Saturday, May 19, 2012
Centennial Tributes: Richard Brooks Part II
By Edward Copeland
We pick up our tribute to Richard Brooks in 1956. If you missed Part I, click here. Of Brooks' two 1956 releases, I've only seen one of them. The Last Hunt stars Stewart Granger as a rancher who loses all his cattle to a stampeding herd of buffalo. Robert Taylor plays a buffalo hunter who asks him to join in an expedition to slaughter the animals, but the rancher, an ex-buffalo hunter himself, had quit because he'd grown weary of the killing. Brooks may be the auteur of antiviolence. Filmed in Technicolor Cinemascope, I imagine it looked great on the big screen. Bosley Crowther wrote in his New York Times review, "Even so, the killing of the great bulls—the cold-blooded shooting down of them as they stand in all their majesty and grandeur around a water hole—is startling and slightly nauseating. When the bullets crash into their heads and they plunge to the ground in grotesque heaps it is not very pleasant to observe. Of course, that is as it was intended, for The Last Hunt is aimed to display the low and demoralizing influence of a lust for slaughter upon the nature of man." The second 1956 film I did see and given the talents involved and the paths it would take, it's a fairly odd tale. The Catered Affair was the third and last film in Richard Brooks' entire directing career that he also didn't write or co-write.
It began life as a teleplay by the great Paddy Chayefsky in 1955 called A Catered Affair starring Thelma Ritter, J. Pat O'Malley and Pat Henning before its adaptation for the big screen the following year, the same journey Chayefsky's Marty took that ended up in Oscar glory. This time, Chayefsky didn't adapt his work for the movies — Gore Vidal did. Articles of speech changed in its title as well as the teleplay A Catered Affair became The Catered Affair for Brooks' film. (Chayefsky apparently wasn't a particular fan of this work of his — it never was published or appeared in a collection of his scripts.) We're at the point where the project just got screwy. The simple story concerns an overbearing Irish mom in the Bronx determined to give her daughter a ritzy wedding because of the bragging she hears her future in-laws go on about describing the nuptials thrown for their girls. Despite the fact that the Hurley family lacks the funds for it, Mrs. Hurley stays determined while her husband Tom sighs — he's been saving to buy his own cab. On TV, the casting of Ritter and O'Malley for certain sounded appropriate. For the film, which added characters since it had to expand the length, the cast appeared to have been picked out of a hat because they certainly didn't seem related, most didn't register as Irish and as for being from the Bronx — fuhgeddaboudit. Meet Mr. and Mrs. Tom Hurley, better known to you as Ernest Borgnine and Bette Davis. Unlikely match though they be, somehow their genes combined and out popped the most Bronx-like of Irish girls — Debbie Reynolds. The new character of Uncle Jack does add a bit of real Irish flavor by tossing in Barry Fitzgerald for no apparent reason. Unbelievably, it made the list of the top 10 films of the year from the National Board of Review who also named Reynolds best supporting actress (nothing against Reynolds in general — just miscast here). You would think that this Affair would fade into oblivion, but you'd be wrong. In 2008, it changed articles again and re-emerged on the Broadway stage as the musical A Catered Affair. Faith Prince and Tom Wopat(Yes — that Tom Wopat of Luke Duke fame) earned Tony nominations as the parents, Harvey Fierstein wrote the book and played the uncle (named Winston) and John Bucchino wrote the score. Why did Brooks make this one? Easy. He was under contract. MGM told him to make it, so he had no choice. From Tough as Nails: The Life and Films of Richard Brooks, some of the cast talked on record about how Brooks could be a bit of a prick as a director. "I didn't know it at the time, but Brooks ate and digested actors for breakfast," Borgnine said later. "If things weren't working, he let you know it, and not gently." When a particular scene was not working to his satisfaction, (Brooks) ordered Borgnine and Davis to figure out the problem. Borgnine suggested a different pacing and Davis agreed the scene was better for it — as did (Brooks), though he offered Borgnine not praise but a putdown. 'Goddamn thinking actor.'" Reynolds also tells the author Douglass K. Daniel that from the first day she met Brooks he told her that he didn't want her in the part, but it wasn't his decision. "'He said he was stuck with me and he'd do the best he could with me,' Reynolds recalled. 'He hoped I could come through all right with him, because everybody else was so great, but he wasn't certain I could keep up with the others. He actually said he was stuck with me. And he said so in front of everybody, too. He was so cruel.'" Davis and Borgnine coached Reynolds on the side and Bette, not known to be a shrinking violet, told Reynolds once, according to the book, "'Don't pay any attention to him, the son of a bitch,' Davis told her. 'The only important thing is to work with the greats.'" Davis did get help from Brooks in her fight against the studio that a Bronx housewife shouldn't be wearing movie star costumes they wanted, so he supported her decision to buy clothes at a store like Mrs. Hurley would shop at in real life. Years later, Davis referred to Brooks as one of the greats. This wasn't the first time Brooks had treated a young actress oddly on a set, Anne Francis told Douglass Daniel for his book that he practically ignored her during the filming of Blackboard Jungle and she received no direction at all. Daniel suggests and, given the way Brooks ordered Borgnine and Davis to come up with an idea to fix a scene, that writing had been his greatest gift, he grew into a solid visual storyteller, but Brooks proved limited when it came to directing actors. Daniel wrote, "…(the accounts of Francis and Reynolds) suggested he had a limited ability to communicate what he wanted. He either paid them little attention…or tried to bully a performance from them." Despite that problem, 10 actors in Brooks-directed films earned Oscar nominations and three took home the statuette.
