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Archive for January, 2009|Monthly archive page

FROM STAHL TO SIRK

In Uncategorized on January 28, 2009 at 7:45 pm

Anthology Film Archives is running a fascinating series, IMITATIONS OF LIFE: STAHL VS. SIRK, which compares the work of two directors, John Stahl (1886-1950) and Douglas Sirk (1900-87), working in the specific category of the “woman’s film,” a once-staunch Hollywood genre – as fully commercial as the Western or gangster flick – which has all but disappeared in a time when the harried, often career-obsessed mother of the family no longer makes the movie-going decisions so much as the 12-year-old son she more often than not drops off at the mall. Sirk happened to film three different remakes in the 1950s of movies originally lensed by Stahl in the 1930s, and it’s as instructive to see the contrasting look and ambiance of the these two eras as it is to experience two differing directorial styles.

Sirk, with his lushly over-the-top visuals framing throbbingly fraught emotionalism – some say “masterly”; others, “pure corn” –  is the more familiar name to contemporary audiences, being celebrated by auteurist critics as well as both the late R.W. Fassbinder and Todd Haimes, whose FAR FROM HEAVEN (2002) was a blatant homage to him. Stahl is best remembered today for the luridly Technicolor Gothic campfest, LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN (1945), for which Martin Scorsese has a permanent hard-on. Ironically, that film is something of an anomaly in Stahl’s career, which began in the silent era, with A BOY AND THE LAW (1914), as its excessiveness is a definite one-off in career mainly devoted to a more studio-engendered craftsmanlike, classically straightforward, non-flashy style of storytelling.

Indeed, Stahl’s unfestooned presentation of the three films in the series, IMITATION OF LIFE (1934), MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION (1935) and WHEN TOMORROW COMES (1939) are like a simple meal of meat with two veg as opposed to Sirk’s remakes, like the luxe  fare you’d find at some overpriced Manhattan foodie haven, mixing a surfeit of rich ingredients with suspicious nutritional value, perhaps resulting in a certain abdominal queasiness.

Irene Dunne stars in Stahl’s MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION and WHEN TOMORROW COMES and is  his most emblematic actress, although he also worked with such formidable ladies as Margaret Sullavan (in her delicate debut, ONLY YESTERDAY (1933), Bette Davis, Myrna Loy, Gene Tierney, Norma Shearer, Eleanor Boardman and Florence Vidor. In 1932, Dunne starred for Stahl in that mother of all weepies, BACK STREET (written by Fannie Hurst, who also penned IMITATION OF LIFE), and so effectively played the forlorn, sequestered mistress of a married man that the film played nonstop for years in that mecca of adultery, Paris. Dunne, although denigrated for a certain archness by eminent critics James Agee and Pauline Kael, has always struck me, even with her admitted affectations, which can be awfully entertaining, as a singularly representative, if  idealized, American woman of her time. Perhaps the most versatile of Hollywood Golden Age stars, she was not only adept at drama and comedy but could sing, as well, with a throaty soprano far more pleasing to the ear than shrill Jeanette MacDonald. (She played Magnolia in the road company of the original production of SHOWBOAT and, later in Hollywood, had no less than Jerome Kern writing songs for her like “Lovely to Look At” and “The Folks Who Live on the Hill.”)  Along with everything else, she was a great, aristocratic beauty; in 1935 a panel of eminent judges, including the photographer George Hoyningen-Huene almost unanimously judged her nose as the most perfect in Hollywood.

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IRENE DUNNE, PHOTOGRAPHED BY EDWARD STEICHEN

WHEN TOMORROW COMES, from a suprisingly durable story by James Cain (it was remade twice, once by Sirk in 1957, with June Allyson and that ’50s all-purpose Continental lover, Rossano Brazzi)  is a piquant little romantic ride about a famous concert pianist (Charles Boyer) who falls in love with a waitress (Irene Dunne). They endure a hurricane during which they seek refuge in a church for a night, where she learns that he is married to a madwoman (Barbara O’Neill). He eventually must take his leave of her, Irene of course nobly understands, but he promises to return one day. (And Irene will inevitably be nobly waiting.)

Boyer – the greatest screen lover of them all, and a superb actor – performs with his usual liquid charm and bedroom eyes, in his second effective 1939 pairing with Dunne with whom he made Leo McCarey’s LOVE AFFAIR. The film is also interesting for O’Neill, tall, dark, handsome and usually neurotic, who made something of a career of playing crazy, unwanted wives (as she did in the following year’s ALL THIS AND HEAVEN, TOO, for she was Oscar-nominated), along with Scarlett’s Mama in GONE WITH THE WIND, also released in 1939.

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BARBARA O’NEIL (1910-80), EXPERT PLAYER OF UNWANTED WIVES

Claudette Colbert, another exemplar of classic screen femininity, stars in IMITATION OF LIFE, and, like Dunne, projects a refulgent womanliness, elegance and intelligence, albeit in her own inimitable style. These are women to be admired and emulated, from the radiant smarts and warmth they project to the ineffable chic with which they wear their beautifully symmetrical  ’30s styles. (Colbert, incidentally, never looked more beautiful than she does in IMITATION OF LIFE and when I met her in 1985, I told her so and asked what made her go so attractively brunette for this film. “Darling, that’s my natural color!” she laughed.)

