Monday, February 23, 2009

A paragraph more than they deserve

Last year I ignored the Oscars completely, like most men of good will and sense. This year I will squander a paragraph only in the observation that this has been the most cowardly year in the academy's history, with almost all of the major gongs not merely going to their recipients on the basis of criteria totally unconnected with those claimed, but worse, on the basis of criteria howlingly, transparently obviously unconnected with those claimed. Best supporting actor to Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight for the kind of performance Bela Lugosi spent an entire career giving to complete critical disinterest and disdain. Oh, well. As Einstein beautifully observed: "One must take comfort in the fact that time has a sieve, through which most trivia run off into the sea of oblivion."

Friday, February 20, 2009

She kissed Bernard Bresslaw and died

A sad farewell to Dilys Laye, the charming comic actress who will be remembered by many of us for filling that most unlikely vacancy in world cinema: Bernard Bresslaw's love interest.
In Carry On Doctor and Camping, she plays small, charming girls who fall for that big goon, at her best as Anth in Camping, permanently travel-sick on the unwitting journey to what Sid and Bernie believe to be a nudist camp, and close to tears when taken to a nudie cutie movie as preparation.
The idea is to get her (and Sid's girlfriend Joan) to lose some of their inhibitions in a back to nature setting. So far, Bernie has only kissed Anth once, and, as Sid reminds him, she was sick. "That's because I'd been eating pickled onions," Bernie adds in his defence.
She's also great fun in Carry On Spying, in an untypically exotic role that she handles with equal aplomb, and which gives her the opportunity to say "stop messin' about" to Kenneth Williams.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Dearie departed

Sad to hear of the death of Blossom Dearie, the pianist and singer whose unique voice and gentle bass and drums accompaniment instantly evoke the smoky world of fifties jazz.
There is a wonderfully unforced quality to her style; her recordings are precise, compact, unshowy. Neither is there anything gratuitous in her performance: her clear, sweet voice is distinctive and unusual but entirely without mannerism and affectation; she never props up a song with over-performance. This is an especially interesting effect when she deadpans comic numbers like My Attorney Bernie or Peel Me a Grape, or eccentricities like her self-penned Blossom's Blues ("My name is Blossom, I was raised in a lion's den"). But this same spareness and simplicity makes real heart-breakers of It Might As Well Be Spring and Loverman.
Dig out her classic, eponymous Verve album (the one that kicks off with an even better version of 'Deed I Do than Mitchell & Petrillo's in Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla) and bring it all back.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

A new W***y A***n movie

Was ever a film-maker in as paradoxical a professional place as Woody Allen?
Here is a director who has been able to make a film a year for many, many decades, who has complete freedom to make anything he wants however he wants to make it, and yet whose name is clearly perceived not merely as a non-draw at the box-office but a positive liability.
It's been a while since we've seen such a generous advertising budget allocated to an Allen film as has been bestowed upon Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Every few minutes as I am writing this, I see the poster go past my window on the side of a bus, and I can't remember the last time a Woody film got that kind of treatment. Clearly somebody has high hopes that this one might actually make a bit of money for a change.
And that's what makes it even more interesting that his name appears nowhere on the poster. Even on the proper cinema ones it's only in tiny letters at the bottom. Nowhere does it say 'The new film from Woody Allen' or anything like that; it's as if his name will not merely not bring in the crowds but will actually turn them away. (The posters for Cassandra's Dream said 'From the director of Match Point'; these don't mention a director at all.) It's been a long time since Annie Hall.
Actually, I don't hold with the view that he's done nothing good at all in the last ten years. I liked Celebrity. I liked Anything Else a lot (Leonard Maltin called it his worst film ever; I say it's the first to get reappraised when the man shuffles off: a fascinating and overt remake of Annie Hall). A lot of the ones I haven't seen, like Scoop, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion and Hollywood Ending look pretty intriguing. His decision to start making films in Europe may not have payed off big in artistic dividends but it has reinvigorated his imagination; round about the time of Small Time Crooks he really did seem to be winding himself into the ground in ever tighter rotations.
Match Point had plenty wrong with it but it held your attention and never obviously gave itself away as a Woody Allen script (except, perhaps, when characters start complimenting each other on their knowledge of Dostoyevsky).

