Tuesday, May 22, 2012
House No. 177: Everybody Dies
By Edward Copeland
When I first heard that House would end this season, I immediately told a friend that the only way the show could end would be with the prickly but brilliant doctor with a limp dying. I said, "He's been shot, practically killed himself several times attempting to solve a medical puzzle, committed himself to a mental hospital and been sent to jail — what else could they do but actually kill him?" Turns out I was right — sort of. I can't say that the finale overwhelmed me or that it falls onto the list with the worst series finales of all time. Except for its closing moments between Hugh Laurie and Robert Sean Leonard's Wilson, "Everyone Dies" played to me the same way most of the episodes in the past three seasons did — as if the show's creative team was stuck in idle and just spinning their wheels. My criticisms of Monday night's ending does contain several specifics, which I'll get to after the jump. In a post to come later, I'll talk about the series in general and an attempt to pick 10 favorite episodes of all time. Though I continue tinkering with that list, I can tell you I have decided that of the eight seasons, looking back at when all the best episodes were, the choice for best season hardly was a contest. That prize belongs to the second season.
The rumors circulated for a while that some former cast members such as Jennifer Morrison (Cameron) and Kal Penn (Kutner) would be making appearances and I saw a YouTube video with footage of the wrap party where Amber Tamblyn (that med student whose name I can't remember) mentioned that she'd pop up briefly in the last episode. It seemed obvious to me that if they planned to resurrect Kutner that Amber (Anne Dudek) would not be far behind and she wasn't. (Hooray!) I don't know if the writers considered it, but if they planned for faces of his past to confront House as the building burned, why not try to get R. Lee Ermey back as the man who raised him and left him with so many psychological scars? More importantly, though I've read the stories that Lisa Edelstein's departure from House wasn't exactly a happy one, but the lack of Lisa Cuddy, either in House's imagination or at his "funeral" just rang false. I could imagine given the way the character left that Cuddy would not bother with the funeral, but you can't convince me that Amber, Kutner, Cameron and ex-girlfriend Stacy (Sela Ward) visit his smoke-inhalation induced reverie but Cuddy got turned away at the rope line by a bouncer. By the way, what in the hell has Sela Ward done to her face? Why do performers insist on damaging their most important asset this way? Have plastic surgery techniques grown worse over the years instead of better? Just for a light moment, they ought to have tossed in a moment of Taub (Peter Jacobson) looking horrified when he meets Stacy for the first time given that's what he used to do for a living. It's terrible — Ward's facial muscles looked as if they were frozen. I could cite lots of other examples — scary Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton's new look that makes her cheeks and lips look as if they modeled them on a fish and all the lost, possibly great performances we could have from Faye Dunaway, who know resembles Jack Nicholson as The Joker in Tim Burton's Batman when he wears the flesh makeup. Pardon the digression. Cuddy's absence made for the biggest flaw. It was great to see many of the other past regulars or prominent guest stars, especially Andre Braugher's brief moments as Dr. Nolan. The resemblance to the Scrubs finale might have been too similar (the real finale, not that lame-ass med school half-season), but how about some of the patients he saved at the funeral or the ones he didn't haunting him? I wouldn't have hated seeing Michael Weston return as Lucas. Even when House's former personal P.I. dated Cuddy, he and Greg continued to get along in a civil manner and before that, his character really was the only other male character besides Wilson to forge some kind of bond with House. He never acted like the sort to let resentment simmer for long stretches of time, so I imagine Lucas got over Cuddy dumping him for House long ago and it's highly doubtful they reconciled since we last saw her. Again though, that goes back to a loose thread that deserved to be tied in some way, even if didn't take the form of an appearance by Edelstein.
"Everybody Dies" lacked — until its very final moments — the key asset that attracted me to House in the first place: Its humor. (Though I give them points for waiting eight years before making a Dead Poets Society reference.) At least the final medical case involving guest patient James LeGros (looking physically more like the LeGros I'm familiar with than his beer-bellied Wally Burgan in HBO's Mildred Pierce miniseries) actually tied into the plot. House might have insisted on only taking "interesting" patients, but that part of the show stopped being interesting to me and most viewers I know a long time ago. I also had a couple of nitpicky things. Chase (Jesse Spencer) quits two weeks ago and now that House is "dead," he comes back and gets his job? Honestly, maybe I'm alone on this, but hasn't Taub demonstrated better diagnostic skills? I also find it funny that such a huge deal keeps being made about House driving his car into a living room and then breaking parole by causing a ceiling to collapse. Foreman (Omar Epps) refuses to commit perjury for him to get House off the hook about accidental ceiling collapse, but he's complicit in covering up the murder of Dibala (James Earl Jones), the dictator of an unnamed African country and just appointed the doctor who killed Dibala on purpose to head House's department. They call House a dangerous jerk? Also, while it's nice to see that Cameron already found a new guy and gave birth, I can't be the only one who wants to know if she defrosted dead husband No. 1's sperm to spawn or if the tot belongs to the man.
On the other hand, while we assume that House and Wilson's honeymoon will be short, could the show end any other way? In many ways, House wasn't simply Sherlock Holmes recast as a doctor, it focused on living in and with pain. You could summarize the show's thesis with almost any of the classic jokes that Woody Allen's Alvy Singer delivers in Annie Hall. The final season of House even included an episode titled "We Need the Eggs." You could take any of them: "And such small portions." That's why the idea of House considering suicide just rang false. He might after Wilson lost his battle with cancer, but not before. His attitude echoes Alvy (coincidentally, the name of his hyper buddy from his time at the mental hospital, but spelled with an "ie" instead of a "y," played by Lin-Manuel Miranda). Life is "full of loneliness, and misery, and suffering, and unhappiness, and it's all over much too quickly." Actually, the closest Annie Hall line I believe has to be when Alvy says, "I feel that life is divided into the horrible and the miserable. That's the two categories. The horrible are like, I don't know, terminal cases, you know, and blind people, crippled. I don't know how they get through life. It's amazing to me. And the miserable is everyone else. So you should be thankful that you're miserable, because that's very lucky, to be miserable." Now though, for at least five months, James Wilson and the late Gregory House ride off in the sunset together. That one woman in their apartment building "mistakenly" thought they were gay. Not counting why Wilson and Amber split up, something must keep breaking up Wilson's relationships — and some preceded Wilson meeting House. If the motorcycles break down and they end up on a bus as Wilson nears the end, I will have a hard time picturing him as Ratso Rizzo to House's Joe Buck though.
