Doodad Kind of Town


Thoughts on the AFI Life Achievement Award
November 28, 2007, 10:30 pm
Filed under: Mike Nichols, Woody Allen


It won’t happen till June, but the American Film Institute is giving its next Lifetime Achievement award to Warren Beatty. That’s certainly fitting enough – Beatty has a distinguished career of over 40 years as an actor, director, screenwriter and producer.

But looking over the list of those who have received the honor in the last 35 years (the first award was bestowed to John Ford in 1973), I felt some disappointment. (See the complete list here.)

The AFI never got around to honoring many of the deserving film artists before they shuffled off this mortal coil. Among those passed over (all of whom were still alive when the awards were started): Howard Hawks, Charlie Chaplin, George Cukor, Vincente Minnelli, Robert Altman, John Wayne, Katherine Hepburn, Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant. (Although I recall hearing or reading somewhere that Grant was offered the award, but declined it. Something about being embarrassed by the idea of a staged tribute.)

The criteria for the Lifetime Achievement award are that”the recipient should be one whose talent has in a fundamental way advanced the film art; whose accomplishment has been acknowledged by scholars, critics, professional peers and the general public; and whose work has stood the test of time.” In 1993, the criteria was expanded to include “individuals with active careers and work of significance yet to be accomplished. “

Well, that explains Tom Hanks. He got the award in 2002, at the ripe old age of 47 (!) Speaking as 47-year-old myself, there is no freakin’ way that a 47-year-old needs any damn lifetime achievement award! Don’t get me wrong – Tom Hanks is a legend in his own time – but that award could easily have waited another 20 years. Ditto Steven’s Spielberg’s award in 1995. At a mere 49, and with “Saving Private Ryan,” “Munich,” and God knows what else still ahead of him, he was no candidate for lifetime achievement honors either.

Of course, it could be a very engrossing parlor game for movie buffs to pick their own Lifetime Achievement winners (or quibble with the existing list – and I think I can make a pretty strong case against the inclusion of Sean Connery, the 2006 honoree). In that spirit, I hereby submit my highly personal shortlist for the American Film Institute Lifetime Achievement awards. I don’t believe any one of them is under 65.

1. Shirley MacLaine – In a career than spans over 50 years, Shirley has grown up on screen from a kooky, red-haired gamine to a salty-tongued grandma; she’s never once given a bad or boring performance in the process. She’s worked with the greats and the near greats, from Jack Lemmon to the Rat Pack, from Alfred Hitchcock to Billy Wilder to Bob Fosse. Her roles in “The Apartment,” “Some Came Running,” “Irma La Douce,” “Sweet Charity,” “Terms of Endearment,” “Postcards from the Edge” and many others are classic. And that’s just in this lifetime! She’s still a little kooky, but she’s formidable – and, at 74, she’s due for the honor.

2. Stanley Donen – He was choreographing MGM musicals when he was barely out of his teens. Before he was 30, he’d revolutionized the film musical, directing “On the Town,” “Royal Wedding” (where he devised a way to make Fred Astaire dance on the ceiling) and “Singin’ in the Rain” – after 55 years, still the greatest movie musical of all time. His subsequent career included classic romantic comedies like “Charade,” “Indiscreet,” and “Two for the Road.” Donen is 83 and hasn’t made a theatrical release in over 25 years – but on the basis of his early career alone, he belongs in this pantheon.



3. Mike Nichols –
I can’t think of another director whose films are so consistently smart, sharp and uniformly well-acted. With a 41-year career that includes “The Graduate,” “Carnal Knowledge,” “Silkwood,” “Working Girl,” “Postcards from the Edge,” “The Birdcage,” “Primary Colors,” and the brilliant television adaptations of “Wit” and “Angels in America,” 75-year old Nichols is way overdue for this honor.

4. Francis Ford Coppola – Yes, you read that right. I scanned the list several times, and he’s not on it. And yes, most of his fellow seventies wunderkind directors are there (Spielberg, Lucas, Scorsese). If he’d only made the first two “Godfather” movies and “Apocalypse Now,” he’d still belong on the list, and at 68, he’s certainly old enough to qualify.

