Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Leslie Nielsen: Them's the breaks

Sad to hear of the death of Leslie Nielsen, an actor I always enjoy watching, whether it's in Forbidden Planet or The Poseidon Adventure or Prom Night or The Naked Gun or Columbo.
His career tells an interesting story about Hollywood, and what actors call 'the breaks', and a nice story at that.
We only tend to notice the breaks when they go against someone: the star that never made it, the poor mug who made it once and never clawed their way back, the silent legend killed by the microphone, or what seems to us the patent absurdity that such charismatic legends as Lugosi, or Buster Keaton, or Louise Brooks never got their second chance.
Them's the breaks, kid, them's the breaks.
But then you look at Nielsen.
Imagine going up to Nielsen in the mid-seventies, when he was guesting in every tv show under the sun, just making a living but hardly a face too many people would be able to instantly put a name to.
Imagine telling that guy that his obituary will be headline news all over the world, that thousands of movie fans will feel the loss, that tributes will spring up listing favourite moments from his films, or even, indeed, the simple fact that still to come in his career will be several huge box-office hits in which he will be lead star and principal attraction. And strangest of all, almost all of those obituaries will call him a comedian.
How did this happen? Just the breaks.
Look again at Airplane.
Nielsen is cast as the doctor in Airplane for the same reason that Lloyd Bridges and Robert Stack and Peter Graves are there: because of their reputation for slightly stolid seriousness in melodrama and disaster movies.
Nielsen's first appearance in the film is interesting in this regard. The crew are looking for a doctor among the passengers, and we cut to Nielsen for the first time, who says he is a doctor. The sudden cut to his character is not really meant to announce the arrival of a well-known actor; that it's Nielsen is at best a sort of in-joke for film buffs. The main purpose is to deliver a joke: he has a stethoscope around his neck.
But to audiences today the abruptness of the cut seems to say here comes Leslie Nielsen, with precisely that buzz of excitement that accompanies our first glimpse of Orson Welles in The Third Man. The film cranks up a gear - great, says the audience, here comes Leslie Nielsen.
His presence announces comedy, where it was intended to announce, if anything, authenticity. The stethoscope, and the fact that it is joke, tends not to be noticed at all. All we see is that absurdly handsome face, and what now seems like its obvious promise of masterfully delivered laughs.
And masterfully deliver laughs is precisely what he goes on to do. He cemented this new reputation with the various incarnations of Frank Drebin and never looked back. Now he's a comedian, and that very deadpan quality that characterised his straight work becomes his trademark in comedy. He gets to play a live action Mr Magoo; he gets to play Dracula for Mel Brooks. No matter how bad the film is, he's always value, and he's lovable; one of those actors we think of as pals rather than idols. He gets to spend the last twenty years of his professional life as a beloved star, as a face everyone can instantly put a name to.
And he gets to be a loss that thousands of film fans feel.
Them's the breaks.
Leslie Nielsen, 1926 - 2010

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Which is the more unlikely: “Freddy Got Fingered” is now ten years old, made a profit, or may be released in a Director's Cut?

