Category Archives: Last Night When We Were Hollywood

Why They Couldn’t Make Breakfast at Tiffany’s Today

This week, as the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s celebrates its fiftieth anniversary, generations of fans old and new will amble up Fifth Avenue, press their noses to the shiny windows on 57th and remember their first times.

It will be a bittersweet day for me, however.

Sweet for all the right reasons, bitter because the age of the grown up Hollywood comedy is long behind us. Mind you, this isn’t nostalgia, it’s arithmetic: the people making the movies have changed and so have the people they’re making them for.

As a former seven to twelve year-old, I was a huge fan of sameness. That was the great thing about The Kids Menu. No matter where your parents took you, it was always the same. Pizza, pasta, grilled cheese, simple, familiar, benign. The perfect speed for a young person not ready for the Big Out There. That’s Hollywood today.

No offense to pizza, but this is tragic for those of us care to enjoy a piece of arugula from time to time.

Even more tragic for those of us who were eating off The Kids Menu when the likes of John Calley, the great and beloved studio chief who died three weeks ago, was in the kitchen.

A true master of the art of commercial art, Calley oversaw a successful series of highly diversified films, ranging honorably from healthy dreck to serious grown-up fare. For every meandering, money-grabbing Da Vinci Code on his tremendous resume, there was challenging, immortal A Clockwork Orange. For every dollar earned, in other words, there was a risk taken.

The very beautiful thing about this era of not-tool-long-ago is Calley wasn’t alone. There were others making money, making art. Fox’s Alan Ladd Jr. said yes to Star Wars and Harry and Tonto, a movie about an old guy and a cat; United-Artists’s David Picker agreed to Dr. No and Lenny, a movie about the price of making tough art; Paramount’s Richard Shepherd green-lit The Towering Inferno and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, a movie about free love before the term even existed.

Alas, Shepherd wouldn’t get far with Breakfast at Tiffany’s today, at least not if he were making the grown up version we know and love. Out would go the subtle innuendo, European couture, moral ambiguity, and brilliant counterpoint casting of its good-girl star in a bad-girl part, and in their place, rim-shot jokes, the latest fashion trend, explicit messages, and safe, dependable typecasting. In other words, today’s Tiffany’s would be a film suited to the mundane demands of Hollywood’s most admiring customers: kids. Theirs is mainstream film’s greatest love affair.

No business likes risk, and lucky for Hollywood, younger audiences, prone to the pressures of “cool” and partial to formula, are about as risk-free as a demographic gets. They know what they like and they like what they know. Thus are the young supplied with sequels, franchises, remakes, and movies named after board games (Battleship will be released in 2012). Anything to serialize what has already been serialized before.

To be fair, this isn’t an entirely new phenomenon. As far back as Hollywood’s first star, movies have tried to homogenize their product in a way that was mutually beneficial for both business and audiences.

If they like Cary Grant, the thinking went, give them Cary Grant movies. If they like Marilyn Monroe, maybe they’ll go for Kim Novak. Sometimes it even turned out well. But not anymore.

The very big, very small difference between then and now is back then, novelty had a commercial ring to it. Mixing proven types with risky, unproven material, like Audrey Hepburn (a franchise) plus Truman Capote’s (challenging, naughty) Breakfast at Tiffany’s, was in 1961 an attention-grabbing combination. A gamble yes, but a gamble bold enough to win big: revoking homogeny, Richard Shepherd’s film was bigger than any single demographic alone. That meant kids, grown-ups, Hepburn’s fans, and Capote-lovers all had something to look forward to.

And thank goodness: Without that lucrative roll of the dice, the film would be little more than a serialized rehash of Audrey’s persona and hardly worth remembering today. Even if the movie failed, it would be worth remembering because, thanks to Shepherd, Breakfast at Tiffany’s had prestige out of the gate. It pandered up.

The Sex Pistols’ late manager Malcolm McLaren observed ours was a karaoke world, an ersatz society. As long as his statement applies to Hollywood, and it does, we’ll never see the likes of an Audrey Hepburn in a Breakfast at Tiffany’s ever again.

Head

Thirty years after the death of the most celebrated costume designer in Hollywood history, a look back on the talent, strangeness, and PR bonanza that was Edith Head.

