Saturday, February 20, 2010

Best American Actor?

Last night I gave the Olympics a rest and switched to a time-worn PBS documentary about my favorite actor James Stewart. My respect for Stewart grew tremendously over the years I taught a high school film course. Whether it was an awkwardly charming and naive young idealist, a grizzled, tough westerner, or a middle-aged man in throes of unexpected passion, Stewart gave perceptively deep performances. Many credit Spencer Tracy as America's finest male actor because of his natural ease on the screen, his lack of "acting." But Stewart is often accused of just being himself, and he is the object of much parody because of his occasional habit of wide-eyed innocence and even stuttering. Obviously, the detractors have not really seen the art of Jimmy Stewart.

Stewart began as a light comedian in the 1930's and became a star when he climbed aboard the Frank Capra American express in 1937's YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU, a comedy about a family of eccentrics. Stewart plays a stiff blueblood who falls for the only normal member of the family, a spunky Jean Arthur. The film hit big and even won a Best Film Oscar. In 1939, Capra, Stewart, and Arthur collaborated on a much more memorable film in the most memorable year in film history. MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON established Stewart as a romantic lead as well as a symbol of the good, unspoiled American. Among many priceless moments is one in which he awkwardly tries to say goodbye to the Senator's daughter, knocking over a lamp and losing his hat in the process. His comic timing is flawless. In 1942, Stewart won his only (!) Oscar as Best Actor for George Cukor's sophisticated comedy of manners THE PHILADELPHIA STORY. Katharine Hepburn plays society belle Tracy Lord opposite Cary Grant as her former husband and Stewart as news reporter. Naturally both men want her and spend the majority of the film in pursuit. Stewart's finest scenes come when he is drunk on champagne. After a midnight swim the two spar romantically with some of the best dialogue in all of romantic comedy. But the real pay-off comes when Stewart visits Grant and declares his love for the playboy's former wife. Grant is wonderfully suave and sober opposite Stewart's free-wheeling drunk.

After Stewart's outstanding military service, he returned to film his most iconic role, George Bailey, in Frank Capra's fantasy IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE. Sporting one of the finest ensemble casts in Hollywood's history, this tale of an ordirnary man who does far more for the world than he knows has now achieved its own sainthood, and the main credit goes to its star. Whether he's playing the cock-eyed optimistic youth who must give up his dreams to save the Savings and Loan or the desperate man attempting suicide after his firm loses its money, Stewart invests his role with a humanity that few actors can muster. Two scenes stand out. George goes to Mary's house and they awkwardly argue. When George's wealthy friend calls, Mary calls him to the phone as her nervous mother listens above. As the friend prattles on, George and Mary close in on each other until he grabs her and denies his affection and then they break into tears and embrace each other. The second comes on Christmas Eve when George thinks he has lost everything. As he walks into his home, he is besieged by his children with Christmas good will, but he finally breaks down, yells at his child, then embraces her before he storms out of the house. There is a ferocity, a helplessness that Stewart pulls out for these scenes that is almost scary.

But it was late in his career that Stewart gave his defining performance. The film was Alfred Hitchcock's VERTIGO, based on a French psychological novel. Filmed largely in San Francisco and drawing on the city's history and aura, VERTIGO originally puzzled viewers and was not a success with critics or audiences. However, it has reached the status of being on practically every top best films list and is definitely Hitchcock's finest film. The story depicts an aging bachelor cop who has had to retire from the force because of his condition of vertigo. Except for this disablity, he seems steady with his life. All that changes when he accepts a detective's job following the beautiful but strange wife of a multimillionaire. We embark on a dreamlike descent into romantic obsession as Scotty Ferguson becomes obsessed with Madeleine. The film has many surprises and magnificent set pieces. Of the latter, Scotty and Madeleine's embrace by the Pacific sets the mark for all-out romanticism of the old Hollywood style. Of course, the tower scene ranks as one of Hitchcock's most mesmerizing, and we get to see it from three different perspectives, all of them answering but posing more questions. There have been many studies of middle-age crisis, but none probes such depths as this one. That can be seen and felt in Stewart's wrenching performance. James Stewart went on to play many other roles, but he never again received the challenge of VERTIGO.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Movie Valentines

Hollywood has given us many great and not so great romantic moments. To celebrate Valentine's Day, here are five great ones.

