A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Peace Be With You

On his blog yesterday, Kevin Drum commented on a British study that questions the efficacy of antidepressants, particularly SSRIs such as fluoxetine (Prozac) and paroxetine (Paxil). Apparently the study is a headline maker in the British press, yet it has attracted very little attention over here. Kevin wonders why the American press hasn't picked up on it -- with a veiled implication that the influence of Big Pharma may have something to do with it. The blogpost brought forth a long, long string of comments, many of which are worth reading.

Now, I'm no friend of the pharmaceutical industry. But I have great reason to question the accuracy of this study. It may be that a placebo would have curtailed the anxiety attacks that were making my life hellish (and me even less pleasant to be around), but I'm perfectly happy to credit paroxetine with helping me knit up the raveled sleeve of care. I do hope the American press takes a look at this study and questions its assumptions (the Brits seem to be endorsing it). But asking the American press to do anything these days is like asking a drowning man to smile for the camera.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Oscar Week cont'd: Forty Years Ago


I was maybe more in tune with the day's big hoopla with this review that ran in the Washington Post today:

PICTURES AT A REVOLUTION: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood
By Mark Harris
The Penguin Press, 496 pp., $27.95

Oscar plays it safe. You can trust the Academy to pick a “Forrest Gump” over a “Pulp Fiction,” an “Ordinary People” over a “Raging Bull,” or a “Kramer vs. Kramer” over an “Apocalypse Now.”

Or a well-made, socially conscious melodrama like “In the Heat of the Night” over groundbreaking movies like “Bonnie and Clyde” and “The Graduate.” That’s part of the story that Mark Harris tells in his richly fascinating book, “Pictures at a Revolution,” which focuses on the five nominees for best picture in 1968 – the other two were “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and “Doctor Dolittle.”

The conventional way of writing about five movies would be to devote a section of the book to each. But Harris does something more difficult and far more illuminating: He weaves together the stories of how each movie was conceived, crafted, released, critiqued and received. He writes about the five or six years in which the filmmakers, some of them old pros and some of them rank novices, struggled with a studio system in collapse, an audience whose tastes and enthusiasms seemed wildly unpredictable, and a culture being transformed by volatile social and political forces.

A few figures dominate Harris’ narrative – writers Robert Benton, David Newman and Robert Towne; actor-producer Warren Beatty; producers Lawrence Turman, Stanley Kramer and Arthur P. Jacobs; studio heads Jack Warner and Richard Zanuck; directors Mike Nichols, Norman Jewison and Arthur Penn; actors Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Dustin Hoffman, Rod Steiger, Rex Harrison and Sidney Poitier. The book has what Hollywood publicists used to brag about: a cast of thousands.

Poitier figures in the stories of three of the movies – "In the Heat of the Night" and "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," in which he acted, and "Doctor Dolittle," in which he was cast in a featured role until its chaotic filming led to his being written out of the script. He had become an unexpected star – in 1967, Harris tells us, “Box Office magazine … rated Poitier as the fifth biggest star in Hollywood, ahead of Sean Connery and Steve McQueen. His drawing power was a shock to an industry that had, until recently, treated his employment in movies as something akin to an act of charity.”

But at the same time, a “rift had grown between Poitier and a younger, more militant black cultural intelligentsia” that mocked him as an Uncle Tom. The author of one of these denunciations, Clifford Mason, now admits that he “jumped all over Sidney because I wanted him to be Humphrey Bogart when he was really Cary Grant,” but he persists in his criticism of the “role that Sidney always played – the black person with dignity who worries about the white people’s problems – you don’t play that part over and over unless you’re comfortable with that kind of suffering.”

Racial tensions and the protest against the war in Vietnam played a large role in shaping these movies. Harris, a writer and former editor for Entertainment Weekly, not only demonstrates how the filmmakers responded to social and political change, but he also has a working knowledge of the film industry that allows him to elaborate on how a colossal flop like “Doctor Dolittle” came about (and how it could be nominated for a best picture Oscar over better-received movies such as “In Cold Blood,” “Cool Hand Luke” and “Two for the Road”). Its producers were inspired by the smash success of “My Fair Lady,” “Mary Poppins” and “The Sound of Music.”

“Historically,” Harris comments, “the only event more disruptive to the industry’s ecosystem than an unexpected flop is an unexpected smash, and, caught off guard by the sudden arrival of more revenue than they thought their movies could ever bring in, the major studios resorted to three old habits: imitation, frenzied speculation, and panic.” Imitation was the first impetus behind “Doctor Dolittle” – Alan Jay Lerner, Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews were the talents the producers sought for the film, but they wound up with only one of them. The panic came later – a good deal, but not all, of it caused by the irascible and demanding Harrison, whom Harris presents as a man filled with "anger and paranoia." Among other things, Harrison was an anti-Semite, which led to confrontations with his co-star Anthony Newley, whom he disparaged "sometimes to his face, as a 'Jewish comic' or a 'cockney Jew.' "

Harris has created what seems likely to be one of the classics of popular film history, useful to dedicated students of film and cultural historians, and also to trivia buffs. (Did you know that Beatty’s original choices to play Bonnie and Clyde were his sister, Shirley MacLaine, and Bob Dylan?) Harris writes with a wit that’s sly, not show-offy. He can encapsulate the woes of shooting “Doctor Dolittle” in four words: “The rhinoceros got pneumonia.” And he can slip in a bit of insider humor with a reference to Newley’s then-wife, Joan Collins, who “reentered the Hollywood social scene she loved with the vigor of an Olympic athlete” – the syntax leaving it up to the reader to decide whether the prepositional phrase modifies “reentered” or “loved.”

