August 16, 2010
A friend told me last night that on Saturday he saw a play by Harold Pinter, “No Man’s Land.” My friend posed a question: “Did Pinter always write like that?” I am not an expert on Pinter, and I have never seen “No Man’s Land,” so I could have escaped this conversation save for the fact that while my friend was watching “No Man’s Land” on a stage, my wife and I were watching “The Last Tycoon” on a Netflix DVD. The 1979 film, directed by Elia Kazan, had a screenplay written by Pinter based on an unfinished novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
I asked my friend what he meant by his allusion to Pinter’s writing, and he said that while the play was literate and funny, and the performances were engaging, the experience left him with a feeling of ambiguity. I have since learned that while “No Man’s Land” was well received when it first appeared in 1975, it left critic Michael Coveney, writing, “Yes, but what does it all mean?”
I was in no position to sort that out, but I did tell my friend that while “The Last Tycoon” is a worthwhile diversion for some reasons — including excellent performances by an impressive cast — the movie, too, raises questions that it doesn’t answer. It has been said that Pinter liked to lead his audiences somewhere between reality and dream, and that is the effect of this film.
“The Last Tycoon” is Monroe Stahr, a Hollywood producer whose demanding personality, at least, Fitzgerald ostensibly based on MGM’s “boy genius,” Irving Thalberg. The premise of the film is that Stahr’s wife, who was a major star at the same studio, died suddenly and at an early age, and that Stahr has not gotten over it. In the meantime, he is engaged in a power struggle with studio executive Pat Brady, whose young daughter is in love with Stahr. In the aftermath of a minor earthquake, Stahr notices a young woman — Kathleen Moore — who strongly resembles his late wife. He becomes obsessed with Kathleen, pursues her, seduces her, loses her. As he unravels emotionally, he also runs afoul of his employer, allowing Brady to push him aside.
Stahr is played by a 36-year-old Robert De Niro in a performance so devoid of emotion that the audience gets no help in determining what this character’s reactions to people and situations really mean. Kathleen is played by Ingrid Boulting, a South African-born actress who is now an artist and yoga instructor in California. Her performance is much more interesting, but — thanks to the writing and direction — her character is inscrutable. Does she resent the fact that Stahr was attracted to her because of her resemblance to his lost love? Does she love him? Is she a woman easily used by men, is she a tease, or is she an opportunist — even a prostitute? What becomes of her? What becomes of Stahr?
It’s not the worst experience in the world — this not knowing; in fact, maybe it’s more like life than the movies usually are. At any rate, flawed or not, the story is well told by a cast that includes Robert Mitchum as Pat Brady; Jack Nicholson as a Communist who is trying to organize the studio’s writers; Dana Andrews as a director who incurs Stahr’s dissatisfaction; Ray Milland as a studio attorney; Tony Curtis as a top leading man; Donald Pleasance as a writer, and John Carradine in a brief but charming turn as a studio tour guide.
A scene between De Niro and Curtis provides one of the best examples of Pinter’s approach. The leading man, Rodriguez confides in Stahr: the actor is in love with his wife but has become impotent, and not only with her. Stahr’s reaction to the inexplicable fact that the actor has come to him with this problem is, like the rest of De Niro’s performance, difficult to plumb. More than that, the scene ends abruptly — with no resolution– but when Rodriguez and his wife encounter Stahr later in the film, they appear deliriously happy with each other, and the change is never explained.
To give credit where it is deserved, I should mention that De Niro has one scene in this film that I could watch again and again. Stahr is having a confrontation with a British writer, Boxley, played by the great character actor Donald Pleasence. Boxley is complaining about the “hack” writers he’s working with, and he’s complaining about the story line on the film he has been assigned. In an attempt — fruitless, as it turns out — to get Boxley off the schneid, Stahr fabricates the fragment of a story line that has no beginning or end — a mysterious vignette about a girl who comes into a room, unaware that she’s being observed, with two dimes and a nickel and a box of matches, and a pair of black gloves that she burns in a wood stove. De Niro tells this story with such skill, with such a teasing air of mystery, that he make the story irresistible and the desire to know the rest of it palpable.