5. Jane Fonda – Ok, she’s GOT to be on a shortlist somewhere. In one career, she’s gone from cute comic ingenue (“Barefoot in the Park,” “Cat Ballou”) to sex kitten (“Barbarella”) to impressive serious actress (“They Shoot Horses, Don’t They,” “Klute,” “Julia,” “On Golden Pond”) back to comedy (“Nine to Five” and recently, unfortunately, “Monster in Law” and “Georgia Rule”)- and covered everything in between. Not to mention, if she gets the honor, it’ll be the first father-daughter dual win in the award’s history (pop Henry Fonda won in 1978).

6. Robert Redford – And he’s already got to be on the shortlist, too. I mean, c’mon! His classic acting roles (“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “The Way We Were,” “Jeremiah Johnson,” “All the President’s Men,” “Out of Africa,” “The Natural”) and distinguished directing efforts (“Ordinary People,” “Quiz Show,” “A River Runs Through It”) would be enough to earn him the honor. But he also founded the Sundance Institute for independent filmmaker, which already got him an honorary Oscar in 2002. Incidentally, he’s a little crinklier, but still cute at 71.

7. Woody Allen – Ok, I saved my most questionable choice for last. His work certainly has advanced the art of film, and most of his pre-1989 output has indeed withstood the test of time. (It’s not like nobody on the actual winners’ list has any clunkers on their resume.) In my mind, just the combination of “Annie Hall,” “Manhattan,” “Purple Rose of Cairo,” “Hannah and her Sisters” and “Crimes and Misdemeanors” qualify the Woodman for lifetime achievement honors.

(Photos – afi.org, imbd.com, reelclassics.com)

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Rag Doll Dance-Off: Marie Osmond vs. Dick Van Dyke
November 27, 2007, 11:25 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

So I’m sipping my morning coffee and listening to the three chuckleheads on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” ripping poor Marie Osmond to shreds over her “doll dance” on last night’s “Dancing with the Stars”.

And I’m thinking “That’s nothing new. Haven’t any of these people seen “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang”?

When it comes to dancing like a rag doll, Dick Van Dyke and Sally Anne Howes did it first and did it better. Enjoy the clip.



This Week: "Lions For Lambs," "August Rush"
November 25, 2007, 6:27 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

I haven’t been hitting the multiplexes much this fall. The preponderance of depressing, violent “gloom and doom” flicks just hasn’t appealed. Normally, I get all excited when “serious movie season” rolls around since I’m not much for the mindless fare that fills the theaters in the summer. This year, I guess I’ve had my fill of bad news and disappointment in my real life (on too many fronts), so when I plunk down my $9.25 at the box office, I’m actually looking for happy endings and feel-good optimism.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve seen many good, if dark films, this year: “Michael Clayton,” We Own the Night,” “Eastern Promises” and “Gone, Baby Gone.” All were well-crafted, well-acted, admirable efforts. But enough, already.

I also made it through Robert Redford’s equally lugubrious “Lions For Lambs” – well intentioned and interesting enough, but directed more like a tennis match than a movie. Like this: Meryl Streep and Tom Cruise debate the pros and cons of the American involvement in Iraq. The camera cuts to Streep making a point. Cut to Cruise making a counterpoint. Cut to Streep for a response. Cut to Cruise for his response to her response. And so on and so on. A parallel scene between Redford as a college professor and his wise-ass student is edited exactly the same way. Occasionally the action switches to Afghanistan where two of Redford’s former students are wounded and lost, but those scenes are just as dull. I give Redford points for presenting the pro/con arguments about Iraq in a way that allows you to hear and digest each side’s rhetoric – a blessed relief from the “screaming head” political pundit environment on TV. However, Redford’s biggest achievement here may be making an 85-minute movie feel like a 3-hour epic.


Anyway, when my friends wanted to go to a movie last night, I made a request “Please no more violent and depressing movies. And no “Love in the Time of Cholera,” because I’m in the middle of reading the book, and I don’t want to see the movie before I’m done.”

Well, that left precious few options. I reluctantly chose “August Rush,” even though a local film critic had dubbed it “Sugar Rush.” I figured it would be hokey and unbelievable, but I was fairly sure it would end happily.

Gotta tell you folks – I was very pleasantly surprised.

Kerri Russell is an acclaimed cellist, Jonathan Rhys Meyers is an Irish rocker. On a magical night in 1995, they meet by chance on a rooftop overlooking Washington Square in Greenwich Village (don’t ask me how they got there – if the movie told us, I was too distracted by the teenager kicking the back of my seat to process it.) They groove to the sounds of a street musician covering Van Morrison’s “Moondance” below. Soon they’re locked in a passionate embrace which, of course, develops into more intense expressions of mutual passion. Come morning, the beautiful cellist must run back to the Sherry-Netherland to meet her controlling father. Said father whisks her away in anger, never to be seen again by the eager young rock singer who follows her in hot pursuit.

