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Archive for 2009|Yearly archive page

FISHER’S FABULOUS FAMILY TREE

In Uncategorized on October 21, 2009 at 3:07 pm

CARRIE
In the infamous metal bikini

Thank God for Carrie Fisher, whose WISHFUL DRINKING, which, although not exactly earth-shattering, has all the savvy, balls, fun, wit and glamour (if a tad second-hand) so sorely missing from all recent Broadway openings. Fisher has truly found her metier in this live performance which is really no different from an elaborate stand-up – or, in her case, often sitting – routine. Her dry observations and epigrams flow more trippingly off her ever wry tongue than they do on the pages of her books which can seem contrived, stilted and obnoxiously precocious.

Opening the show is a splendid big screen montage of the tabloid headlines which have stalked her from birth, detailing her life from the very beginning, when Dad Eddie Fisher dumped Mom Debbie Reynolds for Liz Taylor to her failed marriage to Paul Simon to her desertion by husband Bryan Lourd for a man, to her discovery of the dead body of her friend R. Gregory Stevens in bed beside her, not to mention a vicious John Simon review in which he called her “bovine.”

The centerpiece is her delineation of her own family tree of celebrity which, of course, began with that unholy trinity of Debbie-Eddie-Liz, (with Mike Todd and Richard Burton thrown in for good measure). If you grew up in the 1960s, their story was even more familiar to you than your own family history from the incessant, rabid media coverage, which made the Aniston-Pitt-Jolie menage (and Fisher is quick to point out the paralleling personalities) look the merest teapot tempest. This became part of everyone’s (low) cultural heritage, a fact made clear to me when I interviewed Debbie Reynolds a few years ago and within minutes achieved instant intimacy with her as, like your favorite aunt, she happily began dishing Eddie to filth and saying how she and Liz are buddies now, who just laugh at his sorry ass. Which, I suppose, is to be expected, if, as his daughter states, he brought his drug dealer to a recent performance of hers.

liz eddie

Fisher’s inspiration for this bit came from a question posed to her by her daughter by Lourd, Billie, who was dating Elizabeth Taylor’s grandson, and asked if they were possibly related. I probably would have been content if Fisher had just talked about her extended family all night, which included her father’s subsequent wife, Connie Stevens (“Also blonde and perky – do we see a pattern here?”), and sexpot Marie McDonald (“known as ‘The Body,’ she was an actress-ish”) who married Reynold’s second ex-husband, Harry Karl, and also had affairs with Fisher and Liz’s ex-husband, Michael Wilding. Eddie Fisher also married a Chinese woman (Betty Lin), who died in 2001, and, according to Carrie, he has had so much plastic surgery, he now looks Chinese, himself.

Next to these revelations, everything else in the show – her account of her addictive, bi-polar personality, and, oh yeah, STAR WARS – however funny, paled by comparison. Suffice it to say that if you go, you’ll have a rollicking good time. Fisher has also inherited her mother’s deftness with audience interaction (although I’m glad I wasn’t in the front row and subject to her lavish baptismal glitter anointing). When I saw Debbie at Lehman College a few years ago, she was met onstage by an old woman’s crying out – in the middle of a ballad, “My husband Morris played drums for you!,” and Reynolds, completely unfazed, used this as schtick for the rest of her act (“Do you think Morris woulda liked that song?”)

And, when it comes to cleverly turning a phrase, Fisher is pretty non-pareil. I’ll give you but one example, so as not to spoil the show for you: “If religion is the opiate of the masses, I took masses of opiates religiously.” The fact that she is performing at her old stomping ground, Studio 54, ground zero for legendary intake and excess, where Margaux Hemingway passed out on opening night, Halston would puff angel dust joints with then reigning drag queen Poutassa de Lafayette, Liza would party until just a few hours before her Broadway matinees of THE ACT, I once looked long and hard into the unseeing, completely sloshed eyes of Truman Capote, and a friend swore he did coke with Liz Taylor in a stall of the infamously ambisexual powder room where she showed him how to disguise the sound by stepping on the toilet pedal flush just as she inhaled, is a kinda crazy, beautiful thing.

eddie carrie
Carrie and Dad, Eddie

AND OTHERS WHO HAVE BECOME CHINESE THROUGH THE YEARS


Joan Rivers, the Mask of Fu Manchu

faye-dunaw
Faye Dunaway

JESSICA
Jessica Lange

jerry
Jerry Lewis

UT0113572
Mary Tyler Moore

bruce-jenner
Bruce Jenner, who became a Chinese LADY

patrick stewart
Patrick Stewart

JACQUES D;AMBOISE

Dancer Jacques D’Amboise

noel coward stritch

Noel Coward (with Elaine Stritch), who once described himself in later years as looking like a “Chinese dowager empress”

MOVIE PERFORMANCE OF THE YEAR

In Uncategorized on October 19, 2009 at 6:07 pm

monique
(Anne Marie Fox)

“Mo’Nique has GOT to win the Oscar!” enthused Tina Brown after a screening of Lee Daniels’ PRECIOUS last Friday afternoon, an opinion with which I can only concur. As Mary, the most mesmerizingly abusive mother in film history (forget Gladys Cooper in NOW, VOYAGER, Piper Laurie in CARRIE or even Faye Dunaway in MOMMIE DEAREST), Mo’Nique gives one of those rare performances which seductively hypnotizes even as it totally repels. Forever planted in front of the TV, watching inane game shows, smoking, scarfing down food and hurling obscenities and orders at her beset, obese daughter, the ironically named Precious (Gabourey Sidibe), the actress possesses a terrifying operatic power, with furiously angry arias which, instead of gorgeous high notes, are laced with “muthafuckas” and “goddamns.” The film itself is absorbing and grittily real, even with its cinematic flights into the glamorous fantasies Precious imagines as an escape from her miserable life, but Mo’nique, with her scary, lullingly husky voice, hypes it with an intensity that invests her scenes with a dark, unholy power that surpasses everything else. You find yourself anticipating her every onscreen appearance, even as you dread what she’ll inevitably do in them. (Perhaps the actress’ stand-up appearances in women’s prison in her devastating TV concert I COULD BE YOUR CELLMATE have further informed her uncanny understanding of the darker sides of human experience.)

Daniels is clearly also in thrall to the performance, even giving her one moment of transcendent “glamour,” as she rocks out alone in her living room to Jean Carne’s great, shimmering 1979 song, “Was That All There Was,” as transfixed in the moment, despite her pimples and unshaven armpits, as Precious is in her imaginings of red carpet arrivals or triumphant stage performances. (Daniels is at his flamboyant best during these sequences, which usually occur during Precious’ darkest moments; I’d love to see him try his hand at a musical.) The funniest, most apalling movie scene of the year has got to be when the welfare worker comes to visit, with Mary pulling on a wig and Precious’ retarded baby onto her lap, putting out a cigarette and suddenly assuming a motherly sweetness, a scene which had me gasping at its multi-layered audacity. Mo’Nique also doesn’t stint from the suggestions of the incestuous sex Mary also forces Precious into with herself.

