Hollywood and the Oscar Dilemma (Re-Post)

The Oscars

(The Academy Awards are threatening again.  Every couple years I devote a post to this subject.  But since I rarely watch new movies anymore, and have sworn off most awards ceremonies, I’m recycling this essay from two years ago.  Most of it, I think, is still relevant.)

Last Sunday occurred the 87th Academy Awards, or “The Oscars.” According to television’s Nielsen ratings, it was the 5th lowest rated Oscars telecast since ratings began in 1974. Some people blame the lackluster collection of nominees. Others blame Neil Patrick Harris, whose new career is hosting awards shows. Maybe it was the flat comedy sketches, or the abundance of musical numbers.

The awards ceremony was controversial even before it happened. Film critics and others seemed almost feverish in digging into their pockets for their race and gender cards. I’m not sure why. Seems to me Hollywood is typically ahead of the rest of the country in matters of diversity. And the awards aren’t supposed to be about political correctness, anyway, but rather quality.

But that topic is for a whole ‘nother article, so I’ll fold my cards.

 The (Academy Award) ceremonies are a meat parade, a public display with contrived suspense for economic reasons” – George C. Scott, who declined his Best Actor award for “Patton” in 1971

There are numerous award ceremonies devoted to the art of cinema: industry awards, audience awards, critics’ choices, and festival presentations. They stretch worldwide, popping up in countries as Hollywood liberal as Pakistan, Lebanon, and Iran. They range from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Being an unabashed critic of everything, one of my favorite cinema awards presentations is the Golden Raspberry Awards, popularly known as the “Razzies.” These awards are presented the day before the Oscars, and they honor the worst films of the year, as voted by 650 journalists, industry bigwigs, and film nuts. This year’s big Razzie winners were the film “Saving Christmas,” and actors Kirk Cameron (“Saving Christmas”) and Cameron Diaz, a double winner (!) for “The Other Woman” and “Sex Tape.” Congratulations on your bad work, Cameron! And to you, too, Cameron!

The Razzie Award, honoring the worst in Hollywood

And in researching this essay, I learned there’s even an awards ceremony for adult movies: the X-Rated Critics Organization (XRCO) hands out an annual “Heart-On Award.” But, of course, I wouldn’t know about XRCO or their award.

But let’s stick with the granddaddy of them all: the Oscars. Why have they lost so much appeal? I’ll offer three reasons:

1. They’ve become too political. I’m not talking about Left vs. Right here, although there is a hefty amount of PC (see above).  No, I’m referring to campaigning and back scratching.  Today, it’s about who you can schmooze in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS). Studios, producers, directors, and actors start campaigning for nomination even before their films are wrapped. So one not only has to do good work, one also has to market just how good you were. In 2004 the ceremonies were bumped from late March and early April to February. Why? In part, to shorten the film ad campaign and lobbying season! Movie buffs are becoming increasingly hip to the gratuitous politics of Hollywood, and it disgusts them almost as much as Washington D.C.

2. The glamour has waned. There’s still a lot of glitz (the silly red carpet thing is getting as big as the awards themselves). But it’s all prefabricated, and there’s no more “Wow.” I think much of this has to do with the proliferation of leisure technology. Netflix, YouTube, DVDs, I-Pads, smartphones, etc. have given the average film buff easy, unlimited access, anywhere and anytime. This has removed a lot of the mystique and intrigue from our film heroes. We used to have movie “stars.” Actors like Gary Cooper, Humphrey Bogart, Henry Fonda, Marlon Brando, Katherine Hepburn, Judy Garland, Bette Davis, Vanessa Redgrave… they were not only masters of their craft, they were also gods and goddesses. It was because we didn’t see them everywhere. If we wanted to bask in their glow, we attended a theater to watch them on the “silver screen.” Nowadays, ticket prices preclude going to the theater, and the actors are no longer exalted stars. They’re little blotches of marketed pixels that pop up at the click of a computer mouse or the TV remote. It’s no coincidence that this year’s Best Supporting Actor, J.K. Simmons, is best known for an insurance commercial.

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Red carpet ceremony

3. The quality has deteriorated. I know, you’re probably thinking “There he goes again, living in the past.” Actually, I don’t live there, I’m just able to cast a wider net due to my age, and the range of films I’ve been lucky and able to see. And I really believe that the major motion pictures coming out of Hollywood today (not so much shorts, documentaries, and independent films) rely more and more on quick and easy clichés. It’s all about marketing. Producers know what gimmicks will work to either sell tickets, impress critics, or both. Revealing dialogue has been usurped by the one-liner. Biting satire has been appropriated by the sustained scream. As the late, great film critic Roger Ebert said, “Hollywood is racing headlong toward the kiddie market. Disney recently announced it will make no more traditional films at all, focusing entirely on animation, franchises, and superheroes. I have the sense that younger Hollywood is losing the instinctive feeling for story and quality…”

Sadly, I don’t think much will change as far as my list above. The campaigning to get nominated will continue, leisure technology and stay-at-home entertainment will only increase, and big-budget films will get more gaudy, predictable, and stupid.

I have no regard for that kind of ceremony. I just don’t think they know what they’re doing. When you see who wins those things—or who doesn’t win them—you can see how meaningless this Oscar thing is” – Woody Allen, who won Best Director for “Annie Hall” in 1977

allenBut even if style finally does triumph over substance, it would be nice to have an Oscar ceremony where I don’t have to continually punch the mute button or switch the channel (sorry Oscar, but Neil Patrick Harris making irreverent comments while posing in his tighty whities just isn’t funny).

A couple years ago I wrote about Oscars’ 10 Most Unforgettable Moments. Perhaps we could use a few more of these unforgettable moments, which at least added some color to the pomposity and ridiculousness. Maybe Brad Pitt lecturing us about the military-industrial complex. Or Helen Mirren doing one-armed pushups. Or Jack Nicholson removing his sunglasses.

At the very least, if you really want this spectacle to be a comedy routine, find a host who’s actually witty. Where’s Billy Crystal? Is Bob Hope still available??

 

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Humphrey Bogart. “Your memory stays/It lingers ever/Fade away never”

 

 

Carnival of Familial Souls

 

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In my last post, I talked about my grandmother. Sadly – and I don’t fault her for this – she was merely a sheet of newspaper that the wind blew toward me one November day. But since I’m plucking walnuts from the family tree, I might as well keep plucking, and climb out on another limb.

These kinfolk, to my knowledge, never experienced forced incarceration like Grandma. But they’re maybe even more interesting, if only because they managed to circulate amongst “normal” society. It’s no coincidence that three of them share the same bloodline as Grandma.

All are long deceased, I’m not using last names, and there are no living descendants, so I shouldn’t need to worry about a libel suit. If their ghosts visit me some night of the full moon… well, if I can avoid strangulation or suffocation, their specters will provide enthralling material for a future nonsensical longitudes post.

Grandma had an older sister named Blanche. According to my dad (who heard it from his dad), Blanche was even more “peculiar” than Grandma. My aunt claims that Blanche used to cook meals while dancing around in her wedding gown. Since the name Blanche is French for “white,” this makes sense. Maybe it was the only garment she owned, because my mom says that, after she drove her husband to his death by suicide (my aunt’s theory) or a broken heart (my dad’s theory), she was reduced to scrubbing toilets in Penn Station (for you younger readers, I’m not referring to the fast-food chain, but a historic passenger terminal in New York City).

But this was during the Depression, and I’m sure a lot of people felt lucky to be employed scrubbing toilets.

Blanche had two children, Virginia and John. John, like his heartbroken and/or suicidal father, died mysteriously at a young age. John fancied himself a poet. My dad knew him and said he was “a real oddball.” But my dad hated non-pragmatic things like poetry, so maybe that’s why he considered John an oddball.

After John died, his mother (Blanche, the toilet cleaner with the wedding dress) paid for a large copper caricature of him to be embedded in his tombstone, accompanied by the words “The Forgotten Poet.”

(If this is getting too weird for y’all, I won’t be offended if you stop reading).

Virginia (John’s sister) was the most normal one in the family. But even she had her idiosyncrasies. She deliberately married a gay guy named Bown (the silent film buff who was in my last post). Now, I’m all for gay marriage. But I’ve never heard of a gay man and a straight woman exchanging vows. Do people do that? What the heck was he thinking?

