Monthly Archives: April 2010

I Confess

Alfred Hitchcock died thirty years ago this week, on April 29th, 1980.

I’ve always had a confusing relationship with Hitch. With several exceptions (which I’ll touch on in a moment), a large majority of his pictures fill me with a strange mixture of awe and apathy, like when the TV tells me about a new sports car that can go very, very fast, or an athlete who scores a lot of points. “Yes,” I want to say to movies like North by Northwest, “That’s a lovely sequence – a touchdown sequence – but…then what?”

Maybe it’s because we like to talk about Hitchcock in pieces. The Shower Scene, the crane shot in Notorious, Vertigo’s dolly zoom, the high-angle shot from Topaz – wonderful garnish, but sometimes I wonder, where’s the beef? (Caveat: Vertigo is 100% prime cut select.) Often, it has helped me to see the garnish as the beef: so many of these pictures tend to be as much about how we watch them as they are about their content. Rope is a famous example: an experiment in watching. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons I’ve always thought Rear Window was one of Hitch’s best; it was a subject near to Hitch’s heart, and it showed.

Wait, did I just write “Hitch’s heart”? What does that mean, exactly?

Screenwriter David Freeman had the good fortune to work with Alfred Hitchcock late in his career, in the days when Hitch would have prints of the newest movies delivered to his office at Universal, which is how he saw Bergman’s Autumn Sonata. In his book, The Last Days of Alfred Hitchcock, Freeman reports that Hitch, at the height of one of those ferocious Liv-Ullmann/Ingrid Bergman scenes, got up from his seat, wobbled to the door, and announced, “I’m going to the movies.” Then he left.

It’s a revealing anecdote, and a reminder that Alfred Hitchcock, deep in his heart-thing, was really not one for the hard stuff. He was jokester. Tilt your head, substitute Cary Grant for Alec Guinness, and you’ll see a good portion of these pictures look like sadistic Ealing Comedies. Shadow of a Doubt, Suspicion, Lifeboat, Strangers on a Train, and a few of the films I mentioned above, all have that mischievous prankster quality, the giggly feeling of pulling the rug out from under the status quo. I like these movies, but with the exception of Vertigo and Rear Window, my personal cluster of favorites comes from the back shelf: The Wrong Man, I, Confess, and The Man Who Knew Too Much (the second) are perhaps his most disturbing films. Not because their composition is any more bravura than Psycho’s, but because they each feature such strong performances (Henry Fonda, Montgomery Clift, and Doris Day, respectively). These characters are the dead-opposite of the Hitchcock Blonde, and their films are all the better for it. But that’s very much a personal thing.

For the record: it’s only because I love Hitchcock that I let myself needle through his best films. As a former-fellow voyeur, I know he wouldn’t want it any other way.

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A Conversation with Richard Shepherd

The Criterion Collection has just restored and released Sidney Lumet’s strange, ecstatic, uneven, and memorable film The Fugitive Kind, which gave me the chance to interview producer Richard Shepherd about the making of the movie, and I’m pleased to say, the people at Criterion have posted it on their website.

From left to right: Brando, Maureen Stapleton, Tennessee Williams, and our man Richard Shepherd.

It was Jules Stein, head and founder of MCA, who plucked Richard Shepherd out of Stanford and made him into a real New York agent of the fifties, a gentlemen agent, the kind we look back on today with nostalgic reverence. With his handkerchief and tie always in sync, you’d know without knowing that Shepherd, before he was in show business, was ivy-league all the way, a well-groomed journalism major, genteel in taste and manner, and according to his professors, the best art forger the faculty had ever seen. Shepherd could do Chagall like Jonathan Winters did Burt Lancaster—and it got him a little work—until someone told him he had to make a living.

Then it was Jules Stein and MCA. In time, Shepherd amassed a spectacular client roster that included Henry Fonda, Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly, and several dozen immaculate others. But the corner office wasn’t enough. Shepherd wanted to produce. He announced his intentions to Lew Wasserman (“Good luck” was his only reply), and moved out to Los Angeles, where he teamed with Martin Jurow, one of the industry’s top entertainment lawyers. Together they formed Jurow-Shepherd Productions and started looking for material. The Hanging Tree (1959), a western with Gary Cooper and Maria Schell, was their first picture. The Fugitive Kind (1959) was their second.

I met Shepherd at his home in Bel-Air on March 22nd, 2010. We had talked many times before, but never about The Fugitive Kind.

