"It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool
than to open your mouth and remove all doubt."
Good advice from a great writer. I, of course, intend to ignore it in the posts that follow.
"It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool
than to open your mouth and remove all doubt."
Good advice from a great writer. I, of course, intend to ignore it in the posts that follow.
My wife and I were recently guests at the Hollywood gala celebrating the publication of LEADING LADY, our friend Stephen Galloway’s biography of pioneering producer and studio head, Sherry Lansing.
As one of those whose contributions to the book Stephen acknowledges in a postscript—my name is there right alongside Jerry Brown’s, I approached the party with trepidation, fearing I might be overwhelmed by a hoard of people seeking the pleasure of my company and the bragging rights that would go with it.
Those hoping to be able to tell their friends and neighbors that they spent most of the evening in conversation with Dan Bronson!
I needn’t have worried.
It was a bit like high school when everyone was afraid to ask out the prettiest girl and she ended up without a date for the prom.
People, intimidated at the prospect of introducing themselves to me, seemed to gravitate to lesser lights like Angelica Huston, Christine Lahti, Judge Judy, Adrian Lyne, and the heads of Fox, Sony and Universal.
It was a relief, frankly, to have been spared the crush of the crowd.
I did, however, end up in a long conversation with Nick Meyer, whose list of minor credits—things like The Seven-Percent Solution, Time after Time, Sommersby and the even numbered Star Trek films, emboldened him to approach me.
Though our resumes are somewhat different (he’s famous, and I’m not), it turned out that, as certifiable film fanatics, we did have something in common—a boundless, obsessive love of the movies.
We chatted about all things film, finding ourselves in agreement, for example, that Carol Reed’s three best films were The Third Man, Fallen Idol and Odd Man Out. This led to talk of James Mason, whose death, Nick pointed out, was virtually ignored by the press.
I said, “Well, his real death couldn’t have compared to his death scene in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” Nick responded with my favorite quote from this, one of my favorite films: “I am dying…” And I joined him in chorus to complete the line: “…and the Nautilus is dying with me”
“I am dying, and the Nautilus is dying with me.”
To this day, these words, which I first heard at the age of thirteen or fourteen, send chills up my spine.
(Mason was terrific at death scenes. Just as good…his departure in George Cukor’s A Star Is Born, where he commits suicide by walking into the sea.)
Nick and I were lucky to have come of age during a great blossoming of film artistry.
We were there to witness the last, occasionally great gasps of a studio system weakened by the Paramount Consent Decrees and the competition of television.
And we were there to experience first-hand the rise of the independents, what Peter Biskind has called the era of easy riders and raging bulls.
Hardly a week went by that we did not see a film so breathtaking, so original that it stood us on our heads.
The dance of death at the end of The Seventh Seal.
Slim Pickens, riding that bomb like a bucking bronco at the conclusion of Dr. Strangelove, shouting in triumphant celebration of the end of the world.
The dazzling cut in 2001 from that thighbone tossed into the air to a nuclear satellite circling the earth—from the first, most primitive weapon to the most recent and most sophisticated, tens of thousands of years of evolution in a split second on the screen!
The magnificent film fugue of Godfather One and Two—which, together, are an offer I can never refuse.
The twenty-three characters tracked with dazzling editing and overlapping dialogue in Nashville and the unforgettable death of Barbara Jean, which still worries me.
Week after week.
Year after year.
Masterpiece after masterpiece.
It is no wonder that Nick and I and countless others, fired by our love of these wonderful films, found our way to Hollywood.
Love brought us here, and love sustained us…even in the face of the almost insurmountable obstacles of the system.
But I have to admit that, of late, my love has faltered.
A glance at the cover of the latest Entertainment Weekly, with its summer movie preview, provides a quick answer.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Pirates of the Caribbean
Would that God could spare us more.
But even He seems to be no match for the corporations that have engulfed and devoured the studios, handing the bean-counters and the marketing gurus the reigns of power, pandering to their “target audiences” of fifteen year-old kids and uneducated third-worlders, turning out of steady junk-food diet of remakes and sequels, comic book fantasies, teen sex comedies, and horror films.
These are not the sort of films likely to inspire the next Nick Meyer or even the next Dan Bronson.
They are, instead, the sort of films that led Sherry Lansing to say goodbye to Hollywood.
The turning point for her, as Stephen reports in Leading Lady, came with Lara Croft. It was, from a story-telling point of view, an absolute disaster—a film about nothing at all.
But her top marketing executive told her not to worry—he could sell it in spite of its flaws. He advised her against spending any more money to improve it because it wouldn’t make any difference at all at the box-office.
He was right.
Lara Croft made $275 million dollars worldwide.
Sherry—who loved dramas about serious issues, who was proud of films like The Verdict, China Syndrome, Fatal Attraction and The Accused—was disturbed by the increasingly corporatized environment in which she was working, where quality no longer mattered, where “clever sales strategies could redeem all but the most abysmal of movies…”
And so she left.
Her departure came not long after my own.
Hers was voluntary.
Mine was not.
In my case, the work dried up…simply because there was no longer a market for the sort of stories I loved to write.
When I left the business, my enthusiasm for the movies left me. I—who used to see every movie that came out (and the good ones two or three times), who built everything in my life around what was in my opinion the greatest of all the arts—found myself seeing fewer and fewer films.
It’s hard to work up much enthusiasm for pictures like The Fate of the Furious or even the mindless but mildly entertaining Kong: Skull Island.
I was convinced that my love had died, but a chance encounter not long ago brought it back to full-blooded life.
Sonja and I were staying at a friend’s house in Morro Bay, and we headed into San Luis Obispo to catch a screening of The Zookeeper’s Wife, a movie we hoped would break the corporate mold of today’s films.
But we got there early and discovered that the local multiplex was showing…
Are you ready for this?
I was not.
The local multiplex was showing…North by Northwest!
One of my favorite films of all time.