Indeed, almost the only complaint about “Pictures at a Revolution” is that, except for an “Epilogue” that briefly sums up the later careers of the major figures, it ends at the Oscar ceremony. You want Harris to go on, to talk about how the success of “Bonnie and Clyde” and “The Graduate” also caused the studios to resort to their old habits of “imitation, frenzied speculation, and panic.”

And there were other consequences: “Kramer vs. Kramer” now seems like little more than a well-made domestic drama, while the film that it defeated for the best picture in 1979, Francis Ford Coppola’s audacious mess of a movie, “Apocalypse Now,” is regarded as a classic. “Kramer vs. Kramer” also won Oscars for its writer and director, Robert Benton, one of the writers of “Bonnie and Clyde,” and for Dustin Hoffman, who had become a movie star in “The Graduate.” In eleven years, Benton and Hoffman had gone from being icons of a film revolution to pillars of the establishment. That’s the way things work in Hollywood. If you can’t beat ’em, assimilate ’em.

Slick Willie

A busy Sunday. First, the Dallas Morning News published my review of Willie Brown's new memoir:

BASIC BROWN: My Life and Our Times
By Willie Brown
Simon & Schuster, 332 pp., $26

When you’ve lived in Texas, politics in almost any other state seems tame. That’s true even of California, despite the occasional movie star turned politico. Which may be why the two most colorful politicians in recent California history came from Texas.

The first was Jesse Unruh, a corpulent good ol’ boy known as “Big Daddy,” who ruled the California State Assembly as speaker for eight years in the 1960s, and became a power broker in the national Democratic Party. Unruh grew up in a sharecropper family in the Panhandle town of Swenson and made his way west to Los Angeles as a teenager. A brilliant manipulator of people and money, Unruh is famous for two statements, one of them “Money is the mother’s milk of politics.” The other, quoted here in an expurgated version, is his advice to his fellow legislators: “If you can’t take the lobbyists’ money, eat their food, drink their booze, sleep with their women, and then vote against them, you don’t belong here.”

And then there’s the Machiavelli of Mineola, Willie Lewis Brown Jr., who approvingly quotes both of those statements by Unruh in “Basic Brown,” his engaging and sometimes outrageous memoir. Mr. Brown was born in segregation as well as poverty. His mother, the granddaughter of a slave, worked as a cook for a Dallas family, 80 miles away; she came home to Mineola only on weekends. In 1951, at the age of 17, Mr. Brown went to San Francisco to live with his uncle. Thirteen years later, he was elected to the California State Assembly, where Unruh became one of his acknowledged mentors. Most politicians, Mr. Brown says, “just want to do deals. I learned from Unruh that you could shape the game itself.” He followed in Unruh’s steps and became speaker in 1980, serving in that position until 1995. In 1996 he was elected mayor of San Francisco, and served until 2004.

Mr. Brown, one of the most prominent African-American politicians, tells us proudly, “I have never run for an assembly seat in a district that was more than 15 percent black.” But he is typically shrewd about the role of race in politics, observing that “as a black politician, you’re constantly having to spend energy to integrate yourself into the minds of white power brokers as a real, pure force of politics. You also have to spend as much time reintegrating yourself into the black community.” It’s a dynamic one can readily witness in the campaign of Barack Obama.

“Basic Brown” was compiled by San Francisco newspaper columnist P.J. Corkery from months of Saturday morning breakfast-table conversations. But Mr. Corkery is little more than an amanuensis: The voice here is unmistakably – for anyone who has witnessed him over the years – that of Willie Brown, right down to the references to himself as “Willie Brown,” which he does as frequently as Sen. Robert Dole used to invoke “Bob Dole.”

The epithet for Mr. Brown has always been “flamboyant.” Certainly, few American politicians have ever flaunted it the way he did: the $5,000 Italian suits from high-end clothier Wilkes Bashford, the Porsche that he used to make the 90-mile trip between San Francisco and Sacramento in about an hour (after making sure the Highway Patrol knew his license-plate number), the string of beautiful girlfriends. (He and his wife have been married for 50 years, but separated for 25.)

With visibility comes vulnerability, but “Basic Brown” is all about how his opponents – from the good-government organization Common Cause to the Republicans (and some Democrats) to the FBI – never laid a glove on him. It’s a lively saga with an underpinning of seriousness. For Mr. Brown, who now runs his own institute on politics and public service, essentially a consultancy for politicians, believes in making government work – even if you have to ignore, bend or break a few rules to do so.

Some of the book’s most entertaining anecdotes have to do with his mayoralty, trying to solve the myriad problems of an often fractious city. Those on the right who seem to think that liberals move in totalitarian lockstep apparently don’t know liberal San Francisco, where no cause lacks a constituency and at least two factions that oppose it. Mr. Brown tells how he succeeded in achieving a modicum of consensus, but also why he occasionally failed to solve problems that range from the treatment of the homeless to the demands of the 49ers for a new football stadium.