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CLAUDETTE COLBERT, 1934, WITH HER NATURAL HAIR COLOR

And now we come to the 1950s. Oy! In Sirk’s MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION we have Jane Wyman, a far less idealized, more gratingly American type of female (with Colbert’s borrowed hairdo) who, like June Allyson in INTERLUDE, substituted an all-purpose, rather humorless girl-next-door perkiness for the womanly grace of Dunne and Colbert. Lana Turner is even less of an actress than those two in IMITATION OF LIFE, but she does possess her own admittedly entertaining, rather garish idea of emoting, garnered from youthful months of Warners/MGM studio schooling, that synthetic melange of posing, pouting and slightly mistimed grand effects which has always, like Eleanor Parker and middle-to-late period Susan Hayward, rather screamed “drag queen” and cannot fail to evoke hilarity among the indulgent. (Just the fact that the middle-aged, slightly dumpy, bleached blonde Turner becomes a top New York model is as risible as an over-the-hill Betty Grable’s similar rise in HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE. Only in Old Hollywood could the youth-worshipping fashion world be a welcoming haven for 40-ish stars.)

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LANA ACTS! (in “Imitation of Life” where she plays a top NY model turned instantaneously into huge international film star)

Actually, the most fascinating performances in both IMITATIONs are given not by Louise Beavers and Juanita Hall, who play the insanely noble, self-sacrificing black maid and mother, but by the supporting actresses in the role of  her daughter, the tragic mulatto who tries to pass for white. Susan Kohner in the Sirk is actually the one responsible for most of that film’s shameless, throat-grabbing emotional effect. Although not black, she was a mixture of Jewish and Mexican (her father was Hollywood superagent Paul Kohner, mother was the actress Lupita Tovar, star of the admired 1931 Spanish language DRACULA) and doubtlessly could relate to this character. With her uncultivated, nasal voice and wholly wrongheaded, determinated trudge to oblivion, she is achingly vulnerable, a Natalie Wood-type who could really act (indeed the two actresses appeared, confusingly, together in ALL THE FINE YOUNG CANNIBALS (1960), which was like the bewildering look-alike pairings of Rhonda Fleming and Arlene Dahl in SLIGHTLY SCARLET, and Anne Baxter and Nina Foch in THE TEN COMMANDMENTS). The famous final scene of her throwing herself on her mother’s coffin, shrieking, “Mama, I’m sorry!” is the one that everyone remembers with anguish, but I find the scene in which she is brutally roughed up by her bigoted boyfriend (Troy Donahue), when he discovers the truth about her, even more upsetting, with Sirk further lipsmackingly adding to her degradation by ending with a shot of her sprawled in the mud in a defiled yellow frock.

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SUSAN KOHNER, DEGRADING HERSELF IN A CLUB IN ‘IMITATION OF LIFE’

(Where’s Robert DeNiro when you need him?)

 

In Stahl’s IMITATION, Fredi Washington played the same role with its original name, Peola Johnson. (In this, her mother was Delilah, but in the Sirk version, although the surname “Johnson” was retained, the daughter and mother were blandly renamed Sarah Jane and Annie.) In a frustrating handful of scenes – unlike the full story arc Kohner was given by Sirk – Washington still emerges as the most compelling character, inbuing Peola with a bitterly resigned otherness, which leaves you wanting much more. That such a beautiful, intelligent and poised woman could be such a self-destructive victim of society is profoundly driven home here by an actress who never once asks for easy sympathy, indeed, almost wrongheadedly prides herself on being misunderstood..

In life, Washington (1903-94) was a fascinating, gorgeous political firebrand who helped found the Negro Actors Guild in 1937 to create better professional opportunities for her race and was also entertainment editor and columnist for “The People’s Voice”, a weekly leftist newspaper for African Americans founded by her brother-in-law Adam Clayton Powell, with a regular column, “Fredi Speaks.” A tireless civil rights advocate, she was administrative secretary for the Joint Actors Equity-Theater League Committee on Hotel Accommodations for Negro Actors throughout the United States.

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Issues of color colored Washington’s entire life. She began her career as a stage dancer and, early on, was told that if she changed her name and race and moved to Europe she could become a huge star, an offer she refused outright. When she played opposite Paul Robeson in THE EMPEROR JONES, her skin had to be darkened for fear of public perception that Robeson was making love to a white woman. Her light skin prohibited her from playing typical maid roles and, apart from ONE MILE FROM HEAVEN (1937) with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, IMITATION OF LIFE was the only real chance she got in Hollywood, which she deserted for the New York stage. There she appeared in the legendary production MAMBA’S DAUGHTERS (1938) with the great Ethel Waters. After IMITATION, she found herself typecast and being repeatedly asked to play similar passing roles, which she rejected as degrading. Her outspokenness with studio bosses also didn’t do her any favors when she’d confront them with “If a Negro lady fits the beauty and talent standards of Hollywood, why can’t she be a star?”

In her personal life, she faced discrimination both from whites and from blacks who resented her fair skin and green eyes. Once she was having her hair done in a beauty parlor by a stylist who, unaware of her identity, talked smack about her, saying “Fredi Washington wants to be white. She’s just like Peola!” Fredi took pleasure in identifying herself to the woman and shutting her up quick, reality checks were something she never veered away from and, indeed, when I discussed Washington with a friend of hers a few years ago at the Chelsea Hotel, this woman sighed, “Oh, Fredi, she just had so much anger.”