A film I’d not seen on the big screen since it’s release in 1959.
It conquered me all over again and reignited my love of the movies, the love I was able to express in that conversation with Nick Meyer.
It’s not a love likely to be fulfilled in theatres featuring today’s studio films–like Snatched or the umpteenth remake of The Mummy.
But there are the occasional cable wonders like Downton Abbey and Feud.
And there is TCM.
And so, return with me now to those thrilling days of yesteryear…
For twenty years, Bill O’Reilly has been reporting (perhaps I should say interpreting) the news.
Now he is the news.
The answer is simple.
Bill committed the unpardonable sin.
He got caught.
It was an unfortunate, completely unexpected blunder on his part. He is, after all, a sophisticated, experienced man of the world. He knows how things work. His carelessness is and will remain a mystery.
As for the dozen or so accusations of sexual harassment, they are simply evidence that Bill has been upholding a noble, long-standing tradition of the entertainment world: the liberal use of the casting couch.
Now some of you might argue that Bill is in news, not entertainment, but such an argument reveals an appalling ignorance of the glorious revolution Fox brought to the world of news, transforming it virtually overnight from a matter of dull facts to provocative, stimulating, sometimes thrilling entertainment.
It began with the introduction of long blonde hair and jiggle to weather reporting and moved out in ever widening circles until, in no time at all, newsmen and newswomen were superstars—superstars like Bill O’Reilly.
As a star, Bill was simply exercising a prerogative shared by many at the top of the Hollywood and Broadway pyramids.
By making himself available to young ladies much further down the ladder of success than he, he was offering them opportunity—the opportunity to keep the jobs they already had and possibly even the opportunity to become stars themselves.
It is, as I suggested earlier, a venerable tradition that dates back to the very beginnings of theatre and film and that reached its fullest expression in the heyday of the studio system.
No one—not Howard Hughes, not Harry Cohn, not Jack Warner—was a more accomplished practitioner of the art of the casting couch than Darryl F. Zanuck.
In fact, there are even those who say he invented it!
Zanuck was devoted to his art.
Every afternoon at four o’clock, no matter how busy he might have been (and he was a busy, busy man), he would take half an hour to entertain one of the many starlets at 20th Century Fox and encourage them in their hopes for a big career opportunity.
His generosity was legendary—he shared himself (well, at least a part of himself) with virtually every aspiring actress he had under contract.
While the couch never again attained this level of perfection and institutionalization, it continued to play an important role both in Hollywood and on Broadway for decades to come.
In fact, my lovely wife Sonja was offered its comforts many times during her decade as an actress in New York.
A wide-eyed Minnesota girl who, like Gatsby, saw in the City nothing but beauty, promise and wonder, she once arrived for an interview at the office of a well-known producer who proceeded to chase her around his desk…until, breathless, she stopped…and started to laugh.
He, having lost his…enthusiasm…and realizing that she was not going to take advantage of the opportunity he was offering her, shifted course and began to tell her how much she’d like his handsome young son.
She, for reasons I’ll never understand, rejected both father and son and the big break that might have come with them.
On another occasion, she walked into the office of another big-time producer, and as she was sitting down, he asked, “Shall we fornicate?”
(He actually used a somewhat stronger term.)
She stood up, and without speaking a word, left the office.
Opportunity knocked at her door so many times, but talented as she was, she never answered it.
Then there was the case of a close friend—an actress, blonde and blue-eyed like Sonja but much better known—who was discovered by one of the best-known directors of stage and screen.
(I can vouch that she’s a hell of an actress because she has always insisted that her initial encounter with said director occurred when she was thirteen or fourteen when, according to the IMDB, she was, in fact, twenty. Okay, she fudged a bit, but she had me convinced for years. That is what I call acting!)
In any case, the great man cast her as a teenaged seductress in what turned out to be a classic play, and in his selfless attempt to prepare her for the role, he worked very hard to seduce her.
It was the quintessence of Method acting and direction, with its heavy reliance on associative memory: he was, I’m sure, simply trying to give her some memories she could draw upon to enhance her performance.
She, however, rebuffed him, and as a result of her obstinate refusal to take his direction, never worked for him again.
Though I myself never witnessed it during my years in Hollywood (possibly because I was neither blonde, blue-eyed, sexy or female), I’ve always suspected that there are still those out there working diligently to perpetuate the custom of the couch.
And now we have such sterling types as O’Reilly and his former boss, Roger Ailes, confirming my suspicion—along with Bill Cosby, who has taken the ritual to a whole new level.
In a world suffering future shock, a world reeling and writhing with unprecedented change, it’s reassuring to know that certain revered practices abide—fixed, immutable, imperishable.
If only the current custodians of the couch had had the wisdom of their predecessors—the wisdom to keep their generosity a closely held secret from the public, we’d still have Ailes sharing his fair and balanced view of the world, O’Reilly spinning his stories freely, and Cosby telling his big lies in one of his Little Bill Books for Beginning Readers.
I have a confession to make.
Guilty of a terrible error of omission.
(Along with a lot of other things that we won’t go into right now.)
Yes, it’s true.
In my last blog extolling the junk food glories of Kong: Skull Island, I neglected to mention the remarkable performance of Brie Larson as Mason Weaver, a photojournalist who has covered wars all over this conflicted globe of ours.
Like most war photographers, she is beautiful, sexy (in her case, clothes, skimpy as they may be, do indeed make the woman), possessed of a wonderful freshness, altruism and sensitivity, a sensitivity reflected in her appreciation of nature and her feelings for that lovable old ape named Kong.
In fact, Larson’s portrait of Weaver is, quite possibly, the most convincing portrait of a professional woman to hit the big screen since Denise Richards’ Dr. Christmas Jones.
As I’m sure you recall, Christmas…
No one among you remembers Christmas?
Surely you’ve not forgotten the late, great James Bond thriller, The World Is Not Enough.
Now we’re getting somewhere.