Sam Wasson: Marty Jurow, in his book, Marty Jurow Seein’ Stars, says the idea to film Tennessee Williams’s play Orpheus Descending originated with Anna Magnani. Before you and he started Jurow-Shepherd, Magnani was his client at William Morris, and after the success of The Rose Tattoo, she wanted to return to Williams. How do you remember the beginning of The Fugitive Kind?

Richard Shepherd: Marty and I knew the play because we were both from New York and had seen it onstage with Maureen [Stapleton] and Cliff Robertson, who had played the leads. Presumably, Marty’s recollection is correct, but Anna Magnani and I didn’t have a relationship, so I can’t speak to that. Before the film, I didn’t know her at all. What I can tell you is that I brought Joanne Woodward aboard—she was a client of mine—and Marlon and I were good friends. But you know, before Marty and I got started on the project, [producer] Sam Spiegel wanted to do Orpheus Descending.

SW: He wanted Ingrid Bergman.

RS: But Tennessee didn’t want her! That I could never understand. If you had a choice between Anna Magnani—a great actress, but you can’t understand a damn thing she’s saying—and Ingrid Bergman . . . I mean, come on! It’s night and day! But that’s how we got to make The Fugitive Kind, because we would do it with Magnani, and that’s who Tennessee wanted.

SW: The Fugitive Kind was sexually audacious and had a highbrow literary source. In other words, risky. Did Jurow-Shepherd have a reputation for trying difficult material?

RS: We both had backgrounds in New York and were very involved with artists that ended up working in the theater, and many of them, clients that Marty and I looked after, from Monty Clift to Carroll Baker to Marlon were all of that certain type. Kazan, Williams, Arthur Miller, these were the guys then. So no, we never thought of ourselves as going for difficult material, it was just the hand we were dealt, I guess. But we were cognizant of trying to make the stuff accessible.

SW: Is that why you changed the title from Orpheus Descending to The Fugitive Kind?

RS: I think so. I think we thought it was too intellectual. It wasn’t a big hit play anyway, so why not change it? The title Orpheus Descending had little recognition; it wasn’t doing us any favors. So we went with the The Fugitive Kind. That title, I think, came from Meade Roberts, who adapted the screenplay with Tennessee. We were throwing a lot of possibilities around. Some of the others we had were, “Stranger in a Snakeskin Jacket,” “Life’s Companion,” “Burn Down a Woman,” and “Burn a Woman Down.”

SW: Tennessee gets shared credit with Roberts, but how involved was he in the adaptation?

RS: Other than a couple times when Tennessee would come up to the location in Milton [New York], he didn’t seem to have a significant hand in the script. If we wanted changes, or if Sidney wanted changes, we talked to Meade and he did it.

SW: At first, Brando turned down the part of Val Xavier, which had been written specifically for him. What turned him off?

RS: He didn’t admire Magnani as an actress, and he also felt she was . . . Well, I should say, there’s a scene in the movie, the first scene when the two of them are together, when Marlon first goes into her shop. She’s talking to him at the bottom of the stairs, and at one point in the scene, she says to him, “Have you got any references?” and Marlon says, “Yeah, I got ’em right here” and reaches into his snakeskin jacket pocket and takes out this crumpled letter and kind of embarrassingly unfolds it, and just took a really long time in handing it to her. Finally, once he handed it to her, Magnani did the same thing with the letter, but tripled the amount of time it took. She turned it over, smoothed it out, examined it, you know, she was just trying to outdo him! That’s the way she was as an actress. I think that’s part of the reason Brando didn’t want to be with her.

SW: And apparently she was also trying to go to bed with him.

RS: Oh, yeah. Yeah. He wasn’t interested and she was angry. They’d sort of spar, you know? I’ll tell you something else about Magnani: she would take control of everything.

This interview only gets better. To read more – including the story of how Richard Shepherd orchestrated the first-ever million dollar deal for an actor (Brando, naturally) – please visit the Criterion Website.

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Happy 80th Birthday, Mazursky!

Yesterday, the filmmaker Paul Mazursky turned 80. 80!

I’ve never shied away from an opportunity to write about this man’s work (for example: what I wrote here), but today I thought we would hear from Paul himself. Coincidentally – or maybe not coincidentally – I happen to be in the midst of editing Paul on Mazursky, my massive interview book with Paul, so I’ve been inundated with more hilarious Mazursky material than I know what to do with (really, I have to make cuts, and I just don’t know what can go…).

Yesterday I was revising my chapter on Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice and came across the following terrific anecdote. Let me set it up for you: it’s the first shot of the first day on Mazursky’s first movie. He’s panicked.

