Monthly Archives: January 2010

Hawks on Lombard

Bogdanovich: The scene [from Twentieth Century] in the train compartment with Lombard trying to kick Barrymore looks particularly impromptu.

Hawks: That was the first scene we shot in the picture. Lombard had never done that kind of comedy before, but I cast her because I’d seen her at a party with a couple of drinks in her and she was hilarious and uninhibited and just what the part needed. When she came on the set, though, she was emoting all over the place – she was trying very hard and it was just dreadful. Barrymore was very patient and we tried it a few times and she was just so stilted and stiff. Then I said to her, “Come on, let’s take a walk,” and we went outside and I asked her how much money she was getting for the picture. She told me and I said, “What would you say if I told you you earned your whole salary this morning and didn’t have to act anymore?” And she was stunned. So I said, “Now forget about the scene. What would you do if someone said such and such to you?” And she said, “I’d kick him in the balls.” And I said, “Well, he said something like that to you – why don’t you kick him?” She said, “Are you kidding?” And I said, “No.” So we went back on the set and I gave her sometime to think it over, and then we tried that scene and we did one take and that was it. And when I said, “Print,” Barrymore yelled out. “That was fabulous!” And she burst into tears and ran off the set. Well, she never began a picture after that without sending me a telegram that said, “I’m gonna start kicking him.”

Six Degrees of Separation and the Wonderful Strangeness of Stockard Channing

John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation, one of the most unusual and affecting stage comedies of the 90s, is enjoying what seems to be a strong revival in, of all places, London.

It’s surprising to think that such a quintessentially New York play could work anywhere outside of Manhattan, specifically the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Moreover, it seems an awkward time, in the midst of worldwide financial unpleasantness, to revive a comedy about the unrepentant rich. And to top it all off, you’ve got to wonder, what kamikaze actress would be crazy enough to take on Ouisa Kittredge, a role that Stockard Channing so famously nailed ten years ago at Lincoln Center? (Lesley Manville.)

Most of us won’t get to the Old Vic to find out how the current production addresses these riddles, but luckily, wherever you are, there’s a really good production of Six Degrees of Separation playing only steps away (assuming you own, or have rented, a DVD of the film.)

Fred Schepisi’s 1993 movie, starring Stockard, Donald Sutherland, Ian McKellen, Will Smith, and (briefly) J.J. Abrams – whose brash, mean performance transcends everything he’s done on Lost – is really as fine a film adaptation of play can get. Schepisi, working from a script by Guare, finds a highly seductive, almost addictive stylistic analog to the face-paced world of the quick-witted rich. Considering a great majority of the film is spent watching Mr. & Mrs. Kittredge lure a crowd to attend their tale of a mysterious, and mysteriously compelling, intruder, Schepisi’s choice is utterly apt. He cuts freely, and with a sense of fun; his camera glides out of windows and over skylines; and the performances he elicits – more so than any production of the play I’ve seen – are themselves involved in the very notion of seduction. These characters are constantly engaged in a performance of some kind. They are people who so deeply want to be interesting.

And that right there is Stockard Channing’s triumph. Her Ouisa Kittredge has all the trappings of a terrific performance, but more than that, it has a strangeness rare in movies. Most of today’s film actors, for reasons unknown to me, wash their characterizations clean of idiosyncrasy, preferring instead not to embellish around the fringes, but evince personalities that are both clear and direct. These are good performances. They do the utilitarian work of driving the picture forward, but rarely do they luxuriate in the funky, odd world of behavior the way Channing does in Six Degrees. Of course, there are exceptions, like Robert Downey Jr., who never misses an opportunity to surprise us, but on the whole, that quality of strangeness, a quality we love so much about character actors, seems to be absent from star performances of the moment. But I digress. The point here is that Channing creates a real person, and real people are never entirely smooth. They are corrugated.

$1.84 billion

It happened! James Cameron’s Avatar has defeated James Cameron’s Titanic in the battle to be the Highest Grossing Film of All Time.

Consult The New York Times for details. But here are the numbers you need to know: Titanic stopped at $1.84 billion, and on Monday, Avatar hit $1.86 billion – and it will keep going.