The following year, Brooks made another film that revolved around the hunt of an animal, though that just leads to much bigger issues in Something of Value, sometimes known as Africa Ablaze. Starring Rock Hudson and filmed in Kenya, the film, which I haven't seen, concerns tensions that erupt between formerly friendly colonial white settlers and the Kenyan tribesmen. It also began a run of films that Brooks adapted from serious literary sources. Something of Value had been written by Robert C. Ruark, a former journalist like Brooks, who fictionalized his experiences being present in Kenya during the Mau Mau rebellion. In 1958, the two authors he adapted carried names more prestigious and recognizable. The first movie released derived from a particularly literary source and Brooks didn't do all that heavy lifting alone. Julius and Philip Epstein did the original adaptation, working from the English translation of the novel by Constance Garnett before Brooks began his work writing a worthwhile screenplay that didn't run more than two-and-a-half hours out of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. It wasn't easy. Brooks told Daniel that he "wrestled with the book for four months." What surprised me to learn, also according to what Brooks told Daniels, MGM assigned Karamazov to him. Brooks also said that he never initiated any of his films while under contract at MGM. I love Dostoyevsky. Hell, even a master such as Kurosawa couldn't pull off a screen adaptation of The Idiot. The only aspect of this film that holds your attention — actually it would be more accurate to say grabs you by your throat and keeps you awake for his moments — ends up being any scene with Lee J. Cobb playing the Father Karamazov. I don't know if Cobb realized that somebody needed to step up or what, but the brothers, with only Yul Brynner showing much charisma, also include William Shatner. It's almost embarrassing except for Cobb who got a deserved supporting actor Oscar nomination, the first of the 10 from Brooks-directed films.
The actor who Cobb lost that Oscar to that year had a major part in Brooks' other 1958 feature — the film adaptation of Tennessee Williams' Pulitzer Prize-winning play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. However, Burl Ives didn't win the prize for his great turn as Big Daddy, but for his role as a ruthless cattle baron fighting with another rancher over land and water in The Big Country. As with nearly all of Williams' works, movie versions castrated his plays' subtext (and sometimes just plain text) and this proved true with Cat as well, though the cast and its overriding theme of greed kept it involving enough. The film scored at the box office for MGM, taking in a (big for 1958) haul of $8.8 million — Leo the Lion's biggest hit of the year and third-biggest of the 1950s. It scored six Oscar nominations: best picture, best actress for Elizabeth Taylor as Maggie the Cat, best director for Brooks, best adapted screenplay for Brooks and James Poe best color cinematography for William Daniels and best actor for Paul Newman as Brick, Newman's first nomination and the film that truly cemented him as a star.
After the success of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Brooks decided to take an ocean voyage to Europe as a vacation. The writer-director packed the essentials for a lengthy trip: some articles on evangelism, a Gideon Bible a copy of Sinclair Lewis' novel Elmer Gantry and Angie Dickinson. By the time the ship docked in Europe, a first draft of a screenplay, based on the novel by one of the men who stood ready to defend Brooks during The Brick Foxhole brouhaha with the Marines, lay finished. Dickinson, on the other hand, departed the cruise quite a while back, having grown annoyed by Brooks ignoring her for Elmer. For many lives, 1960 would prove quite eventful either professionally, personally or both. Brooks filmed the highly entertaining movie version of Elmer Gantry early in the year, directing one of his best friends, Burt Lancaster, for the first time in the title role, which is good since the film got made under the auspices of an independent Burt Lancaster/Richard Brooks Production. Lancaster gives one of his best performances and won his first Oscar. The film co-starred Jean Simmons, giving one of her greatest, most mesmerizing turns as Sister Sharon Falconer, the traveling tent show evangelist who gets Elmer into the biz. She fell for Brooks on the set. Within the calendar year, she ended her unhappy marriage to Stewart Granger and became Brooks' wife. Unfortunately, when the Oscar nominations came out the next year, Simmons got left out of the nominations for Elmer Gantry. It received five total. In addition to Lancaster's nomination and win for best actor, it received nominations for best picture; Shirley Jones as supporting actress, which she won; Andre Previn for best score for a drama or comedy; and Brooks for best adapted screenplay. That cruise paid off. Brooks won an Oscar and found a wife. Below, a bit of Lancaster at work — and singing too.
