23 November 2011

Number Nine

Naturally beautiful. Understated. Oscar winning. Remarkable. Unforgettable.  These adjectives come to mind when I think of actress number nine on this list: Ingrid Bergman.

Born on August 29, 1915 in Stockholm Sweden, Ingrid Bergman knew from an early age that she wanted to be an actress. She used to dress up in her mother's clothes and stage productions for her own amusement. She attended the Royal Dramatic Theater School (the same school Greta Garbo attended) and appeared in a handful of plays before starring in some Swedish films.

In 1939, producer David O. Selznick brought her to America to star opposite Leslie Howard in a remake of her 1936 Swedish film Intermezzo. Titled Intermezzo: A Love Story, the film brought Ingrid instant fame in America. She was a natural in front of the camera. Her performance was subtle and understated, and absolutely effective. Such became the usual for Ingrid.

In my opinion, Ingrid Bergman's best performance is in the 1944 film Gaslight. Playing the role of a woman being driven mad by her diabolical husband (played  by Charles Boyer). In what could have been played extremely over the top, Bergman played it down and only became hysterical in the last few moments of the film, making her hysteria more realistic.She won the Academy Award for her performance.

Her most famous role however, is as Ilsa Lund in the immortal, beloved wartime classic Casablanca. Torn between Humphrey Bogart and Paul Henried, her performance is subtle, understated, and touching. I know I've mentioned this before, but it bears repeating. My favorite scene is when Victor Lazlo (Paul Henried) leads the patrons of Rick's Cafe in a rousing rendition of La Marseillaise. Watch Ingrid's face here. Her eyes are nervous for his safety, but she can't hide her sense of pride in him. It's a beautiful performance. And as a sidenote, can I just point out how beautiful she looks in this film? She is absolutely luminous. (The black and white cinematography doesn't hurt here).

I think what I admire most about Ingrid Bergman was the lack of pretense about her. She was always herself and refused to compromise herself for anyone. She used very little makeup and wouldn't allow her teeth to be capped. She wouldn't be made over into someone she wasn't, and if she made enemies along the way, so be it.

Although Ingrid Bergman wasn't constantly turning out great performances, when she was good, she was perfect.

Rock on, Ingrid.
Is this not the sweetest picture ever?

16 October 2011

Favorite Actress Countdown

Coming in at number ten on my list of favorite actresses is Drew Barrymore.  I've been a fan of hers since probably the sixth grade or so, and so I suppose that has a lot do with my liking her so much, but then again, I think she's quite proven that she is fantastically talented. Granted, she's not somebody that you're going to watch and shout about her performances every time, but every so often, she delivers. And when she's good, she's perfect. I do think that she's more of a "movie star" than an "actress" but she is quickly approaching actress status.
Lionel, Ethel, and John Barrymore

Drew Barrymore is the granddaughter of John Barrymore and the great niece of Lionel and Ethel Barrymore. All three were brilliant performers. Drew certainly inherited that. But the Barrymore family had long been plagued by demons of drug addiction and alcoholism. John, in particular, was a very bad alcoholic who never truly recovered from it. He would die in 1942, a shadow of his former great self. His son, Drew's father, John Barrymore II, also suffered from alcoholism and drug addiction. Sadly, Drew herself become an alcoholic and cocaine addict before the age of fifteen.

She had gotten her big break at the age of six, playing Gertie in Steven Spielberg's E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial. Afterward, Drew became one of the most popular child stars of the 1980s. I think her success came from the ability to play wide eyed moppet roles with genuine talent. With new found success came opportunity. And opportunity released the Barrymore demons. At nine years old, Drew started drinking. At ten, she started smoking pot, and at fourteen became a cocaine addict.

After being released from rehab at sixteen, finding work was a struggle. Drew was stuck in the rut of being too old for children's roles but too young to be a leading lady. The best she could do was small, supporting character roles in low-budget films.

In 1998, Drew teamed up with Adam Sandler for the 80's themed romantic comedy The Wedding Singer. Commercially  successful, Drew was back in the spotlight. She then founded her own production company, Flower Films, and in 1999, produced her first film, Never Been Kissed.  Again, it was a commercial success and Drew Barrymore established herself as a premier romantic comedy star.

50 First Dates. Can just say I love her hair in this movie?
Many romantic comedies make up Drew Barrymore's filmography. However, she hasn't forgotten her roots as a dramatic Barrymore. It's almost as if people forget that she's a damn fine actress too. Remember Riding in Cars With Boys? She played a character who went from fifteen years old to her mid-thirties.  I think that it requires a skilled person to be able to pull that kind of role off. But Drew did. And she was brilliant in it.
There was also Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. Drew played the supporting role of the long-suffering yet infinitely steadfast wife of game show host/alleged CIA hitman Chuck Barris.

