I Got a Kick out of You

Nothing makes a critic seem more out of touch with his era than playing the “they don’t make em like they used to” card, but I happen to think, in the case of the Hollywood romantic comedy, a critic who doesn’t play the card is out of touch with his art form.

I played the card (once more with feeling) in a recent issue of Elle magazine.

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On Peter Sellers in Being There

Being There is playing at BAMcinématek Sunday May 15th.

Peter Sellers’s performance in Being There is one of the wonders of the movies. It is a wonder of personality, in its disparity to Sellers’s actual, miserable self; a wonder of skill, as a peerless feat of subatomic finesse; a wonder of cinematic history, in contrast to Sellers’ most iconic works of slapstick (which are no less nuanced themselves); a wonder of comedy, for remaining funny without trading a genuine moment for a laugh; and a wonder of compassion.

As a force of apolitical virtue, Sellers’s Chance is a standout personage in Ashby’s ouvre. Harold, Maude, Elgar (The Landlord), Buddusky (The Last Detail), and of course Woody Guthrie glean much of our support simply by playing for the right (i.e. Left) team. That is surely an asset to actor-audience relations. But in Being There, Peter Sellers, virtually a cipher, had to cook without gas. That there is wonder number six. Without lifting a finger, he protests harder and more thoroughly than Jane Fonda in Coming Home.

And who, exactly, is Chance the Gardener? Actually, a better question might be what is Chance the Gardener? An idiot, a retard? A Freaky Friday kid in grownup clothing? E.T.? It’s hard to imagine a precedent, which gives credence to the theory (totally my own, I admit) that the being of inquiry is on top of everything else a wholly original creation, a lone dot off the axis of tradition and unique on screen. I could go on, but I figure seven is a good number for wonders.

By now we know the “real” Peter Sellers – whatever that means – eluded filmmakers and journalists so completely, one could argue he went to his grave without leaving behind any record of his true off-camera self. Then again, for a man born – at least in his own mind – with a camera watching his every move, maybe there never was a real Sellers to begin with. If there is any clarity to be had in all this, I’ve always thought, maybe a touch too optimistically, it was waiting for us at the tail end of Sellers’s career, in the Being There blooper reel we’re treated to at tail end of the film.

I like to think that’s the real Sellers, laughing his mask off.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NLuXod8bR0Q]

Talking to Schickel about Talking to Scorsese

Conversations-with-directors books can go one of two ways: Either the directors want to analyze their work, or they don’t. Those who do either obscure the films with trivial esoterica or — as is the case with Martin Scorsese, in Richard Schickel’s new book, Conversations With Scorsese — illuminate their choices with a pragmatic instinct verging on the intimate, as though they were discussing not shots and lenses but their own biography.

Click here to read my L.A. Weekly interview with Schickel about his interview with Scorsese.

Working with Gilbert Would Kill Anybody

Topsy-Turvy is the greatest movie ever made about show business. (It took me about ten minutes to commit to that sentence.) Beneath the elegance of its composition, the vaulted locution of its characters, and its fastidious attention to psychological nuance, Mike Leigh’s story of the making of The Mikado is a relentless chronicle of production headaches. The trials of writing, casting, rehearsing, designing, financing – they’re all here – and they describe, in comprehensive detail, the unofficial DSM of making entertainment.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8TudNVuOA7s]

How unbelievably cool that I got to interview costumer Lindy Hemming, who won an Oscar for Topsy-Turvy, for Criterion. The DVD – long since out of print – is finally back.

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.

Another Year

As Another Year, Mike Leigh’s latest wonder, came to a close, I was met with a horrible feeling. I was never going to see these people again. Good people, irritating people. It didn’t matter. They were people, and I was never going to see them again.

What a master Mike Leigh is! Who else can bring an audience to pity, reject, and completely forgive a fictional character in the short space of two hours? Simply inspiring pity would be enough, but the full cycle! Continually shifting our alignment between complicity and remove, Mike Leigh, with imperceptible finesse, demonstrates (once again) his total control over his people, their stories – and utterly without bravura style – his medium.

It’s British and verbal and the camera doesn’t do much, so critics call it “theatrical,” but Another Year is unmistakably cinematic. Yes, what transpires in those long masters could be set on stage, and a hefty handful of the film’s more actorly moments stretch easily to the very back row, but what’s between those unmoving wideshots – the strategic inserts and reactions Leigh layers in like Miracle-Gro – offers, by cutting, a deepened view of the story as only the movies can. Via the well-placed close up, in other words, Leigh is refracting his people through his people. The effect is one of total knowledge.

But without the right look from the right actor, the right close-up will never be. I know audiences will leave the theater talking about Mary, Leslie Manville’s attention-grabbing character, but the person I will never forget is Gerri. Played by Ruth Sheen with paper-thin lightness and ingenuous off-camera ease, this is, male or female, the performance of the year. I promise. There is great acting that you notice and great acting that you don’t, and Another Year is bursting at the seams with both kinds, but it’s Ruth Sheen – whose work is notably devoid of juicy “moments” – who shows, once again, that the most affecting performances, like the most affecting cinema, disappear as they appear. (Johnny Depp can do a lot, but I wonder, can he, like Sheen, just be?) That right there is the real real stuff. Meryl Streep may be the actor’s actor, but Ruth Sheen, we now know, is the actor’s actor’s actor.

Our Chateau

After seeing Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere – the most authentic evocation of L.A. life ever filmed – I couldn’t resist the opportunity to figure out why and how The Chateau Marmont, the setting for the movie, has come to represent our local attitude of luxury, isolation, and play. So I spoke with some of Hollywood’s shrewdest watchers and compiled an oral history which Angeleno published in this month’s (January) issue. The intro is below.

From Paris to Poughkeepsie, every city is in perpetual search of a metaphor for itself, but few are more conflicted about choosing their postcard than Los Angeles. Perhaps that’s because no one—inside the city or out—seems certain if it’s a good idea to have a good time.

By now, after 100 years of Hollywood, what is certain is that you can’t have a spotlight without a shadow. Those ubiquitous postcards of palm trees and the Hollywood sign? They might get top billing on the revolving racks, but they will never tell the whole truth about the myth. That honor is reserved for The Chateau Marmont.

After eight decades of whimsy, gloom and derelict amusement, L.A.’s centerpiece hotel—as elusive an icon as the city itself—has finally landed a starring film role. Opening December 22, Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere, a father/daughter romance starring Stephen Dorff and Elle Fanning, lovingly positions the Chateau at the heart of the myth.

Built above a no-man’s-land stretch of Sunset Boulevard in 1927, the Chateau Marmont was originally perceived as out of the way—too far from Hollywood to be central and too far from Beverly Hills to be convenient. But that’s what made it inviting, at least to Columbia Pictures President Harry Cohn, who set up William Holden and Glenn Ford in suite 54, where they could screw around without screwing up. If you’re going to get in trouble, he told them, “go to the Marmont.” And a myth was born.

All these years later, it’s still getting born. So how, in a city that burns up trends like diesel fuel, has L.A.’s favorite hideout stayed a hideout? Some of the hotel’s most devoted disciples have turned up for a guess and a story or two.

For the rest of the piece, please click here.