Tag Archives: a star is born

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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Give Pierce A Chance

From Bogdanovich to Heckerling, it’s been a week of promise in the trades. Well, that week seems to have gotten one day better. Just yesterday, The Hollywood Reporter announced director Todd Haynes and Kate Winslet will be reviving Mildred Piece for HBO.

Ordinarily, the thought of excavating a half-century old high-camp melodrama – a Joan Crawford melodrama no less – would hit me the wrong way. Do we need yet another nouveau-kitsch, self-congratulatory design-fest? (Okay, laugh, but you must admit the genre’s got to be twenty years old already.) But this time around there’s no denying the many layers of cleverness at work here.

First of all, Winslet’s up to it. She’s long since proven she has what it takes – what Crawford had in spades – to play the kind of voracious, almost unhinged personality that, despite her nervous edge, we always seem to understand. As far back as Heavenly Creatures, Peter Jackson’s best film, and certainly one of her strongest, Winslet was showing signs of becoming the kind of actress she officially became in Little Children and then again two years later, with new shades of pain, in The Reader. Flip the coin and you have Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Mildred Pierce should place her in between.

And then there is Todd Haynes, who I like to think of as the evil Cukor. After films like Safe, Velvet Goldmine, and (gulp) Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, you could easily see him at the helm of darker versions of A Star is Born, A Woman’s Face, and Gaslight, pictures that lend themselves to the kind of boozed-up, broken-down, showbizzy ladies in peril he – and Cukor – so flagrantly adores. And then there is his 2002 film Far From Heaven which deserves a mention in a sentence all its own. Of all the revisionist films of the 90s, none was more conscious of its source (Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows and Imitation of Life among others), and less smug than Far From Heaven. Thankfully, Haynes overcame the temptation to put down on melodrama, to make a joke of its excesses, and instead, approached the tricky 1950s with the kind high-seriousness James Ivory once invested in the Edwardians. More than that, Haynes surrounded himself with a team of technicians, from Elmer Bernstein to cinematographer Edward Lachman, who so completely understood their era, and were so thorough in reviving it, that the film actually seemed less a retrospective consideration than an artifact of the past – but with decidedly contemporary emotions. No shrieking women and smashing plates. Just Julianne Moore at her pale-faced best.

With Far From Heaven, Haynes introduced a whole generation to a genre that had long since been ignored. He was in part politically motivated; gay themes were well served by the style and ideology of Douglas Sirk (Almodovar had his own riff with 2006’s Volver). Similarly, Mildred Piece, with its basic depression-era anxieties, will surely address today’s circumstances – and not without a little fun too. Remember, this is James M. Cain we’re talking about: With this money I can get away from you. From you and your chickens and your pies and your kitchens and everything that smells of grease. I can get away from this shack with its cheap furniture. And this town and its dollar days, and its women that wear uniforms and its men that wear overalls.”

Goodbye, Bob Willoughby (1927-2009)

Bob Willoughby, the man considered by many to be the greatest set photographer of all time, died Friday at his home in Vence, France. He was 82.

It’s difficult not to love Willoughby’s work. He shot the most beautiful people, his pictures are graphically bold and often full of action, and they give us regular people privileged access into the private, behind the scenes moments of our favorite movies. But what am I saying? That’s what all set photographers do.

What makes Willoughby’s work stand up taller than the rest, is that it contains a true, open-eyed love for the process of making movies. One look at any of his pictures, and you’ll see he saw the stars, directors, and technicians, the way we want to see them, with curiosity, the enthusiasm of true fans, and, unlike the classical Hollywood portraits of Hurrell, only the slightest touch of idealism.

Today, we like to see movie people cut down to size. And why shouldn’t we? Many of them are just too rich and too happy (or so they seem) for us to want to let them stay that way.  But Willoughby’s work forsakes that impulse, and reminds us of all that was wonderful – and indeed still may be wonderful – about the picture industry. And the way Willoughby saw it, it was truly an industry – of stunning people out there doing stunning work.

I’m happy to say I had the good fortune to speak with Willoughby over the last year. Our communication began when I contacted him out of the blue to see if I could get the rights to a photo of his which I wanted to use for the cover of my book about Blake Edwards. Though he owed me no favors, he wanted to give it to me for a very, very low price. He didn’t have to; I was willing to pay pull price (for this shot, attached below, you would have too), but he insisted.

And when I told him I was working on a book about his muse, Audrey Hepburn, he assured me that everything they ever said about her was true. She was the loveliest person in pictures, perhaps the loveliest person he had ever met. The way he said it, with such tender reverence, it was impossible not to believe him.

So here’s to Bob Willoughby, who loved making movies. The proof is in the pictures.

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?(1966)

Blake Edwards and Natalie Wood, The Great Race (1965)

Judy Garland and George Cukor, A Star is Born (1954)


Dustin Hoffman and script supervisor Meta Rebner, The Graduate (1967)