Do you also remember a tank top, a bare midriff, and a pair of impossibly tight short shorts?
Of course you do!
Well…that, my friends, was the official uniform of Dr. Christmas Jones, the lab coat she donned when working to dismantle nuclear warheads in Kazihkstan.
Ably played by the brainy Richards who swayed with a wiggle when she walked, Dr. Christmas Jones was a nuclear scientist like no other.
Oppenheimer may have fathered the atomic bomb. He may, as he himself acknowledged, “have become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” But Christmas, by helping Bond foil the plot of a nuclear terrorist, was the savior of our world.
And she was amply rewarded for her efforts…by a tryst with the sexy superspy at the end of the film, a tryst that concluded with his romantic observation that he’d always thought Christmas came only once a year.
It should, I suppose, be no surprise that Larson’s Weaver equals or, quite possibly, surpasses Richards’ Jones.
It was, after all, Larson who triumphed over such notables as Cate Blanchett, Jennifer Lawrence, Charlotte Rampling and Saoirse Ronan in last year’s Academy Awards, taking home the Best Actress trophy for her compelling turn as Ma, the abused mother in Room.
Think of it!
From Ma to Mason.
From one of the most complex and layered performances of the decade to
a dazzling turn as obligatory sex object.
Now that’s what I call an actress!
Some of you might be tempted to use another word, but you would be wrong.
Every working actor, regardless of his or her place on the Hollywood pyramid, knows an acting career is a very slippery slope.
They know that regardless of what they’ve achieved, it can all go away in an instant.
The fame, the glamour, the wealth can disappear overnight.
You can be sexy, smoldering Veronica Lake—the star of This Gun for Hire, I Married a Witch and Sullivan’s Travels—once minute, and the next, a waitress in a cocktail bar.
And so the working actor…works.
Oh, all of them want the complex, layered, challenging roles that will cast a long shadow in the annals of film, but at the most basic level, they simply want to…work.
To put food on the table, a roof over their head, and if they get very, very lucky, an occasional Louis Vuitton on their shoulders.
As a result, they often end up accepting roles that, in an ideal world, they could contemptuously reject.
What does this get them?
Some degree of financial security.
I would, for example, bet big money that Larson’s fee for Kong was substantially higher than it was for Room.
And it gets them opportunity, the opportunity to do the sorts of roles they’d prefer because they’re perceived as bankable.
Agents and producers and execs saying, ”Her last film went through the roof.”
And so it is that a Brie Larson goes from Room to Kong…or an Eddie Redmayne moves from The Theory of Everything and The Danish Girl to Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them.
They follow the example of Irving Thalberg, who was convinced that he had to make three big commercial successes in order to earn the right to make a little film he really cared about.
Actors do it.
Writers do it.
Directors do it.
They take on potentially popular schlock to earn the right to make movies that matter.
My dear friend and colleague, director William A. Graham, had a strong grasp of this Hollywood reality.
Billy directed countless series episodes, eight or ten features, and literally dozens of television movies.
He never stopped working.
He told his wife Janet that he had to do three projects a year—one for expenses, one for retirement, and one for their boat, which he had sailed around Cape Horn.
Many of them were straight-forward programmers, but Billy’s motto was “Quality…whether they want it or not,” and his obsessive work ethic brought him the opportunity to do the occasional classic—like The Amazing Howard Hughes, Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones, The Man Who Captured Eichmann, and of course, the unforgettable Death of a Cheerleader.
It’s easy to condemn this approach to a career in Hollywood—to chant with Terence Howard, in that Academy Award winning song, “It’s hard out there for a pimp/When you gotta get the money for the rent.”
It is hard out there.
But it’s not pimping when you choose to do the work that comes your way.
I’ve always loved junk food.
Heaps of sugar?
A high content of artery-clogging fat?
Bring it on!
Obscene amounts of preservatives?
The obvious explanation for my youthful good looks.
The faster the food, the more furious the gastric distress, the greater the appeal.
I have, in fact, been a veritable gourmand of empty calories since the age of consciousness.
The power of Hormel canned chili!
The glory of the Hostess Snowball!
And the sinful satisfaction of cherry Kool-Aid!
Deliver these evils to me, Lord, and I am yours.
I freely confess that from boyhood on, I have demonstrated similar taste in art, music, literature and film.
Now there was a painter, incomparable, unmatched…until, of course, Thomas Kinkade came along.
The Hollywood Argyles?
Who could have guessed that a bunch of unknowns recruited from a busy street corner in TinselTown could produce a wonder like “Alley-Oop”?
So glorious, so innovative, so original that decades after their first appearance, they have inspired a brilliant new television series.
Roger Corman’s The Little Shop of Horrors?
An afterlife on stage, film and video rivaling that of Kryptonite!
When it comes to junk…
…I know whereof I speak.
And that, my friends, brings me to the latest entry in Hollywood’s on-going marathon of tent pole pictures—the supremely silly Kong: Skull Island.
Now, given the current climate of critical correctness, I probably shouldn’t admit that I have even seen the film in question, let alone that I enjoyed it, but I’m going to trust your discretion and ask you to keep my dirty little secret, secret.
Kong is an epic so vast in scope that it took four credited (and God only knows how many uncredited) writers to conceive and execute the screenplay.
Everyone knows that four are better than one…and no one knows it better than today’s corporate studio executives, who compulsively throw writer after writer at projects until they achieve perfection.
Well, these four have really delivered, creating a story that one of them claims was inspired by…are you ready for this?
It hadn’t occurred to me…until the writer pointed it out…but once he had, the comparison was inescapable: both are built around a journey up a river and climax in a confrontation with an unspeakable horror.
In the case of Apocalypse Now! the horror was Marlon Brando’s performance as Colonel Kurtz.
In the case of Skull Island, it is the battle between Kong and “The Big One”—the granddaddy of all the Skullcrawlers that infest the aforementioned island.