The movie, based on the novel PUSH by Sapphire, is riveting, even with its worthy truckload of “triumph of the female human spirit” qualities which have attracted no less than Oprah as an executive producer. It deals with many of the same issues as THE COLOR PURPLE, the film of which is like a lovely Disneyfied fantasy compared to Daniels’ empathic, street-wise evocation of these forgotten women’s lives. He leavens the grimness of Precious’ story with piquant touches of magic realism, as well as a gallery of other, highly ingratiating females, like the girls in Precious’ Special Ed class, who range from an amusingly officious, thickly accented West Indian to a a louche Puerto Rican mami, all of them in thrall to a comely male nurse (Lenny Kravitz, sexily relaxed), who administers to Precious after she has borne her second baby by her own father; Sherri Shepherd as a savvy school receptionist; Mariah Carey, drabbing herself down as a social worker (with even a hint of upper lip hirsuteness), and lovely Paula Patton who manages to avoid being cloying as Precious’ devotedly supportive teacher, who happens to be lesbian. Daniels also has a vital gay man’s prescient attention to telling details, like the choice of that Jean Carne song and the poster of Ntozake Shange’s landmark FOR COLORED GIRLS hanging in Patton’s home.

In her all-demanding screen debut, Sidibe is never less than convincing and admirably never stoops to easy heart string-tugging. She bears her many woes with an awesome stoicism, making her eventual emotional breakdown all the more affecting. A more trained actresss in the role might not have worked, and Sidibe’s naturalness is a considerable asset, with her somewhat limited expressiveness adding overall credibility. Yet even her big final scene is trumped by Mo’Nique’s ensuing confessional, with her fury and sadness elementally mounting to Greek tragic proportions. I only wish Daniels had kept his busy camera (mostly effective throughout) at rest during this scene. He pans down to her hands nervously fidgeting with her purse and it’s an unnecessary distraction when all we want tois see her fraught face. There’s simply no following this moment, and Daniels wisely doesn’t prolong things, giving Precious a mercifully pithy happy ending.

BTW, before the film, the Tribeca Screening Room was absolute celebrity sighting central that afternoon, which, besides Tina Brown, had a low wattage start with the appearance of Joy Behar (with partner, Steve Janowitz) who, when told it might be as much as an hour wait for the delayed screening to start (wrong!), said, “I’m not waitin’ for an hour. Let’s go have lunch!” (She returned and saw her THE VIEW co-star, Shepherd do her onscreen thing.) Shortly thereafter, Josh Brolin left the building, hopping into a chauffeured SUV, and then Harvey Weinstein and e’er-present entourage came off the elevator.

OTHER FILMS:

carey
Carey Mulligan in AN EDUCATION, and her American twin sister

katie holmes
Katie Holmes

AN EDUCATION: I can’t understand the critical praise for this. Are people that starved for another period coming-of-age story with pretensions to intelligence and feminism?

The central role of pretentious schoolgirl Jenny (Carey Mulligan), with her superior air and habit of employing French phraseology is the kind of part that demands a special kind of actress to carry off. The young Katharine Hepburn, with her unique charm – equal parts joyously innate innocence and resolute eccentricity – in MORNING GLORY, STAGE DOOR, THE PHILADELPHIA STORY and, especially, ALICE ADAMS, was able to make her obnoxious, wrong-about-everything heroines enchanting, but Mulligan (a dead ringer, with her elfin baby face and long, slim body, for Katie Holmes) is far too knowing and actress-y to be either convincing or appealing. Her trained dramatic voice, with its calculatedly husky notes, is disconcertingly mature and she seems too brashly convinced of her own irresistibility. I couldn’t warm to her at all, and when she cruelly dismissed Graham (Matthew Beard), the sweetly callow, perfectly presentable fellow student with an aching crush on her, all possible sympathy for her vanished.

This enterprise is marred by overall miscasting. Jenny is taken out of her suburban existence by a suave, shady older Jewish man, David. He is played by the American Peter Sarsgaard, with his exquisite Nordic features, oh-so careful Brit accent and diffident, eternally squishy presence: they have zero sexual chemistry. David is harboring a secret or two; Sarsgaard always seems to be, as well, but with him it often comes off, for some reason, as closet homosexuality. As Jenny’s father, we have Alfred Molina, so dark and ethnic-looking, bt also essentially a sweetheart, railing against David’s Jewishness with empty bluster, and, overall, none-too-believable as a frighteningly domineering Dad. (He’s almost as strenuously unsympathetic and misguided as he was as Kenneth Halliwell, Joe Orton’s lover/killer in PRICK UP YOUR EARS.) Cara Seymour as Jenny’s mother is merely a wan dishrag, tiresomely subservient and emblematic of failed dreams. Danish director Lone Scherfig’s touch seems too alien to truly capture London in the early ’60s (there’s nary a hint of The Beatles or any counter-cultural clues preceding them, and she’s no great shakes when it comes to romance, either. When Jenny and David go to Paris to finally consummate their relationship, Scherfig goes all cliche: couples dancing along the Seine, having champagne by the Seine, strolling along the Seine, but their sex is merely suggested by a post-coital scene in which Jenny muses along the lines of “Is That All There Is?” as if Scherfig were still operating under the Hays Code. We’re thankfully spared a pair of bodies entwining to some pop ditty in careful soft focus, but Scherfig surely missed out on some sensual and/or comic opportunities here.

The charismatic glamour of David’s world (and how Sarsgaard lacks those atrributes!) is raffishly represented by Rosamund Pike, who fitfully enlivens things as an elegantly dumb blonde moll and Dominic Cooper as her man. Cooper was irresistible onstage in THE ALTAR BOYS, as a prep school studmuffin, causing him to be immediately thrown into high profile films, but his teeny-faced features don’t photograph well and, apart from a flashy, shallow bravado, he never brings much to the party.

emma thompson
Emma Thompson needs to play Mags Thatcher

It’s left to a pair of accomplished Brit ladies to provide some spine here, and Emma Thompson and Olivia Williams (channeling two Maggies, Thatcher and Smith in THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE, respectively) as dragon-ish school doyennes, effectively make the most of their moments – I was far more interested in their lives than Jenny’s – but it’s not enough to make this misguided, woefully tone-deaf effort worth your while.promising

olivia williams
Olivia Williams

WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE is, most assuredly, where a good film is not. It starts off well enough, with Spike Jonze’s frenetically loose direction, music savvy and attention to detail promising an edgy, fun time for the entire family. With intelligent, appealing actors like Catherine Keener playing the harried mother of the kid hero, Max (Max Records), and Mark Rufalo as her boyfriend, you feel that these are folk you don’t mind spending time with. Records is admirably natural: spunky, energetic and very touching, vividly capturing that childhood angst we all recall when he is left alone by his older sister and her uncaring friends, weeping over his destroyed igloo.

But then, Max has to “fall through the looking glass,” and the film becomes a noisy, droning bore, populated by author Maurice Sendak’s off-putting shaggy beasts. (I must confess: I am not a fan.) With voices provided by James Gandolfini, Catherine O’Hara, Forest Whitaker, Chris Cooper, Lauren Amrbose and Paul Dano, they depressingly sound like sitcom suburbanites, wrily wisecracking and sniping at each other, and entirely unfunny. Despite the ear-shattering crashes and mid-air tumbles, I could barely keep my eyes open from the general mindlessness, which, while hipper-than-thou, proved monotonous and utterly uninvolving.

Where The Wild Things Are
Max Records, interminably running with the beasts of WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE

COPYRIGHT:davidnoh2009

WRONG GAY ANG-LE

In Uncategorized on October 5, 2009 at 5:00 am

JONATHAN  GROFF
Jonathan Groff, best thing about TAKING WOODSTOCK

TAKING WOODSTOCK made me fully realize that Ang Lee needs to 1. shorten the length of his films and 2. stop making films with gay central characters. Ironically, his best film remains his early THE WEDDING BANQUET, which was funny, lightly unpretentious and observant. The drollest moment was when the parents of the Chinese gay man leafed through a photo album of the wedding which supposedly restored him to heterosexual normalcy and came upon a page featuring him with his Caucasian lover. After sentimentally cooing over images of their son with his “proper” female mate, the forced, demure silence with which they turned this particular page hilariously spoke volumes. Perhaps the presence of actor Mitchell Lichtenstein, who is really gay, in the cast, contributed something to the authenticity of this film, something Lee has never been able to recapture when tackling such subjects.

