Oct 27, 2017

Book Review--Seduced by Mrs. Robinson: How The Graduate Became the Touchstone of a Generation

Seduced by Mrs. Robinson: How The Graduate Became the Touchstone of a Generation
Beverly Gray
Algonquin Books, 2017

I had a great time reading Seduced by Mrs. Robinson, a new book by Beverly Gray that traces the production of Director Mike Nichol’s classic film The Graduate (1967) on its 50th anniversary. Though I have heard stories about the making of this movie for years, in reading this lively history I’ve learned how much richer, entertaining and even touching the full story is.

Gray was a college student when the film was released and well understands the youthful angst that inspired her generation to embrace it. As a longtime part of the entertainment industry, including ten years working with Roger Corman, she brings industry savvy and connections to her story. In addition to looking at the film’s effect through her own lens, she explores that of other generations, mindsets and cultures.

The book is divided into three parts: a production history, plot rehash and analysis of the film’s effect on society. I most enjoyed the first part, which was full of behind-the-scenes tidbits, including the new-to-me fact that Eddra Gale, the quirky actress who played seaside temptress La Saraghina in Fellini’s 8 ½ (1963) made a
cameo appearance in a bus scene (not that bus scene), and that the filmmakers deemed her appearance significant enough to give her a credit. The blow-by-blow of the plot in the middle of the book felt unnecessary, though Gray does offer some interesting commentary. Objectively, the final section, with its expansive review of The Graduate phenomena and the impact it has had over the last five decades is the strongest and most thought provoking.

Gray writes in a lightly humorous tone, weaving a diverse array of facts and anecdotes into an airy, enjoyable read. It is for the most part an upbeat history, though there are some sober moments, including memories of Nichol's heartbreaking childhood and the way his feelings of being an outsider led him to choose the emphatically non-WASP Dustin Hoffman to play a privileged Californian loafer. For the most part it appears that The Graduate brought joy to most who were involved with the production in addition to being almost universally beloved among audiences.

Another bit of trivia about the cultural effect of The Graduate that amused me was learning about this commercial Dustin Hoffman made for Audi that riffs on the famous final scene of the movie. Meant for overseas audiences, it doesn’t make a lot of sense, but I thought it was sweet:

Many thanks to Algonquin Books for providing a copy of the book for review.

Oct 25, 2017

Blu-ray Review: Rod Steiger and Claire Bloom in The Illustrated Man (1969)

The Illustrated Man (1960) is trilogy of terror-tinged sci-fi tales drawn from Ray Bradbury’s eighteen story anthology of the same name. Rod Steiger stars as the titular tattooed drifter in a framing story with Robert Drivas and then-wife Claire Bloom, and in various roles in the stories which his skin art describes. This eerie film has now made its debut on Warner Archive Blu-ray.

In the framing story, Steiger comes upon fellow wanderer Drivas, whom he frightens with his bullying demeanor and the shock of what was at the time considered a freakish number of tattoos covering his body. He begins to tell the younger man the story of what he calls his “skin illustrations”, which were inked by the enigmatic Felicia (Claire Bloom) in her isolated rural home.

The Bradbury stories that follow: The Veldt, The Long Rain and The Last Night in the World oddly don’t capture the writer’s imagination. While there are some fascinating concepts here, they are limply developed. The first is the scariest, set in a future where a children’s virtual reality game inspires sadism and violence. Though the others have a compelling sense of dread, they don’t do much to justify their existence.

Steiger’s sweaty, angry performance lacks subtlety, but he’s one of those actors who manage to hold your attention even when flying off the rails. He’s an unsettling match for Drivas, who has a shifty look that belies his role as an innocent youth down on his luck. You see a past of shameful deeds in those guilty eyes.

Claire Bloom savors her various roles with more elegance. She is smoothly evil as the skin illustrator, with the look of a woman who relishes the trouble she can cause. She has the appearance of threat lingering just below the surface of that coldly serene smile, like she’s hiding a pair of vampire’s fangs.

