also one of the better films to casually capture the multicultural urban youth vibe of the times, unlike the John Hughes teenage whitewash that would come to dominate the eighties.
Fame depicts the lives of seemingly random students at New York’s School of the Performing Arts, from auditioning freshmen to upperclassmen. Ralph Garcia (Barry Miller of Saturday Night Fever) is a tortured Puerto Rican actor/stand-up comedian who worships comic actor Freddie Prinze and takes up some dangerously bad habits. The ambitious Coco Hernandez, played by singer Irene Cara (the original Sparkle), is a triple threat in acting, singing and dancing. Unlike her character Coco, Cara was never really able to capitalize on the attention Fame brought, although later she sang the hit theme to Flashdance. Bruno Martelli (Lee Curreri) is an obvious composing genius and his cab driver father will certainly tell anyone who will listen. Leroy (Gene Anthony Ray) only auditioned to help his girlfriend get in, but when the impressed dance instructors take an interest in his raw talent over her, he becomes the school's resident rebel. Even though her pushy stage mother believes in her, Doris (Maureen Teefy) may be a little too insecure for the competition. Speaking of insecure, acting student Montgomery, played by Paul McCrane (who would later appear as a great creep in RoboCop), is a wreck until he finally confronts his homosexuality. When the beautiful and wealthy ballerina, Hilary Van Doren (Antonia Franceschi), enters the school she inspires more competition among students.Continue Reading
This is Spinal Tap
Although it has had a lot of competition since it was released in 1984, This is Spinal Tap still remains the greatest mockumentary, the best spoof on the rock music scene, and one of the funniest, most continually quotable flicks I’ve ever seen. This was the first film directed by Rob Reiner who, at the time, was primarily known for his role as Meathead on the legendary sitcom All in the Family. He would go on to have a mostly pedestrian directing career with a few stand-outs (Stand By Me). With This Is Spinal Tap, Reiner and his three costars - Michael McKean, Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer (all four of whom are the credited writers) - created something very special whose style has been copied many times over, especially by Guest himself. But nothing has hit it so far out of the park as this one did.
The mockumentary (a spoof of a documentary) was not new at the time. Though rather dull, David Holzman’s Diary was considered a landmark in 1967. Woody Allen made the now classic Take the Money and Run. There was that Beatles spoof, All You Need is Cash, and Albert Brooks foresaw the coming of reality TV with his Real Life. What makes This is Spinal Tap especially impressive is that it keeps the documentary format the entire film, something most other mockumentaries rarely sustain (including Guest’s later work). Most of the other films often cheat and have moments to try and help the plot along that couldn’t have been documented by a pesky camera crew. Every moment in This is Spinal Tap keeps the documentary format humming. By 1984 the ego-driven rockumentary had been a standard cash generator for most megabands (peaking in the seventies before the music video came to dominate the self-promotion machine). Going at least as far back as Bob Dylan’s Don’t Look Back in ’67 and the music festival docs Monterey Pop and Woodstock, it was really The Rolling Stones’ Cocksucker Blues and Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains The Same that gave This is Spinal Tap its most potent fodder.Continue Reading
After Sean Penn’s solid supporting performance in Taps (as the sensitive guy, opposite Tom Cruise’s hothead), his now legendary scene stealing turn as stoner Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and then his work as Chicago juvenile delinquent Mick O’Brien in Bad Boys, Rolling Stone Magazine put him on the cover at the age of 23 and called him, “the next James Dean.” Since Dean only starred in three features, it's his cultural impact and dying young status that still make him a household name today. Dean also showed himself to be a gifted actor and it’s fascinating to imagine what his career would have been like had he not died so young. Penn has lived past those three early films (to some people’s surprise). He has had a long and eclectic filmography, with moments of pure acting brilliance (Carlito’s Way, Dead Man Walking, Sweet and Lowdown), while some critics have accused him of sometimes being a hammy overactor (I Am Sam, All The King’s Men, Mystic River). Either way the guy is easily a first-ballet hall-of-famer.
In addition to being a good jumping off point for any study of the truth and beauty in Penn’s acting, director Rick Rosenthal's Bad Boys is, for my money, the best American juvenile detention center flick. (Internationally you would have to add the British film Scum and Brazil's Pixote.) By 1983 Hollywood had only a spotty record grappling with teen crime flicks (the best at this point was Over The Edge) and Bad Boys sometimes feels a little overwrought with its occasional After School Special moments. On the other-hand it’s shockingly bleak and the violence is pretty brutal. Both teen prisons and the mean streets of Chicago are places full of predators - kill or be killed. Though Bad Boys doesn’t hit the exploitation highs of Class of 1984, it’s certainty much harder hitting and believable than most of the other teen dramas of its era.Continue Reading
Easily the most underrated film of the great Alfred Hitchcock’s massive career, Topaz is a perfectly constructed little cold-war thriller with many cool little filmmaking flourishes. It’s truly a wonder why this film has not been rediscovered by Hitchcockian enthusiasts and given its proper due. As a follow-up to his other cold war thriller in the '60s, the Paul Newman dud Torn Curtain, perhaps audiences were just weary of the subject matter. Perhaps because it had no stars it wasn’t taken seriously. Or maybe by the late '60s audience tastes had changed and by then the Grand Master was considered "old hat." Of course he would follow it with another often over-looked gem, Frenzy, which was his chance to finally go balls-to-the-wall with the sex and violence (and no stars). Like Billy Wilder’s cold-war comedy One Two Three, another lost gem, both films were financial flops, but both are actually great examples of what the two directors do best. In Wilder’s case, of course, it’s cynicism (though One Two Three was more slapstick than his usual cool) and with Topaz, Hitchcock again demonstrated how to create suspense with just camera pans and small pieces of information.