WEDDING BANQUET
May Chin, Winston Chao and Mitchell Lichtenstein in Ang Lee’s best film, THE WEDDING BANQUET (1993)

In TAKING WOODSTOCK, Demetri Martin plays Elliot Tiber, the New York interior designer who suddenly find himself the organizer of the most famous rock concert in history. The fact that he is gay is revealed about half-way through the film and it is, indeed, a total revelation, as up to this time, he has seemed no more than an amiable kid, as innocent and unworldly as Henry Fonda, making his screen debut in the 1935 THE FARMER TAKES A WIFE. Why, exactly, a New York decorator of the 1960s should be such a wide-eyed bumpkin is a mystery known only to Lee and his habitual screenwriter, James Schamus. Henry has some rather chaste, flirtatious scenes with a handy festival hunk, but little else really indicates his sexual difference. Granted, this is some forty years ago, but, then again, it was the free-wheeling, open 1960s, wasn’t it?

liev schreiber
Worst drag queen in film history: Liev Schreiber (holding real-life son Sasha – “SEE, I’M STRAIGHT!”)

Lee compounds this with a major error in casting: Liev Schreiber as a transvestite character, Vilma. Johnny Depp’s far more convincing – and sexy – turn as a piece of cross-dressing jailbait in Julian Schnabel’s BEFORE NIGHT FALLS must have set some official seal of performance cool for actors to do gay drag for pay, enabling even the most unlikely of them to don wig and frock and camp it up to a fare-thee-well. But come on! Does anyone really want to see the hulking, lantern-jawed Schreiber trying it? He certainly seems to be enjoying it; I just wish I could, too.

I was in that rare minority who did not fall head over heels in love with the interminable, turtle-paced and lugubrious BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, which was, simply, a gay movie made by straight men. How anyone could believe that sex scene which, when it finally, finally occurred, consisted of zero foreplay, a little spittle and swift forced entry which, instead of engendering any kind of real pain on the part of receiver Jake Gyllenhaal, seemed to inspire instant ecstasy. The only conclusions I could draw from this was that either it wasn’t Jake’s first time at the rodeo, or that the late Heath Ledger was hung like a gerbil.

JAKE HEATH
Jake ‘n Heath: No Lube Necessary

At a promotional screening for the film, I asked Lee how he went about directing this, and he said that, being very shy when it came to scenes like this, “I just let the actors do what they want.” “Oh boy, was this ever obvious,” I thought, “and how revealing of everyone’s utter ignorance of gay sex on that set. And aren’t you supposed to be the DIRECTOR?!” I told the Lee that what I liked best about his film were the sheep – who really gave the most natural, convincing performances – a sincere remark which didn’t go down so well with him.

Sexuality aside, TAKING WOODSTOCK starts off well enough, as a rambunctious, colorfully cast period comedy, filled with screwball characters like a hilarious Eugene Levy as Max Yasgur, who provided the festival’s real estate, Imelda Staunton (overdoing it) as feisty Henry’s mother, Dan Fogler as an arty actor, and young Broadway matinee idol Jonathan Groff (SPRING AWAKENING, HAIR) who, in a glamorous turn as Woodstock producer Michael Lang, registers lusciously on film, like a Botticelli angel with his hippie halo of curls, and gave this particular gay viewer something to really exult over in his few scenes. It might have been a fun enough romp through counterculture history but, as with BROKEBACK, RIDE WITH THE DEVIL, THE ICE STORM and SENSE AND SENSIBILITY, Lee’s logy sense of pacing drags the film down. Henry has an encounter with as a pair of Woodstock hippies (Paul Dano, Kelly Garner) who turn him on to drugs in their trailer, and this acid trip feels about three days long, a whimsically psychedelic directorial conceit from which the movie never quite recovers. Once more, Lee’s self-conscious need to make what the great critic Manny Farber once described as Termite Art defeats his purposes.

COPYRIGHT: davidnoh2009

CUCKOO COCO PUFF PIECE

In Uncategorized on October 5, 2009 at 4:25 am

audrey tatou

Two films kept popping up disconcertingly in my mind as I watched COCO BEFORE CHANEL: Frank Capra’s PLATINUM BLONDE (1931) and John Huston’s MOBY DICK (1956). What these older films share in common with this new release is severe miscasting of their lead roles, intensified by the presence in their casts of actors playing subsidiary parts who might have been perfectly cast, in their stead. In PLATINUM BLONDE you had a young, very amateurish and stiff Jean Harlow trying her best (and failing) to be convincing as an aristocratic heiress who shockingly falls in love with a lowly news reporter, while Loretta Young, with her perfect thoroughbred beauty and blue-blood bearing, played a tough, wise-cracking girl newshound, languishing with unrequited love for the same guy, the very sort of role Harlow would eventually learn to definitively embody. MOBY DICK was blighted by the utterly wooden performance of Gregory Peck – the sanest, dullest actor who ever lived – as demonically possessed Captain Ahab, while Orson Welles, with his thunderous voice and commanding presence, who must have displayed gravitas in the cradle and could have played Ahab in his sleep, was relegated to the one-scene part of a New England minister.

Director Anne Fontaine echoes the errors of the past by casting Audrey Tatou, a delicate gamine, most remembered for her diabetically sweet turn as that pixie-ish do-gooder AMELIE, as that redoubtable, ultimate fashion warrior, Coco Chanel, while, on the sidelines, the always vivid and strong Emmanuele Devos – so moving in Anne Le Ny’s CEUX QUI RESTENT – is relegated to a supporting role as Emilienne d’Alencon, an elegant courtesan who shows the young bumpkin Coco the velvet ropes of Parisian Belle Epoque high society. Devos, with her wide, gash of a mouth, like Chanel, is a true jolie laide, and might have imbued the film’s flimsy concept of the couturiere as a girl who overcame her victimization by men to find professional fulfillment with more steely backbone and emotional variety than Tatou, who affects a nun-like, rigorous concentration in her solo sewing scenes, mouth full of pins, brow furrowed with determination, but little more to convey her character’s complexity. In the smaller role of d’Alencon, much more within her limited range, she might have been dazzling, with her doll-like features and form flaunting the kind of opulent finery which drove Marcel Proust mad and Chanel, herself, overturned.

EMMANUELLE DEVOS
Emmanuelle Devos

coco-chanel
Gabrielle Coco Chanel

I interviewed Fontaine earlier this year about this film and she told me that she thought Tatou had the perfect “androgyne” quality for the part, but, in her case, it’s purely physical, not spiritual, making me think the director got the actual character of Chanel mixed up with her company’s latest 2009 ad campaign, of which Tatou just happens to be the official muse at present. This less than salubrious marriage of history and contemporary commercialism rather echoes the 2005 Metropolitan Museum of Art Chanel exhibit, which really emerged as “The Karl Lagerfeld Show,” as his recent designs for the house were given equal prominence with the original work of Coco, herself, and, in every instance, suffered by comparison in workmanship, finish and originality, even when displayed alongside faded gowns dating back three quarters of a century and more.

Tatou is dark, like Chanel was, but her conventional prettiness is like a heavily photoshopped, adorably anime version of the woman, who had far more than mere conventional good looks for allure. Diana Vreeland once compared her in her youth to a furiously snorting little bull and said, “You have no idea how ATTRACTIVE she was!”

