Friday, September 22, 2017

In Search of Jerry Lewis

Since the death of Jerry Lewis on August 20, I’ve been debating about what to say in his memory. I can’t pretend I was a number-one fan, and like most of Hollywood I don’t share in the passion of French critics and audiences for this hard-working multihyphenate (comedian-actor-writer-director-producer-philanthropist). In the name of research, I went back to two of his best-known films.

The King of Comedy, from 1982, is an unusual Martin Scorsese film both because nobody gets violently blown away and because the leading man is, of all things, a would-be comedian. He’s played by Scorsese favorite Robert De Niro, in the pathetic role of a nebbish who’s convinced he has the comic chops to score as a Johnny Carson-type TV comic. He’s so desperate to ingratiate himself with the reigning king of late night, Jerry Langford, that he resorts to kidnapping (not exactly an ideal career move). The role of Langford, I’m told, was originally offered to Carson himself, and other comic actors were also considered before the part fell into the hands of Jerry Lewis. He plays Langford as a powerful but exasperated figure, all too weary of the hangers-on (like De Niro’s Rupert Pupkin) who complicate his personal life. There’s a memorable moment that’s apparently taken from Lewis’s actual experience: when he rebuffs an old lady who demands an autograph during a high-pressure moment, she screams after him, “"You should only get cancer," 

Lewis plays his role convincingly, but I don’t understand the hoopla surrounding it. Some of his devoted fans insist that in The King of Comedy he really reveals serious acting chops. Lewis never grasped their enthusiasm, maintaining that he was pretty much playing himself. And so it seems. Lewis’s reputation in Hollywood was that of a tough taskmaster, though one who could also be hugely generous to his inner circle. Remarkably, I was once told by Scott Wilson, who made his mark as one of the killers in In Cold Blood, that early in his career he was offered the chance to be Lewis’s regular stand-in. Wanting to succeed as an actor, he turned the gig down, though he knew this was a great opportunity: Lewis’s stand-ins were well-treated, and often graduated into producer positions. 

Continuing my exploration of Lewis’s career, I watched what is considered his very best comic role, The Nutty Professor. In this 1963 triumph, a brainy but nerdy scientist concocts a potion that turns him into a handsome lounge lizard named Buddy Love. It’s all pretty silly, but Lewis—influenced by his youthful admiration for Spencer Tracy’s transformation scene in the 1941 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—has a nifty moment when suave Buddy Love evolves on-camera into the clumsy but lovable Dr. Julius Kelp. It’s remarkable how seamlessly he evolves from the cocky and surprisingly handsome Buddy to the tongue-tied, hunched-over Kelp (who, amazingly enough, manages to win the love of a voluptuous but sweet co-ed played by Stella Stevens).

What I remember best about Jerry Lewis is how much my family loved him when he appeared on early television. He was at his funniest when his goofy antics played off against the suave presence of Dean Martin. They made some great movies as a duo, but I went in search of a catchphrase I’d almost forgot: “Donnnn’t lick it.” Thanks to YouTube, I ultimately found a sample of the early Jerry Lewis who had my parents and me in stitches. You don’t have to be French to be tickled by this skit from the Colgate Comedy Hour, circa 1951. It’s live TV at its looniest. 

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Black is Beautiful (And Very Funny) in Coming to America

I’d been curious about the Eddie Murphy comedy, Coming to America, ever since I had lunch with the delightful Deborah Nadoolman, She’s a Hollywood costume designer (and now an esteemed costume historian) perhaps best known for giving Indiana Jones a distressed leather jacket and a broad-brimmed hat. She also supplied the Blues Brothers with their hipster threads, and put Michael Jackson in a red bomber jacket for “Thriller.” But her sole Oscar nomination involves 1988’s Coming to America, for which she designed some of the wittiest costumes I’ve ever seen. (It turns out that year’s Oscar for costume design went to Rain Man.)

Deborah is married to John Landis, who directed Coming to America in 1988. Landis had first directed an eager young Eddie Murphy in Trading Places; five years later, with Murphy having leapt into the Hollywood pantheon in Beverly Hills Cop, the relationship between director and star was apparently quite fraught. Some of the tension surrounded the fact that Murphy had dreamed up the film’s story (though a famous legal case involved humorist Art Buchwald’s claim that the origin of the plot came from him).