So this masterful new film has an honored place in our cinematic heritage…and just in case you, like me, missed the connection, the writers have named one of their characters…Conrad.
The character has the same name as that forgotten writer whose Heart of Darkness was the basis for Apocalypse.
The Conrad/Coppola connection is the first major contribution of this distinguished quartet of writers.
The second is…
They have not only made Kong bigger than ever before—he looks to be at least 200 feet tall, and of course, just as four are better than one, bigger is always best…
…they’ve not only made him bigger than before…
…they have made him the misunderstood hero of this epic extravaganza, the protector of the island and its people, their sole defense against the hideous Skullcrawlers.
This was a brilliant stroke on their part.
Because most of the other players in the story are about as colorful and exciting as yesterday’s dishwater.
(Even Sam Jackson’s energetic chewing of the scenery fails to make much of an impression…or much sense.)
When it comes to a character the audience can relate to, the big ape is it.
He even maintains good dental hygiene.
No gorilla breath for him, thank you very much.
Without his obvious conviction that cleanliness is next to godliness, we would never have gotten the intensely moving scene in which the heroine, standing on a cliff, reaches out and touches Kong’s nose.
It is a scene that rivals the unforgettable close-up of Romeo and Juliet’s hands reaching out to each other in Zeffirelli’s masterful adaptation of the classic love story.
A scene that recalls Michelangelo’s depiction of God’s hand reaching out to Adam to bestow the gift of life.
A sensitive moment so sensitively acted that I’m tempted to propose that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences create a new category for next year’s awards…
BEST PERFORMANCE BY A COMPUTER
Kong would eat his rivals.
I’ve always mistrusted critics.
Truth be known, there’s a part of me that subscribes to the old saw that those who can’t, criticize.
I was, however, forced to reconsider all of this when my son—my own son—proved himself a gifted critic!
It was a completely unexpected development.
He had, after all, begun his adult life as a stuntman, dying conspicuously in a number of Steven Segal films—most memorably when Segal threw him backwards through a window in what became the signature image of the movie.
He was, in other words…how shall I put it?
He leaned more heavily toward the physical than the intellectual, and his interest in the arts was best described as minimal.
Let’s be honest.
It was non-existent.
And so it was that his wife decided to civilize him.
By dragging him (kicking and screaming, I’m sure) to L.A.’s MOMA and exposing him to resplendent examples of contemporary art.
It was in a gallery dedicated to installation art that his talent first manifested itself.
The installation in question, which I myself was never privileged to view, sat on the floor.
Steven studied it carefully.
Then stood over it.
And began to grunt and groan like someone suffering terminal constipation.
His wife was, for reasons that will forever elude me, mortified.
I, however, when I learned of the incident, swelled with pride—genuinely dazzled by his critical insight.
I had a critic in the family!
Henceforth, I did my best to banish my memory of such things as the L.A. Times art critic’s commentary on “Rusty Pipe.”
It, like the piece Steven reviewed, was an installation at L.A.’s MOMA—in this case, a length of rusty pipe removed from a demolition site and suspended from the ceiling of an alcove in one of the museum’s galleries.
The Times critic was so impressed with it that he wrote two full pages of analysis, employing words and concepts far beyond my humble capacity to understand.
To be honest, I have to admit that everything in me cried out, “It’s just a piece of pipe, for God’s sake.”
In fact, I felt the commentary deserved much the same response as my son gave that other piece of sh…
I meant to say, that other piece of installation art.
I have to admit that the “Rusty Pipe” review sorely tested my resolve to admire critics now that my son was one of them.
But I persisted until just the other day when I stumbled upon another Times reviewer and his evaluation of Terence Malick’s Song to Song, which recently debuted at Austin’s SXSW Festival.
Now, you should know that I was blown away by Malick’s first two films, Badlands and Days of Heaven—both examples of stunning poetic realism, both examinations of characters driven by forces they can neither understand nor control.
I was not alone.
Hollywood was abuzz with talk of this remarkable new filmmaker.
Michael Eisner, my boss at Paramount, had done more than just talk about him–he had given him a generous contract, renewing it year after year even though Malick had disappeared and delivered nothing for years on end.
It is, I’m convinced, unwise to declare any artist a genius.
The danger is, of course, that he or she will believe what people are saying, take it so completely to heart that they lapse into total self-indulgence.
When, after twenty years, Malick finally reappeared on the scene, the artist in him had gone missing in action, replaced by a poseur— pretentious, contemptuous of the members of his audience, uninterested in entertaining them or telling them a coherent story or creating compelling characters they could care about.
…when I came across Justin Chang’s rapturous review of Malick’s latest effort—a review that refers to the writer-director’s incoherent, uninvolving The Tree of Life as a “masterwork” and even manages to praise his deliberate disregard of the rules of linear storytelling, his inability to write dialogue that sounds anything like real speech, and his reduction of the ever so distinctive Austin, Texas to a familiar “Malickian landscape…
…I wanted to criy out, “Horseshit!”
But that would have been unfair both to horses and to the fragrant deposits they are known to make.
I remain faithful to my son and proud of his insight, his remarkable critical intuition, but I have to say that I’ve once again lost faith in critics in general.
Time after time, they look upon a naked, fat, flabby old man and praise his new clothes.
Time after time, they look upon an empty landscape and miraculously discover a breathtaking skyline.
Number me with the little girl who tugged at her mother’s sleeve to protest the emperor’s lack of clothes and with Gertrude Stein who looked at the Oakland of her day and clearly saw that there was no there there.
First of all…
In a recent blog, I vowed that I would banish seriousness from my posts—that in the future, I would revert to the irony, the self-mockery, the smart-ass tone that characterized my work in the past.
It’s to be expected, of course.
As I pointed out in my irresistibly funny memoir Confessions of a Hollywood Nobody, it’s what we do in TinselTown: every player knows it’s one of the requirements for the job.
There was no malice aforethought. I truly believed I had put sobriety behind me forever.
