December 7, 2013
We saw the movie Philomena last night, and I was intrigued by the reference to Jane Russell. I think it’s well known by now that the movie deals with the practice of some convents and other institutions in Europe to force single young women to surrender their children for adoption and to require a large donation from American couples to take those children to the United States. The movie has to do with a particular instance in which a woman named Philomena Lee, whose child was taken from her in that manner, attempts decades later to find out what became of the boy.
In the more or less true account, Dame Judi Dench plays Philomena, who — in the company of a freelance writer — visits the convent where she was left by her father after becoming pregnant at the age of 18. The reporter notices among the photographs hanging in the reception room at the convent an autographed, provocative photo of Jane Russell. He asks a nun about the photo, and the clear implication is that Jane Russell was among the wealthy Americans who “bought” a child at this convent. That caught my interest because I met Jane Russell in 1971 when she was appearing here in New Jersey in a production of Catch Me If You Can. In fact, I had coffee with her in Manhattan and one of the topics of our conversation was adoption.
Jane Russell told me that during her first marriage, which was to Hall of Fame quarterback Bob Waterfield, she visited orphanages and similar institutions in five countries in Europe and was frustrated to find that it was nearly impossible for an American couple to adopt the children who were languishing there. She eventually did adopt three children, but her experience in Europe also inspired her in 1952 to found the World Adoption International Fund which eventually facilitated tens of thousands of adoptions. She became an advocate for adoptive parents and children, testifying before Congress in 1953 in favor of the Federal Orphan Adoption Bill which allowed American parents to adopt children fathered by American troops overseas. And in 1980 she lobbied for the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act which provides financial assistance based on the particular circumstances of foster and adoptive parents and adoptive children.
From what I have read so far, I deduce that Jane Russell did not adopt a child from the convent that is the focus of Philomena. I did read an account of an interview in which she told a reporter that after having failed to adopt a child in England, she was going to try her luck in Ireland. Whether any of her eventual adoptions amounted to “buying” babies, I cannot tell. I do notice that news stories that refer to her as one of the wealthy Americans alluded to in Philomena do not go on to report her work on behalf of adoptive parents and children.
November 30, 2013
Having just watched an Angelica Huston movie, we felt that logic dictated that we watch a Jack Nicholson movie; the first one we were willing to subject ourselves to was Heartburn, a 1986 film directed by Mike Nichols and based on Nora Ephron’s fictionalized account of her ill-fated marriage to Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein. Nicholson plays a D.C. journalist named Mark Forman and Meryl Streep plays a food writer named Rachel Samstat. These two meet at party, do the “why don’t we go somewhere else” routine, stretch “somewhere else” to mean Forman’s bed, and get married. Even if you didn’t know Ephron’s story, you’d know in the first few minutes of this film where the relationship is headed.
Mark seems to be an enthusiastic husband and, as nature takes its course, a doting father. The only stress on the marriage at first is the incompetence of the contractor the couple hired to renovate the wreck of a house they bought in D.C. But behind the scenes Mark is having friendly doings with an awkwardly tall Washington hostess, and this comes to light when Rachel is almost ready to give birth to their second child. Rachel reacts to the revelation by rushing back to her father’s home in New York, but she succumbs to Mark’s entreaty that she return to him. That turns out to be a bad decision. The messy outcome involves a key lime pie.
I don’t know how literally this story reflects what went on between Ephron and Bernstein (he had an affair with the wife of the British ambassador to the United States) but it doesn’t make clear what either of these characters really wants out of life. Rachel’s decision to marry Mark — after mutual acquaintances urge her not to, and after she holds up the ceremony for hours while she has a panic attack — is hard to absorb, and Mark’s passionate insistence on remaining in a marriage that clearly cramps his style is no more understandable. One conclusion I came to: It is possible to grow tired of Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson within 108 minutes. It is.
By the way, Heartburn marked the film debut of Kevin Spacey, who plays an armed robber who relieves Rachel of her wedding ring. The cast also includes Maureen Stapleton, Richard Masur, Miloš Forman, and Stockard Channing.
November 30, 2013
I never thought of Tom Jones as a deus ex machina, but in the movies all things are possible. To wit, Agnes Browne, which was co-produced and directed by Angelica Huston, who, apparently to prove that she is no shrinking violet, also played the title role. This movie, filmed in Dublin and released in 1999, was based on the novel The Mammy by Brendan O’Carroll, who appears several times in the film as a derelict townsman.