While the film could have used a stronger directorial hand and more developed script, it has its intriguing moments. The performances have more force than the production itself and the novelty of the set design and costumes add some interest. There's also a great futuristic tinge to the soundtrack in the Veldt sequence. It’s a misstep, but an interesting stumble.

Special features on the Blu-ray include a theatrical trailer and a fascinating featurette, filmed at the time of shooting, which shows the exacting process of applying Steiger’s fake tattoos and a brief glimpse at the actor and wife Bloom behind the scenes. 

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Oct 19, 2017

Book Review--The Legendary Partnership of Wayne and Ford

Wayne and Ford: The Films, The Friendship and The Forging of an American Hero
Nancy Schoenberger
Doubleday Books/Nan A. Talese, 2017

John Wayne and John Ford are legends of American cinema. Both together and apart they made some of the most magnetic films Hollywood had to offer, but it is unlikely they would have reached the heights they did if they hadn't found each other. In a new book Nancy Shoenberger explores the life, work and relationship of these complex, influential men, focusing attention on the way they interpreted and communicated masculinity.

I was drawn to Wayne and Ford because I liked the way Schoenberger handled dual biography in her 2011 tome Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and the Marriage of the Century. Here she tackles a less tumultuous, but similarly layered relationship. There's less heat, but plenty of intrigue.

Of the 200 films Wayne made in his long career, only 69 would be westerns, but they were his most significant roles, and mostly due to his work with Ford. Likewise, the director, who even somewhat ironically referred to himself as a maker of westerns approached many genres successfully, but found his greatest success making fantasies of masculinity and honor in the Monument Valley with his greatest star.

Wayne and Ford charts the simultaneously abusive and familial nature of their relationship. Though Ford inspired loyalty in his actors, who felt he gave them the artistic success they craved, he was a harsh and sadistic taskmaster. The director saved the worst of his abuse for Wayne, who always took it without complaint, even when he reached the heights of his success. Nevertheless, their bond was lifelong and both could depend on each other for help throughout their careers, whether or not it was requested.

Schoenberger looks for insight into this unusual relationship by digging into their personal lives and films. As both men often had great control over the way their movies were made, they were often a reflection of who they were. Despite the differences in their personalities and relationships, in their cinematic explorations of love, duty and what it is to be a man, the two are found to have similar values.

While there was not much that was new to me here, having read individual biographies of Wayne and Ford, being able to focus on their bond and films helped me to better understand the influence they had on each other and their public. In Wayne, Ford saw much that he wanted to be, and in a way he resented his manly physicality. The actor may not have understood this, but he was always aware that the director had essentially made his career after a decade of making cowboy flicks for kids and it is possible he never thought to think past that reality.

In the end, John Ford and John Wayne are only two humans, who lived their lives and passed on, and yet it is endlessly compelling to speculate about these complex men. Wayne and Ford is to be relished because it takes great care and enjoyment in that pursuit.

Many thanks to Doubleday Books/Nan A. Talese for providing a copy of the book for review.

Oct 17, 2017

Blu-ray Review: Charisse and Kelly in Brigadoon (1954)

The MGM production of the Learner and Lowe musical Brigadoon (1954) is a mixed bag, overwhelmed by inelegant artifice, but not without its moments of misty magic. Cyd Charisse, Gene Kelly and Van Johnson lead a pleasantly quirky cast, directed by Vincente Minnelli. The film is now available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive, with the welcome addition of three musical numbers from the show, that were edited from the final cut, in the special features.

Kelly and Johnson play a pair of American tourists who are in the midst of an unsuccessful hunting trip in the Scottish highlands. They come upon a curiously old-fashioned village, which they learn comes to life one day every century. They have arrived on the day of a wedding and become involved in all the drama and romance that entails.