The actual Chanel, being a personal fabulist, herself, might well have approved of this too-pretty soap opera-ish account of herself as a sweet young thing who found her true inner self in the atelier, those pesky men always bothering her be damned! When it was announced to her that Hepburn would play her on Broadway in a musical version of her life, she was at first happy to think it would be the faunlike, young Audrey, and then much less so when she learned that it was actually the older, flinty Katharine who had been cast. One can just imagine the scene: “Mademoiselle Chanel, nous avons Hepburn pour toi!” “Audrey? Merveilleux!” “Non, Katharine!” “”AUDREY, n’est-ce pas?” “NON, KATHARINE!,” that wide gash growing ever wider with disdain and disappointment.

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Katharine Hepburn in COCO, 1969

Fontaine’s film lingers so long on Chanel’s early, struggling years as a cabaret singer that you might think you’ve mistakenly wandered into another Piaf biopic. These scenes are nicely filmed, but you want to get to the clothes, at which point it devolves into a very conventional love triangle between Coco, her rich, eminent protector Etienne Balsan (Benoit Polvoorde), and Boy Capel (Alessandro Nivola), the more youthful and physically appealing, but less materially favored, love of her life. Both actors are unable to do much with these cardboard roles, who seem tired retreads of the rival suitors in Alexandre Dumas’ CAMILLE, and Nivola decidedly lacks dash and the devastating allure of Capel, which fairly leaps out at you, even in ancient photographs published in various Chanel biographies

chanel with boy capel
Chanel with Boy Capel

Much is made of Chanel’s ridding women of the rococco fripperies and binding corsetry of the early twentieth century, but, without more of a real creative conception – how exactly did she arrive at her timeless formula? – the severe ensembles she shocks Paris with here seem drably uniformlike. The film ends with a shot of the older Chanel seated atop the famed staircase of her Rue Cambon salon, watching a parade of models wearing an historic selection of her designs. This coup de theatre was done far more effectively – and, ironically, more cinematically – on Broadway in 1969, when, in COCO, Michael Bennett brilliantly staged a retrospective fashion show (all Cecil Beaton riffs on Chanel, all red) surrounding Hepburn’s cawing, butch presence that had all the brio and color this film so sorely lacks.

Fontaine also told me that she chose to focus on this early part of the designer’s life to avoid any conventional biopic considerations. More’s the pity, as Chanel went on to have a far more fascinating subsequent life, which entailed accusations of Nazi collaboration with her German lover during WWII, a vicious, fascinating rivalry with Elsa Schiaparelli who came closest to unseating her as Queen of Paris fashion, and an amazing, post-war comeback at the age of 70, which firmly established her as an immovable fashion force until her death at 86, in 1971. She ended up a true monstreuse, unbearably overbearing, who, according to Beaton, never stopped talking, and all about herself. Like all human beings, she was full of ambivalence and complexity, but I guess this would mar the received, commercially comfortable idea of her as the perfect independent, modern, ground-breaking Frenchwoman whose titular company continues to unload costly mountains of purses, perfume and drag. The irony is that here, one would absolutely have preferred a “conventional biopic,” in place of this flossy soap opera which really demeans Chanel, making her little more than a conventional, not very interesting romantic heroine.

chanel old
La vielle Chanel – in fashion, one earns one’s face

COPYRIGHT: davidnoh2009

JULIE AND JULIA: DULL AND DULLER

In Uncategorized on August 8, 2009 at 7:43 pm

jchild

Someone has to say it, so it might as well be me.

Meryl Streep is not the greatest actress in film, nor is she the greatest actress alive, or even, as was adoringly posited in one way or another by nearly every speaker at the Film Society of Lincoln Center tribuite to her a few years ago, the greatest actress EVER.

What she is, besides being perfectly charming, down-to-earth and lovely off the screen, is a master technician, adept at mimicry and a welter of accents, who does all the work for anyone willing to be cowed into abject submission, as well as the confused apprehension that this is indeed genius emoting. Her performances are rife with physical gesture and aural detail, with every moment so strenuously underlined with acting that there is nothing left to discover in them, in the way one could be awed by the sheer gorgeous mystery of, say, Lillian Gish in THE SCARLET LETTER, Garbo in CAMILLE, Vivien Leigh in A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, Simone Signoret in ROOM AT THE TOP, Jeanne Moreau in JULES AND JIM, Katharine Hepburn in her greatest moment, LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, Edith Evans in THE WHISPERERS, or Angelica Huston in THE GRIFTERS and THE DEAD.

It is telling that Turner Classic Movies has been endlessly running an old tribute to Bette Davis which Streep did years ago, for it is that actress whom she most resembles for sheer mannered density and indefatigable focus-pulling. When Davis did an accent, whether it be Southern (HUSH, HUSH SWEET CHARLOTTE), British (her two Queen Elizabeth outings), or Bronx (THE CATERED AFFAIR), her effortful efforts often resembled the torturous pedanticism of Streep’s Polish (SOPHIE’S CHOICE), Aussie (A CRY IN THE DARK), Danish (the endless OUT OF AFRICA), and, most egregious, Italian (BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY) linguistics.

When equitably guided by a strong, intelligent director like William Wyler in JEZEBEL and THE LETTER, Joseph Mankiewicz in ALL ABOUT EVE, or Edmund Goulding in DARK VICTORY, Davis could deliver the goods brilliantly. But, all too often, paired with easily dominated helmers like Irving Rapper (whose next to last credit was, somehow fittingly, 1970’S THE CHRISTINE JORGENSEN STORY), Davis was allowed to indulge herself in the kind of florid posturing, resembling nothing human, which made her such catnip to female impersonators.

bette as julisa 2

With her recent work in THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, in which she was a terrifyingly steely version of Hilary Clinton, and THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA, in which she gave her best, most understatedly effective and funny performance yet (taking Mike Nichols as her character’s model), I finally succumbed to Streep’s talent, and was looking forward to the kind of new self-discovery and artistic breakthrough once enjoyed by Susan Sarandon and Barbara Hershey, who were mediocre bordering on inept before their respective work in ATLANTIC CITY and A WORLD APART.

meryl prada
Good Meryl (THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA)

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Ham Meryl (THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY)

But then she did MOTHER COURAGE in Central Park wherein she groveled in the mud (on a rainy night’s performance) and practically impersonated all Three Stooges in her Brechtian exertions, and MAMMA MIA, in which, in an effort to act agelessly young and full of life, she made Betty Hutton at her most manic seem like Duse as her most reposed.

And, yes, in JULIE AND JULIA, she’s back to her old stuff. Many will see the film and, once more, positively kvell over her inevitable virtuosity but I found her Julia Child a shallow impersonation, lacking one single moment in which she relaxed that fulsome, plummy delivery and lungingly big body language – Child was a giantess who once drunkenly nearly knocked me down on a snowy street in Cambridge – to allow a single human emotion to glimmer through. Everything is a huge, ornate gesture again, whether cooking alone in her kitchen (well before any TV cameras appeared), such a whipping about in aprons and juggling of utensils, or even merely grabbing a canape off a water’s tray at a cocktail party (“Oh, look!”)

Director/screenwriter Nora Ephron is her Irving Rapper here – along with all that haute cuisine, you can practically smell the worshipful incense being burned on the set, when she really should have told her actress, “Can we tone it down a little?”

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A scene in which the film’s other titular character, the struggling writer, Julie Powell (played by the blandly perky Amy Adams), who worships Child to the point of tackling and then blogging about every recipe in her famous cookbook, watches Dan Ackroyd’s old, bloody French Chef takeoff on SATURDAY NIGHT LIFE is telling in the extreme. For one thing, in a fraction of this movie’s running time, he not only nails Child’s every nuance, but is twice as funny as Streep’s baroque go at the character.