However, as I pondered my latest subject, I found myself following the example of Herman Melville and his famous meditation on “The Whiteness of the Whale,” the whiteness that “shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe.”
Melville’s goal was to punch through the blank mask of God and the universe.
Mine: to comprehend the complexities of a white suit worn by one of my favorite characters in one of my favorite movies.
(Okay, okay, so there’s a little bit of a difference in scale, but I’m serious about this, folks. I really am.)
The movie in question is my late friend Robert Ellis Miller’s The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.
Heart stars Alan Arkin as a deaf-mute named John Singer. Isolated in a world of silence, Singer seeks to relieve his loneliness by reaching out in friendship to those around him. He transforms their lives. But they—inadvertently, unwittingly, unconscionably—fail him, and in the end, he takes his own life, unaware of the love and respect each of his friends feels for him.
This intense, profoundly moving film opens at night in a Southern town, with Singer’s friend and fellow deaf-mute, Antonopoulis, rolling a hoop down a sidewalk, playing hopscotch on a court chalked on the walkway, and then breaking a bakery window to get at the goodies inside, unable to hear the burglar alarm that summons the police.
Singer’s first challenge is to get his only friend out of jail.
Robert’s first challenge was to get the film made.
He wanted Arkin to play Singer, but Jack Warner insisted that he wasn’t a star.
Besides, because the character never speaks a word, Warner wanted to use a big-name French or Italian actor in the role, thinking that it would enhance the European box-office.
Robert held out for Arkin.
Warner refused to budge.
The film did not go forward.
Then The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming hit big. Alan called Robert and said, “I’ve gone to a lot of trouble to become a star, so I want you to call Jack Warner and tell him he can go ahead and cast me now.”
Once he had the green light, Robert had to find an unknown to play Mick, the gawky but sensitive teenager who is befriended by Singer and who dreams of a life outside the confines of her impoverished family and her small town with its small-minded values.
He placed a small ad in the local classifieds, and a young woman named Sondra Locke showed up in a beat-up van and bare feet. She read for him and simply blew him away.
The next big challenge was casting Antonopoulis, who is obese, developmentally disabled, driven by insatiable appetite for food and drink.
Antonopoulis’ very size made the casting a challenge—very few actors fit the physical description of the character, and it was, for a while, an open question whether Robert and company would find anyone right for the role.
The answer to that question came out of the mouths of babes—or rather, Alan Arkin’s eleven year-old son Adam, who suggested Chuck McCann, a local television clown he’d discovered while on location with his father.
There remained the question of the white suit Antonopoulis wears in most of his scenes, the suit that reflects his innocent, childlike nature.
(There it is, finally—that white suit that I announced would be the subject of this column! Back in my days as a college professor, my students loved leading me off on tangents—it was, as you may have guessed, an easy task.)
The film had virtually no budget.
Robert’s costume people couldn’t find a white suit that would fit McCann and couldn’t afford to have one specially tailored for him.
This time, it was Robert’s wife Pola who rode to his rescue.
She remembered the white suit that Sidney Greenstreet wore in The Maltese Falcon and had the costume designer call Warners to see if it still existed. It did, and Chuck ended up wearing Greenstreet’s white suit…twenty-seven years after it was created for the Huston film.
The irony is, of course, that the suit itself was ironic in The Maltese Falcon.
The white fabric—the embodiment of innocence in most people’s minds, like the extreme politeness of Greenstreet’s Gutman, like the cliché of the jolly fat man, stood in striking contrast to the reality of the ruthless, rapacious figure it clothed.
The suit, in its second screen appearance, played it straight—an innocent color for an innocent character.
Yes, there actually is a point to my ramblings on these pages.
In fact, there are several.
Film is a collaborative business.
Yes, the director is in charge…sort of.
He (or she) is in charge if he can manipulate the studio into giving him what he wants.
He is in charge if he can communicate his vision for the story to all of his collaborators—if he can put everyone on the same page.
He is in charge if he’s open to good ideas whatever their source—be it a child, a spouse, or even (God forbid) a screenwriter.
A last point?
Costuming plays a more important role in filmmaking than most people realize.
Back in the day when I enjoyed the safety and security of a tenured Associate Professorship at DePauw University, I was thrilled to learn that Jack Kennedy was coming to visit our campus.
No, not that Jack Kennedy.
Our Jack Kennedy—I can call him that because he was a distinguished graduate of the University—was a novelist and a screenwriter who had changed his name to Adam Kennedy in order to distinguish himself from the late President and who was returning to campus to talk about his work.
His most recent achievement?
A screen adaptation of his own novel, The Domino Principle, as a Stanley Kramer film starring Gene Hackman.
As a certifiable film fanatic, I was beside myself with excitement when Jack and his lovely wife Susan arrived on campus. I got to know both of them well in a short period of time and reveled in their stories of TinselTown, where I myself desperately wanted to be.
I remember two of those stories in particular.
The first had to do with Jack’s credited work on a now-forgotten movie called The Dove.
Jack attended the premier with Susan. After watching a few minutes of the film unreel, she turned to her husband and asked, “Jack, did you write any of this?”
“God, I hope not.”
Now, it was my secret hope that I would one day join the ranks of Hollywood writers (and directors—yes, like everyone in the world, what I really wanted to do was direct).
…in spite of this obvious “trigger warning” which should have sounded in my mind like the tocsin on a battleship under attack…
…Jack and Susan’s story merely strengthened my determination to find a magic carpet and ride it to the glamorous, beckoning capital of the film world.
Their second story was more personal.
It was actually Susan’s story.
Her mother, you see, was Carmel Myers.
Who? you ask.
Well, as a crazed film freak, I was possibly the only person among the DePauw faculty and students who could answer that question.
Carmel Myers was the female star of the silent version of Ben-Hur.
How did I know?
Well, my other obsession was F. Scott Fitzgerald.
