Thursday, March 24, 2011

Last of the Legends

When I was a young teen, my brother and I shared an upstairs bedroom across from the attic. My side, often delineated by a chalk border, had its share of funny angles because of the roof's steep inclines. So, before I turned out the lights at night, I would look up at a bevy of Hollywood beauties--Ava Gardner, Marilyn, but especially Liz. Liz in a white slip-like garment, Liz in a tightly bodiced white gown in a shot from ELEPHANT WALK, and Liz in close-up with that amazing skin, those mesmerizing violet eyes, those smoldering lips. Yes, I was hooked. In 1953 I would take the bus down town, buy a bunch of Krystals, and take my seat of worship at the Strand Theater to watch a melodramatic pot boiler called ELEPHANT WALK. Liz played an innocent English girl who marries a rich plantation owner from Ceylon. In an obvious rip-off of REBECCA, Liz is haunted by the spell of her husband's domineering father who deliberately built his mansion across a traditional elephant path to water. By the end of the film, a love triangle has heated up and the elephants are on the war path. Naturally Liz is alone in the house in that little white dress as the elephants storm through. I sat through this movie five successive weekends.

Such was the power of Elizabeth Taylor for me as a teen, but it grew, along with my awareness that she could do a lot better than ELEPHANT WALK. And she already had, especially in one of her best films, George Stevens' classic social/romantic drama A PLACE IN THE SUN, based on Theodore Drieser's AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY. Taylor plays a wealthy capitalist princess who falls in love with a distant relative who works in her father's factory. Their love is doomed because he has made another worker pregnant and is eventually accused of her drowning death. Montgomery Clift plays George Eastman and the love scenes between Taylor and Clift are among the most memorable in movie history, especially their sudden realization of passion in the middle of a crowded dance floor. Angela Vickers pulls George out to the patio, and Stevens' camera frames them as closely as possible, their gorgeous features filling the screen.

As Angela offers to see George after work each day, she coos, "you'll be my pick up."
George: "I am the happiest person in the world."
Angela: "The second happiest."
George: (filled with guilt and repression) "Oh, Angela, if I could only tell you how much I love you. If I could only tell you all.."
Angela: (comforting him with a breath-taking closeness, pulling him into her as the camera swoops in) "Tell Mama. Tell Mama, All." FADE OUT.

Elizabeth Taylor, who died this week at the age of 79, managed to pull that special magic in many other movies, with many men in her personal life, and with her public. Yes, she made some truly terrible movies. THE SANDPIPER, 1965, features Taylor as a free spirit living at Big Sur and seducing a doubting Episcopal priest to the tune of "The Windmills of Your Mind." And it gets much, much worse (or better, depending on what you are into). But the next year she won her second Oscar as Martha, the foul-mouthed harpy in Edward Albee's scathing drama WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF. Mike Nichols' direction of Taylor and Richard Burton as her husband was brilliant as were the performances of the cast. Playing radically against type and adding weight and age, Taylor transformed herself into Martha, giving heart-rending, often hilarious pathos to the character.

Taylor's "private" life was always more news than her movies, but to see her worth as an actress one needs to look back at her Maggie in Tennessee Williams' CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF or her face-off with Katherine Hepburn in the sinister SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER to know that beauty is not her only asset. Her innocent but compelling early beauty in films like FATHER OF THE BRIDE and especially IVANHOE, in which she bewitched both Robert Taylor and George Sanders, show not only her beauty but her humanity.

As the post-mortems pile up, they emphasize Taylor's lust for life, her husbands, her medical traumas, and her beauty. They haven't caught the full life. Elizabeth Taylor was too much for such a paltry pigeon hole. She was Elizabeth Taylor and she knew it.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

When movies make a difference

No one can argue that movies are made to entertain and to make money. Often the latter goal cancels out the former. Just look at some the dreadfully bloated or uninspired movies of recent days. THE TOURIST promises fireworks between Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie, but the movie is a boring dud, unlike its inspiration, the sparkling Cary Grant/Audrey Hepburn comic romantic thriller CHARADE.

We know that entertaining films can be thoughtful and even change opinions, even lives. Consider the big Oscar winner THE KING'S SPEECH, a small tale of courage and an unusual friendship. Or Spielberg's moving SCHINDLER'S LIST, a movie that put the Holocaust in the spotlight for new generations as well as old. Very few viewers were able to maintain a blase cool while watching the horrors and heroism depicted in stark black and white with John Williams' magnificent score illuminating the darkness.

I have been thinking back over some of the films I used in my Cinema and English classes over the years. Obviously, films like PAN'S LABYRINTH, CHILDREN OF MEN, and THE BRIDGE OVER THE RIVER KWAI are films that have important messages that are conveyed with imagination and power. I can honestly say that in each of these films I found ideas of profound depth about war, despotism, loyalty, and love.

But these are obvious choices. I want to go back to several films that changed my attitude or reminded me of what I had forgotten about life. The first is the Bette Davis classic weeper NOW, VOYAGER, in which a repressed young woman suffers a breakdown at the hands of her domineering mother. After her recovery, she makes a life for herself and finally faces her mother's tyranny. The mother threatens to cut her out of her sizable will, but suddenly Charlotte Vale sits back and realizes "I'm not afraid any more." Naturally she has the aid of strings and a voice-over to back her up, but somehow this scene had a special resonance for me at a critical time, and I found myself repeating the same mantra: "I'm not afraid any more."

