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Hollywood Autumn

September 30th, 2010 No comments

It has been a tough week for Hollywood and Broadway, not to mention the comedy world, in terms of losses. In just the last week, four Hollywood legends have passed away and two younger talents, a renowned editor and popular comic, have died unexpectedly. Most of us have heard the old saying about losses coming in threes, but multiples of three? That’s hard to take.

Eddie Fisher died at his home in Berkeley, California on September 23, 2010 from complications of hip surgery. He was 82. A singer and actor, Eddie Fisher was a top performer whose tumultuous love life commanded headlines throughout the 1950s. As a teen heartthrob, he scored four number-one hits, and his good looks and charm won him his first wife, Debbie Reynolds, with whom he had two children, including writer-actress Carrie Fisher of “Star Wars” and “Postcards From the Edge” fame. In 1959, Fisher earned notoreity and public scorn when he left Reynolds for Elizabeth Taylor in a messy breakup, complicated by the fact that Taylor had recently been widowed when her husband Michael Todd died in an air crash – and Eddie Fisher was Todd’s best friend. Fisher married actress Connie Stevens after Taylor left him for co-star Richard Burton while she was making the ill-fated “Cleopatra” in Rome. A period of decline, due to personal, financial and drug problems, ensued in the 1970s. Fisher married twice more, and wrote about his vicissitudes in two autobiographical tomes: “Eddie Fisher: My Life, My Loves,” and “Been There, Done That.”  In addition to Carrie Fisher, he is survived by actress Joely Fisher, his daughter by Connie Stevens, two other children, and six grand-children.

Gloria Stuart (nee Stewart) passed away September 26, 2010. She had turned 100 years old on July 4, 2010, but earned her current celebrity from her role as 101 year-old Rose in James Cameron’s 1997 “Titanic.” Oddly, Stuart’s long life makes the fictional Rose’s look mundane: born in Santa Monica in 1910, Gloria attended University of California at Berkeley, where she met her first husband, a sculptor. Living in an artists’ colony with the likes of photographer Edward Weston and journalist Lincoln Steffens, Gloria acted in a local theater and wrote for newspapers. In 1932 a trip to the Pasadena Playhouse earned Gloria a newfound respect for theater – and a 7 year contract with Universal Pictures. One of the founding members of the Screen Actors Guild and a regular at the famed Algonquin ‘Round Table,’ over the next 14 years she performed in 46 films, acting beside Claude Rains in “The Invisible Man” and opposite Boris Karloff in “The Old Dark House,” both directed by “Frankenstein” director James Whale. Eventually the roles grew increasingly undemanding, and, in 1946, Gloria Stuart (she changed the last name for marquee symmetry) bid her Hollywood career goodbye. Remarried, she traveled around the world, settled in New York City, had a daughter, taught herself to paint, moved to Italy, later began a new career as a master print maker, and eventually wound up as Rose in Cameron’s epic film, playing 101 years old at age 87. A full life, indeed.

As we already noted in For Bards Blog, Academy Award nominated film editor Sally Menke was found dead on September 28, 2010 after failing to return from a trail walk during a record heatwave. In addition to editing all of Quentin Tarantino’s films, Sally also edited two films for Billy Bob Thornton. She was 56 years old; she leaves behind a husband, TV director Dean Parisot, and two daughters.