Like my piano-playing grandmother and failed-poet cousin, Virginia and Bown were artsy-fartsy. But their domain was theater.

They ran an acting studio in Manhattan in the 1950s. Some of their plays were written by Bown, who seems to have been sort of an Ed Wood of New York theater. One of the plays was a one-character oddity starring a woman who was both deaf and blind. This was a very compassionate and progressive thing for Bown to attempt. I’m assuming the actress wasn’t also dumb. Now that would have been really avant-garde.

Even though this “Professional Actors’ Studio” was off-off-off-off-Broadway, a few big names did pass through. One of the students was television and movie star John Forsythe. So was either Ann Blyth (MILDRED PIERCE) or Anne Baxter (ALL ABOUT EVE)… one of those Annie B’s, anyway. And Kirk Douglas briefly was a guest instructor. Probably very briefly.

My impression is that Bown was the mastermind behind this troupe, and Virginia merely acted. Or, at least, tried to. I Googled their studio once and came across a review by noted theater critic Kenneth Tynan of a production of theirs. Virginia had the lead role in the play. Tynan referred to her as a “rock-like creature.” The play was called “Queen Lear.”

(Folks, I’m not making this stuff up).

This acting studio seemed to exist in a New York City nether world: it aspired to artistic greatness, but was permanently stuck in mediocrity (similar to this blog… hey, at least we aspire). There’s little evidence it even existed, other than one or two small newspaper blurbs. Bown closed it down abruptly one day after he caught several of his actors backstage smoking marijuana. It wasn’t so much that he objected to the drug’s illegality. It was because the incident deeply saddened him: he felt that acting was the highest “high” in life, and one shouldn’t need anything else.

Later on, Bown amassed one of the largest collections of silent films in the country. It’s now preserved at Phillips Exeter Academy in Massachusetts.

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Well, there you have it. Bown, Virginia, Blanche, and John the Forgotten Poet. Somewhere I’m sure they’re happily munching popcorn together while watching one of Bown’s favorite silent films.

It may sound like I’m poking fun at these people. But I honestly don’t mean any harm. I’m sure all were very nice (maybe even Blanche). I just find curios like these interesting, and they definitely make for great conversation. Every family seems to have at least one member who’s a little “off:” the free-spirited uncle, the bawdy aunt, the self-destructive sibling, the perverted grandpa. I just happen to have several.

Whether or not I’m a similar curio, or whether or not I’m evolving into one, I’ll leave for others to judge.

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When You Have to Shoot, SHOOT (Don’t Talk): The Revisionist Western

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A man lies in a wooden bathtub filled with soap suds. His face is dotted with beard stubble and beads of sweat. There are pockmarks punched into his left cheek and a bloody gash above his right eyebrow. A leather, string necklace dangles from his neck. He licks his dirty finger then digs inside his ear.

Suddenly, the wooden, saloon-style doors swing open and a one-armed man brandishing a six-shooter bursts into the room.

“I been lookin’ for you for eight months,” he croaks. “Whenever I SHOULDA had a gun in my RIGHT hand, I thought of you. Now I find you exactly in the position that suits me. I had lotsa time to learn how to shoot with my LEFT.”

There’s the sound of a click, then four bursts of gunfire, as suds spray from the tub. The one-armed man spins back through the door, topples over a table, and lands on a broken bed. He groans and struggles to get upright. The bathtub guy rests his gun barrel on the swinging door, and fires one final shot.

In a gruff Mexican accent, he says “When you have to shoot, SHOOT. Don’t talk.”

The entire scene lasts almost two minutes. But only twenty seconds is dialog.

If you’re a fan of Clint Eastwood, you probably know this scene. It’s one of many memorable moments from the Sergio Leone-directed “Spaghetti Western” entitled “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” Although Eastwood’s the star, Eli Wallach (the Mexican in the bathtub, named “Tuco”) and bad guy Lee Van Cleef help make this film one of the great “revisionist” Westerns. Even if you’ve never seen it, you’re surely familiar with the title and the music, which are now part of popular culture.

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Clint Eastwood and Eli Wallach set the standard for “buddy” movies

It’s Oscar time again, and, surprisingly, two movies nominated this year for awards are Westerns (The Revenant and The Hateful Eight). It gives me an opportunity to talk about some of my favorite Westerns, with “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” at the top of the list.

One hears the term “revisionist” a lot, but it’s usually negative. Revisionist history often implies embellishing or altering historical fact to suit an agenda. But Revisionist Westerns were intended to bring more realism to a film genre, and (in my opinion) they improved the genre. Nothing against John Ford, John Wayne, or Gary Cooper, who made some of the most noteworthy Westerns in Tinseltown. But I prefer cowboys who have a little tobacco juice on their whiskers (if you know what I mean).

Before the 1960s, and dating to the silent film era of the 1920s, movie and television Westerns were extraordinarily popular, but very formulaic. With only a few exceptions, there were good guys and bad guys, and nothing in-between. The actors looked like they’d just stepped from the fitting room at J.C. Penny. The dialog was clean and predictable. Even the violence was clean, with maybe a spot of grey, at most, to reveal blood. If a good guy was shot, he always managed to take a few moments to gasp some poignant last words.

Women were limited to secondary roles as wives or sweethearts. American Indians were always portrayed by white actors, and they were always the evil aggressor. If Mexicans were depicted at all, they were generally lazy and subservient (a notable exception being in the Marlon Brando vehicle, Viva Zapata).

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William Holden in “The Wild Bunch”

But in the 1960s and early ‘70s, America went through many changes, and these changes affected how movies were made, including Westerns. Realism began to displace romanticism, and Westerns became more cynical and critical of the motives and actions of frontier lawmen, settlers, Christian missionaries, government agents, and the U.S. Army. Westerns reflected the times in which they were made.

In addition to theme and tone, style changed as well. European directors like Leone had a lot to do with this. I already devoted a whole blog post to Spaghetti Westerns (Spaghetti Western Feast), so I won’t reiterate here. But these foreign-made Revisionist Westerns greatly influenced Hollywood. They emphasized realistic cinematography, action and atmosphere over dialog, authentic costuming and makeup, and, for good or bad (or ugly)… a much harder edge to the violence.

And – finally – Hollywood woke up and began employing Native Americans, instead of Caucasians who wore wigs and brown skin cream.

I’ve once again blathered on far too long. Let’s get to the good stuff. As promised, here are my top ten favorite Westerns. All of them can be considered Revisionist Westerns:

10. THEY CALL ME TRINITY (1970): An unusual Spaghetti Western that spoofs the genre, it’s the first in a series of “Trinity” movies starring blond, blue-eyed Terence Hill. trinityHe plays a lazy, happy-go-lucky cowboy who teams with his brooding brother to protect a town of pacifist Mormons from a ruthless land baron. Lighthearted fare with lots of funny moments (including hilarious overdubs).

9. THE APPALOOSA (1966): Marlon Brando portrays a Mexican-American buffalo hunter trying to recapture a beloved, stolen horse. scorpionsI haven’t seen it in years, but I remember it as a minor gem with lots of atmosphere (it still hasn’t been released on DVD, for some dumb reason). A highlight is a great arm wrestling scene with live scorpions on the table. Unrelated to Appaloosa (2008) with Ed Harris.

8. WILL PENNY (1968): Charlton Heston called this his favorite film. He plays a loner cowboy whose mountain cabin has been “borrowed” by a young widow and her son. Beautiful scenery, with excellent supporting cast, especially bad guys Donald Pleasance and Bruce Dern. A little old-fashioned, but revisionist due to an unusual ending.

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7. THE WILD BUNCH (1969): This might be director Sam Peckinpah’s greatest film. wildbunchposeIt stars William Holden, Robert Ryan, Ernest Borgnine, and other great actors too numerous to list. The Old West is changing, and a team of aging outlaws go south of the border after one last heist. Raw, bawdy, THE WILD BUNCH makes John Ford Westerns look like chick flicks. “Let’s go!”