To my mind, they all sound equally impossible, but all three, dear reader, are true.
Dear reader! Ha!
In my continuing quest to present posts of interest to as few people as possible, I think I may have struck gold with this one.
Is there even a hypothetical possibility that anybody with Movietone News on their blogroll has the least interest in a post on Freddy Got Fingered? Is anything less likely? Is anyone even still reading now? Even I may not bother reading it all the way to the end.
Freddy Got Fingered is not only my guiltiest guilty passion, it's the guiltiest guilty passion anyone's had ever, easily proved when the two concepts of 'guilt' and 'passion' are correlated objectively using graph paper and a lead ball on a string.
But the fact is I was fascinated by Tom Green in his heyday and must have seen this film a couple of dozen times. Was it really ten years ago? Apparently so, but how hard to believe. If there's one thing Freddy Got Fingered was never intended to be it's ten years old. This is a film that runs on sheer nowness. Films like this do not age like wine, they embalm themselves. It will never truly find a fresh audience: only those who were there, and innocent bystanders. I still watch it, on the increasingly rare occasions my wife lets me, and I can quote whole stretches of the dialogue. (Which is not to say that I do: just one of the many things that sets me apart from people who like Monty Python's Flying Circus.) I used to have the poster for it on my wall, but it got torn when I first moved in with the little lady I married. To this day, she insists she did it accidentally.
I don't think it's good, as such, but then I never did. I found it compulsive. And there was something - and nothing about me is more mysterious to my better half - that I found equally magnetic about Green, who had something that can't actually be called comic invention but was, for all that, very definitely something, and something that his peers and progeny lack to a man. In a funny sort of way it was charm, a palpable idiot charm, and that combustible mix of self-deprecation and extreme confidence that you see in someone who is riding a wave of adoration in a job the nature of which (unlike that of pop star, say) prohibits the explicit acknowledgment of it. (Comedians are supposed to be humble. Only in the last few years has civilisation degraded so far, and the balance of power between society and its minstrels so shifted, that we allow comedians to look and behave like rock stars. That preening turd Russell Brand, for instance.)
The comedian needs to be laughed at, and so coolness is fatal. Peter Sellers never recovered from a taste of it, and that's why he was never able to revive his career after it was withdrawn. You see the same thing when Woody Allen's on the Dick Cavett Show in the early seventies, and groupies are yelling from the balcony: this tension between the nerdish persona and the fact that everyone knows that really you're the coolest thing of the moment. (Allen got the balance more or less right - though Annie Hall now seems an unwarrantedly arrogant film - but readjustment when the spotlight moves on can be understandably hard, the main reason, I really do think, for the crotchetiness of Allen's latter work.)
The same thing happened to Green, who more or less disappeared after this film was released. Green, though his persona was that of the post-adolescent dropout goofball, would go on chat shows around this time, and see girls with placards calling him the sexiest man alive. Then he got to marry Drew Barrymore, which I bet he still finds hard to believe: a case of Mr Smith not only going to Washington but becoming president too. And then Twentieth Century Fox came to him and said: "Would you like to star in your own movie? Tell you what - why not write and direct it as well!"
The extraordinary confidence he must have felt at this time was poured into this astonishingly hubristic film that contains not a drop of wit but pulses with manic energy, and is so unusual that at times it feels more like an art house movie than a big studio star vehicle. Imagine watching it with no idea of who Green is - think of it purely as a narrative about a young man who wants to be a cartoonist - and you'll see what I mean. It's a uniquely strange piece of work, for all its nods to the American gross-out tradition, and to Green's own work on tv. It also has real momentum, and each scene is different from the last, revolving around some new, separate idea.
The best scene for me, where all the threads come together in joyous concert, is the bit where he takes Marisa Coughlan to the fancy restaurant -a bravura sequence from first to last, buzzing with incompatible comic ideas and ending in an orgy of slapstick so unjustified by the narrative as to play closer to Bunuel than American Pie. I'm not saying any of this is intended, or that any of it is done with great style. But even if you hated it more than any film you ever saw, of all the insults you could fling, you know that 'boring' is the least likely one to stick. Most bad comedy films just run out of energy and lie there. Freddy never runs out of energy. It has too much. It's overlong, and there's way too much in it, but it's never dull, from the exhilarating opening titles, with Green skateboarding through a shopping mall to the accompaniment of the Sex Pistols' 'Problems' to the finale, as he and his father return from their Pakistan hostage ordeal and, among the placards greeting them at the airport, is one that reads WHEN THE FUCK IS THIS MOVIE GOING TO END?
Nobody thought it would do badly; indeed, among the many fascinating extra features on the DVD is a live soundtrack of the audience at the film's premiere, cheering, whooping with delight and screaming with laughter.
But, as we all know, the film was rleased just as that coolness bubble burst, and it got near-universally bad reviews and became the film that defined Hollywood comic excess. Overnight, Green turned from a superstar to a pariah.
Like everything else in his career to that point, the moment was somewhat overplayed. Not every review was a pan: it actually got a rave from the New York Times, and an imdb contributor made the following valuable observations:
This movie, although not solid in plot, is that of comical genius. People are too easily offended by the actions of Tom Green, not able to see the comical genius this movie has. Breaking barriers is comedy, and that is exactly what Tom Green does in this film. The things he does, from jerking off a horse, to pretending to be a deep sea diver are all great ways to get the point across, this movie is something different. People who have any sense of moral value or a tendency to vomit should stay away, but who has moral values anymore? In the end this movie is nothing more then an inspired way of making me laugh. The movie is funny enough as it is sober, I however would suggest you see it stoned or drunk off your ass.
Green wearing his cheese helmet. What do you mean, you haven't seen the film and you don't know what I'm talking about?