It hardly surprised me to learn that Eddie Murphy was the driving force behind Coming to America. In this era of political correctness, I suspect no white director or screenwriter could have gotten away with the project, if not for Murphy. The movie involves an African prince, but it’s hardly an attempt to show Africans as either heroically noble or victims of western paternalism and greed. Instead this kingdom is really quite hilarious. The fictional Zamunda is a pastel-colored place with an imposing but benevolent king (James Earl Jones, of course), who rules over fawningly adoring subjects. Prince Akeem, newly 21, is so pampered that he has never brushed his own teeth, tied his own shoes, or washed his own penis. (Voluptuous bathing girls happily perform this duty.) Everywhere he goes, young maidens sprinkle rose petals in his path. And the wife who has been selected for him is a total knockout. (She has been carefully trained to agree with everything he says.)

Naturally, Prince Akeem prefers a girl who loves him for himself. Which is why he and buddy Semmi (Arsenio Hall) travel to New York City to experience real life. Murphy is quite hilarious in his enthusiastic embrace of life in a Queens tenement. Next thing you know, he’s cheerfully mopping floors at McDowell’s, an obvious McDonald’s rip-off run by a very funny John Amos. Some of the movie’s best satiric moments are saved for a party at the home of the nouveau-riche Amos, who decorates his walls with copies of famous paintings (like a version of Manet’s “A Bar at the Folies-Bergère” in which the pretty barmaid has dark African skin). There’s also some fun at the expense of an entrepreneur character who got rich off a greasy Jheri-curl-like hair oil.

I found the eager naïveté of Murphy’s character totally endearing, and he plays off well against Arsenio Hall’s more worldly buddy, who installs neon décor and a hot tub in their spartan cold-water flat, just as Prince Akeem is trying to impress his American girlfriend with his poverty. Murphy and Hall are clearly total hams: they also take on a clutch of other characters including a James Brown-like soul preacher and some codgers hanging around an old-school barber shop. Murphy even gets to impersonate an elderly Jewish man who ends the film with a moldy Yiddish dialect joke. I was totally fooled until the credits. No wonder Rick Baker earned an Oscar nomination for his wizardry with makeup.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Fantasy Goes Live (and Corporate) at Universal Studios

Universal Pictures, founded in 1912, today is America’s oldest movie studio. Long ago Universal was best known for its monster films, notably Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Mummy. Universal’s affection for horror has continued through the years: visitors to the studio backlot are shown sets and memorabilia connected with such super-scary movies as Psycho, Jaws, and Jurassic Park. There’s nothing Universal loves more than a good scare.

But of course it was those studio tours that really put Universal on the map as a major SoCal attraction. They began all the way back in 1915, cost a nickel, and included a boxed chicken lunch. (Today’s prices are a whole lot higher. It costs $25 simply to park your car.) In 1964, under corporate ownership, Universal began to seriously turn itself into a theme park. It started with a narrated bus ride highlighted by glimpses of stars’ bungalows and by such “surprises” as a disintegrating bridge and a flash flood that showed off what Hollywood could do by way of movie magic. Gradually, there arose Disneylandish “lands” dedicated to the Universal hits of the moment.

There’ve been some strange bedfellows in this process. For years one of the park’s most popular rides allowed visitors to vicariously experience a bonafide Universal blockbuster, Back to the Future. Eventually, though, that magic DeLorean was sent to the junkyard. As I discovered on a recent visit to Universal Studios Hollywood, this ride’s place has now been taken by an elaborate homage to The Simpsons, the long-running cartoon show that hails not from Universal but from Fox Studios. Instead of hurtling into space in miniature DeLoreans, visitors in a Simpson-esque jalopy now try to escape Sideshow Bob’s attempts to derail the Krustyland Theme Park. It’s scary and goofy at the same time.

Like most of today’s theme-park “dark rides,” this Simpsons adventure combines physical jolts with the dramatic use of film that draws visitors into the action. In other of the park’s attractions, like the one featuring those madcap Minions, 3-D glasses enhance the effect. As your seat bounces and soars, you can be forgiven for feeling a bit queasy. But it’s doubtless both cheaper and safer to explore the possibilities of the film medium than to build an old-fashioned outdoor roller coaster. And the results, while doubtless less heart-stopping for the rider, are a great deal more imaginative.

The pride of today’s Universal Studios is The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Here once again is an elaborate “land” dedicated to a movie project made by another studio (Warner Bros.). Nonetheless, the Universal braintrust has lavished much love and care on reproducing all the familiar Potter tropes. There’s the charming town of Hogsmead, covered with snow (quite a contrast to the California summer). You can sample butter beer, have a magic wand choose you at Ollivanders, and bop to the music of a frog chorale. Above it all looms the enormous bulk of Hogwarts. Enter, and you’ll find yourself playing follow-the-leader with Harry himself as, on his broomstick, he eludes a giant dragon and plunges down toward a raging chasm. (My stomach has still not quite recovered.) In this ride above all, the possibilities of cinema as a visceral experience are fully sampled.