6. ONE-EYED JACKS (1961): one eyed jacksAnother Brando flick, this was his only directorial attempt and is maybe the first Revisionist Western. He plays Rio, a robber who is double-crossed by his older partner, Dad Longworth (Karl Malden), and who years later tracks him down. His plans to kill Dad are complicated when he falls in love with Dad’s virginal daughter. Rio’s nasty, but the audience sympathizes with his plight. Malden, who had appeared with Brando in both On the Waterfront and A Streetcar Named Desire, called him “a genius in our time” after this film.

5. ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (1968): This is an epic Spaghetti Western by Sergio Leone and stars Henry Fonda, Jason Robards, and Charles Bronson. Like THE WILD BUNCH, it concerns the encroachment of civilization (the railroad) on the Old West. bronsonFonda is chilling as the villain, Bronson is moody and mysterious, and Robards adds class. Claudia Cardinale plays a struggling widow, but she’s also sexy and independent. Her “rape” by Fonda is very unsettling.

4. HOMBRE (1967): Based on an early Elmore Leonard novel about a white man raised by Apaches, Paul Newman portrays the stoic and taciturn John Russell, who, reluctantly, has to protect a group of bigoted whites from a band of outlaws. One of the bigots is a corrupt Apache Indian agent (excellently played by the great Fredric March). After 40 years of vanilla Westerns, here’s one that honestly depicts racism against Indians.

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3. JEREMIAH JOHNSON (1972): Beautifully shot in the mountains of Utah, with some of the most breathtaking cinematography of any Western, Robert Redford plays an alienated Mexican War veteran who disappears into the Rocky Mountains to become a trapper. crow indianHe meets an eccentric grizzly hunter, is forced into leading a group of pioneers through hostile Crow country, and soon has to defend himself from isolated attacks by Crow warriors. Atmospheric, with sparse dialog, it’s (literally) great escapism.

2. LITTLE BIG MAN (1970): little big manThis movie is perfect on every level. It’s tragic, funny, dramatic, has great acting (Chief Dan George was nominated for an Oscar), and it depicts Plains Indian cultural and spiritual life with sensitivity, humor, and truth. Richard Mulligan makes a more enjoyable Gen. George A. Custer than Custer himself. See this movie at least once before you die!

1. THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY (1966): Six reasons to watch this film: clintSergio Leone, Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach, Lee Van Cleef, soundtrack composer Ennio Morricone, and the stark Andalusia landscape. What this movie lacks in substance it makes up in style. What else can I say?  Only that I’ve seen this movie well over a dozen times and I keep going back for more.

Whew! I apologize for not heeding Tuco’s advice, and talking too long. I guess my only excuse is that I love movies, particularly Westerns, and I also love lists. And I’d love to see your own lists, so please tell me your own favorites (revisionist or otherwise).

Until then, I wish you happy trails and beautiful sunsets!

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Do NOT Watch Alone! Five Great Chiller Movies for Halloween

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In my last blog piece I wrote about my hike on the Appalachian Trail. I talked about people’s fears of being in the woods at night, and I name-dropped a few scary movies with outdoor “creatures.” One movie I omitted was George Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, about a bunch of zombies who terrorize a young couple. I also forgot to mention an eye-catching t-shirt I saw on my hike. It was worn by a bored-looking teenage girl who was hiking with her family. It said: “I Can’t Wait for the Zombie Apocalypse.”

Zombies are trendy these days for some inexplicable reason. By “Zombies,” I don’t mean the British rock band from the ‘60s. I’m talking about people who walk around in a daze, moaning, with their arms held straight out (kind of like Cleveland sports fans). I’m not sure why zombies are so popular. But I do know that scary movies never seem to go out of style.

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Janet Leigh in the now-classic shower scene of “Psycho”

The ball got rolling in the 1920s with THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, starring Lon Chaney. In the 1930s came Tod Browning’s DRACULA and FREAKS, and James Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN. Monster movies became increasingly prevalent (and low-budget), hitting rock-bottom in the ‘50s with the movies of “The Worst Director of All Time,” Edward D. Wood, Jr. But Alfred Hitchcock, “The Master,” soon rescued fright flicks with psychological thrillers like PSYCHO and THE BIRDS. Most horror flicks today, unfortunately, spring from the Wes Craven and John Carpenter school of fright. They’re loaded with shocks and violent bloodletting, but have little Gothic or psychological horror.

Hitchcock and the 1960s were possibly a high-point for horror flicks. For this article, I’ve chosen five movies from the ‘60s that I consider some of the best horror flicks of all time, but which don’t get viewed much anymore. They’re very psychological. They start slowly and build in suspense, methodically drawing the viewer into the maelstrom. By the end of the movie, one feels drained. Some of them, like THE HAUNTING and REPULSION, can worm their way into your dreams.  Or nightmares..

So here they are, listed in order of their release. If you haven’t seen these movies and enjoy the stuff of nightmares, I guarantee you won’t be disappointed. Make sure you watch these at night. But a word to the wise: DO NOT WATCH THESE ALONE!

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VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED (1960, starring George Sanders): Residents of a rural English village one day fall asleep at the same moment. When they awake, things are different. Women become pregnant at the same time. The children born to them all have blond hair, hypnotic eyes, and are emotionally frigid. As they grow, they begin to huddle together privately, away from the other children. But this is only the beginning of the horror.damned

The movie is adapted from a novel called “The Midwich Cuckoos.” I saw it as a kid and had to sleep with my parents for several nights (the kids in this movie were far scarier than the bully down the street). Most children are innocent and playful. But these “creatures” are just the opposite: they’re abnormally intuitive, and they never smile. Whoever said “blondes have more fun” didn’t see this movie.

NOTE: John Carpenter remade this movie in 1995, and there’s a sequel to the original called CHILDREN OF THE DAMNED (1964). But the original’s the one to watch.

THE INNOCENTS (1961, starring Deborah Kerr and Michael Redgrave): All the right ingredients for a ghost story are here: a dark Victorian mansion, a neurotic English governess, rumors, mysterious deaths, plus the same disturbing child actor who led the homicidal brats in VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED. The story is adapted from Henry James’s classic novella “The Turn of the Screw,” written when Sigmund Freud was postulating his revolutionary theories of sexuality, dreams, and the unconscious (James’s brother, William James, is considered the “Father of American Psychology”). innocents2The casting of talented Deborah Kerr, as the governess “Miss Giddens,” is spot-on. Her saucer eyes and halting voice perfectly convey the paralyzing fear of a woman on the verge of a breakdown.

NOTE: Truman Capote co-wrote the script for this movie between publication of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and “In Cold Blood.” Capote was originally from Alabama, and he added a Southern Gothic aura to the film.

THE HAUNTING (1963, starring Julie Harris, directed by Robert Wise): The classic New England haunted house movie, adapted from a novel by Shirley Jackson entitled “The Haunting of Hill House.” I saw it with my daughter when she was about 13, and she says it’s one of the scariest movies she’s ever seen. hauntingNow, that’s a plug! (She normally hates black-and-white movies). But THE HAUNTING is a movie that could only have been filmed in B&W. The gray, shadowy cinematography gives the film depth and atmosphere, and accentuates the oppressiveness of mounting fear. Like Deborah Kerr in THE INNOCENTS, Julie Harris gives a standout performance as a young woman veering toward insanity. Is it the spooky house, or has she always been unstable, or is it both? You have to watch this movie to find out… but DON’T WATCH IT ALONE!

NOTE: this film has hints of Lesbianism between the characters played by Harris and Claire Bloom.

NOTE 2: the movie was remade in 1999. I haven’t seen it, but it supposedly stinks.

SEANCE ON A WET AFTERNOON (1964, starring Kim Stanley and Richard Attenborough): A domineering wife and her caspar milquetoast husband devise a plot. They will kidnap a young girl and hold her for ransom so the woman can get publicity for her psychic abilities. In the beginning, they have no intention of harming the girl. But the woman, haunted by the early death of her son Arthur, slowly begins to crumble mentally, and contemplates murder. Her meek husband is the only thing standing in her way.seance

SEANCE ON A WET AFTERNOON is a tour-de-force of acting, direction, and atmosphere. This was only Stanley’s second movie, and she didn’t make many afterwards. She was most known for theater work and for doing the narration in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” But hers is a powerful performance that earned an Oscar nomination. Richard Attenborough is also great as the submissive husband. The subject matter is sensitive, but it’s handled with care. And the movie title, well… let’s just say they don’t write ‘em like this anymore.