Naturally, the news of Cameron beating his own record is bound to draw a little dissent. Cynics – or to use the technical term, “screenwriters” – will invariably complain that these pictures amount to little more than a string of exploding set pieces, that Cameron’s people ring hollow, and that the lines they grunt sound as if they were coming from sixteen year old boys in states of shocked-out, pre-orgasmic, video-game ecstasy. “Awesome!”

Of course, they’re right. But they’re missing the bigger picture.

For every one of Titanic’s embarrassingly false moments (i.e. “king of the world,” “I want to draw you, Rose,” “You jump, I jump, right?” and that suggestive hand throbbing against the fogged up carriage window etc.), there is an equally impressive cinematic decision, and one that had to be made in the middle of an absolute meltdown.

Think about it: you are James Cameron. You have an enormous ocean liner going down, thousands of passengers aboard, several narratives to maintain, two major studios already way over budget, special effects not yet completed, dozens of dangerous stunts happening all around you, journalists already calling the film a flop and personally insulting you, stars growing tired, Kathy Bates – and where do you put the camera?

Where do you put the camera? With the clock ticking, you only get one, or maybe two takes. Three at the absolute outside. Where do you put the camera? Too many wide shots and you’ll lose your intimacy; too many close-ups and you’ll lose the sense of annihilating disaster. So you’ll do both. But how will you intercut them? Decide now.

And be warned: After a while, those regular old wide-shots will lose their impact. How many times can we be startled by the same shot of The Titanic going down? How many people can we see flip over the port bow before we lose interest and start to think about how we’re going to try to hold the hand of Sarah Goldberg, the girl whose mom dropped us off and paid for our tickets? You’re going to have to mix it up, Mr. Cameron, and you’re going to have to do it for hours and hours of screen time, because Sarah is really cute and I heard she gave Alex Horwitz a handjob.

We know the boat is going to tank (we knew that before we got the ticket), so how are you going to surprise us? You’ll have to visualize something more frightening, and more grandly ruinous than we could have imagined. So as you’re setting up that shot, make sure that what you’re shooting is as impressive as how you shoot it. And don’t be merely descriptive. Don’t give us what we’ve read about in history books. Imagine something bigger. Imagine dozens of somethings. And then be prepared – if your crew is sick, the set is falling apart, or if the suits get words that you’re not shooting what you said – to throw that away and imagine something else. And imagine it now.

Mr. Cameron, if you did all that, I’d pay $10 to see what you came up with. Or at least Sarah’s mom would.

Les biches

I’ve always had a thing for Claude Chabrol.

Godard never hits my sweet spot and Truffaut, with few exceptions, hits it too hard. But Chabrol, mercurial, clever Chabrol, always knows what I want. True, he may choose not to give it, he may delay or even withhold satisfaction, but our pleasure is always in his crosshairs, and Chabrol feathers it like a giggling coquette. Better than that, when he’s in a playfully sadistic mood, he may not feather at all. But he’s still laughing. Mercurial Chabrol almost always is.

Like Hitchcock, one of his masters, Chabrol gets a big kick out of perversity. But unlike Hitch, Chabrol’s sense of a humor never sinks to sea level. He’s too damn French for that; Shakespeare would have him somewhere between Lady Macbeth and Falstaff. Think of Les biches (1968), which Chabrol called “the first film which I made exactly as I wished.” It begins full of delicious ennui (bien sur) as Frederique, a beautiful, wealthy Parisian (played by Chabrol’s wife and frequent collaborator, Stephane Audran), picks up a sidewalk artist called “Why” (Jacqueline Sassard), brings her to her posh apartment, watches her bathe, and after some highly suggestive cross-cutting on the part of Chabrol, drops to her knees to drink in Why’s glistening midriff. Well, by now we can hardly stand it. (Come on, Chabrol! Give it to us!) Slowly, so as not to disturb the thick air of languor our director has painstakingly cultivated, Frederique raises her spindly fingers to the button on Why’s jeans, and Chabrol slams us with a hard cut to another place and time. The foreplay has begun.

Into their idyll comes Paul (Jean-Louis Trintignant) to lure Why from Frederique. Together, the three of them circle onward toward a ménage, but no one seems to be having any fun; we soon see this is a game of possession, not sex, and certainly not love. Indeed their every interaction is handled with a sensuality so joyless, if it wasn’t for Chabrol’s cinematic wit, you might think you were watching Antonioni. Throughout the picture, Audran keeps her face as still as lake. When she moves or speaks, it’s practically without intention. At times, like a person out of Pinter, she barely seems to play the part. And yet, it comes off.

