Thursday, May 29, 2008

In the key of Kahn

Madeline Kahn was a kook. Every choice she made onscreen was slightly off-key. Her career was a string of strange and rich harmonic notes in chords that straddled the major-minor line (most dear to me, and many others, is Clue's Mrs. White, a performance both sharp and flat in equal turns, resulting in the most eccentric blend of comedy and severity). But I want to briefly consider two grace notes in her career, i.e. two short musical performances she gave while hosting Saturday Night Live.

She sang Kurt Weill's "Lost in the Stars" at the tail end of a 1976 episode in the first season of SNL. She crooned simply, alone on a stool on a dark stage. This was back when SNL was more variety show than sketch dumpster, and there was room for a host to try unique things. Like singing an old tune from a songbook not necessarily tailored for a primetime weekend audience.

How pretty and sad is this? Sure, her operatic training makes the delivery a bit stiff, but there's something about that voice, those eyes, and the narrowing of the light on her face as the camera backs away at the end. It's slightly off and right on. Most importantly, it's interesting. Can you imagine SNL doing this today? And this was the final bit on this episode! What a way to end an hour of comedy. Next grace note is from the third season of SNL in 1977. Kahn pops up on location in Manhattan, singing "Autumn in New York" while trying to find the right key. It's such a weird conceit -- hey, let's have Madeline putz around New York wah-wah-wah'ing -- but oddly sweet. Like her.

She hosted one more time, in 1995, and reportedly sang "Ain't Got No Home" during her monologue. That season of SNL is not available on DVD and the clip is not online. But I can imagine it might've seemed a tad out of place on the SNL of the '90s, and that's probably what made it entertaining and memorable. This post is part of StinkyLulu's Madeline Kahn Appreciation Day.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

7. Liza Minnelli, the glutton for adoration

LIZA MINNELLI, 1946- . Triple crown achieved in May 1973 at age 27 with an Emmy for Liza with a Z. Preceded by a leading actress in a musical Tony for "Flora the Red Menace" in 1965 and a leading actress Oscar for Cabaret in March 1973. Followed by a leading actress in a musical Tony for "The Act" in 1977.

There is an entertainer gene. We know this because Liza Minnelli inherited it. She's purebred from Judy Garland and Vincent Minnelli, whose families go back five generations in the theatre or the circus. Liza came out strange-looking: eyes too big and too far apart, body gangly, nose out of proportion, speaking voice queer, singing voice unconventional. But her essence was undeniable. She was a performer. The entertainer gene exists. She proved it. She proves it. It's not about looks. It's about a specific energy that vibrates from the core of one's being.

The first time she set foot on a Broadway stage, the Tony was hers. It would be the first of five major awards procured by interpreting material by composer-lyricist team John Kander and Fred Ebb. It was 1965. Minnelli was 19. Though her voice "is not yet distinctive," wrote Howard Taubman in The New York Times review of "Flora the Red Menace," "she is going to be a popular singer, all right." Not yet distinctive? Perhaps her vocal thickness was a little too close to her mother's at such a young age.

That would change by 1973. Garland was four years dead and Minnelli finished the Triple Crown in a two-month span. Cabaret was first. "Liza Minnelli plays Sally Bowles so well and fully that it doesn't matter how well she sings and dances, if you see what I mean," wrote Roger Ebert, implying her voice and movement aren't as impressive as her general verve."In several musical numbers ... Liza [first name only, of course] demonstrates unmistakably that she's one of the great musical performers of our time. But the heartlessness and nihilism of the character is still there, all the time, even while we're being supremely entertained."

This is the finale scene of Cabaret, and the essence of her Oscar-winning performance is minute 2:42 to around 3:08, and then on to the finish. "What good is sitting all alone in your room..." she sings, losing her smile for perhaps the only time in the movie, staring wide-eyed at the future, or down into the abyss. And then, "...come! Hear the muuusic play..." where she seems to snap a smile out of the air, and allow her head to almost float away (Fosse's camera abets this free-wheeling emotion), her searching eyes paving the way for the clarinet's trill. "Life is a -- cabaret, old chum," she says, as if this conclusion just occurs to her, and then a genius gesture follows for "Come to the cabaret," under which she thrusts her left arm out at the darkness and beckons frantically with her green fingernails. Watch her mouth. It is defiant, joyous. Watch her eyes. They are crying.

It's a perfect marriage of actor and part. The Oscar came in March '73, almost a full year after the film's release. Watch her acceptance here, in which she offers her trademark cackle-gag-sneeze-giggle before speaking graciously: "Thank you for giving me this award; you've made me very happy." It was her second nomination in four years, and the last one she'd ever get.

Two months later, she won an Emmy for Outstanding Single Program (Variety or Music) as the "star" to Bob Fosse and Fred Ebb's "producer" credit in Liza with a Z. It was not its own "individual performance" award (such a category didn't exist), but Minnelli was cited within the category for her performance. And holy shit, what a performance.

Liza with a Z -- recorded live in May '72 at the Lyceum Theatre -- is Minnelli's triumph. It's her without a character standing in the way. It's the gold standard of one-woman shows (though she is aided by a hard-working ensemble). The song "Yes" is an amazing opening. So hopeful, so grateful, so affirming. Yes, yes, yes. (It's why Stritch opens her current show with "Yes I Can".) Minnelli looks out adoringly at her audience. Her "yeses" are so gossamer, the giggles when she gets applause at the end are so coarse and lovely. "You're really terrific!" she squeals at the audience more often than once. She loves the audience. The feeling is mutual. The two feed off each other.