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Both Julia and Julie have been blessed with female wish-fulfillment dream men, respectively played by Stanley Tucci and Chris Messina, who are more like fan-waving eunuchs, ever indulgent and adoring of their more complex, demanding partners. They, of course, have little real lives of their own, with even the Messina character’s main problem being those times when Julie calls him too perfect and understanding. They’re like the stultifyingly dull good guys George Brent used to play in one Bette Davis film, after another: you could see why she liked to have them around, but they sure weren’t much fun from an audience standpoint.

The film has been gussied up glossily in true Ephron-fantasy world style, with modern day Queens coming off nearly as quaintly charming as post-WWII Paris. It’s diverting enough in the beginning but soon the cross-cutting between Streep’s floridness and Adams’ wan innocuousness begins to pall in this overlong film. Ephron’s presentation of the aspiring writers’ world represented by Julie has all the depth of a finger bowl, and Adams’ performance reminded me of Mary Tyler Moore in THE DICK VAN DYKE show, all ditsy, plate-dropping housewifery, lacking anything resembling the feisty spine it takes to make a go of it as a published scribbler. For all the puff pieces already media-splashed about the food, the food, here, Ephron’s gourmand propensities aren’t really conveyed. Delicious eats can be one of cinema’s most photogenic subjects, as in TOM JONES, BABETTE’S FEAST, EAT DRINK MAN WOMAN and BIG NIGHT, and the movie would have contained more soul-satisfying artistry with more focus on both characters’ work in the kitchen. What you mostly see is the orgasmically delighted consumption of it at the table, which attains a certain monotony if not downright resentment on the part of the viewer.

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Don’t you hate ’em all?

COPYRIGHT: davidnoh2009

MARION DAVIES’ GREATEST MOMENT

In Uncategorized on August 2, 2009 at 8:10 pm

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Marion Davies with BFF Billie Dove in BLONDIE OF THE FOLLIES

Turner Classic Movies is paying all-day tribute to the delicious Marion Davies on Monday, August 3, and are showing her best film , BLONDIE OF THE FOLLIES, from that greatest-of-Hollywood-film-years-to-me, 1932 (forget Hays Code-strapped 1939) at 1:45 PM. Critic Pauline Kael once described the movie as having an F. Scott Fitzgerald quality, and she was right. From a snappy, wondrously loose and keenly observed script by those pioneering movie women, Frances Marion and Anita Loos, that Renaissance Man, bisexual Director Edmund Goulding (who also wrote, composed songs and even did Garbo’s hair in LOVE) lavished considerable care, savviness and affection on this irresistible rags-to-riches compendium of backstage drama, romance, glamour, and heartbreak., which also happens to be one of the truest portraits of feminine friendship ever filmed.

In it, Davies plays Blondie McClune, a tenement girl forever fighting and then making up with her neighbor, Lottie Callahan (Billie Dove, at the time considered the most beautiful American woman), a BFF if e’er there was. The film is tastily autobiographical, as both of these actresses got their starts as Ziegfeld Follies beauties long before Hollywood, and their back-stories are shrewdly incorporated into the script.

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Lottie soon splits the slums, changes her name to Lurline Cavanaugh (!), and becomes a big Follies star with all the attendant affectations, jewels, furs, penthouse and admirers, dominated by feckless playboy Larry Belmont (Robert Montgomery), whom she chicly calls “Boy,” like a character out of Michael Arlen or Noel Coward. She returns to her old neighborhood – mostly to strut her new, glamorous stuff – and winds up taking Blondie under her wing, a good deed she soon learns to regret.

Blondie crashes into the Follies, becomes a star as well, and engages the very serious attention of Larry. Lottie does a slow burn, which turns into an eruption wherein she and Blondie revert to their hair-pulling, squabbling childhood ways. Blondie tries her best to be a true friend and resist Larry, but this proves unsuccessful, with disastrous and scandalous onstage results.

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Loos, fresh from her GENTLEMAN PREFER BLONDES book success, provides the pungent wit with her gorgeously observed dialogue, from the down-to-earth tenement patter of Blondie’s family (“Stop crying into the stew, Ma,” warns her sister, played by the invaluable, wrist fluttering Zasu Pitts, “It’s thin enough already”) to Lottie’s hilarious, nouveau-riche swanning, which includes some high-falutin’ French phraseology (“Oh, Lottie, you’re a scream!” cries Blondie. ‘Lurline!’ her friend corrects her, for what must be the umpteenth time.).

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The love triangle situation shouldn’t really be as affecting as it is here, but so strong is the chemistry between Montgomery (at his light comedic deftest, with that pursed lip canary-swallowing cat’s grin) and the ladies who love him that you’ll find yourself catching your breath at certain moments. Montgomery is fully aware of how irresistible he is, and has, in fact, already warned an unheeding Dove of the casualness of their affair. Dove, for her part, is simply dazzling (one can see why men like Howard Hughes went absolutely ape-shit over her): intense and overwrought, her lush, dark beauty a perfect foil to Davies’ blonde, cherubic sunniness. The women share a wrenchingly emotional scene in which Lottie forces a confession of love for Larry out of Blondie, a sequence which mounts with operatic power, culminating in Davies’ throbbingly hysterical admission with Dove keeping enflamed pace with her, both actresses’ finest onscreen moment.

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Goulding cannily showcasing the actresses’ particular talents. The voluptuous Dove, sexily draped by Adrian in swaths of strung pearls, strikes a haughty pose like a ship’s figurehead in one musical number, while riding a car onto the stage, while Davies’ famed talent for mimicry is showcased in her backstage introduction where she apes the baby-talk of some dimwitted showgirl (while campily greeting the entire chorus line with “See you later, queens!”). One of the numerous party scenes has her and and guest star Jimmy Durante hilariously parodying Garbo and John Barrymore in GRAND HOTEL. As with her impersonations of Lillian Gish, Pola Negri and Mae Murray in THE PATSY, Davies does not stint from going all the way into grotesqueness, and her dire eye-rollings and downturned M of a mouth (for “Morbid”) effectively send up the Lonely Swede for all time.

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The supporting cast is unusually strong. Besides Pitts, James Gleason plays Davies’ disapproving father who throws her out when she doesn’t come home one night, and, later, has a heartbreaking scene with her when, cowed with worry, he comes to visit her in her swell new surroundings. Sarah Padden is convincingly careworn as his tearful wife, and Sidney Toler is amusing as Pitt’s husband who at one point wishes he were a girl so he could go into the Follies too, for an easy life. Douglas Dumbrille gives a wry performance as a monied stage door Johnny, with his mantra, “I like blondes.” Goulding himself even pops up in a cameo as the particularly dapper stage director who urges everyone to “Keep things moving!” when an onstage fiasco occurs.

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Edmund Goulding

And there’s a fascinating appearance by the Rocky Twins, who back up Davies during a wacky pirate dance number (which fulfilled her sponsor/lover William Randolph Hearst’s fetishistic mandate of having her appear in boyish drag at least once in every film). The Rocky Twins were Norwegian brothers Leif and Paal Roschberg, who became famous onstage for their drag impersonation of the famous Dolly Sisters act, working at the Casino de Paris and with stars like Gina Palerme and Mistinguette, and being filmed by Marcel L’Herbier in L’ARGENT (1929). They made it to Hollywood, where at the Ship Café in Venice Beach they did their drag act and got hired by Goulding to appear in this film, the same year that the director would be involved in a scandal involving one of the wild parties (read: orgies) he customarily threw.

