Tag Archives: 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.

Real, Funny

Flipping through the index in Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls — a book about the rampage of sex, drugs and revolution in Seventies Hollywood and Hollywood in the seventies — one discovers that “Mazursky, Paul” has only two page numbers after it. (Scorsese alone takes up six lines.)

At the time, Mazursky’s status as one of the decade’s reigning directors was an item of popular and critical consensus, but by the early nineties, the tides had turned. The Pickle (1993) was panned, and Mazursky’s subsequent efforts, though intermittently wonderful, did not live up to the work of his New Hollywood golden age. These days it seems like many cinephiles and even some critics have simply forgotten Mazursky’s films, full stop.

But back then (way back), in the American cinema’s most formidable post-war decade, Mazursky was untouchable. So much so that Time magazine critic and Film Comment Editor Richard Corliss could confidently predict:

Paul Mazursky is likely to be remembered as the filmmaker of the seventies. No screenwriter has probed so deep under the pampered skin of this fascinating, maligned decade; no director has so successfully mined it for home-truth human revelations…. Mazursky has created a body of work unmatched in contemporary American cinema for its originality and cohesiveness. 

Mazursky’s pictures were explicitly, almost aggressively, enmeshed in the here and now (or from the vantage of decades passed, the then and there). Remember the psychedelic brownies? The suburban orgies? Remember the gurus, the shrinks, and the Rodeo Drive fetishists? They’re all there. Chronicling these shifts in the cultural ethos, Mazursky has preserved the changing passions of the American middle class in a kind of comic formaldehyde. The films were prescient, honest, and always hilarious.

Nearly forty at the time of his directorial debut, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969), Mazursky was some ten years older than the fresh batch of younger iconoclast directors. That fact understandably clashed with the then-popular image of directors as studio-lot rebels and insurgents of style. Mazursky, by comparison, seemed like an old-fashioned romantic and unreconstructed classicist. Like Frank Capra, he had an open heart but a satirical squint. Like Jean Renoir, he never let jokes get between him and the hard truths of his characters. And unlike most New Hollywood filmmakers, Paul Mazursky, part hippie, part father, had perspective andtendress. There was no other Hollywood writer/director with such a generous admiration of human foible, no other American auteur so shrewdly attuned to the cockeyed truths of how we love.

How could such an accomplished film-maker have slipped by?

Please continue reading reading excerpts from my new book, Paul on Mazursky, at Altscreen.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Goodbye, Blake Edwards

Goodbye, Jill Clayburgh

I remember Jill Clayburgh in An Unmarried Woman.

As Erica Benton – a New York woman coping with life after divorce – she conveyed a calm, even serene intelligence uncommon in American movies. Naturalistic and sensual, Jill Clayburgh appeared to be both brighter, and more striking, than our own friends and family and at the same time, exactly like them. That’s how she managed to be so effective as Erica Benton, who, in Paul Mazursky’s essential film of 1978, conveyed the experience of divorce quite plainly, in modern and very real terms. It’s that rare case of a polemical film free of polemic.

Part of what made – and continues to make –Mazursky and Clayburgh’s interpretation of the experience so resonant is that it didn’t read as an interpretation. They didn’t have an angle. They didn’t cop to “dramatizing” the situation with clearly defined, movie-made conflicts and resolutions. Nor did they get wrapped up in ideas or values. They just gave it to you. As the film’s tagline says, “She laughs, she cries, she feels angry, she feels lonely, she feels guilty, she makes breakfast, she makes love, she makes do, she is strong, she is weak, she is brave, she is scared, she is…an unmarried woman.” That’s it. The only thing Mazursky wants is for us to feel.

Perhaps that’s what makes the loss of Jill Clayburgh so personal. Remembering the film is not like remembering a movie, but like looking back on a conversation with someone you used to see a lot of. Someone you saw through a difficult time (God, that was a while ago! I wonder how she is? I keep forgetting to drop off the coat she left at my apartment.) Were Jill Clayburgh a movie star, or a conventional beauty of the kind we see too much of today, she would not have had that effect, and An Unmarried Woman would feel more like something we saw than something that happened to us.

A few years ago, I had a chance to speak with Ms. Clayburgh about the film, namely about how she and Mazursky managed to evince that feeling of happening to us. “I don’t know,” she said. “Think of the women and the way they dressed. I mean, you know, when you think of women getting together now in film, and I won’t say what, but they’re all dressed to the nines. Who the hell are they dressed for? They’re all so chic! We all looked good, but we weren’t done up. We were just…wonderfully…in our own characters.” That’s what lent the movie, and Clayburgh’s performance, the force of the zeitgeist. Wading in truthfulness, trusting integrity of observation, they happened to catch a wave. “There was something about Erica that was so interesting because she didn’t ask for any of this,” she added. “Feminism was in the air, but it hadn’t trickled down. It was a bit rarified. That makes Erica very vulnerable and kind of…I don’t know…like someone you know.”