However, no other role has displayed Drew Barrymore's dramatic prowess better than the 2009 HBO film Grey Gardens. She played "Little Edie" Beale so well that I found myself forgetting that I was watching an actress in a movie, and not the real thing. Being quite a fan of the original Grey Gardens documentary, I was somewhat wary of watching this film. However, I was absolutely blown away by this film. Drew completely immersed herself in the character so well that it's as if she crawled inside the skin of Little Edie. She did more than portray her; She became her, and won a much deserved Emmy award for Best Actress. I have no doubt that had Grey Gardens been made for a major studio, Barrymore would have been nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award, and would have been quite a strong contender.

I have no doubt that Drew Barrymore will only continue to rise as an actress, and would not be at all surprised if an Oscar comes her way.

22 September 2011

Film Viewings: The King Has Returned

On Sunday, a couple of friends from work and myself went out to our local movie theater to see one of my favorite movies, The Lion King---In 3D! Now, I'm not really a 3D freak. I mean, it's fun, and the Terminator 2 3D attraction at DisneyWorld is awesome, but other than that, 3D just really isn't my thing. But when I heard that The Lion King would be re released in 3D, I jumped at the chance to see it.

Although I had spent nearly fifteen dollars on a ticket, it was so worth it for me. Movies are made to be watched on a huge screen, in deafening surround sound, in a darkened theater filled with people all sharing the experience of enjoying a movie. Although I have seen The Lion King more times than I can probably count, watching it in the theater was like seeing it for the first time.

From the opening sequence of the sun rising over the African Savannah accompanied by that incredible African chorus, I was amazed by the realism, the beauty, the colors and sound. I was moved to tears. Not to mention Circle of Life is such a beautiful song.

Mufasa's death is even more devastating on the big screen. I don't think I've ever cried harder watching a movie. As I've said before, I have seen this movie many, many times, and Mufasa's death still affects me as if I had never seen it before.I know I've written this before, but I'm quite sure that Mufasa dying is quite possibly the most devastating event in film history. I mean, come on, how can one not watch Simba crawl under Mufasa's paw without bursting into hysterical sobs?

The stampede leading to Mufasa's death was incredible to watch. With the surround sound, you could almost feel the rumbling of the approaching wildebeest. Their thundering hooves were much more menacing as they leaped out of the screen.

The best part of the film in 3D was the climactic fight between Simba and Scar. As if it's not cool enough in 2D being in slow motion and all, the 3D element really rocked here. Scar leaping out of the flames has always been a great part, but in 3D he leaps out of the flames and into your face. It looked awesome.

It's always great to see a beloved movie on the big screen in all its glory. Watching The Lion King (in 3D) in a darkened movie theater, next to friends, sharing such a great movie with a bunch of people, young and old,  that I don't even know, was such a beautiful and rich experience that I will look back upon in years to come and cherish.

16 August 2011

Out and About: Film Viewings

Last weekend, my friend Corey and I went to South Side Bethlehem to catch a screening of one of my all-time favorite horror films, 1955's Diabolique. Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot, the film stars Vera Clouzot and Simone Signoret as the wife and mistress of a sadistic headmaster of a boys' school. Fed up with his abuse, the two women team up to get rid of him, once and for all. They drown him and dump his body in the school swimming pool. But when the pool is drained, the body is no longer there. And students claim to be seeing him around the school.

One of the reasons I love this film so much is the build up of suspense and unease throughout. This is not one of those horror films where things jump out and go boo. It keeps you guessing long after the movie has ended. You come to realize that you can't trust or believe anybody. After it's ended, you'll find yourselves looking over your shoulder and jumping at shadows. In my opinion, it's one of the finest horror films ever made, and I think everyone should see it. And be sure to avoid the remake.

Don't be devils! Don't ruin the interest your friends could take in this film. Don't tell them what you saw. Thank you for them.

30 July 2011

I'm very Russian, you know.

July 20th, 2011 marked the 73rd anniversary of the birth of Natalie Wood. With a resume consisting of 56 films and three Academy Award nominations, I find it sad how few people seem to remember her today. I think she is one of the most underrated actresses and I can't for the life of me figure out why.