I was cheered by the fact that there’s live action too: clever on-site performers (like that wand-making expert), as well as cheerful employees who deftly enhance the fun. No wonder so many guests purchase interactive wands and academic robes. Much as I love movies, I adore encounters with human beings who know how to welcome me into a fantasy world.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Richard Nixon, TV Star

I admit I didn’t approach John A. Farrell’s Richard Nixon: The Life with much excitement. After personally surviving the Nixon era, I’d read some books, and watched some movies, and that seemed quite enough for me. But Jack Farrell’s new biography of the only U.S. president to resign from office turns out to be as exciting as the best-crafted thriller. It’s chockful of revelations, many of them benefitting from the recent release of scores of documents and White House tapes to scholars. And Farrell’s taut, vivid prose jolts the Nixon story to life. Here’s a pre-Watergate tidbit involving some early underhanded scrutiny of perceived enemies: “The surveillance yielded little but gossip and traces of bureaucratic jockeying. Nixon and his aides, with a revealing degree of self-consciousness, at long last packed the transcripts up and locked them in a White House safe, where their faint tick tick tick was, for a time, forgotten.” (Yes, this passage reminds me of a screenwriter’s best friend: the ticking clock.)

As a man and a president, Richard Nixon was inspired by movies, particularly Patton, which he watched over and over in times of stress. But at many key points his career was driven by the new medium of television. Farrell details how, in 1952, at the point when his place on the Eisenhower ticket was threatened by allegations of financial misconduct, Nixon turned to TV to make his case to the American people. Though the optics were crude and were improvised on the spot, it worked. He became Ike’s two-term running mate.

Television was less a friend to him, of course, in 1960, when—as the Republican candidate for president—he entered into a series of nationally televised debates with Senator John F. Kennedy. Farrell notes that since Nixon’s entry into national politics in 1950, “the percentage of American households with television sets had leaped from 11 to 88 percent. . . .The audience for the first debate was some 70 to 80 million people, in a country with 107 million adults.” In that first head-to-head, Kennedy proved handsome, articulate, confident. Nixon, done in by fatigue, a bad makeup job, and the public perception that he was ill at ease, could not hope to match the challenger’s poise. 

Nixon lost the presidency in 1960, but was back on the hustings in 1968, at a time of political and social turmoil. Following the assassination of presidential candidate Robert Kennedy, Nixon’s aides strongly suggested he trade in public appearances for media events, like the “man in the arena” telecasts in which he showed off his political savvy by fielding questions from a panel of voters. As one advisor put it, “The greater the element of informality and spontaneity the better he comes across. We have to capture and capsule this spontaneity—and this means shooting RN in situations in which it’s likely to emerge, then having a chance to edit the film so that the parts shown are the parts we want shown.”  

So Nixon became a president of an evolving media age. Of course, the television cameras were there as the Watergate scandal continued to electrify the public. When Nixon stepped down from the presidency on August 9, 1974, they captured his final words and his final “V for victory” salute. Three years later, beginning on March 23, 1977, they recorded his unprecedented series of interviews with British journalist David Frost. The results were so riveting that they evolved into Frost/Nixon, a 2006 British play that took Broadway by storm. In 2008, Ron Howard directed original stars Frank Langella and Michael Sheen in the Oscar-nominated movie.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Chilling Out with “Wind River”

When SoCal was sweltering in the grip of the summer’s third heatwave, I decided to take myself to the movies. A perfect choice was a film set in early spring in the frozen wilds of Wyoming. True, Wind River was filmed mostly in Utah. But its sense of place is so powerful that for the length of the movie I felt a genuine chill. 

“Wind River”  refers to an Indian reservation, one that’s about as desolate as can be imagined. In the film’s early going, a character who makes his home near the rez  explains the implications of this lonely place: “My family’s  people were forced here, stuck here for a century. That snow and silence—it’s the only thing that hasn’t been taken from them.”

It’s an apt quote, because this is a film about loss. Which means it’s tremendously sad, but also exhilarating, because the characters who people Wind River are so human: angry, funny, stoic, despairing, and determined to live out their lives on the best terms they can get. They include Jeremy Renner in another of his masterful from-the-gut performances as a hunter with the Fish and Wildlife Service, Elizabeth Olsen as an unlikely FBI agent, and a clutch of remarkable Native American actors, including Graham Greene, once nominated for an Oscar for his supporting role in Dances with Wolves. 