With his next film, Brooks finally received the key that unlocked the leg shackles that bound him to MGM. The studio once again assigned him to a Tennessee Williams play. Though Sweet Bird of Youth did moderately well on Broadway, it wasn't one of The Glorious Bird's triumphs and took a long time to get to New York, starting as a one-act, premiering as a full-length play with a reviled ending in Florida in 1956 and, finally, the revised version's opening in NY in 1959. (The play has yet to be revived on Broadway whereas, in contrast, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof has been revived four times, including twice in this young century, and A Streetcar Named Desire 's eighth Broadway revival currently runs.) Originally, its plot concerned a retired actress and a gigolo with dreams of Hollywood who brings her to his old Southern hometown to get away and runs into trouble with the town's corrupt political boss (Ed Begley) when he woos his daughter (Shirley Knight). Williams said he'd hoped for Brando and Magnani to play the parts on stage. Eventually, she became merely an aging actress and Geraldine Page and Paul Newman played the leads on Broadway. When it came time for the movie, according to legend, MGM desperately wanted Elvis for Newman's part, but the Colonel nixed that because he didn't like the character's morals. Instead, the great Page and Newman repeated their stage roles as did Rip Torn as the son of the political boss. Once again, Hollywood castrated a Williams play or, in this instance, literally didn't castrate it (people who know both the play and movie get that joke. Page and Knight received Oscar nominations in the lead and supporting actress categories, respectively, and Begley won as best supporting actor. In this clip, you can see Newman's Chance try to get a handle on Page's wasted Alexandra in their hotel room.
Now a free agent, Brooks decided to stay that way — in essence becoming an independent filmmaker toward the end of his career instead of the beginning, as the path usually goes. He also defied that typical indie move of starting small — this wasn't John Cassavetes — but beginning this stage of his career more like the final films (and current ones for 1965) of David Lean. He went BIG. He even nabbed Lean's Lawrence to star in his adaptation of Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim, a longtime obsession of Brooks that he bought the rights to in 1958 for a mere $6,500. The filming took place in Hong Kong, Singapore and, dangerously in Cambodia as things grew tense. The movie crew's interpreter happened to be Dith Pran, the man the late Haing S. Ngor won an Oscar for playing in Roland Joffe's 1984 film The Killing Fields. O'Toole hated his time there, complaining about the living conditions — he isn't a fan of mosquitoes and snakes. Later, he also admitted he thought he'd been wrong for the part itself. Portions of the film ended up shot in London's Shepperton Studios as Cambodia became full of anti-American rage. When the film opened, it bombed and badly. Sony put it on DVD briefly, but it's currently out of print so, alas, I've never seen this one. Brooks did make an impression on O'Toole though, who told Variety when he died that Brooks was "the man who lived at the top of his voice."
Having a flop on the scale of Lord Jim the first time you produce your own film could really discourage a guy. However, it sure didn't show in what he produced next because The Professionals turned out to be the most well-made, entertaining film he'd directed up until this point in his career. (His next film swipes the most well-made title, but The Professionals continues to hold the prize for being one hell of a ride.) Based on a novel by Frank O'Rourke, the movie teamed Brooks with his pal Lancaster again. Set soon after the 1917 Mexican Revolution, early in the 20th century when the Old West and modern movement intermingle near the U.S.-Mexican border, it almost plays like a rough draft for Sam Peckinpah's admittedly superior Wild Bunch. Ralph Bellamy plays a rich tycoon who hires a team of soldiers of fortune to go in to Mexico and rescue his daughter who has been kidnapped by a guerrilla bandit (Jack Palance, hysterically funny and good despite making no attempt to appear Mexican). The team consists of Lancaster as a dynamite expert, Lee Marvin as a professional soldier, Robert Ryan as a wrangler and packmaster and Woody Strode as the team's scout and tracker. The film turned out to be a huge hit with audiences and critics alike and earned Brooks Oscar nominations for directing and adapted screenplay. The Academy also cited the cinematography of its director of photography, the master Conrad L. Hall, who would do some of the finest work of his career in Brooks' next film. Below, one of The Professionals' action sequences.
I hoped to complete this in two parts and considered breaking out the next film as a separate review because In Cold Blood stands firmly as Richard Brooks' masterpiece (and then there remain some other films to mention after that). So, another temporary pause.
Labels: Angie Dickinson, Bellamy, Bette, Borgnine, Chayefsky, Debbie Reynolds, Geraldine Page, Jean Simmons, Lancaster, Lee J. Cobb, Liz, Marvin, Newman, O'Toole, Peckinpah, Rip Torn, Shatner, Tennessee Williams, Vidal
Cinemalit – Paddy Chayefsky: Scenes from American Lives: