Tag Archives: fred astaire

Federico y Ginger

Amid news of a Pac-Man movie, the latest casting developments in Captain America, reviews of Iron Man 2, new TV spots for The A-Team, and Fox’s announcement of a Planet of the Apes prequel, I excavated a small piece of encouragement: Pedro Almodovar will be working with Antonio Banderas once again. The film, The Skin I Live In, will begin shooting this summer.

“The film will be a terror film, without screams or scares,” Almodovar told the Spanish daily El Pais. “It’s difficult to define and although it comes close to the terror genre – something that appeals to me that I’ve never done – I won’t respect any of its rules. It’s the harshest film I’ve ever written and Banderas’ character is brutal.”

Throughout the eighties, Almodovar and Banderas made five films together – Labyrinth of Passion, Matador, Law of Desire, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, and finally Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! – an impressive, versatile streak that, in its day, ranked with the greatest director/actor partnerships around. Back then, before Almodovar had fully cultivated his current, perversely mature sensibility, Antonio Banderas was the living embodiment of his world, Cary Grant to his Howard Hawks. Under Almodovar’s direction, the actor alternated between a screwball-state of flummoxed boyishness (like Grant in Bringing Up Baby, Monkey Business, I Was A Male War Bride) and commanding manliness (like Grant in Only Angels Have Wings) – a duality appropriate to Almodovar’s madcap feeling for passionate behavior.

Together they forged new cinematic ground (Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! is an NC-17 comedy about a stalker in love with a heroine addicted porn-star), pushing ahead into uncharted emotional territory that they may not have reached on their own. Katharine Hepburn’s famous remark about Fred and Ginger – “He gave her class and she gave him sex” – readily applies; Pedro is Fred, Antonio is Ginger. How else could we have been lured into rooting for Banderas, who played that memorable, lovable rapist in Matador? Teamwork.

Jimmy Stewart made cold Hitchcock warm; Mastroianni gave warm Fellini cool; and Liv Ullmann gave Bergman’s films a chance at hope, like a life preserver thrown into a cold, dark sea. Antonio Banderas – a highly gifted performer who has never really been taken seriously in America – could, as Almodovar said, play “a puerile guy with an overpowering power of seduction.” Has there ever been a better summary of Almodovar’s brand of playful intensity?

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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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Stiff Uppers

I’ve always been a sucker for a good thwarted or impossible romance, stories wherein the hero or heroine has to deny or hide his or her passion from his or herself or loved one or the world around him or her. You know, profane love.

Every country has their version. The Italians and French do it in opera, the Latins do it in Magic Realism, and the Americans do it in romantic comedy. But no one does it better than the British.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the English have always excelled at erotic sublimation, and I for one get a big kick out of watching them – I mean, their actors – suffer in noble silence. Yes, “noble silence.” Is this not at the heart of every great Jeremy Irons performance, from Brideshead Revisited all the way up through Damage? (Is he not the noblest screen sufferer since Liv Ullmann? [Yes.])

It’s actors like Irons that make the “lie on your back and think of England” subgenre so cinematic. If you’re not sure, check him out as Proust (Swann in Love), The French Lieutenant (The French Lieutenant’s Woman), Kafka (Kafka), either of the two Mantle brothers (Dead Ringers), René Gallimard (M. Butterfly), or Humbert Humbert (guess). You’ve never seen such cold passion.

In the seconds before Irons finally breaks down (and he always does, in an inevitable third act reversal), I always get that here we go rush of Fred Astaire approaching the parquet. His every wrinkle tells of bottomless heart pain beyond imagination, and each quiver of the hope to overcome it. When his moment of wordless eruption at long last arrives, you can’t help but feel a little bit grateful for the opportunity to observe, from the comfort of your home (or theater), nothing less than the destruction of a human being, a man thrown off the cliff of his very own beliefs. But of course it’s just acting. No Limeys were harmed in the making of this motion picture.

So when I heard Colin Firth was going to be doing the minimal thing in A Single Man, I got very excited in a very quiet way. Before I pressed play, I sat in my room, in a wooden chair by the window, stared out onto the street and just thought. If you were to see me, you wouldn’t know what I was thinking, but you would be sure that I was thinking something, and if you were to judge by the muted shadow across half my face, you might reckon it was something serious. You might even be affected by what you were seeing – a man, sitting by a window, looking out onto the street. But what is he feeling?

To read Firth’s face is to squint into the fog at a blade of grass thirty miles away. The only way to know what’s going on in his head is to be told, with a choice flashback, and Tom Ford tells and tells. But this is only performance by association, by implication. Critics love this – they went for it hook, line, and sinker in I’ve Loved You So Long – but remove the actor’s reactions from their context, and they present like the Kuleshov Effect gone bad. That makes Firth’s performance less a performance than an editor’s creation. Noble silence? No, just silence. Without those inserts, you have a man in a chair.

My heart ached more for Firth than his character. He’s a good actor, but no actor can overcome the kind of vacuum Firth was up against in A Single Man. When a boat heads into the wind and looses steerage, sailors call it being “in irons.” When a British actor tries to show you everything by showing you nothing, I call it “not Irons.”