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 23, 2013
I’m not a big fan of “faith-based movies,” although my full-time work is in religion, but we did watch a movie in that category, because the star was John Ratzenberger. Like most folks, we know Ratzenberger from his eleven-year run as Cliff Clavin, the know-it-all postman and barfly on the television series Cheers. Ratzenberger has had an extensive career; among other things, he has made a specialty of providing voices for Pixar films — all Pixar films. He has also been active in Republican politics, and he is a published author, a business entrepreneur, an advocate for training in skilled trades, and a member of the boards of directors at two universities.
Ratzenberger plays the title role in The Woodcarver, a Canadian film that concerns Matthew Stevenson (Dakota Daulby), a teenager who is troubled because his parents, Jack and Rita (Woody Jeffreys and Nicole Oliver) are involved in an acrimonious breakup. The fallout, especially in the form of Jack’s angry outbursts, often lands on Matthew. The boy acts out his frustration by vandalizing the Baptist church that his family attends. In the process, he destroys ornamental work that was done by Ernest Otto, a local craftsman who has been reclusive since the death of his wife.
The pastor of the church reaches an accommodation with the Stevensons in which Matthew won’t be prosecuted if he helps repair the damage he did. The pastor also prevails on a reluctant Ernest to replace the hand-carved planks that had decorated the church. This job puts Ernest in direct competition with Jack’s boss and potential partner, who is in the lumber supply business.
Matthew does some repairs at the church, but he eventually takes an interest in Ernest and starts working in Ernest’s shop, learning the woodcarving trade. Although Jack objects to this arrangement, it continues and even goes a step further as Matthew leaves home and temporarily moves in with Ernest. In their conversations, Ernest teaches Matthew to judge his actions by asking himself, “WWJD – What would Jesus do?” It’s not so much a religious lesson as it is an ethical one; in fact, Ernest doesn’t discuss religion at all. The boy may not know his theology, but he knows the broad outlines of the kind of life Jesus led, so he has no trouble understanding Ernest’s meaning.
There’s much more to the plot than that and, “faith-based” or not, the movie held our interest to the end. Besides the story line, that’s attributable to good acting on the part of all the principles, including Ratzenberger in a much more understated role than his signature character.
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 22, 2013
My lack of interest in current television is at the point where I have a very limited diet. I’m not going to make an argument for the “golden age,” because I don’t think it’s valid. There have been many excellent shows since the 1950s. Still — and I’m willing to call this a matter of taste — I am attracted to early programming, and especially to situation comedies such as Make Room for Daddy, Burns and Allen, and the proto-sitcom, The Goldbergs.
Thank heaven, then, for services like Netflix, which makes many of these shows available, including The Jack Benny Show. Benny is a favorite of mine, not only because he was such a unique character and was so skillful in portraying his fictional persona — the miser who wouldn’t admit to being older than 39 — but because of his place in American show business history.
The production values of television shows in the 1950s do not compare favorably with what we have become used to sixty years later, but the era got its “golden age” reputation because of the cadre of writers and performers who had migrated to television on a path that led from vaudeville, burlesque, and the legitimate theater by way of radio. Jack Benny and many of his contemporaries had worked very hard to develop their sense of what audiences at the time thought was funny or dramatic, and to develop the timing and delivery that would work in the new medium. They learned their lessons well; Jack Benny’s slow burn is still funny, even when you can see it coming from a mile away.
An interesting aspect of Benny’s show was his relationship with Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, a gravel-voiced black actor who was part of the Benny stock company which included, among others, announcer Don Wilson and Irish crooner Dennis Day.
Anderson who, like Benny, got his start in vaudeville, started working with Benny in radio in 1937, first in a few bit parts and then playing Benny’s valet. He played that role on radio and television until 1965. He was the first black performer to have a regular role on radio, but that meant that he was faced with what became a classic conundrum for black artists — the question of whether to play a subservient character or not work in movies, radio, or TV. It was a difficult question for the actors as well as for the black Americans who were being treated as second-class citizens if as citizens at all.
Given the racial climate at the time, The Jack Benny Show took an unusual approach by presenting Rochester as a quick-witted and sarcastic character who was always a little smarter than his boss. The approach was unusual also because this plot element juxtaposed two deadpan figures and the combination was hilarious and was sustained for nearly thirty years. At first, in radio, there was often a racial aspect to the humor surrounding Rochester, but after World War II, Benny — who took an unambiguous public stand in favor of racial harmony — insisted that all racial content be eliminated from his scripts.
Eddie Anderson was one of the most popular and highest-paid actors of his time. He appeared in many movies, including Green Pastures and Gone With the Wind. He handled his money wisely and was both wealthy and generous. Among other enterprises, he owned a company that manufactured parachutes for the American military during World War II.
You can see Jack Benny and Eddie Anderson in a typically funny scene by clicking 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.
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.
December 27, 2012
I have written in this space about several movies that had time-travel themes, but none so elegant as From Time to Time, a 2009 British production directed by Julian Fellowes.
The story is set in a country estate in England at the end of World War II. A 13-year-old boy named Tolly, played by Alex Etel, is sent to stay at the old house with his grandmother, Mrs. Oldknow, played by Maggie Smith. Mrs. Oldknow’s son — who is Tolly’s father — has been missing in action, and Tolly is holding onto a conviction that his dad is still alive. Tolly’s mother, who has had a cool relationship with Mrs. Oldknow, is occupied with trying to determine her husband’s fate, and she believes Tolly would be safer in the country until the war is over.
Tolly is very interested in the house and in his ancestors who have lived there, and he is distressed to learn that his grandmother, who has a great affection for her home and loves to tell Tolly stories about its past, can no longer afford to keep the place up and is planning to sell it.
As Tolly explores the house and the grounds, he begins slipping from the mid-twentieth century into a time two hundred years before. He enters a room and finds it occupied by his ancestors and their retinue. Chief among these figures is the master of the house, a magnanimous sea captain played by Hugh Bonneville. Most of these shadows are unaware of Tolly, but one who is immediately sensible of his presence is Capt. Oldknow’s blind young daughter, Susan (Eliza Bennett). Susan is inadvertently the cause of a family crisis when Capt. Oldknow returns from one of his voyages with a black boy, a fugitive American slave named Jacob (Kwayedza Kureya). This lad, the captain announces, is to be a companion for Susan, and he is to be treated as a member of the household, not as a servant. This is met by resistance from Capt. Oldknow’s restless wife, Maria (Carice van Houten), his spoiled son Sefton (Douglas Booth), and from a none too disinterested servant named Caxton (Dominic West). The jealousy and antagonism directed at Jacob when the captain is away from home sets off a chain of events that results in a mystery that is not resolved until Tolly, the inquisitive time traveler, sorts it out.
This movie gets only fair to middlin’ reviews, but we found it entertaining and engaging. The quirky characters, including Pauline Collins as the latter-day household’s outspoken cook, Mrs. Tweedle, and Timothy Spall as the gruff Dickensian handyman whose bloodline has a critical place in the Oldknow family history.
Like a lot of people, I suspect, I have been fascinated by the idea of time travel since I was a kid and have fantasized about the day when I myself could visit the past. According to a physics book I read not long ago, time travel to the future is possible, but time travel to the past is out of the question. It’s not out of the question in the movies, though, so that’s where I do it, and it has never been more fun than in this film.