Mazursky: Charlie had been nominated for sixteen Oscars, and won one [A Farewell to Arms, 1932]. He was sixty-seven years old. He wore a shirt and tie everyday. No blue jeans or sneakers. A gentleman. He did a great thing the first day working with me. Before shooting began, I was full of confidence. I had shot rehearsals for two and a half weeks and before the movie began, I had shown much of it to Charlie and about ten other people. Since there were no fight scenes or chases they could see seventy or eighty percent of the movie right in front of them. They were on the floor. I knew it was going to work! So, you see, I was very confident when the first day of shooting came around. I had it all in my head. As I hit the set – the interior of Esalen – I saw the entire cast of extras facing me. “Good morning, Paul! Good morning! Hi Chief! Hello Chief! Where do you want to start, Chief?” The whole movie went out of my head. I thought, “I don’t know what the fuck to do.” Charlie says to me, “You know Paul, I think there’s a really good shot on top of the crane.” I had never been on a crane. I said, “Okay! Let’s take it!” And then they tied me into this crane – I don’t like heights. He sat down on one seat and I sat down on the other and we went way the hell up, looking down on the set of the interior. Charlie said to me, [Low, gravelly voice] “There’s no shot from up here, Paul. I just thought we could talk about what to do in the scene. Let’s start with an establishing shot panning past the crowd and get a few close ups of our stars and then we’ll begin doing twos and threes to cover.” I told him I thought that sounded great, and then I shouted out, “Take us down please, we’re ready to shoot!” And I got cocky in a minute. And we did it and it works.

Wait, just one more.

This one’s about Shelley Winters and the filming of Next Stop, Greenwich Village.

Mazursky: You could talk about technique, you could talk about casting, you could talk about many, many things, but it all adds up to dishwater in the end when you’re talking about that unknown thing, that mysterious thing that makes certain people great. They have an instinctive understanding of what’s going on in the role. And they have charisma. Shelley could even be sexy. It’s hard to find it sometimes, but it’s there. I don’t know anybody else who could have played the part as well as she did. She was very demanding about what she wore and props. In that scene when she brings Larry food, Shelley demanded that I use actual Ratner’s rye bread. I had given her a loaf of regular commercial rye bread, but she wanted the real thing. She went nuts. The crew was staring at me, waiting to see what I was going to do. So I took the bread, opened it, smelled it, and said, “That is a Ratner’s rye if I ever smelled one!” and then I said, “Shelley, I find it difficult to believe that you, who studied at the Actors Studio, can’t find the right sense memory from your past.” That’s when she said, “Of course I can!” And away she went.

Mazel Tov, Mazursky! Happy Birthday!

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The Way the Cookie Crumbles

Manohla is on her game this morning. Her review of The Back-Up Plan is a sad reminder that romantic comedy continues to scrape up against the dank, dark bottom of the Hollywood barrel.

For any number of reasons, the genre that was once typified by It Happened One Night and Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, has fallen farther than any other. With the possible exception of the Hollywood musical, which has a very good excuse for its dissolution (end of studios, end of resources), the decline of the romantic comedy is undoubtedly the most grievous lesion on the lumbering zombie that has become popular American film.

Blindfold yourself, spin around twice, and land a finger anywhere on Manohla’s review and you’ll find a reason why. Go ahead, try it. I did:

“The Back-Up Plan” is innocuous and unmemorable, and pretty much looks like a lot of sitcoms do. It will scale down well on your television, a medium that was made for close-ups of characters sharing and caring.

Right. A large part of the problem is that romantic comedies all look the same. Action films, epic dramas, science fiction adventures – these films are practically all look, and as such, jump whole hog into visual style, varying their aesthetic from prequel to sequel and back to prequel at the rate of a fourth grader trading baseball cards, and almost to a shameful degree, as if it were a cover for their lack of original content. Then there’s the romantic comedy. They all look the same. Bright, evenly distributed light, easy-going medium shots, and no sudden movements. But this is not cinema – this is the anesthetic aesthetic of the convalescent hospital. “Don’t worry, Grandpa! You won’t feel a thing!”

It seems silly to speak of aesthetics when discussing the genre responsible for films like The Bounty Hunter and 27 Dresses. I can already hear cries of “They’re just meant to be entertaining,” as if the doctrines of comedy and thoughtlessness were intended to go hand in hand. But I can remember a time – a time before I was born – when style was entertainment; when Annie Hall was funny not just because of its “entertainment” value, but because Woody Allen found a visual correlate for the searching, elastic mind of Alvy Singer; when a film like A Shot in the Dark, which never aimed higher than gut-level, could be as committed to boffo laffs as it was to widescreen framing; when The Apartment, which has more laughs than a whole season of romantic comedies, allowed its bitterness to come through black and white, courtesy of cinematographer Joseph LaShelle.