The other night I watched another Warner Brothers classic, KINGS' ROW, 1942, on Turner Classic Movies. Though filled with soap operatic flourishes, the film succeeds on the strength of its narrative drive and a magnificent ensemble cast. An idealistic Parris Mitchell lives in a lovely mid-western Victorian town, which naturally seethes with dark secrets such as child abuse and even incest. The town has two doctors, one a brilliant recluse and father of his first love, and the other, a sadistic quack who often performs unnecessary surgeries, including amputating the legs of Parris's best friend Drake McHugh (played by Ronald Reagan). The doctors are played by two of the best character actors in the Warner stable, Claude Rains and Charles Coburn. While Parris is learning psychotherapy in Vienna, Drake suffers a terrible accident, which causes him to need the services of his enemy, the surgery-happy doctor. Knowing that his daughter is madly in love with Drake, he ruthlessly cuts the young man's legs off. When Drake wakes up, he utters the film's and Reagan's most famous line: "Where's the rest of me?!"(personal caveat: I've always wondered that as well) Parris proves to be the best possible friend and helps Drake and his wife with financial and psychological support. In the climactic scene Parris forces Drake to face the truth that his surgery was an act of malice, not real medicine. At this moment, the film approaches a fundamental truth that also has meaning for me. One has to accept the reality of his situation and either give up or move on in life, despite the difficulties.

In both NOW, VOYAGER and KINGS ROW, dramatic situations illustrate well-known maxims about life, ones we know but forget. They may seem melodramatic but they have a reality that rings true for all of us. And that's a lot more than most movies offer today.

Monday, March 7, 2011

RANGO rings them in...UNKNOWN, almost

In the rather empty theaters following the rush of good films competing for Oscars, there hasn't been much of worth to watch. Several weeks ago we saw Liam Neeson facing off against amnesia, world hunger, and terrorism, with a lot of help from German beauty Dianne Krueger as a cab-crashing illegal. UNKNOWN is Neeson's follow-up to his surprise action thriller TAKEN from 2009 and follows its formula. A big, hard-hitting but quiet man goes ballistic when he or his are threatened. In TAKEN, his daughter was kidnapped by international nasties. And in UNKNOWN Neeson's memory is wiped out after his cab plunges into the river. The film features a shaky plot, something about curing hunger as a cover for terrorism, but it clips along quickly until it reaches its rather absurd conclusion. It's fun, but not particularly logical.

A definite step-up in quality is the new Matt Damon thriller THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU, a trendy blend of old-time romance, chase, and science fiction. Fortunately, the romance triumphs over the rest. Damon convincingly plays a fiery senatorial candidate who falls over sexy and smart Emily Blunt. This doesn't conform to the PLAN of the Guardians (who may be angels but certainly believe in pre-destination).
According to their plans, Damon will eventually become president and change the course of history. Sounds too heavy? Don't worry, there are enough twists and turns and savvy dialogue to keep the philosophical jargon in check. And Damon and Blunt are dynamite together.

But the top choice in this group is the animated RANGO, which features the voice of Johnny Depp as a fast-talking lizard who gets trapped in the wild west and must save a town called Dirt. What follows is a series of clever allusions to classic westerns such as HIGH NOON (several shoot-outs in the dusty main street with no help in sight), THE SEARCHERS, and many others. But the biggest send-up is CHINATOWN, the classic noir directed by Roman Polanski, in which the nasty Noah Cross declares, "The man who controls the water for LA is the man who controls everything!"
As in CHINATOWN, the hoarding of city water for profit is the dirty secret in Dirt. Surrounded by an hilarious crowd of animated desert inhabitants, Rango acts as detective and hero in this clever, adult-tinged farce. See this one.

Friday, March 4, 2011


The recent Supreme Court decision allowing free speech for protesters such as the members of the Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas has stirred a national firestorm. The Kansas congregation is famous (infamous) for their outrageous behavior at funerals of our servicemen.They carried signs saying "God Hates Our Soldiers" and "God hates Fags." Were they there to celebrate the lives of those who died for them and all Americans? No, they were there to protest gay rights. See the connection? Perhaps, there's a thin thread from the end of "Don't ask, don't tell" to protesting against gays at a serviceman's funeral, but it's tenuous, considering that the Westboro crowd also say that God hates not only "fags" but also Islam, Israel, and India, among many others.

Has the Supreme Court stretched the boundaries of the First Amendment beyond comprehension? Actually, not. After all, think where our country would be without the free speech of the founding fathers, Abe Lincoln, the leaders of the women's movement, Martin Luther King and so many other fighters for human rights, the gay rights movement and many, many more. And, yes, members of the Klan, corrupt politics, flag burners, the governor of Arizona, the Tea Party, Sarah Palin, and even members of this so-called church of God that claims to be speaking for God. Is my diatribe full of anger, sarcasm, and bias? You betcha! After all, I've got freedom of speech. And I know that the Court made the right decision, whether we like it or not.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Notes from Tinseltown

This is my third visit to California and second to LA, where my daughter and her family now live. After watching the Oscars on TV Sunday night, we headed down to Hollywood central and the Walk of Stars. We were quickly accosted by hawkers for Homes of the Stars at almost every step and amazingly Spiderman, Iron Man, and even Black Swan wanted to have their photos taken with us, for a price. Much of the street was closed off to allow the lackeys to dismantle the Oscar paraphanalia surrounding the Kodiak Theater. From the overlook by California Pizza, we took photos of the Hollywood sign miles in the distance, and then examined all the famed foot prints, hand prints, even hoof prints in concrete. Among them were those of R2-D2and C-3PO, the Marx Brothers, Bette Davis, and Shirley Temple. This was truly a walk of fame. The Walk of Stars was a disappointment. Yes, you could find Steve Martin or Bogart, but why were Billy Graham and many other non-Hollywood celebs included? Maybe I just answered my own question. Well, despite the fact that I know it's all hoopla business, Hollywood is still great fun to see....once.