Laurie alone kept me hanging on to the end of House because I loved the character he created. Sadly, I believe he soon will join an exclusive club. Members include Ian McShane's Al Swearengen on Deadwood, Jeffrey Tambor as Hank Kingsley on The Larry Sanders Show, Jason Alexander as George Costanza on Seinfeld, John Goodman as Dan Conner on Roseanne and Jackie Gleason as Ralph Kramden on The Honeymooners, to name a few of the actors who created some of the greatest characters in television history, none of whom ever received an Emmy Award. Hugh Laurie certainly belongs in this group because Dr. Gregory House was one of a kind. Still to come, saluting the series as a whole and unveiling that list.
Labels: Awards, Braugher, Deadwood, Dunaway, HBO, House, J.E. Jones, John Goodman, Larry Sanders, Nicholson, Seinfeld, Tambor, Tim Burton, TV Recap, Woody
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Monday, May 21, 2012
"Tests take time. Treatment's quicker."
By Edward Copeland
Sigh…if only Gregory House were my doctor. I think we'd get along well. We're actually very much alike, minus the Vicodin addiction, but I am willing to learn. (In truth, most every pill and patch I've been prescribed over the years to deal with my various pains, anything that works on the excruciating torture my nonworking legs inflict on me I eventually build up a tolerance t0, so I've wondered why that hasn't happened to House at some point. As you all know, very shortly (about 90 minutes), we'll be getting our last new visit with him. First, an hour-long retrospective then the last episode titled "Everybody Dies," a play on one of his favorite truisms "Everybody lies." I haven't seen it. I've heard rumors that many former cast members will pop up somehow, perhaps even Kal Penn as the late Dr. Kutner.
I didn't watch House, M.D. from the beginning. (Does anyone really use the M.D. in the title? We know what show we're talking about.) In fact, I became addicted to the show, or more accurately Hugh Laurie's character, while stuck in two hospitals for a total of three-and-a-half-months in 2008 when USA seemed to show House marathons most days and at least one day of the weekend. I didn't get to see the show in order so it took a long time before I ever saw the episode that even explained what happened to his leg. Whenever anyone describes Gregory House as a jerk, I feel like Larry David does on Curb Your Enthusiasm whenever anyone tells him that the George character on Seinfeld was a loser and Larry gets all defensive. At least when it comes to how he treats the medical side of things, he's being a jerk for the right reasons. As I lay in my hospital bed watching him defy the Princeton-Plainsboro's evil new corporate owner Edward Vogler (Chi McBride) while I endured the cost-cutting tactics of real-life hospital administrators for whom patient care ranks low on their priority list, how could I not cheer House? If only more doctors valued their patients above their portfolios the way Gregory House does.
Admittedly, House the show hasn't lived up to the quality of its early seasons for quite some time, but I've stayed with it because of Laurie. He's created a character too great not to watch. It isn't the same as it was with Homicide: Life on the Street, a series I watched past its prime solely because of Andre Braugher's Frank Pembleton. However, when Braugher decided to leave the show, I followed him right out the door. If Laurie left House, no conceivable scenario would allow the show to carry on without him — especially since, as of a couple weeks ago, Omar Epps' Foreman and Robert Sean Leonard's Wilson serve as the only other original cast members standing.
I wanted to write a bigger advance piece before the finale aired but, as you can tell, I ran out of time. Hopefully, after I see how it ends I can comment on the ending itself as well as talking a bit more in detail about the show as a whole and picking my favorite episodes. Until then, a fun YouTube package I found that built a montage of some of the best House clinic moments.
Labels: Braugher, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Homicide, House, Larry David, Seinfeld, Television
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Centennial Tributes: Richard Brooks Part III
By Edward Copeland
It isn't often that a masterpiece of literature begets a masterpiece of cinema yet both retain distinct identities all their own, but that's the case with In Cold Blood, Truman Capote's "nonfiction novel" and Richard Brooks' stunning film adaptation of his book. Capote often gets credit for inventing the genre of adapting the techniques of a novelist to that of straight reporting, but earlier attempts existed — Capote's stood out because In Cold Blood 's excellence made everyone forget any other examples (at least until more than a decade later when Norman Mailer added his own brilliant take on the genre with The Executioner's Song). Brooks, with his job as a crime reporter in his past, on the surface appears to follow Capote's approach, but the director, forever the activist, skips the objectivity that Capote tried to evoke in his book. Brooks didn't want to minimize the horror of the crime that occurred at the Clutter farm in Holcomb, Kans., but he also wanted to humanize the killers, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock. In a way, Brooks' film inspired the path for the two films made decades later telling the story of Capote's writing of the book and his getting to know the killers first-hand as they waited on Death Row. Even today, Brooks' 1967 film remains more powerful and better made than the two more recent tales. Undoubtedly, In Cold Blood remains Brooks' greatest film. If you got here before reading either Part I or Part II of this tribute, click on the respective links.
The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call "out there." Some seventy miles east of the Colorado border, the countryside, with its hard blue skies and desert-clear air, has an atmosphere that is rather more Far West than Middle West. The local accent is barbed with a prairie twang, a ranch-hand nasalness, and the men, many of them, wear narrow frontier trousers, Stetsons, and high-heeled boots with pointed toes. The land is flat, and the views are awesomely extensive; horses, herds of cattle, a white cluster of grain elevators rising as gracefully as Greek temples are visible long before a traveler reaches them.