All politics is local, they say, and some of the political maneuvers in “Basic Brown” may not engage readers outside of California. But the book is full of delights not only for political junkies and policy wonks but also for the general reader. There’s a very funny chapter, for example, on dressing for political success, in which he critiques a few of his fellow politicos, such as Sen. Dianne Feinstein: “While she never looks sloppy, she sometimes looks hit or miss, as if she were caught between seasons.” (You can see here why Mr. Brown was so popular with the gay community: He was fabulous, and he can dish.)

Politicians worry about their legacies, and “Basic Brown” is its author’s attempt to preserve his own. But Willie Brown’s legacy consists not so much in his achievements – which were substantial – as it does of his legend. He succeeded in having it his own way, and becoming what he set out to be: “a real, pure force of politics.”
_____

Brown's flamboyance is always noted. His shrewd good sense? Not so much. So here's a bit of an interview with Brown by Charlie Rose:

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Techie and the Detective

Mark Coggins is a technophile whose hero is a technophobe -- San Francisco private eye August Riordan, who has appeared in four novels (so far) that Coggins wrote in his off-hours from his day job as a computer engineer and high-tech company executive.

This is my brief profile of Coggins, which recently appeared in Stanford Magazine:

Mark Coggins had a eureka moment—a career-defining experience, as it turned out—in his freshman creative writing class. To demonstrate prose style, professor Tobias Wolff read aloud the opening of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. Coggins, “enraptured,” went out to read all the Chandler he could find—and followed up with Wolff’s suggestion that he also check out Dashiell Hammett.


Coggins, ’79, MS ’88, has created four novels about San Francisco private detective August Riordan, the most recent of which is Runoff (Bleak House Books). Riordan was born in another Stanford creative writing class, taught by Stegner fellow Ron Hansen. Coggins wrote a short story centering on Riordan, “There’s No Such Thing as Private Eyes,” that Hansen encouraged him to try to publish. It eventually appeared in The New Black Mask, a quarterly anthology of detective fiction.

Coggins’s undergraduate degree was in international relations, with a
specialty in Soviet studies. He developed an interest in computers and went to work for Hewlett-Packard after getting his master’s. He kept up his writing, however, and began another story that became his first novel, The Immortal Game (Poltroon Press, 1999).

Like most computer people in Silicon Valley, Coggins has moved from company to company, and now is senior vice president for engineering at Actuate in San Mateo. His day jobs inspired a second August Riordan mystery, Vulture Capital (Poltroon Press), published in 2002. Candy From Strangers (Bleak House) followed in 2006.

Coggins admits that he had Clint Eastwood, a jazz aficionado, in mind when he created Riordan, who is, he says, something of a “throwback”—a jazz bassist who drives a battered Ford Galaxie 500 and is a hard-core technophobe. (Until Runoff, Riordan could not even be persuaded to carry a cell phone.) Riordan prowls the noir San Francisco turf that was once the province of Hammett’s Sam Spade. The Flood building, where Riordan has his office, once housed the Pinkerton Agency where Hammett worked as a detective.

But if Spade is the archetypal hard-boiled detective, Riordan is only medium-boiled. “He’s not as competent as Spade, or as successful, or as smooth,” Coggins says. Riordan’s closest sidekick, Chris Duckworth, is a cross-dressing gay man who has the computer skills Riordan lacks. One doubts that Spade, who notoriously roughed up Joel Cairo and Wilmer the gunsel, would approve of Chris.

In Runoff, Riordan investigates a case of election fraud in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Like all the Riordan tales, it’s packed with local color—which Coggins, a photographer, illustrates in black and white. Each novel has a slide show of his deftly atmospheric photographs of San Francisco and Bay Area places where the stories occur. They can be seen on his Web site, www.immortalgame.com.

Runoff centers on the rigging of electronic voting machines. To get the details right, Coggins consulted Stanford computer science professor David L. Dill, an expert on voting technology. Riordan also consults a Stanford professor in Runoff, but Coggins insists the character in the book isn’t modeled on Dill: “It’s actually me—a self-portrait.”

Coggins has tried out another character, Vic Lane, in a story set in 1920s San Francisco that was published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. He likes the period setting and sees the potential for a novel about Lane. But Riordan seems likely to live on, too. Coggins, negotiating a two-book contract with his publisher, is working on The Dead Beat Scroll, in which Riordan investigates the theft of a hitherto unknown manuscript by Jack Kerouac.

There’s always the possibility that Hollywood will come calling—again. The Immortal Game was optioned for the movies, and a screenplay was written, but the project never came to fulfillment. Coggins says the producers of the would-be film had suggested Riordan be played by Jeff Goldblum, Chris Noth or—the choice favored by Coggins’s wife, Linda Zhou—Denis Leary.

Coggins wryly notes that not all of his experiences in Stanford’s creative writing classes were as fruitful as those with Wolff and Hansen. In one class, he developed a crush on the instructor. “A lot of my stories for her class were thinly veiled fantasies about me and her. She never said anything about it in our story conferences.” When the instructor’s next novel appeared, he says, “I bought it. There’s a character in it, a lecherous professor, and his name is Coggins. I guess that was her revenge.”

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Oscar Week cont'd: Star Power

If winning an Oscar were all it took to make someone a star, then Paul Lukas, Ernest Borgnine, F. Murray Abraham and Louise Fletcher would have risen higher in the Hollywood firmament than Tom Cruise, Harrison Ford, Cary Grant and Greta Garbo. But on the other hand it's also true that it doesn't hurt to be a star when you're up for the award: It's what gave John Wayne the edge over a talented newcomer like Jon Voight in 1969, or Julia Roberts over such skilled contenders as Laura Linney and Joan Allen in 2000.