I know her and I miss her.

Last Night at The Rome Film Festival

It was like a scene from Modern Times. I was standing on line for the Rome Film Festival’s opening night screening of Last Night, unceremoniously packed in with some of the rowdiest filmgoers I have ever met, when, after about twenty minutes, I realized I was in the middle of an all-out protest. I had no idea over what. For a moment, I tried to negotiate myself out of the mob, but once they started moving toward what I hoped was the cinema, I figured staying with them would keep me from getting lost all over again. And now that I know why they were gathering, I’m glad I joined them, if only for a moment.

Hundreds of writers, directors, actors, and other employees of the Italian culture sector had turned out to protest government funding cuts that have taken, and will continue to take, a serious toll on film industry workers. They broke through the crowd of media and civilians that had lined up – presumably, to get a look at Keira Knightley or Eva Mendes, stars of Last Night – and spread themselves out, most of them sitting, over every square inch of red carpet, chanting and orating all the while.

It was quite a sight. Those of us who had already made it into the auditorium, watched it all on the big screen inside of the theater, which, in slightly uncomfortable contrast, was beginning to fill with the type of well-groomed movie people who probably don’t have to worry as much about their employment. Then again, maybe they do.

After a significant delay, the lights dimmed. Last Night’s stars and filmmakers were paraded in, a few words of introduction were made, the jury was introduced, and the lights dimmed further. The film began.

Joanna and Michael Reed (Keira Knightley and Sam Worthington), a young and affluent Manhattan couple, are the sort of loft-living folk we see a lot of in today’s New York movies – in other words, people you want to be, but are glad you aren’t. Things start to fray, at least officially, when Joanna confronts Michael about a crush he may (or may not) be having with Laura (Eva Mendes), a business associate he’s been going out of town with.

What follows is a vaguely familiar riff on the jealousy ronde. We’ve all been there, in movies and in life, and for a good part of Last Night it’s tough to figure out why we’re back. But I was glad we were. Keira Knightley, who seems to grow more intelligent with every movie, takes such fearful pleasure in running into and then going out with Alex (Guillaume Canet), her ex-boyfriend, that watching her try to make up her mind, one forgets, at least temporarily, that there is still another half of the picture waiting in the wings. That half – the will they or wont they dance of Sam Worthington and Eva Mendes – lacks the spark of real attraction, the quiet glinting looks and bashful smiles Knightley and Canet plugged into the moment they appeared together on screen.

But my mind kept going back to the rally on the red carpet. Were they still holding out?

Hereafter

Putting aside The Outlaw Josie Wales, High Plains Drifter, and Unforgiven, terrific westerns bearing Clint Eastwood’s unmistakable air of somber, refined cool – qualities we observe in his best performances – I’m completely at ease asserting he’s the clumsiest A-list filmmaker in Hollywood. One of the greatest movie stars of all time, overqualified for iconic, forever and ever status alongside Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn in the pantheon, but a wet blanket behind the camera.

Hereafter, which I wish L. Ron Hubbard was still around for, is sure to inveigle critics with its “contemplative pace” and “mood.” But don’t mistake aberrant filmmaking for vision. Don’t confuse Clint’s hand with his haunch. For all the waiting we’re made to do in Hereafter, we might as well be in a Dreyer movie (watching Gertrud at least gets you bragging rights). As in “The Golden Girls,” every new scene begins with an establishing shot; as in a student film, no scene begins until the actors have walked into the frame, and none ends until they have left it; each line is followed by a ham-handed meaningful pause wherein we are, I suspect, supposed to be absorbing a certain latent emotional complexity which, sadly, is never latent. (For more on this, see Million Dollar Baby, Invictus, Gran Torino, and Mystic River, an equally miserable film, which contains one of the most insincere cinematic clichés in all of filmdom – the crane up from a dead body/grieving person to signify the ascension of their spirit/cry to God up from the concrete and into [you guessed it] heaven. Is that really, after his eighty years in life and film, Clint Eastwood’s best evocation of that experience? It seems to be. He does it again in Hereafter.)

They say Clint Eastwood is the last classicist. He isn’t. Peter Bogdanovich is the last classicist. Clint Eastwood is merely out of touch. He makes movies as if people haven’t been making and thinking about movies for a hundred years. Add to that Hereafter’s amateur metaphysics, and you have a film only M. Night Shyamalan could love.