And that, I thought, was that.
But it seems it's not just me that still gets it down from the shelf when their wife is at her Italian class. The film has a real following, as Green discovered on his recent stand up tour, where fans would yell for him to 'do the Backwards Man', or sing 'Daddy, do you want some sausages?'

Green picked up the story in a Vanity Fair interview this January:

And everybody in the place started cheering wildly. Like they knew exactly what the line was from. And I’m like, “Wait a minute, I thought this movie was supposed to have bombed?” I didn’t realize it until recently, but it’s developed a real cult following. I mean, I knew there were people who liked it, I just didn’t realize the extent... So I did the song and everybody started to cheer. And it was really sort of fun, because I realized that people do respond to the movie. You know what I mean? They get it... I actually want to re-release it as a director’s cut. This was the first time I’d ever directed a movie. And when you do that, a studio brings in focus groups and they make changes to it. They’re like, “You’ve got to shorten it, make it exactly 89 minutes long.” So it ends up being not exactly what you intended. I called the studio and said, “I’ve been out there doing standup, and literally hundreds of kids are coming out with their DVD copies of the movie, screaming out their favorite lines. I want to do a director’s cut.” They did some research and it turns out the thing has done extremely well on DVD. They didn’t even seem to know. It’s actually made a profit, which is more than can be said for most movies that come out of Hollywood.

Oh poster, I remember you...

Though it's hard indeed to watch the film and imagine that the studio compromised Green's artistic freedom in any way whatsoever - if any film ever screamed director's cut it was Freddy - I'm proud to say I contributed to the fact that it went into profit. How much would I like to see a newly edited version? Let's just say if they released a director's cut of this, and a director's cut of The Magnificent Ambersons, and for some reason I was only allowed to see one of them... well, let's just hope that never happens, that's all.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

I no longer dig the sixties, but I still love Rita Tushingham

As a teenager I was fully into the whole swinging sixties thing; these days it bores me to tears.
The spectacle of Britain trying to be the pop-cultural touchstone of the world is always pretty laughable, and if the sixties version seems any less ludicrous than the shameless Blair-era remake that might simply be down to how much water has passed between it and us. The pretensions of sixties British culture may retain a certain naive charm, but it's a charm that's largely lost on me, now.
I appreciate this puts me in the minority in an age when kids learn about the Beatles in school, but there it is.
But one passion still burns fierce from my one-time love of all things sixties: Rita Tushingham.
Firstly, she's great-looking. Rita was one of the defining faces of 1960s Britain, as surely as Twiggy (thin model with cockney accent) or George Best (pissed footballer). In her relatively few years as a major movie star she became an icon both of the social-realist or ‘kitchen sink’ movies of the late fifties and early sixties, and then, quite separately, of the freewheeling, ‘Swinging London’ films that replaced them. .