Arthur Penn died on September 28, 2010 of congestive heart failure, one day after his 88th birthday. Arthur Penn was born in Philadelphia in 1922; his older brother Irving earned international fame as a photographer, but Arthur followed his interests into theater after serving in WWII, working with then-unknown director Joshua Logan. Eventually he garnered a job as a floor manager for the “Colgate Comedy Hour” in New York City, and worked his way up to directing live TV dramas on “Goodyear TV Playhouse,”  “Philco TV Playhouse” and “Playhouse 90.” Before too long, Penn was dividing his time between Hollywood and New York City, directing Broadway hits like “The Miracle Worker,” “Two for the Seesaw”  and “Wait Until Dark.” After winning a Tony for directing “The Miracle Worker,” Arthur Penn directed his Broadway stars Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke in the film version of William Gibson’s drama, earning his first Oscar nomination and winning Oscars for both Bancroft and Duke. Penn only made a dozen theatrical feature films, most notably “Bonnie and Clyde,” the 1967 film whose over-the-top violent ending polarized critics of the day. While a string of Broadway successes and quirky films like “Little Big Man” and “Night Moves” followed, Penn will forever be known as the ‘bloodthirsty’ director of “Bonnie and Clyde,” opening the door for cinema followers like Sam Peckinpah, although Penn himself likened the 1967 film to the Vietnam War, exposing the grittiness of violence to give it value.

Comedian Greg Giraldo died Wednesday, September 29, 2010, five days after falling into a coma after an apparent accidental prescription overdose. He was 44 years old. The comedian was a Comedy Central cable TV network mainstay, appearing regularly on “Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn” and Lewis Black’s “Root of All Evil,” and earning special acclaim as host of Comedy Central’s ‘roasts,’ where his sarcastic humor and semi-serious rants offered a glimpse into the comedian’s darker side. Initially educated as a lawyer, Giraldo gave up the legal profession to tour as a successful comedian, and his popularity soon earned him appearances on late night talk shows. His ascendancy on Comedy Central followed. Giraldo, a divorced father of three, was set to perform in New Brunswick, New Jersey when he was discovered unresponsive and taken to a local hospital.

Hollywood legend Tony Curtis died in his home in Henderson, Nevada, also on September 29, 2010, of cardiac arrest. He was 85. Born Bernard Schwartz in the Bronx on June 3, 1925, Curtis faced a bleak future when his parents, Hungarian immigrants, placed him and his brother in a state-run institution during the height of the Depression. Toughened by street life and anti-Semitism, Curtis entered the US Navy during WWII, serving on the submarine tender U.S.S. Proteus. After his service, he gravitated toward theater, working in the Catskills until a casting agent saw him and invited him to Hollywood. Signing a contract with Universal, he settled on the pseudonym Anthony Curtis. By 1951 he was the Tony Curtis; it was also the year he married actress Janet Leigh. They had two daughters, including actress-author Jamie Lee Curtis. Curtis carved out a successful career during the 1950s and 60s, forming alliances with directors Richard Fleischer and Blake Edwards, among others. As his Hollywood film career stalled, Curtis tried his hand at two television shows, “The Persuaders” and “McCoy.” After a stint at the Betty Ford Center to deal with alcohol and drug issues, Curtis re-invented himself as a fine artist, painting boldly-signed, Matisse-influenced works. After his divorce from Leigh, Curtis married five more times. He is survived by 5 children; one son died in 1994 of a drug overdose.

It certainly is a lot of loss to deal with in a short period of time, but we can take comfort in the fact that all these talents left behind works we can continue to enjoy.

Movies That Will Stay With You

August 2nd, 2010 No comments

In a summer of mostly instantly unforgettable movies (anybody remember “Sex and the City 2” or “Robin Hood”? I didn’t think so), I began to think about older movies I’ve seen that have stayed with me – because their stories and plots were so compelling, or because the films themselves were so thought-provoking. Most of them, if not all, are available on Netflix or Blockbuster.com, and if you seek out an alternative to today’s formulaic fare, you might want to check out one of these memorable flicks. But be warned – ‘different’ or ‘memorable’ aren’t always ‘more fun.’ Some of these movies are downers, truth be told. But they’re all affecting – and effective. If you want to stretch your cinematic boundaries, give one (or more) of these films a try.