5. NOW VOYAGER, 1942. At the end of this classic tear-jerker, Bette Davis and Paul Henreid, sacrifice their love for his daughter, but they share one last cigarette together. He lights both, inhales, and hands her one. Bette says, "Let's don't ask for the moon, Jerry, we have the stars." Max Steiner's music swells, the camera lifts, and we see those stars through the wispy smoke. I know cigs are taboo now, but this scene smokes!

4. QUEEN CHRISTINA, 1933. The queen of Sweden, Greta Garbo, renounces her throne, disguises herself as a boy (right!) and spends an evening with the Spanish ambassador for whom she pines. After their happy discovery, she slowly walks around their room touching objects as though they are holy relics as he watches adoringly. Garbo is mesmerizing with the help of high key lighting. No one ever held a camera close-up like Garbo.

3. CINEMA PARADISO, 1988. This exquistely lush Italian film shows the growth of a cute kid into a romantic young man into a cynical film director. Among the many poignant sections, we watch as he waits through rain, snow, and finally New Year's Eve for his beloved to open her window. When she does, he walks away. But fret not,
they have a romantic meeting later on. Ennio Morricone's provides a beautiful background.

2. CASABLANCA, 1942. First Ingrid Bergman attempts to seduce Bogart to get those letters of transit. When that fails she pulls a gun, but she melts into his arms as the film dissoves. Later Rick tells Ilsa, "We thought we lost Paris, last night we got it back." Aaah, it gets better and better "as time goes by."

1. BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S, 1961. To the strains of Henry Mancini's "Moon River," Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard search for her forsaken "Cat" in the pouring rain. When Cat finally meows, Hepburn with kitty in tow falls into Peppard's arms. Gulp. Cut, print it!

Friday, February 12, 2010

HBO scores one for Peace

Although HBO has given us some questionable boons such as ROME and, in my minority opinion, THE SOPRANOS and ENTOURAGE, they deserve high praise for their film TAKING CHANCE, which recently won a Golden Globe for Kevin Bacon as Best Actor in a TV film or series. Bacon plays a career Marine who saw little action in Desert Storm and settled down to a life as a numbers cruncher and family man in the service. The latter is established quickly and poignantly in scenes with his wife and young children. The otherwise button down Marine is a happy, giving family man once he crosses the threshold of home. But he happens to scan the latest casualties from Iraq and something strikes him deeply. Within days he has volunteered to accompany the body of a young marine to his home in Wyoming.

TAKING CHANCE could have been another sentimental take on the suffering of families or a open attack on the Bush policies of war. Instead, it artfully shows what the government did not show until the end of the last decade: those body boxes draped with American flags. One telling shot shows a number of them being loaded onto a giant plane headed for America. Other scenes show the preparation of the body, the careful cleaning and repairing, the perfect uniform replacing the savaged, bloody one, and much more. These scenes are intercut through the action of the film, as Bacon's character grows more anxious and intense. He begins to notice the respect that everyone involved in the journey shows him and Chance. From encounters on his plane to conversations with air mechanics to funeral home directors, his disciplined salute and attention to his duty draws people to Chance and what he has sacrificed. In a strong scene near the end of the film, the Marine almost breaks down as he admits his disappointment that he did not serve in Iraq, but the Korean veteran he confides in and Chance's family show that he has done a great service. Bacon plays this Marine with steely reserve but also with feeling. The look on his face at the funeral makes a strong statement about this boy's death. The film ends (spoiler alert) with photos of the real Chance, from his maturity at 20 down through the years of his boyhood. He is blond, smiling, athletic, filled with fun. TAKING CHANCE has made its point. Both my wife and I were fighting back the tears and the anger.