And it may also explain why Ingrid Bergman won three acting Oscars, a record surpassed only by Katharine Hepburn and tied only by Jack Nicholson. When Bergman won for Gaslight, was she really that much better than Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, or just a bigger box office draw? Isn't Deborah Kerr's performance in The King and I the one we remember, and not Bergman's in Anastasia -- or did Bergman really win the Oscar for her return to Hollywood after being shunned by bluenoses for her extramarital affair? And when she won for Murder on the Orient Express, Bergman even apologized to Valentina Cortese for winning instead of Cortese in Day for Night.

Of course, being a star can be a liability. You become overfamiliar. Sometimes the only way a big star can win an Oscar is by deglamorizing herself: Forgo makeup like Halle Berry in Monster's Ball, or submit to downright uglification like Charlize Theron in Monster, or wear a fake nose like Nicole Kidman in The Hours. Bergman's Oscar for Murder on the Orient Express was one of those -- the drab little missionary, a virtual parody of the role she played in The Inn of the Sixth Happiness.

Cary Grant never won because he was always Cary Grant, even though nobody ever played Cary Grant as well as Archie Leach did. On the other hand, James Cagney was always James Cagney. And he won the Oscar when he was more Cagney than ever (even though he was supposed to be George M. Cohan) in Yankee Doodle Dandy.

The nuances of stardom are superbly and subtly analyzed by Jeanine Basinger in her recent book, The Star Machine. They're not so successfully dealt with in the two biographies reviewed here -- the Cagney book review originally appeared in the Washington Post, the Bergman in the Mercury News. But reviewing them gave me a chance to mediate on the appeal of both stars.

CAGNEY
By John McCabe
Da Capo, 485 pp., $18.95 paperback

“Caution: Contents under pressure'' would have been a good label for James Cagney, though he needed cautionary labeling about as much as dynamite wired to an alarm clock. A reviewer of his very first film noted his ''fretful tenseness,'' and when that tension was released, Will Rogers once observed, Cagney was ''like a bunch of firecrackers going off all at once.'' For almost three decades his energy and volatility were unequaled by almost any other screen actor. So one turns to his biography to find out where the fire and the fizz came from.

John McCabe would seem uniquely qualified to write James Cagney's biography. McCabe has published biographies of Charles Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, and George M. Cohan, whom most of us know chiefly from Cagney's Oscar-winning portrayal in 'Yankee Doodle Dandy. A former actor himself, McCabe has taught acting at several universities, and as a member of the Lambs Club became buddies with Cagney's old Hollywood cronies Pat O'Brien and Frank McHugh. And most important, McCabe ghosted Cagney's 1976 autobiography, Cagney on Cagney.

McCabe tells us his new book is meant to be an ''autobiographical biography.'' This means, I take it, that he's trying to tell Cagney's life story the way Cagney would want it to be told. He also explains that he has kept a pledge not to ''go beyond the limits of confidentiality [Cagney] occasionally set'' in the interviews for the earlier book. In the age of the tell-all biography, Cagney is a ''don't ask, don't tell'' book, an act of posthumous fealty to the man McCabe calls ''Jim.'' (''Jimmy,'' McCabe tells us, was the nickname studio publicists gave Cagney; his friends and family didn't use it.)

Cagney begins darkly, with Jim as a child comforting his agonized, wailing father, ''his brain half rotted with alcohol.'' But denial becomes second nature for children of alcoholics, so in presenting Cagney's life through Cagney's eyes, McCabe is soon forced away from this harrowing experience into the nostalgic picture of life on the Lower East Side that Cagney would create for himself. It's as sentimental as anything a Warner Bros. screenwriter could dream up. Cagney would describe his father as ''the most lovable guy who ever lived,'' his childhood as full of ''songs and laughter,'' and himself as a two-fisted altar boy -- an angel with a dirty face. ''We were poor, but didn't know it,'' he claimed.

But obviously they did know it. William Cagney, more candid than his brother, said of Jim, ''All the unhappiness of his childhood was inside him.''

It's elementary psychology that what's inside is trying to work its way out. Bottled up in Jim Cagney were the characters he would become on screen. Tom Powers and Rocky Sullivan and Cody Jarrett and Martin ''The Gimp'' Snyder -- the vessels of wrath that made Cagney an icon. Shortly after Cagney became a star in The Public Enemy, Lincoln Kirstein noted that he expressed ''the delights of violence, the overtones of a semiconscious sadism, the tendency toward destruction, toward anarchy which is the basis of American sex appeal.''

You can't be a star without sex appeal, but of all the major movie actors of the '30s and '40s -- Gable, Cooper, Bogart, Stewart, Fonda, Tracy, Grant, Wayne, Boyer, Astaire -- Cagney was the only one who never paired up memorably with a leading lady. We may think of Gable with Crawford or Harlow or Leigh, of Bogart with Bergman or Bacall, of Tracy with Hepburn, but there's no comparable pairing with Cagney. Given the right script, Cagney and Bette Davis might have sparked an inferno, but they were teamed only twice, in two of the worst movies either ever made. Usually he was matched with forgettable players like Margaret Lindsay or sweet ingenues like Joan Leslie. Though he had two major female co-stars in The Strawberry Blonde, they only showed his limitations more clearly: Rita Hayworth was too much the goddess for a scrappy mortal like Cagney, and Olivia de Havilland seemed more like his sister than his wife.