With looks as blank as these, it falls to Chabrol to make sense of them for us. He becomes, in a sense, a kind of translator, and uses his camera to reveal the quiet violence coursing beneath the façade. To pull it off, Chabrol could, like Hitchcock, dutch the angle (as in I, Confess), or subsume us in point of view (Rear Window), or try out terrific tricks (Vertigo), but – surprise, surprise – he’s too damn French for that. Instead, Chabrol casts a cool, objective lens on his characters’ dysfunction. But rather than distance us from them, his remove invites us to push past the surfaces and wonder at what sickness churns on the other side of their eyes. Suddenly, the hairline fractures come into view. Then the cracks. Things begin to break.

Enough hours with Chabrol, and one can see the fissures coming a long way off, but no matter; when his mysteries falter, or when his suspense lags, there is more than enough psychological disintegration to keep us going. Can’t see it on the faces? Then look to the camera. By the end of Les biches, flat, deadening two-shots – the shallow-focus kind that Buñuel loved – give way to cubism. With whirling elegance, Chabrol juliennes the action; small pushes-in, gentle tracks-out, and layered compositions lend the narrative its multidimensionality, and enhance our understanding of these people’s inner lives. It keepsLes biches from drooling into hysterics and flamboyant clichés, and it allows Chabrol’s two opposing loves – refinery and brutality – to exist side by perverse side.

This piece originally appeared at


Remembering Jean Simmons

Remembering Jean Simmons, who died Friday of lung cancer at 80, the first thing I thought of is her performance in Angel Face. Opposite Robert Mitchum, Simmons played a femme fatale so fraught, she ought to be considered amongst the most challenging in all of noir. But to look at her you never would have expected it.

Until Angel Face, before she was bad, Jean Simmons was very, very good. One look at her pretty face in the late forties and it was easy to see why; she was cute as a button and plucky and English, with all the trappings of a proper, well-behaved girl. And when she was less well behaved – as she was as Estella in Lean’s Great Expectations or Ophelia in Olivier’s Hamlet – the young Simmons affected an attitude that suggested she knew her wrongnesses were wrong. “I know you’ll think this naughty,” she seemed to say, “but…” At her cleverest, she could have been Vivien Leigh’s kid sister.

But in those days, no matter how piercing her glance, there was something morally wholesome in her face. Even as she aged, Simmons retained a girlish roundness to her cheeks and chin, a softness that might have kept her star grounded to Debbie Reynolds territory if it wasn’t for Howard Hughes, who, ironically, she despised. In 1951, Hughes bought out Simmons’s contract with the British-based J. Arthur Rank Organization, intending, despite her protestations, to wring out of his new possession every last day she owed him (there were eighteen). To make matters worse, Otto Preminger, the director Hughes assigned to the project, was every bit as Austrian as she was English. They clashed almost right away. And as if that wasn’t uphill enough, she was to play Diane Tremayne – an unassumingly ladylike psychopathic killer – a part distressingly far from her established range. At least the psychopathic part was.

What Simmons didn’t know, however, was that Diane, for all her cold-bloodedness, is actually, sort of, poignant. Sort of. Unlike the other bad girls of noir, Diane kills not for power or money, but for love – her father’s love. She twists Mitchum’s character into knots, yes, but it’s not because she wants to see him go down. In fact, Diane defends him. At a crucial moment – like something out of Spartacus – she even speaks up on his behalf. That’s the Simmons in the Tremayne.

Watching the movie again, I glimpsed, for the first time, the Tremayne in the Simmons. I was struck now by those shivery looks of calculated helplessness Mitchum shakes out of her, looks that remind the viewer that no matter what Mitchum’s size, this one’s going to be a fair fight. Between her cat-like beauty (her head down and eyes titled up) and his powerful grip, it’s hard to say who is going to devour whom.

Though it seemed strange at the time, the casting of Jean Simmons in Angel Face, like every great feat of casting, now seems utterly obvious. Her nimble one-two punch, combining poignancy and intransigence, imbues the character with a paradox so mysterious, that to call her, simply, a femme fatale seems only to put a fence around her rabid strangeness. In Simmons’s hands, she is both definitive and impossible to define. I don’t know about you, but that’s how I like my unassumingly ladylike psychopathic killers.

