Thursday, May 29, 2008
Harvey Korman (1927-2008)
That's Hedley Lamarr.
The great comic character actor, so memorable as the villain in Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles and in countless sketches during his long run on The Carol Burnett Show, has died at 81.
His appearances in many series were frequent as well as a continuing role in many of The Pink Panther films. He even had multiple parts in the infamous 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special.
Still, it's his work with Burnett for which he will be most remembered, from Eunice's husband Ed to trying his best not to break up at Tim Conway's antics during the skits.
RIP Mr. Korman.
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Wednesday, May 28, 2008
Centennial Tributes: Ian Fleming
By Jeffrey Hill
While Ian Fleming certainly didn’t create the spy novel — he did create its greatest, most well-known secret agent of all time. Fleming's novels sit atop the genre at its popular height during the Cold War. The films, of course, were even more popular. With the mania surrounding James Bond it is pretty much impossible to look at Ian Fleming on his centennial anniversary without the prism of 007. Fortunately, since Bond is a reflection of his creator, it can only do Ian Fleming honor that we dwell on his masterwork.
Ian Fleming's life would have been noteworthy even without the Bond books. He was the son of Valentine Fleming, a banker and a parliament member who, during the Great War, died a hero in France (Valentine's friend, Winston Churchill, wrote an appreciation of the man for The Times). Ian's older brother, Peter Fleming, was a famous adventurer and notable travel writer in his own right.
At an early age, Ian Fleming appreciated adventure stories by writers such as Sax Rohmer and Robert Louis Stevenson. Though considered eccentric as a boy, Fleming was athletic and something of a ladies man. There was a stubborn rebellious streak in him as well. While going to school at Eton, he routinely found himself in trouble. One time, he had an appointment at noon with the schoolmaster to receive a caning for some trouble he'd caused. He also was slated to participate in a race at noon that same day so he convinced the schoolmaster to bump the caning up to 11:45 so that he could still compete in the race. Despite a bleeding back, he managed to place second. While at Eton, Ian later earned the title Victor Ludorum in track and field. This athleticism later found its way in describing Bond's school time exploits (where Ian described Bond as being particularly good at fighting sports and wrestling).
Later, Fleming attended the Royal Military College at Sandhurst, where his womanizing still caused him trouble, but where he nevertheless did well. When offered a commission, Fleming rejected it (supposedly because he disagreed with the push of the military to become "mechanized") by sending a refusal via a postcard and leaving the school.
In 1927, his mother sent him to a school in Kitzbuhel, Austria — a chateau high in the mountains — to learn German and French. It was here that Fleming became an avid skier and mountain climber — two elements that figured prominently in the Bond novels. After a brief stay in Munich, where Fleming studied Russian, he enrolled into the University of Genova to continue studying French. There he became engaged to a Swiss girl named Monique (the same nationality and name of James Bond's mother), but Fleming's mom, who controlled the inheritance, disapproved of the engagement and forced Ian to break it off.
In 1931, Fleming took and failed the Foreign Office Exam, which was a blow to his ego. His mother helped him get a job with Reuters, and Ian showed promise as a reporter quickly earning a reputation as an enterprising journalist while covering a trial in Moscow of some British citizens caught up in Stalin's purges. Before the anticipated court decision, Fleming had written two stories — one for either possible outcome — then upon the announcement, he dropped the appropriate story out of the the courthouse window to a runner below who then took it immediately to the office where it was wired to the paper — so that his story would get out first. This operation required schmoozing with Soviet censors to get prior approval to both stories, but it worked out well.
Nevertheless, when Reuters offered Fleming a position as general manager of their Far East office, he surprised everyone by quitting and becoming a junior partner with a stock brokerage firm. During this time in London, Fleming led an excessive bachelors' life, maintaining noncommittal romances with numerous women (not unlike Bond) and forming a gentleman's club called Le Cercle, where he and his friends ate nice meals and played bridge. He even privately published a book of poems called The Black Daffodil. (He later destroyed all the known copies of this book.)
At the dawn of WWII, Fleming became the personal assistant to the Director of Naval Intelligence, Rear Admiral John Godfrey. Fleming's activities during the war, while never in combat, provided infinite fodder for the Bond books. He was adept at organization — helping orchestrate the evacuation of Bordeaux, while there, and later offering input to the Americans while they were trying to form their own intelligence agency. Fleming later drew up a plan of action regarding Gibraltar in the event that the Spain joined Germany and tried to seize it. In late 1941, Fleming organized Number 30 Assault Unit — a group of intelligence commandos who specialized in looting Nazi hideouts as they were discovered.
During the war, Fleming took several trips to the U.S. and visited Jamaica for the first time. In the summer of 1941, while in New York, he accompanied a British agent, William Donovan, in breaking into a Japanese office at Rockefeller Plaza to find some recent Japanese government transmissions. This activity was later used to describe Bond's first job as an assassin. In 1944, he took a trip down the Florida peninsula and to the Caribbean which provided fodder for a similar train trip in Live and Let Die. One of his American friends, Ernest Cuneo, was one of the inspirations for Bond's American friend, Felix Leiter. In short, much of Fleming's biography from this period formed the base material for Bond's world.
