Friday, September 17, 2010

Three to Treasure

Feeling down or blue? Here are two winners that will lift your spirits. We had a friend over for dinner and a double feature the other night. Before eating, we sang along with Disney's Beauty and the Beast and relished for the umpteenth time the delightful antics of Jerry Orbach's French candlestick Lumeire and David Ogden Stiers as the fussy British clock Cogsworth, the warmth of Angela Lansbury's teapot, and the hilarious Richard White as the vainglorious, self-loving Gaston ("I use antlers in all my decoration"). This great film rejuvenated the classic Disney animation department and spawned a hugely successful Broadway production, which makes sense. After all, when you look at this film with its big opening number, its heartfelt solos, and the show-stopping "Be My Guest," you're looking at a stage hit on screen.

After supper, we shared Some Like It Hot, a classic comedy she had not seen. For almost two hours we were all in stitches. In fact, the jokes and pratfalls rush forward so fast that it takes multiple viewings to get most of them. Billy Wilder, one of Hollywood's greatest directors, places this farce in Chicago in 1929, when gangsterism ruled the city. Two out-of-work musicians witness a version of the St. Valentine's Day massacre, led by Spats Colombo, perfectly played by a steely George Raft, who starred in the original Scarface in 1931. Joe becomes Josephine and Jerry becomes Daphne to join an all-girl band headed for Florida. And so begins the greatest gender-bending comedy of all time.

Soon, the girls and Sweet Sue and her Society Syncopators are on a train to Florida, where the aging millionaires are eagerly awaiting them. Almost immediately Jerry (Daphne) disguises himself as an effete millionaire playboy while Joe (Josephine) is plagued by a lecherous septagenerian, played hilariously by Joe E. Brown, another star from the 1930's. What ensues is a classic sequence in which Wilder cuts back and forth between two seductions. Jerry (Tony Curtis) takes Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe) to Brown's yacht and in some of the most innuendo-filled dialogue in film convinces her to seduce him. As their tryst gets hotter, we cut to the millionaire tangoing with Daphne (Jack Lemmon). The sensuous romantic music for Curtis-Monroe has a perfect foil in the overdone beats of the Brown-Lemmon tango. And in a way both seductions are successful in a way that movies today couldn't understand. And let's not forget, Marilyn Monroe's skin-tight, sequinned dress, which in 1959 was close to naked. Or Curtis's spot-on take of the Cary Grant accent.

To complicate an impossible situation, Spats and his gang arrive at the boys' hotel for an opera lovers' convention. Soon Jerry and Joe are on the run again, improbably finding themselves at the feet of Spats and a room of gangsters. Throughout Some It Like Hot, there are references to the golden age of Hollywood, particularly Warner Brothers in the 1930's. When Spats checks his guns in, a young hood is flipping a coin. Raft sneers, "Where'd you get that cheap trick?" The opening car chases are almost exact copies of the old black and white shootem-ups in so many Warner Brothers gangster flicks. After many close calls, the film ends with Joe E. Brown saying one of the classic comedy lines, but you'll have to watch to hear it!

And one more quick recommendation for an entirely different kind of movie treat: The Last Station, a loving look at the political and personal relations of the novelist Leo Tolstoy in his last year. Christopher Plummer, who is amazingly similar to the photos of the real novelist, gives a robust performance of a man of ideals who is torn between family and society's greater needs, and Helen Mirren plays his often melodramatic wife in one of her best roles. James McAvoy is the sensitive young secretary to the literary giant through whose eyes we see the conflict. The film is full of humor and sadness and politics and is sure to spark some discussion.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Nine Years Ago Today

Nine years ago today I found myself in the ICU unit at Emory Hospital. It turns out that I had incurred a weird virus on July 4th of 2001, so that I was unaware of my heart transplant until I came to in early September. I was still learning to make words that beautiful September morning. In any ICU there is little concept of day or night with the bright flourescent lights always on and medical machines humming away, but I am told it was beautiful. Lying there unable to move, I began to notice that the nurses were crying and holding each other as they looked up at the suspended tv set. Later my wife told me why.

Things changed irrevocably for all Americans that September 11th, and we were plunged into a new world of fear of attack, doubt in our national strength, and a sad realization that no longer were we an invulnerable nation. But we also saw heroism and caring on a scale that was inspiring and still is. It took a while for me to get out of Emory and back home and into the classroom, but my 9/11 experience, as remote as it was, will always be with me.