I had done my graduate work in American literature at Princeton simply because Fitzgerald had gone there.
The subject of my doctoral dissertation?
Scott Fitzgerald, of course.
I knew who Carmel Myers was because she had also been the inspiration for Rosemary Hoyt in Fitzgerald’s masterful Tender Is the Night.
I just about did a backflip in my excitement to know that I was sitting there talking to…CARMEL MYERS’ DAUGHTER!
Now Susan did tell me that in spite of the fact that her mother’s career had ended forty years before and that she’d been completely forgotten by the American public, she saw herself as a queen and expected to be treated like one.
Susan’s story should have been a flashing red light.
The tocsin sounded…
But once again, I…
…I failed to hear it.
Nothing could change my mind.
I ignored the lessons buried in the Kennedys’ stories.
I ignored the warning of a colleague who’d done time in TinselTown and who said, “DON’T DO IT! You’re not tough enough.”
The latter part of his advice, of course, made me all the more determined—“Godammit,” I said to myself, “I’m plenty tough enough.”
And so I did it.
Henry Higgins probably said it best: “What an infantile idea. What a wicked, brainless thing to do.”
I did it, and that’s how, a few years later, I found myself working with Bruce Willis, who taught me a few lessons about star ego and the powerlessness of writers in Hollywood.
Let me quote me in Confessions of a Hollywood Nobody—a frightfully entertaining book I couldn’t recommend more highly.
(Okay, so there might be just a tinge of the aforementioned ego in that last comment, but what can you expect? I did, after all, spend a quarter of a century in Hollywood.)
…let me quote me describing my first meeting with Bruce, a meeting that took place in his mobile dressing room on the 20th Century Fox lot.
“Big as the motorhome is, it seems claustrophobic. I’m having a hard time getting my breath, and I feel crowded, like a commuter in a crowded subway car.
“Then it hits me.
“It’s just star ego.
“It fills the room and leaves very little space for anyone else.”
(For further detail, consult Chapter 90, “What Price Hollywood?” You won’t regret it. I guarantee it.)
All of this is by way of saying that I have great expectations (the working title of my book—a book you really don’t want to miss) for FX’s “Feud: Bette and Joan,” Ryan Murphy’s look at the rivalry between two fading stars who took show biz ego to dizzying new heights.
Though I know very little about Crawford, I do have two stories about Davis.
The first came from A. C. Lyles, who saw Wings as a film-struck Florida teen, wrote Paramount founder and head Adolph Zukor a letter asking for a job every day for four years, was rewarded with a position in the mailroom and eventually worked his way up from office boy to publicist, producer and ambassador of good will—the official greeter of Paramount for decade after decade.
When Queen Elizabeth came to town, it was A. C. who arranged a banquet for her at Paramount, a banquet attended by all the studio’s top stars, including Bette Davis.
Lyles himself sat at the same table as “Miss Davis.” (Nobody, not even A. C., dared call her Bette.)
It was the table closest to the dais where the Queen and her entourage were dining, and as the evening wore on, A. C. noticed (it would, he claimed, have been impossible not to notice) that Miss Davis was unhappy.
He turned to her and asked, “Miss Davis, you seem upset. What is it that’s bothering you?”
Miss Davis drew her self up and replied, with appropriately dramatic outrage, “She doesn’t seem to realize that there is more than one queen present this evening.”
She was right, of course.
Hollywood ego does not allow for the presence of more than one queen in any one room, and that, my friends, is, I’m sure, the basis for Murphy’s “Duel”—a series that might be best described by Davis herself in the classic All About Eve: “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.”
Bumpy and, I suspect, breathtakingly entertaining.
My second Davis story is tied directly to her rivalry with Crawford. It came to me from my friend Robert Ellis Miller, who lived in the same apartment building as the aging star and who happened to be present when Miss Davis returned to the building after the news of Joan Crawford’s death was reported.
A small army of reporters swarmed her and wanted to know how she felt about Crawford now that she was gone.
Miss Davis once again drew herself up and announced, in a tone and posture that dramatized how dim-witted she knew them to be, “People don’t change just because they die.”
So there you have it…
…my meditations on star ego.
If you should want more (and who would not?), you can find them in that wondrously entertaining tome, Confessions of a Hollywood Nobody, where I really put the screws to the impossibly bloated egos of TinselTown.
Some of you may know that Jameson Parker—late of the immensely popular television series Simon and Simon as well as many movies on screens both large and small—turned his back on Hollywood to become a writer.
It was an extraordinary step—one with little precedent in TinselTown.
The old joke says it all. The teller of the tale is at a circus parade and is shocked to see an old friend, a once-prosperous actor, following the elephants and scooping up the deposits they make along the route. Appalled, he rushes up to the man and says, “Jack, you shouldn’t be doing this. Tell you what. I’ll make a place in my office for you. Regular hours. Decent salary. Dignity in the workplace.” Jack’s response: “What? And leave show business?”
Well, Jameson did it.
He left show business, and Hollywood’s loss is the literary world’s gain, for when it comes to words, Mr. Parker has a gift. (Those of you who know him know he has the gift of gab as well, but I was thinking of words on the page.)
He has written a remarkable series of novels and stories. I recommend, in particular…
An Accidental Cowboy. This is an extraordinary account of a man putting himself back together after a shocking assault—restoring himself through sheer physical process in much the same way that Hemingway’s Nick Adams attempts to heal the psychological and emotional wounds of war.
The Horseman at Midnight. A deeply moving story best described as Cormac McCarthy in Steinbeck country. Read it. You’ll thank me for introducing it to you.
“Teaching the Bear To Read.” Quite simply one of the finest short stories ever written.
And today Jameson makes his latest contribution to the literary world: Dancing with the Dead.
Bold. Original. Profoundly moving.
This new novella is the tale of two people from vastly different backgrounds, two survivors caught up in historic forces beyond their control. Stripped of everything that made them who they are, they come together in courage and common humanity. They, like Faulkner’s Dilsey, endure. And so will their story, the most unconventional, unexpected love story of this or any other year.