As you may have guessed from the trailers, that night of rooftop passion produces a baby boy, but Russell never gets to see him. While she’s unconscious following an emergency Cesarean, her father arranges to have the boy sent to an orphanage, then tells his daughter that the baby died.

Cut to 2007. Russell and Rhys Meyers are leading music-less, love-less existences in Chicago and San Francisco respectively. Meanwhile in a Dickensian orphanage somewhere in the East, their offspring (Freddie Highmore) is yearning to be found by his parents and to make music. He knows in his heart that his ability to hear music in everyday sounds comes from them.

Eventually he runs away to New York to try to locate his folks, and the “Oliver Twist” parallels start coming fast and furious. He is taken in by a young street performer, who brings him to meet “Wizard” (Robin Williams), a former musician who who houses a motley band of youngsters in the dilapidated Fillmore East auditorium, and, of course, lives off their earnings. (Hello, Artful Dodger and Fagin?) Meanwhile, from their far-flung locations, his mom and dad start to recover and reawaken their original musical passions, and their separate paths lead them both to New York.

I won’t reveal too much about how things all work out. I will say that “August Rush” takes a little time to find its footing. But about halfway through, I became so engrossed and invested in it, that I honestly can’t tell you if it stopped being implausible and hokey – or I just stopped noticing and caring.

Early on, it bugged me that, except for Highmore, most of these characters are not well-thought out or even very real. Rhys Meyers brings a certain Celtic soulfulness to his role, but Russell lacks the inner light of a true artist. I never really believed she was a cellist. And we don’t see these two together long enough or generating enough chemistry to care whether they get back together. We only want them to reunite so their son can be part of the reunion.

The deal with Russell and her father is never adequately explained. Who really knows why he’s so controlling? Is he living vicariously through his daughter’s achievements? Is she expected to marry someone of a certain social standing? The film doesn’t give us so much as a hint. It’s more like the screenwriters said “We’ve got to come up with a roadblock to her happiness, so let’s give her an evil father,” and then stopped thinking about it altogether.

And yet…

Once the plot mechanics are established and the movie finds its groove, it does draw you in. The greatest strength of “August Rush” is how full-heartedly it captures the explosive joy of making good music. There are many lovely, offhanded scenes where everything stops, and the focus is completely upon happy people caught up in the rapture of singing or playing. I like that these scenes are indulgent and lingered over. I was less impressed by scenes in which the sounds of the city converge to become music inside Highmore’s head. It’s not that the scenes are bad, but the whole idea was much more impressive in Lars Von Trier’s “Dancer in the Dark,” where the sounds of factory machines and train wheels provide the driving beat for full-blown production numbers in Bjork’s imagination.

One thing is for sure, this movie could NOT work without an exceptional child actor in the central role, and Highmore is nothing if not exceptional. He has a innocence and purity that transcend even the most ridiculous moments of this film. You ultimately believe in the movie because you believe in him. (You’ve seen him before in “Finding Neverland” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” It’s a shame he’s now 15 and too old to play “Oliver Twist” because he would have been fantastic.)

I groaned inwardly when Robin Williams showed up, a reaction I’ve had every time I’ve seen him a in a movie for the last ten years. (Notable exception: “One Hour Photo”). But by the film’s end he had won me over. He’s restrained, and his character is more mean and bilious than charming; a climatic scene in which he tries to pass himself off as Highmore’s father literally had me on the edge of my seat.

At the end of “August Rush,” I had tears in my eyes and joy in my heart. That seems appropriate for the start of the holiday movie season. It’s a little sugary and a little sappy, but Freddie Highmore makes it all worth the time. See it if you can.

(Photo credits: movies.go.com, imdb.com)



Movies I Watch Over and Over: THANSKSGIVING EDITION
November 21, 2007, 1:01 am
Filed under: Woody Allen

I had planned to open my post today with these great pictures of Plymouth Rock and the Mayflower that I snapped on my New England vacation 3 years ago; BUT Blogger and/or my photo editing software are not behaving tonight, so there goes the seasonal photo tie-in. Drat!

Fortunately, I can wrap up my series on favorite comfort flicks with a selection that has a definite tie-in to the Thanksgiving holiday: “Hannah and Her Sisters.”