Jean Merilyn Simmons (January 31st, 1929 – January 22nd 2010)

Guess Who?

You’re not going to believe who this is. You really won’t. I’m telling you right now, you’re not going to believe this.


Altman’s Hollywood

In this week’s New York Times Critic’s Pick, A.O. Scott takes a look at Robert Altman’s The Player, which he calls, “perhaps the greatest Hollywood satire ever made.”

Of course, a statement like this is bound to arouse contention, but the fact is, Scott’s right. There is no other film as sensitive to the mores of the business and the slippery people who engage it. Like M*A*S*H and Nashville, and Altman’s other masterpieces, The Player is pure anthropology.

If the movie feels more alive than other movies, it’s because it is. Where others use only canned vegetables, Altman goes for the organic. “Making a film is like painting a mural,” he said in the film’s DVD Commentary, “You’ve got this big wall to fill and you’ve got a subject, and the only difference is, as you got up there and you’re painting it, you’ve got living pigment. So you’ve let me paint a horse over here in the upper-right-hand corner and you turn around and look bak and the horse is moving across the stage and you have to quickly paint a fence. You have to kind of control it, but you’re dealing with a living thing that’s really forming itself. So you’re sitting up there doing damage control all the time. But the style in which one paints these films is…their personality, it’s what they do, it’s their artistry.”

Have a look.

The Avatardation of Hollywood

First, the good news.

A thousand hours ago, before Avatar won its Golden Globes, when the picture was only a hit-to-be, people had already begun to speak in wild, sweeping terms about the revolutionary effect it was destined to have on the future of Hollywood film making. In those early weeks, we all reveled in the thrilling swell of communal enthusiasm that seemed to come from everywhere. Avatar was necessary viewing.

At first, I was one of the heretics. I didn’t want to see what looked like an action adventure starring the Las Vegas contingent of Blue Man Group. But that was then.

I see now that Avatar represents the next step in a tradition of immersion cinema that began all the way back in 1903, with Edwin S. Porter’s film, The Great Train Robbery. It’s a famous story: some who saw the movie when it first screened in cramped Nickelodeons, were so overcome by the now-famous shot of the outlaw pointing his gun directly into the camera, that they ran screaming from the theater. Despite their rationality, they believed. They were there.

Now a similar phenomenon is in effect. For those of us who aren’t astronauts, Avatar is the closest we have ever come to leaving the planet. Pandora’s world is so richly detailed and so biologically complete, at times it seems as though the voice of Sir David Attenborough might appear to explain to us the blooming patterns of this flora or that fauna.

Okay, so that’s out of the way. Here comes the “However.”

However magnificent, however deserving of all the accolades that have come (and will continue to come) its way, I can’t help but see the ascension of Avatar as a poignant reminder of how far populist American film has drifted from our reality. As children of the modern age, we know there are all kinds of reality, but the one I’m talking about is the kitchen sink reality, the quotidian reality.

You woke up this morning. You made coffee. You showered. You worried about your job, and about the events of last night. Did you offend him? Did you not reach for the check fast enough? You wonder about the events up ahead. Do I really want to see her tonight? Or would I enjoy a burger on my own? This is your life. It may be dull, but when it’s turned into great cinema, it can be revelatory; Avatar, regardless of its merits, will never be. There is no CGI equivalent for gravitas.

To be fair, there is room enough for both escapist and naturalist cinemas to coexist. But I fear they won’t. With Avatar‘s Golden Globe and likely Oscar wins, whatever shred of verisimilitude was left in mainstream American movies will likely be lost.

I don’t mean to suggest there was ever a time when the Hollywood machine produced a great realism in the manner of the post-war Italians. In fact, far from it: if there is anything about Hollywood that we have loved, perhaps above all else, in the hundred years since its inception, it’s the air of fantasy that has alighted upon its greatest pictures and people. Cary Grant, Fred Astaire, Marilyn Monroe and Clint Eastwood are in their own way Avatars — projections, that is, of our ideal selves — but as human Avatars, they addressed our human reality in direct, not allegorical terms. With an eye on style and a hand on behavior, they told the story of our lives and dreams, addressing how we live or want to live with keen analytical and behavioral insight. These actors, their directors, and the writers who gave them their material, used the world to show the world.

