Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Tonya Harding Rolls with the Punches

I, Tonya, which explores the public perception of this country’s most notorious ice queen, could not be timelier. These days—when image is everything and a future president once bragged that his great popularity would allow him to get away with murder—the story of figure-skater Tonya Harding seems right on the money in terms of the way we Americans look at crime. What happened backstage at a Detroit ice arena two decades ago definitely has legs, and this new film brought it all flashing back to me.

I’m a fan of competitive figure-skating, especially when the Winter Olympics are drawing near. So I absolutely remember the build-up to the 1994 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, which would determine the American skaters who’d vie for Olympic gold. The ladies’ event pitted Nancy Kerrigan, a slender, fragile-looking young lady from Massachusetts who was known for her grace on the ice against Tonya Harding, a solidly-built wild-child from Portland, Oregon, renowned for her athleticism. (She was the first American female to successfully land a triple-axel in competition.) Unfortunately for Tonya, who came from a working-class background, she never fit neatly into the genteel world of ladies’ figure-skating. In an arena where it helped to seem delicate and demure, she was a powerhouse on the ice. The product of two bad marriages (her mother’s and her own), she projected an image that was tough as nails, and she had the mouth (as well as the swagger) to turn judges against her.

On that infamous evening in Detroit,  Nancy Kerrigan—following a practice session—was felled in an arena hallway by an assailant wielding a metal police baton. The assault badly bruised her leg, but it could have been far worse: her kneecap was the apparent target. The news reports that quickly flashed across the nation featured Kerrigan on the ground, writhing in pain, moaning “Why me?” It didn’t take long to locate the “masterminds” behind the senseless attack: Tonya Harding’s ex-husband and his goofball friend, who was Tonya’s self-anointed body-guard. The question of Harding’s own culpability has never been settled. She has always denied that she knew of the plan, but her innocence is far from certain. In any case, she (so obviously a bad-girl), was quickly declared guilty in the court of public opinion. Today there are those still convinced that SHE was the baton-wielder, striking down her toughest competition for a spot on the Olympic team. The press happily went along with this scenario, which pitted a trailer-trash vixen against a sweet little swan, (Nancy’s big number used music from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.)  

I, Tonya doesn’t exactly set this misperception to rights. Instead, it does something far more interesting, using a documentary format to conduct on-camera interviews with Tonya (Margot Robbie) and the dominant figures in her life, including abusive ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), and her gorgon of a mother, LaVona (the unforgettable Allison Janney). Those interviews give us pieces of the story, but also show us what a rare thing it is to be able to nail down the facts of a notorious public event. Characters contradict one another, and talk back to the camera. At one striking moment Tonya even blames us in the audience for the prurient attention that encourages reporters to run with half-truths. 

The real Tonya Harding was interviewed extensively for this film. In Robbie’s spirited portrayal, she comes across as an often infuriating but ultimately sad figure. Still, she’s a survivor. What did she do after being banned for life from the figure-skating world? In 2003, she debuted as a professional boxer. Ouch!

Friday, December 8, 2017

Charles Taylor Goes to the Drive-In

Back in the days when I read film criticism for breakfast, I fell in love with the writing of Pauline Kael in The New Yorker.. Kael’s great gift was her ability to make you eager to see a film you knew in advance you wouldn’t like. It was because of Pauline Kael that I actually paid to watch the 1973 remake of King Kong, the one with Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange. I’ve never been much of a fan of movies starring giant SFX apes. But Kael made the movie sound so interesting—and so profound a commentary on the era’s culture—that I couldn’t let it pass me by.

That same talent animates Charles Taylor, himself a Pauline Kael acolyte. Taylor, a New York intellectual who can quote the poetry of William Butler Yeats in passing, is quite capable of writing serious appreciations of Golden Age directors like Preston Sturges, Howard Hawks, and John Ford. And yet he has chosen to focus in his first book on the allure and the impact of genre movies, those fast-and-cheap cinematic efforts that rely on such box office staples as sex and violence to help draw a vivid picture of the times in which they are made. Taylor’s new work is called Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You: The Shadow Cinema of the American 70’s. As a Roger Corman alumna in good standing, I could not resist this enticing appreciation of the sort of down and dirty flicks we churned out in 1974 in great numbers.