Her unpretentious style, carefree attitude and striking looks – far from conventionally pretty but undeniably magnetic, with straight, dark hair and eyes huge and expressive enough to drown sailors in - seemed to chime exactly with the mood of the times. But when the international attention Britain had enjoyed in the sixties receded she faded from prominence too, though in truth she was far from unique in that.
It is an odd but possibly telling fact that virtually none of the most iconic stars of the sixties extended their careers successfully into the seventies (the one exception, perhaps, being Michael Caine, who deliberately subdued his more idiosyncratic characteristics in a string of international package-deal movies and had to wait forty years for roles as good as the ones he started out in). Others, like Peter O’Toole, Richard Harris and Albert Finney seemed to graduate almost immediately to elder statesman status, working prominently but only occasionally, while the most celebrated faces, the ones that dominated the magazine covers and most overtly defined the look and attitude of their era – Terence Stamp, Julie Christie, Alan Bates - seemed almost to disappear. Rita belongs in this latter category.
Perhaps they embodied their moment so perfectly that they had no real place in any other: certainly their images remain instantly recognisable visual indicators of their decade. Or perhaps the kind of photogeneity that defines zeitgeists was ultimately all that Stamp, say, had to offer in the first place. (Only a suggestion, you understand...) But Rita was different. As well as great looking, she was a compulsively watchable actress, as much cursed as blessed with fleeting Sunday supplement appeal.
. On the face of it, she may have seemed unlikely material for Cool Britannia status. Where most previous British star actresses had emerged from the Rank charm school, or somewhere with a very similar postcode, with unrelaxing beauty and speaking clock diction, Tushingham was exactly as she appeared: a slightly gangly Liverpudlian teenager, a stranger both to drama school and beauty school, trained neither in deportment nor elocution, who still spoke in the lilting accent of her home town.
She was a greengrocer’s daughter, who had more or less stumbled upon her aptitude for drama in convent school plays. On leaving school she took roles with the Liverpool Playhouse, and was just eighteen when she appeared as Jo, the troubled teenager and unmarried mother in Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey (1960), a hauntingly beautiful performance in a comparable film, with Dora Bryan equally impressive as her feckless mother.
The film was ground-breaking in several ways, with its unflinching focus on such hitherto unmentioned issues as single motherhood, divorce, adultery and homosexuality, and it cemented a new attitude that had been bubbling for a year or two in British movies, helping to make room for Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and Billy Liar and A Kind of Loving. But while the majority of these films centred around alienated, frustrated - and basically annoying - male characters, A Taste of Honey was unusual in that its central character was a young girl, through whose eyes the audience experienced the unfolding drama. And there was a sincerity and worthiness to her story that Billy Liar, for all its wit and sharp observation, could never match. The film is not merely groundbreaking; it's genuinely moving, and chief among its attractions was and remains the astonishing freshness and authenticity of Tushingham’s performance, which deservedly earned her the BAFTA for best newcomer and propelled her to the front rank of British screen performers.
. The same talent she brought to Honey was just as strongly in evidence in her subsequent performances in The Leather Boys (1964), another unusually frank treatment of homosexuality, set among London’s motorcycle gangs, and the more lyrical Girl With Green Eyes (1964, above and below), which casts her as a naïve, rural girl who falls for an older man (Peter Finch). In both films, Tushingham’s performances are as assured as her debut - funny, touching, and always unerringly truthful.
.But by the time it was released the fashion in British movies was turning away from kitchen sink realism in favour of something rather more upbeat. Responsibility for that rests largely with the entirely unexpected international success of Tom Jones (1963) a film invariably described as a 'rollicking period romp', though if you don't find it remotely rollicking I won't tell on you if you don't tell on me. Albert Finney was now the face of a more carefree sixties-chic, as movies swapped social realism for a somewhat desperate exuberance. James Bond played his part too – the first of the series, Doctor No, came out in in 1962, with From Russia With Love and Goldfinger following in quick succession.
Suddenly to be English was to be cool (they said, so we believed), all eyes were on Carnaby Street and the King’s Road (they claimed, and thus it was so), and London was swinging (an elusive talent for any city, and a concept that slips through the fingers like water in the effort of definition, but one which was rarely interrogated, then or now). In consequence, virtually all the major American movie studios rushed to open London offices, and huge amounts of Hollywood money was injected into British film production, in the certainty that this was where the big hits were going to be coming from. .
Though there had always been an eminently exportable kind of English style, it had been dispensed in the sober tweeds and discreet hipflasks of Herbert Marshall, Leslie Howard, George Arliss. The thing that was new about the 1960s version was its focus on a romanticised version of working class modes and lifestyles, and the celebration (and exaggeration) of an unpolished national specificity that the studios had hitherto sought to iron out. Imperfect beauty, regional accents, gawkiness and eccentricity were all in. So Rita, who might easily have seemed hopelessly out of step in this new and glossier cinema, in so many ways antithetical to the one in which she had risen to prominence, found herself equally at a home as a quirky leading actress and alternative style icon.
And it was in this idiom that she gave her other most defining performance: as the gauche provincial girl arriving in London in Richard Lester’s comedy The Knack (1965, below), alongside Ray Brooks and Michael Crawford.