The other interesting thing to have happened to him in the last couple of years is Scarlett Johansson: after years of random casting with often inappropriate big names he suddenly found a muse again. Vicky Cristina Barcelona is his third film with her so far, and they seem to have a genuine two-way appreciation of each other's talents, so her Cristina comes alive a little more solidly than your average twenty year old girl written by a seventy year old man. The same goes for Vicky, played by Rebecca Hall, an English actress with a faultless mastery of Allen's own New York rhythms.
She was also in that very good film The Prestige, again with Scarlett, but I had to look her up to realise that, so convincingly American is she here. Dwarfed in the advertising by Scarlett and Penélope Cruz, hers is actually the main role, along with the chap (I don't know his name, I'm afraid; look it up on the IMDB if such esoterica is your thing), and, again along with the chap (is it Javier something?), hers is the film's best performance.
Cruz is fine too in another of Allen's big, showy monster roles, albeit one who doesn't turn up until the film is half over. Just as well; a little goes a long way with Allen's hysterics.
Who was it who said Penélope Cruz looks like a moth? A strange thing to say, yet inarguably true.
The plot is the usual impossibility-of-finding-true-love and art-versus-life malarkey he's been serving up since Manhattan, and peopled by characters who are as always products entirely of his world rather than their own. Nothing in the film says 2008; there is no hint of contemporary issues or of a culture that has changed in any obvious ways since the late seventies. This is not a bad thing, by the way, it just means that it is not real: the older Woody gets, the more he is kind of in his own little dream world. This is good. I like A Countess From Hong Kong very much, too: I like it when a distinctive film-maker with a unique voice sets their work apart from the temporary obsessions of the year in which it was made. Allen's got his eye on the retrospectives, not the weekend figures.
It's a pretty inconsequential film, but pleasant, and certainly more relaxed and assured than Allen's other director-only meditations on these subjects, which tended to come across as unduly earnest filmed theatre. This is his most liberatedly cinematic film in God knows how long, and his most visually sumptuous certainly since A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy, perhaps ever. It's a reminder of how much fresher he can be as a film-maker when he forces himself outside of his autopilot zone. The characterisation runs true to form, however, and some of that loaded dialogue comes off heavily when there's no Allen to give it a punchline, but the golden photography and beautiful locations (neither a traditional source of pleasure to Allen) make this an incredibly easy film to watch.
Out tomorrow is one I certainly didn't see coming. The Pink Panther 2 is the almost too inspired name for the twelfth Inspector Clouseau movie and the big question is: can it keep the standard of comic invention as high as the last half-dozen or so?
Talk about flogging a dead horse. And this Steve Martin chap's got a few bob to win on himself hasn't he? First he's Bilko, then he's Clouseau; he's nothing if not confident. I say this not because I think Clouseau is some sacred icon of comedy: quite the opposite in fact. But still, why can't Martin come up with his own funny detective? He'd have a much better chance of getting away with it. I don't know anyone who's looking forward to this, or who went to see the last one. And with John Cleese in the old Herbert Lom role it really is looking like has-beens' happy hour.

What next for Martin? Probably a new Marx Brothers film with him and Eddie Murphy playing two brothers each. I mean, really! The cheek of the man.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Living History: Audrey Totter