NOTE: the part that Kim Stanley eventually got was turned down by both Deborah Kerr and Simone Signoret (famous for her role in DIABOLIQUE, a sort of French take on Alfred Hitchcock)

REPULSION (1965, starring Catherine Deneuve, directed by Roman Polanski): A definite pattern has developed in this list. Why stop now? Catherine Deneuve’s character in REPULSION makes the mental instability of Kerr, Harris, and Stanley seem like a walk in the sanitarium garden. I saw this movie for the first time two years ago. All I can say is “Wow.” And not just for the shimmering beauty of Deneuve. RepulsionDirector Polanski crafted a movie about a sexually repressed young woman whose older sister leaves her alone in their apartment for a week. At first, the woman’s behavior is just a little odd. But over time, we realize she’s slipping dangerously downstream. When she finally cracks, it’s a shocker. Watch this movie through the last camera shot, which is a close-up of a photograph of the woman as a young girl. Very unsettling.

NOTE: REPULSION was Roman Polanski’s first English-language film. It’s ranked #14 on Rotten Tomatoes’ list of best-rated films.

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After making this list, I noticed four out of five of the movies have a woman in the central role. Even PSYCHO and THE BIRDS feature a beautiful woman at the center of the plot. It was purely accidental on my part. But I’m glad I could strike a blow for women’s rights, even if all of these femmes are a little “off.” Maybe because women’s psyches are more vulnerable? Or have more complexity?

Whatever the answer, I hope that, if you do watch these movies, you’ll agree that one doesn’t need a lot of violence and blood to convey horror. On the contrary, psychological horror is far more riveting than monsters, aliens, or comic-book figures like Freddy Krueger. The greatest horrors are intangible: they lurk inside the human mind.

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Steve McQueen: The King of Cool (Part Two)

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(Tuesday, March 24 is the late Steve McQueen’s 85th birthday. To honor this charismatic actor, here is the second of my two-part commemoration of the man and his films)

There’s a scene in the movie THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963) where American POW Virgil Hilts, known as “The Cooler King” due to his repeated banishments to the isolation box, squats on the dirt in his cramped cell, smiles, and begins to bounce a baseball against the opposite wall. There’s no dialog. But the character’s actions imply “You bastards may be able to kill me. But you can’t eat me.”

This scene is one of many examples of why Steve McQueen earned the title “The King of Cool.”

THE GREAT ESCAPE served notice that a new matinee idol had arrived in Hollywood. As film critic Leonard Maltin observed, “The large international cast is superb, but the standout is McQueen; it’s easy to see why this cemented his status as a superstar.”

After this movie, McQueen was offered one juicy role after another. He was paired with some of the most ravishing starlets in Hollywood: Natalie Wood, Lee Remick, Ann-Margret, Suzanne Pleshette, Faye Dunaway, Jacqueline Bisset. He commanded top dollar for his films. In 1968, his peak year, he starred in two blockbuster films that perfectly exploited his antihero credentials: THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR and BULLITT.

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Getting passionate with Faye Dunaway in “The Thomas Crown Affair”

In THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR, McQueen portrays a wealthy playboy and sportsman who dabbles in high-stakes crime on the side. He’s an ultra-intelligent, smooth operator who enjoys playing chess, riding his dune buggy, reading the Wall Street Journal, and – just for kicks – robbing banks. After masterminding one multi-million-dollar bank heist, an insurance investigator (Faye Dunaway) is hired to trip him up. She comes close to nabbing him in an elaborate game of cat-and-mouse, but of course, she eventually succumbs to his charm. The split-screen scene where McQueen and Dunaway compete in a sexually charged game of chess, then kiss rapturously while the camera whirls around them, is one of the great moments in cinema history, and it assisted Michel Legrand in winning an Oscar for the song “The Windmills of Your Mind.”

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Classic photo of McQueen and shoulder holster, from his quintessential film, “Bullitt”

McQueen’s next movie, BULLITT, which was produced by McQueen’s own Solar Productions company, has an even more iconic sequence. The storyline is nothing exceptional: a police lieutenant appropriately named Frank Bullitt (McQueen) is hired to protect a government witness, who is eventually killed, and Bullitt has to contend with both the Mafia and a vengeful politician (Robert Vaughn). But the film is special for its on-location camerawork, the piece-de-resistance being a high-speed car chase across the hills of San Francisco. This 10-minute chase is considered one of the most exciting ever filmed, with veteran racer McQueen doing the close-up driving scenes himself, including a classic spinout in a turbo-charged, 1968 Ford Mustang GT (the high-speed scenes were done by several well-known stunt drivers, one of whom had doubled for McQueen during the motorcycle jump over barbed wire in THE GREAT ESCAPE). During filming, the two cars reached speeds of an astonishing 110 mph. The BULLITT car chase scene became the model for dozens of other similar chases peppered throughout commercials, comedies, and action films. But other than maybe THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971) starring Gene Hackman, none have come close to McQueen and BULLITT.

After BULLITT, McQueen had enough power and a big enough bank account to race cars and bikes whenever he felt like it. He not only made sure his films had at least one car scene (at least, those set in the automobile age), he also made documentaries about racing, most notably ON ANY SUNDAY (1971), a motorcycle documentary partially produced by and featuring McQueen, and which critic Roger Ebert said “does for motorcycle racing what THE ENDLESS SUMMER did for surfing.”

But McQueen’s film output slowed down considerably after 1969. On the night of August 9, two close friends, actress Sharon Tate and hairdresser Jay Sebring, became victims of the Manson Family murder spree. McQueen had been invited to Tate’s house that same night, but had turned it down because he had a date. He was also supposedly on Manson’s hit list after his production company rejected a Manson screenplay. McQueen’s first wife, Neile, claims that Steve was so spooked he started carrying a concealed handgun everywhere.

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Dressed for speed in LE MANS

In 1971, McQueen realized a dream and produced a movie about the renowned 24-hour road race in Le Mans, France. Racing fans love LE MANS for its authenticity – and McQueen never looked “cooler” – but the film plot was fairly opaque, and it was essentially a vanity project for McQueen (he’d turned down the lead role in the earlier racing film, GRAND PRIX (1966), the role eventually going to fellow race enthusiast and friend James Garner).

During the 1970s, McQueen only made five feature films. Two of them, the lighthearted rodeo homage JUNIOR BONNER (1972) and the crime thriller THE GETAWAY (1972), were done with infamous director Sam Peckinpah, who had an affinity for antiheroes and how they cope in a brutal world. In THE GETAWAY, McQueen portrays an ex-con who robs a bank and goes on the lam with his girlfriend (played by Ali McGraw). High on style but low in substance, THE GETAWAY was a much-needed hit for both McQueen and Peckinpah. But it also broke up McQueen’s marriage to Neile, as he and McGraw became lovers during the film, and eventually married (then divorced in 1978).

In 1974 McQueen was reunited with Paul Newman, one of the few actors who could compete with him at the box office. They headlined the Irwin Allen disaster epic THE TOWERING INFERNO, with McQueen playing a fire chief, and Newman portraying an architect. Both actors wanted lead billing… but which one would get it? The producers solved the dilemma by putting McQueen’s name first, on the left, but Newman’s name slightly higher, on the right! Additionally, both actors received the same pay and had the same number of lines. Poor William Holden, also in the film, had evidently become too old to compete with the other two!

McQueen’s last film of the ‘70s was another vanity project: AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE, based on a Henrik Ibsen play, and in which McQueen played a principled doctor who has a feud with his materialistic neighbors. The McQueen everyone knew and loved was practically hidden behind a beard and spectacles, and the film had an extremely limited theatrical release.

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Taking a break on the set of TOM HORN, his second-to-last film

McQueen returned to familiar territory for his last two films, TOM HORN (1980) and THE HUNTER (1980). The former is a period piece based on true-life cowboy bounty hunter Horn, who was controversially hanged for murder in 1903. In THE HUNTER, McQueen played a contemporary bounty hunter, and was reunited with THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN co-star Eli Wallach. Although both movies were up McQueen’s alley (recalling bounty hunter Josh Randall in “Wanted: Dead or Alive”), both were unfortunately critical and commercial disappointments.

