Friday, November 30, 2007

To Oscar: You don't own me

I'm not rushing to screenings. I'm not stocking my Netflix queue with new releases. I gloss over blogs that are posting about the Oscar race. I don't care, because I will be out of the country Jan. 15 to March 5 — effectively missing my first Oscar season in 13 years. You have no idea how liberating this feels. We Oscarphiles drag ourselves through ecstatic highs and depressive lows every year, and for what? A little golden man and some rich, misguided people? It's nice to be apart from the slog.

Yes, I must sacrifice certain pleasures by missing this season. The 10th anniversary year of my Oscar pool (which has become a global institution, thank you) will have to happen in 2009. I might've had the chance to liveblog the ceremony for the greatest newspaper in the country (not to mention take over for a movie critic for three months while he's away on book leave; oops). But such is real life, which is infinitely more varied and unusual than what passes for living during an Oscar season.

To end the workweek, a little First Wives Club. This is for Oscar:

Monday, November 19, 2007

Ain't nothin' like getting together with family and having a good meal

In honor of Thanksgiving week, and to gird ourselves for an onslaught of family, let us re-watch the funniest single scene in movie history: the first dinner scene in The Nutty Professor remake. Eddie Murphy plays five out of the six characters at the table. He deserved to be nominated for an Oscar for these performances (only the National Society of Film Critics saw him fit for a best actor commendation, an award he received opposite Emily Watson's slightly less flatulent performance in Breaking the Waves). Murphy -- guided, or perhaps loosed, by director Tom Shadyac -- creates seamless, exuberant, masterful comedy work in this scene. The pacing, the gleeful scatology, the precise and hilarious family dynamic created by just one man (and one fat little kid) exceeds brilliance. To sum it up in one word: fab-iluss.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

All right, I love Dick!

Richard M. Nixon: Arlene. Come away with me.
Arlene Lorenzo: But what about Pat?
Richard M. Nixon: She understands.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Stephen King should be fired

Here's how I imagine Stephen King composes his monthly column for Entertainment Weekly: He sits at his desk in Maine, thinks for a moment, opens the window and farts in the direction of Manhattan, where EW's editors inhale each fart with open nostrils, exhale them in mason jars without protest, somehow convert them to the page, and distribute them to us.

Stephen: You stink. Kindly resign your post. Your columns are uninspired, meandering, dull -- everything your longer prose is not.

It's worth noting that King is a kind man, a dutiful philanthropist, a wonderful fiction writer, the author of one of my favorite books ("The Green Mile") and progenitor of a couple good movies (The Shining, The Shawshank Redemption). But he has no business being a columnist, a role he's played for EW since 2003. King has run out of things to say on the magazine's back page although, really, I'm not sure he had anything to say in the first place.

What broke me was his latest column, irresistably headlined "Cool and the Gang." It consists of his normal blah-blah stream of consciousness directed at a truly, deeply asinine topic: What Is Cool and What Is Not (and it doesn't help that he's mostly wrong in making the distinction). I'm sure the editors at EW are thinking this stuff is valuable because it provides readers with a neat little window into King's thoughts on pop culture ("Look, a marquee name ruminating on the excruciating minutiae of our times!") and, yes, if written with some wit and vigor, even the most banal topics can be alchemized into gold. But King doesn't do that. His writing level (in column format) is on par with a semi-talented high school newspaper writer. He is squandering the privilege of having a primo spot in a well-read entertainment magazine. It's irresponsible.

I was an intern at EW almost three years ago and had a grand time (swag! free food! corner cubicle overlooking Time Square!), even though it introduced me to some truly baffling egos and convinced me that working for a corporate entertainment mag was not my dream job (I'll never forget being admonished after I voiced my opinions during a story brainstorming session -- a session I was invited to but, apparently, was not supposed to participate in, given the strict system of hierarchy at Broadway and 52nd). I even tied Stephen King in the office Oscar pool. But that's where our agreement ended, as did my intractable love for the magazine. I am actually considering cancelling my subscription after eight years, if only because the one good thing about the magazine (see next paragraph) is something I can just get online.

It's some consolation that King must share the back page with Mark Harris, one of the founders of EW, its former editor-at-large and, before he left to work on books, the office's sole voice of reason and true wit (at least from what I observed during my five months there). Harris recently started a column called The Final Cut, which eloquently and urgently places current entertainment into a contextual perspective that the rest of the magazine (and the industry) lacks.

Then again, both King and Harris also share the back page with EW senior writer Dalton Ross, whose faux-goofball writing style annoys the living f*ck out of me. I'll gladly read King's drivel before I subject myself to Dalton's dreck, but I'd rather just read Harris every week.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Can I convince you of the greatness of Nicole Kidman and Birth in seven frames?

It's November, so I had to watch it again and, again, I was ravished. Birth is the most misunderstood movie of the past five or 10 years. [If you haven't seen it, read no farther. Watch it first.] It's a masterpiece about a widow's encounters with a 10-year-old boy who claims to be the reincarnation of her dead husband.