After the war, Fleming took a job as Foreign Manager at Kensley Newspapers. This position allowed him to travel a lot and begin building at Goldeneye, his Jamaican retreat (and later retirement home). In the late '40s, he also met his future wife, Anne Rothermere. Anne, who had already been married twice, was a socialite, much like Fleming, and was friends with a variety of literary heavyweights, including Noel Coward (Fleming's neighbor at Goldeneye) and Somerset Maugham. Ian and Anne had a rocky, though devoted, marriage. He did not fit in to her literary circles and she did not enjoy Goldeneye. Apparently, her circles were too intellectual for him, and Goldeneye was too out of the way for her. To illustrate their contrasting tastes, Fleming routinely avoided her literary parties and she would not let him dedicate Casino Royale to her.
He began writing the Bond novels after he was married. As his close friend, Robert Harling, observed: “For Ian, marriage was an admission of defeat….Hence, the Bond books were an escape.” Fleming worried about the criticism his novels might receive from Anne's friends, but viewed the Bond books more as an extension of the adventure stories he enjoyed as a kid. Fleming instilled in Bond's character (and in the stories, themselves) a perpetual boyishness that was also in Fleming.
Through the Bond novels, Fleming adds elements of himself and his background into Bond to live out his own fantasies. In addition to the escapism of the novels for Fleming, he also uses the books as a conduit to exorcise some of his own demons. Much of the nihilism and fatalism of the latter Bond books reflect Fleming's own failing health and confrontation with mortality.
But the novels were also a conduit for Fleming to dwell on any matter that interested him. Cars, cards and gambling, food, drink and women....but also crime. After reading Fleming's travelogue that he wrote late in his life, Thrilling Cities, it becomes clear just how fascinated he was with gangsters and mob wars. While in Chicago, his own sightseeing excursions took him to “famous gangster black spots of the era.” Places like the Cathedral of the Holy Name, “where the cornerstone still bears the scars of machine-gun bullets fired at gangster Hymie Weiss…” Fleming goes on to recount various scenes of mob warfare — touring Chicago as if it was Gettysburg. When in Los Angeles, he made sure to visit his detective friends working there to discuss the current crime situation, etc. This fascination with mob violence plays out in several of the Bond books: in Diamonds Are Forever and Goldfinger mob bosses figure prominently in the story and later, in The Spy Who Loved Me he presents two of his greatest goons: Sluggsy and Horror. Diamonds Are Forever also touches on another interest of Fleming — the diamond circuit — including the legitimate business as well as smuggling. Fleming would later elaborate on this topic with his fiction/nonfiction account The Diamond Smugglers.
Fleming was not content to write the series in a wholly formulaic pattern and can be seen constantly mixing things up. Whatever pattern had developed into the series with the first couple of books, Fleming changed it with From Russia With Love, where the first half of the novel is told form the perspective of the Russian spy organization, SMERSH and Bond does not enter the story until the midpoint. Later, in The Spy Who Loved Me, Fleming writes in the first person from the heroine's point of view and Bond is not even on a mission (for Her Majesty, that is). Other tales put Bond as a bored guest at a dinner party or on a minor sniper mission. Each story changes the series in some way or another and keeps it fresh.
All these things, Fleming's personal experiences, his escapist fantasies, his narrative experimentations, all work in concert to keep his novels relevant today and help to drive the Bond franchise through its fifth decade of success.
Happy 100th birthday, Ian Fleming! Thank you for giving the 20th Century its greatest fictional pro-Western Cold Warrior and defender of Her Majesty.
Much of the information in this post comes from Raymond Benson's The James Bond Bedside Companion, from Ian Fleming's Thrilling Cities, and, of course, the Bond books.
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Tuesday, May 27, 2008
Sydney Pollack (1934-2008)
By Edward Copeland
Under normal circumstances, I would have had this appreciation up a long time ago, but if you knew the horrors of my life currently, it's a minor miracle that I snagged access to a computer at all today (This is my first time online since May 5, but more on my plight at a later date). Still, I'm glad fate allowed me, even somewhat belatedly, to pay tribute to the great actor-director-producer Sydney Pollack who has died of pancreatic cancer at 73.
Of his directing efforts, Tootsie stands heads-and-shoulders above all his other directing efforts, as far as I'm concerned. The only other directing efforts by Pollack I really enjoyed were They Shoot Horses, Don't They? and The Firm. He was a producer on some underrated films such as Searching for Bobby Fischer, White Palace and The Fabulous Baker Boys.
However, I really will miss Pollack most for his solid work as a character actor: in Tootsie, as Judy Davis' ex-husband in Woody Allen's Husbands and Wives; last year's Michael Clayton; Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut; a funny cameo in Death Becomes Her; and, in one of his best turns, ironically playing a jailed oncologist in the "Stage Five" episode of The Sopranos' final season.
