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Oscar’s Hosts, Hollywood Hit? and Passings…

November 30th, 2010 No comments

And the Oscar Comes From…

The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences has announced its hosts for the 83rd Annual Academy Awards, which are scheduled for Sunday, March 7, 2011. As with last year’s choice of “It’s Complicated” co-stars Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin, producers Dan Jinks and Don Mischer opted for Hollywood star wattage over comedy hosting credits this year and cast Hollywood stars (and potential nominees) James Franco and Anne Hathaway as show co-hosts, the Academy announced yesterday. Neither actor is a newcomer to the Oscars: Franco was a presenter in 2009, and performed in a filmed spoof of his stoner character with “Pineapple Express”  co-star Seth Rogen. And Anne Hathaway proved a pleasant surprise when she ‘spontaneously’ sang and danced with  Hugh Jackman during his opening number the same year.

It’s  no coincidence that the Academy aimed younger and more mainstream for its hosts this year; the ratings for the Oscar telecast, a mainstay of Academy funding, have eroded in recent years, and clearly the Academy hopes to stanch this loss. Franco is a likely Oscar nominee for his lead role in the intense “127 Hours,” and Hathaway will soon appear – with an emphasis on appear – opposite Jake Gyllenhaal in Ed Zwick’s “Love and Other Drugs,” in which the pair perform explicit nude scenes together. Owing to Hathaway’s character’s developing malady, she, too, stands a chance of an Oscar nomination. It’s a fervent hope of the Academy powers-that-be that this year’s telecast will reverse the trend of slipping ratings – and making the hosts younger and sexier is obviously a strategic move toward that goal. Will it work? Check in on Monday, March 8, 2011…

Beverly Hills Murder Mystery

Hollywood is still talking about the murder of successful publicist Ronni Chasen, who was shot multiple times early Tuesday, November 16th,  as she waited for a traffic light in her Mercedes on Sunset Boulevard in a quiet stretch of Beverly Hills. The murder of the diminutive publicist, who was hailed by clients and studio heads alike as tops in her field, has shocked the moviemaking community. Chasen was returning home from attending a premiere and after-party for Screen Gems’ “Burlesque,” when she was apparently targeted at the traffic light at Whittier Drive. Beverly Hills Police, who rarely see homicides, are keeping mum, although they have reportedly turned down offers of assistance from the Los Angeles Sheriff and the L.A.P.D.. Within hours of the killing, B.H. Police confiscated computers and other items from Chasen’s home and publicity firm office, but in the weeks that have passed no further information has been forthcoming. Even still, rumors circulate, including a disputed suggestion today that red-light cameras at the intersection had been tampered with to make them inoperable.  

Chasen, 64, was credited with creating the modern ‘Oscar’ campaign that is so ubiquitous at year’s end in Hollywood. The “For Your Consideration” ads that pepper Hollywood trade publications are a testimony to Chasen, whose publicity efforts brought Oscar gold (and instant credibility and higher salaries) to actors, producers and composers involved with films like “Driving Miss Daisy,” “Shakespeare in Love,” “Slumdog Millionaire” and “The Hurt Locker,” to name a few. In a rare show of Hollywood unity, six major film companies joined to honor Chasen with a memorial service a week after her death. She is survived by her brother, filmmaker Larry Cohen (“Q,””Phone Booth”).

Darth is Dad? Surely You’re Not Serious…

As the year winds down, there are more losses from old Hollywood… Irvin Kirshner, perhaps best known as the director of “The Empire Strikes Back,” died Saturday at age 87. Kershner, who studied film at USC, began his career producing documentaries for the U.S. Information Service in the Middle East, then turned his attentions toward television, where he directed documentaries and episodes of popular shows like “Ben Casey” and “Naked City.” Kirshner transitioned into feature films, earning a distinction as one of producer Roger Corman’s first proteges when he was handed the directing reins for 1958’s “Stakeout on Dope Street.” A-list films (and stars) followed, including “A Fine Madness” and “Never Say Never Again” with Sean Connery, “Up the Sandbox” with Barbra Streisand, and “Eyes of Laura Mars,” with Faye Dunaway (featuring a young Tommy Lee Jones as a killer). But Kirshner had his greatest commercial success with “The Empire Strikes Back,” a substantially darker film than its “Star Wars” predecessor; while critical reaction was muted at the time of its release, now the film is often referred to as the best of the original three “Star Wars” movies.

Leslie Nielsen, whose career as a dramatic leading man took a left turn to embrace comedy stardom in his mid 50s, died from complications of pneumonia in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He was 84. Born in Canada, the handsome young Nielsen studied acting at the Academy of Radio Arts in Toronto, and later at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City. Live television roles followed on shows like “Goodyear Playhouse,” “Tales of Tomorrow” and “Kraft Theatre.” Before long, the much-in-demand Nielsen was making feature films, including “Forbidden Planet,” while he continued working steadily as a TV guest star for the next 20 years. Although he remained busy, his roles grew increasingly colorless until he was cast in 1980’s “Airplane!” as Dr. Rumack. His deadpan delivery of lines like “Don’t call me Shirley” and “I’m a doctor, you can tell me anything” revitalized his career, and Leslie Nielsen was ‘rediscovered,’ at age 54, as a comedic star. He went on to star in a TV series, “Police Squad!,” as well as 3 “The Naked Gun” feature film spinoffs starring that series’ main character, Police Lieutenant Frank Drebin. All told, Nielsen’s career covered over 60 years and resulted in 239 TV and movie roles; his credits ranged from the ridiculous to the sublime, but he will surely be remembered for making us laugh.