“Hannah and Her Sisters” was released in 1986, and it turned out to be the almost-last-gasp of great filmmaking by Woody Allen. (“Crimes and Misdemeanors,” his last great film, came three years later. As you may have guessed, I’m not expecting the Woodman to ever be this brilliant again. See my review of “Match Point.“)

Spanning three consecutive Thanksgivings in the life of an extended family, “Hannah” mines rich comedy from its privileged Manhattanite characters and their messy little affairs of the heart. Typical territory for Allen so far. It also memorably depicts the conflicts within a family. The titular Hannah (Mia Farrow) and her sisters (Barbara Hershey and Dianne Wiest) are the offspring of a volatile couple, retired actors played by Lloyd Nolan and Farrow’s real-life mother, Maureen O’Sullivan. Daddy was a bit of a philanderer and Mommy was (and continues to be) a mean drunk. Hannah, their eldest is a textbook candidate for Al Anonnurturing to the point of being controlling; forever helping, giving and fixing up the problems of both parents and siblings, but refusing to accept help from anyone else. Lee, the middle sister (Hershey) is a recovering alcoholic living with a moody Sweedish artist (Max Von Sydow, who skips out on Thanksgiving at Hannah’s because “I’m at one of those stages where I can’t really be around people.”) Little sister Holly (Wiest), a former coke addict, gamely struggles with launching an acting career, doing a little catering on the side, and looking adorable in her thrift shop/vintage finds.

Hannah’s husband (Michael Caine), feeling unneeded by his capable wife, starts an affair with Lee. Holly falls for, but never lands, a lonely architect. Hannah is puzzled by her husband’s coldness and indifference. Mom keeps drinking and picking fights with Dad.

Meanwhile, Hannah’s first husband, a TV comedy writer played by Allen himself, goes through a medical scare that leaves him searching for meaning and considering becoming a Hare Krishna or a Catholic before he goes on to find the meaning of life in the Marx Brothers’ “Duck Soup.”

And all the while, big band classics (“I’ve Heard that Song Before,” “You Made Me Love You,” “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered”), plus a Bach harpsichord concerto, give us musical clues to the fragile state of the characters’ hearts.

Family drama is generally not Allen’s forte. His more serious attempts at the genre (such as “Interiors” and “September”) are chilly, bloodless affairs where the characters seem more like psychological constructs than people, and their heartbreaks are examined from a cool, intellectual distance. They’re intelligent, but not very involving.

Fortunately “Hannah” is about nine parts comedy to one part drama. Allen abandons his usual Debbie Downer-meets-Ingmar-Bergman style of screenwriting, and lets loose with the kind of self-deprecating wit that we saw in his early films (and the lines he gives to Dianne Wiest and Michael Caine, who both won Oscars, are as good as his own lines. He got a screenwriting Oscar, too.) And this time, Woody gets the family dynamics right. I tend to attribute that to the influence of his then-lover Mia Farrow, and her large extended family. Farrow herself spoke of this in her autobiography, although not favorably: “It was my mother’s stunned, chill reaction to the script that enabled me to see how he had taken many of the personal circumstances and themes of our lives, and, it seemed, had distorted them into cartoonish characterizations.”

Ouch! Well, there is a lot of Farrow’s life in this movie. Her own children play Hannah’s kids (although they’re not seen much except in the Thanksgiving scenes). In fact, her own New York apartment stood in for Hannah’s. There’s another disturbing similarity which Farrow writes about in her book; Caine’s affair with Hannah’s sister in the film seems to mirror Allen’s flirtation and possible affair with Farrow’s own sister.

It’s hard to separate Allen films from his bad offscreen behavior in subsequent years. How do you watch him romance 17-year-old Mariel Hemingway in “Manhattan” or college student Juliette Lewis in “Husbands and Wives” without thinking about Soon Yi? Having read Farrow’s very damning book, it is harder now to watch some of their movies together. But I still like “Hannah and Her Sisters,” if only because it ends so much more optimistically than most Allen films: everyone is in love with his or hew own spouse, broken hearts are mended (“The heart is a resilient little muscle” as Allen memorably observes), family conflicts are resolved, and the future looks bright.