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The Rocky Twins
and as the Dolly Sisters (below)

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(Read more about them here:

Hearst’s stranglehold over Davies’ career, in which he preferred seeing her flouncing about in costumes “with dignity” and tried to secure dramatic roles for her like Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Marie Antoinette (both of which went to The Lady of MGM, Norma Shearer), makes it even more of a miracle that a good, individual vehicle like this one for her even made it to the screen intact. Well, “intact” is equivocal even here: so effective was Dove’s film-stealing performance that large portions of it were cut from the final edit. In every scene, Davies justifies the blind devotion he felt for her, with her fathomless radiance, humor and heart. No one ever had a bad word to say about the actress off-screen, either, apart from the indefatigably acerbic Dorothy Parker who, after a visit to the Hearst-Davies love nest, San Simeon, once wrote:

Upon my honor, I saw a Madonna,
Standing in a niche.
Above the door
Of a prominent whore
Of a prominent son of a bitch.

COPYRIGHT:davidnoh2009

FAN(NY) OF ZOOEY

In Uncategorized on July 18, 2009 at 5:06 pm

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Eyes and hair. Those are the two salient features which Zooey Deschanel possesses in almost embarassing abundance. For years she has been one of the most watchable actresses in film, if only because her dark singularity sets her apart from the ranks of indistinguishable bland blondes – Kate Hudson, Katherine Heigl, Amanda Bynes, Hayden Pannetiere, Kristin Bell, etc. etc. – continually media-foisted on us.

First, the eyes, which are of an uncannily intense blue and set rather close together which, along with her indifferent chin and less-than-chiseled nose, mercifully saves her face from conventional, proportional, ordinary prettiness. Then there’s that impossibly luxuriant helmet of raven locks – has any former star – Tallulah Bankhead, Hedy Lamarr, Gene Tierney, Rita Hayworth – ever possessed such a hirsute headful? The actress’ father is the great cinematographer, Caleb Deschanel, and it seems the Cinema Gods must have all been smiling down on the birth of this great camera subject.

Deschanel has that capacity, like great screen comediennes of the past – Ginger Rogers, Jean Arthur, Rosalind Russell – to appear creamily attractive one minute and then ingratiatingly goofy the next.(Claudette Colbert, with her obsessive insistence on flattering left profile/3/4 camera angles never allowed herself this latitude.) She provides the entire interest as the titular character of (500) DAYS OF SUMMER, which seems largely intended as a total paean to her and will doubtlessly elevate her to total It-Girl status, but some day, someone will create a vehicle really worthy of her. This new release starts off sprightly but becomes bogged down in its own cleverness and mash-up of gimmicks – from the archly omniscient narration and recurring imagery of those 500 days being (very slowly) ticked off to its fantasy musical and art film sequences, with an homage to THE GRADUATE on the side, to its often straining attempts at humor (two sequences involving “funny Asians” in an otherwise whitebread opus). In one scene, Summer and her guy shriek the word “Penis!” to shock innocent passersby in a park (we’ve come a long way from the romantic comedy dialogue of Samson Raphaelson and Preston Sturges) and, in another, they fantasize married life together in a department store furniture showroom, a gambit far more effective back in 1935, when Gregory LaCava used it in his delightful SHE MARRIED HER BOSS. The only real freshness in the film, apart from Deschanel, is its music score, which incorporates a lot of The Smiths, the love for whom brings the protagonists together here, as well as a wild card Hall and Oates entry. I suppose Director Marc Webb’s decision to set the film in a Los Angeles devoid of sunshine and so urban-gray as to resemble mid-winter Pittsburgh could be deemed fresh, as well, but it just seems an auteur’s perversity. Sure, there are lots of nonconformist Angelenos who shun the beach and are as pale as mushrooms, but wouldn’t it have been more contrastingly interesting to see them living their alterna-lives in that dread, inevitable sunlit glare?

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Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) pulls this dream dating move that will probably be this generation’s version of Paul Henreid’s two-cigarette lighting routine in NOW, VOYAGER (By the way, they’re in L.A., not Pittsburgh)

Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s acting as Tom, the boy besotted by Summer, has a TV sitcom thinness which keeps empathy at bay, which is a pretty serious matter, as he portrays one of those hesitant Everymen, forever searching for love but too timid to really step up to the plate when it’s right in his face. The screenwriters have lazily supplied him with the obligatory two commiserating/bullying buddies with no discernible lives of their own, who serve primarily as whine-receptacles for the hero. Even Tom’s profession -greeting card writer (but he really wants to be an Architect) – seems too precious, a mere outlet for easy jokes.

But there’s always Deschanel to bask in, in her sagely chosen vintage wardrobe by Costume Designer Hope Hannafin, with its telling azure accents. She has a fetchingly dippy comic timing, making the most of her best line (“They used to call me anal girl”) and there’s always something interesting going on behind those blinding baby blues, which she uses to devastating effect, widening them ever so slightly but oh so effectively when confronted by particular examples of Tom’s hapless courting moves. The film’s entire conflict hinges on Summer’s “just wanting to be friends” (albeit with benefits), a fact which should seem patently reasonable to everyone, even Tom, given the world of difference in their levels of maturity and perception.

And oh, that ending! Many will probably see it as daring in its subversion of audience expectations. and even outrageously clever. I just groaned.

You can hear Deschanel’s equally sweet music here:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7ThRVUcmSa0
COPYRIGHT: DAVIDNOH2009

GLORIA UPSON: STILL UNDER ATTACK

In Uncategorized on July 13, 2009 at 5:05 pm

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Maya Rudolph and John Krasinski in AWAY WE GO

Don’t believe any positive hype for the noxiously smug AWAY WE GO. Throughout the film, I kept thinking of AUNTIE MAME, of all things. As “classically entertaining” as that movie is, there’s no escaping a certain sometimes irritating complacency about the title character’s oh-so admirable liberal beliefs and actions, especially in the scenes dealing with the rich, bigoted Upson family into which her nephew, Patrick, dreams of marrying. I always found the Upsons a movie-saving riot, played with delicious vulgarity by Willard Waterman, Lee Patrick doing Billie Burke as a racist, and, especially, Joanne Barnes with her priceless caricature of a frozen debutante afflicted with a voice and accent once described as Locust Valley lockjaw. As horrible as the Upsons were, they brought definite, varied merriment into the sometimes indefatigable, exhausting one-woman party represented by Rosalind Russell, forever drawing herself up into Greer Garson-ish grande dame poses, stagily spotlit by fawning Director Morton DaCosta, and dispensing loftily liberal pronouncements. The party scene in which she humiliates them and gives them their all-too deserving comeuppance seems too easy, a massacre of ducks in a barrel, and the slightly noxious whiff of self-righteousness is inescapable.

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Rosalind Russell as Auntie Mame, all-too-handily demolishing the Upsons (Willard Waterman and Lee Patrick)

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All of AWAY WE GO plays like that one party scene,
with a hugely pregnant Maya Rudolph as Verona De Tessant (if you will!) and her scruffily lovable doofus of a husband (John Krasinski) traveling cross-country and encountering various acquaintances who are so misguided, wrongheadedly obsessed or just plain wack-o, that it just reaffirms how superior the two of them are, despite their worries about their precarious underachiever position in life. As with his hate letters to the American bourgeoisie AMERICAN BEAUTY and REVOLUTION ROAD, Sam Mendes over-eggs the pudding once more with his depiction of the majority of U.S. inhabitants as hapless, woefully befuddled losers or screechingly obnoxious assholes. Although he has lived in this country for years, and with great commercial/artistic success, he still can’t resist seeing Americans as either quaint or appalling, eccentricity-filled cartoons. (It‘s the kind of condescending, peculiarly Brit thing John Schlesinger and Richard Lester and Tony Richardson did in the 1960s to such heavy-handed effect in MIDNIGHT COWBOY, PETULIA, and THE LOVED ONE, voraciously biting the hand that once fed their illustrious New Wave Brit film careers.) Mendes also layers on one more tired, patronizing dramatic convention: the warm, infuriatingly all-knowing woman – here with the actual, somewhat tiresome gift of life growing within her – complacently resigned to dealing with her bumbling oaf of a man, dating back to the James M. Barrie of THE LITTLE MINISTER and WHAT EVERY WOMAN KNOWS. As is often the case with Mendes, there’s not one believably human character in the entire film.