The first time I saw Natalie Wood was in what is probably her most famous film, West Side Story. I was in either eighth or ninth grade, and I remember being struck by how pretty she looked and what a good actress she was. In retrospect, West Side Story was one of my first viewings of classic film and I'm not sure that it's hyperbolic to say that it's a film that changed my life. The library in town had a pretty good selection of movies to take out, and being that West Side Story was among them, I would borrow it quite a few times a month. To this day, whenever I think of summertime, I think of staying up late, sipping on a Vitamin Water, and watching West Side Story. I then decided to learn everything I could about Natalie Wood and see as many of her films as possible.

So, in honor of what would have been her 73rd birthday, I present to you my favorite Natalie Wood films...

Miracle on 34th Street (1947) While this wasn't Natalie Wood's first film, it was the film that really brought her to people's attention. She played Susan Walker, a girl who had been raised not to believe in Santa Claus. However, when she meets a kind elderly man named Kris Kringle who claims to be Santa Claus, she slowly starts to believe. I generally don't like kids in films. I feel like they're usually trying way too hard to impress and they come off as unnatural. However, Natalie Wood was just the opposite- there's nothing fake about her performance. She played the role of a wannabe cynic struggling with a child's innocence. I know for a fact that I've said this about other performances, but I honestly believe that had another child played the role, it wouldn't have been as good. As I've said before, I know that's not an unoriginal statement, but what the hell. It's true.

Rebel Without a Cause (1955) When Rebel Without a Cause is mentioned, one doesn't immediately think of Natalie Wood. After all, it is James Dean's picture- he owns it. But here lies Natalie Wood's greatness- she is able to stand back and let Dean do his thing, while putting in a great performance of her own. Here is another case of great casting. A film about teenagers complaining about how their parents don't understand them is hardly something one would want to watch. But Rebel Without a Cause is different. You feel the actors' angst, anger, and sadness and can relate to it. Thanks to the performances by the young leads, this isn't your typical whiny teen movie. It's something really remarkable.

Gypsy (1962) A lot of things are great about Gypsy. Natalie Wood. Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Music by Jule Styne. The dialogue ("Ole, everybody! My name's Louise. What's yours?"). Mostly Rosalind Russell. Who else could have played Mama Rose as well as Rosalind Russell? Nobody, that's who. But I digress. Natalie Wood was more than a match the formidable Roz. She is just as good throughout the film. Playing the role of Louise, the girl who would grow up to be the most famous burlesque dancer in history, Gypsy Rose Lee, Natalie shines. Perhaps it's due to the fact that she was playing a part not too unlike her own life. Her own mother was a failed actress and really pushed Natalie hard throughout her childhood. Throughout her life, Natalie's mother would be an overbearing presence. And so, Natalie's performance is very tongue-in-cheek. Not many people are able to laugh at themselves. Natalie Wood could. That quality really shines through in this film.

West Side Story (1961)  As I've previously mentioned, this was the film that introduced me to Natalie Wood. As such, I've always had a soft spot for West Side Story. But rightfully so. It's one of the finest films ever made, and in my opinion, the best musical ever made, behind Singin in the Rain. Although Natalie didn't do her own singing, she still gave a magnificent performance, despite being so awfully miscast. Again, here is yet another testament to her talent. She wasn't a singer, she wasn't a professional dancer, and she sure as hell wasn't Puerto Rican, however her portrayal of Maria is one of the most beautiful and touching performances captured on film, particularly her speech to the warring gangs at the film's conclusion:  "How do you fire this gun, Chino? Just by pulling this little trigger? How many bullets are left? Enough for you? And you? All of you, you all killed him. And my brother, and Riff. Not with bullets and guns. With hate. Well I can kill too. Because now I have hate. How many can I kill, Chino? How many? And still have one left for me."  Such a performance is, in my opinion, Oscar worthy, but it doesn't really matter, because that same year, Natalie Wood also made:

Splendor in the Grass (1961) This is my absolute favorite Natalie Wood film. Co-starring Warren Beatty and directed by Elia Kazan, Natalie has never been better. She plays Wilma Dean "Deanie" Loomis, a high school senior hopelessly in love with Arthur "Bud" Stamper. The couple assumes they will marry after high school, but peer pressure, parental pressure, and the struggle between sexual expression and repression eventually drive them apart and sends Deanie into a downward mental spiral. This is, in my opinion, Natalie Wood's crowning moment as an actress and while she was nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award, she lost to Sophia Loren in Two Women. If you ask me, this is the worst injustice and biggest mistake the Academy has ever made. (Yes, even worse than giving Sandra Bullock an Oscar). Splendor in the Grass is one of the best commentaries on growing up and the pressures to please parents while trying to explore and experience life for ourselves, and the double standard between the sexes when it comes to sex. All in all, it is a beautiful, tragic, bittersweet, supremely enjoyable movie.