It was during the filming of TOM HORN that McQueen started to have trouble breathing. He was eventually diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma, an aggressive type of lung cancer (though McQueen was a heavy smoker, Neile cited the cause as asbestos exposure, possibly received from Steve soaking his racing facemask in the chemical, which was an oft-used fire retardant… it was long before the dangers of asbestos were known). McQueen fought valiantly against his cancer. He even resorted to controversial treatments that involved coffee enemas and injections of live cells from cows and sheep. But on November 7, 1980, after surgery in Juarez, Mexico to remove a massive tumor, he died of cardiac arrest. He was only 50 years old.

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Layin’ back with James Coburn in pickup truck. Note the Castrol motor oil and Lucky Lager beer bottles

Since McQueen’s death 35 years ago, he’s been the subject of many biographies. He’s been name-dropped in songs by the Rolling Stones, Leonard Cohen, Jimmy Webb, Sheryl Crow, UFO, and many others. The English band Prefab Sprout named an entire album after him. According to Wikipedia, possessions by the late actor sell in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. He had a collection of 130 motorcycles that sold in the millions within four years of his death. Lines of expensive clothing and watches have been inspired by him. Most tellingly, his estate is in the top 10 of highest earning deceased celebrities. Long after his death, the King of Cool remains a hot property.

And how many actors have been inducted into both the Motorcycle Hall of Fame and the Hall of Great Western Performers?

For a brief moment in the ‘60s and ‘70s, a rugged, blue-eyed ex-reform school punk named Steve McQueen burned like red lava flowing from an active volcano. Even in ensemble films, McQueen was so magnetic a presence you couldn’t tear your eyes away from him. If you were born too late to catch him the first time around, his films are still easily available. Below is a short list of what I consider his best flicks (I’ve already discussed three of them).  So grab some popcorn, turn down the lights, and enjoy a Great Escape with the King of Cool.

1. THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963)

2. NEVADA SMITH (1966). Based on a character in Harold Robbins’ novel “The Carpetbaggers,” this is a compelling Western about revenge. McQueen plays a half-Indian teenager (you heard right) whose parents are brutally murdered by three outlaws. One by one he tracks them down. McQueen gets to display his athleticism in some great action scenes, including a tense knife fight with his former Actors Studio buddy, Martin Landau. The final scene with Karl Malden is killer.nevada smith

3. THE SAND PEBBLES (1966). McQueen was nominated for four Golden Globe awards during his career, but this was his only Academy Award nomination. sand pebblesHe plays a rebellious, Brooklyn-bred machinist’s mate stationed on a Yangtze River gunboat in 1926. He’s not only convincing in his role, but the film has a great supporting cast, including Candice Bergen, Richard Attenborough, and Richard Crenna.

4. THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR (1968)

5. BULLITT (1968)

6. THE REIVERS (1969). One of the best all-round movies McQueen made, THE REIVERS is based on a lesser known novel by William Faulkner. It’s a totally winning slice of rural Americana, with McQueen stepping out of his comfort zone and playing Boon Hoggenbeck, a conniving roustabout who cons a young boy into “borrowing” his grandfather’s 1905 Winton Flyer automobile for a trip down the backroads of Mississippi. mcqueen_reiversThe film comes a little close to Disney territory, but there’s enough sobriety to keep it honest, and McQueen never looked happier. And this time he gets to goof in the mud with an antique set of wheels!

7. PAPILLON (1973). McQueen shares the spotlight with another Hollywood legend, Dustin Hoffman, in this tale (based on a true story) about two Frenchmen who are exiled for life to Devil’s Island prison off of French Guiana in the 1930s. No need to worry about Hoffman, though: McQueen is the whole movie. This film is full-fledged action-adventure, and it’s both long and intense. It deals with the indomitability of the human spirit (think of it as THE GREAT ESCAPE on acid). Like so many McQueen films, this one features several classic scenes: a skillfully photographed slow-motion sequence of McQueen stumbling into a jungle river while trying to escape; and the final shot, when he catapults himself off a massive cliff into the ocean. Characteristically, McQueen insisted on doing this dangerous stunt himself. The King of Cool got his way.

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Steve McQueen: The King of Cool (Part One)

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One of the fun things about hosting a blog is you get to share with others your fave hobbies and heroes. Most of my childhood heroes were either musical or athletic. But some were delivered via MGM or 20th Century Fox.

In my last post I took a swipe at the Academy Awards ceremony. But as crude and ostentatious as Tinseltown can get, it’s not all bad news. In its defense, the film industry does provide (fairly) affordable diversion for a large demographic. And moving pictures do have a way of making our lives just a little less drab.

Ray Davies of The Kinks sang that “Celluloid heroes never really die.” If that’s true of anyone, it’s true of actor Steve McQueen. McQueen’s heyday was the 1960s-70s, when he was the biggest draw in Hollywood. He left us way too young, but he’ll always be alive in celluloid. He was my favorite actor, bar none. “Cool” is real important when you’re young. And McQueen virtually defined the concept of cool.Bullitt jacket

But to be cool, McQueen didn’t need sunglasses, fast cars, or a stable of foxy women (though he had all that and more). It was more the way he moved and spoke both on and offscreen. He had a ruggedness and lithe athleticism that appealed to men as much as women. He rarely overacted, kept his dialog sparse, and emphasized a graceful physicality (plus, not every actor is lucky to be born with steel blue eyes and a winsome smile).

McQueen created a mold for numerous “action heroes” who sprang up in his wake – I won’t name them, you can probably guess. But these screen children of McQueen always looked stilted, plastic, mass-assembled. They just didn’t have McQueen’s naturalness and poise. Maybe because the line between McQueen’s art and life was often blurred. He was the anti-Hollywood anti-hero.

McQueen is a celluloid hero who was so riveting a presence, he’ll never fade from screen glory. March 24 will be his 85th birthday. Here’s my two-part tribute to the King of Cool.

 _____________

The first movie of McQueen’s that I ever saw was the WW2 POW escape film THE GREAT ESCAPE. In 1963 it had been a major box-office success, and it was soon scheduled to debut on television. This was in a time when there were only three TV stations: ABC, CBS, and NBC. One of the older kids on my block (either Mike Keefer or John Hire, I can’t remember which) had probably seen a television preview or a “TV Guide” advertisement. Well, the buildup to the televised airing of this film was almost as big as the annual showing of THE WIZARD OF OZ. Here’s how our curbside talk probably went:

“Man, you just gotta see this movie!”mcqueen_motorcycle

“Why?”

“It’s really cool! This escaped POW jumps a barbed wire fence with a motorcycle!”

(Obviously, the motorcycle stunt was the sole incentive for watching the movie).

Well, THE GREAT ESCAPE came on at 9 pm, and I did see a little of it before bedtime (it was the latest I’d ever stayed up – at least until the debut of the popular detective show “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.“). The much-anticipated motorcycle scene came toward the end, so I probably missed this tilting of the earth’s axis. But THE GREAT ESCAPE was my introduction to Steve McQueen, and over the years I would see almost all of his flicks.

When I die I don’t wanna go to heaven

I just wanna drive my beautiful machine

Up north on some Sonoma country road

With Jimmy Dean and Steve McQueen”

– Jimmy Webb, from “Too Young to Die”

McQueen was born March 24, 1930 in Indianapolis, Indiana as Terence Steven McQueen. His father, a stunt pilot in a traveling circus, abandoned the family when Steve was young. His mother was supposedly an alcoholic and prostitute. McQueen briefly lived on his great-uncle’s farm in Missouri, before moving to Los Angeles with his mother and an abusive stepfather when McQueen was 12.

In California, McQueen joined a gang and had frequent clashes with both his stepfather and the cops. He was eventually sent to California Junior Boys Republic in Chino, California. This reform school helped tame McQueen’s lawless ways a little (after he became famous, he made frequent visits to the school, and made secretive and substantial charitable contributions).