In this week’s Hollywood Reporter.

At Home with Paddy

Me and Chayefsky, we got a thing going on.

Every summer, around this time, when movies sink to their absolute worst, I invite over my friend Paddy and light a flame under his ass. Then I sit back and watch. As the top spins off his head, I get that robust, crisp-mountain-air feeling of beholding a Zeus-like captain of the Judeo-Roman world, an embittered shaman touched by a most splendid and clarifying anger. It feels good; the thunder burns you up and the rain rinses you out, like a hard loofah scrub to your guts.

I am of course talking about Marty, The Hospital, and Network (Paddy won an Oscar for each; he’s the only writer on record with three for Best Screenplay), but I might as well be talking about Middle of the Night or Gideon, or any of the other plays. And in particular, I’m talking about George C. Scott in The Hospital. He is the closest Paddy ever came to himself.

At one point in The Hospital, Barbara (Diana Rigg), compares Scott’s Dr. Boch to a bear. I think that’s right. Ferocious in food, depression, and work, Chayefsky was a human bear, a kind of broken down Falstaff of the city, who split his life prowling the neighborhood for material and napping back in his cave high above 57th Street. Also, he grumbled a lot. When a friend of his, laid up in the hospital after a long stretch of open heart surgery, murmured something about wanting to see his daughter who he missed very much, Paddy looked up from his paper and said, sarcastically, “Awwww, isn’t that sweet?” It made them both laugh.

That right there is my friend Paddy. Even when you don’t want it, he’ll give it to you straight. It will likely hurt, maybe even forever, but the upshot is you’re guaranteed to come out the other end a sharper, better, unhappier man.

The Silent Treatment

“The American silent cinema of the 1920s gave us three great comedians,” wrote Dave Kehr in last week’s Times, “Harold Lloyd, whose hyperkinetic optimism seemed the perfect embodiment of his epoch; Charles Chaplin, whose Victorian sentimentality was just a touching bit behind it; and Buster Keaton, who was so far ahead of his time that we’re still running to catch up with him.”

What is it about this period in film history that invites such useless debate? You never hear anyone debating Cary Grant vs. Humphrey Bogart, or Howard Hawks vs. Alfred Hitchcock. But when it comes to Chaplin and Keaton, it always gets hot. Why?

Don’t get me wrong. I love heat. Crave it. But where there’s smoke there’s not always fire. Exhibit A: Dave Kehr. Is Lloyd’s hyperkinetic optimism relevant only to his epoch? Is Chaplin’s Victorian sentimentality really his defining characteristic?

To those who have seen Speedy and Safety Last, the ridiculousness of the Lloyd remark is self-evident. The famous scene of Lloyd slipping from the hands of a giant clock ticking a hundred stories above the pavement is simply ageless. Comedy – silent or otherwise – has hardly produced a more eloquent expression of our most basic fear. Lloyd’s films were time and technology obsessed, slapstick comedies à la Dziga Vertov. Nothing could be more modern.

Now for Chaplin.

When oh when oh when can we retire the Chaplin/Sentimental polemic? What good has it done us? (I find it curious, by the way, that Chaplin’s team has not devised a counterattack. You never hear them nail Buster Keaton for, say, his simplicity. Like the Los Angelenos in the L.A./N.Y. debate, they are rarely on offense.) Taking this angle with Chaplin is as fruitless as condemning Billy Wilder for being cynical. It is merely a fact of his sensibility and speaks neither for or against his genius.

It is fashionable for “serious” film scholars – often highly analytic types who eschew sentiment – to raise themselves above the Chaplinesque masses by way of extolling Keaton’s craft. There is a utilitarian function to this; not only is “craft” the domain of the educated elite, it’s a hell of a lot easier to write about. Let me be clear: I mean no disrespect to Keaton – only to those who champion him at The Tramp’s expense. They have obviously never stopped to marvel at the mind that made dancing feet out of two bread rolls. Sentimental? I call that surrealism.

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Show Me the Way to Go Home

Jaws celebrates its 35th anniversary this week.