''Funny, he never liked to kiss leading ladies,'' Virginia Mayo recalled for McCabe. ''He'd grab you and kiss your forehead but almost never on the lips.'' Most of our enduring images of Cagney with women are perverse ones: shoving a grapefruit in Mae Clarke's face, roughing up Mayo in White Heat, brutalizing Doris Day in Love Me or Leave Me.

Elia Kazan, who played a supporting role in one of Cagney's films before becoming a director, wrote, ''Scenes with men came naturally with Jimmy; his love scenes with Ann Sheridan, a lovely girl, were perfunctory. I don't know if Jimmy had a problem with women.''

To that McCabe responds, ''Jimmy's 'problem' with women was a simple and traditional one: He adored his wife.'' But does McCabe really mean to imply that Cagney allowed his marriage to seriously handicap him as an actor?

In any case, Cagney seems to be the only one who adored Frances Willard Vernon, known as ''Willie,'' whom he married in 1922. Their union lasted till his death in 1986. She gave up her own stage career to become Cagney's ''unofficial agent'' and pushed and prodded him on his way to the top.

The Cagney family disliked Willie, McCabe tells us, but he backs off from suggesting why. The antipathy obviously stemmed from a rivalry as old as the human family: Cagney's mother, Carrie, was also a formidable woman. Mated with a feckless drunk who died when Jim wasn't quite out of his teens, Carrie became the driving force in her children's lives.

If Willie usurped Carrie's role in mothering Jim, that seems to have exhausted her maternal impulse. After 18 childless years of marriage, McCabe tells us, the Cagneys discovered that Jim was sterile, so they adopted a boy and a girl. ''Of the two parents . . . the one closer to the children was Jim, although he saw them less. Willie devoted herself to making her husband comfortable.''

One of the ways she made Jim comfortable was by treating the children as distractions: ''In view of Jim's need to study his roles -- he insisted on being letter-perfect in his lines, even though he knew he tended to paraphrase them -- Willie decided that it was impractical to have the children live in the house. Accordingly she had another, smaller house built on their property, perfectly fitted out, where James Jr. and Casey would be raised.'' The kids weren't allowed to have friends over when Jim was home learning his lines. Not surprisingly, the Cagneys and their children were often bitterly estranged in later years.

Between Carrie and Willie, then, James Cagney had no lack of mothering. It's easy to feel the resonance here with the oedipal attachment of Cody Jarrett, the character Cagney played in White Heat, and Jarrett's mother, played by Margaret Wycherly. McCabe shies away from exploring even that rather obvious point. Cagney, McCabe keeps reminding us, detested method acting, so McCabe rejects the notion that Cagney's own emotional experiences went into his performances.

Still, it seems pretty clear that Kazan was onto something: Cagney had a problem with women. Whatever this problem was, it seems not to have involved philandering. The only instance of marital infidelity that McCabe reports is a one-night fling with Merle Oberon when she and Cagney, along with other stars, were on a tour entertaining troops during World War II. McCabe's source is ''one of Cagney's closest friends who does not wish to be identified in this instance.'' (Two guesses will do: McCabe tells us that McHugh and O'Brien were on this tour.) As his source tells it, the story, in which Oberon is the sexual aggressor, sounds like a teenager's fantasy about making it with the prom queen, except for Cagney's claim that in the midst of the act ''he thought of his wife and felt sick with shame.''

As for the ''outing'' tales that no celebrity can escape these days, an old rumor links Cagney with Noël Coward, who is said to have written the song ''Mad About the Boy'' for him. McCabe dismisses this, perhaps rightly, as a case of ''wishful thinking,'' citing Cagney's ''hearty heterosexuality.'' Though plenty of gay men have been able to maintain an image of ''hearty heterosexuality,'' if Cagney had any homosexual impulses it's likely they remained as bottled up as the rest of his off-screen emotional life.

In fact, it's the sense that something's bottled up in Cagney that gives him such a dynamic image on screen. The well-timed release of repressed energy in his best pictures -- The Public Enemy, Angels With Dirty Faces, The Roaring Twenties, Yankee Doodle Dandy, White Heat, Love Me or Leave Me -- made him an enduring model, acknowledged by actors as different as John Travolta and Kenneth Branagh. Watch Joe Pesci erupt in GoodFellas or Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and you're seeing the Cagney legacy.

This controlled explosiveness also made Cagney a terrific dancer, earning him the admiration of Mikhail Baryshnikov. One abiding mystery of Cagney's Hollywood career is why he didn't make more musicals. Here again his failure to connect with leading ladies may have played a part: There weren't a lot of female dancers with whom he might have teamed successfully; only Eleanor Powell comes to mind. He worked with Ruby Keeler in Footlight Parade, but though she was charming, Keeler danced as if she were wearing Doc Martens.

What Cagney really needed, as his duet with Bob Hope in The Seven Little Foys shows, was a male partner. It would have been great to see Cagney in the right vehicle with Fred Astaire. As in another Astaire partnership, Cagney might have made him look sexy, and he might have given Cagney some class.