But this is not just reckless abandonment. Her technique and Fosse's execution are flawless. The song "Say Liza (Liza with a Z)" is a lyrical feat of diction and pacing. "Son of a Preacher Man" is sublime and a great way to mix up the showtunes.

Minnelli is a pro at interpreting songs, evidenced by the way she guides us through a fictional marriage in "You've Let Yourself Go." She combines technique, energy, precise interpretation and stunning costuming in the show-stopping "Ring Them Bells," below.

A second Tony came came in 1977 for The Act, a loosely knit star revue that didn't splash like Cabaret or Liza with a Z, but by then she had endeared herself to fans who would stick with her through every kind of public embarrassment and personal ailment. And things got pretty bad for Minnelli -- Judy Garland bad -- and her talent eroded. But what we have in Cabaret and Liza with a Z is a time capsule of raw talent mediated by a masterful director. The helix of her DNA are no doubt beaded with confetti. Almost-nuclear power bursts from her, for better or worse. She may not be the world's best singer, dancer or actor, but she lacquers each with her own brand of italics. And we, almost inexplicably, are captivated.

Ben Brantley summed it up in The New York Times when Liza took over Victor/Victoria from Julie Andrews in 1997: "She asks for love so nakedly and earnestly, it seems downright vicious not to respond."

This is the seventh part of The Triple Crowners, an 18-part series celebrating the performers who have won an Oscar, a Tony and an Emmy. Coming down the stretch is No. 8, a character actor who honed his onscreen reputation as a lovable curmudgeon. Catch up on previous installments of the series here. As always, comments are most welcome: did they deserves these honors? Do the awards validate them or distract from their real talents? What does it all mean?

Monday, May 26, 2008

Sydney Pollack 1934-2008

Attention must be paid to the man who holds sway over the green light. He probably hit his directorial peak in 1982 with Tootsie, but Sydney Pollack's record as a producer has always sparkled, especially during more recent years. Thanks in part to Pollack, we have, in addition to the subject of my last post (HBO's Recount), an invaluable quartet of projects from the last two decades:
Update 27 May 08, 12:28 / I should've concentrated on Pollack's cameo in Death Becomes Her, where he plays an emergency-room doctor who makes the gruesome discovery that Meryl Streep -- who is acting perfectly healthy -- has a broken neck and should probably be dead. He can't even find the heartbeat. It's a wonderful little comic turn, in which Pollack descends into utter shock, trailing breathless "uhs" as he's trying to reconcile diagnoses with facts.

"I tell you what, kids, it's, uh, odd thing here. Your wrist, uh, far as I can tell, is, uh, fractured in three places. Uh, and you've shattered, uh, two vertebrae, though I can't be certain without an X-ray. The bone protrusion through the skin -- that's not a good sign. Your body temperature is below 80, and your, your, your heart's stopped beating."

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Laura Dern in Recount

Recount is a gripping, articulate account of something I've never really understood: the 2000 presidential election. It's great entertainment and great reporting. You will come away from it with a deeper understanding of what exactly went wrong, and with more reason to appreciate Laura Dern, who plays Florida secretary of state Katherine Harris, the woman who delivered the election for George W. Bush. Dern's performance is something special: hilarious, deadly serious, a master class in walking the line between going for a laugh and going for the jugular. Harris in real life is a caricature, but Dern resists the temptation to turn that caricature into comic grandstanding. Rather, she plays Harris exactly how she should be: as a socialite who was gifted a tremendously important position in state government and has no business being there. Dern has only a handful of scenes, and each one is special in its own way, but this one is perhaps the most emblematic of her tragicomic turn:

Watch Recount tonight at 9 on HBO and look for re-airings. It's a marvelous, polished, nuanced movie made by the guy who did Meet the Parents (I know, right?).

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Friday, May 09, 2008

Streep as Shaw as Clinton

The comparisons were made when The Manchurian Candidate remake first came out in the summer of 2004, but Hillary Clinton and fictional entity Sen. Eleanor Shaw have become even more alike as the real-life senator continues her crusade to win the Democratic nomination for president. Shaw and Clinton are ravenously ambitious and both, in their own ways, would do anything to reach their goals. Certainly I don't think Clinton is a villain; I think she is a brilliant woman who made a mistake by marrying Bill and overstaying her welcome in the public eye before shooting for the highest office in the land. I think if she hadn't been first lady or a governor's wife, she'd still be in the same position today: running for president, and probably winning the nomination. But I do sometimes question her humanity — which seems suppressed to make way for political expediency — as well as her ability to work with others. I watch Meryl Streep in The Manchurian Candidate, and the Clintonian vibe can't be ignored.

Am I being unfair? Am I being sexist? Does a woman's power automatically make her a calculating bitch? I don't think so. I look at Eleanor Shaw and Hillary Clinton as human beings who've been so bamboozled by their own sense of worth and power that they are too out of touch with reality to be in a position of authority (this is not gender-based judgment; I also think the same of Dick Cheney). A part of me thinks that, despite the odds against her, Clinton will find a way to get the nomination. I'm sure, right now, she's hosting all kinds of Manchurian meetings, conducting all kinds of Manchurian phone calls, in order to do this. I can see her getting that nomination in Denver by totally perverting the electoral process for a cause she thinks is just: she can do this job better than anyone, and who are voters to get in the way? I can see this happening. I really can. But I don't see it ending with an assassin's bullet which simultaneously takes out her and her husband. I see eight years of improvement in the United States under the second Clinton, but at a price far higher than it's worth.

Note that the remake of The Manchurian Candidate takes place in 2008. Ho ho.

(God I wish I could find a clip of the earlier scene where Streep has to convince party leaders to put her son on the ticket. Marvelously acted, and even more approriate for a Clinton comparison. Can anyone find it online?)