Capote begins his book with that paragraph in the first chapter titled The Last to See Them Alive. Brooks begins the film of In Cold Blood introducing us to The Last to See Them Alive in the forms of Robert Blake as newly paroled inmate Perry Smith and Scott Wilson as an acquaintance he met in prison who had been freed earlier, Dick Hickok. Brooks gives Blake — and the movie — a memorable entrance, especially thanks to his decision to go against the grain of the time and film in black-and-white Panavision. We see a bus driving down a two-lane highway, passing signs showing the distance to different Kansas towns, including the horrific Olathe. On the bus, a young female stumbles down the aisle to get a closer look at the pair of pointed-toe cowboy boots with buckles on its heels before creeping back. The shadowy man who wears the boots also has a guitar strung around his neck. A flame suddenly illuminates Robert Blake's face as he lights a cigarette and Quincy Jones' ominous yet jazzy score kicks in to start the credits. The sequence not only sets the tone for the film that follows, it also introduces us to the movie's most important participant — cinematographer Conrad L. Hall (though he didn't need to use the L. yet since his son, Conrad W. Hall, wasn't old enough to follow his dad into the business).
The movie spends its opening minutes introducing us to the soft-spoken Perry and getting him hooked up with Dick. Whereas Blake's Perry comes off as a puppy repeatedly kicked by his owner, Scott Wilson portrays Hickok as a cocky, livewire and a chatterbox — and Brooks gives him great lines, especially in the scenes where he and Blake drive around. "Ever seen a millionaire fry in the electric chair? Hell, no. There's two kinds of laws, one for the rich and one for the poor," Dick imparts as wisdom to Perry. When the two buy supplies for the planned robbery of the Clutter farm, Dick shoplifts some razorblades for no good reason, leading Perry to chastise him for taking such a risk for something so small. "That was stupid — stealin' a lousy pack of razor blades! To prove what?" Perry asks. Smiling, Dick replies, "It's the national pastime, baby, stealin' and cheatin'. If they ever count every cheatin' wife and tax chiseler, the whole country would be behind prison walls." Though in the two recent biographical films about Truman Capote's research into the case, it's strongly implied that Capote at least developed a crush on Smith and that Perry may have been gay. In Cold Blood never explicltly claims that Perry Smith was gay, but throughout the film Dick taunts him by calling him "honey," "baby" or something along those lines. Hickock on the other hand chases every skirt he gets near and during the robbery/murder, Perry intervenes to stop Dick from raping the Clutters' 16-year-old daughter Nancy (Brenda Currin). Wilson made his first two feature films in 1967 and he landed roles in two of the biggest — this one and the eventual Oscar winner for best picture, Norman Jewison's In the Heat of the Night. The jaws of younger readers should hit the floor when they see Wilson's great work here and it slowly dawns on them that playing Dick Hickok is a younger incarnation of Herschel on AMC's The Walking Dead. When Perry and Dick do get together, they meet at Dick's father's house where Dick tries to aid his old man, who's slowly losing his battle with terminal cancer. (Veteran character actor Jeff Corey, who co-starred in the Brooks-scripted 1947 classic Brute Force, plays the elder Hickock.) Contrasting Capote's take with Brooks' version fascinates in the ways the works reflect each other yet, like a mirror, many things appear on the opposite side. The book introduces its readers to the Clutter family first before Perry and Dick enter the story (by name anyway). Brooks' screenplay reverses the order, beginning with the killers then letting us meet the Kansas family. However, both aim to draw parallels between the victims and their eventual murderers. "That morning an apple and a glass of milk were enough for him; because he touched neither coffee or tea, he was accustomed to begin the day on a cold stomach. The truth was he opposed all stimulants, however gentle. He did not smoke, and of course he did not drink; indeed, he had never tasted spirits, and was inclined to avoid people who had — a circumstance that did not shrink his social circle as much as might be supposed, for the center of that circle was supplied by the members of Garden City's First Methodist Church, a congregation totaling seventeen hundred, most of whom were as abstemious as Mr. Clutter could desire," Capote described the Clutter patriarch. A few pages later in the first chapter, Perry Smith makes his entrance into Capote's book. "Like Mr. Clutter, the young man breakfasting in a cafe called the Little Jewel never drank coffee. He preferred root beer. Three aspirin, cold root beer, and a chain of Pall Mall cigarettes — that was his notion of a proper "chow-down." Sipping and smoking, he studied a map spread on the counter before him — a Phillips 66 map of Mexico — but it was difficult to concentrate, for he was expecting a friend, and the friend was late. He looked out a window at the silent small-town street, a street he had never seen until yesterday. Still no sign of Dick," Capote wrote. Brooks uses a visual link to draw victim and killer together, showing Herbert Clutter (John McLiam) performing his morning shave. As Clutter leans into the sink to rinse the remaining shaving cream from his face, the face that rises up and looks in the mirror sees Perry Smith, excising his excess whiskers as well.