In the end, McCabe doesn't let enough of Cagney out of the bottle. In his overprotectiveness of his subject he seems determined to reduce Cagney to simple formulas -- superlative actor, consummate professional, devoted son, loyal brother, faithful husband and affectionate father. This only serves to make him dull, which is something the scowling imp on the cover of Cagney surely can't have been.

AS TIME GOES BY: The Life of Ingrid Bergman
By Laurence Leamer
Harper & Row, 423 pp., out of print but available

In the glossy studio portrait on the jacket of Laurence Leamer's biography, Ingrid Bergman's eyes are focused somewhere in the middle distance -- on what? A lover? A departing train? A piece of photographic equipment? The mouth hints at something: Desire? Sadness? Or is she wondering how long it is till lunch?

If Leamer's account of her life is to be believed, what the portrait really captures is Bergman's essential self-absorption. She seems to have been one of the most self-centered people who ever lived, though not an intentionally destructive one. (One of her least successful stage roles was Hedda Gabler, Leamer suggests, because Bergman didn't have a fund of maliciousness to draw on for the part.) She was inclined to shut out unpleasant realities. She blinded herself to political evil, finding no reason why she shouldn't make films in Hitler's Germany before her Hollywood career took off. She also blinded herself to physical ills, postponing a breast examination, which might have stemmed the cancer that eventually killed her, because she was in a play with a long run ahead.

But her weakness could also be her strength. She also blinded herself to the course of the disease, working on her final film, the TV movie A Woman Called Golda, until a few months before her death. When the last scene of Golda was being shot, she forgot her lines because, she said, she didn't want the film to be over. When it was over, so was her life.

Above all, she loved to work. Her abandonment of her husband, Dr. Petter Lindstrom, and their daughter, Pia, when she eloped with director Roberto Rossellini gave the innocence of the '50s a profound shock. But her act may have been sparked not so much by love as by her sense that it was a good career move. Three of her Hollywood films in a row -- Arch of Triumph, Joan of Arc and Under Capricorn -- had bombed. As a director, Rossellini could at least promise her a continuing career. And later, the failure of the films she made with him may have hastened the end of their relationship and led her to return to Hollywood.

Her real life was in her art. And that frequently meant she had no time to attend to the emotional needs of her family, or no interest in doing so. But if she neglected her children, their comments about her in Leamer's book are not resentful ones. They seem to regard their mother as a kind of natural force, as impossible to resent as the wind. Her daughter Isabella Rossellini even played Ingrid in a made-for-TV movie. One could joke that it's as if Cheryl Crawford took the lead in Mommie Dearest, except that it isn't really. Joan Crawford was maniacally obsessed by motherhood as a role, as a part of her image. Bergman seems to have had no interest in it at all.

While Leamer's book is well-written and painstakingly researched, it ultimately falls on the problem that undermines all movie-star biographies: Nothing the author can tell us about his subject is as interesting as the Ingrid Bergman we have come to know from watching her films. The Ingrid Bergman of the biography is a real person, but she's not Ingrid Bergman the archetype.

Bergman, after all, helped make Casablanca our definition of what movies are all about. While Casablanca is skillfully directed and edited, wittily written, and brilliantly performed by an ensemble of wonderful character actors, it lingers in the memory because of images such as that of a tearful Bergman listening to Bogart tell her what the problems of two little people don't amount to in this crazy world. Bogart and Bergman never made another film together, yet they remain the quintessence of Hollywood romance.

Casablanca's status as a classic wasn't hurt by the fact that Bogart's and Bergman's private lives resonated with their on-screen personae (even though Bogart is one of the few leading men with whom she didn't have an affair). Eight years after the movie, its romantic dilemma was somehow echoed by Bergman's flight from Hollywood, as if Ilsa had finally decided to forsake the suave Victor Laszlo (Lindstrom) for the rougher-hewn Rick Blaine (Rossellini).

Bergman is unquestionably one of the great stars, but in fact she made only two movies -- Casablanca and Notorious -- that rank among Hollywood's greatest classics. She became a star not just by virtue of her beauty; more beautiful women have failed to launch legends. Nor because of her acting: She won three Oscars, but that award is usually bestowed more for charisma than for acting skill. She was a sensation on the stage, but largely because audiences were thrilled to see a screen legend in the flesh. Some of the stage actors with whom she co-starred, such as Colleen Dewhurst and Wendy Hiller, whose devotion to acting as a craft and a profession runs deep, were astonished by Bergman's inattention to the script and stage direction. When Hiller ventured a rebuke one time, Bergman replied, "Oh, Wendy, it's only a play." Even the tears that glistened in her eyes as Bogart bade farewell in Casablanca were put there by glycerine, not by her ability to imagine and project some deep sorrow.

The older Bergman gave some wonderful performances, ranging from the delicious self-parody of Murder on the Orient Express to the harrowing psychological drama of Autumn Sonata. But even in these movies, we are never free from the sense that we are watching a legendary figure whose personal image transcends any role she might play.