She was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in 1975. 

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Douglas Sirk: “If I had to stage MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION as a play I wouldn’t have survived. It is a combination of kitsch and craziness and trashiness. But craziness is very important, and it saves trashy stuff like MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION. This is the dialectic – there is a very short distance between high art and trash, and trash that contains the element of craziness is by this very quality nearer to art.” Lloyd C. Douglas’ 1929 was a gargantuan international best-seller, the GONE WITH THE WIND of its time, a masterpiece of kitsch spirituality and hokum, and this tale of a dissolute doctor, who accidentally blinds the woman he comes to love above all else and is redeemed by, gave Sirk the opportunity to pour on the schmaltz and velvety Technicolor texture. The film made a star of Rock Hudson just like the 1935 version did for Robert Taylor, another blindingly handsome hunk with limited acting skills.

For further information about this series, go to

http://www.anthologyfilmarchives.org/

SCHEDULE:

WHEN TOMORROW COMES

1939, 90 minutes, 35mm. With Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer.
Jan 28 7:00 PM
1957, 90 minutes, 35mm. With June Allyson.
Jan 28 9:00 PM
1935, 112 minutes, 35mm. With Irene Dunne and Robert Taylor.
Jan 29 6:45 PM

MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION

1935, 112 minutes, 35mm. With Irene Dunne and Robert Taylor.

Jan 31 9:00 PM
1957, 90 minutes, 35mm. With June Allyson.
Feb 1 4:30 PM
1959, 125 minutes, 35mm. With Lana Turner, John Gavin, Sandra Dee, Susan Kohner and Juanita Moore.
Feb 1 6:30 PM
1934, 111 minutes, 35mm. With Claudette Colbert and Louise Beavers.
Feb 1 9:00 PM