Anna -- played by Nicole Kidman, in a career-best performance -- is on the cusp of re-marrying when the boy shows up, begins "courting" her anew and tries to discourage her from marrying Joseph (a slick, perfect Danny Huston). The boy knows too much. It's eerie. And Anna begins to fall in love again with the memory of her husband. Are our bodies simply carriers of an energy that survives biological death?

There is so much to praise about Birth: Alexandre Desplat's score, director Jonathan Glazer's sure hand, the exquisite screenwriting (and a most elegant plot twist), Anne Heche's insanely brilliant supporting performance, the small choices made by Lauren Bacall and Alison Elliott as Anna's mother and sister -- who meet the boy with a delicious blend of haughtiness, amused skepticism and contempt.

The most compelling shot in Birth comes 25 minutes in. Glazer holds Kidman in close-up for a full 122 seconds and, without any theatrics or even moving her face, she conveys a whole narrative arc simply by throbbing with emotion: Anna has believably moved from dismissing the boy to "realizing" the truth. Kidman is such a gifted actor that she trusts the camera to pick up everything she's giving off.

I also love the way Heche's eyes search furiously when she confronts the boy, the way Glazer slows the camera speed ever so slightly when following Heche on her secret mission, the way Kidman utters a cute scoff when the boy persists in front of his father and Joseph, the way Bacall says "Laura move" (and not "Laura, move") during a confrontation in the kitchen, the way the boy is able to expose Joseph as a gutless fraud, and the way Elliott's face says everything at the wedding reception in May -- after the boy has admitted he is the fraud and Anna recommits herself to Joseph.

Oh the wedding reception. The final scene. It's rapturous and it destroys me. Anna puts on a smile for a little bit, but then Joseph finds her distraught on the nearby beach. She looks ready to fling herself into the surf. The only sound is Desplat's score. Those aching violins. Joseph approaches Anna, who reacts at first like a stunned, wild animal. Then he catches her in an embrace and speaks into her ear. What is he saying? Is she even hearing him? When he leads her away from the water, she walks stiffly, like she's just surrendered her soul at the waterline and all that's left is a beautiful husk.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Dear Sidney (Lumet):

I was very excited for your new movie, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. "Enthralling," said Edelstein. "Furious and entertaining," said Denby. A "superb crime melodrama," said Ebert. "This is a movie, I promise you, that grabs you and won't let you think of anything else."

I don't really agree with any of these snippets, and it's killing me. It couldn't have been the subject matter; no good movie is ever depressing. Then why did I walk away from it so deflated? I feel like you let me down. I think it's because for the first time, I didn't feel anything for your characters, who, as written by Kelly Masterson, make illogical choices. I never realized how much empathy or sympathy mattered until the credits started to roll and I felt only an absence of feeling. It felt like indifference. Like a vacuum. I hated that feeling.

I'll grant you this: you've coached the men to perform admirably. Hoffman, Hawke and Finney (with whom you worked 33 years ago on Murder on the Orient Express) are dynamos. But your movie doesn't buttress their performances with any real heart or brains. I guess I was longing for something to cling to -- like I did to Paul Newman in The Verdict, Treat Williams in Prince of the City, William Holden in Network, Al Pacino in Serpico or Dog Day Afternoon, Rod Steiger in The Pawnbroker and Henry Fonda in 12 Angry Men.

The critics are praising your "return to form." You're 83 years old, and they're saying you've directed with the vigor of a man a third of your age. And maybe you have. The movie is slick, focused, violent, aloof. But it seems that you've also made some of the fundamental mistakes of a man a third of your age -- sacrificing nuance for bizarre plot economy, for example. My first thought was there is simply too much subtext in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. But then I started thinking there wasn't any subtext. There was just a vacuum. A radical departure.

I'm sorry, Sidney. I'm so glad people have received your movie with open arms. Lord knows you've needed an unqualified hit. Maybe one day I'll see it again and realize I've missed something. Until then: Stay alive, stay true to yourself, and see you next time.

With love,

Thursday, November 01, 2007

5. Melvyn Douglas, the renaissance man

MELVYN DOUGLAS, 1901-1981. Triple crown achieved at age 67 in 1968 with an Emmy for outstanding single performance by an actor in a leading role in a drama for "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night." Preceding it were a Tony for best actor (dramatic) for "The Best Man" in 1960 and an Oscar for best supporting actor for Hud in 1963. Following it was another Oscar for best supporting actor in 1979, for Being There.

Melyvn Douglas -- born in Macon, Ga., to a concert pianist, and grandfather to Illeana Douglas -- never graduated from high school. Didn't need to; he honed his acting in Shakespearean repertory in the Midwest. He served in both world wars, was a staunch liberal activist (his wife of 50 years was a three-term Congresswoman from California) and made four films a year from 1931 to 1942 -- the first era of his career.

His career can, in fact, be divided into two such eras: the years in which he supported his leading ladies and the years in which he supported the quality of his projects. Douglas, a stage actor by training, spent the first part of his Hollywood career in the '30s playing opposite Gloria Swanson, Claudette Colbert, Irene Dunne, Marlene Dietrich and Loretta Young. He three times supported Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo (they're pictured in Ninotchka above). As David Thomson writes in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, Douglas normally played the "escort, husband, lover, or good friend to every love queen of the 1930s and 1940s."

