Tag Archives: elia kazan

A Conversation with Theresa Russell

Theresa Russell is attracted to the very things that repel most actors.

In 1976’s The Last Tycoon, her first movie (and Elia Kazan’s last), she is unafraid of seeming to do very little. Young actresses like to show you they can act by really “acting,” but Russell, at only eighteen, knows what it means to be simple—and Kazan knows she knows. His close-ups foreground a girl of California gold darkened by knowing eyes. It’s like two different people looking at you through a single face. And just when you think she can’t possibly be that smart or strong, her voice breaks in the middle of a line like Barbara Stanwyck’s when she looks at Fred MacMurray at the end of Double Indemnity, and we forgive her everything, take the blame, and sign up for more (almost). In Bad Timing (1980), she works from the epicenter of a carnal earthquake and never once has to brace herself on secondhand, movie sexuality. Her moves are all her own. The result is something like Brando in Last Tango in Paris—too real to watch and not watch. There again you see what Kazan saw: the wilderness inside. Nicolas Roeg, her husband-director, saw it too. In (1985’s) Insignificance, their third collaboration, she plays Marilyn Monroe.

Sam Wasson: You’ve told this casting-couch story about Sam Spiegel, producer of The Last Tycoon. In the versions I’ve read, he basically threatens to destroy your career if you don’t sleep with him. You’re eighteen or so, without a single credit, and he’s this titanic power—and you reject him. With that rejection, it’s like you’re rejecting—I hate to say it—the Hollywood way.

Theresa Russell: I didn’t have anything to compare it to other than I knew that I didn’t . . .

SW: You weren’t going there.

TR: Yeah, exactly. If it meant the end of my career, then I don’t have a career. Okay. I always had other options. I’m good with animals. I had other things I wanted to do. I had to take that gamble because there was no choice, basically, in my mind. My boyfriend at that time, my first love—he was a primal therapist—he helped me a lot during that.

SW: This story about Spiegel combined with the movies you’ve picked all point to a quality you have, on-screen and off—zero tolerance for bullshit. Do you have any theories about how you came to have that kind of self-possession?

TR: No, I really don’t. I think I was born that way, basically. It’s slight madness, perhaps. My attitude about life in general has always been a little off, I suppose, compared to other people. It seems like the older I get, anyway, that’s true. [Laughs] But later on, I had to do shit things just to pay the bills and pay school fees, which was hard, but in some ways it taught me some good things too.

SW: To what extent do you think having a relationship with a primal scream therapist played a part in—

TR: In acting? [Laughs] Oh . . . I think I was that way anyway, but that did help in my acting, I have to say. Doing that kind of self-exploratory stuff. I think it helped me be less afraid in my work. Not necessarily in my life. I mean, my dad left at an early age, and I left home at sixteen.

SW: In your mind, does the primal scream connect to the Method?

TR: I think so, yeah. In that regard it correlated completely with my training. And it just made acting less scary. A lot of actors are afraid to go into those darker places of personal experience. Early memories, traumatic situations. That pain. So in that way, the primal scream showed me I could go there and come out okay.

SW: Let’s talk a little about Insignificance. Was this a part that immediately jumped at you?

TR: Actually, originally I turned it down. Here’s what happened. [Producer] Alexander Stewart kind of approached me before he even approached Nic [Roeg] to do it. I don’t know if Nic will even remember that, because he kind of rearranges history sometimes—like his movies [Laughs]—but that is in fact how it was. Maybe he wanted Nic all along, I don’t know, but he came in that way. I knew the writer of the play [Terry Johnson] didn’t want me to do it. He wanted Judy Davis, who had done the play in London. I think they were kind of an item for a while. So he was not happy with me doing it. Also, there had been a slew of Marilyn things going on, and Madonna was in her Marilyn phase, and I was just like, Oh, God, I just can’t even think of going there, it’s just too silly. I just don’t want to.

SW: What changed?

TR: I loved the play. I just thought it was a terrific play. But to be Marilyn seemed so daunting, and I didn’t know how I would begin to go there in a way that wasn’t a caricature—so obviously it was just easier to say no! But then when Nic wanted to do it, that’s when it got to another level.

There’s more. Read on at Criterion.