OPERA NIGHTS

In Uncategorized on January 25, 2009 at 8:07 pm
I was really looking forward to seeing Angela Gheorghiu in the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Puccini’s LA RONDINE, that romantically evanescent pastiche of TRAVIATA, BOHEME and FLEDERMAUS. I’d heard good things about the production when it was at Covent Garden, especially about its appealing Deco design. And, of course, there was Angie who, with her over the top glamour, diva tantrums and chronic cancellations have made her the most avidly dished about diva since Kathleen Battle took to the hills. Some call this Romanian soprano “goddess,” others refer to her as Vampira. I saw her once en famille in the afternoon on Madison Avenue and she indeed looked more than a little anemic. And I will never forget her showing up at the Met to watch her husband Roberto Alagna assume the role of Don Jose in CARMEN, sweeping down the aisle in a Nile-green ball gown, her exposed decolletage smeared with glitter creme, bling hanging off every appendage (including her purse) and dragging a protective duenna and sable coat behind her. There was her blow-up with Metropolitan Opera General Manager Joe Volpe in 1996 when she refused to wear a blonde wig as Micaela in Carmen (Volpe said “The wig goes on, with or without you”), followed by more bust-ups in 1998 with Volpe when she demanded director and design approval of an aborted LA TRAVIATA appearance, and a 2007 firing by Chicago Opera for missing LA BOHEME rehearsals and a “total disregard for Lyric Opera’s dedicated personnel and for her fellow artists,” according to GM William Mason. 
I could go on and on…shall I? She and her husband, tenor Roberto Alagna, have registered their names as trademarks to stave off independent websites. They’ve been alternately referred to as “The Ceausescus” or, as Director Jonathan Miller’s would have it, “Bonnie and Clyde.” When he directed her in a 1997 Bastille Opera TRAVIATA, she reacted to the news that she would die in a hispital ward with “Impossible! I die alone!”  Her manager Leon Savan quit in 2002, stating “I can only work with normal people. My personal favorite: during a 2001 performance of Verdi’s REQUIEM she glossed her lips with lipstick concealed in her cleavage. An Opera News cover story last month, filled with strange mea culpas from the diva regarding her dedication to not disappointing her faithful fans, seemed hard-pressed to find anyone with anything positive to say about her (including the writer).
Covent Garden alone is a veritable treasure trove of Gheorgh-lore.  She missed rehearsals for TOSCA because she was at Van Cleef & Arpels picking out the gems she was to wear in it. When frustrated Conductor Antonio Pappano reminded her that he desperately needed to set the tempi with her, she told him to just watch the DVD of her TOSCA. 
Evidently, the music of some buskers outside her Covent Garden dressing room bothered her so much she asked management if they could get the street musicians to stop. When told that they had no control over what went on outside the opera house, Gheorghiu threw a bucket of water on the annoyances from her window. The news made British press, she denied the story saying she loved street musicians, “especially when they play the music of Bob Marley.”
A fellow singer who appeared in LA BOHEME with her remembered a night when she cancelled, citing illness. She was therefore surprised to see Georghiu backstage sitting in the spare dressing room on the night of the performance. “Why are you here?” she asked. “Oh,” Gheorghiu replied, “I am just a leetle bit sick – I never sing when I am – and I wanted to check out the competition (meaning her cover).” After hearing the soprano aria “Mi chiamano Mimi,” Gheorghiu left, saying, “I hear enough. I don’t worry…”
Well, at Lincoln Center on January 13, I guess you could therefore say that Gheorghiu did not disappoint. Sure enough, she cancelled! (I should have known better than to expect her to show for the final performances of a run, as she’s also absented herself from TRAVIATA in the past). Illness was cited, but there were those bitchy types who said that she was disappointed by her unenthusiastic reception at the broadcast performance the Saturday before. Someone who caught the dress rehersal said that he couldn’t hear her middle voice and it’s been rumored (and published) that she has completely lost it.
It all turned out to be no biggie, actually, as her cover, the ever-reliable Maureen Flynn (who did the same for Gheorghiu’s no-show TRAVIATA) acquitted herself exquisitely, delivering a performance filled with an appealingly serene womanliness and fecund musicality. To really work, the central role of Magda, the emotionally flitting rondine (swallow), a high-priced courtesan who gives up all for true love, has to quiver with vulnerability, a quality the diamond-hard Giorghiu would seem hard-pressed to invoke. This quality Flynn delivered in spades, although nearly undone by a first act dress which looked like something Margaret Dumont would have rejected for A NIGHT AT THE OPERA and a third act frock in which I thought she’d transformed herself into IL TROVATORE’s baby-addled gypsy, Azucena. Her second act dress – a Poiret-esque white lawn garden party fabrication with hat was at least flattering. Roberto Alagna as her lover performed with his usual ardor but there’s no escaping the fact that his voice has acquired an unmistakable dryness that’s robbed it of its youthful juiciness. His singing, though, was a lush oasis compared to the secco barking of Marius Brenciu (unaccountably winner of the 2001 Cardiff Singer of the World prize). His onstage inamorata, Lisette Oropesa in the coincidentally named role of Lisette, gave a delightfully coquettish, very Italianate performance, the stylized, hyper antics of which reminded me of the delicious screen comedienne Stefania Sandrelli. The sets were indeed glamorously impressive, filled with futurist Mussolini-era visual niceties, although more evocative of Milan or Barcelona than Paris, but that‘s close enough for me, and Franca Squarciapino’s costumes had her work’s usual lovely period detail and delicate coloring.
Backstage, Met benefactress Mercedes Bass swept pass us, in a fur collar which made her look a Goya come to life, to congratulate Alagna, happily signing autographs for his fans. A flushed, exhilarated O’Flynn also received her admirers, including her husband, bass Claude Corbeil, and I had to ask her about her costumes and she told me, “The only one that was built for me was for the second act. Wasn’t it pretty? But the hat was driving me crazy. I couldn’t hear anything!”
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MAUREEN O’FLYNN
Postscript: One really can’t help wondering how a cancellation like Gheorghiu’s affects things, like when her husband is supposed to be sharing the stage with her. Oh well, the sorrows of art may be the joys of life, for I was told of a singer who once sat in back of Alagna during a rehearsal of ROMEO ET JULIETTE, as he watched Gheorghiu onstage, and overheard him telling a friend in Italian, “She can suck the chrome off a fender!”
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VAMPIRA (AKA MAILA NURMI)
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ANGELA GEORGHIU  (PHOTO BY ALEX GALMEANU)
On January 9, I caught the Met’s production of Gluck’s masterpiece, ORFEO ED EURYDICE, an opera dear to me, for the aria “Che faro senza Eurydice” was the first one I really personally discovered – after your typical childhood hearings of CARMEN and BARBER OF SEVILLE‘s “Largo al factotum” – on a Rise Stevens recording. This celestial theme was also utilized by Max Ophuls in the devastating opera sequence in his superb tragic romance, LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN, underlining Joan Fontaine‘s irrevocable decision to throw her life away for a hopeless love.
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JOAN FONTAINE (SEEN HERE WITH LOUIS JOURDAN) GAVE HER GREATEST PERFORMANCE IN MAX OPHUL’S “LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN” (1948), WRITTEN BY STEFAN ZWEIG
These elevated reference points kept me going through the Met production, directed with wise-ass trendiness and chaotic clutter by Mark Morris. The underworld is presented as one huge medical operating theater, with rows of historically garbed onlookers (the Met chorus) peering down on the deadly action below. One could spot Tosca, Ghandi, Queens Elizabeth I, II and Mary of Scotland, and Lord knows who else if you cared to. (I didn’t.) The other underworld set was a better, if highly conventional conglomeration of glittery lava rock with cut-out passageway. Most of the dancing had that spare, arbitrary, instantly made-up feeling typical of Morris’ work these days, save one lovely moment when the stage was filled with couples endlessly entwining and re-entwining themselves to Gluck’s gleefully galloping celebratory theme of Eurydice‘s resurrection from the dead
This must be said: Stephanie Blythe as Orfeo looked like Fatty Arbuckle, dressed all in black as Elvis, or was it Johnny Cash?
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FATTY ARBUCKLE (WITH MABEL NORMAND IN “HE DID AND HE DIDN’T,” 1916)
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DANIELLE DE NIESE AND STEPHANIE BLYTHE IN ‘ORFEO ED EURYDICE’ (2009)
She did not so much resemble a man as a sizable butch dyke and, although the physicality of opera singers is not supposed to matter, here it most definitely did. She was “hiply” given a guitar to play (which she didn’t even attempt to give the illusion of), instead of a lyre, and I was shocked to see, when she handed it to a chorister, that it was indeed a guitar and not a ukulele as I’d first surmised. Her singing might have redeemed all of this, but it, like her acting, was full throttle, unnuanced and just plain loud, however impressive the sound might have been. James Levine unsubtly conducted the yearningly plaintive “Che faro” like it was “76 Trombones” from THE MUSIC MAN, perhaps for his orchestra to be heard over Blythe’s lungs, a real 11 o‘clock showstopper. It was left to Danielle de Niese to provide the evening’s only literal grace notes and, as Eurydice, she seemed truly otherworldly here, which, given her surroundings, seemed a preferable state of being. The polar opposite to Blythe in terms of physical allure, this gorgeously exotic soprano, who could just as soon be a supermodel if she wished, moved like a dream and sang with affecting lyricism and poignancy. Indeed, the stars’ physical discrepancy was such that, when Orfeo finally does turn to take a verboten look at his wife (despite warnings from the gods, themselves) it seemed small wonder that the full sight of him kills the poor thing outright all over again. (See my interview with de Niese:
De Niese also got the evening’s only decent costume from Isaac Mizraahi, a heavenly concoction of gauzy white, which ethereally fit her perfect form. I frankly hated the glittery Gap-wear with which he dressed the dancers and poor (squawking) Heidi Grant Murphy as Amor looked like a suspended-in-mid-air frat boy.
After the performance, O’Neal’s was the place to be, with Blythe enjoying a well-earned supper, and the Mark Morris dance troupe regaling themselves at a nearby table. On the way out, I ran into a bubbling- over Mark Morris who, when someone mentioned a mutual acquaintance, shrieked, “Cunt!” (Diagheliv himself couldn’t have expressed himself any better.) Accompanying Morris was gifted costume designer Martin Pakledinaz, who described working on a wondrous production out in Pasadena, STORMY WEATHER, with the ageless Leslie Uggams playing the older Lena Horne. She was evidently given only one song, the title number, to sing at the show’s end, but knocked everyone’s socks off so much that she’s been given more songs. Pakledinaz said, “And now I go directly into BLITHE SPIRIT, with Rupert Everett making his Broadway debut, Christine Ebersole and Angela Lansbury as Mme. Arcati, you know, just a little community theater effort…” The show has been reset in the period 1938 and I am definitely looking forward to what Pakledinaz does for that era in which giantesses like Chanel, Schiaparelli, Gres and Vionnet roamed the couture earth. 