Were it any other director, such a sunny ending might seem trite. From Woody Allen, it’s practically a miracle.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)



Movies I Watch Over and Over: "Tootsie" and "A Midwinter’s Tale"
November 20, 2007, 1:01 am
Filed under: Kenneth Branagh

So, I’m watching the new “AFI Top 100 Movies of All Time” special a few weeks ago, and there at Number 69 is one of my top “comfort flicks” – the Dustin Hoffman cross-dressing comedy “Tootsie.”


And there’s Dustin himself talking about the movie, and unloading the same pile of self-righteous crap that he was ladling out in interviews when “Tootsie” was released 25 years ago. Bear with me here, I’m quoting from memory, so this won’t be verbatim:

“I realized …. that I am an interesting woman. (starts to get a little emotional). And I realized that there are all kinds of interesting women… that I never got to know… because of this (a bit more emotional now) superficial, this outside that didn’t fit the ideal of what I was supposed to be interested in. (Long pause as he struggles to hold back the tears) To me…. that was never a comedy!”

Oh, for the love of God…

Every time Hoffman cranks up his “I understand women” sermon, I begin to wonder if he actually saw the movie he’s talking about. ‘Cause his character, Michael Dorsey, actually walks off into the sunset at the end of the picture…. with JESSICA LANGE! I’m thinkin’ that the fact you can fall in love with an angelically beautiful, non-threatening, doe-eyed blonde probably does NOT, in and of itself, earn you a feminist badge of honor. Your average chauvinistic schmo could do that. (Now if he’d fallen for the middle-aged soap opera producer played by Dorothy Belack, that might be worth the cover of “Ms.”)

And, frankly, it’s not like his female alter ego, Dorothy Michaels, isn’t getting any action. Plenty of men find her more than interesting; by the film’s 11th hour, she’s practically beating ’em off with a stick! (She gets a marriage proposal and a serenade beneath her window on the same night! From two different guys! Ladies, when’s the last time that happened to you?)

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

“Tootsie” is no more about gender politics than “Broadcast News” was about broadcast news. It’s a brilliant romantic comedy, with some delightful observations about actors and what they do for their craft. It’s also a little bit about how badly some men treat women and the reasons women put up with it – but no one is putting on armor and waging a “battle of the sexes” here. Despite what Hoffman says, “Tootsie” is a comedy.

By now, I’m sure most people know the plot: Hoffman’s Michael Dorsey is a notoriously difficult actor, so unemployable that he resorts to dressing in drag and auditioning for the part of a female hospital administrator on a soap opera. He wins the part, and soon falls for his co-star (Lange, who is all sweetness, softness and light). And there begins his dilemma: he has the role of a lifetime, and doesn’t want to risk losing it – but he also wants Lange.

Hoffman is funny as hell, but his Dorsey character is just as much a self-serious blowhard as he is in real life. So thank God there is a terrific cast of supporting actors who balance out his heavy-handedness with a light, goofy touch. Terri Garr, his neurotic actress friend, and Bill Murray, as his deadpan-hilarious playwright roommate are especially funny.

And the writing – oh, God, the writing! It’s intelligent comedy heaven! Written by comedy greats Murray Schisgal and Larry Gelbart (with, according to IMDB, uncredited contributions from Barry Levinson and Elaine May.) That’s a ‘dream team,’ folks. Remember Michael’s outburst to his agent (after being fired from playing a tomato): “I was a stand-up tomato: a juicy, sexy, beefsteak tomato. Nobody does vegetables like me. I did an evening of vegetables off-Broadway. I did the best tomato, the best cucumber… I did an endive salad that knocked the critics on their ass.!”

Of some of Dorothy’s feminist outbursts on the soap opera: (fending off an unwanted kiss from a doctor) “I will run this hospital with my head, not my lips!” Or this advice to a nurse who’s been sexually harassed: “I think I’m gonna give every nurse on this floor an electric cattle prod, and just instruct them to just zap him in his badoobies. ” Ever hear lines like that on “All My Children”?

Come to think of it, Hoffman has a lot of ‘outbursts’ in this movie.


On a kinder, gentler note:

Another lovely, warm-hearted film about actors and what they go through for their craft comes from British director Kenneth Branagh, in one of his (undeservedly) lesser-known efforts.

“A Midwinter’s Tale” is the daft and delightful story of a ragtag little troupe of actors struggling to mount a production of “Hamlet” in an old country church on Christmas Eve.