  1. “Nobody Knows”  This Japanese film from writer/director Hirokazu Koreeda is based on a true story of a Japanese mother whose efforts to hide her children from her landlord and neighbors take on tragic proportions. A ‘Home Alone‘ cautionary-tale of the first order, this film has haunted me ever since I saw it – 2 years ago. Because it remains so affecting, it will probably be a while until I watch it again, but I recommend it to anyone who loves good movies – with a caveat that parents of young children shouldn’t watch it with them (it’s rated PG-13), and that it is as troubling as it is fulfilling, movie-wise.
  2. “The Passenger”  This film, I feel, represents the late Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni at the peak of his career. With earlier arthouse hits like “L’Avventura” and “Blow Up,” he cemented his place in world cinema. In “The Passenger,” which employs his trademark brand of nihilistic plotting, a reporter (played by Jack Nicholson) trades places with a dead arms dealer, with predictably ambiguous results. The film represents a nifty travelogue of sorts, but the movie’s ending will leave you puzzling for a long time.
  3. The 400 Blows”  Francois Truffaut’s autobiographical film (and the first of his ‘Antoine Dionel’ features) is a gritty, no-holds-barred retelling of his own wayward youth. As a foot-soldier director in the first wave of the French ‘New Wave,’ Truffaut crafted a kinetic, homage-laden film which revealed his affinity to work with young actors, and which featured the most famous ‘foreign film’ ‘freeze frame ending’ in cinema history. Truffaut and Jeanne-Pierre Leaud would go on to make at least 5 other movies which deal with the Doinel/Truffaut character.
  4. “The Wicker Man”  Not the disappointing 2006 remake from  Neil LaBute, but rather the 1973 original feature film written by Anthony Shaffer and starrring the late Edward Woodward. A ‘lost classic’ for a number of years, “The Wicker Man” resurfaced a decade or so after its initial theatrical run. Although the 2006 remake did its best, Woodward’s final scene in the original is one of haunting realization and bravura acting, and stays with the viewer long after the credits have played.
  5. “Seconds”  This 1966 black-and-white cult classic from director John Frankenheimer (“Ronin”) is a disturbing and prescient look into the world of “Nip/Tuck” some 30 years later… Rock Hudson plays a middle-aged businessman who learns of a way to ‘do-over’ his life, courtesy of a super-secret organization that can make you look younger, offer a great career and even jettison your old identity… but at a hefty price.
  6. “Night Moves”  Arthur Penn’s 1975 film about private dick Harry Moseby (Gene Hackman) is an existential film noir which deals with themes of self-worth, sensuality and self-control. Penn’s touch is evident from his emphasis on young actress Melanie Griffith’s sexuality to the film’s utterly 1970s ‘director’s ending.’ I suspect if this picture were made in a later decade, the studio would’ve forced Penn to shoot multiple endings for the DVD release… (By the way, his 1976 film “The Missouri Breaks” is worthy of an extra look, but keep in mind that next-door-neighbors – in this case Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando – do not best co-stars make…)
  7. “The Blair Witch Project”   OK, don’t laugh. This film was one of the first ‘viral marketing’ efforts which actually took root. Since then there have been a LOT of imitators, but with the exception of “Paranormal Activity,” no one has come close (including the ‘Blair Witch ‘ sequel) to the success of this film’ssuccess.  First-person point-of-view may be trite, but it WORKS… As a result, this low-budgeted film gets points for profit – and being the first at the trough…
  8. “Paths of Glory”  Two words: Stanley Kubrick. It’s early Kubrick at that… and the result is fantastic. Watch this film all the way through and tell me you are not surprised… “Paths of Glory”: features several great twists and superior performances; not the least of which is a sequence involving a frightened female German singer in the movie’s disturbing – but eventually cathartic – final scene. Although billed as Susanne Christiane, she became better known as Christiane Kubrick – the director’s wife.

If you recognize a common thread through these films, it’s that they are the product of bygone days. It’s not that older films are better, but sometimes more mature filmmakers can recognize  a human condition that is timeless. They are also – in most cases – the films of my youth. And that makes them even more valuable. There’s not a cookie-cutter movie here – they are all originals.

Why not give one a try?