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LESLIE UGGAMS AS LENA HORNE IN “STORMY WEATHER” (Photo by Mark Garvin)

In Uncategorized on January 13, 2009 at 7:34 am

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MARLENE DIETRICH, WHO INVENTED THE GLAMOUR AND OUTRAGEOUSNESS THE GOLDEN GLOBS ASPIRE TO

Wearing maybe the first Afro on a white woman, designed by the great Paramount costumer Travis Banton, singing “Hot Voodoo” in Josef von Sternberg’s BLONDE VENUS (1932) 

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HOLLYWOOD HIGH SCHOOL NEVER ENDS: THE GOTH GIRL AND THE JOCK

Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, our nearest modern day equivalent of Marlene, in the gloriously brazen way she lives her life and canny control of the press which covers it

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BLABBERMOUTHS

Greer Garson (above right) gave such a long 1942 Oscar acceptance speech that presenter that presenter Joan Fontaine had to take the weight off on a handy onstage chair.

Sally Hawkins (below) at this year’s Golden Globs upheld that windy British tradition. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)

InStyle and Warner Brothers Studios Golden Globes After-Party

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BEST GOWN, WORST HAIR

Drew Barrymore’s Galliano is divine, but she should have avoided that wind tunnel

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NOT SINCE JUDE LAW IN ‘THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY”….

Have so many men wanted to resemble a star as they now do dreamy James Franco as the dream lover in MILK. Get ready for a barrage of  1970s-style moustaches in an all-out attempt to cop his appeal.

Look, it’s begun already…

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Darren Aronofsky showed up at the Globs with this brush, reminding us that on some people it’s more snide than sexy…this look is a harsh mistress, boys! 

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SOMETIMES THE GLOBS ARE JUST TOO MUCH FOR SOME: JONATHAN RHYS MEYERS HAD TO BE ESCORTED AWAY FROM THE BAR

THE REAL GOLDEN GLOBES

Pia Zadora, who will always represent these awards to me, the winner of  Best New Star of the Year (1982) and future occupant of Hollywood’s White House, Pickfair

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MARY PICKFORD REACTS TO THE NEWS

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“I’LL SHOW YOU A PAIR OF GOLDEN GLOBES!”

In Uncategorized on January 13, 2009 at 7:06 am

Who could ever forget Bette Midler, back when she was really fun in 1980, making that comment, which she attributed to no less than Joan Crawford (probably spinning in her casket at the time). (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QYlbQwGy9pI).

One could hardly blame Midler’s irreverence: you might recall that, two years after she won Newcomer of the Year, this same award was presented to Pia Zadora. You remember her, that adorable, well-married munchkin who moved into the White House of Hollywood, i.e., Pickfair, the ancestral manse of Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford – the first superstar couple who made Brangelina look like D-listers – and proceeded to remodel it ’80s-style? (Actually La Zadora should be cherished for sticking a Velcro bow on her newborn baby’s head for photo ops, and also her cinematic oeuvre, which contains two campfests which rival VALLEY OF THE DOLLS or BUTTERFIELD 8, and are surefire party favors.