Unfortunately, when you mention the name Natalie Wood to most people today, if you don't get a "Huh?" you will most likely hear about her death. Yes, it was tragic. Yes, it was untimely. The only person who knows for sure exactly how it happened cannot tell us. There are speculations and theories, but they have never been proven. Neither have they been dis-proven. As cliche as it sounds, I think people need to stop focusing so much on how she died and remember how she lived. Of course I would love to see the case solved and if it were to turn up that something fishy did happen, I would love to see justice for Natalie. However, I would rather watch Natalie Wood doing what she did best and worry less about how she left us. To quote Natalie in Splendor in the Grass, "Though nothing can bring back the hour of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower, we will grieve not; rather find strength in what remains behind"

And what great treasures Natalie Wood left behind.

Happy (belated) birthday, Natalie.

17 July 2011

Of course he had a name. His name was Edward.

Edward Scissorhands, 1990

Edward Scissorhands is one of my favorite movies ever. It stars one of my favorite actors, was directed by Tim Burton, one of my favorite directors, has a beautiful score by Danny Elfman, and is one of the best movies to come out of the 90s. 

After starring in 1989's Cry Baby, Johnny Depp had finally proven that he wasn't just "That hot guy on 21 Jump Street". He was next cast in director Tim Burton's new project- a story about a man who has scissors for hands. Created by an inventor, Edward (the man's name) is incomplete due to the sudden death of the inventor. He lives all alone in the inventor's castle until one day, struggling Avon saleslady Peg Boggs (Diane Weist) finds him and decides to take him to her house in Suburbia. At first, Edward is accepted by the neighborhood, but eventually circumstances change and he becomes an outcast once more. 

At the heart of this movie is Johnny Depp's performance as Edward. Deprived of human interaction, he is completely innocent to the ways of suburbanites. He is wide-eyed, curious, childlike, naive, trusting, gentle and self-conscious all at once. Depp puts such sensitivity into the character and you can't help falling in love with him. He brings to the role both humor and pathos; scenes when Edward is attempting to do normal things such as dressing or eating off a fork for instance make you laugh but break your heart- you know these attempts at normality are futile- no matter how hard he tries, he will never be normal and fit in. 

The second essential performance of the film is Winona Ryder's. As the Bogg's daughter Kim, she is at first terrified and repulsed by Edward and is mortified to have any association with him. As the film progresses however, she develops a warm, protective feeling toward Edward which eventually grows into love. Ryder is such a natural performer; she is so sincere and such a fabulous actress. (I'm not sure whatever happened to her). 

Other notable cast members include Dianne Weist as Peg Boggs, the Avon Lady, Alan Arkin as Bill Boggs, and Anthony Michael Hall as Kim's brawny jerk boyfriend, Jim. And a cameo by Vincent Price is a treat for a fan of classic horror films.

I love Edward Scissorhands because I feel like it speaks to everybody. All people have something about them that makes them different and stand out from everybody else. I feel like it's a movie that all people can relate to; Everyone just wants to be accepted for who they are. This is a film that definitely speaks to our hearts and emotions and is a true work of art from a true artist.


10 June 2011

The Little Girl with the Great Big Voice

Today marks the anniversary of the birth of quite possibly the most famous entertainer in history. Eighty eight years ago today, in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, Francis and Ethel Gumm welcomed their third daughter, Frances Ethel Gumm. Being the youngest of the family's children, she was immediately nicknamed Baby. Almost as soon as she could walk and talk, she could sing and dance.

At the age of thirteen, she signed a contract with MGM, the biggest studio with the greatest stars. At first they weren't sure what to do with her, and so she spent her first three years at the studio in forgettable movies. Then, in 1939, she was chosen to star in what would become her most well known film, one that would immortalize her and make her known to people all over the world: The Wizard of Oz.

She would stay at MGM until 1950, where her films were hugely popular and successful: Meet Me in St Louis, The Clock, Easter Parade, For Me and My Gal. Well liked by audiences, hers was a regular voice on the radio, singing and cracking jokes with the likes of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. She toured the country entertaining troops during World War II along with Lucille Ball, Greer Garson, James Cagney, and Mickey Rooney among others.

In 1950, she left MGM to embark on a series of concert tours. This was quite a risky venture. Concerts were considered old fashioned and dull and nobody knew how Garland would be received. They needn't have worried though; the concerts were highly successful and Judy was once again on top. In 1954, she took yet another big risk: She decided to make another movie: a musical version of the 1937 film A Star is Born. Directed by George Cukor, the film ran almost three hours. It was extremely successful and, yet again, Judy was back. She was nominated for a Best actress Academy Award but lost out to Grace Kelly. Groucho Marx called it "The biggest robbery since Brinks".