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Chilling out on the set of “The Great Escape” (1963) with Charles Bronson and James Coburn

At age 16, McQueen joined his mother in Greenwich Village, New York. He eventually signed with the Merchant Marine, and later the U.S. Marine Corps, where he served in the honor guard. In the Marines, McQueen learned discipline, and he was honorably discharged in 1950. He later drew on his military experience in several movies.

The G.I. Bill helped McQueen finance acting classes at Sanford Meisner’s renowned Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre, in New York City. Then he auditioned for Lee Strasberg’s famous Actor’s Studio. Out of some 2,000 actors, McQueen was one of only five who was accepted (Martin Landau was another). He acted in small theater productions, supplementing his income with winnings from weekend motorcycle racing on Long Island. In 1955 he starred in the Broadway production of “Hatful of Rain,” a story that dealt with heroin addiction (the play was later made into a movie, without McQueen). McQueen’s dramatic turn in “Hatful” spurred a move to Hollywood to try his hand at film.

Between 1955 and his breakthrough role in THE GREAT ESCAPE, McQueen popped up in many TV roles and movies, sometimes uncredited. Most are unmemorable, but some of the highlights include the following:

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Ready to fight, in his first film

Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956): a loose biography of boxer Rocky Graziano, this is McQueen’s earliest film role. He draws on his rebellious past for a bit part as a switchblade wielding pool hall punk. This movie is notable for being Paul Newman’s second film, and it’s very good (Sylvester Stallone had to have seen this at least a dozen times before he wrote ROCKY). McQueen and Newman would later become the top grossing male stars in Hollywood and, despite being friends offscreen, battle for top billing.

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Stalking slime with Aneta Corsaut in “The Blob”

The Blob (1958): a typical cheesy, 1950s monster movie, this was McQueen’s first lead role in a movie. Even though a wizened 28, he played a teenager who helps save his town from an alien slime that has a hunger for humans. The cult film is notable for the title song, an early and decidedly goofy composition by Burt Bacharach. Also notable for McQueen’s love interest, Aneta Corsaut, who later appeared as Helen Crump in “The Andy Griffith Show” (why the heck would she dump the King of Cool for a small-town sheriff??!!).

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Perfecting the cool quotient in “Wanted: Dead or Alive”

Wanted: Dead or Alive (1958-61): McQueen became a TV fixture in this series, playing a bounty hunter named “Josh Randall.” It was an ok show, running for 94 episodes, but it was overshadowed by another CBS Western, “Rawhide,” which starred another future film superstar (and professional rival): Clint Eastwood.

The Magnificent Seven (1960): this Western was based on Akira Kurosawa’s well-regarded Japanese-language film SEVEN SAMURAI (1954). Most critics agree that THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN falls short of Kurosawa’s film, but it did have a memorable musical score by Elmer Bernstein, it spawned three sequels, and it featured a posse of present and future stars: McQueen, Yul Brynner, Eli Wallach, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, and Robert Vaughn (Bronson and Coburn later rejoined McQueen in THE GREAT ESCAPE). Steve would become the biggest star of all. Although Brynner had the lead role, McQueen quietly stole the picture. His smooth portrayal of a drifter/gambler/gunfighter, banding with others of his ilk to protect a small Mexican village from marauders, solidified his antihero credentials.

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Magnificent, in “The Magnificent Seven”

Here was a character who (like bounty hunter Josh Randall) lived on the fringes, alienated from conventional society. With THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, McQueen began to construct a movie persona of a flawed protagonist… an antihero, or a hero who lacks traditional moral attributes. While the antihero character had been around since classical Greek drama, until James Dean and Marlon Brando popularized him in the 1950s, he was largely absent from production-code Hollywood.

McQueen would vault himself to the highest rafters in Hollywood portraying antiheroes. And, like fellow speed freak and Indiana native Dean, he never lost an appetite for danger.

(Continued…)

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Hollywood and the Oscar Dilemma

The Oscars

Last Sunday occurred the 87th Academy Awards, or “The Oscars.” According to television’s Nielsen ratings, it was the 5th lowest rated Oscars telecast since ratings began in 1974. Some people blame the lackluster collection of nominees. Others blame Neil Patrick Harris, whose new career is hosting awards shows. Maybe it was the flat comedy sketches, or the abundance of musical numbers.

The awards ceremony was controversial even before it happened. Film critics and others seemed almost feverish in digging into their pockets for their race and gender cards. I’m not sure why. Seems to me Hollywood is typically ahead of the rest of the country in matters of diversity. And the awards aren’t supposed to be about political correctness, anyway, but rather film quality.

But that topic is for a whole ‘nother article, so I’ll fold my cards.

 The (Academy Award) ceremonies are a meat parade, a public display with contrived suspense for economic reasons” – George C. Scott, who declined his Best Actor award for “Patton” in 1971

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Actor George C. Scott

There are numerous award ceremonies devoted to the art of cinema: industry awards, audience awards, critics’ choices, and festival presentations. They stretch worldwide, popping up in countries as Hollywood liberal as Pakistan, Lebanon, and Iran. They range from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Being an unabashed critic, one of my favorite cinema awards presentations is the Golden Raspberry Awards, popularly known as the “Razzies.” These awards are presented the day before the Oscars, and they honor the worst films of the year, as voted by 650 journalists, industry bigwigs, and film nuts. This year’s big Razzie winners were the film “Saving Christmas,” and actors Kirk Cameron (“Saving Christmas”) and Cameron Diaz, a double winner (!) for “The Other Woman” and “Sex Tape.” Congratulations, Cameron! And to you, too, Cameron!

The Razzie Award, honoring the worst in Hollywood

The Razzie Award, honoring the worst in Hollywood

And in researching this essay, I learned there’s even an awards ceremony for adult movies: the X-Rated Critics Organization (XRCO) hands out an annual “Heart-On Award.” But, of course, I don’t know much about XRCO or their award.

But let’s stick with the granddaddy of them all: the Oscars. Why have they lost so much appeal? I’ll offer three reasons:

1. They’ve become too political. Today, it’s about who you can schmooze in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS). Studios, producers, directors, and actors start campaigning for nomination even before their films are wrapped. So one not only has to do good work, one also has to market just how good you were. In 2004 the ceremonies were bumped from late March and early April to February. Why? In part, to shorten the film ad campaign and lobbying season! Movie buffs are becoming increasingly hip to the gratuitous politics of Hollywood, and it disgusts them almost as much as Washington D.C.

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Actress Bette Davis

2. The glamour has waned. There’s still a lot of glitz (the silly red carpet thing is getting as big as the awards themselves). But it’s all prefabricated, and there’s no more “Wow.” I think much of this has to do with the proliferation of leisure technology. Netflix, YouTube, DVDs, I-Pads, smartphones, etc. have given the average film buff easy, unlimited access, anywhere and anytime. This has removed a lot of the mystique and intrigue from our film heroes. We used to have movie “stars.” Actors like Gary Cooper, Humphrey Bogart, Henry Fonda, Marlon Brando, Katherine Hepburn, Judy Garland, Bette Davis, Vanessa Redgrave… they were not only masters of their craft, they were also gods and goddesses. It was because we didn’t see them everywhere. If we wanted to bask in their glow, we attended a theater to watch them on the “silver screen.” Nowadays, ticket prices preclude going to the theater, and the actors are no longer exalted stars. They’re little blotches of marketed pixels that pop up at the click of a computer mouse or the TV remote. It’s no coincidence that this year’s Best Supporting Actor, J.K. Simmons, is best known for an insurance commercial (although he did give a beautiful acceptance speech).

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The Red Carpet Ceremony

3. The quality has deteriorated. I know, you’re probably thinking “There he goes again, living in the past.” Actually, I don’t live there, I’m just able to cast a wider net due to my age, and the range of films I’ve been lucky and able to see. And I really believe that the major motion pictures coming out of Hollywood today (not so much shorts, documentaries, and independent films) rely more and more on quick and easy clichés. It’s all about marketing. Producers know what gimmicks will work to either sell tickets, impress critics, or both. Revealing dialogue has been usurped by the one-liner. Biting satire has been appropriated by the sustained scream. As the late, great film critic Roger Ebert said, “Hollywood is racing headlong toward the kiddie market. Disney recently announced it will make no more traditional films at all, focusing entirely on animation, franchises, and superheroes. I have the sense that younger Hollywood is losing the instinctive feeling for story and quality…”

Sadly, I don’t think much will change as far as my list above. The campaigning to get nominated will continue, leisure technology and stay-at-home entertainment will only increase, and big-budget films will get more gaudy, predictable, and stupid.