There are all sorts of things worth remembering about Jaws; its fabulously rocky production history, its massive impact on the business of selling movies and the culture at large, and its composition, which is really about as good as it gets, a paragon of the “nothing is wasted” school of efficient storytelling. Take any sequence, go through it shot by shot, and you’ll see a Jenga tower of suspense on film. Removing a single block would likely topple the whole thing.

But for all of that, Jaws has something more, something we don’t often talk about when we talk about scary movies – it cares deeply about its people. Take another look: this is a movie about community. Not just Amity Island, but smaller bands of friends and families, which run through the picture like a vast chain of interlocking arteries. There are the Brodys (Roy Scheider’s family); The Kinters (boy Alex was last seen on the inflatable yellow raft); the intrepid team of Brody, Quint, and Hooper (Scheider, Robert Shaw, and Richard Dreyfuss); and most tantalizingly, the off-screen, long-dead members of the USS Indianapolis, whose story is related in chilling detail by Quint himself.

The film goes to great lengths to ensure that we really feel close to these people. It wants us to understand them as individuals and also as members of groups bound together by – a funny word when talking about Jaws – love. Take another look. The reason the shark is so dangerous, and indeed frightening, is that, unlike regular old monsters that just kill, Jaws tears people apart – in all senses of the term.

This is unquestionably Spielberg’s achievement. Casting the right actors and giving them the right moments is the job of any director, but it are only directors of Spielberg’s sensitivity – a funny word when talking about Spielberg – who think to find those moments where no one else would look. E.T., for instance, is full of such moments; it’s what gives the film its inner illumination, the sense that all of the unreal really is real. Credit is due to everyone on a great film, but in the case of Jaws, it was the captain who ensured that the whole thing, moment to moment, was reduced to its common denominator: feelings of fear and loss. And everyone, no matter what sea they swim in, can understand that.

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Stardust Memories

The very moment I was invited to see the new Woody Allen movie, I felt that unsettled feeling one invariably feels meeting an old lover for a drink. Really, it’s a feeling I’ve felt before seeing every Woody Allen movie since Small Time Crooks, when things started going south, a full decade ago. You know what I’m talking about.

Me: Hi! Wow!

Her: Hi.

Me: How are you? You look –

Her: Fine. I’m doing…I’m…[trails off]…yeah.

Me: Well, you know, that’s great.

Her: Not really, but…yeah. Anyway.

Me: Okay. [Drinks quickly] God, you know, we used to be something! Remember?

Her: Are we really going to talk about that?

Me: No. I mean, we don’t have to.

Silence.

Me: But it’s true. Remember?

She stirs her drink.

Me: Come on, Hannah and Her Sisters, Broadway Danny Rose! You were incredible! We were incredible! I mean the two of us together. Right? Because even when you were like Everyone Says I Love You and everyone was disappointed, I was right behind you, saying, “No, no. It’s fine. Really, this is what’s happening, you’re wonderful, and I’ll be there even when you’re…” [Off her look] What’s wrong?

She shakes her head.

Me: What’s wrong?

Her: I don’t want to talk about –

Me: No, no, no…tell me. You can tell me.

Her: You’re bullying me. I’m someone else now.

Me: Bullying? What?

Her: Keep your voice down.

Me: I’m just trying to have a conver-

Her [blurting]: It’s just that every time I see you we talk about the same things! Diane Weist, Robert Greenhut…

Me: Those were great times, our times! Remember Mighty Aphrodite, even then–

Her: I remember! I remember!

Me: And that night at the Angelika? Manhattan Murder Mystery? Even when you weren’t all dressed up, you were adorable…

Her: You see, that’s your problem. You’re stuck in then. You always were. Even when we met all you wanted was Annie Hall and Manhattan. You you you you. Gordon Willis and Santo Loquasto and you you you! But what about me, the new me?

Me: I wanted the new you.

Her: I gave you Deconstructing Harry and you were blasé.

Me: I’ve changed.

Her: No you haven’t. Match Point and Vicky Cristina

Me [incredulous laughter]: I can’t believe you’re doing this.

Her: Doing what?

Me: You’re not really bringing those up, are you?

Her: Why the hell shouldn’t I?

Me: Oh come on. Those things weren’t any good. They just weren’t as bad.

She slaps me.