Her performance and image in this film – tweed-capped and dark-mascaraed, clutching a boutique carrier bag and a copy of Honey magazine, struggling with malevolent left luggage lockers and automatic passport photobooths, or travelling through the London streets in a double bed – is as indelible a milestone of British cinema as Jo's melancholy passage through sooty, rainy Salford. The relentlessly frenetic trendiness of the film itself has dated it more than the simple sincerity of Honey, but for those with a taste for these kinds of sixties trifles it is at least among the most energetic and ingratiating.
For Rita, it seemed like yer actual international stardom was beckoning, especially when she was immediately cast in a small but central role in David Lean’s epically epic epic Doctor Zhivago (1965). But those big British hits, so confidently predicted in the wake of Tom Jones, were proving stubbornly unwilling to materialise, while costly flops poured forth like they were going out fashion, which of course they were. Worldwide interest began to wane, the glitz tarnished, and one by one, the Hollywood studios pulled out of town.
And with them, sadly, went Rita Tushingham’s first flush of fame as a major British star. She continued to appear in low-key roles in low-key films, always giving excellent, meticulously convincing performances, and remains busily at work today, even though she never quite achieved the enduring star status deserving of her exceptional talent and undeniable screen presence.
. In retrospect, a clear sense of desperation hangs over Smashing Time (1967, above and below), a raucous swinging sixties comedy musical, scripted by George Melly, with Rita and her Girl With Green Eyes co-star Lynne Redgrave as two North Country girls touring Swinging London and marvelling at the wonderful sights they encounter, several of which inspire them to burst into brash, untrained song. (Including, of course, Carnaby Street: “The street that is part of the beat that is part of the scene!”) There's even a custard pie fight.
Though certainly eager to please, the film was not a hit, and its boisterousness did not disguise the clarity with which it called time on its era.
For some this came not a moment too soon, as Rita discovered when she and Redgrave accompanied the film to the 1966 Acapulco Film Festival (is there still an Acapulco film festival, by the way?):
"Joan Crawford hauled us over the coals for wearing our Carnaby Street mini-skirts. She took one look at us and said, 'You are a disgrace to the film industry.' We asked why. 'Because,' she said, 'you are not wearing long dresses.' We turned around and walked off, giggling."
Whether you love all this sixties stuff or hate it, Rita is well worth a second look. Unlike so much else that is typical of that unique moment in British cultural history, her performances, especially in A Taste of Honey, seem hardly to have dated at all.
(All the photos in this post, the anecdote about Joan Crawford, and a whole load of other great stuff on Rita, can be found here.)