Zadora’s BUTTERFLY (1982), based on a story by no less than the great James Cain (MILDRED PIERCE, THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RING TWICE, DOUBLE INDEMNITY) features the requisite nymphet-making-her-screen-debut bathtub scene, which seared itself into the minds of hetero horndogs, and also one of those “casts assembled in hell,” which included Orson Welles, Stacey Keach, Lois Nettleton, Edward Albert June Lockhart and Ed McMahon, whose entrance incited hysterical laughs at the first New York press screening.

THE LONELY LADY (1983), or “Harold Robbins’ ‘The Lonely Lady’,” as it was prestigously billed in the three theatres which ran it, established Zadora as then-Queen of Screen Pulp, playing Jerilee Randall, a struggling screenwriter. Who could forget her teenaged rape by a water hose and a scene in which she lowered herself onto a stud’s tumescence murmuring, “Gently…gently’?”

But I digress. Midler’s irreverence was a world and age away from the kowtowing respect shown the Globs, as I call them, by such as Colin Farrell and Kate “Is this really me?” Winslet. Being an ink-stained, underpaid, ever-disrespected wretch, myself, in Manhattan for lo these many years, maybe I should move to Taiwan and restyle myself as David Ng from the Taipei Tattler. Maybe then I’d get movie stars to remember my name and their publicists to return calls.

Random Thoughts on this evening which once was rather an industry joke, just a chance for the motliest assemblage of stars to eat rubber chicken, scarf drinks, schmooze and receive awards from an even motlier group of  journos. (Dustin Hoffman, who won 1968’s New Star of the Year, recalled what an industry joke this award used to be considered, so much so that he was the only star who showed up the year he was first nominated.)  It has now become actually respectable and dearly coveted, in this media-soaked age, dazzled by celebrity and everything leading up to that ultimate of ultimates… on your collective knees, now…the Oscar, that Golden Guy the world is meant to salivate over, which has been bestowed upon such dubious “masterpieces” as GOING MY WAY, THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH, AROUND THE WORLD IN 😯 DAYS, THE STING, ROCKY, CHARIOTS OF FIRE, GHANDI, OUT OF AFRICA, DANCES WITH WOLVES, BRAVEHEART, RAIN MAN, A BEAUTIFUL MIND, GLADIATOR, and John Mills for RYAN’S DAUGHTER and Helen Hayes for AIRPORT in the same year, 1970. Oh, we could go on and on about that combination popularity/bottom line contest…

Dressed like a Golden Glob herself in glittering Versace, Jennifer Lopez got things off to a rather funny start by trying to hush every up: “Mamma talking, Mamma talking!” Soon supposedly to be ex-husband Mark Anthony was dutifully there, but all I could think about was a certain friend who swore to me he slept with one of them. Said friend was walking down a Manhattan street one day some years back when a pay phone suddenly rang. Being the curious sort, he picked it up and got immediately invited over for some quick anonymous sex. His pithy description of that certain party was “really weird-looking, but big!”

Sally Hawkins can now be deemed the new Greer Garson for her interminable acceptance speech for HAPPY-GO-LUCKY, a movie which wholly depended on how charmed you were by her frenetic obnoxiousness, one more in Mike Leigh’s long line of nails-on-the-chalkboard protagonists like David Thewlis in NAKED, Katrin Cartlidge in CAREER GIRLS and Brenda Blethyn in SECRETS AND LIES (although that performance worked for me, and, indeed, the poor woman hasn’t done anything near to it since). Charmed I definitely was not, but Sunday night I kept thinking about Greer’s rambling Irish tongue in 1942, accepting an Oscar for MRS. MINIVER, going on and on so long that even presenter Joan Fontaine had to back herself into a handy chair to get off her feet. Garson never lived this down but had the good humor to laugh at herself when, substitute-accepting Vivien Leigh’s A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE AWARD in 1952, she said, “If there’s time, I have a few more things to say…”

The gowns – really the most important part of the evening, who are we kidding?- were mostly lovely this year, the most beautiful being Drew Barrymore’s cobwebby blue mist creation, the work of  – no surprise – by John Galliano, simply the greatest alive designer today and assured of a vital place in fashion history. But what was up – literally -with Drew’s hair? Did she drive to the Globs with the top down at full speed?

Barrymore’s co-presenter was Jessica Lange, whose face seems finally to have relaxed out of its frozen, Asiatic (I can say that)/slight Joycelyn Wildenstein Catwoman mold. And, Lord love her, she ain’t going the matronly besuited route of Glenn Close and Susan Sarandon (looking good, though!) – still working the slinky little black dress thing she did a few years ago when she appeared in Manhattan for a Stella Adler benefit evening. (She was accompanied by her ex, Mikhail Baryshnikov, who came off that night as very much like his pill-like SEX AND THE CITY character, super-frosty, and swiftly dragging her past the wailing paparazzi, even though she’d spent a full ten minutes fluffing herself for them in the Pierre Hotel powder room.)

These actresses are two of the most likable in the business but did they really need to make a feature film of GREY GARDENS? Guess this way even the folks in Podunk will eventually be able to spout, “The hallmark of aristocracy is responsibility”  in a way to rival any Fire Island Grey Goose devotee.