Me: What am I supposed to say? “You really returned to form”? No way, honey. No way. You got lazy. You let me down. You let all of us down. And all of your “I have to see the Knicks” bullshit, what’s that about?

Her: I love the Knicks.

Me: Okay. Fine. Wrap at 5:00. I don’t care. Wrap at 4:00 if you want to. But tell me this: how can you call it a day and not get a single good take in there?

Her: I don’t have to take this from you.

Me: You say you love masters but really what you mean is “I don’t want to do another set up.”

Her: I’m leaving.

Me: There were shots in Cassandra’s Dream that were out of focus!

Her: I’m leaving now.

She gets up.

Me: Okay, take it easy, take it easy. Sit down, alright? Okay, I’m the guy that loves Radio Days, remember?

Her [calming down]: I don’t know what to tell you. I’m getting older. I’ve been doing this for a long time. I don’t even know if I like it anymore, but I do it. I keep doing it. So if you don’t like all of them, well, I’m sorry. I really am. I wish you would. But I’m not Bergman.

Me: There you go with that again. You always say that.

Her: Well it’s true.

Me: No it is not. You’re just as good as he is, just as smart, just as meaningful, just as –

Her: No….

He takes her hand.

Me [gently]: God damn it, would you listen to me?

She’s quiet.

Me: Just listen to me. I’m going to say one thing and then I swear I’ll stop, okay?

She nods.

Me: Okay.

He takes a breath.

Me: Husbands and Wives.

She says nothing.

Me: That’s Bergman quality. Remember? Judy Davis and –

Her: I remember everything.

She smiles sadly.

Me: When we were good, we were good, huh?

Her: There was no one better.

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Safe Sex

I woke up this morning happy to discover the lovely Mary Kaye Schilling had written a lovely riff on 5th Avenue, 5 AM in this week’s New York Magazine. Here’s the top of it:

On the morning the film began shooting—a chilly dawn, October 2, 1960—Audrey Hepburn was seated in a cab. She had big doubts about this role, right down to the Danish in a paper bag sitting beside her. She hated Danishes and had asked her director, Blake Edwards, if she could switch to an ice-cream cone; he said no, pointing out that it was breakfast, after all. When “Action!” was called, the taxi drove up Fifth Avenue and stopped on the corner of 57th Street. Hepburn—wearing sunglasses and a black Givenchy gown—stepped out of the car and paused on the curb to gaze up at Tiffany’s. In that moment, the actress, in the guise of Holly Golightly, created an indelible cinematic moment—and a new future for women. “No Holly, no Carrie Bradshaw, no Sex and the City,” says Sam Wasson, whose new book, Fifth Avenue, 5 a.m. (June 22), is about the making of Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

A fascination with fascination is one way of describing Wasson’s interest in a film that not only captures the sedate elegance of a New York long gone, but that continues to entrance as a love story, a style manifesto, and a way to live. “It’s crossed generations in ways Casablanca, Gone With the Wind, and other cliché classics haven’t,” says Wasson, who unearths such juicy tidbits as the near-cutting of the indelible theme song “Moon River,” the utter dickishness of co-star George Peppard, who played the love interest, and the protest over Mickey Rooney portraying a Japanese man. Wasson wanted to know the reason for its cultural longevity, and once he started asking, the inevitable answer was Audrey Hepburn. But something about the idolatry bugged him. “Hepburn has become a near-saintly figure, untouchable. That didn’t sit well with me. I thought there was a human being there who needed to be looked at.”

For the rest, please check out New York Magazine.

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Gaslit

Yesterday, upon discovering Iron Man 2 had sucked in $133.6 million over the weekend, I stumbled to a brunch of six Bloody Marys. Only moments later I found myself conversing with George Cukor. Here is a snippet from our nearly four-hour exchange:

GC: Put down that butter knife! Put it –

SW: I’ll do it, I swear!

GC: Put it down!

SW: Try and stop me! Just try – ow! – let go of my neck!

GC: Give me the knife!

SW: [Suddenly crying] George…I just don’t…A hundred and thirty three –

GC: Shhhh…Sit down…

SW: [Crying harder] I just…I don’t…

GC: Sit down, Sammy.