Shot on a shoestring in black-and-white, with a mostly star-free cast (Joan Collins and Jennifer Saunders have cameos), this film was made just prior to Branagh’s super-sized, 4.5 hour epic film of “Hamlet.” It must have given him a nice, happy little warm-up to the gargantuan task awaiting him. (Many of the actors in “A Midwinter’s Tale” also appear in “Hamlet.”)

I have several years of community theatre acting experience (and one church-basement Shakespeare production, “Henry IV, Part 1,”) behind me, so this movie is a bit nostalgic for me. Ah, the frantic nights spent finishing the set, the actors who never quite learn their lines, the worry that no audience will materialize. Been there, done that. And yet, there is no feeling quite so magical as when the show opens, and everything inexplicably falls into the place: the seats are filled, the laughs come in the right places, the applause happens – it’s just magic.

“A Midwinter’s Tale” is about that magic, but it’s also about the ridiculousness of it all. Noel Coward’s “Why Must the Show Go On?” plays throughout an opening montage of audition scenes which are pretty much on a par with the audition scenes in “Waiting for Guffman,” if not worse. Once the play is cast and rehearsals are underway, Branagh gives pretty much every character a chance to make an ass of themselves, and every possible set/casting/costume/acting mishap to take place. But a happy ending is in store, and every character eventually gets his or her chance to shine.

Branagh’s love for theatre and the people who create it imbues this film with a gentle sweetness of spirit that is hard to resist. “A Midwinter’s Tale” is the perfect little cheerer-upper for anyone’s bleak midwinter.

(Photo credits: Wikipedia.com, sonypictures.com)



Movies I Watch Over and Over" Broadcast News" and "The Awful Truth"
November 18, 2007, 1:33 am
Filed under: Cary Grant, Holly Hunter

When I first saw “Broadcast News” in 1987, it established for me a lifelong ambition: to one day convert an entire room in my home into a closet.

Yes, you read that right. As you may recall, there is a scene in which newswoman Lois Chiles has a frisky tryst with William Hurt, after which Hurt exits the boudoir through Chiles’ closet. Her “closet” is, indeed, an entire room with racks of blouses, dresses, and skirts along every wall, plus a center island topped with hats on Styrofoam heads.

She gets all defensive about it – “Wait till you’ve doing it for fifteen years” (TV news, that is – as opposed to what they’ve been doing for the previous 20 minutes or so), implying that a career in front of the camera leads to a massive accumulation of beautiful things to wear.

Hurt -God bless him! – responds as no other heterosexual man on the planet would be expected to. That is, not by rolling his eyes or sighing in pained confusion, but by gushing “It’s great! You can see everything!”
My sentiments exactly.

Of course, this brief “dream closet” scene is not usually what one first thinks of one when one remembers “Broadcast News,” and it’s not really why I love it so. It’s just a little, frivolous fringe benefit.

What makes “Broadcast News” so repeatedly watchable are the performances of the three leads – Hurt, Holly Hunter and Albert Brooks – and the brilliantly nuanced writing and direction that supports them. I honestly believe that these three characters are some of the most fully realized, complex and full-bodied roles ever committed to celluloid. That they are all charming, funny, sympathetic – and sometimes maddening – in their own peculiar ways is just the icing on the cake.
Take Hunter’s Jane Craig, the quintessential 80s career woman/overachiever. She’s driven, abrasive, often intolerant; yet ample evidence of her vulnerability and potentially very tender heart is always lurking just under the surface. Jane is consumed by her career; her work relationships alone form the core of her emotional life. (But at least she knows there’ something amiss; in a brilliantly conceived bit of funny business, she takes time each day to unplug the phone and have a good, cathartic cry. After which, it’s right back to business.) Hunter is amazing in the way her performance seamlessly integrates all these facets of Jane’s character. Watching her navigate the murky emotional waters of the love triangle in which she becomes tangled is never less than fascinating; yet you’re never thinking (as you sometimes do watching Meryl Streep) “Wow, what a great job that Holly Hunter is doing!” You’re thinking “Wow! That Jane Craig is one messed up creature, but she means well. I wonder what she’ll do next?”
I also think that James Brooks set this character up beautifully. “Broadcast News” opens with three flashback vignettes depicting of each lead character as youngsters. In Jane’s segment, we see her interacting with her father who sports a bearded and a shawl-collared cardigan, looking to be an artist of some sort, or possibly an academic. A modern-looking portrait of him and Jane hangs on the wall. There is no evidence of Jane’s mother anywhere in this scene, and no comment is made about her conspicuous absence. Jane heatedly corrects her father on the precise definition of the word “obsessed,” then with a shrug of affectionate exasperation, she kisses him and strides out of the room. And her determines stride fades directly into a shot of adult Jane on a morning power walk. That little scene tells you everything you need to know about Jane; much more that either of the other vignettes, it set up behaviors and quirks that will be echoed in Hunter’s performance later.