If you don’t mind scrolling through the whole script, you can read that story at THIS LINK. It begins with Monroe Stahr’s words: “Listen … has your office got a stove in it that lights with a match?” See if you can read that without thirsting for the rest of the story.
July 22, 2010
We stumbled across an old TV interview with Tony Curtis recently, and that prompted us to watch “Some Like it Hot,” the 1959 Billy Wilder film, which neither of us had seen. The premise of this movie is that dance band musicians Jerry and Joe, played by Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, inadvertently witness the “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre” in a Chicago garage in 1929 and have to leave town to avoid being killed themselves. They do that by dressing in drag and joining an all-girl band that is on its way to an engagement in Florida. (The Florida scenes, curiously, were filmed at the instantly recognizable Hotel Del Coronado in California.) Both of the fugitives are immediately attracted to the zaftig singing ukulele player, Sugar Kane Kowalczyk, played by Marilyn Monroe. Joe (aka Josephine) seizes the advantage with Sugar Kane by posing as the millionaire scion of an oil magnate, and that leads to a steamy encounter aboard a yacht. In that role, Curtis does a hilarious imitation of Cary Grant’s voice. Meanwhile, Jerry (aka Daphne) gets drawn into a relationship with an older sugar daddy, played by Joe E. Brown, in which the gender issue gets a little hazy.
This film combines violence and overt sexuality with implausible farce. It wouldn’t stir up the pond today, but it was controversial in its own time. Marilyn Monroe’s make-out scene with Tony Curtis – and a couple of very revealing dresses she wore – contributed to the negative reactions the film got in what was clearly a different era than our own. The cast, which also included George Raft and Pat O’Brien deliberately type-cast as fictional mob boss “Spats” Colombo and Chicago police Detective Mulligan, was a talented aggregation and made the odd mix of dark and light themes work very well. The film was shot in black-and-white, which somehow seems appropriate to the ’20s setting, but I read that the decision was driven by the fact that the makeup Lemmon and Curtis wore did not reproduce well in color.
As much as I liked this movie, I was surprised to learn that it has been described in laudatory terms ranging from one of the best comedies ever made to the best comedy ever made, to one of the best pictures ever made. I always look askance at statements like that because of the volume of work – done by a wide variety of artists in a wide variety of times and circumstances – that has to be dismissed to make such an evaluation true. It’s enough to say that “Some Like it Hot” was a very good movie. It won an Oscar and was nominated for seven others, and it won Golden Globe awards for Marilyn Monroe and Jack Lemmon and as best picture of the year.
A lot has been written about the making of this movie, including accounts of how much trouble Marilyn Monroe caused during the production — which must have particularly irked Wilder, who originally planned to use Mitzi Gaynor in that part. Monroe was chronically late and often couldn’t remember her lines and had to read them from cues concealed on the set. She was also pregnant, and appears overweight – even for her – in several scenes.
On the other hand, it was a rare pleasure to watch a performance by Joe E. Brown, who is largely forgotten now but had a keen sense of comedy and was one of the gentlemen of the film industry.
Although Bob Hope got a lot of attention for the amount of time he devoted to American servicemen and women, Joe E. Brown did his share, too, particularly during World War II. He was a regular figure at the Hollywood Canteen, where he personally interacted with the visiting troops, and he paid his own way to travel more than 200,000 miles into war zones to entertain, often under difficult conditions. He was often known to repeat his whole show for hospitalized soldiers who had been unable to attend the regular performance. He also carried sacks of mail from servicemen and women back to the United States so that it would be delivered through the regular postal service and reach their families more quickly. Brown and Ernie Pyle were the only two civilians awarded the Bronze Star during World War II.
Joe E. Brown was also one of the few public figures who spoke out in favor of admitting refugee Jewish children into the United States while Adolf Hitler was consolidating his power in Europe. In 1939 – flying in the face of both anti-Semitism and isolationism – Brown appealed to a Congressional committee to pass a bill that would have allowed 20,000 German Jewish children into the U.S. “We shouldn’t be smug about this,” Brown told the committee, “and say that we are getting along all right so let the rest of the world take care of itself.”