He went into World War II with the U.S. Army and returned to the states in roles that were less romantic and more focused on his advancing years. He was, in essence, a man who reinvented himself by playing principled characters confronting age (renaissance by way of mortality!). Douglas found his rhythm in the '50s ("For years he has been giving pleasant, facile performances in superficial parts. It is always exciting to see an accomplished actor suddenly take on stature,'' wrote the critic Brooks Atkinson of Douglas' performance as Clarence Darrow in "Inherit the Wind" on Broadway in 1955) -- culminating in the 1959-1960 season, when he starred in two plays and won his first major acting award by playing a "principled presidential aspirant" (according to The New York Times) in Gore Vidal's "The Best Man" on Broadway. (Couldn't find a review of this one.)

His next major award came in 1963 with Hud, in which he played Homer Bannon, the inflexibly stern father to Paul Newman's jackass ranch hand (see the above clip for an illustration of their ruined relationship). Here is what Bosley Crowther wrote in The New York Times: "Melvyn Douglas is magnificent as the aging cattleman who finds his own son an abomination and disgrace to his country and home. It is Mr. Douglas's performance in the great key scene of the film, a scene in which his entire herd of cattle is deliberately and dutifully destroyed at the order of government agents because it is infected with foot-and-mouth disease, that helps fill the screen with an emotion that I've seldom felt from any film.''

What is the emotion? It's grief harnessed and restrained by his character's steely will. Homer Bannon grieves his sons -- the responsible one who died and the reckless one who got him killed. He now grieves the calculated extermination of his infected cattle -- the only legacy that matters to him. Douglas plays the scene with brutal simplicity. "Don't take long to kill things," he mutters. "Not like it does to grow." After he himself shoots his last two bulls (no doubt symbols for his spoiled progeny), he growls to his nephew, "Drag 'em away and bury 'em. Bury 'em quick. Go on." He's talking about his hurt, too, and his grief.

In an earlier scene, Homer admonishes Hud because he "doesn't care about nothin'." It's the scolding we've been waiting for, but the payoff is bitter. Homer backs Hud into a doorframe (and into the camera) and spits gravel at him after Hud suggests they drill for oil to make ends meet. "I'd rather herd cattle than drill for oil," Homer growls. "Stuff that keeps a man doin' for himself." And Douglas plays Homer like a man who's had to do everything for himself.

Douglas was not present at the Oscars to accept the trophy -- not sure why -- so his costar Brandon de Wilde did the honors.

His Emmy came for his performance as a retired cabinetmaker (replacing Fredric March at the last minute) who rages against old age in the aptly titled "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night," a CBS Playhouse movie also starring Shirley Booth, who was (until then) the most recent attainer of the Triple Crown. Douglas plays Peter Schermann, who tries out nursing homes at the urging of his children. The movie is not available anywhere, so it remains unseen by me. I'd love to see Douglas and Booth together, though. They were masters of the stage who trumped their unglamorous looks with charisma, and snagged leading film roles. (Pictured in the photo above is director George Schaefer, with Douglas to the left and Booth to the right. A young Lois Smith is all the way to the left.)

The second Oscar came at age 78 for Hal Ashby's existential dada anti-farce Being There, in which Douglas plays a billionaire at death's door. Benjamin Rand, couched in his giant mansion, is a much warmer man than Homer Bannon, and Douglas' voice, by this point in his life, had gone from gravelly to paper-thin. There's a sweetness in his eyes, as Douglas allows Rand to be seduced by the utter nothingness of the Peter Sellers character. In this way, he elicits great pity for Rand, who, like Homer Bannon, is a decent man rendered impotent by circumstance.

Douglas didn't attend the ceremony this year either. "The whole thing is absurd," he was quoted as saying. "Me competing with an 8-year-old!" He was referring to his fellow nominee, Justin Henry, the boy from Kramer vs. Kramer. It was not reported whether Douglas was being principled or egotistical. Liza Minnelli accepted for him.

So Douglas won his Oscars for two wildly different roles: a man of privilege and status, and a lowly farmer with a gruff sensibility. But both are on the verge of death (as was his Emmy-winning character), even though he played the roles almost 25 years apart. Neither have big scenes or speeches or even particularly theatrical deaths (and both men do die onscreen); these performances do not fit the textbook definition of Oscar-worthy. Yet, ultimately, Douglas received film acting's highest honor by playing them not just as men on the verge of death, but as men at the end of something -- whether it be end of faith, in Homer's case, or, in Benjamin's, the end of idealism.

This is part five of The Triple Crowners, an 18-part series celebrating the actors who have won an Oscar, a Tony and an Emmy. Check back soon for part six, featuring a paragon of British urbanity. To catch, read posts on previously profiled triple crowners Thomas Mitchell, Helen Hayes, Ingrid Bergman and Shirley Booth.