RIP Mr. Pollack.
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Wednesday, May 21, 2008
Indy in Peril: An Action-Scene Breakdown
BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post is for the Indiana Jones Blog-a-Thon being coordinated by Ali Arikan at Cerebral Mastication.
By David Gaffen
In some ways Raiders of the Lost Ark was the blueprint for the modern-day action film. Owing much to the cliffhanger-scenarios beloved by the likes of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas in the 1950s, the filmmaking showcases the deft ability of Spielberg to enhance character, move the story along (even if this four-and-a-half minute sequence to be discussed only barely moves the meter as far as the plot is concerned), and entertain the audience.
The scene in question is where Indiana Jones, realizing that the Ark of the Covenant is to be placed on a plane and flown out of Egypt, sets out to sabotage the plane. Just about every shot advances the situation, or introduces a new piece of information about that particular scene. All in all, this scene is superfluous to the plot — had Indy been able to get hold of a well-placed grenade, the entire scene could have been covered in the span of 20 seconds.
The scene starts ordinarily enough — Indy sneaks around the plane to grab the pilot and is confronted by another officer who he easily smacks around.
Here’s where the fun begins. With John Williams’ score highlighting each new shot, we see a shot of a big bald German, played by Pat Roach, coming out of a thatched tent, already with his shirt open. It’s clear he’s large and muscular — all the information needed at that moment. Spielberg holds the camera at about waist level, so the audience gets a better idea of how imposing he is as he removes his shirt.
Then we’re back to shots of Indy fighting with the smaller Nazi. As we see their feet moving in the foreground, Marion Ravenwood approaches, which illuminates the character’s willingness to take risks similar to Jones. Then another shot of what is to come – as Indy knocks out the smaller German — in the background, the big shirtless dude enters the frame from the foreground.
He taunts Indy — with reaction shots of the pilot, who now realizes what’s happening. But as it is with action tropes of this type — which the movie so successfully subverted earlier when Indy shoots the swordsman — this time, he takes the bait. From an intellectual level, it happens to be his only choice — rush the pilot, and he gets shot.
Another shot ups the stakes — Marion removes the blocks keeping the plane from moving. And then we’re back to the large German and Indy. Spielberg’s sense of humor is illustrated here, briefly, as Indy feigns weariness and then looks at the ground to try to dupe his opponent into doing the same. He does — but to no avail as the German takes a kick to the groin without flinching, and in a magnificently choreographed mid-ground shot, slams a fist into Indy’s nose, causing his knees to buckle as he hits the sand.
Within a few seconds Spielberg has boosted the tension — Indy is facing a much more formidable opponent, and he’s also not all that, either. The peril increases with a few rapid fire edits: a shot of the pilot pulling his gun, firing at Indy when he attempts to run, putting Jones in further jeopardy. A quick cut from the gun firing, and then back to the fight, as a fist comes in from off-screen to hammer Jones in the face again.
The camera shifts its view — now it’s behind the pilot, aiming his gun at Indy, with the German in the way, until from off-screen Marion clocks the pilot with the blocks previously used to hold the plane in place. Of course this now makes matters worse — the pilot falls forward on the controls, causing the plane to move.
The escalation here is deliberate — slowly ratchet up the tension within a scene that is already filled with active movement, derivative of Hitchcock in its cleverness even if Spielberg still names the 1950s serials as his original inspiration. The elements added in are small, careful ones — a shot of the wing grazing a nearby fuel truck, which spills gasoline. Just as the large German was introduced as a potential opponent this is presented as a problem, the proverbial gun in Act I that has to be fired in Act II. (In the modern-day action movie, however, the gun is fired within a few minutes; the pilot is introduced as a potential foe only to be thwarted soon after. However, his removal as a threat isn’t done without introducing another threat — the moving plane, Marion locked in the cockpit.)
More peril is introduced — a truckload of Nazi soldiers across the runway, and here is where Spielberg takes a moment to show off the resourcefulness of Marion, who quickly fires off a few rounds from the prop, taking out the entire truck.
After Marion’s shots blow up a nearby truck and oil barrels, establishing shots of Belloq and the Nazi commanders are shown — making it clear that they realize what is happening, and in a sense this is what makes the entire scene a red herring, for now they make alternative plans.
Quickly we’re back to Indy, and the gasoline now runs in the direction of the plane — and the truck in flames. Never one to forget about minor characters, the first German defeated by Indy is roused by the gasoline, and is shown escaping – with an important shot of him outrunning the gasoline, which is now headed for the fire. This highlights the sudden compression of time Indy now faces, and it’s done without dialogue, or a hokey introduction of a stopwatch, villainous character intoning darkly about having “one hour to live,” or through some other ham-fisted approach.
The ultimate peril now clear, Indy rushes to save Marion, but the giant beckons still, and Indy unloads his best, but defeats him using a ruse — showing his resourcefulness; after all, he could have continued to unload with his fists, but instead plays hurt to cause the German to be bloodily hacked apart by the propeller of the plane.