In 1961Judy made yet another "comeback" when she appeared at New York City's Carnegie Hall. Garland sang, danced, talked with the audience and cracked jokes for two hours. It stayed at number one on the Billboard chart and won four Grammys.

But success wasn't without its price. Since childhood, Judy, along with many others in the industry, were on a steady diet of pills. She was taking Benzedrine during the day to give her increased energy to be able to cope with a long day of filming. Because of these, she couldn't sleep, and so she was prescribed Barbiturates to help her sleep. She soon developed a very serious addiction, to the point where she could no longer function without the aid of pills. Although she had tried on numerous occasions to overcome her addiction, she never could, and on June 22, 1969, Judy Garland died of an accidental overdose of sleeping pills. She was 47 years old.

It's tough for me to talk about Judy Garland and stay neutral. I've loved her since I was in the fifth grade. She is one of my favorite actresses and one of my favorite singers.  Listening to her sing really puts me in a better mood and helps a bad day brighten up. I'm not sure what I can say about her that hasn't been said before, but, I really am glad that she was around, if only for a short while. She gave so much and touched more people than she could ever know, and continues to inspire people years after her death.

Happy Birthday, Judy

02 June 2011

Hey, Mr. Wilson!

 Dennis the Menace, 1993

I'm sure that this post kind of seems out of place, being that it isn't exactly considered one of the finest pictures ever made. But, being that I have quite the soft spot for this movie, being that I have been watching it for as long as I can remember, I decided that it wouldn't hurt to write about 1993's Dennis the Menace. 

Based off of characters from a 1950s comic strip, the story centers around the misadventures of a five year old boy named Dennis, his dog Ruff, and his long-suffering neighbor, the elderly Mister Wilson. Although well-meaning, Dennis can't seem to stay in Mister Wilson's good graces. The plot of the movie is somewhat weak; The Wilsons must babysit Dennis while his parents go out of town on a business trip, and the quiet town is disturbed by the presence of a robber. Granted, it isn't the best story, but this is a movie that's not looking to get any prizes; it just wants to entertain. And it certainly does. 

The role of Dennis was given to a boy by the name of Mason Gamble. He is so magnificent in this movie. I think it's because he, along with the rest of the cast of children, were allowed to just be kids and play. Gamble brings both innocence and an air of believing that he possesses supreme intelligence often exhibited by small children to his role. Dennis, buddy Joey and tag-along Margaret, definitely get the best lines in the movie. Dennis in particular, is hilarious, especially when he's explaining something that the other kids don't get. Take the children's discussion of parenthood:

Margaret: You know why men are so lousy when it comes to taking care of babies?
 Dennis: They have better things to do.
Margaret: Like what, play golf and drink beer?
Dennis: No, like hunting, having wars, driving cars, shaving, cleaning fish. Do you know how to do that?
Margaret: If you didn't have women, you wouldn't have babies, which means you wouldn't have people. 
Joey: If you didn't have men, who'd drive the ladies to the hospital?
Dennis: The most important thing is, they marry the women, then the women can go down and get the baby.
Margaret: The baby is in her stomach.
Dennis: She has to get it installed, her stomach just isn't filled up with babies.
Margaret: Who installs them?
Dennis: A minister and a doctor. 

Upon being questioned on exactly how babies are installed, Dennis informs them that the bellybutton opens up. Margaret then asks him why men have bellybuttons, to which Dennis replies matter- of- factly, "So they don't look weird in bathing suits."   

I tend to find most children in films to be quite obnoxious. I think it's because they're trying too hard to be actors, rather than just being kids at play. Here lies the brilliance of Dennis the Menace. Producer John Hughes made sure that his actors were normal kids, having a good time and playing with their friends. The kids were relaxed and clearly having a good time. 

The second essential aspect to Dennis the Menace is Mister Wilson. The producers had a stroke of genius when they decided to cast Walter Matthau as the archetypal crotchety old man neighbor. He is gruff, sarcastic, acerbic, grouchy, and tender all rolled up into one great package. His performance is balanced by Joan Plowright as his good-natured wife Martha. Although I'm not the biggest fan of Joan Plowrights, I have to admit that I quite like her in this movie, and I think that she compliments Matthau wonderfully and she provides the perfect foil for him. She is particularly touching in a scene when she recites the poem "Winkin' Blinkin' and Nod" to Dennis before she puts him to bed for the night. 