Jane, of course, is loved by Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks). Like Jane he’s too smart for his own good; unlike Jane, he’s never bothered to also develop the necessary social and political smarts to move up the network news career ladder. Overlooked and ignored by the higher-ups, Aaron is constantly and hilariously trying to save face (never more so that when a producer’s daughter fails to recognize him, even though he spent two weeks on a whitewater rafting trip with her family the previous summer.) Brooks shows us everything that is unlikable about Aaron, but we feel for him, because he pines so hopelessly for Jane (and we’ve figured out that she is worth pining for.)
Hurt, of course, is the studly-but-dim sports reporter, Tom Grunick, who gets promoted to the network largely on his charm and looks. Hurt’s performance is every bit as subtle and complex as the other leads; he’s a charmer, but an ethically challenged one. Tom gets by on his ability to “connect” with people. He knows how to project sincerity without actually being sincere, and he makes anyone he talks to feel like the most important and special person in the room. His effortless dishonesty makes us uncomfortable, yet we’d love to have dinner with him. And we can see why and how Jane would fall for him. He’s got both the sexual wiles and the natural warmth that she’s never possessed – but clearly wants to. Theirs is a “Bill and Hilary” scenario, for want of a better simile.
The love story in “Broadcast News” is played out against a diatribe about the decline in the quality and seriousness of television news. That’s all fine (and actually very prescient, given the deplorable state of television news 20 years later), but in the context of romantic comedy, it all seems like so much kerfuffle. It’s the age-old formula of the love triangle (albeit one that doesn’t really work out for any of the characters), that drives this very funny, very intelligent comedy.
One brief note: the only thing I don’t like about watching “Broadcast News” now is revisiting the horrendous career clothing of the 1980s. I entered the post-collegiate workforce in 1981, so the outfits these characters wear provide uncomfortable flashbacks to my own working wardrobe. The ginormous shoulder pads! The wide-belted, ankle-skimming skirts, topped by long sweaters! The white panty hose paired with white heels! It’s like a bad acid trip down memory lane.

I can’t think of a better way to wrap up a bleary, blustery weekend than watching my favorite Cary Grant comedy “The Awful Truth.” So it’s just my luck that Turner Classic Movies has it scheduled for tomorrow night (8 pm EST).

Cary Grant was paired with some formidable leading ladies in the screwball comedy era (Katherine Hepburn, Rosalind Russell), but my favorite Grant leading lady is indisputably Irene Dunne. She is every inch a lady, yet she has the subversive soul of a madcap sprite. And she is hilarious in this film. I can’t wait to see her masquerading as Grant’s slatternly sister and belting out her ribald rendition of “Gone with the Wind” to Grant’s unamused prospective in-laws. Ralph Bellamy is also on hand as the innocent Oklahoman rube who falls for Dunne, and his dance scene with her in the nightclub is laugh-out-loud funny.

Do yourself a favor and tune in to this!

(Photo credits: Wikipedia, carygrant.net)



Movies I Watch Over and Over: "Four Weddings and a Funeral"
November 15, 2007, 11:07 pm
Filed under: British Comedy, Richard Curtis, Romantic Comedies

Yikes, has it really been five days since I last posted here? Time is slipping away from me. The days are getting shorter and colder. More blustery wind, more darkness. This is the time of year when it’s good to snuggle under a soft blanket with a cup of hot chocolate and lose yourself in a favorite movie.

There are some movies which, for me, are “comfort flicks” – feel-good movies I watch again and again on days when both the skies and my spirits are bleak and gray. Over the next few days, I’ll be talking about some of those “comfort flicks.”

First off:

Maybe it’s because I’m an Anglophile.

Maybe it’s because it was here I first glimpsed – and developed a lasting, movie-star crush on – Hugh Grant.

Or maybe, it’s because any movie that opens with someone rolling over in bed, looking at the alarm clock, and then suddenly sitting bolt upright and yelling “F-U-U-U-C-K!” is my kind of movie. (This being an epithet I frequently shout at my alarm clock, whether it goes off on time or not.)