As MGM's baseline was uniformly high during its musical heyday, Brigadoon has much going for it. Minnelli captures a dreamy, romantic mood, the cast is vibrant and jolly, and the musical numbers are executed with slick efficiency. It doesn’t always keep a steady momentum, but it moves well enough.

However, this screen adaptation of the Broadway sensation never quite finds its heart. As beautiful as it can be, it never feels as lush as it should. This is primarily due to studio insistence that the film be made on a soundstage instead of the outdoor locations it clearly needs to work as cinema. It is hard to enjoy Kelly and Charisse swooping around plaster rocks and painted backdrops when you know how magical it would be in the open air.

Kathryn Grayson was originally cast to play Charisse's role, and if she had, perhaps the musical would have been more focused on its strong point: the gorgeous score. Though it has its acrobatic moments, Brigadoon is best as a singing show. Though it was logical to bring more dance numbers into the production with Charisse and Kelly as leads, it doesn’t suit the spirit of of the production. Watching Johnson and Kelly break into a tap number in an otherworldly Scottish village gives you the feeling they have dropped into the wrong film.

While Minnelli for the most part films his cast to advantage, his staging of the musical numbers lacks impact. Too often he goes for a wide shot filled with rocks, trees and fake heather, making you work to focus on the players stranded in the middle of the screen. The moments in the score that should hit you with swelling emotion get lost, slipping away without payoff.

Part of this is also due to the cast, which with its dancing focus simply can’t do justice to the swooning romance of the score. It might have worked better on the soundstage if it had featured artists who could have mined the music for its full emotional impact: like Kathryn Grayson or Jane Powell singing in close-up with Howard Keel. It could have been magical if they’d been able to film that kind of combination on location.

Charisse and Kelly have their swoony moments though, even if they aren’t entirely suited to the material. Brigadoon should satisfy those who enjoy the pair together. Johnson is also enjoyably prickly, taking his cheerful young man persona in an interesting direction.

I always thought it was a shame that the tender Come to Me, Bend to Me didn’t make it into the film and was thrilled to see the outtake for that number in the special features. Also included are From This Day On, Sword Dance and an audio outtake for There but for You Go I. The Blu-ray image quality is solid, capturing the rich colors of the production.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Oct 11, 2017

Book Review--Anne Bancroft: A Life

Anne Bancroft: A Life
Douglass K. Daniel
University Press of Kentucky, 2017

Though she acted for decades, on the stage, screen and television, Anne Bancroft will forever be known as Mrs. Robinson. That role in The Graduate (1967) ensured her immortality. A best actress Oscar for The Miracle Worker (1962) added mainstream respectability to the mix, but there is so much more to the life and career of this unusually dedicated actress. From her screen debut in 1952, Bancroft worked steadily, never becoming a huge star, but nevertheless building a reputation as one of the best actresses of her generation. In her first full-length biography, Douglass Daniel tells the whole story, revealing the professional and personal details of this complex, compassionate and fascinating woman.

Bronx-born Bancroft’s career was filled with near misses. She almost starred on the stage in Funny Girl, she was close to filling the role that Suzanne Pleshette played in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, and that pattern continued until she more easily fell into character parts in her later years. While there were various reasons for losing these gigs, including her own high standards, it was often because she didn’t have the box office clout or star image to convince producers she could sell a film. Though Bancroft thrilled Broadway, television and film audiences with Emmy, Tony and Oscar winning performances, she continually found she had to hustle for roles.

Her flashiest triumphs aside, Bancroft wasn’t a major star. She was an actress and a particularly dedicated one at that. If there is any common thread in Daniel’s book, it is that she took her craft seriously and approached it with integrity. Maybe stardom could bring better roles, but the quality of her material and her performance were always more important.

As much as Bancroft craved and thrived living the actor’s life, she valued her family equally, if not more, and often made her personal life a priority. One of the most pleasing elements of the book is the way it explores her relationship with her second husband Mel Brooks. While this pairing of comedian and dramatic actress always seemed to puzzle the public, their marriage is one of the great Hollywood love stories. The pair was steadfastly devoted, living with compassion for each other, working around hectic schedules to be together and celebrating each other’s successes without a hint of jealousy.