The biggest difference between the book and the movie came with Brooks' introduction of a Truman Capote surrogate, a magazine reporter named Jensen, who travels to Holcomb to cover the case. Jensen isn't played in a way similar to the extremely distinctive Capote — such as the way that won Philip Seymour Hoffman an Oscar for Capote, that Toby Jones played even better in Infamous or that Tru himself played best of all as Lionel Twain in Neil Simon's 1976 mystery spoof Murder By Death. Brooks wrote the Jensen character straight (no pun intended) and conventionally, even giving him a narrator's function at times. He doesn't precisely follow how Capote researched the story though because Capote didn't arrive in Kansas until after Smith and Hickok had been apprehended. In the movie, Jensen arrives almost from the beginning of the investigation. For the role of Jensen, Brooks cast another veteran character actor — Paul Stewart, whose first credited screen role was the butler Raymond in Citizen Kane. His 42-year film and television career ended in 1983 with an episode of Remington Steele and he died three years later, a month shy of his 88th birthday. After starting with Kane, a few of Stewart's eclectic highlights included Champion, Brooks' Deadline-U.S.A., The Bad and the Beautiful, Kiss Me Deadly, Hell on Frisco Bay, King Creole, Opening Night, Revenge of the Pink Panther, S.O.B. and appearances on nearly every episodic police or detective show between the 1950s and the 1970s, including The Mod Squad. The Jensen character arrives around the same time that the Kansas Bureau of Investigation joins the case led by John Forsythe as Alvin Dewey, what may be Forsythe's best performance. Brooks gives him a lot of speeches — and some come off as less pristine than others, but Forsythe succeeds at selling most of them. Forsythe gets so identified with Dynasty or as a voice on Charlie's Angels that I think people forget that he really act when the material was there for him as it was here or in the short-lived and underrated Norman Lear sitcom The Powers That Be and having fun with Hitchcock in The Trouble With Harry (though no one could help Topaz much). He also was a replacement performer of one of the major roles in Arthur Miller's All My Sons on Broadway. Granted, didn't see him, but he had to show some chops to land that one. Of his filmed work though, I think In Cold Blood stands as the best. Sure, this speech reads as overwrought, but he pulled it off as he delivered it to Jensen. "Someday, someone will have to explain the motive of a newspaper to me. First, you scream, 'Find the bastards.' Till we do find 'em, you want to get us fired. When we find 'em, you accuse us of brutality. Before we go into court, you give them a trial in the newspaper, When we finally get a conviction, you want to save 'em by proving they were really crazy in the first place. All of which adds up to one thing — you've got the killers," Dewey tells Jensen as he's taking down to the basement of the Clutter house. Dewey also serves as Mr. Exposition, explaining why these two numbskulls just out of prison would decide to go to this one particular farmhouse and rob this family, making sure to "leave no witnesses," even though Dick and Perry only gain $40 from the crime. A fellow investigator asks Dewey if Clutter might have been rich and Alvin sort of laughs knowingly. "Ahh — the old Kansas myth. Every farmer with a big spread is supposed to have a secret black box with lots of money in it." It isn't until the ending that you realize the Brooks gave Dewey some of that dialogue because he's supposed to symbolize the parts of the system that disgust him. Brooks ardently opposed capital punishment and he made no secret that he wanted the ending to make clear that it was murder. At Smith's hanging, another reporter asks Dewey about how much the executioner makes. "Three hundred dollars a man," Dewey answers. "Who does he work for? Does he have a name?" the reporter follows up and then poor John Forsythe has to deliver the clunkiest line of dialogue in the entire film. "Yes. We the people." Earlier, it had been the topic of discussion between Jensen and an imprisoned Hickock.
DICK: Perry's the only one talking against capital punishment.
JENSEN: Don't tell me you're for it.
DICK: Hell, hangin' only getting revenge. What's wrong with revenge? I've been revenging myself all my life.
Part of the film's brilliance stems from the way Brooks structures the scenes detailing the crime itself. Toward the beginning of the movie, he presents what probably remains the greatest sequence of his directing career without actually showing the murder. Then, as the film winds down, he shows us what we didn't see and it's horrifying. Through a window of the farmhouse, we can see Nancy kneeling beside her bed saying her prayers. At that moment, it isn't made clear who could be seeing that — are Dick and Perry outside her window or are we simply the voyeurs right then? A split second later we spot Dick and Perry still sitting in the car beneath the cover of night. I guess it was us. The discordant sound of a doorbell suddenly fills the soundtrack and the viewer realizes he or she has moved inside the Clutter house — and sunlight shines through the windows. The camera tracks slowly around the furniture of the living room as it makes its way toward the front door. A woman and some other people open the door calling out for the Clutters. We faintly hear church bells tolling and the visitors wear their Sunday best. The woman continues to call out the Clutters by their first names as she ascends the stairs to the second floor. The film cuts quickly to the house's exterior just as we hear the woman let out a horrified scream. Coming on the heels of The Professionals, it's as if somehow Brooks transformed himself from a competent director and damn good writer into a master of both. I don't know if the fact he had Conrad Hall working as his d.p. on both films made any sort of difference or if that proved to be just fortuitous, but that one-two punch sealed Brooks' artistic reputation forever beyond what respect he'd earned before. I've never been fortunate enough to see In Cold Blood on the big screen and allow Hall's haunting and beautiful mix of light and shadow to bathe me in its glow, but I did get the next best thing when in 1993 at the Inwood Theater in Dallas I saw Arnold Glassman, Todd McCarthy and Stuart Samuels' documentary Visions of Light, a film devoted to the art of cinematography and highlighting some of its greatest practitioners and their best moments. One of the highlighted scenes comes from In Cold Blood when Robert Blake as Perry gives an emotional monologue about his father in his prison cell while he looks out the window at the rain coming down. The reflection of the raindrops cast shadows on Blake's face that make it appear as if he's crying. The moment stuns in its beauty — even when you learn that as so many say, accidents ends up producing some of the best parts of film. Hall admitted it hadn't been planned but the humidity in the prison set had pumped up the window's perspiration so much (as well as everyone else's) that's how the magic happened. Thankfully, YouTube had that clip.