True, these are masterpieces, but the same could be said for all sorts of other, lesser films made before Hollywood gave up on its once favorite genre. The only reason I don’t mention them here is because they don’t make the point as forcefully. But I assure you, they make the point. Watching Soapdish again the other night, I saw it wasn’t nearly as good as I remembered it, but I didn’t mind. With its vigorous camera moves and robust palette, the film had the feeling of a low-calorie Almodovar movie, and in my book of damn good efforts, that wins it a hearty handshake and a slap on the back.

But Soapdish was released twenty years ago. What am I going to see tonight?

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Goodbye, Dede Allen

Dede Allen died Saturday.

There’s something about editors, something mystical. Maybe it has to do with their openness.

I always wished, back in my film school days, that I had more patience in the editing room; that I could allow that period of not-knowing to linger, and that I could get comfortable with the idea experimentation. My problem was, I always wanted it done. But the editors I saw were different – they relished incompleteness. They loved swimming around in the possibilities, and like Zen masters, always managed to muster more openness for more possibilities.

Dede Allen must have been like that. To come up with some of those moves in The Hustler and Bonnie Clyde, she surely submitted herself to not-knowingness. Her best work turned on the idea of surprise, so it isn’t too much of a leap to think she probably surprised herself all day long in the editing room.

The thing about Bonnie and Clyde is that it’s playful without being frivolous. Unlike the French New Wave directors, from whose films Dede Allen was said to have taken inspiration, Bonnie and Clyde never flaunts its technique. Even in the famous shootout sequence – which unfolds over and over, from all sides, like a cubist death dance – we are never spoon-fed bright ideas. Never once do we think of Allen and her assistant (Jerry Greenberg) laboring over a Moviola, trying and re-trying, as they surely must have to get to where they did.

Look at Allen’s work in The Hustler. Ebert wrote that her editing “implies the trance-like rhythm of the players. Her editing ‘tells’ the games so completely that if we don’t understand pool, we forget that we don’t.” In that sense Allen was a translator; she used film to elucidate sensations that we would never understand otherwise. Their experiences repackaged for our comprehension. Simply, this is Expressionism on film.

But today’s Hollywood endeavors less to express than record. Where editors were once responsible for testing uncharted visual languages, for exploring new means of evocation, I fear they are now urged to step back, and subordinate their imaginations to the literal-minded hunger for rigorous, rational objectivity. Thus the inevitable “and then and then and then” quality that weighs down most mainstream American films. These pictures do not set out to show the invisible, as Dede Allen did. They merely show the surface and move onto the next shot, the way a court reporter writes down only what is said and nothing more. Establishing shot, wide shot, medium shot, over the shoulder, over the shoulder, close-up, close-up: This is not always the formula for human experience, this is Hollywood caught in its own gears. A screenwriter’s dream, maybe, but a cineaste’s nightmare.

As always there are exceptions, but by and large, Dede Allen’s acolytes – and there are many, thank God – are losing their voice. It makes the loss of Dede herself that much sadder. She probably tried everything.

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Movies at the Mansion: Part II

Here at long last: the second half of Jeremy Arnold’s tour through The Playboy Mansion.

Me: Any permissive behavior or hints of bad behavior or feelings that something may be going on somewhere or orgies?

Jeremy: There’s nothing like that going on. It’s far more ordinary than you would expect. Just a bunch of friends gathering for food, conversation, laughter and movies.

Sounds awful. But you’re absolutely sure?

I am absolutely sure.

Really?

Yes. Even during the parties you pretty much never see anything like that. I’m telling you, the image of the mansion from the 70s is so strong in the public consciousness that everyone thinks it’s still like that. It isn’t.

Fine. Let’s go back to the food.

I mentioned the snacks during the movie. On Sundays there is also a full buffet dinner, with many delicious appetizers, entrees and desserts. There’s a bar and bartender every night, too. Every night after the movie there are little sandwiches, cookies and coffee. People stay and discuss the movie and just hang out for awhile before heading home. Sometimes we’ll go to the gamehouse and play pool or arcade video games.

Who else is there?