These Golden Globes have proven that the Na’vi and the Meryls can coexist peacefully in Hollywood, just as The Wizard of Oz and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington did in 1939, seventy years ago. But now that Cameron has come and changed everything, I’ve begun to worry less about the extinction of the Na’vi and more about the extinction of us.

Dear Whit

Dear Whit,

You made three movies, beginning with Metropolitan, twenty years ago. Then you made Barcelona, which was about as good a follow up as we could have asked for. Then you made The Last Days of Disco, which wasn’t. But we didn’t care.

In those days, before Wes Anderson, we, the young and smart and frisky, thought you were going to take us out of the hands of Woody Allen and into the next phase of urban-literate moviegoing. We counted on you.

Now you’ve disappeared. You’ve gone Salinger. You wrote a novel, you escaped to France. You’ve directed commercials, written screenplays (one about a war in China, right?). But why? What happened to movies?

Was it the bad reviews? If so, don’t worry about that; it happens to everyone. Was it the times? Did you feel, as we made our way into the 2000s, that your brand of nostalgia was getting stale? Well, if that was the case, let me assure you, with the current eighties revival, you’d be more prescient than ever. Or did you just get tired of movies? I can understand that. It’s a tough road, I know. Maybe the hardest. But if you need a guy to hold the boom, call me. I’m here.

We’re all here.

Come back, Whit. You can do it. Just pick up a camera (it needn’t be film), find a few tipsy party girls, and throw Chris Eigeman at them. Don’t even worry about the East Side Apartment. I know people. I’ll make the calls. All you have to do is show up.



P.S. Hurry. The Avatars are gaining.


As a kid, going to the movies with some highly versed, critically attuned picture people, I noticed there was one revered acting word that kept cropping up, one that they would inevitably link to work they admired. The word was “courageous.” The best performances, they said, were turned out by “courageous actors.”

At first, I didn’t get it. For years, really, I struggled to understand what could make an actor “courageous.” Outside of putting him or her self in a place of physical danger, when applied to a performer, the term didn’t make sense to me. Was it a figure of speech? A short cut or piece of inside lingo?

And then finally I felt it. I can’t remember if it was Lolita or Next Stop, Greenwich Village or Blume in Love or A Place in the Sun or A Patch of Blue, but watching Shelley Winters – who I always admired but never quite knew why – I suddenly understood. Not intellectually, but on the gut level. What I saw was an actress throwing herself body and soul into emotional largesse, unafraid to play at a level of intense vulnerability.

Sometimes Shelley was so despairing that it scared me. And I don’t mean to say that her characters simply suffered – any good actor could simply suffer – Shelley managed to add to that suffering hidden, often contradictory aspects of her characters’ personalities. But while another less gifted actor might let all the colors muddy the palette, Shelley wrangled her conflicting streams of passion like a conductor leading a hundred-piece orchestra. The feelings she evinced were not the safe, well-trod emotions that words could put fences around. Rather, they always seemed fresh and specific and utterly independent of timeworn acting clichés. Upon closer inspection, I began to understand further, intellectually this time. Shelley was scouting new ground. Sometimes it didn’t work, but she always took the risk. She took the risk because she was brave. She was a courageous actress.

But she wasn’t operatic. Her largesse wasn’t about size; it was about reality. Because of Shelley’s conflicting streams, she could create characters that looked so ridiculous, and at the same time, so credible. Despite their theatricality, they’re never broad. Her Charlotte Haze in Lolita is a perfect example. In the clip I’ve chosen (which doesn’t really get going until four minutes in), notice how Shelley plays it just a little too big, like a whining young girl, and then, surprisingly, instantly interrupts our feeling of incredulity with an expression of yearning, or humanizing gesture of kindness. The conflict produces a rich character, full of dynamic oppositions – and Kubrick knew it. He let the camera hold on her in a tight, unyielding close up, without music, and gave her little by way of ambient sound. Shelley’s alone out there. But Kubrick knew she could handle it. She could handle anything.

Shelley Winters, one of my favorite actors, died four years ago yesterday, at the age of 85.