Again, Spielberg expertly uses the foreground and background — Marion yelling to Indy that the door is stuck, while the fire spreads, igniting the stream of gasoline that heads back to the plane, as the Indy fanfare plays. The plane is moving to the left, as the camera moves with it (or ahead of it), as the two escape and the entire thing burns.
Unfortunately, this method of approaching action sequences would have unintended consequences when attempted by lesser filmmakers — long, drawn-out action sequences that serve only to highlight visual effects and sound design, but devoid of the charm of Raiders of the Lost Ark, and lacking the imagery that helped round out the characters of Indy and Marion. The Michael Bay-directed noise-fest The Rock has a pointless 15-minute car chase completely irrelevant to the plot that does little but test the eardrums; plenty of other films have contained similarly pointless action in the name of stretching a movie’s running time.
But back to Indy. Finally, we see a shot of the German commander moves the plot forward — as he tells a subordinate to put the ark on a truck, and demands “plenty of protection.” It’s another foreshadowing of the next brilliant sequence, the much-discussed car chase. But that is another article.
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Tuesday, May 20, 2008
Centennial Tributes: James Stewart
By Josh R
Jimmy Stewart created the impression of being the most self-effacing of movie stars. Skinny and gawky in his youth, and given to stammer with slack-jawed embarrassment when flustered, his charmingly abashed quality immediately endeared him to audiences of the 1930s — in black and white, you could still see him blushing.
Never a fantasy figure like Cary Grant or Gary Cooper, he quickly established himself as America’s boy-next-door, the kind for whom pronouncements like “I didn’t knew they grew them that way anymore” were presumably intended; even decked out in a white tie and tails, the bottom of his shoes were still caked with the soil of the heartland, roots he never tried to shake off no matter how many tremors he produced in the gilt-edged, glittering cocktail shaker of Hollywood. He retained his sense of modesty in the face of uncommon success, and never gave way to pretension; he was, in terms of both his approach to acting and his philosophy of life, a man of the people.
It would be easy to write him off as being too lovable for words, if not for the unexpected, frequently harrowing shades of anger, bitterness and genuine madness that informed his performances for Alfred Hitchcock, Anthony Mann and, on one glorious occasion, the director with whose work he is most closely identified, Frank Capra. For if Stewart’s early persona never conveyed as much of a whiff of danger, his career is one with a decisive turning point. Patriotic to a fault, both onscreen and off, he was among the first Hollywood stars to enlist for active duty in WWII, and served in the air force with great distinction. What effect the war experience had on Stewart the man is not entirely clear — just as he was not given to boastfulness, nor was he particularly inclined to discuss his inner demons — but in terms of his work, it had a clearly felt impact. Beginning with It’s a Wonderful Life, audiences were treated to intriguing glimpses of the dark undercurrents of anxiety and despair that can prey on such unassuming, wholesome specimens of non-threatening All-American manhood; the sense of internal conflict barely hinted at in the pre-war years was suddenly made explicit.
Tellingly born in the town of Indiana in the state of Pennsylvania — even with his Keystone State stubbornness, there was always an air of corn-fed Midwestern sincerity about him — he grew up in the idyllic, small town America of picket fences, porch swings and potted geraniums. His father owned the local hardware store; when Jimmy won his Oscar, he sent it home to Pop to proudly display in the storefront window. He might easily have traveled the same path as his alter ego, George Bailey — the younger Stewart was likewise expected to assume responsibility for the family business when he came of age. Circumstances were kinder to Jimmy than they would proove to be for George; rather than toe the line and settle into a life of diminished expectations among the white steeples and striped awnings of Main Street, he set out for Princeton, with the aim of becoming an architect. After falling in with The University Players, a collection of Ivy Leaguers with theatrical aspirations, his set his sights on the New York stage. Some very modest success on Broadway led to interest on the part of Hollywood talent scouts; encouraged by his friend Henry Fonda to make a screen test, he was signed to a seven year contract by MGM.
Too sensitive and awkward for a traditional leading man, and too delicately handsome to fit into the mold of a character actor, his first two years in Hollywood were something of mishmash. He played a disturbed youth in Rose Marie and a baddie in After the Thin Man — neither assignment fit him comfortably — before settling into the role of the sensitive, sentimental male ingénue, the masculine equivalent of the delicate flowers suffering so nobly in three-hankie weepies. His first good lead came in Next Time We Love opposite Margaret Sullavan, with whom he shared a chemistry remarkable for its artless delicacy. The two had reportedly carried a torch for one another going back to their University Players years; The Shopworn Angel and The Mortal Storm provided further evidence of the extent to which the flame endured. Bolstered by his successful outings with Sullavan, his progress was swift, if incremental. 1938 revealed his aptitude for comedy, with a highly enjoyable pairing with Ginger Rogers in Vivacious Lady and the first of his three collaborations with Capra, You Can’t Take It With You. Through comedy, he grew in confidence, and seemed more distinctive a presence as a result (truth be told, he could seem a bit one-note playing delicate and doomed). The true breakthrough came in so spectacular a fashion that it seemed right off the pages of a Hollywood script.