I first saw “Four Weddings and a Funeral” as part of an outing with an Indianapolis “Film Appreciation” club. We were the kind of group that normally gathered to see foreign and art films, which was how “Four Weddings” was initially marketed in this country. Many of the actors were new to me, the humor – romantic and ironic all at once – was fresh. I loved it, and it quickly became one of those rare movies I’d actually drag friends to see. I wasted no time obtaining the VHS tape when it became available, and I immediately traded up to the 10th anniversary DVD when it released in 2004.

And now, 13 years after my first viewing, I still pull out “Four Weddings and a Funeral” on gloomy afternoons when I need something to smile about. Like “Annie Hall,” which I wrote about last week, it has many classic, funny moments that are like touchstones for me, guaranteed cheerer-uppers. For starters, everything at that opening wedding is a hoot – from the hippie couple who serenade the congregation with a Barry Manilow tune to the bridal couple’s first dance (to “Crocodile Rock,” no less.) It’s a whole montage of cringe-worthy wedding moments so universal that even Americans can appreciate their awfulness. And yet, there is the toast that Hugh Grant delivers at the reception. It perfectly encapsulates the tone of the entire film: a touching reflection on the elusiveness and wonder of true love, wrapped in bawdy, schoolboy humor.

Grant, of course, is a dreamboat from start to finish – stammering delivery, floppy hair and all. I like that he’s shown wearing spectacles (reminiscent of Cary Grant in “Bringing Up Baby”) at times when his character is particularly vulnerable. Andie MacDowell, on the other hand, is considerably less than you’d want in a romantic comedy heroine; she has a penchant for truly awful line readings (the final scene’s “Is it still raining? I hadn’t noticed.” being the classic example) and no real comedy chops. But there is enough magic in the air -what with the buoyant silliness of the writing, and the delightful performances of Kristin Scott Thomas, Thomas Fleet, Charlotte Coleman, John Hannah and Simon Callow -to keep even MacDowell’s leaden presence from putting a dent in the souffle.

This movie, like many British TV shows and later movies that I also love, was written by Richard Curtis. It was his first big hit, and led to “Notting Hill” and “Love Actually,” among others.

I’ve read that Curtis is not much liked in his native Britain, that his films are derided for the unreality of how his privileged-class characters hobnob companionably with those of humbler origins. I’m not sure when realistic depictions of the social strata became a requirement for romantic comedy, let alone realism of any kind. Personally, I like that the fact that, in “Four Weddings,” Grant’s upper middle class character shares a flat with the cheerfully disheveled, decidedly downmarket Scarlet, and that their friendship is depicted without comment. That the seventh richest man in Britain and his sister (Fleet and Scott Thomas) are close friends with a flamboyantly gay escapee from the grimy working classes (Callow), and no one bats an eye

For that matter, I love Curtis’ films because of the realities they do get right.

First of all, in a Curtis film, every character is shown living in the sort of unremarkable home he or she would actually be able to afford in real life.

(That may seem a strange thing to praise, but I think it’s worth noting. Just try to recall the last time you saw the leads of an American romantic comedy living in houses or apartments that weren’t impeccably grand and decorated to within an inch of their lives. Nothing coming to mind? Join the club! I’ve lost count of how many times the real estate has upstaged the actors in the films of writer/director Nancy Meyers (“The Holiday,” “Something’s Got to Give”). Or Woody Allen, for that matter.)

Furthermore, Curtis’ single characters who live in London tend to have roommates, even characters who seem a bit past the age when one usually has roommates. London is a very expensive city, so it makes perfect sense that its single denizens would need someone to split the living expenses. Who’s out of touch with economic reality now?

Finally, Curtis understands -as few other writers do – how single people form familial bonds within their network of friends. In “Four Weddings,” as well as “Notting Hill,” the single protagonists may be yearning for love, but they’re far from pathetic. They’re part of a reliable, close-knit circle of companions, and they never have to recover from their romantic setbacks in solitude. As a single adult who’s been blessed with a supportive network of friends, I find it cheering to see this depicted as the healthy norm, rather than the exception. (TV shows, like “Friends” and “Sex in the City” have the time to get this right; films seldom do.)

But I’m getting way too serious here – “Four Weddings and a Funeral” is a film I love most when it is silliest. If a benediction is order by way of wrapping this post up, I’ll simply quote Rowan Atkinson’s nervous priest character and say “May God bless us all. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spigot”!