And, wouldn’t you know Steven Spielberg, upon winning the Cecil B. DeMille Award, would actually cite DeMille’s THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH as his formative movie experience? Like DeMille, he’s a crowd-pleaser first and foremost, and, as with DeMille, one should be a tad wary of throwing the word “artist” around when referring to him. The film for which he still seems to deserve that apellation the most, for me, remains his first feature, SUGARLAND EXPRESS (1974). And I think it’s telling that Goldie Hawn in that film is still maybe the only really strong woman character he has ever presented. (And I guess you can also throw Joan Crawford, ever ubiquitous, and wonderfully so, going hysterically blind in his TV directorial debut, the 1969 NIGHT GALLERY episode, EYES.)

It was also telling that the award was presented to him by Martin Scorsese, another Boys R Us director, who although far more of a real artist,  has even admitted to knowing nada about women, with a resume that rather proves it. (ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE was a long time ago, actually the same  as SUGARLAND EXPRESS, which bespeaks a dead era when women actually counted on screen, even for eager beaver tyros like Steven and Marty.)

There can be no doubt, however, of Spielberg’s killer influence on the industry. Between him, from the time of JAWS, and George Lucas’ STAR WARS-es, American films can now be counted on to largely delight ongoing generations of 12-year-old boys, total mall-fillers, but is that really news to anyone?

Winslet seems one of the loveliest and nicest human beings around – her appearance last year at a NY memorial service for her publicist Robert Garlock was unforgettably real, funny as well as heartbreaking, but she does not deserve the accolades for these two performances. In REVOLUTIONARY ROAD she cannot redeem a dreary, straining-for-art-concept – AMERICAN BEAUTY in the ’50s burbs this time around – with nary a laugh between this married couple in all their endless years together. Director Sam Mendes strives so darn hard for Celluloid Art and comes up stagey every time, especially in this suffocatingly airless Norman Rockwell nightmare.

It’s all accompanied by one of those gets-under-your-skin “evocative” music scores, filled with what I like to call the “piano of poignancy.” On a recent radio show, Jonathan Schwartz played the arrangement of some cabaret singer’s morosely self-pitying ditty – the resemblance to the movie’s score was unmissable – and Schwartz noted that it just missed officially being outright plagiarism by a few notes.

As for THE READER, another “this is a very important film,” by Stephen Daldry, another former Brit stage director besotted with cinemah’s potential, well, if your idea of great acting is seeing a charming young British lass pull on the persona of an aging, world-weary, been-there-done-that Kraut like it’s Simone Signoret’s old sweater, start the ovation now. Throughout the film, Winslet kept referring to her young, born-to-be-destroyed innocent student lover as “Kid,” like Marlene Dietrich in TOUCH OF EVIL” (a persona that actress had not only earned but owned by then). With every “Kid,” I found myself recoiling further and further into the back of my seat, apalled by the bogusness (bogus-ity?). In minimal screen time, the always reliable Lena Olin shows you what can be done to reveal the true ravages of time  and a steeliness of  character, even in this pretentious potboiler, and makes you definitely wish she’d been given the lead.

Both of these Winslet vehicles had that end-of-the-year, awards-ready excruciatingly self-cnscious pretentious remindful of last award season’s unbearable, unaccountably praised ATONEMENT.

Hollywood loves a comeback story, and I defy you not to be moved by Mickey Rourke in THE WRESTLER, but there’s no way this updated version of THE CHAMP (which won Wally Beery an Oscar in 1932) could begin to compete with Sean Penn’s stupendous transformation as MILK. Director Darren Aronofsky has taken repeated public umbrage whenever Rourke refers to him as “tough,” which I find definitely weird. Is this director that much of a wimp, and since when was being “tough” a negative quality in a movie director. (I thought it was a requisite.) It rather says everything that it was Rourke, not Aronofsky, who gave co-actor Marisa Tomei the real key to her stripper character by making a couple of calls to certain Scores acquaintances of his, who were then able to enlighten Tomei on the fine points of the pole.

STYLE NOTE: Aronofsky’s “ironic” moustache, a harbinger of many more to come, I am afraid, in the wake of James Franco’s dazzling revival of the ’70s gay clone look in MILK, which no doubt has all those baby boomers who never gave up their scrub brushes joyously going into a bear dance. Unfortunately, one has to look like Franco to really carry this off, and Aronofsky’s made him look more shifty than sexy. Do you really want to resemble a Carter-era accountant?

Laura Linney won a Glob for playing Abigail Adams in that mini-series which is on my must-eventually-do list, right next to the Roosevelt family saga, WARM SPRINGS, and all those Tudor family mini-series. Last year, she should have won for a movie nobody saw THE NANNY DIARIES, in which she was absolutely sensational, the best she’s ever been. Last May at the New Dramatists lunch in NY, I praised her performance in this bitchy role and compared it to the part she was then currently essaying (and none too well), the Marquise de Merteuil in LES LIAISON DANGEREUSES.  Linney’s rather icy looks got even icier as she said, “Really? Well, I hope my performances weren’t the same. They are different characters, you know,” before walking away. Ouch! And I’d only come to praise, not bury. Remember what the great Pauline Kael once said about how even the mention of a box office failure (in her cited case, Agnes Moorehead’s brilliant performance in Orson Welles’ THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS) is considered bad taste in Hollwyood?