1939 is often cited as the greatest year in the history of motion pictures, producing a bumper crop of classics. Certainly, no actor reaped more of the benefit of that yield than Stewart — he appeared in no less than five films, two of which would proove to be among his very best. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was Capra at his corniest, but such was the conviction the actor brought to his portrayal of a naïve scoutmaster thrown into the shark-invested waters of professional politics that the corn actually managed to pop in the midst of so much soggy high-mindedness, wrapped as it was in a tear-stained blanket of red, white and blue. For doing the seemingly impossible — namely bringing a sense of dramatic fire to a character intended as the living embodiment of wide-eyed idealism — he received the first of his five Academy Award nominations. It’s a Wonderful World and Made for Each Other were pleasant outings with Claudette Colbert and Carole Lombard, but George Marshall’s Destry Rides Again revealed qualities that Capra and others hadn’t been canny enough to recognize. There was no earthly reason why he and Marlene Dietrich should have complemented each other to the extent that they did — on paper, it made about as much sense as casting Mickey Rooney opposite Garbo. The wholesomely appealing Stewart had registered with female moviegoers as the kind of man they’d like to marry, as opposed to one they fantasized about going to bed with; attractive though he was, it had been said that he lacked something in terms of virility. Being trapped in close quarters with the heavy-lidded Teutonic siren rectified the situation — Dietrich’s decadent sensuality worked on Stewart’s libido like a tonic, just as his laconic charm chipped away at her smirking self-containment and coaxed warmth and vulnerability out of its manicured shell. As the deputy spouting folksy truisms while trying to maintain the peace in a rambunctious western town, he was as nice as ever, but sexy too; in the scene where he backs Marlene’s naughty saloon floozy into a corner and wipes the make-up off her face, the heat generated by the two actors practically burned holes through the celluloid. In the era when Gable was king, Destry was one of the few films to acknowledge that while shady ladies may initially be drawn to the tough-talking manly men, it’s the sensitive types with quiet assurance who can really get them hot and bothered.
1940 was another banner year for Stewart — within a two-year period, he had participated in four classic films. The Oscar he received as a tabloid reporter covering a society wedding in The Philadelphia Story was really a compensatory gesture for his having lost the year before for Mr. Smith — nevertheless, he did outstanding work for George Cukor, and played well opposite Katharine Hepburn, even if their romantic chemistry was never entirely convincing (both seemed much more at home in their scenes with Cary Grant). More importantly, The Philadelphia Story was the first film to give him a character with a bit of an edge. The part of the cynical, smart-allecky Macauley Connor, a frustrated fiction writer with a chip on his shoulder, allowed Stewart to distance himself from the “aw shucks” bashfulness and diffident naiveté that had been his stock in trade, and showed that he was willing and able to take on roles with more complexity. Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner, while not really a step forward toward that end, was a romantic comedy with an old-world charm and a glorious reunion with Margaret Sullavan. Both actors gave much more spirited performances than they had when working within the constraints of melodrama, and as a result, their chemistry seemed more potent than ever. As if to proove he could be fallible, no amount of diligent effort could save No Time for Comedy, adapted from a stage hit about a conflicted playwright and his actress muse. Since 1940 was such a good year for Stewart and co-star Rosalind Russell otherwise, both emerged from the wreckage unscathed.
The 1940s might have proceeded along much the same lines — an innocuous string of romantic comedies, pausing for the occasional instance of inspirational flag-waving — if not for a little dust-up in the Pacific Ocean involving the bombing of an American naval base. The war put the film career on hold for half a decade, and the James Stewart to emerge in the aftermath was an older, sadder and wiser figure, comprehending of the darkness lurking just beneath the surface of the homespun American Dream perpetuated by Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post covers and Hollywood fictions. The charm was still there, to be sure, but coupled with a hard-earned awareness — not just of mortality, but a feeling that good and evil existed in closer proximity than the callow youth of the 1930s might have been given to suppose. It’s a Wonderful Life is frequently mistaken for a misty-eyed yuletide classic, with about as much bite to it as the average cup of eggnog. In truth, Capra’s definitive work is spiked with stronger stuff than cinnamon and nutmeg; there’s a bitter aftertaste that comes with the tacit admission that in every hometown hero lives a frustrated, disappointed loner trapped in a life of quiet desperation. Stewart’s George Bailey is an American everyman, immediately identifiable and admirable to a fault, but with a dark streak of resentment over the compromises he’s had to make, and a stinging contempt for the circumscribed, small-town life that a lifetime of selfless, conscientious behavior has seemingly condemned him to. This being Capra, George’s journey ends on an uplifting note, but the scenes that linger in memory the longest are the ones in which the character’s pain and anger are brought into sharp focus. Consider the moment when George takes out his frustration on his wife and children, followed by the look of remorse and self-loathing that flickers across his stricken features once he sees their frightened eyes peering back at him — it may be the bravest single piece of acting Stewart ever attempted, and ultimately, all the more heart-wrenching for its startling lack of sentimentality.