Old friends of Hef’s. Most have known him for decades. No huge celebrities, but some people are somewhat famous, and others are just ordinary people. Ray Anthony (big band trumpeter) is always there. Also Chuck McCann (actor/comedian). Occasionally Mort Sahl stops by. Bob Culp was a regular. Johnny Crawford (actor/musician) is part of the group. Then there are various people who are film historians, music historians, etcetera – just people Hef has befriended due to some common interest. Some have been connected to Playboy for many years. One used to be a photographer and social secretary at the mansion and now she and her husband are just part of the social group. On Sundays there tend to be many more young women because hey come up earlier for “fun in the sun” – an afternoon of hanging out by the pool. And they stick around for dinner and movie. Sundays are the busiest, with around fifty to sixty people. Fridays are usually around twenty or thirty people, and Saturdays are usually under twenty.

How would you describe Hef’s tastes? I mean, within classical Hollywood cinema?

Hef especially loves pre-code Hollywood films, as do the rest of us up there. The raciness of those pictures always feels nicely heightened when viewed in such a sexual place as the Playboy Mansion.  This weekend Hef is running a 35mm print of Murder at the Vanities, one of his favorites. In fact, he funded the restoration of it several years ago.

I should add something important, which is… Hef is a romantic. He really is. He loves the old studio-era movies (and music) because they tend to be romantic, or at least come from a romantic time in American society. He has said that he attributes everything about his life to a love for these movies and music. And he wouldn’t be happy just watching them by himself – that’s why he opens his home to his friends. Much better to watch these films with an appreciative audience. He is one of the most generous and kindest, and smartest, people I know, with a good heart and a strong sense of justness, openness and decency.

Jeremy Arnold will be introducing a screening of Ladies of Leisure at Cinefamily (aka the Silent Movie Theater), next Friday 4/23 at 8pm. He writes for tcm.com and is working on a book about underrated classic movies.

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Movies at The Mansion: Part I

When I found out that my friend, film historian Jeremy Arnold, was a regular at The Playboy Mansion’s storied movie nights, I very calmly flipped out. (What follows is the first part of a two-part blog.)

Me: How did this happen?

Jeremy: I became friends with Hef eight years ago when I interviewed him for Premiere Magazine. We hit it off. He saw me as a fellow romantic about the old movies and old music, and he ended up liking my article, and invited me into his circle of friends. I’ve been going up there for movie nights almost every weekend since.

Me: What films have you seen? What were Hef’s reactions?

Jeremy: Fridays and Saturdays are classics; Sundays are new movies. Hef programs everything personally. Fridays are the more festive classic nights because Hef reads a five or ten minute introduction comprised mostly of comments about film history. One of his friends prepares research notes for him, and Hef goes through those notes and combines them with his own thoughts or knowledge to come up with the final version, which he handwrites on legal paper. Saturdays we just watch the movie sans intro. (Sometimes on Saturday we’ll watch a boxing match afterwards, if there’s a good one scheduled that evening.) Some recent weekends, Hef showed Sullivan’s Travels and High Sierra, The Third Man and Cry Danger, House of Rothschild and Rasputin and the Empress. Two weeks ago he ran Chaplin on Friday and Modern Times on Saturday. Last weekend was his birthday, and we had an annual showing of Casablanca, his favorite movie, followed by caviar and champagne in “Rick’s Café” across the hall. (The dining room was decorated for the event.)  For that one we all wore white dinner jackets, and the ladies wore vintage dresses. Generally movies will show up on the schedule again after 4 or 5 years. There are often “new” old movies that pop up, but many of the most famous classics – especially the vintage Warner Bros films, and Astaire-Rogers films – pop up pretty regularly.

Me: What does the place look like?

Jeremy: It’s a giant living room that has a movie screen that rolls down from the ceiling at one end. Hef and his girls sit on the closest leather couch. There’s another leather couch behind it, then a row of armchairs, then a few rows of padded folding chairs, plus various other chairs around the side of the room. In front of Hef’s couch are dozens of cushions which are usually occupied by playmates or other girls that are testing for Playboy and staying at the mansion for the weekend, etc. Some of them don’t make it all the way through the classic titles, but others do. On a side table are little wooden bowls of popcorn for people to take, and in the back are some bowls of M&Ms, chocolate-covered raisins and peanuts, etc., for people to partake of during the screening.  Most of the classic are shown on DVD or Blu-Ray with a state of the art DVD projector. The image is excellent.  All Sunday movies, and the occasional classic movie, are shown on 35mm. There’s a dual-projector booth in the back and a union projectionist when needed.

Jeremy Arnold will be introducing a screening of Ladies of Leisure at Cinefamily (aka the Silent Movie Theater), next Friday 4/23 at 8pm. He writes for tcm.com and is working on a book about underrated classic movies.

(Movies at the Mansion: Part II will contain the implication of nudity.)

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