At the beginning of the film, set in 1967, we learn that Agnes Browne’s husband has been killed in a motor vehicle accident, leaving her with seven children to raise. This is quite a challenge inasmuch as, unless she can collect on her husband’s union pension, her only means of support will be selling fruits and vegetables in an open-air market. She doesn’t even have enough to cover the costs of her husband’s funeral and burial, so she borrows money from neighborhood loan shark Mr. Billy, played by Ray Winstone. When, after a few months, a stroke of luck enables Agnes to pay off the balance of the loan and avoid the usurious interest, Mr. Billy is irritated and he finds a way to get even by strong-arming one of Agnes’s young sons.
On the block where the open-air market is located, a French baker named Pierre, played by Arno Chervrier, has opened a shop, and although he is very courteous, he doesn’t hide the fact that he has eyes for Agnes. Agnes is too preoccupied to respond at first, but eventually she agrees to what turns out to be a very elegant date. But Agnes gets most of her personal support during this period from her fellow street merchant Marion Monks (Marion O’Dwyer) who is full of joie de vivre and sexual insights. Marion is so solicitous of her friend that she manages to buy tickets to a Tom Jones concert that she knows Agnes yearns to attend. Tragedy will eventually deprive Agnes of Marion’s friendship, and it’s a loss that Agnes can scarcely afford.
Because of the debt incurred by one of her sons, Agnes finds herself hours away from losing her furniture to Mr. Billy, although a viewer would hardly believe that such a blow will actually fall on this heroine.
This movie held our interest until the last few minutes despite the fact that we found the dialogue hard to follow in places because of the strong Irish accents and the tendency of some of the actors to mutter. We were absorbed mostly in the characters themselves and in the environment; the story line wasn’t very durable. It was difficult to follow Agnes’s reactions and motivations, beginning with her matter-of-fact response to her husband’s sudden death. But the real weak spot in this movie is the denouement, the resolution of the Mr. Billy crisis, which primarily involves the children, draws in Tom Jones — in person —under improbable circumstances, and is just childish in general.
This movie wasn’t received well in the United States, but it seems to have done much better in Europe.
October 14, 2013
Although its premise and denouement seem cynical to me, I found Same Time, Next Year (1978) to be an engaging and entertaining film, and an especially apt showcase for the talents of Ellen Burstyn and Allen Alda. The romantic comedy is so apropos for Burstyn, in fact, that she starred on Broadway with Charles Grodin in the stage version in 1975 and won the Tony and Drama Desk awards for her performance.
The principal characters in this story are Doris and George, two married people who meet by chance in 1951 at an inn in California, wind up in bed together, and decide to repeat the encounter on the same weekend every year — and they do so for 26 years. Doris, who lives in the San Francisco area, is at the inn because she is supposed to attend a religious retreat nearby; George, who is from New Jersey, is an accountant in town to see a client. In the play by Bernard Slade, Doris and George are the only two characters; in the film, there are other actors, but their roles are only incidental. It’s not an easy thing for two actors to carry a film by themselves, but Burstyn and Alda succeed utterly.
At each meeting, they express and act on their passion for each other, but they also discuss their lives at home, what’s best and worst about their spouses, what’s going on with their children, of whom there are a total of six. Unlike the folks who usually turn up in this kind movie situation, neither Doris nor George claims to be in a failed marriage; in fact, both seem to genuinely like their partners. As the meetings go on — separated in this film by black-and-white images of the historical and cultural events that shaped life in those decades — Doris and George both evolve in their appearance, their mode of dress, and their outlook, and these changes don’t always blend harmoniously. But still they go on meeting, until tragic changes in George’s life force a decision — an “up or down vote,” to use the parlance of the Beltway — by both of them. As I suggested at the beginning of this post, I am repelled by the way this story line glibly accepts the deceit that was necessary for this relationship to continue. Still, I can’t help but applaud the skill with which both actors kept the story compelling and made the transitions in these characters believable.