The postwar Stewart took a more intrepid approach to his career; he was a free agent now, pursuing projects that challenged his established persona and spoke directly to his affinity for characters faced with tough moral choices. There would be occasional returns to folksy, homespun sincerity — in Harvey, he was just credulous enough to make you believe there actually was an eight-foot white rabbit hovering in the margins of the frame — but for the most part, he seemed increasingly content working in a darker vein. Winchester ’73, Bend of the River, The Naked Spur, The Far Country and The Man from Laramie — five fine, tough-minded westerns for Anthony Mann — contemplated the degree of self-imposed isolation that comes with the territory of rugged individualism. In each of those films, Stewart seemed to be a man searching, not only for outlaws on the run or wayward herds of cattle, but for deliverance from the suspicion that mankind was fundamentally corrupt and cruel. Darker still were his exercises for Hitchcock, which veered even further away from the norm into the realm of genuine disturbance. Stewart didn’t shy away from acting out Hitch’s perversions — in Rear Window, he indulged in voyeurism, while in Vertigo, he was obsessed with Kim Novak and more than a little bit crazy. More than any other project he’d ever worked on, Vertigo allowed Stewart to bring his darker impulses to the forefront — as if George Bailey’s paranoia had finally caught up to him. As a reflection of how unwilling audiences were to conceive of anything base or impure in their All-American boy, The Glenn Miller Story was his most commercially successful film of the period — Stewart could still do bland nobility as well as anyone, but he was much more interesting when traveling a different course.
After Vertigo, the quality of the films went downward. Anatomy of a Murder was considered rather shocking at the time, but looks fairly quaint from a modern standpoint. Nevertheless, it had some enjoyably tacky Otto Preminger flourishes, and allowed the actor the chance to hint at some undercurrents of depravity. The younger Stewart would have stared in bug-eyed, wholesome disbelief at the vulpine Lee Remick as if he’d just been struck by cupid’s arrow; the worldly veteran appreciatively took in her supple proportions as if he’d secretly imagined what it would be like to violate her in the manner of her supposed attacker. The Man who Shot Liberty Valance was an acceptable entry from John Ford, while the sprawling mediocrity of How the West Was Won could find no better use for him than a very unconvincing courtship of Carroll Baker, an actress meant for more lurid things than a little house on the prairie. The Flight of the Pheonix was fine if formulaic, while a succession of increasingly dull westerns rounded out what had, at its best, been an unusually unpredictable career. He did a bit of TV work in the '80s, but seemed mainly content to make occasional appearances on talk shows or The Oscars, charming viewers with his well-rehearsed stammering fits and misty recollections of the old days.
Few stars, male or female, have ever inspired as affectionate a response as that accorded Jimmy Stewart. In a way, he represented the best of our selves — an idealized version of the good, moral American boy trying his best to make the world a better place. At the same time, he never shied away from revealing the extent to which the pressures of living up to that image of decency and goodness can unnerve a man and breed self-doubt; perhaps Stewart himself felt that pressure more keenly than most. Whether or not that was the case, as an actor, he never lost sight of his characters’ humanity, or felt the need to portray them on anything other than a human scale — it’s part of the reason audiences identified with him so strongly. Movie stars can often feel like a separate breed, a world apart from mere mortals. Jimmy Stewart was one of us.
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Friday, May 02, 2008
The Wow Factor
By Josh R
The clean-scrubbed, resolutely cheerful heroine of South Pacific describes herself — in song, no less — as “A Cockeyed Optimist.” Outside the rosy alternative reality of musical theater, I have heard that such people do, in fact exist — somewhat astonishing given how little there is in today’s socio-political and economic climate to inspire a sanguine frame of mind. As to all the optimists out there, cockeyed or not, I envy them fact that they can find things to sing about; optimism and I parted ways two presidential elections ago.
It might not sit well with those who prefer to view the world through rose-colored glasses, or with their heads buried deep in the sand, if I were to suggest that their outlooks could benefit greatly from of healthy injection of cynicism. Think of all the mess that could be avoided if our willingness to accept whatever we’re told by authority figures — parents, teachers, religious leaders and politicians — were tempered by skepticism and an element of suspicion? As both general virtues and qualities of citizenship, they get a bad rap.
When Lincoln Center’s revival of South Pacific, currently playing at The Vivian Beaumont Theatre, started reaping the kind of notices press agents dream about — and really, its reception by the New York theater critics has been no less enthusiastic than that accorded to the original 1949 production — I registered it all with a grain of salt. Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s seminal achievement, while outfitted with one of the greatest scores ever written for the musical stage, has never been entirely my cup of tea; in terms of its attitudes, which flirt dangerously with both corniness and preachiness, the material has always seemed so specific to the postwar era that it seemed worth questioning how much resonance it could have for a contemporary audience. Not even a show armed to the teeth with the sort of musical standards that never go out of style can necessarily make for a timeless work of theater.