The biggest laugh in the entire movie is gotten my Matthau. Unaware that Dennis has knocked the front teeth out of his dentures and replaced them with Chicklets gum, when having his picture taken for the local paper, he gives a big happy smile:

What makes Dennis the Menace enjoyable is its sense of fun. It's not trying to impress, it doesn't take itself seriously, and it just has fun. It really is such a likable film that I have always enjoyed watching.

30 May 2011

In here, life is beautiful

Cabaret, 1972

By the 1970s, audiences had grown tired of the traditional way that Hollywood had been making musical films since the1930s.  They were bored with the whole idea of a character being so moved, being so overcome with emotion, that they just had to sing and dance. They wanted, and needed something new. And Cabaret was just the film that they needed. It was a whole different breed of musical. For starters, its setting was Germany during the rise to power of the Nazi Party. 

The story opens in 1931 Berlin. Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli), an American, is a performer at the decadent  Kit Kat Club. When Brian Roberts (Michael York) moves into the boarding house where she lives, a friendship begins immediately. Not too long after, a romance begins. However, their bliss is short lived as the Nazi Party grows in power. Throw in a subplot of a poor Catholic man's romance with a rich Jewish heiress, and yet another when a rich businessman romances both Sally and Brian, and you've got one hell of a great story.

There wasn't any question who should play Sally. Bob Fosse had directed Liza Minnelli's Sally on stage, and she was the one he cast in his film version. And on film, Minnelli has never been better. She plays Sally with a frantic energy that borders on mania. She is blissfully happy, so happy, that you suspect it is an attempt to cover up her unhappiness. Minnelli brought pain and vulnerability to a character that otherwise would have been rather annoying and intolerable.

  In the same way that her mother, Judy Garland could, Minnelli could act while she sang, and she could sing while she acted. You can sense her hope in "Maybe This Time", and in the show's finale, "Cabaret", her frantic energy comes to a head, as she desperately attempts to boost the spirits of the ordinary German people living in extraordinary times. In recognition of such a brilliant performance, Minnelli would be rewarded with a Best Actress Academy Award.

Another essential part of Cabaret is Joel Grey's Emcee. His life's purpose is to help people forget their troubles and give them a place to come where "Life is beautiful. The girls are beautiful. Even the orchestra is beautiful." To give them a break from reality and an increasingly hostile world and offer them a few precious hours of decadence. Giving people reason to laugh is what he does. Constantly joking, he takes particular delight in mocking Hitler and the Nazi party, smearing mud under his nose in a Hitler mustache, Nazi saluting the audience, and leading his dancers offstage in a goosestep. Grey won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance.

The best aspect of Cabaret is the way the songs do not hinder the story. In fact, they do just the opposite. They actually help the story move forward, and, much like Kander and Ebb's Chicago, actually illustrate what is going on in the lives of the characters. It's one of the earliest examples of a story not having to come to a screeching halt because a character suddenly feels the need to sing and dance. This is helped by the fact that except for one, all of the musical numbers take place in the same location: On stage at the Kit Kat Club. This helps them in their advancement, rather than hindrance of the story.

Cabaret is a genius piece of film. There's really nothing else like it, it has the perfect cast, the cinematography, sets, and costumes are gorgeous, and the music is some of the best ever written. While it was nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award, it lost to The Godfather (a great film, but in my opinion, not on the same level as Cabaret). It is bold, daring, brash, in your face, unapologetic, and makes you think. What more could you ask for?

18 May 2011

I've got my head, I've lost my leopard!

Bringing Up Baby, 1938

One of the funniest movies ever made and quite possibly the zaniest, Bringing Up Baby is the definitive screwball comedy. It centers around stodgy paleontologist, Dr. David Huxley (Cary Grant), whose only aspiration in life is to finish putting together the Brontosaurus for the museum he works for, and marrying his equally stodgy fiancee, Alice.  Upon learning that a Mrs. Carlton Random is going to donate one million dollars to a museum, Huxley meets up with her representative, a Mr. Peabody for a golf outing. On the green, he runs into a woman who steals first his golf ball, and then his car. She turns out to be Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn), niece of the same Mrs. Carlton Random. And she just so happens to have a leopard. Somehow, she convinces him to help her take the leopard, whose name is Baby, to her home in Connecticut. And so begins the craziest twenty-four hours ever captured on film, involving a missing dinosaur bone, a dog, two leopards, a big-game hunter, a drunk groundskeeper, and a couple of flustered cops. 

One of the things that makes Bringing Up Baby so great is the pairing of Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant. They work so well together, and they've never been better than here. Their different personalities fit together perfectly. They compliment each other beautifully.  While he's stuffy and overwhelmed, she's ever optimistic, and completely unflappable. Nothing ever fazes her, no matter how out of the ordinary the situation. She's always cool as a cucumber, as if the insane events are nothing new to her. One realizes that they're probably not.