In the end, I think, it is Bergman's self-centeredness that made her so fascinating. Her most memorable moments, at least in her earlier films (which are, after all, the ones that define Bergman's image for us), are the ones in which something intrudes on her exquisite self-enclosure. All three of her Oscars are for victim roles: the put-upon wife in Gaslight, the amnesiac manipulated into being a claimant to the throne of Russia in Anastasia, the mousy missionary in Murder on the Orient Express. Even in her classic films, she is most memorable when the role calls for passivity, for reacting to something happening to her. She could never have played most of Bette Davis' or Katharine Hepburn's roles, for she's almost absurd when she's called on to assert herself -- as when she draws a gun on Bogart in Casablanca. But her little shrug and downcast glance when Bogart asks her to accompany him to the station as the Germans march on Paris are eloquent. And she wastes away touchingly under the poison administered by Claude Rains and Madame Konstantin in Notorious.

It was most of all the face, the downcast and slightly distant gaze, the almost pouty mouth, in which we could find emotions that she had no need to project. She was not a woman of a thousand faces, but a woman of one face, which acted like a mirror for any emotion the viewer might want to find there.

''Poor Ingrid. So beautiful; so dumb," Alfred Hitchcock once maliciously commented. But Hitchcock, who was neither beautiful nor dumb, was a very unhappy man. Ingrid was happy. Poor Hitch.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Oscar Week cont'd: The One, the Only

The honorary Oscars serve a variety of functions. Sometimes they honor people who for some reason or other never got nominated, like, incredibly, Edward G. Robinson and Myrna Loy. Sometimes they have gone to people who were nominated but lost so many times that it became embarrassing, such as Barbara Stanwyck, Deborah Kerr, Kirk Douglas and Peter O'Toole. (Some of these awards seem to prime the pump: Henry Fonda and Paul Newman both won competitive Oscars after being given honorary ones.)

Sometimes they're an attempt to wipe the egg off the Academy's face, such as the ones given to great foreign masters such as Jean Renoir, Akira Kurosawa, Satyajit Ray, Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni, who never won the best director award. And to great Hollywood directors such as Ernst Lubitsch, Howard Hawks, King Vidor, Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Donen and Robert Altman, who never won, even though greatly inferior directors -- Delbert Mann, Franklin J. Schaffner, George Roy Hill, John G. Avildsen -- have gone home with the Oscar.

But one of the most common uses of the honorary award is to patch over the Academy's blind spot: comedy. Cary Grant was nominated twice for "serious" roles: in Penny Serenade and None But the Lonely Heart. But this greatest of all leading men, the deftest at romantic comedy, had to be content with an honorary Oscar. And the screen's great comedians have all been relegated to the ranks of the non-competitive. Bob Hope, for all his jokes about not winning an Oscar, was honored five times -- four honorary awards and a Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. Other comic honorees include Harold Lloyd, Danny Kaye, Eddie Cantor, Buster Keaton, Stan Laurel (Oliver Hardy had already died), Charles Chaplin and Groucho Marx.

That's maybe a long way around to introduce this review of a biography of Groucho, but the book itself reveals what an ambivalent attitude we have toward comedy: We seem to feel that we have to take it, or its creators, seriously. The review originally ran in the Mercury News in 2000.

GROUCHO: The Life and Times of Julius Henry Marx
By Stefan Kanfer
Vintage, 496 pp., $15.95 paperback

Biography is the saddest genre, ending as it typically does in debility, death and the squabbling of heirs. Stefan Kanfer's biography of Groucho Marx certainly ends that way. And the beginning and the middle aren't exactly cheerful.

''Julius Henry Marx,'' Kanfer tells us, ''never did have much of a childhood, and as a consequence his adult life was marked with immaturity and contradiction. He was a socially ambitious scamp, a loving and insensitive father, a faithful and contemptuous husband, a scripted ad-libber, an infantile grown-up, a fearful iconoclast, and, above and below all, a depressive clown. The last category is one of the bromides of show business, and one that Groucho particularly loathed -- but that does not make it false.''

As Tolstoy almost said, every dysfunctional family is dysfunctional in its own way. Groucho grew up in one kind of dysfunctional family and raised another. He was that most complex of offspring, the middle child, who gets less direct parental attention than either the first- or the last-born. Chico and Harpo were older, Gummo and Zeppo younger. Gummo left the act before they entered the movies that made them universally known; Zeppo ducked out after Duck Soup. And Chico and Harpo went into semi-retirement in the early '50s.

Only Groucho persisted, perhaps because of the middle child's hunger for recognition. He made his mark in television with the quiz show ''You Bet Your Life'' and by touring the talk shows well into his 80s. It was Groucho who collected the honorary Oscar in 1974 that recognized not only ''his brilliant creativity'' but also ''the unequaled achievements of the Marx Brothers.'' He outlived them all except Zeppo, who survived Groucho by two years.

It was in his relationships with women that Groucho found his greatest problems. In this he differed from his older brothers. Chico was a blithe womanizer (his stage name, which was pronounced ''Chick-o,'' not ''Chee-co,'' alludes to this), but Groucho was comparatively -- or at least serially -- monogamous. Harpo had a long and successful marriage, but Groucho's three marriages were disastrous.

Like many performers, he seemed to have a split personality: ''the cocksure Groucho vied with the insecure Julius,'' as Kanfer puts it. Perhaps because he could become Groucho whenever being Julius became uncomfortable, he suffered less than the people who tried to live with him. His first two wives and his older daughter became alcoholics. ''Was the alcoholism of Ruth and Miriam solely a matter of genetic heritage? Or was it exacerbated by the pressure from Groucho?'' Kanfer asks. ''There seems no question that Julius was confused by women from the beginning, and that the confusion often led to hostilities.''