By my estimation, my vast reserve of cynicism had thoroughly evaporated less than five minutes into Bartlett Sher’s breathtaking, bountiful and altogether extraordinary new production, which not only restores South Pacific to its former glory, but is one of the few musical productions in recent memory to qualify as a truly transcendent theatergoing experience. Not for a fraction of a second does the show betray its age, or feel even remotely like a relic of the past; delivered with gripping immediacy and an even more dazzling sense of theatricality, it is the kind of unqualified triumph that comes about as close to perfection as any show can be reasonably — or unreasonably — be expected to do. As an improbable side note, it’s also the first show I’ve seen in a long, long time that runs the risk of turning me into a cockeyed optimist; if South Pacific is any indication of what the theater is still capable of, I’d say that looking ahead, there’s every reason to look on the bright side.
Adapted from James Michener’s Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of short stories, the show is primarily a consideration of culture clash — and the conflicted impulses it can produce in those doing the clashing — set against the backdrop of World War II. The pert, positive-thinking Nellie Forbush, a Navy nurse stationed with American troops on a tropical South Seas island, has fallen in love with a middle-age French plantation owner, Emile De Becque. Their burgeoning romance hits a stumbling block when Nellie learns that Emile has fathered two bi-racial children by his late wife, a Polynesian native; her prejudice overrides her better instincts, and she rejects his proposal of marriage. In a parallel storyline, Lt. Joe Cable, the Ivy League scion of a wealthy Philadelphia family, becomes similarly enamored of a native girl. Like Nellie, he doesn’t trust his feelings enough to place them above his own unspoken fears and doubts about entering into an interracial marriage. While not the first Broadway musical to deal frankly with the subject of racism — Show Boat, Hammerstein’s landmark collaboration with Jerome Kern, preceded it by about 20 years — South Pacific was groundbreaking in terms of just how direct, and directly confrontational, it was in its approach. In putting racial prejudice under the microscope, the authors were also holding up a mirror to their audiences, in a manner not only intended to strike a chord of instant recognition but hit uncomfortably close to home. Complacent theatergoers were being asked not only to understand, but to identify with the behaviors being held up for scrutiny and condemnation. The practitioners of race prejudice here are not simply two-dimensional villains; they are fundamentally decent individuals grappling with feelings they cannot fully define or comprehend, which become a source of both shame and embarrassment. In “Carefully Taught,” one of the show’s most famous songs — and still incendiary stuff by modern standards — the authors trace the origins of prejudice back to formative experience and systematic indoctrination. Nellie insists that her inability to reconcile her understanding of right and wrong with the irrational fears that keep her in tether as “something that’s born in me.” Rodgers and Hammerstein know better — they contend that bigotry is the product of environment and upbringing, as opposed to biological instinct.
This being Rodgers and Hammerstein, whose most oft-revisited works are the family-friendly classics Oklahoma! and The Sound of Music, the vinegary content is diluted with ample quantities of sugar water. The marriage of sober social commentary and bright, crowd-pleasing entertainment has never seemed an altogether comfortable union — not even in Josh Logan’s enjoyably lavish 1958 film adaptation — but in Sher’s production they meld seamlessly into a remarkably balanced and unified whole. Just as very little in life is ever black-and-white, there is room in South Pacific for both light and dark, elements which are rendered here in ways that not only complement each other but have an effect of mutual enhancement. A big, brash production number such as “There is Nothing Like a Dame” is subtly informed by the way in which the African-American soldiers occupy a different part of the stage from their white counterparts, while the lush romanticism of “Younger than Springtime” also poses for a moment of reflection and foreboding — one in which it becomes all too apparent that nothing is quite as simple or as straightforward as it appears on the surface (a boy and girl are falling in love in the most blissful way imaginable, while at the same time a woman also is selling her daughter’s virtue to ensure her own survival). The comic and tragic elements are integrated in such a way that even the most stylized contrivances of South Pacific contain a kernel of reality; more impressively still, none of the entertainment value falls by the wayside in the process. Sher and his team don’t have to sacrifice any of the fun or the joy of South Pacific in order to get its message across — which they do, without pressing or in any way dampening the buoyant spirit of the material. Whether making a serious point, or simply trying to entertain the dickens out of its audience, everything taking place on the stage of The Vivian Beaumont exists in perfect harmony with everything else.
Harmony is the right word to describe the level on which Sher’s cast functions. There isn’t a single individual cavorting across the broad expanse of David Yeargan’s evocative set who seems in any way out of place, and the interplay between the actors — which extends right down to the minor members of the large ensemble — is nothing less than miraculous. The principals are so-well chosen that seem to inhabit their characters with an effortlessness that goes beyond natural instinct; often, it seems almost by chance.