Another great thing about the film is the dialogue. Not only is it some of the funniest ever spoken on film, but it's literally spoken a mile a minute. It actually takes quite a few viewings to be able to catch all of the lines and jokes because of the sheer speed of the dialogue. There are lines spoken on top of lines, and it's not unusual to hear two conversations going on at once. (This is a bit of a Howard Hawks trademark- His Girl Friday also exhibits this style of dialogue)
Due to her utter zaniness, Susan has the majority of the funniest lines in the movie. During her meeting with David on the golf course, after he informs her that she's playing his ball, she doesn't seem to understand. 
David: What ball are you playing?
Susan: PGA.
David: Well, I'm playing a CrowFlight.
Susan: Mmhmm, I like PGA better.
David: I'm just trying to prove you you that you're playing my ball. You see, a PGA has two black dots, and a CrowFlight has a circle.
Susan: Mmmhmm, I'm not superstitious about things like that.
David: There, you see, it's a circle.
Susan: Well of course it is, do you think it would roll if it were square?

Don't be irrelevant the point is I have a leopard. The question is what am I gonna do with it?

While on the subject, let's discuss Katharine Hepburn. This was her first foray into slapstick, and she was lucky to be paired with Grant and directed by Howard Hawks. Watching her in this film, it's difficult to believe that she wasn't very good at first, and that she had to be coached in being funny. But she learned quickly, and played her role perfectly. She dove headfirst into the part, and went about a thousand miles an hour for the whole duration of the film, never letting up once. She plays the role of Susan with a silly absent mindedness that is absolutely hysterical. What's incredible is how she speaks her lines with such sincerity and honesty, never batting an eye at the funniest of lines.Whatever misfortune occurs is honestly not her fault. Grabbing on to Grant's jacket, it rips as he walks away from her. He turns and glares accusingly, her eyes widen, and she says sympathetically, "Oh, you've torn your coat." 

I'm not quite myself today.
Cary Grant does the exact same thing with his lines. While a lot of them aren't exactly funny, the way he says them and the sincerity in his voice make them so. Probably the most well known scene is when Susan steals David's clothes, and so he is forced to wear her negligee. Shortly after, the doorbell rings, and he unknowingly opens the door to Susan's aunt Elizabeth, one Mrs. Carlton Random. The following conversation is pure gold. 
David: What do you want?
Elizabeth: Who are you?
David: What do you want?
Elizabeth: Who ARE you?
David: I don't know, I'm not quite myself today. 
Elizabeth: Well, you look perfectly idiotic in those clothes. 
David: These aren't my clothes.
Elizabeth: Well, where are your clothes?

David: I've lost my clothes.
Elizabeth: But why are you wearing those clothes?
David: Because I just went gay all of a sudden!
Elizabeth: Do you want to wear these clothes?
David: No, I don't want to wear these clothes, I just want to get married!

Quiet, George!
This entire conversation is accompained by the barking of Aunt Elizabeth's dog George, who just so happens to be my favorite character in the movie. (I'm sure you'll recognize him as Asta from the Thin Man series, and as Mr. Smith from The Awful Truth).  He brings yet another series of hilarious scenes when he runs off with the bone that David needs to finish the Brontosaurus skeleton, resulting in a chase around the grounds to find where the bone is buried. Susan is having a grand old time while David is trying his best not to strangle the dog. George indeed digs something up, but it's not exactly what they're searching for: 
Isn't he a strong little man, David?

Susan: Oh, look. David. a boot!

David: A boot!
Susan: Don't hit George, David!
David: I wasn't going to hit GEORGE!

Bringing Up Baby is one of the most perfect movies ever made and one of the funniest in history. It takes you on a hundred mile an hour ride from start to finish, and it doesn't slow down for anything. It is a true jewel, and is definitely worth the watch.


17 May 2011

Everyone has a heart, except some people

All About Eve, 1950
The 1950s saw the release of some of the greatest films ever made. It was a time when things in the movie industry were changing. The studio system was beginning to crumble, audience's preferences were changing, and a new group of actors and actresses ushered in a new style of acting. 

Audiences wanted stories that were grittier and truer to real life. Actors like James Dean, Marlon Brando, and Paul Newman, and actresses like Natalie Wood and Elizabeth Taylor were the ones bringing these stories to life. The stars that the public had so loved and admired just a decade earlier were now forgotten. Bette Davis, who had been the number one actress in America during the 1940s, was now considered washed up and a has been. That is, until Joseph L. Mankiewicz  wrote a screenplay based on a short story from Cosmopolitan Magazine. The story was called The Wisdom of Eve, and that screenplay became All About Eve. 