George Hickenlooper 1963-2010

November 19th, 2010 No comments

 

As we wrote earlier in For Bards Blog, film director George Hickenlooper died of natural causes in Denver on October 30, 2010. He was there to screen his latest film, “Casino Jack,” starring Oscar-winner Kevin Spacey as disgraced Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff. George Hickenlooper’s cousin, Denver mayor John Hickenlooper, who was just elected Governor of Colorado, made the sad announcement of George’s passing.

George Hickenlooper, apart from having a remarkably distinctive name, was a talented and driven film director – and a nice guy. I actually met George at Yale back in 1983, where I had returned after recently graduating to write an article about the study of film at the university for the alumni magazine. During my time in New Haven I met with several students who were producing films, including “Flashdance” star Jennifer Beals, but it was the young sophmore Hickenlooper who caught my attention. The other students I spoke with recounted their film experiences or offered to show me their work, but young Hickenlooper produced a polished ‘Press Kit’ of his film career, dating back to his days as a super-8mm director in his teens, replete with press clippings and reviews. At the time, Hickenlooper told me his current project was “Newark Needs Insurance,” an oddly prescient 16mm film “black comedy about the arms race.” As he described it, the 50 minute color and B&W sound film told the story of the theft of a nuclear device from a terrorist group, and involved a budget of $6,000.

After graduating Yale in 1986, Hickenlooper interned for low-budget king Roger Corman, then in 1988 he made his professional bow as a director with “Art, Acting and the Suicide Chair: Dennis Hopper,” a short documentary for TV. His dealings with Hopper and Corman protege Francis Ford Coppola would pay off big-time for his next project, which is arguably the best ‘making-of’ documentary ever assembled. The film is “Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse,” directed by Hickenlooper, Fax Bahr and Eleanor Coppola (whose on-set ‘home footage’ was the inspiration for the documentary), and is an incredible perspective inside the experience of filming Francis Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now,” a movie that almost killed its star, nearly bankrupted its director, and won the Palm d’Or at Cannes… Hickenlooper won an Emmy for ‘Hearts of Darkness,’ but the film, clearly an Oscar contender, was declared ineligible because of its HBO airings.

George’s next film, the 1994 short “Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade,” catapulted writer/lead Billy Bob Thornton to stardom once  Thornton took his own story and expanded it to feature length, replacing Hickenlooper with himself as director. Thornton won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, and was nominated for an acting nod as well.

A TV-movie pilot followed for George, “Crosstown Traffic,” but the show was never picked up. Soon after, George made his theatrical feature directing debut with the Rory CochraneKyra Sedgwick-starrer “The Low Life,” about dissolute Yalies living in Los Angeles. His next film was a mystery drama, 1996’s “Persons Unknown,” starring Joe Mantegna. After that, Hickenlooper returned to short film filmmaking, sketching out “The Big Brass Ring”  in 1997, which would prepare George to make the feature length version of the story a few years later, in 1999. His next film was a documentary: a profile of iconic 60s filmmaker Monte Hellman in “Monte Hellman: American Auteur.” Equally adept at making fiction films and documentaries, Hickenlooper would alternate doing both for the rest of his career.

After the feature version of his “The Big Brass Ring” in 1999, which was based on an original story by Orson Welles, George set his sights on “The Man from Elysian Fields,” in 2001, which starred Andy Garcia as a writer who is seduced into a gigolo lifestyle by mysterious Luther Fox, played by Mick Jagger. The film was well-reviewed, and marked a welcome return to the screen for Jagger in a role that seemed custom-made for him.

George would only go on to make 7 other films, four of them documentaries: “The Mayor of the Sunset Strip” about L.A. radio legend Rodney Bingenheimer (perhaps the only personality with a name more distinctive than Hickenlooper’s) in 2003,  “Speechless,” in 2008, about the WGA Writers’ Strike, a 2009 short, “Out in the City,” and his 2009 documentary “‘Hick’ Town,” about his cousin John Hickenlooper, Denver’s mayor, as Hizzoner attempts to keep things moving smoothly during Denver’s hosting of the 2008 Democratic National Convention. In between documentaries, George made the short “Bizarre Love Triangle,” in 2005, appearing onscreen as a director to whom actresses confess their sexual histories. His next feature film, 2006’s “Factory Girl,” starring Sienna Miller as ill-fated Andy Warhol muse Edie Sedgwick, revisited historical territory George covered in “The Mayor of the Sunset Strip,” a pattern he repeated often in his directing career.

George Hickenlooper was in Denver to screen his latest feature film, “Casino Jack,” which relates the story of convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his brazen influence peddling. Produced by star Kevin Spacey, the film, which opens on December 17, is already earning critical plaudits. Unfortunately, the driving force behind the project will not be present when his film opens.

George Hickenlooper is survived by his wife Suzanne and their son Charles. “The light that burns twice as bright burns but half as long.” He will truly be missed.