SW: I – okay…

GC: Have another sip.

SW: Thank you.

GC: There, there. That’s a good lad.

SW: I know I shouldn’t be shocked, but somehow I am…every time…every single…I don’t know…

GC: Hey, did I ever tell you the story about Judy on Star is Born?

SW: No. This is my first hallucination.

GC: Ah. Well, toward the end of shooting we had to do a scene when she’s in a state of total depression after her husband’s suicide. Do you remember the scene?

SW: Yes.

GC: Keep drinking. Breathe through your nose.

SW: What –

GC: Drink.

SW: Okay.

GC: While we lined it up Judy just sat there, very preoccupied….Just before the take I said to her very quietly, “You know what this is about. You really know this.” She gave me a look, and I knew she was thinking, “He wants me to dig into myself because I know all about this in my own life.” That was all. We did a take. And she got up and screamed like someone out of control, maniacal and terrifying….She had no concern with what she looked like, she went much further than I’d expected, and I thought it was great…

SW: Did you –

GC: When it was over, I said to Judy, “You really scared the hell out of me.” She was very pleased, and she didn’t realize what an effect she’d made. And then — she was always funny, she had this great humor — she said, “Oh, that’s nothing. Come over to my house any afternoon. I do it every afternoon.”

SW: Wow. Tell me another one.

GC: [Chuckles] Some other time, perhaps.

SW: Please, George?

GC: I’m pretty tired and there are a lot of other filmgoers I have to get to before – put down the knife!

SW: I’m going to do it!

GC: Put it down!

SW: I swear, George! This time I’m serious!

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What is This Thing Called Audrey?

Yesterday was Audrey Hepburn’s 81st birthday.

I’ve spent the past year and half thinking about Audrey, trying to figure out why and how this gawky, awkward introvert could go from actress to star to international icon in the space of a few short months. Was it pure luck and timing? Was it sheer force of will? Or was it something else, something bigger?

When Roman Holiday was released in 1953, designer/photographer Cecil Beaton was first to lay a finger on it. He wrote,

She had, if you like, her prototypes in France – Damia, Edith Piaf, or Juliet Greco. But it took the rubble of Belgium, an English accent, and an American success to launch the striking personality that best exemplifies our new Zeitgeist.

Nobody ever looked like her before World War II: it is doubtful if anybody ever did, unless it be those wild children of the French Revolution who stride in the foreground of romantic canvases. Yet we recognize the rightness of this appearance in relation to our historical needs. And the proof is that thousands of imitations have appeared. The woods are full of emaciated young ladies with rat-nibbled hair and moon-pale faces.

Well put. But who exactly is responsible for “the rightness of this appearance”? For beyond being simply Audrey Hepburn, Audrey Hepburn was “Audrey Hepburn,” a synthetic amalgamation of looks, style, behavior, marketing, media, and the characters she played. Like everything else in Hollywood – like Marilyn Monroe and Singin’ in the Rain – she was a construction, fortified by the gifted men and women of Paramount, the writers, directors, cameramen, production executives, public relations people, and (quite memorably) costume designers. One designer in particular.

Edith Head.

Outside of the stars, Ms. Head was arguably the most powerful woman in Hollywood. By 1953, she had been nominated for the Oscar eight times and had won five. (And the category had only been approved in 1949.) Even still, they said she wasn’t a great designer, at least not like Givenchy or any of the great Parisian couturiers. Maybe she wasn’t, but as the confessor to the biggest stars in Hollywood, Edith Head had all she needed. She didn’t just hold their measurements, she held their secrets.

And she had her favorites. Grace Kelly: to Edith, she was what a woman should look like. But lanky, breastless, big-eyed Audrey Hepburn looked nothing like Grace Kelly. Nor did she resemble Bette Davis, Carole Lombard, or any of the other feminine ideals Edith had known so well. Audrey was something else entirely.

But what was that something else? And how did the events of October 2, 1960, the first day the cameras turned on Breakfast at Tiffany’s, change the course of Audrey’s life, and the lives of young women across America, forever? It took a whole book to figure out why, and I haven’t thought of Holly Golightly, Truman Capote, Edith Head, or Audrey in quite the same way since.

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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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