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Bigger Than Life

This weekend I had the good fortune to break in the new Criterion Blu-ray of Bigger Than Life with L.A.’s foremost family of cinema, The Goldblatts.

There is so much to discuss about Bigger Than Life that one feels the only way to say it is with a PowerPoint presentation, or at the very least, three or four dioramas, a copy of David Halberstam’s The Fifites, a brief overview of German Expressionism, Sirk, Kazan, Cinemascope, and a handful of Ann Goldblatt’s oatmeal cookies.

At once bravura and almost invisibly subtle, director Nick Ray has fused a startling number of cinematic precepts in Bigger Than Life, drawing connections between genres, styles, and states of mind with such freeform proficiency, it’s easy to forget that an ordinary director would never think to combine them, let alone succeed in doing so. In Johnny Guitar, by contrast, Ray was just as playful, and though I admire his brazen blending, in that picture, he’s overt about it in a way only Godard and his acolytes could truly love (and they do). But in Bigger Than Life, Ray’s mind is just is hot – and it never gives off steam.

Style aside, the movie has guts. To disassemble, with Ray’s level of insight and complexity, the foundation of fifties America – and here’s the best part – in the midst of fifties America, without ever once succumbing to excess, browbeating, or the narrow-minded assurance of a missionary, is a feat of sensitivity on par with his achievement in composition. Unlike Kazan, Ray never makes judgments; unlike Sirk he doesn’t deal in polarities. That’s what makes Bigger Than Life so rewarding. For all its color, it dwells in the grey.

Even today, the film’s moral ambiguity is troubling. As James Mason descends (rather, ascends) into madness, there’s a part of you that’s relieved, even a little excited to see him live. You think, maybe a little suburban nonconformity might not be so bad after all. “Don’t you get tired of the same story, over and over?” Mason asks his TV-glued son. The answer, obviously, is no (this is 1956). But at what point does nonconformity become psychosis? How much disruption is too much? Thanks to Mason’s subtle modulations, we’re always refashioning our answer – all the way to the end of the film. As Bigger Than Life eases, almost superficially, toward its resolution, one gets the sense that familial security may come again. But at what price?

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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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The Fugitive Kindness of Strangers

I had another look at The Fugitive Kind last night.

The film, which features Brando, Joanne Woodward, and Anna Magnani, and a script by Tennessee Williams and Meade Roberts, was a premeditated Method-movie made to order. Producers Martin Jurow and Richard Shepherd even went so far as to hire a large part of Elia Kazan’s crew from On the Waterfront, and to lead the charge into hyperrealism, the young director Sidney Lumet. He wasn’t Kazan, but he was New York and he was hot, and that was good enough United Artists.

“How interesting,” I thought. “I’m watching the Method transform from a movement into a franchise.” It may have been ten years after Streetcar, but as a good friend of mine once said, Hollywood is a slow whore.

But before I could get cynical, I thought, “Well, why not?” If one guy makes a product that works, the next guy is going to want to take a crack at it too. That’s America and – surprise, surprise – that’s the American picture business. Why should Tennessee Williams be exempt? Geniuses get hungry too.

It’s useful to watch The Fugitive Kind with this in mind. Knowing that the popularity of the Method played a fundamental part in the conception of the film helps to explain its excesses, which, if you go for them (as I did), you might consider a kind of High-Method. The yelling and sweating and expressionistic camera tricks read to me like a late-in-the-day revision, Method II: Strasberg’s Revenge. If you don’t go for it (as contemporary audiences didn’t), The Fugitive Kind just points you back to Kazan: in case you forgot, the picture says, don’t try this at home.

The only one in the picture who resists the emotional opulence is, shockingly, Brando himself. In fact, his style is so uncharacteristically subdued, it gives one the impression that it emerged in counterpoint to the work he was observing around him, almost as if he waited at a busy intersection, watching as his production ran off into traffic, before he decided to follow behind them, quite coolly, and at a measured pace. The result is Brando’s most low-key performance (until The Godfather), a salve to the hot lesions, and a reminder of how good he truly was, even when the knobs were turned down.

Franchises have been a part of Hollywood since its inception. But it’s harrowing to think yesterday’s cash cow sprung from a major advancement in the art of acting, a milestone. Today, Variety reports news from the production offices of 21 Jump Street.