Dances with Wolves, which nabbed seven Oscars (out of 12 nominations) back in 1991, makes an interesting contrast to Wind River. When the Kevin Costner vehicle made its debut, it was hailed for its picturesque and highly sympathetic portrayal of Native American life. Unlike classic westerns in the John Wayne mold (see Stagecoach or The Searchers), it did not show Indians as heartless marauders, but rather as a sophisticated culture with a rich heritage. Of course, that was a period piece, as well as something of a romance, with the Indian characters coming off as noble savages. The Native Americans in Wind River have ordinary American names (Ben, Natalie, Martin) and wear ordinary American clothes. Old tribal rituals seem to have little appeal for them.  Some of these characters have aspirations to do more with their lives than just hang on. But most seem stuck in a place that discourages dreams. There’s hopelessness and drug abuse. And young Native American women blessed with beauty and spirit are all too vulnerable to threats from both within and without. The film ends with a shocking revelation: the FBI keeps no statistics on missing Indian women, whose numbers remain unknown.  

Taylor Sheridan, a native Texan, is best known as an actor for his role in TV’s Sons of Anarchy,. Recently he has written three important westerns: Sicario, Hell or High Water (Oscar-nominated for its screenplay), and Wind River. The latter, only his second film as a director, takes him far from his roots in the American Southwest, but allows him to air his strong concerns about Native American life in today’s United States. Wind River also shows us what’s best about an actor’s approach to screenwriting and directing: the characters are complex, and the script avoids on-the-nose dialogue at all cost.  At this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Wind River won plaudits and a Best Director award in the Un Certain Regard competition. Here’s part of Sheridan’s Cannes speech: “There is nothing I can do to change the issues afflicting Indian country, but what we can do as artists -- and must do -- is scream about them with fists clenched. What we can do  is make sure these issues aren't ignored.”                        

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

The Stars Shine on Sunset Boulevard

For the boys and ghouls among us, an alive-and-kicking organization called Cinespia presents classic Hollywood movies projected against a mausoleum wall on the grounds of the Hollywood Forever memorial park. It’s a weekly event staged during L.A.’s spring and summer nights. The series started up in 2002: now on Saturday evenings some 3500 patrons crowd onto the hallowed Douglas Fairbanks lawn—blankets, picnic hampers, candles, and bottles of wine in tow—to enjoy the best of Hollywood oldies.

Labor Day weekend’s offering was so absolutely well suited to its locale that Cinespia sent out a special email notice: “The legendary film about the dark side of fame comes to Cinespia. A down-on-his-luck screenwriter stumbles upon a mysterious mansion on Sunset Blvd and enters a dark fairytale that could only be told in Hollywood. SUNSET BOULEVARD is brilliant, compelling and downright terrifying. [Fading star Norma Desmond] is played to perfection by Gloria Swanson in one of the most chilling performances in cinema.”

Is it fair to call Sunset Boulevard, as Cinespia suggests, “the greatest cemetery screening of them all”? This can be argued (The Night of the Living Dead, for one, is a pretty apt movie to show in a graveyard). But no one can deny that this location, right in the heart of old Hollywood, is hugely resonant when it comes to this particular movie. Here’s the Cinespia email again-- “You’ve never seen SUNSET BOULEVARD like this: next to the legendary Paramount Studios lot, where Norma Desmond plans her final comeback, by the resting place of director Cecil B. DeMille, who [inspires] her haunting close up, and the tombs of Valentino, Fairbanks and the stars of Norma’s milieu.” 
I wasn’t able to attend the Cinespia screening, but the hue and cry made me revisit the film on my own. It’s always surprising to recall that Billy Wilder, best known for such witty romps as The Apartment and Some Like It Hot, was the co-writer and director of Sunset Boulevard. It’s a tragic tale of desperation, delusion, and death, but it’s also at times mordantly funny, especially in its view of the life of a Hollywood screenwriter. Here’s William Holden’s Joe Gillis describing his failed career as a crafter of screenplays: "The last one I wrote was about Okies in the Dust Bowl. You'd never know, because when it reached the screen, the whole thing played on a torpedo boat."  And when a fresh-faced studio reader (Nancy Olson’s Betty) says to Joe, “I’'d always heard that you had some talent, "  he shoots back, “That was last year. This year I'm trying to make a living." 

Joe’s sardonic words are a prime encapsulation of what Hollywood writers go through. By my own day, though, one aspect of the story had changed forever. Joe and his colleagues work (when they work at all) for the big studios.  Yes, they’re at the beck and call of honchos like De Mille (who plays a featured role in the film), but such men have the ability to make things happen. Betty, a lowly reader who wants to move up in the screenwriting ranks, has a steady job and a pretty cushy office on the Paramount lot. And when an old star like Norma Desmond happens onto a set, it’s like a family reunion. Today’s Hollywood is a great deal more decentralized. The bigshot decision-makers come and go so quickly that few remember their names.  When a legend is ready for her close-up, it’s hard to think of anybody who’d have the courtesy to put her in the spotlight one last time.