The beguiling Kelli O’Hara has attracted a great deal of attention of late for her performances in celebrated musicals of yesteryear; in addition to her delectable Tony-nominated turn in The Pajama Game, this past year alone she has toplined a much-praised concert staging of My Fair Lady for The New York Philharmonic, and a revival of Oklahoma! as part of that state’s centennial festivities. With her performance in South Pacific, she confirms her status as one of the best interpreters of vintage material in contemporary musical theater. That distinction owes itself to more than just her mastery of period vocal style, for Ms. O’Hara is as fine an actress as she is a singer — and believe me, that’s saying something. It’s easy to judge musical theater performers on a different, and somewhat lesser scale than actors in straight plays; in most cases, their performances seem pitched squarely to the audience, with emotions delivered in all caps for exaggerated emphasis (or worse still, in hastily scrawled-out shorthand). From this point on, Ms. O’Hara can be held to a different standard entirely; if she ever decides to take a break from musical theater (hopefully, not a permanent one), there’s no danger of her seeming out of her depth should she decide to ply her talents elsewhere. As Nellie Forbush, she gets the quality of apple-pie wholesomeness absolutely right, but even when singing about being “as corny as Kansas in August” (the role seemingly screams out for the oblivious, white-washed sunniness of a latter-day Doris Day) there isn’t one aspect of her characterization that seems false, forced or in any way disingenuous. Her Nellie is an All-American sweetheart with girl-next-door charm to spare, but also a deeply conflicted woman, unsure of herself in unfamiliar surroundings, and coming face to face with inner demons that rattle her to the core. For bringing her character to three-dimensional life with such empathy and insight, and for never flinching when the material requires her to dig deeper below the surface, she ably demonstrates that the only limitations on her talent in future may be the lack of opportunity to exercise it. If some enterprising soul would write a new musical worthy of her, this wouldn’t be so conspicuous a challenge. It isn’t a problem here, though. Ms. O’Hara has shone brightly on previous occasions; in South Pacific, she has unmistakably attained the luster of a genuine star.
Since one star does not a constellation make, Mr. Sher has populated his production with performers who can not only travel the same altitude as his leading lady, but radiate enough light and warmth on their own to illuminate the material in ways mere star turns seldom do. Brazilian opera star Paulo Szot, best known on these shores for his appearances with The New York City Opera, makes a stunning theatrical debut in the role of Emile. With his broad shoulders and soulful eyes, the matinee-idol handsome Mr. Szot is not only a believable object of romantic attraction; when he applies his rich, soaring baritone to that little ditty that launched a thousand sighs, “Some Enchanted Evening,” or the equally swoon-worthy “This Nearly Was Mine,” the lyrics have an emotional resonance that extends beyond the words themselves. Every phrase is invested with such tenderness and longing that everything around the actor seems to fade into soft focus; I swear that in the middle of his rendition of “This Nearly Was Mine,” time stopped — no mean feat, considering how swiftly this three-hour production, which cuts through the waves as smoothly as ocean liner, seems to glide by. The qualities that make his vocal performance so spectacular carry over to his acting scenes with Ms. O’Hara; the captivating chemistry they share is all the more disarming for its poignant delicacy. Is it unlikely that Mr. Szot, whose talents will doubtless be no less in demand in the wake of this most recent triumph, will become a frequent visitor to the Broadway stage. It can only be hoped that this appearance will not be his last.
The supporting cast is top-of-the-line, with each member given his or her chance to shine in turn. Danny Burstein is in great form as the mischief-making seabee Luther Billis — his “Honey Bun” routine with Ms. O’Hara provides the evening with its comedic high point. Matthew Morrison, who continues to move up quickly in the ranks of Broadway leading men, gives a thoughtful, sensitive account of the conflicted Lt. Cable, while Li Jun Li makes the piece’s most thinly conceived character, the fragile and pliant Liat, a genuinely touching figure. The Hawaiian actress Loretta Ables Sayre brings a sense of bare-knuckled desperation, as well as some intriguing hints of menace, to her depiction of the wily war profiteer Bloody Mary — a role usually played, in previous contexts, in the spirit of broad comic caricature. As for the remainder of the 40 person cast, there is nary a generic chorus kid in sight; each member of the energetic ensemble has been directed to give a highly individualized performance, while collectively they contribute immeasurably to the production's highly authentic sense of time and place — something abetted by Catherine Zuber’s pitch-perfect period costumes and Donald Holder’s sumptuous lighting design. The 30-piece orchestra, working from the original 1949 musical arrangements, does full and glorious justice to Rodgers’ rich, melodic score, which washes over the audience like a succession of waves breaking smoothly upon the sand.
So what’s wrong with South Pacific? The only thing I can come up with — and I’m reaching here — is that The Vivian Beaumont Theatre doesn’t seem to come equipped with enough seats. According to sources in the know, the ticketing crunch has grown to the point that there’s already a waiting list for Thanksgiving weekend (one can only imagine the boon this has been to the scalping industry). For anyone who cares about musical theater — heck, for anyone who cares about theater in general — do whatever you have to do in order to snag yourself a shore pass. Genuine wows are in short supply on Broadway these days. When one comes along…well, to paraphrase the song, once you have found it, never let it go.
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