Admittedly, Taylor doesn’t seem to have the highest regard for the movies we made at Corman’s New World Pictures. Candy Stripe Nurses, TNT Jackson, and Death Race 2000 (all of which played a major role in my working life) are clearly not in his pantheon. But he has high respect for the accomplishments of Corman graduates like Monte Hellman (Two-Lane Blacktop) and Jonathan Demme (Citizen Band). And one of his most vivid chapters is an appreciative look at Corman protégé Pam Grier. After first making her mark as a tough, sexy woman warrior in New World’s The Big Doll House, The Big Bird Cage, and The Arena, Grier went on to star in such blaxploitation revenge dramas as Coffy and Foxy Brown. Sizing up Grier’s career, Taylor smartly acknowledges the role played by race in hampering her advancement: “One of the paradoxes of the movies is that you can be a star—by which I mean you can display all the charisma and commanding presence and style that marks you as born to be in front of a camera –and never break out of second-rate movies or get the roles that you deserve. . . . For all the pleasure there is in watching Pam Grier, despite her having become an icon revered in hip-hop culture—despite Quentin Tarantino, who with a fan’s devotion and a director’s masterstroke gave her the starring role in Jackie Brown—there’s no escaping that she never had the career she should have. Pam Grier was a star, but only to black Americans.”  

Taylor mourns the state of movies today, the fact that DVD and cable have largely robbed us of “the possibility of shared discovery that has always been at the heart of moviegoing. Moviegoing is rarely as thrilling as when audiences feel they are collectively hearing truths no one has bothered to say publicly.” That’s part of the reason, he feels, that today’s hits seem so ephemeral. 

Unlike a movie he’s made me dying to see: Sam Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Lady Bird, Lady Bird, Fly Away From Home

No, I’ve never lived in Sacramento, nor did I attend a Roman Catholic girls’ high school. (As if!) Still, Lady Bird scored with me as it’s been scoring with audiences everywhere because it contains the ring of truth. Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut is not fancy filmmaking, technically speaking. But it’s wonderfully secure in its handling of actors who are far more three-dimensional than the comic-book cut-outs we’re using to seeing at the movies.

Gerwig is a rising young actress, known for her appearance in 20th Century Women and the title role in Frances Ha (for which she co-wrote the screenplay with then-beau Noah Baumbach). Though she grew up in Sacramento, California and attended the all-girl St. Francis High School, she has insisted that the rambunctious, rebellious lead character in Lady Bird is not a portrait of the artist as a young woman. Still, it’s clear from her conversation with host Peter Sagal on my favorite radio quiz show, Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, that the line between Lady Bird and the seventeen-year-old Greta is a blurry one. Gerwig describes her younger self as much more mild-mannered and well-behaved than Lady Bird. In the course of a fight with her mother, Greta certainly never jumped out of a moving car. (In her case, the car was only idling.) It’s true, though, that she and her mom waged epic battles, which ended as quickly as they started, because beneath it all they felt an intense love for one another.

Actors who move into the director’s chair tend to be especially adept at gathering terrific casts. Gerwig has certainly done that here. Her leading lady is Saoirse Ronan, the gifted young (23-year-old) Irish actress who nabbed a supporting actress Oscar nomination (for Atonement) when she was just thirteen. Adept at accents and at complex characterizations, Ronan finally played an Irish lass not far removed from her own age and personality type in 2015’s Brooklyn, for which she was deservedly named a best actress nominee. Oscar will probably single her out again this year for her unforgettable high-schooler in Lady Bird. Before I saw the film, I assumed she’d be playing the school rebel, someone abrasive and angry, a regular flame-thrower. Well, yes, but Christine McPherson (who insists Lady Bird is her given name, because she gave it to herself) can also be soft, vulnerable, and unexpectedly sweet.
Lady Bird is attracted to two very different high school boys, played by rising stars Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea) and Timothée Chalamet (Call Me By Your Name),with unpredictable results. She has a chunky best friend who gets good grades; then there’s the richer, cooler girl she aspires to be. She adores her warm-hearted sad sack of a father, played by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts. But her most complex emotions are directed toward her mother, Marion, played by Broadway actress Laurie Metcalf in a performance that pundits are saying is ripe for Oscar love. Marion is very much at the heart of the McPherson family: she’s hard-working, practical, and a great friend to those in need. As keeper of the family’s finances, she’s tight with a dollar, so of course she has no use for Lady Bird’s dream of getting out of Sacramento (which she deems the boring mid-west of California) and heading for a pricey east coast college. Nor do the two agree about clothes or about pretty much anything else. Still, the love is there, bubbling up when least expected.

Lady Bird is a small movie that makes the most of what it’s got. To which I say Hallelujah, and Amen.