It must be said how good a performance Blake gives while at the same time acknowledging that it can't be viewed the way many of us assessed it originally. When a Naked Gun movie pops up and you see O.J. Simpson play an idiot and constantly take a beating, somehow that's OK. When you watch In Cold Blood again and see Blake give such a convincing and chilling performance as a mass murderer (especially when Forsythe's Alvin Dewey engages him in conversation during the ride to jail and Perry tells him, "I thought Mr. Clutter was a very nice gentleman. I thought it right till the moment I cut his throat."), you can't help but recall that a few decades later, the actor stood trial and received an acquittal for killing his wife. It doesn't stand out as groundbreaking now, when last night's Mad Men said shit twice, but in 1967, In Cold Blood became the first major release to utter the word bullshit. For the second year in a row, Brooks received Oscar nominations for directing and adapted screenplay and Hall got one for cinematography. Quincy Jones also picked up a nomination for original score, though Jones didn't receive one for his music for In the Heat of the Night. I don't understand how the nimrods at the Academy left it out of the top five for best picture. They nominated two films that deserved to be there: Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate. The film that won, a fine film but certainly expendable: In the Heat of the Night. A perceived prestige project of social significance that's overrated as hell: Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. The fifth nominee that would make no sense in any year: Doctor Dofuckinglittle. Basically, three out of the five films could have been tossed to make room for In Cold Blood. A few other more deserving 1967 titles: Cool Hand Luke, The Dirty Dozen, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Accident, Wait Until Dark, Point Blank, The Jungle Book. The National Board of Review did honor Brooks' direction. Brooks also received his sixth Directors Guild nomination and his sixth Writers Guild nomination. With the exception of the WGA, Brooks would never be named for any of the top awards again. In Cold Blood marked his best, but from there things went downhill fast.
One of the most difficult films to find (I've never seen it) for that recent a film with a best actress nomination. Brooks wrote his first original screenplay since Deadline-U.S.A. as a vehicle for wife Jean Simmons. From descriptions I've read, Simmons plays Mary Wilson, who was raised on romantic notions of marriage from the movies, finds herself in a funk on her anniversary and flies to the Bahamas on a whim, running into a free spirit (Shirley Jones) while there.
I missed this one as well. From TCM's web site; "In Hamburg, Germany, American Joe Collins (Warren Beatty) is considered by bank manager Kessel (Gert Fröbe) to be the most honest, hard-working bank security expert in the world. Unknown to Kessel, Joe has been devising a plan with his girlfriend, American expatriate prostitute Dawn Divine (Goldie Hawn), to take the contents from bank safe-deposit boxes owned by several criminals and place them into one owned by Dawn. Roger Ebert gave it three stars in his original review.
I wanted to see this one, but just ran out of time. Here's what qualifies as TCM's full synopsis: A former roughrider (Gene Hackman) matches wits with a lovely but shady lady-in-distress (Candice Bergen), as a drifting ex-cowboy (James Coburn) and a young, reckless cowboy (Jan-Michael Vincent) join in on a 700 mile journey. Ebert gave it three and a half stars in his original review.
I've actually seen this one. In fact, as we near the end of Brooks' career, I've watched two of the last three movies. As an unrelated sidenote, this year also marked the end of Brooks' 17-year marriage to Jean Simmons. If by chance you aren't familiar with this movie, think of it as sort of the Shame of the 1970s — and I don't mean the Ingmar Bergman movie. Diane Keaton stars as a teacher of deaf students whose affair with her college professor ends badly. She reacts as anyone would to a breakup — she starts cruising New York bars and picking up strangers for one-night stands while also developing a taste for drugs. The film definitely didn't belong in the genre of liberated women films of the 1970s as Keaton's character will pay. I saw this when I was a young man and I found it distasteful then, though it did have more sensible plotting than last year's Shame. Brooks directed his last performer to an Oscar nomination with Tuesday Weld getting a supporting actress nod. Keaton won the best actress Oscar for 1977 — but for Annie Hall. Brooks adapted a novel by Judith Rossen that was loosely based on a real incident, but most reviews by people who had read the novel seemed to indicate that Brooks changed key elements. Then, that matches the speech Brooks gave the movie's cast and crew on the first day of shooting, according to Douglass K. Daniel's Tough as Nails: The Life and Films of Richard Brooks. "I'm sure that all of you have your own ideas about what kind of contributions you can make to this film, what you can do to improve it or make it better. Keep it to yourself. It's my fucking movie and I'm going to make it my way!" Daniel wrote. Goodbar also featured Richard Gere in one of his earliest roles. This clip plays off the tension of whether fun and games are at hands or something more dangerous.
Brooks referred to this film as "the biggest disaster" of his career. Later, he amended it slightly, blaming TV for purposely not coverage the film because the movie criticized "checkbook journalism." Having watched Wrong Is Right for the first time recently, this compels me to ask, "It did?" Sean Connery stars as a globetrotting reporting for what appears to be a CNN-like news station. The opening sequence contains some amusing moments, (including a young Jennifer Jason Leigh, nearly 30 years after her dad Vic Morrow played the worst punk in Brooks; Blackboard Jungle) but what could be cutting-edge satire of a media form just being born transforms into a scattershot satire involving fictional oil-rich African countries, the CIA, a presidential race and arms dealers trading suitcase nukes, Based on a novel, I hope that it had a plot, but Wrong Is Right just ends up being one of those strange satires like The Men Who Stared at Goats where once it ends you still don't know what the hell happened. This clip shows the opening sequence. Nothing after it deserves your attention.
I've got good news and bad news when it comes to Richard Brooks' final film. The good news: it brought him awards consideration again. The bad news: It was at the Razzies where it earned nominations for worst picture, worst director, worst screenplay and worst musical score. I'm not sure whether or not it relieved him that the film lost in all four categories, with Rambo: First Blood Part II taking worst picture, director and screenplay and Rocky IV winning worst score dishonors. I have not seen Fever Pitch which TCM hasn't even given a synopsis, but I know enough to tell you that Ryan O'Neal plays an investigator reporter doing a story on compulsive gambling who discovers he suffers from the problem. The subject of the movie came up on my Facebook page and Richard Brody, critic at The New Yorker, commented, "I saw Fever Pitch when it came out and loved every overheated second. Haven't seen it since then. Seeing The Connection has brought it back: no detached observer but a participant almost instantly in over his head." At the time of its release, it became one of the rare films that Ebert gave zero stars.
Following Fever Pitch, Brooks toyed with the idea of writing a screenplay about the blacklist, basing it around an incident in 1950 when fights broke out at the Directors Guild over the loyalty oath, but he didn't get around to it. The man who could be quite a bully on the set, had quite a bit of bitterness toward the industry by now as he showed in the second half of that 1985 interview.