Do yourselves a favor and buy a copy now. Published by Bear Manor Media, it’s available at Amazon and most of the other usual suspects.
Some of you may have noticed a certain absence of seriousness in my blogs, an ironic, mocking tone designed primarily to deflate my own sense of importance.
I hereby take a vow of sobriety.
You have my promise—my word of honor—that I will renounce irony and wit, that I will embrace seriousness, gravity and thoughtfulness…for today’s blog.
(Don’t expect to see such straight-forwardness in these pages ever again.)
With this prelude, let me turn to the subject of the recent Academy Awards.
The whole town’s talking about the mistake at the climax of the show—La La Land winning the Best Picture award before losing it to Moonlight.
Shocking as this was, it was nothing compared to another mistake the public is unaware of—the inexcusable omission of at least three major names from “In Memoriam” segment.
ROBERT ELLIS MILLER
Charmian was, of course, Liesl, in Robert Wise’s wondrous screen adaptation of The Sound of Music.
I remember where I first saw the film.
I remember my date for the evening.
I remember that amazing opening shot with the camera swooping down to meet Maria as she rushes forward into those hills filled with the sound of music.
I remember bits of dialogue, lyrics, scenes.
But most of all, I remember Charmian.
I fell in love with her that night in that theatre in Beverly Hills.
I’m in love with her to this day.
In fact, when I was privileged to spend some time in conversation with her a few years ago, I was tongue-tied until I finally managed to blurt out, “It’s about time we’ve met. I’ve been in lust with you for almost fifty years.”
How, I wonder, could the Academy have neglected mention of her passing?
Yes, her career in film was brief.
Yes, she is known primarily for one role.
But what a role! What a performance! What a movie!
A movie that shines forever in the memories of those who have seen it.
I’m shocked by her omission from the Academy tribute, and so I pay tribute to her here, in this little-read column,
Thank you, Charmian.
Thank you for lighting up my life and the lives of so many millions.
May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.
Then there’s my old friend Robert Ellis Miller.
Robert directed The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and Rueben, Rueben—two of the finest films ever made.
He orchestrated what Alan Arkin himself considers his best performance.
He discovered both Sondra Locke and Kellie McGillis.
And yet he was not worthy of inclusion in the Academy’s tribute.
If he had done nothing but The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, he would have deserved special mention.
I discovered Heart while a graduate student at Princeton.
I used it to introduce my students to the vocabulary of the cinema while teaching film at DePauw University.
I went nuts when I eventually met Robert himself at a Hollywood party—“Oh, my God, are you Robert Ellis Miller?!?”
And I went crazier still when he expressed an interest in directing one of my screenplays—an event that, alas, was not to be.
One of the proudest accomplishments of my years in Hollywood was my friendship with Robert.
I tried to express my feelings about him and his work a couple of years ago in an article for CineMontage, and given the Academy’s shocking failure to acknowledge the passing of this amazing talent, I am trying again here.
The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is one of the films that gave me the resolve to turn my back on the security of a tenured professorship and ride the rollercoaster of Hollywood. But it did more than inspire me. It moved me. And that is what all great movies do. The best of them will tear your heart in two.
Robert did that, and so I say…
Shame upon the Academy.
I find it astonishing that Charmian and Robert were not enough for them: they also ignored the death of one of the greatest behind-the-scene figures in town—David Shepard.
His is, I suspect, a name unknown to most of you, and frankly, that’s the way he preferred it, for David, unlike most of us in Hollywood, was an advocate not for himself but for the art of the cinema—especially the art of the silent cinema.
David did things for people.
If Confessions of a Hollywood Nobody had an index, his name would have the largest number of entries. I will simply say that without his support, I would have been nothing more than a nameless casualty of the town.
He did things for people.
He brought people together.
He got things done.
The thing he did best was the preservation of our silent film heritage.
As Curator of Film at the late, lamented Blackhawk films and at the AFI, Director of Special Projects at The Directors Guild, Professor of Film at USC, and head of Film Preservation Associates, he—perhaps more than any other single individual—saved silent film for posterity, finding it, restoring it and reintroducing it to the public.
His friend Leonard Maltin wrote in a recent blog, “If you’ve seen a superior print of a film by Chaplin or Keaton, Griffith or Murnau, chances are David had a hand in restoring it.”
My last conversation with him concerned his friend King Vidor.
I had recently watched Vidor’s The Fountainhead, finding it stunning in its visuals and almost operatic in its storytelling, and I’d hoped to gain some insight into his work by peppering David with questions about him. David, not surprisingly, felt that Vidor’s best work was in silent cinema, and our relatively brief exchange was almost the equivalent of a graduate seminar. He followed it up a few days later with a typically generous gesture: I found an inscribed copy of the oral history he’d done with Vidor waiting for me in the mail.
David knew virtually everyone in town, everyone from George Cukor to Alexander Payne, and he’d done something for everyone he knew.
I think of the narrator’s lament in “Crazy Sunday,” F. Scott Fitzgerald’s fictionalized version of the death of Irving Thalberg: “What a hell of a hole he leaves in this damn wilderness.”
In my case, it’s a hole in my heart.
And so I raise my glass to you, David, and to you, Robert and Charmian.
May you live long and prosper in the hearts of all those to whom you brought so much joy.
I recently expressed my outraged astonishment at the great tidal wave of critical praise washing over a modest little mediocrity like La La Land.
Since then, I’ve spent a lot of time wondering what in heaven’s name could have inspired such adulation.
One answer that occurred to me is simple.
Look at the competition.
Many are darker than a moonless sky at midnight while La La Land is refreshingly bittersweet.
Many of the others are remarkably inept while Chazelle’s film is smooth and polished.
Take Manchester by the Sea.
(You take it. I, like Bartleby the Scrivener, prefer not to.)