Margo Channing is the grande dame of the theater.  Although she is adored by the public, she is nearly forty and terrified of losing her career. Enter Eve Harrington, a young aspiring actress who idolizes Margo. Flattered, Margo moves Eve into her home and makes her her personal secretary. As the plot thickens, Margo wonders if Eve really is just a nice young girl, or if there are ulterior motives involved.
Anne Baxter as Eve Harrington
Anne Baxter plays Eve. Shy at first, once she is included into Margo's inner circle, she opens up and, little by little, her true colors are revealed.  I can't think of anyone else who could have played her so well. Her transition to mousy girl to viper is astounding. It really is a wonderful performance. 

Bette Davis as Margo Channing
Of course, it really is Bette Davis as Margo Channing who dominates the movie. As incredible as the rest of the cast is, Davis stands above the rest. Which is really saying something, because the whole cast is flawless. But Davis brings something extra to the table here.  She plays Margo not just as a selfish diva, but also as a frightened woman, nervous about aging, losing her career, and the man she loves to a younger, more attractive woman. It's almost as if Davis were channeling her own fears and anxieties out through Margo. At the time of this film, Davis was 42 years old, and considered a has been. She had everything riding on this part, and she knew that if she didn't succeed in it, she would be finished. She also knew that she was not the first choice for the role. The role of Margo Channing was originally written for Claudette Colbert, but she had to back out due to a back injury sustained in a previous film. Mankiewicz then had a stroke of genius when he suggested Bette Davis for the role, and that, as they say, was that.

I believe that had any actress other than Davis been given the role of Margo, she would have been the campiest character in the history of film. (Granted, she has become quite campy anyway, but I think that's more due to the fact that she was played by Davis). As mentioned earlier, Davis manages to evoke sympathy and caring for a rather unsympathetic character. 

I'm nobody's fool, least of all yours
Another performance of interest is George Sanders, playing the acerbic theater critic Addison DeWitt. Along with Margo's assistant Birdie (who will be discussed shortly) he is the only one who suspects that Eve is not all that she seems, and that her intentions may not be honest. He definitely has the best lines in the film, and his interactions with a young, up-and-coming actress by the name of Marilyn Monroe are pure gold.  When he tells her to go introduce herself to a theater producer at a party, she sighs and asks, "Why do they always look like unhappy rabbits?" He responds, "Because that's what they are."  And another hilarious scene is when Marilyn is trying in vain to get herself a drink.  

Monroe: Oh, waiter...
Sanders: That's not a waiter,my dear, that's a butler. 
Monroe: Well, I can't yell Oh butler can I? Maybe somebody's name is Butler.
Sanders: You have a point. An idiotic one, but a point.
Monroe: I don't want to make trouble. All I want is a drink.

My favorite character, however, is Margo's assistant, Birdie Coonan, played by one of my favorite character actresses, Thelma Ritter. She figures Eve out from the word go. She is cynical and sarcastic, but it's obvious that she cares for Margo and is only trying to look out for her and trying to keep her from getting hurt. When Eve relates the story of how she came to be such a fan of Margo's, everyone is moved by her story of misfortune. Birdie however, sees it as a sob story and muses, "What a story. Everything but the bloodhounds snappin' at her rear end." 
And when she is introduced to Eve by Margo as "My dear friend and companion, Miss Birdie Coonan" Birdie responds with "Oh, brother. When she gets like this, all of a sudden she's playing Hamlet's mother." 

Rounding out the cast is Celeste Holm as Karen Richards, Margo's best friend. She is the catalyst for the film's conflict taking place, as she was the one who found Eve and introduced her to Margo. She also seems to be the last person involved who can't see Eve for what she really is. 
It's unfortunate that George Sanders is the only really good male lead in this film. Gary Merrill plays Bill Samson, Margo's fiance, and Hugh Marlowe plays Lloyd Richards, Karen's husband. 
Despite the failure to cast decent male leads, All About Eve is a flawless film, the ultimate backstage story, and boasts incredible performances by the majority of the cast. George Sanders won Best Actor for his performance, and it won Best Picture at the 1950 Academy Awards. However, Davis lost the Best Actress Oscar to Judy Holiday for Born Yesterday (some say because Anne Baxter, who was also nominated for Best Actress, refused to accept a Best Supporting Actress nomination, therefore splitting the votes). I envy those when they see it for the first time, and I would love to show it to somebody and watch their reactions throughout. It's a great roller coaster ride of a film, and it really is a thrill to watch.