October 8, 2013
Now that I’m 71 and nearly a senior citizen myself, I find that I’m drawn to these movies about seniors who show that they are by no means through. A case in point is Never Too Late, a 1996 Canadian comedy with a cast that includes Olympia Dukakis, Cloris Leachman, Jean Lapointe, Jan Rubes, Cory Haim, and Matt Craven. The story line is that Woody (Lapointe) is a resident of a rest home and part of a card-playing quartet with three outsiders: Rose (Dukakis), an actress; Olive (Leachman), a radio host; and Joseph (Rubes), a cranky and tight-fisted Slav.
Woody has an acrimonious relationship with Carl (Craven), the owner/manager of the home, who has Woody’s power of attorney and uses it to keep Woody from getting access to his cash. When Carl prevents Woody from chipping in to pay for the burial of a friend, Rose, Olive, and Joseph begin to suspect that something is amiss in the management of the home. With the help of Joseph’s grandson, Max (Haim), they launch an investigation that at times skirts the law of the land in an effort to figure out how Carl is handling the residents’ assets. While one might jump to an accurate conclusion about how their probe turns out, one might not anticipate the plot twist at the end.
Although this is a comedy, it looks squarely at some grim implications of old age. On the other hand, the movie includes a touching romantic relationship between Rose and Joseph — something not often portrayed by an industry that usually associates sexuality only with youth. The story line is not impossible, but some aspects of it are improbable, at least as they are portrayed in this film. There are also two scenes that seem to be cut in mid sentence. Nonetheless, it’s an entertaining little farce, and the actors all turn in sound performances. American audiences are familiar with Olympia Dukakis and Cloris Leachman, but maybe not so much with Rubes and Lapointe, two fascinating characters.
Rubes, who died in 2009, started his professional career as an operatic basso in his native Czechoslovakia and sang with the Canadian Opera Company before he switched to film and television acting. He appeared in at least 39 films, including the 1985 thriller Witness, in which he portrayed the Amish patriarch Eli Lapp. Rubes also appeared in 15 TV movies and 15 series. Lapointe, a native of Canada, is known mostly, in his entertainment career, as a singer and comedian. He was also a member of the Canadian Senate, representing Quebec from 2001 to 2010.
October 1, 2013
Watching silent movies always gives me a melancholy feeling. I think the sensation comes from a wistful and naive attraction to the era in which those films were made — an era that was gone long before I was born. The mood comes over me almost regardless of the film I’m watching, whether it is drama or comedy.
And so it was with a mixed response that I watched D.W. Griffith’s 1925 comedy Sally of the Sawdust, in which the leading players were W.C. Fields, Carol Dempster, and Alfred Lunt. This film, which is based on Poppy, a 1923 stage musical, is lighter fare than usually comes to mind when Griffith’s name is mentioned, but it has dark undertones as well.
Fields plays “Professor” Eustace McGargle, a circus juggler and con man who befriends a single mother and her daughter, Sally (Dempster). After the mother dies, McGargle briefly considers returning Sally to her grandparents in the fictional New York suburb of Green Meadows, but he has a genuine affection for the child and decides to keep her with him.
As Sally grows, McGargle also uses her as a dancing warm-up to his own act. When their fortunes are at a low ebb, the pair wind up in Green Meadow where they work at a charity carnival while McGargle prepares to finally restore the girl to her family, who have have benefitted financially from a real estate boom in the area. Although the handsome son (Lunt) of a local tycoon falls in love with Sally, his father is repelled by the idea of such a match and does what he can to prevent it by having McGargle and Sally arrested on the basis of the professor’s three-card monte operation. There are parallel frenetic scenes as Sally attempts to escape from custody and McGargle purloins a tin lizzy and leads a gang of bootleggers on a wild chase as he attempts to reach town and his distressed ward. To make a long story short, they all live happily ever after.
One impression I couldn’t shake is that this film, which appeared toward the end of Griffith’s career, was longer than it had to be. The story is thin and obvious, and the twin sequences of Sally’s escape and McGargle’s chase, go on too long by about a third.
Still, it was interesting to watch Fields, who in his later career made so much of verbal comedy, perform for an hour and a half in silence. Also, McGargle foreshadows other roles Fields would play but, except for Wilkins Macawber in David Copperfield, his characters didn’t face situations quite as grave as the one McGargle wrestled with. Fields would get to reprise this role in Poppy, a 1936 sound version of the same story.