Richard Brooks died of congestive heart failure on March 11, 1992, at 79. He did have close friends, but most of them had died themselves by then. The stepdaughter he basically raised as his own when he married Jean Simmons, Tracy Granger, made certain, his tombstone bore the only appropriate epitaph for the man.
Labels: Arthur Miller, blacklist, Books, Capote, Connery, Diane Keaton, Ebert, Hackman, Hitchcock, J.J. Leigh, James Coburn, Jean Simmons, Jewison, Mailer, N. Lear, Neil Simon, P.S. Hoffman, W. Beatty
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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
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Friday, May 18, 2012
Centennial Tributes: Richard Brooks Part I
By Edward Copeland
"First comes the word, then comes the rest" might be the most famous quote attributed to Richard Brooks, who began his life 100 years ago today in Philadelphia as Ruben Sax, son of Jewish immigrants Hyman and Esther Sax. He wrote a lot of words too — sometimes using only images. In fact, too many to tell the story in a single post. so it will be three. His parents came from Crimea in 1908 when it belonged to the Russian Empire. Like the parents of a great director of a much later generation and an Italian Catholic heritage, Hyman and Esther Sax also worked in the textile and clothing industry. Sax's entire adult working life revolved around the written word — even while he busied himself with other tasks. “I write in toilets, on planes, when I’m walking, when I stop the car. I make notes. If I am working at a studio, I work at the studio in the morning, then come home. I am really writing two days instead of one. After the studio, I have my second day (at home). I write whenever I can,” Brooks said in an interview with Patrick McGilligan for his book Backstory 2: Interviews with Screenwriters of the 1940s and 1950s. After high school, he entered Temple University where he majored in journalism, though he left early when he realized the financial hardship that his tuition put on his parents. After drifting around the eastern half of the U.S. for a while by train, Sax returned to Philadelphia and got a job as s sports reporter at The Philadelphia Record where he first adopted the name of Richard Brooks. When he later got hired by The Atlantic City Press-Union, he met another reporter with an independent streak who would eventually make his way to Hollywood by the name of Samuel Fuller. Shortly after moving to New York for a job with that city's World Telegram newspaper, only leaving the sports beat behind for crime reporting. Brooks discovered that radio jobs provided bigger paychecks so he took a job at the 24-hour radio station WNEW, first as a disc jockey. "Played records 23 of those hours," McGilligan described in the introduction to his interview. Later, the station promoted him to news where he edited four news broadcasts a day newspaper jobs and wrote one. His work there led to a news job at NBC Radio's Blue Network where he also got to do commentary. At the same time, in 1938, Brooks tried his hand at playwriting, which led in 1940 to co-founding The Mill Pond Theater in Roslyn, N.Y., with David Loew. It's on that stage that Brooks made his debut as a director, taking turns with Loew helming productions at the summer theater. A falling out with other members of the theater sent Brooks to California where he worked for NBC Radio from the other coast. Among his duties was writing and directing the broadcast Richard Sands. Brooks also began writing a short story every day and reading it on air. “I’d written some short stories before, but none was published. Anyway, every day, another short story. Everything became grist for a short story. It began to drive me crazy…a different plotline every day. My ambition: write one story a week instead of a different story every day. In about 11 months, I wrote over 250 stories. I even devised a system whereby on Fridays I wouldn't have to write a short story. I called that day 'Heels of History.' I would take a fable and convert it. As a matter of fact, I used one afterwards in The Blackboard Jungle,” Brooks told McGilligan. Brooks gave the example of how he took the story of "Jack and the Beanstalk," citing how while he's portrayed as a hero, Jack's actually a dumb, bad kid who ignores his mother's order, shows little concern for an ailing fire and steal, even if it's from a giant. Granted, it doesn't appear to have been broadcast nationally but I wonder if Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine came across this when conceiving Into the Woods?. Witches can be right, giants can be good… Brooks, like what happened when he learned radio paid more than newspapers, discovered in California that screenwriters earned bigger paychecks than broadcasters. He set up a meeting with George Waggner at Universal, where Waggner — who later would direct The Wolf Man and much episodic TV including many installments of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Batman — was the assistant producer of White Savage, a Maria Montez film directed by Arthur Lubin. Waggner asked if Brooks wrote because they desperately needed a rewrite. It was his first movie job and Brooks made "$100 (weekly) plus a day or two prorated, and they put my name on (the screen) as 'additional dialogue,'" Brooks told McGilligan. White Savage wasn't the first film Brooks worked on to be released though — two others and a serial came first. He also hung on to the NBC gig and got the chance to write for Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre. Brooks produced countless sentences and paragraphs and but still lacked a "written by" credit on a screenplay credit. Once he did and, later, when he directed, he'd impact filmmaking both during and beyond his life, often with social themes few would touch (though occasionally in a heavy-handed way). He also managed to write some novels on the side — while with the Marines during World War II, where he'd also crank out a couple of screenplays (including his first credited one on Cobra Woman, directed by Robert Siodmak and again starring Montez) and report for Stars & Stripes as well while learning about filmmaking from Frank Capra's motion picture unit and eventually on his own editing combat footage into documentaries while attached to the 2nd Marines, Photographic Unit. If the Allies only needed a typewriter to defeat the Axis, Brooks might have been a good option for the weapon. First comes the word…