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Maggie Gyllenhaal, best thing about AWAY WE GO

The most Upson-ish characters here are played by Maggie Gyllenhaal and Josh Hamilton, as an insufferable New Age couple, filled with precious and bizarre ideas about child rearing. (We’ve all endured people like this, me, especially, as I’ve just returned to NYC from Santa Fe/Taos, heartland of p.c. tyranny.) “Why should I want to PUSH my child AWAY from me?” she says at one point, railing against that Vehicle of Satan, the stroller. She and Hamilton (always best when cast obnoxiously) are very funny, much more so than Rudolph and Krasinski, and this sequence plays the best in a movie that is really just a series of sketches strung together in which other actors like Allison Janney and Jeff Daniels are forced to push and overdo schtick we’ve seen them perform many times before.

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Joanna Barnes: Her Gloria Upson deserved an Oscar nomination

CITY OF (DEAD) ANGELS

In Uncategorized on June 27, 2009 at 6:36 pm

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June 26, 2009
The Hollywood freeway was bumper to bumper yesterday, putting the kibosh on our visiting the Queen Mary for an orgy of Deco on the (once) high seas. An alternative plan struck me as tour guide for my L.A. newbie companion: the equally Deco edifice of the Observatory in Griffith Park, like an impossibly sleek, inviting remnant of some ’30s ancient world epic such as ROMAN SCANDALS or the DeMille 1934 CLEOPATRA, as well as the futuristicly moderne THINGS TO COME.

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Griffith Park Observatory

A slight haze slightly obscured a perfect aerial view of the city, yet I marveled once more over how Los Angeles has somehow gotten its clean air act together from the ’70s, when the smog was so densely filthy and interfering that you couldn’t keep your contact lenses in your eyes. We were sitting in the cafe area, basking in the blazing 3 o’clock sun and enjoying the delightful breezes which have made for perfect cool summer weather this week. A group of four early-twenty-somethings sat down at the table next to us and I heard one of them say, “Wow, I guess Michael Jackson thought he would live forever…” There were subsequent murmurings “sad,” “what a surprise,” etc….which led me to lean over and ask, “Pardon me, but did you say that Michael Jackson died?” I was answered in the affirmative and then immediately became aware of how everyone sitting on that sunny cafe lookout was chatting or scribbling on phones about it. The heavy traffic on the freeway – more intense than usual for the pre-rush afternoon – I learned was caused by crazed throngs headed towards Jackson’s Neverland Ranch, UCLA Medical Center where the body was taken, or Hollywood Boulevard to publicly mourn in that singular, celeb-obsessed El Lay way.

Being on vacation is a funny thing – one is so busy creating one’s own divine memories that you’re thrown out of your normal routine of daily newspapers and TV and become out of touch, oblivious to real breaking news. This news, however, managed to infiltrate one’s consciousness with no real need of any media. Earlier, we had been happily oblivious all morning, as we tried to explore the footprints in the courtyard of Grauman’s Chinese Theater, which turned out to be closed off for that evening’s premiere of, of all things, BRUNO (and what kind of camp damper for that event was the double-death news of Jackson and Farrah?) (UPDATE, ADDED JUNE 28, 2:30 AM: MORE THAN A DAMPER, actual lines from an interview with Latoya Jackson were excised from the print shown at the premiere – the studio scrambled to make these edits in the hours between the Jackson news announcement and red carpet arrivals).

The first sign of the event for many unknowing Angelenos was the swarms of news helicopters hovering over Westwood, specifically UCLA Medical Center, ghoulishly trying to grab a shot of the corpse being removed from the ambulance, like some eerie equivalent of those crows in Wagner’s GOTTERDAMMERUNG, flying up after the death of another legend, Siegfried.

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Driving pass the Viper Room on Sunset Boulevard, part-owned by Johnny Depp, where River Phoenix died of an overdose one Halloween night, I noticed their sign, which read “Michael Jackson: R.I.P.” (UPDATE, ADDED JUNE 28, 2:35AM: AND NOW the L.A. radio stations have gone totally berserk, with a particularly noxious one endlessly repeating their initial announcement, “Michael Jackson is dead,” ad nauseum, between endless playings of his songs.)

Dinner conversation with friends that evening was dominated by the subject, as every other dinner in the world must have been.

I saw Jackson live once, in 1973, when he and his brothers came to Hawaii. My friends and I loved his music, although he was not considered high school hip enough, like Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May” and the oeuvre of Elton John (before it all turned to mush), Leon Russell or Santana. My dementedly silly, insecure friends and I, equally guilty, threw sweaters over our heads at the Honolulu International Center arena where The Jackson 5 performed that night, so as not to be seen by anyone we knew at our (and subsequently Barak Obama’s) alma mater, Punahou School.

Michael appeared and did his amazingly adept 12-year-old stuff, with his no doubt slightly resentful but nevertheless grateful brethren backing him up manfully. He sang all of his (even then) considerable catalogue of hits: “ABC,” “I Want You Back,” “Ben,” “Never Can Say Goodbye,” and the treasurable “Got to Be There”. But, even as far back as 1973, with my imperious adolescent bullshit detector in overdrive, I was struck by the essential Vegas-y synthetic quality of performance, further marred by a cheap God-awful sound system. Jackson and his brothers were full of “I love you’s!” and “We love you, Honolulu!”, which had all the heartfelt sincerity of similarly rote declarations from his idol, Diana Ross, Queen of the Manufactured Emotion. (Remember how, during her performances of “Reach Out and Touch Somebody’s Hand,” she’d go into the audience for personal interaction, accompanied by a bodyguard, exhorting the crowd to “not get too close!”?) Throughout, Michael’s talent was not to be questioned, but the too-slick, perfunctory, wholly unspontaneous presentation of it certainly was.

I was reminded of this when news coverage of his death featured his final interview, announcing what was to be, “irrefutably,” his farewell tour. There were all the requisite “I love you’s” once more, delivered to faithful fans who’ve stuck by him through fame, failure, and facial work, but it all sadly felt like one last greedy shill. And wasn’t that the fascination of the conundrum he represented: a quivering hypersensitivity, which made you want to protect him, aligned with a Motown-induced, ubiquitous consciousness of the bottom line.

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Bettie Page, with Paula Klaw, of Movie Star News

I do remember the time he came into the film photo shop I worked at in the ’70s, MOVIE STAR NEWS, owned by the legendary Paula Klaw, who once tied up and took pictures of Bettie Page (and was played onscreen by Lili Taylor in THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE). He wore his then trademark Civil War cap and was accompanied by a humongous bodyguard, as he leafed through files of photos of child stars like Shirley Temple, Judy Garland, Freddie Bartholomew, Mickey Rooney, et al. He had just come out with OFF THE WALL, which had upped his solo fierce factor no end with its driving dance rhythms, but he was, surprisingly then, to me, anything but a swaggering pop star. He was soft-spoken to the point of inaudibility but sweet, sweet, sweet, and I found this particular interest of his to be particularly endearing, like a searching for clues regarding his own singular existence. Even then, he also seemed terribly isolated, his only friend being that employee he was with. (Nothing like, say the pre-adolescent Tatum O’Neal, every inch the star and Oscar winner, whom I saw a few years earlier, shopping at Fred Segal, seriously appraising her designer-jeaned image in a threeway mirror, accompanied by nannies and a then very tiny toddler, Chastity Bono.)