I found Carol Dempster to be very appealing as Sally. She was one of Griffith’s discoveries and appeared in many of his films, and she was also for a time his lover. While I was watching Sally in the Sawdust, my wife came into the room and remarked that Dempster was kind of forlorn-looking. That struck me, too, and I read that Dempster attracted critical remarks on that account at the time she was making these movies. But I found that slightly hangdog quality both suitable and, in its own way, attractive. Evidently, at least some film critics now feel the same way.
A significant factor in my enjoyment of this film was the score that was written and performed, on a digital piano, by Donald Sosin.
I’m going to watch this film again and use the pause button several times. As with most silent films that were shot on locations, I often found myself transfixed by the background, by the storefronts and the signs and the cars and the structures that were serving their purpose on a long-ago day when Griffith’s camera happened to capture them.
August 30, 2013
My recent post about Eddie “Rochester” Anderson got me to thinking about another black actor of that generation — Mantan Moreland, who sometimes used the name “Birmingham” Brown. Moreland was born in Louisiana in 1902 and as a child repeatedly left home to look for work in circuses and other road shows. He eventually got into vaudeville, working the tanktown circuit, but also appearing on Broadway and touring Europe.
Like many actors with similar resumes, Moreland developed a lot of skills while he was doing that work, and he eventually put them to use on the screen, appearing in at least 130 movies and television shows, but mostly movies. He worked in so-called race movies (movies made by black producers for black audiences), in shoestring productions, and in major features, and he created his most indelible impression in the role of “Birmingham” Brown, chauffeur to the film detective, Charlie Chan, who ostensibly was Chinese, though he was played by Caucasian actors. The character of “Birmingham” Brown, like most of the characters Moreland played, perpetuated stereotypes about black people. Specifically, the bug-eyed Birmingham was afraid of everything and often tried to dissuade Chan from wading into dangerous situations. His entreaty — “Mistuh Chan! Mistuh Chan!” — became familiar to millions of moviegoers in the 1940s and to a later generation of television viewers when the Charlie Chan films resurfaced on the small screen. Of course, the portrayal of Chan himself was problematic in its own way.
The major properties Moreland appeared in included A Haunting We will Go, with Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy; Cabin in the Sky, and See Here, Private Hargrove.
White filmmakers and white audiences were content for decades to take advantage of the willingness of black actors to play subservient or demeaning roles, but when the nation became uncomfortable with, or at least self-conscious about, that kind of comedy, many black performers had a hard time getting any work at all.
Mantan Moreland himself, along with many of his black peers, was conflicted about the image they presented while they were trying to establish themselves as entertainers and, not incidentally, make a living. Moreland, in hindsight, judged the epoch harshly, telling an interviewer in 1959 that he would “never play another stereotype, regardless of what Hollywood offers.”
“The Negro, as a race,” Morehead said, ”has come too far in the last few years for me to dash his hopes, dreams, and accomplishments against a celluloid wall, by making pictures that show him to be a slow-thinking, stupid dolt. … Millions of people may have thought that my acting was comical, but I know now that it wasn’t always so funny to my own people.” After that, he did appear in a few movies and in television series including Adam-12, The Bill Cosby Show, and Love American Style.
When Moreland was touring in vaudeville, he often worked with a comic named Ben Carter, and the two developed a routine known as “incomplete sentence” in which they carried on a rapid conversation in which neither could finish a sentence. It required a firm command of the material and impeccable timing. Moreland and Carter brought the routine to the movie screen by way of the Charlie Chan films. You can see clips of the routine if you click HERE.
July 30, 2013
If blood is, indeed, thicker than water, does the same chemistry apply to bone marrow? That question is at the heart of the matter in “Marvin’s Room,” a 1996 film produced by Robert De Niro and starring Diane Keaton, Meryl Streep, Leonardo Di Caprio, Gwen Verdon, and Hume Cronyn.
The story, which is based on a play by Scott McPherson, concerns the uneasy reunion of a badly fractured family. The Marvin of the title (Cronyn) has been bed-ridden at his Florida home for 17 years after suffering a stroke. Unable to walk or to speak coherently, Marvin is cared for by his daughter Bessie (Keaton), who also looks after her aunt Ruth (Verdon), who is in the early stages of dementia.