Brilliantly acted, written and directed, graced by an amazing performance by Michelle Williams, it is also painfully slow.
In fact, it’s just downright painful.
Pain, pain and more pain.
Heaped upon a protagonist who will clearly never escape the crippling burden of his past.
I, like one of the few critics with his head screwed on, kept asking myself, “What did I do to deserve this?”
I finished it whistling “Suicide Is Painless” and had to be restrained from rummaging around in the garage for the rat poison I know to be out there somewhere.
Then there’s Moonlight.
Fluid camera work and direction, astonishing acting (take special note of the remarkable Mahershala Ali), and a faint note of hope at the end, but flawed by physical casting in the second of the film’s three parts.
The talented actor who plays the protagonist as a teenager looks less than nothing like “himself” as a boy or as an adult, completely undercutting the important moment late in the film when a friend from his earlier life miraculously achieves the impossible task of recognizing him.
And while I have boundless compassion for those trapped in the sewer of poverty, racism and drugs, I really don’t want to swim there with them.
After the double bill of Manchester by the Sea and Moonlight, I pulled myself up out of the slough of despond in which they had abandoned me (and, I suspect, most of the other members of their audiences) by watching That’s Entertainment, Parts One and Two.
It took the likes of Mickey and Judy, Fred and Ginger, Gene, Donald and Debbie (all of whom, unlike Ryan and Emma, could both sing and dance) to remind me that films are, first and foremost, entertainment.
Entertainment that can very occasionally, as it did under the inspired stewardship of Alfred Hitchcock and a handful of others, become art.
So there’s the one explanation for the immense critical popularity of La La Land.
It, unlike so much of the competition, is mildly entertaining and leaves you mildly uplifted rather than desperately wishing you could join Christopher Walken in his game of Russian roulette at the end of The Deer Hunter.
Then, of course, there is rest of the Oscar field.
How did I loath it?
Let me count the ways.
Void of drama or any kind of characterization.
Full of pretense.
Some good performances in an ineptly filmed version of an overrated play.
Denzel Washington might have picked up a few hints on how to translate a work from theatre to screen by studying Sidney Lumet’s Twelve Angry Men or Long Day’s Journey into Night.
But he did not.
It begins with hideous nude shots of grotesquely fat women who turn out to be part of a performance art show at a gallery owned by Amy Adams. The nauseating show finally ends, and Amy goes home, where she starts to read a novel by her ex-husband, a novel in which the characters behave like teenaged idiots in a brainless horror film.
What possessed this enormously talented actress this year? After a long stream of great performances, she made two really bad choices, condemning herself to endlessly enter and exit, enter and exit, enter and exit an alien ship shaped like a seed pod…and then, in her other film, to be photographed passively reading a novel manuscript.
If you’ve ever wondered why they don’t make movies about writers, it’s because they don’t do anything you can see except scribble and type. It’s even worse with readers—they just sit and turn pages. What in heaven’s name was she thinking?
A tiresomely familiar structure—a reporter interviewing the film’s subject with flashback after flashback after flashback—and a star who underplays her role so determinedly that the only thing you notice is her Elmer Fudd accent.
So…explanation number two is that with the competition so weak, even a mediocre film looks great.
…and this is a very big but…
THERE WERE SOME TRULY GREAT PICTURES IN PLAY THIS YEAR!
Why is La La Land getting so much attention while these remarkable movies are getting so little?
Florence Foster Jenkins
A masterpiece of a comedy starring one of the greatest of all film actresses, it had me laughing until I cried.
Do you know the story of writer/director George Seaton visiting his old friend actor Edmund Gwenn on his deathbed?
Seaton, who had directed Gwenn as Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street, asked him how he was doing, and Gwenn replied, “Dying is hard, George.” And then, after a perfectly timed pause, “But not as hard as comedy.”
Gwenn was right, but the Academy is traditionally loath to acknowledge that indisputable fact, and it’s unlikely to make an exception in the case of this remarkable comedy.
One of the most realistic portraits of war ever put on film, possibly even surpassing the D-Day invasion at the beginning of Saving Private Ryan.
A masterwork from a master filmmaker built around extraordinary performances, not just from star Andrew Garfield (he was Spiderman, for God’s sake—who knew he could act?) and supporting actor Vince Vaughn (he’s a comic, a wedding crasher, right?) but from every member of the cast.
But Mel Gibson is still paying for that drunken meltdown years ago. Odds are the Academy isn’t ready to forgive him just yet.
A truly great film about three truly great black women.
Neither the movie nor its stars nor the women they portray have yet received their due.
Tell your friends.
Then see it again.
…and keep your eyes open, once again, for Mahershala Ali and for a Kevin Costner you’ve never seen before.
Hell or High Water
A brilliant portrait of life in today’s West Texas, one that helps the viewer understand the Trump phenomenon, but more important, it’s yet another moral drama from screenwriter Sheridan Taylor, scribe of the dazzlingly brilliant but ineptly titled Sicario.
Like the earlier film, Hell or High Water explores the question of what happens when an individual, driven by the best, most understandable of motives, crosses the line and finds himself engaged in dubious battle.
And it gives us yet another great performance from Jeff Bridges. I remember director Lamont Johnson telling me that when Bridges finished the photo booth scene in The Last American Hero, the entire crew burst into spontaneous applause. I did the same thing at the end of this remarkable film. He is nothing short of a wonder.
And I could say the same for the actress who plays the coffee shop waitress, the one who asks Bridges and his companion, “What don’t you want?” She makes this brief encounter a classic on the level of the famous “Hold the chicken” scene from Five Easy Pieces.
It’s my personal favorite of the four or five films worth seeing in 2016, but it came out in the spring, and the Academy’s memory is as short-lived as a mayfly.
…when it comes to the Academy Awards, we might as well join hands with the membership and sing “City of Stars” each of the fourteen times the cast and crew of La La Land dance awkwardly to the stage.