Based on a novel by Leon Uris (Exodus) with a script by Samuel A. Taylor (Vertigo), Topaz jerks around in different directions and, at 143 minutes, is Hitchcock’s longest film. It opens in Copenhagen, Denmark in 1962 (pre-Cuban Missile Crisis), with a Soviet military bigwig, Boris Kusenov (Per-Axel Arosenius, a Swedish actor who in real life died setting himself on fire as a tax protest), his wife and teenage daughter sightseeing and are being followed by their KGB handlers. Aided by an American spy, Michael Nordstrom (played by John Forsythe who would become a big star on TV’s Dynasty), they make a daring escape, defecting and getting shipped out to Washington, DC. While debriefed the Americans learn of a pact between the Soviets and Cuba. Nordstrom hooks up with his French counterpoint, André Devereaux (Frederick Stafford), who is vacationing with his wife Nicole (Dany Robin), daughter and her UN reporter husband (Michel Subor) in New York. Here the film totally shifts and becomes Devereaux’s. A classically suave spy, he seems to be cozy with the Soviets but is still willing to help the Americans, even when his wife objects. In a great scene, Devereaux enlists the help of an undercover French florist, Philippe Dubois (Roscoe Lee Browne), to steal some incriminating papers from a visiting Cuban delegate, Rico Parra (John Vernon, Dean Wormer of National Lampoon’s Animal House, here doing his best Che). In an effort to find out what’s really going on Devereaux jets off to Cuba where his beautiful mistress (Karin Dor, a Bond Girl in You Only Live Twice) also happens to the widow of a Cuban Revolutionary hero and secret leader of the anti-Castro forces. The two work to get evidence of Russian missiles and for a while the film becomes an escape from Cuba adventure.Continue Reading
Considered by some to be an interesting historical footnote as the film uber-nerd George Lucas directed before he became a zillionaire with Star Wars, American Graffiti is actually much more. Besides helping to usher in a nostalgia wave during the '70s for a more innocent time before the Vietnam War and playing like catnip for classic car geeks, American Graffiti is a perfect ensemble comedy with a then cutting-edge use of wall-to-wall classic Rock & Roll songs on the soundtrack and a wonderful piece of Americana. It’s Lucas’s homage to those years in Modesto, California when kids drank milk shakes at Mel’s Drive-In and then cruised up and down the boulevard all night with their radios blasting, looking for kicks. The film is set in 1962. JFK was still alive, most Americans couldn’t yet point out Vietnam on a map, the Beatles hadn’t even touched down yet, and the baby boomer youth culture was beginning to dominate but still looked a lot like leftover 1950s innocents.
In a now classic coming of age set-up, American Graffiti takes place one August night after high school graduation. With the summer coming to an end, four buds (and the women around them) face the dilemma of impending adulthood about to overtake them. The clean cut Steve (Ron Howard) is excited to be heading off to college but has to figure out how to break it off with his longtime girlfriend, Laurie (Cindy Williams of future Laverne & Shirley fame). The much more thoughtful Curt (Richard Dreyfuss, in a role that would jump start his career before Jaws would make him a superstar a few years later) isn’t so sure about leaving for college out East the next day and goes on a search for some kind of meaning to his life and for the beautiful blond (Suzanne Somers) he spotted cruising around in a T-Bird. Instead he ends up taking part in antics with a gang of Greasers known as The Pharaohs (lead by the hilarious Bo Hopkins). Steve leaves his beloved Chevy Impala in the hands of his nerdy pal Terry "The Toad" (Charles Martin Smith who would go on to play a similar bumbler in The Untouchables). Now sporting a bitchin’ set of wheels, Terry spends the evening wooing a much more experienced woman, Debbie, played wonderfully by Candy Clark who scored an Oscar nomination for the performance and went on to appear in The Man Who Fell to Earth. The fourth strand of the story follows the more blue-collar, street racing cool kid, John Milner (Paul Le Mat, an actor who had the charisma and looks to hit the big time, but unlike many of his costars, his career never really took off other than playing the lead in Jonathan Demme’s acclaimed flick Melvin and Howard). He is being pursued for a drag race by a new guy in town, Bob Falfa (a cowboy hatted Harrison Ford), but his nightly fun is interrupted when he gets stuck with an annoying "tweener" Carol (Mackenzie Phillips), the two start off at odds but end up with a sweet brother/sister like relationship. A final "where are they now" epilogue scroll tells us what happened to the guys, bringing the film even more powerful pathos.Continue Reading