Though Brooks' legend derives predominantly from his film legacy, he experienced his first rush of acclaim with the publication of his debut novel, written while stationed at Quantico at night in the bathroom, according to the account in Tough as Nails: The Life and Films of Richard Brooks by Douglass K. Daniel. Several publishers rejected it until Edward Aswell at Harper & Brothers, who also edited Thomas Wolfe, agreed to take it — and he shocked Brooks further by telling him (after a few suggestions) they planned to publish in May 1945. This news flabbergasted Brooks who obtained a weekend pass to go to New York because Aswell insisted on informing him in person. Now Brooks had to return to Quantico where the top officers of the Corps about shit bricks when The New York Times published a big review of The Brick Foxhole soon after it hit shelves. (Orville Prescott's take was mixed, assessing it as compulsively readable but weak on characterization.) Its story of hate and intolerance within the Marines brought threats of court-martialing Brooks, since he'd ignored procedure and never submitted the novel to Marine officials for approval ahead of time. They wanted to avoid bad publicity, especially with all the good feelings as the war wound down. "There was nothing in that book that violated security, but their rules and regulations were not for that purpose alone," Brooks told Daniel. Aswell prepared to launch a P.R. counteroffensive with literary giants such as Sinclair Lewis and Richard Wright ready to stand by Brooks. In case you don't know the story of the novel, it concerns a Marine unit in its barracks and on leave in Washington. Through their wartime experiences, some of the men truly turned ugly, suspecting cheating wives and tossing hate against any non-white Christian. It turns out, though the real Marines let the matter drop, what bothered them about the book wasn't the anti-Semitism or racist tendencies of the characters but the murder of a Marine some of the other Marines learn is gay. The U.S. Marines didn't want to promote the idea there might be homosexuals serving in the military. Ironically, they got their wish when The Brick Foxhole transferred to the big screen in 1947 as Crossfire. Brooks wasn't involved in the film version, but they made the murdered Army (The Marines even got to toss it off to another military branch entirely) soldier Jewish in the film. The film actually happens to be very good and was nominated for best picture and earned Robert Ryan his only Oscar nomination ever as supporting actor. What's even sadder is that Crossfire ends up being a much more powerful film against anti-Semitism than the creaky Gentleman's Agreement that took on the same subject that year and won best picture. If there weren't already enough ironic twinges in that story for you, Gentleman's Agreement, probably the grandfather of that tried-and-true staple "let a white guy be the hero of a story about another ethnic group" with Gregory Peck playing a Christian going undercover as a Jew to learn about anti-Semitism, won Elia Kazan his first directing Oscar. Edward Dmytryk, one of The Hollywood Ten, directed Crossfire, which dealt straight on with anti-Semitism and the effects of warfare on men. Then again, once Dmytryk served his jail time, he became the only one of the 10 to name names to HUAC because he wanted to work again.
While he didn't want to make a movie of The Brick Foxhole himself, another former newspaperman turned socially conscious film artist met with Brooks about working with his independent production company. At first, Mark Hellinger tried to lure Brooks away from Universal with the promise of doubling his salary if he'd adapt a play he liked into a movie, but before Brooks could consider that offer, Hellinger called with a more pressing matter. He was producing an adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's famous short story The Killers. The problem: someone had to dream up what happened after the brief tale ends because it certainly wouldn't last 90 minutes otherwise. Hellinger flew Brooks out to meet Papa himself, but he didn't get much out of him but he did come up with an idea for what would happen after the story ends. Hellinger liked it and sent it to John Huston, who wrote the screenplay as a favor. Since both Brooks and Huston had contracts at other studios, neither got screen credits, so Ernest Hemingway's The Killers' official screenplay credit goes to Anthony Veiller, who received an Oscar nomination for best screenplay. He'd previously shared a nomination in the same category for Stage Door. The film also made a star out of Burt Lancaster, who would work with Brooks several times and be his lifelong friend. In fact, Lancaster would star in the next screenplay that Brooks wrote, a Mark Hellinger production directed by one of those people Edward Dmytryk eventually would name before the House Un-American Activities Committee. The film, of course, would be the still-powerful Brute Force, the director, Jules Dassin.
John Huston wasn't happy. Producer Jerry Wald called him, excitement in his voice, to tell him he'd secured the rights to Maxwell Anderson's Broadway play Key Largo for Huston to direct. This didn't thrill Huston, who thought the play gave new meaning to the word awful. Written in blank verse, Anderson's play concerned a deserter from the Spanish-American War. People at a hotel do get taken hostage, but by Mexican hostages. Essentially, Huston tossed the play in the trash bin. Huston hired Brooks to co-write an in-title only version and, still pissed at Wald, barred him from the set. Part of Huston's anger stemmed from the HUAC nonsense, (His outrage would drive him to move to Ireland for a large part of the 1950s.) so he couldn't stomach adapting a play by Anderson whom he considered a reactionary because of his hate of FDR. Despite Huston's distaste for the project, he turned it into a classic film with a little help from Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Lionel Barrymore, Claire Trevor in her Oscar-winning role and, last but certainly not least, Edward G. Robinson as exiled mobster Johnny Rocco, who likes to brag about the power he used to wield. "I made 'em — like a tailor makes a suit of clothes," he tells a former associate. Knowing the story of what happened prior to filming makes you chuckle when you see the credit that reads, "As Produced on the Spoken Stage." It's great to watch Robinson and Bogart go toe-to-toe. Rocco makes a particularly memorable first appearance, lounging upstairs in a hotel bathtub, looking in a way like a prediction of that famous photo of Dalton Trumbo that would be taken decades later. Bogart, updated to a returning WWII veteran, perfectly plays his role of Frank McCloud so that you never know if he's being savvy or scared of the crimnals terrorizing them. "You don't like it, do you Rocco, the storm? Show it your gun, why don't you? If it doesn't stop, shoot it," Frank says at one point, but when he gets a chance to grab a gun and take him out (though Rocco's men would certainly finish Frank afterward), he nonchalantly declares, "One Rocco more or less isn't worth dying for." The script's dialogue crackles and for additional fun touches we get a great Max Steiner score and the multitalented German émigré Karl Freund as cinematographer. The most remarkable thing that Huston did though was to invite Brooks to stay on the set during the film's shooting, something he'd never done as a writer and that he talked about in this YouTube video in 1985.