The same is true of their son Max. Bancroft loved her much-desired only child to the point of smothering him, though she usually stopped short of such excesses. When she learned that Max had a learning disability, the actress put her career on hold so that she could ensure he got the proper guidance. Judging from the young Brooks’ successful writing career, she was effective. While Max was young, Anne worked little and favored projects that would allow her to return home at night. She even recorded herself reading bedtime stories so that her son would be read to sleep on those nights she couldn’t make it home.

That loyalty and devotion extended to Bancroft’s professional life. She was steadfast in her methods and professional demeanor. The many former co-stars and directors quoted in the book had a similar story to tell: that she had a laser focus on her work and approached each role with serious intensity, that she was not always up for making friends, but that she also never put on the airs of a star and could be counted on to help another actor shape a performance, sometimes saving a co-worker’s job in the process.

As Bancroft avoided the wild side of the Hollywood lifestyle and its pitfalls, she never suffered the effects of living too hard. Free of drugs and alcohol, excessive toxic relationships and poor financial decisions, she had the resources and grounding to be choosy about her work and flourished because of it.

Daniel takes a straightforward approach to telling Bancroft’s story, easily weaving together the personal and the professional. Given the wealth of material he has gotten from his sources, he wisely avoids adding his own analysis of the actress and lets her friends and associates fill out the details of her personality. The result is a rich, authentic portrait which effectively captures her essence.

Many thanks to the University Press of Kentucky for providing a copy of the book for review.

Oct 3, 2017

Documentary--Rod Taylor: Pulling No Punches (2016)

It's long baffled me that Rod Taylor isn't more revered by classic film fans, because as an actor and as a star, he had everything. Handsome, versatile and just as talented as the other top actors of his era, he could have coasted on swoon appeal, but always had a lot more to offer. In the Robert de Young-directed documentary, Pulling No Punches, the actor has his say and is lauded by his peers, biographer, industry associates and filmmakers. The attention is long overdue.

Pulling No Punches is built around a series of interviews with Taylor that the filmmakers conducted in late 2012, less than three years before his death in January 2015. The film could have succeeded solely on the strength of the actor's funny, energetic and bluntly honest reminiscing; he's a great storyteller, always leaving you wanting more. Though he is no longer as pretty as in his heyday, he's still incredibly sexy, because he is confident and witty in that endearingly open way that seems to be a unique trait of Australians.

I like the kinetic energy of the film that was built around these interviews. With retro graphics, smoothly paced editing and a snappy soundtrack, its rhythm interestingly mirrors Taylor's live wire, but suave persona. While it does eventually dig into Taylor's start in the industry, it begins by diving right into Sunday in New York (1963), swooping through film clips and talking head interviews like a reader flipping to the good parts.

That momentum is maintained throughout the film, which covers the basics, but goes at those details in an unconventional way, touching on films here and there, unfolding in an essentially chronological order, but with great focus on keeping the proceedings lively. As Taylor's career was all over the map, I can't think of a better approach to his filmography. It would be very difficult to cover the scope of his many achievements, but by zooming in on a variety of roles and experiences, the film covers a surprising amount of territory in less than an hour and a half.

It's almost comical to see the way Tippi Hedren, Veronica Cartwright and Angela Lansbury still swoon over Taylor in their interviews, decades after working with him. They see the magnetic and manly, but not macho appeal that seems to have been lost on many and, as two-time costar Maggie Smith notes, the seemingly effortless way he was able to work on set and build a character. Maybe Pulling No Punches will broaden the cult of Taylor. Once you join it, your heart never stops palpitating, but I recommend it heartily and this film is a good explanation as to why.

Many thanks to the Inkwell Films for providing access to the film.