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Lili Taylor as La Klaw in THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE

“Man in the Mirror” has already become Jackson’s official requiem, and it has been nice to hear this stirringly beautiful song again…so far, that is…before it starts to pall by its 2,000th replay. There will, of course, be monotonous playings of “Beat It” and “Billie Jean” and “Thriller,” but I hope two other, lesser-known but wonderful songs of his will be remembered, as well. “Heartbreak Hotel” prefigured the mega-selling “Thriller” album in its intriguing mix of dark desperation, and is my personal favorite of all his dance jams. (How DJ Larry Levan used to work that one at the legendary Paradise Garage, the only Jackson song I ever heard there.)

And then there was the matured elegaic loveliness of “Remember the Time,” the very hearing of which should force a tear from anyone’s eye.

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The all-star video of “Remember the Time”

UPDATE, added June 27, 5:10 PM: BUSINESS AS USUAL – just seen: a Venice Beach street performer dancing to “Billie Jean,” wearing the world’s ugliest imaginable Michael Jackson rubber mask, before a wildly applauding crowd.

UPDATE, added two hours later: AND IF THAT WASN’T BAD ENOUGH, at Trunks Bar on Santa Monica, THE most hapless ancient white queen – who evidently does celeb impersonations for some kind of a living – showed up in full, yet terrible, approximating Jackson drag (his famous glove was white and beaded, not silver and mylar) and proceeded to dance – not like Jackson, but the way old hippies used to writhe in front of Jefferson Airplane concerts – to whatever random music emanated from the jukebox. Only in L.A. could one get away with such clueless vulgarity; in NY he woulda been mincemeat in five seconds had he dared.

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As for the passing of that other ’70s icon, Farrah, all I can say is thank God we will be spared the nauseating sight of a “deeply caring,” weepy Ryan O’Neal cravenly using that poor woman to rehabilitate a career trashed by years of publicized drug and uncontrolled physical abuse. (“Her hair was real, and now it’s gone…”) A petite black female movie publicist once told me about the rage he once flew into when his limo was not immediately waiting for him outside a New York hotel: “The veins were popping out of his neck, steam was coming out of his ears and he looked at me with such hatred. All I could think was ‘Oh, PLEASE just try to hit me, once! I’ll sue your ass and be able to retire for the rest of my life!'”

PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY

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COPYRIGHT: davidnoh2009

CROWD PLEASER

In Uncategorized on June 24, 2009 at 6:47 pm

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Tichina Arnold, working it to utter filth, as Evilene

Those are the two best words to describe Encores! revival of THE WIZ, with Thomas Kail’s zippy, febrile direction and Andy Blankenbuehler’s spirited, street-flavored choreography propelling the show for a new generation of theatergoers. Factor in Paul Tazewell’s clever, often jaw-droppingly visual costumes and David Korins’ innovative, spare sets (with the best band stage I’ve seen since the one Tony Walton designed for the original production of CHICAGO) and you already have a recipe for success without even a mention of the cast.

One dissatisfied reviewer snarkily observed that you leave this show “humming the sets,” which is pure bullcrap, as Charlie Smalls’ songs have always impressed me as wondrously melodic and varied in their influences of jazz, funk, and pure Broadway. Musical director Alex Lacamoire was alert to their every nuance and his sensitive conducting, worlds aware from your basic Broadway pit blaring, was one of the loveliest jobs I have ever heard in musical theater. Ashanti, as Dorothy, may be no Judy Garland, histrionically, but she has a fluently powerful set of pipes to match, as well as a fetchingly demure stage presence (almost reminiscent of the young Ruby Keeler in her eagerness to please and jump right into the fun). She’s convincingly your basic not-quite-present adolescent in the initial scenes, and, surrounded by as many more experienced, true stage animals as she is here, she will doubtlessly get more at ease and into character as the run continues, gaining invaluable performing experience.

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Emerald City arrivals

Aside from Orlando Jones rather uninspired Wiz, there are no quibbles with the rest of the cast. Joshua Henry brought a sexy, James Brown edge to Tinman (usually the most thankless of Dorothy’s famous, antic trio of Oz companions), while James Monroe Iglehart had the perfect combination of swaggering bravado and affecting pathos as Lion. But it was Christian Dante White who singlehandedly possessed more charm than anyone else, providing his ever-floppy Scarecrow with an enchanting cluelessness as well as some killer dance moves. (If Dorothy had said anything akin to the movie line, “I think I’ll miss you most of all,” which always struck me as needlessly insensitive to poor Lion and Tinman, here, you would have totally believed her.)

Dawnn Lewis, sporting Tazewell’s splashy melange of Kinte cloth, was delightfully airheaded as Addaperle, that most hapless of witches. (Where has this talented gal been since A DIFFERENT WORLD?) Tichina Arnold had a campy field day – very wisely, I thought – channeling Bette Davis, with her bug eyes and enunciatory attitude, as Evilene. Kail staged her big number, “No Bad News” as a dressing up number to make RuPaul drool, and Arnold, first seen amusingly in her wig cap, worked it six ways from Sunday in her Mugler-esque drag. (Although I hope, by now, the production has given her at least a real puff of smoke to finally disappear into at her demise.) LaChanze was properly deglamourized as Auntie Em, but reappeared as Glinda, with sparkling charisma to rival Diana Ross – whom she so resembles, wafting her arms sensuously in Nerfertiti turban and clouds of sky blue chiffon.

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LaChanze, Ashanti, Dawnn Lewis and Tichina Arnold: the fierce ass Women of THE WIZ

I happily note the gratifying presence of four such strong female presences – such a vital part of this show – as well as its devastating, unprecented one-two punch of double eleven o’clock numbers. Glinda’s “If You Believe” and then Dorothy’s “Home” were delivered with such ferocious intensity by Mesdames La Chanze and Ashanti that the roof of City Center probably rose by an extra few feet, at least. The crowd – deliciously dotted with black children gotten up in their Emerald City finest by doting, equally fabulously turned out parents – went wild, as they say.

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LaChanze and Ashanti

Oh, and Toto (played by Cairn terrier Nigel, in his stage debut) was freakin’ adorable.

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Postscript:
I admit this was the first time I have actually seen the show, being more familiar with Sidney Lumet’s much maligned 1978 film version, set in a Recession-beset Manhattan, with the then sparkly new Word Trade Center standing in for the Emerald City. LaChanze told me she shares my affection for this fascinating mess of a film, which veered from the scarily dark and intense (with Lumet giving his urban all to the Poppy scene hookers, flying monkeys like leathery Hell’s Angels on Harleys, and an utterly repulsive Evilene ruling a sweat shop) to the tinselly sappy (Lena Horne singing Glinda’s song encased like a blue Christmas tree, surrounded by sickmakingly “adorable” babies) It was a megaflop which forever scuttled Diana Ross’ movie career – the hubris of her, at 34, lusting to play this most iconic of roles, which she did in a mesmerizingly wrong jittery, strung-out way – Dorothy in rehab – replete with bizarre, intense vocal inflections. The total feyness of the now sadly deceased Michael Jackson was here once and for all exposed with his peppily danced Scarecrow, who definitely seemed to be missing a pair, forget about a brain. And then there was the “surefire” casting of Richard Pryor as The Wiz, a total misfire, as he way overdid the quaking pathos.

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“I could STILL play Dorothy!”

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