While I would have liked to have viewed more of Brooks' work that I've never seen (and to re-visit some which I have), time and availability, combined with his prolific nature and the industry's increasingly cavalier willingness to let both old and recent films fade into oblivion, proved to be a problem. After Huston's generosity, Brooks' directing debut would arrive two years later. Four films where Brooks worked solely as a writer remained — the Paris-set spy thriller To the Victor; Any Number Can Play with Clark Gable as an underground casino owner advised by his doctor to get out of the business because of his heart disease; Mystery Street with detectives Ricardo Montalban and Wally Maher consult a Harvard forensics expert (Bruce Bennett) to solve a mystery when a decomposed body washes ashore; and Storm Warning, where model Ginger Rogers goes to visit her sister in a particularly unfriendly town and secretly witnesses a mob lynch a man that her sister (Doris Day) tells her was a reporter who denounced the KKK. Rogers' character gets a bigger shock when she realizes baby sis' husband participated in the lynching. After 1951, every film Brooks worked on he at least held the title of director, beginning with 1950's Crisis with Cary Grant as a doctor vacation with his wife in a small country when the dictator (José Ferrer) kidnaps them to force the doctor to treat his life-threatening condition. The doctor's ethics get tested by his oath and the idea that if he lets the man die, life for the country's people will improve. For a writing-directing debut, Brooks makes a pretty good start even if it doesn't come close to some of the films he wrote. His next four films as director and writer or co-writer I haven't seen, though I tried to watch the last one. The next film, The Light Touch (1952). starred George Sanders and Stewart Granger a collector of stolen art and an art thief, respectively, trying to get their hands on the masterpiece Granger stole and that his wife Pier Angeli stays busy counterfeiting enters their lives. At the time, Granger was married in real life to Jean Simmons, who would become Brooks' second wife about 10 years later. The next two films both starred Bogart. First came Deadline-U.S.A. with Bogie playing an investigative reporter trying to expose a gangster as his paper faces imminent closing followed by Battle Circus co-starring June Allyson where they played medical personnel at a MASH unit during the Korean War. The final film, which I almost watched, was The Last Time I Saw Paris, based on a story by F. Scott Fitzgerald and co-written by Brooks and the Epstein brothers, Van Johnson plays a former soldier returning to the city he liberated in the war, now despondent over his attempts to be a writer. He gets invited to parties with the city's beautiful people and finds one (Elizabeth Taylor) who enchants him. Unfortunately, the DVD transfer on Netflix’s rental copy proved abysmal. The Technicolor has faded beyond belief and it was filmed in an odd 1:75:1 spherical ratio, so every image looked distorted because they just flattened it full screen. After a few minutes, I had to shut it off. Apparently, it's a Warners Archive title now, but of course, they don't offer those for rental so the shitty DVDs will remain for people who don't believe in buying blind. I haven't caught his next two directing efforts either, but they stand out because they marked the first two times (and it only occurred three times) that Brooks directed screenplays written by someone else. In 1953, he directed Richard Widmark as a Korean War vet now serving as a tough drill instructor for new GIs bound for Korea while he's bitter that his request to return to Korea keeps being denied in Take the High Ground! In 1954, Brooks helmed Flame and the Flesh with Lana Turner as unlucky woman trying to get what she can for nothing visiting Europe who finds herself wooed by a gigolo.
With 1955, Brooks wrote and directed the first film that truly garnered him an identity as more than a writer who directs but as a director with Blackboard Jungle, a film that admittedly manages to look both dated and timely simultanouesly, First, as so many old films did, it had to start with a long scroll explaining that American schools maintain high standards, but we need to worry about these juvenile deliquents before this gets out of hand. It gets off to a rockin' start — literally — with opening credits that can't help but make you think of the original beginning to TV's Happy Days as Bill Haley and the Comets get everything moving to "Rock Around the Clock" as new English teacher Richard Dadier (Glenn Ford) arrives to work at all-boys high school North Manual Street. Most of the school overflows with miscreants, especially his class who start calling him "Daddy-O" to avoid pronouncing his name. (Though it's never been confirmed, many assume that the movie inspired Leiber & Stoller's lyric "Who called the English teacher Daddy-O?" in The Coasters' huge late '50s hit "Charlie Brown.") The ensemble Brooks assembled, including some of the "teens" who would make their names much later included Anne Francis as Dadier's pregnant (and, quite frankly, neurotic) wife; Louis Calhern as a veteran teacher left with nothing but cynicism and a desire to beat the crap out of the punks; Richard Kiley as a nerdy math teacher with a love for jazz; Margaret Hayes as another new teacher who doesn't think about how she's dressing and nearly pays for it; Sidney Poitier as a student who appears to be one of the delinquents yet practices playing the piano and singing hymns; and Vic Morrow as the worst kid in the school, a downright criminal. Also, look for appearances by future writer-director Paul Mazursky as a student, Richard Deacon as a teacher and Jamie Farr as another student when he acted using the name Jameel Farah. While Blackboard Jungle offers much to praise, at times it comes off as too simplistic. It did dare to tackle bigotry and use the epithets. Sometimes, it feels eerily like the awful 1984 film Teachers. I kept expecting Calhern to turn out to be like the Royal Dano character and drop dead at his desk. I wonder what Brooks would have thought if he'd seen The Wire's fourth season. Blackboard Jungle earned Brooks his first Oscar nomination for best screenplay. Brooks' competition consisted of Millard Kaufman (who wrote Take the High Ground!) for Bad Day at Black Rock, Paul Osborn for East of Eden, Daniel Fuchs and Isobel Lennart for Love Me or Leave Me and Paddy Chayefsky, who wrote the teleplay that would be the basis for one of Brooks' 1956 films, for Marty. Chayefsky won his first Oscar. Nearly the entire cast excels in spite of some of the weaker parts of Blackboard Jungle (except Francis, burdened with a thankless role) but Morrow stands out in the ensemble as the worst punk.
Labels: blacklist, Bogart, Capra, Cary, Dassin, Doris Day, Edward G., Fiction, Fitzgerald, Fuller, Ginger Rogers, Glenn Ford, Hemingway, Huston, Lancaster, Liz, Mazursky, Poitier, Robert Ryan, Widmark
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