Mention must be made of Brangelina, of course. He probably gives his best performance as Benjamin Button, but that doesn’t mean you need to see it. If torturously complex and extremely expensive CGI effects are what floats your barge, by all means rush. But, if an intelligent story and recognizable human beings are necessary to compel your interest, be warned. I sat through this 3-hour opus, waiting to be really moved but constantly thinking, “These cornball homilies about life’s unexpectedness sure seem very ‘Forrest Gump'” [a film I’ve scrupulously managed to avoid all my life.]

Damn Hollywood! They got me in the end, after all, because of course this literally retarded fairy tale was writ by the same man, Eric “Stop the madness now!” Roth. Maybe by now you can tell that although a geek in many ways, perhaps, I sometimes commit that cardinal sin of going into a film happily unaware of anything about it, and hoping to be ravishingly suprised.

Okay, Cate Blanchett is supposed to look young. Young, yes, not glaceed! And then she turned into corduroy in that Nawlins hospital bed. (And how relieved were most actresses at the Globs this year that she was not nominated and in attendance, to show them all how to definitively do glamour? She once told director Jim Jarmusch that however tiresome it may be when friends and family tell her about her tabloid spottings, she can’t help asking, “What was I wearing?”)

Tilda Swinton provided BUTTON’s only true charm, unstressed and lovely: the best I’ve seen her, and deliciously period.

The humor was, for the most part, condescendingly cornpone, and I felt just beaten down by all those iterations of that man being struck by lightning, how many damned times was it?

So, from reel to real life, La Jolie just fascinates me, as indeed she does the world. For all her physical perfection, she’s really not that much of an actress – the monotony of her distraught roles in both A MIGHTY HEART and the abysmal, ham-handed CHANGELING (that 1920s story with lines like “That’s very bad for the child’s self-esteem”) proved that. She displayed an intriguing edginess in GIA and GIRL, INTERRUPTED but not much more since. Maybe wicked comedy’s more her forte: she was nastily effective in bits of  MR. AND MRS. SMITH and certainly was hilarious – however unintentionally – in ALEXANDER and ORIGINAL SIN, a guilty pleasure camporama to rival anything Pia Zadora ever did.  Those last two films really define the glib public perception of Jolie as a rapacious, supernatural maneater, which is hilariously caricatured in the Brit Channel 4 TV series, STAR STORIES, which I urge everyone in need of a good laugh to check out immediately. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_KAQvQo_LDk)

But what a movie star! There hasn’t been a female nova with such confident audacity since Dietrich. Even Elizabeth Taylor, whom Jolie was made to tabloid resemble, stealing Brad’s Eddie Fisher from Jennifer Aniston’s Debbie Reynolds, even Liz, for all her amours and acquisitveness, like Monroe, copped the victim role more often than not. (Her quavery 1960 Oscar acceptance speech in which she effectively shed the Scarlet A on her chest through a tracheotomy scar on her throat, uncovered for once by any man’s bling, was pure genius.)

No, from scrawling first husband Johnny Lee Miller’s name in her own blood on the shirt she wore to her wedding (did the current teen rage for tattoos and cutting all really begin with her?)  to all that red carpet madness with Billy Bob Thornton (remember, he was previously with Laura Dern, who managed to get a nice little Glob for herself last night, and also take over the missing Jennifer Aniston’s little-dark-cloud-for-you-Angelina-spot for herself in the room) to those insanely calculated magazine covers, Jolie has flaunted her outrageousness like Marlene once did her bisexuality and bespoke tailoring. Who could not love it when a pre-Brad Jolie admitted to having myriad affairs, like any man, and how great it would be to have a lover in every city to tryst with?

I love the shtick she pulls at these industry events, like it’s high school and she’s the Goth beauty disconcertingly with the jock-ish BMOC, who wraps those endless limbs around his broad shoulders and poutingly looks about, as if to say, “What is everyone bothering us for? Why??” There were all those shots of her during the night with slight bed hair, from all that ostentatious table nuzzling, and, finally, teasingly, that brief clip of them kissing: “Oh, throw everyone a crumb!” (i.e., “We’ve ignored them, so they’ve stopped looking at us –  do something!”).

Freakin’ genius.

(There was that friend of another naughty couple of yore, Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier, for whom those two would put on such a love-fest that he admitted to having “an erection even as I rang the doorbell.”)

And didn’t under-the-radar (especially since those home movies) Colin Farrell look surprisingly good? That was some nice clean-up and a testament to the really preservative qualities of hooch for anyone under 35.

Is it just me? I cannot buy the reverence which always surrounds those climactic Biggest Award presentations by that Eminence of the Industry, Tom Cruise. Since when did he become Gary Cooper, James Stewart, Charlton Heston, Sidney Poitier and Audrey Hepburn all rolled into one? When did this begin, around BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY?  ‘Cause he played a cripple?  To me, he’ll always be a lucky, if very ambitious, now aging- juvenile who made some blockbusters, with a tabloid life none of those old guys ever dreamed of. It’s enough to make you fantasize, say, the year 2038, and there he’ll be at the end of the show, maybe distinguee and grey by then, but more agelessly fit than Kirk Douglas and Jack Palance in their wildest dreams, with his maybe ninth younger, taller wife applauding him offstage, still flashing those huge white choppers, which will undoubtedly be even huger and whiter, in that frat boy grin which has always seemed to me to be the absolute height of

BOGUS-ITY.