I have no regard for that kind of ceremony. I just don’t think they know what they’re doing. When you see who wins those things—or who doesn’t win them—you can see how meaningless this Oscar thing is” – Woody Allen, who won Best Director for “Annie Hall” in 1977

allenBut even if style finally does triumph over substance, it would be nice to have an Oscar ceremony where I don’t have to continually punch the mute button or switch the channel (sorry Oscar, but Neil Patrick Harris making irreverent comments while posing in his tighty whities just isn’t funny).

A couple years ago I wrote about Oscars’ 10 Most Unforgettable Moments. Perhaps we could use a few more of these unforgettable moments, which at least added some color to the pomposity and ridiculousness. Maybe Brad Pitt lecturing us about the military-industrial complex. Or Helen Mirren doing one-armed pushups. Or Jack Nicholson removing his sunglasses.

At the very least, if you really want this spectacle to be a comedy routine, find a host who’s actually witty. Where’s Billy Crystal? Is Bob Hope still available??

(Note: next time I’ll be honoring a true movie “star,” in honor of (what would be) his 85th birthday… the King of Cool, Steve McQueen… (the actor, not the director).

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Humphrey Bogart. “Your memory stays/It lingers ever/Fade away never”

“A Christmas Carol” on Film

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“Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead,” said Scrooge. “But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change.”

Of all the tales and morality plays associated with Christmas throughout the years, few are as enduring as Charles Dickens’s immortal “A Christmas Carol,” published on this day in 1843. We love this simple, uplifting story because it offers hope for everyone. No matter how empty or greedy we have lived our lives, there’s always the opportunity for transformation. It’s a story rife with the Christian concepts of kindness, charity, forgiveness, redemption.

Last year at this time I offered a short list of some of the best Christmas movies and television specials [Christmas in Celluloid (A Short List)]. I included a way-too-brief homage to various film versions of “A Christmas Carol” (often entitled “Scrooge”). For this blog post, I’d like to expand and offer reviews of some of the more notable versions. And at the end, I’ll confess my favorite.

Scrooge (1935), starring Sir Seymour Hicks. Born in 1871, Hicks practically owned the role of Ebenezer Scrooge in the early years of the 20th century. He portrayed Scrooge thousands of times on the British stage, was in a silent film version in 1913, and reprised it for this talkie in 1935.

A young Seymour Hicks

A young Seymour Hicks

This film is very smoky and atmospheric. The ghost sequence is downplayed, and there’s a long buildup to emphasize Scrooge’s miserliness. Noteworthy: in addition to his association with the Scrooge part, Hicks produced and wrote his own films, and is famous for hiring a young Alfred Hitchcock to make his directing debut in 1923.

A Christmas Carol (1938) starring Reginald Owen. OwenThe first popular talkie version, and it ranks with the best, although this U.S. film took liberties with the Dickens story (e.g. Scrooge’s fiancé is entirely removed). Scrooge was originally to be played by the great Lionel Barrymore, who did it annually on radio, but he was replaced by the lesser-known Owen. Character actor Gene Lockhart portrays Bob Cratchit, and one of the Cratchit children is his daughter June, who later starred in Lassie, Lost in Space, Petticoat Junction, and hosted many “Miss U.S.A.” and “Miss Universe” beauty pageants. Noteworthy: the ghost of Jacob Marley was played by Leo G. Carroll, famous to American TV viewers for his title role in Topper, and as Mr. Waverly in The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

A Christmas Carol (1951) starring Alistair Sim. alistairA number of film critics consider this the all-time best adaptation. For one thing, it’s British rather than American. Also, Sim is a more convincing Scrooge than Owen was. It was very popular in England when released, but didn’t really take off in the U.S. until about 1970. Since then it has been regularly shown on television. Noteworthy: Patrick Macnee, who has a bit part as a young Jacob Marley, later became famous as courtly John Steed in The Avengers English TV show.

Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol (1962). This was the first-ever animated holiday special. For a lot of baby boomers (like me), it was also their first exposure to the Dickens story. MagooPrevious to this animated musical, “Mr. Magoo” was a popular cartoon series about a man blissfully unaware he’s legally blind, and who faces recurring disasters but always comes out on top. By today’s standards, the Magoo series was very un-PC, but this animated Christmas musical was well-received, and even today is many people’s favorite version of “A Christmas Carol.” The music by Jule Styne and Bob Merrill, composed on the heels of their score for Funny Girl, was top-caliber. Noteworthy: the voiceover for Mr. Magoo was done by Jim Backus, who later became stranded, as Mr. Howell, on Gilligan’s Isle (he’d earlier played James Dean’s father in the classic movie Rebel Without a Cause).

SerlingA Carol for Another Christmas (1964) starring Sterling Hayden and Peter Sellers. Definitely one of the strangest versions, this American TV movie was written by Rod Serling of The Twilight Zone fame during the height of the Cold War. It was loaded with socio-political messages and good intentions, but it came off heavy-handed and depressing. It was broadcast only once, on December 28, 1964, then shelved until Turner Classic Movies (TCM) dusted it off in 2012. Noteworthy: Hayden and Sellers had starred in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove earlier in the year. Other actors included Eva Marie Saint (On the Waterfront) and an awkward Steve Lawrence (of “Steve and Eydie” fame).

Scrooge (1970) starring Albert Finney. FinneyAnother musical, although this one’s non-animated. This is arguably the most colorful and glittery version of the Christmas classic, with gorgeous cinematography, graphics, special effects, and original songs. It’s great in every way, impeccably produced and directed (by Ronald Neame), with music in classic English music hall tradition (the song “Thank You Very Much” was nominated for an Academy Award). My only criticism is Albert Finney’s acting. Finney’s a great actor, one of the greatest of his generation, but I feel he overacts the part of Scrooge. Nonetheless, this 1970 film is not to be missed. Noteworthy: Sir Alec Guinness, who played Marley’s ghost, had starred in David Lean’s film adaptations of Dickens’s “Great Expectations” and “Oliver Twist” in the 1940s.

ScottA Christmas Carol (1984) starring George C. Scott. Speaking of greatest actors of their generation, here we have Academy Award winner Scott (The Hustler and Patton) taking a turn as everyone’s favorite miser, in a TV adaptation, and earning an Emmy Award in the process. Scott’s acting is, unlike earlier attempts, refreshingly low-key. He’s the “thinking man’s Scrooge,” apt to sneak in a twisted smile here or there for effect. The film is remarkably well-done for a television production. Filmed on location in England, with primarily English actors, it was released theatrically in Great Britain but debuted on CBS in America. Noteworthy: director Clive Donner had been an editor on the 1951 film version.

Other versions, which I haven’t seen so can’t comment on: Scrooged (1988) starring Bill Murray, which is a trendy, U.S. modernization of the tale and received mixed reviews; The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), a live-action musical featuring Michael Caine as Scrooge; and A Christmas Carol (1999) starring Patrick Stewart, who was nominated for a Screen Actor’s Guild Award for his performance.

My personal favorite: a tie between the Albert Finney and George C. Scott versions. In my opinion, Scott’s acting trumps anyone else who portrayed Scrooge, but the Albert Finney version is just so visually and aurally sumptuous.

Now tell me your favorite version of Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol”!

(Note: thanks to Wikipedia for most images and some info)

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Charles Dickens at the age of 47, by William Powell

Christmas in Celluloid (A Short List)

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Red Ryder BB-guns and green roast beast.  As the yuletide season approaches, so too does a smorgasbord of holiday-related entertainment.  In my last post I got into trouble with a few family members.  So, this is sort of my olive branch (or mistletoe twig).  These are films and animated specials that have stood the test of time and appeal to both juveniles and adults.  If you see them on TV, check ’em out!  And if I’ve omitted your favorite, please let me know!