Bessie is diagnosed with leukemia and needs a marrow transplant. She turns for help to her sister Lee (Streep) although they haven’t communicated since Lee moved to Ohio 20 years ago. Lee has two sons who are potential donors, Hank (DiCaprio) and Charlie (Hal Scardino). Lee and Hank have a poisonous relationship which recently reached new depths when he was confined to a mental health facility after deliberately setting fire to their house.
Despite the mutual hard feelings between the sisters, Lee takes her sons to Florida to be tested for compatibility, although Hank is coy about whether he would agree to donate marrow even if he were a match. The atmosphere is uncomfortable and not made any better when Lee considers the possibility that she could inherit this responsibility if Bessie should die.
There is an unexpected chemistry between Bessie and Hank, however, and the story turns on that, though not in a simplistic way.
This film was very well received when it first appeared, and with good reason. Although the premise has all the potential for a sob story, it is written and directed (by Jerry Zaks) into a tense and moving drama. The unusual array of stars (which includes De Niro as Bessie’s doctor) delivers on its promise, too.
March 19, 2013
Sometimes a mesmerizing movie is one that leaves you uncertain as to what you just saw. Jellyfish (Meduzot in Hebrew) — a 2007 Israeli film, fits that category.
This dramatic comedy, or is it comic drama — see what I mean? — is based on a story by Shira Geffen. The subject matter is the frustrating lives of three women living in Tel Aviv. On the one hand, they are all lonely and downbeat — “resigned” might be the best term — but at the same time there is a spark of humor and warmth in the connections among them.
Batya, played by Sarah Adler, works somewhat ineptly in a dead-end job at a banquet hall. She is fired by her boorish boss, thrown over by her boyfriend, and neglected by her high-profile mother. Not unexpectedly, Batya isn’t in a good mood most of time, but her life is charmed when she encounters a mysterious mute little girl (Nikol Leidman) who wades out of the sea with a flotation tube around her waist and no other visible means of support, notably parents.
Things don’t go much better for Keren, played by Noa Knoller, a newly married bride whose Caribbean honeymoon is derailed before it starts when she breaks her leg while trying to climb out of a locked bathroom stall. And Joy (Ma-nenita De LaTorre), an immigrant who cares for a disagreeable old woman, is lonely for the son she left behind in the Philippines.
Clearly, a strain of melancholy runs through this film, but in the end it is not a downer. While it portrays the weightiness of everyday urban life, it also explores the undramatic but positive things that can touch people when their lives intersect.
February 22, 2013
The book is heavily illustrated, and some of the pictures are photographs of people who were held in slavery in this country. I often pause over pictures like that, studying the faces. The faces remind me of the painful fact that epochs such as American slavery, Jim Crow, and the Holocaust were about the injustice and pain inflicted on individual men, women, and children.
The 1990 film The Long Walk Home makes that point with a sharp impact. The story, originally written by John Cork when he was a student at the University of Southern California, is set in Montgomery, Alabama, during the bus boycott of 1955-1956. That was the seminal protest against racial discrimination on the city’s transit system, sparked by the arrest of Rosa Parks for refusing to surrender her seat to a white man. The stand taken by Rosa Parks inspired a boycott of the bus system by black citizens of Montgomery and eventually led to a ruling by the U.S. Supreme court that the racially discriminatory laws in Montgomery were unconstitutional and must be vacated.
The cast of The Long Walk Home includes Whoopie Goldberg as Odessa Carter, a maid employed by Miriam Thompson, played by Sissy Spacek.
Miriam Thompson is affected by the boycott, because Odessa won’t ride the bus, and the long walk, besides being grueling, makes her late for work each morning. Miriam’s partial solution to that is to pick up Odessa two mornings a week, a decision that Miriam’s husband, Norman (Dwight Schultz), goaded by his redneck brother, Tunker (Dylan Baker), vehemently objects to. The growing tension in the Thompson family over this issue, and her observation of Odessa’s ordeal, lead Miriam to re-examine her own values and her place in the roiling civil rights issue in the city.
This is a good movie in many respects, including Whoopi Goldberg’s understated performance as a woman who solemnly decides that she has had enough of being patronized, de-humanized, and humiliated. It’s important that she is portrayed in the midst of her own family, her husband and children. Shifting the point of view to this setting reminds us that racial discrimination didn’t do violence to some abstract principle; it did violence to regular people who were trying to live as human beings and citizens.