Audrey Totter lives at the Motion Picture and Television Hospital in Mulholland Drive, California, part of a retirement complex for aged and infirm members of the Hollywood community.
According to Wikipedia:
In 1940, then president of the Motion Picture Relief Fund, Jean Hersholt, found 48 acres (194,000 m²) of walnut and orange groves in the southwest end of the San Fernando Valley that was selling for $850 an acre. The Board purchased the property for the Motion Picture Country House... Mary Pickford and Jean Hersholt broke the first ground...
The Motion Picture Hospital was dedicated on the grounds of the Country House in 1948
. In attendance were Ronald Reagan, Shirley Temple and Robert Young, among other stars. Services were later extended to those working in the television industry as well, and the name was altered to reflect the change.
Scores of movie notables spent their last years here; so have far less famous people from behind the scenes of the industry. Those with money paid their own way, while others, who had no money, paid nothing. Fees are based solely on the "ability to pay."
Mary Astor, Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, Bud Abbott, Norma Shearer, Clara Kimball Young and many others stayed there. Mae Clarke, Yvonne De Carlo, Larry Fine, Anita Garvin, Mitchell Leisen, Karen Morley, Hattie McDaniel, Edmund Lowe and Gale Sondergaard all died there.
Just imagine it; this sad, happy, unreal, tragic, beautiful place.
What must it be like to work there? I suppose part depressing, part fascinating at first, but increasingly fascinating, decreasingly depressing as time goes on. Few things are sadder than an old movie star, but imagine the conversation, the memories, the potent atmosphere of old rivalries! Imagine Bette Davis and Joan Crawford somewhere like this! Do they all rub along as equals, or do the MGM veterans still lord it over everyone else? Do the ex-Monogram stars have to eat in a separate, smaller dining room? Imagine the social evenings, Christmas, Oscar night. I'm finding it hard imagining anything else.
If you're interested in movies, wouldn't you rather hear Audrey Totter's take on Hollywood in the forties than discover yet again if Tom Cruise had a great time working on whatever dumper-bound epic he happens to be hawking at the time? Don't you think they'd love to talk? Maybe not all of them, but most of them. Don't you think that if it was announced that once a week there would be a film camera set up in one of the buildings, and anyone who wanted could come and reminisce, the place would be packed?
Would Audrey Totter be one of them?
Audrey was one of the great bad girls of forties noir, a cool blonde with a core of steel and features that could relax into beauty one minute and harden into ice the next. Her persona was etched for all time in a small part in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), easily convincing us that she was capable of taking Garfield's eyes off Lana for a moment, and she's equally good as a gold-digger in The Unsuspected (1947), untypically cast in Alias Nick Beal (1949) and ably holding her corner alongside Gable, Alexis Smith and Mary Astor in Any Number Can Play (1949).
But her most important performance, and one of the strangest and most memorable performances in Hollywood history, is the one she was required to give in The Lady In The Lake (1947), the Philip Marlowe thriller directed by and 'starring' Robert Montgomery. That's 'starring' in quotes, because the film is shot entirely from Marlowe's point of view, in subjective camera. Apart from a few bits of to-camera narration, the only time we see his - our - face is when he - we - look directly into a mirror. In this curious exercise, Audrey plays the mysterious, possibly duplicitous femme fatale.
It's not a great movie and the gimmick doesn't completely come off, but it is strange and compelling, and Totter helps more than a little. It's such an unusual performance because she directs every line at the camera, so we study her as Marlowe does: is she a cold bitch, a liar, maybe a murderess, or can we believe her? Her attempts to convince him are simultaneously attempts to convince us; she flirts with us, seduces us, turns kittenish on us one minute, tigerish the next. Any actress worth her salt would be memorable in such a role, but many could have been overwhelmed by it; Totter fascinates in the truest sense of the word.
It's a totally new kind of acting. You can no more keep your eyes from her than she can from you; she and I spend her entire performance looking at each other. If only all movies were made like this!
Audrey went out of date along with the noir style. As the fifties dawned and some of that post-war cynicism was sugared away, Totter found herself too indelibly associated with the old world of rainy streets, turned-up coats and pulled-down hats, seedy nightclubs and Edward Hopper automats, where hero status is strictly relative and even the women carry weapons. She belonged in the age of Elizabeth Short, not Doris Day.
So she had a family, and did the rest of her acting on tv.
Now she's at the Motion Picture and Television Hospital.
And guess what.
Last month it was announced that the hospital and residential community would be forced to close by the end of the year:
Beginning in 2005, fund administrators reported a yearly $10 million deficit on the fund's budget. There were over 500 hospital admissions and approximately 100 long-term residents alone in 2008. The fund administrators projected their shortfall would only grow as a result of the deteriorating economy.
Suppliers of fantasy to a world that often needed it more than it knew, yet denied its consolations themselves when the need is their own, even they, even here, are not safe from real life. Even here, ungrateful modernity is out to get them. And all for a deficit of some small fraction of Tom Cruise's per-picture salary. The Hospital's campaign blog states:
The Motion Picture & Television Fund Long-Term Care unit is planning to evict 130+ of its oldest, weakest, most needy and disabled residents beginning in mid-March. This decision affects not only those residents in Long-Term Care, but every resident in assisted and residential care on the Wasserman Campus who may one day require the next level of care.
Will Audrey Totter be one of them?