Here they are, oldest to newest:

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

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Frank Capra directed this uplifting (literally) fable starring Jimmy Stewart.  It concerns how a man’s seemingly insignificant acts of kindness can have an enormous effect on people and events around him.  Lots of subplots and spot-on acting, and the ending is one of the most heartwarming in cinema history.

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

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I’ve never seen this movie beginning to end, but it must be good because the original 1947 version has been remade numerous times.  An unassuming Santa Claus at Macy’s claims he’s the real Kris Kringle, and his sanity is called into question.  Edmund Gwenn, as Kringle, won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.  Also stars Maureen O’Hara and a precocious child actress named Natalie Wood.

White Christmas (1954)

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With Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, and Rosemary Clooney, and featuring the timeless songs of Irving Berlin, this has both great storyline and music.  The highlights are the gold-plated vocal cords of Crosby and Clooney.  I’m not big on musicals, but this has to be one of the best.  To be shared with loved ones and a tray full of hot toddies (or hot chocolate) while wearing red and green turtlenecks before a crackling fire.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)

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This is a stop-motion animated movie, narrated by Burl Ives, and it’s the longest-running Christmas TV special in history.  Why is it so popular?  My guess is the sly adult humor and offbeat characters: a nerdy elf who wants to be a dentist, a rambunctious prospector named Yukon Cornelius, and a cross-eyed Abominable Snow Monster who has his teeth extracted by the elf.   If this were made a few years later, I’d suspect the creator of experimenting with more than just animation.

A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)

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Linus’s speech “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown,” alone on stage, in hushed silence, is the centerpiece.  But my favorite scene is when Schroeder starts jamming and turns the Christmas play into a dance party, much to Charlie’s dismay.  Creator Charles M. Schulz was equal parts animator and sociologist.  His genius, and pianist Vince Guaraldi‘s cool jazz score, makes “A Charlie Brown Christmas” the gold standard among animated Christmas specials.  My personal favorite.

Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966)

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Dr. Seuss as narrated by Boris Karloff.  What a brilliant teaming!  Karloff, for those who don’t know, was the original movie “Frankenstein” monster and made many subsequent horror films.  His lilting and slightly ominous delivery make him perfect to narrate this tale about a sinister green creature who lives on a mountaintop and plots to ruin Christmas for the townsfolk below.  This animated special came on the heels of the Peanuts and Rudolph specials and caps an amazing three-year run for network television at Christmastime.

A Christmas Story (1983)

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This comedy is shown as a marathon every holiday.  We’ve all had that experience of yearning for that one special toy.  Here we have a man’s reminiscence of his boyhood in a small Indiana town and his obsession with getting a BB-gun for Christmas.  It has a ton of old-fashioned charm, and some folks consider it the greatest thing since spiced egg nog.  I haven’t joined the cult yet (the narration gets to me after a while).  But it has more holiday ambience than any other movie of the last 30 years, ages like a fine wine, and appeals to kids ages 9 to 90.

A Christmas Carol (aka Scrooge) (various years)

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Charles Dickens’s miserly Scrooge is so compelling he’s become part of the vernacular, and it’s hard to imagine him and “Bah humbug!” not existing until the mid-19th century.  There are several fantastic filmed versions starring, variously, Reginald Owen, Alistair Sim, Albert Finney, and George C. Scott.  Also a modern translation with Bill Murray that got mixed reviews, and a well-regarded cartoon movie starring Mr. Magoo, among many others.

I’ll let Tiny Tim have the last words: “God bless us everyone!!”

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Spaghetti Western Feast

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Who likes Spaghetti Westerns?  I love Spaghetti Westerns.  And the more pasta, the better.  “What’s he talking about?” some of you are thinking.  “What does John Wayne have to do with marinara sauce??”  Well, this essay will explain.  I’ll also give a short list of my top five “Spags” – in case anyone would like to sample the cuisine.

Here’s the Spaghetti Western Database definition of a Spaghetti Western (this assumes most of you already know what a “Western” is):

The spaghetti western was born in the first half of the sixties and lasted until the second half of the seventies. It got its name from the fact that most of them were directed and produced by Italians, often in collaboration with other European countries, especially Spain and Germany. The name ‘spaghetti western’ originally was a depreciative term, given by foreign critics to these films because they thought they were inferior to American westerns. Most of the films were made with low budgets, but several still managed to be innovative and artistic, although at the time they didn’t get much recognition, even in Europe. In the eighties the reputation of the genre grew and today the term is no longer used disparagingly, although some Italians still prefer to call the films western all’italiana (westerns Italian style). In Japan they are called Macaroni westerns, in Germany Italowestern.

I’ll add that most casual Western fans in America associate Spags with four films produced and directed by Sergio Leone, three of which starred a young Clint Eastwood (before he started talking to empty chairs): A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE, and THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY (the fourth is Leone’s epic ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST).  Although these are the most well-made and popular, there are hundreds of lesser-known Spags, some of them quite interesting.  Many have outrageous titles like GOD FORGIVES, I DON’T and LIGHT THE FUSE…SARTANA IS COMING!  Many also feature the alternately weird and majestic musical scores of Ennio Morricone.  Stylistic trademarks include sparse, dubbed-in dialogue, lingering close-ups, desolate landscapes – and often the lack of coherent plot (forget substance, Spags are all about atmosphere).

Spaghetti Westerns are also very violent.  Quentin Tarantino’s recent DJANGO UNCHAINED is a modern-day nod to Spags.  I’ve been critical of overt violence in cinema, but I do think there’s a difference between the almost cartoonish violence in movies about the Old West and the more realistic violence of today.  Anyway, that’s my lame excuse.

So here are my Top 5 Spaghetti Westerns:

THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY: The most popular Spag, it’s also one of the greatest Westerns ever made.  Eastwood perfected his cool “Man with No Name” persona here.  He gets great support in bad Lee Van Cleef, a mainstay of the Spag genre, as Col. Douglas Mortimer (aka “Angel Eyes”); and ugly Eli Wallach, who provided a crude but lovable character as Mexican bandit Tuco and lifted this film to another level.  This is a long trail-ride of a movie about a search for buried gold, and it has dozens of great moments.  My favorite is a scene with a drunken Union general (a parody of U.S. Grant). Also the climactic three-way cemetery shootout.  And Morricone’s sweeping music is instantly recognizable even to those unfamiliar with Spaghetti Westerns.

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ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST: Another Leone flick, this movie is a bittersweet depiction of what happened when civilization intruded upon the Wild West, changing it forever.  Henry Fonda, usually a good guy, played the blue-eyed killer, Frank, one of the coldest villains in film history.  The hanging scene at the end is a classic.  Also stars Jason Robards, Claudia Cardinale, and Charles Bronson as…wait for it…“Harmonica.”

THE GREAT SILENCE: This Spag is unusual because the entire movie takes place in the snow.  The cinematography is gorgeous, and it showcases creepy, maniacal actor Klaus Kinski as a soulless bounty hunter.  It also has a highly erotic, interracial love scene.  Director Sergio Corbucci loved downbeat endings, and this movie is no exception (though the DVD adds an alternate, more upbeat ending).

COMPAÑEROS: Starring charismatic Franco Nero, a big star in Europe, along with the entertaining Tomas Milian.  The movie has plot holes large enough to drive a wagon train through, but it’s a rollicking good time and, like a lot of Spags, it centers on an unstable partnership between two antiheroes.  It also has great comic elements, plus the added attraction of beautiful German actress Iris Berben. 

THEY CALL ME TRINITY: In the early ‘70s, a series of lighthearted Spaghetti Western parodies came out starring Terence Hill.  Many Spag fans don’t like the Trinity films, but I say “Hey, it’s all in good fun.”  Some prefer MY NAME IS NOBODY, with Fonda as an aging gunfighter worshipped by Hill, but I prefer this one, the first in the series, because it’s less goofy than the others.  Watch this one after you’ve seen a few of the more “straight” Spags.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my tribute to Spaghetti Westerns.  If you do choose to sample this pasta – gringo – may I recommend complementing your meal with our house tequila, followed by a skinny cigar?  No?  Maybe some sarsaparilla and refried beans?

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