Kanfer (somewhat patly, I think) lays the blame for Groucho's problems with women on Mama Marx. The brothers were pushed into show business by their mother, Minnie. (She was portrayed on stage, in the flop musical Minnie's Boys, by Shelley Winters, which may be enough to give you some idea of what Minnie Marx was like. Groucho approved of the casting.)

“Groucho could never please Minnie as easily as her other sons, particularly Chico,” Kanfer says. “He may have been smitten with the women he married, but not for long. He simply had no idea how to include them in his life, to help them to ripen along with him. In addition there was the persistent image of himself as inadequate, placed there by Minnie and reinforced by his own negative appraisal.”

In his last years the tables were somewhat turned, when the comedian fell under the control of a rather strange young woman, Erin Fleming, who was either a caregiver or a gold-digger -- after Groucho's death that determination was left up to the courts. It is not a pleasant story, but then, for all the delight he gave audiences, Groucho Marx was not a pleasant man.

And yet he endures as one of the great icons of the 20th century -- the century that, as many have observed, deposed Karl Marx in favor of Groucho Marx. Kanfer sees the success of the Marx Brothers as a product of the change in American attitudes brought about by the Great Depression: “The Establishment on Pennsylvania Avenue, Wall Street and Main Street was no longer to be trusted. Such sweet, soft-edged comedians as Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton would have a harder time in this era; aggressive, impertinent personalities like W.C. Fields, Mae West, and the Marx Brothers -- Groucho in particular -- would flourish by assaulting the powerful, anytime, anywhere.”

At the peak of their career, the brothers, particularly Harpo and Groucho, were the darlings of the intelligentsia. Harpo's mute persona evoked a tradition of mime, European circuses and commedia dell'arte; and Groucho's wordplay was likened to Lewis Carroll and the surrealists. Harpo was painted by Salvador Dali, and Groucho was a pen pal of T.S. Eliot.

But Dali and Eliot were Moderns, and their reputations have begun to fade, while Groucho belongs to the postmodern. His iconic status endures in part because his humor runs deeper than mere aggressive impertinence. It's built on irony, paradox and a sense of being distanced from the world. His assertion that he wouldn't want to belong to any club that would have him as a member fits the contemporary sensibility far better than the sentimentality of Charlie Chaplin or the bonhomie of Bob Hope.

Kanfer's biography isn't all melancholy. It includes anecdotes about the Marx Brothers' practical jokes, snippets of dialogue from their routines, and countless wisecracks by Groucho, all of which help to lighten the tone a bit. Some of this material seems canned -- as a biographer, Kanfer is a shrewd teller of oft-told tales -- and the book lacks the depth of the best biographies, the ones that put a life in context. In Groucho's case, the contexts are fascinating: vaudeville in the 1910s, Broadway in the '20s, Hollywood in the '30s and '40s, television in the '50s and after.

But Kanfer is less interested in where Groucho worked than in figuring out what made him work. One comes away from the book feeling that people pay a high price when they set out to be entertaining.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Oscar Week cont'd: A Touch of Brass

People sometimes wonder what movie producers do, and the best answer I've ever heard to the question is: Anything they can get their hands on. Today's producers are usually more like committees, largely concerned with the problems of funding and distribution. That's why you'll see a phalanx of them storm the stage when the best picture Oscar is announced. They tend to be M.B.A.s and investment banker types.

In the old days, the Age of the Moguls, they were rugged individualists: tough old dudes who started out as scrap metal dealers and glove salesmen, and worked their way into the fledgling industry of motion pictures. And none of them better epitomized the type than Samuel Goldwyn. He won only one Oscar but he made his mark on Hollywood, even founding a minor Hollywood dynasty: His son, Samuel Jr., is a producer, as is his grandson John Goldwyn, while another grandson, Tony Goldwyn, is an actor best known as the villain in
Ghost and the voice of Disney's Tarzan.

This review of A. Scott Berg's fine biography of Sam Goldwyn ran in the Mercury News in 1989. The book is out of print, which is a shame, but you can still find copies of it for sale online and in used book stores. Anyone interested in so-called "Golden Age" Hollywood should read it.

GOLDWYN: A Biography
By A. Scott Berg
Riverhead, 579 pp., out of print but available

Why does Sam Goldwyn deserve a 500-plus-page biography?

That would have been a silly question 60 years ago, when the glow cast by his Oscar-winning film, The Best Years of Our Lives, still lingered, and people -- or at least press agents -- spoke admiringly of "the Goldwyn touch."

But today, if he's remembered at all, it's for the malaprop gems known as "Goldwynisms": "Include me out," "Directors always bite the hand that lays the golden egg" and so on. Or else people assume he was one of the heads of the most famous movie studio of them all, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

But although Sam Goldwyn almost certainly uttered a few genuine Goldwynisms, most of them were invented by Hollywood gag writers and publicists. And Goldwyn never had anything to do with MGM. That company was created by a merger in 1924 of Metro Pictures with a studio run by Louis B. Mayer and the studio Goldwyn had founded. But he had been ruthlessly elbowed out of Goldwyn Pictures two years earlier.

Those may be the central ironies of Goldwyn's life. He wanted to be remembered as a man of taste, but he lingers in popular history as a buffoon. And he wanted to leave a legacy in his name, but that name was appropriated by a more powerful institution. And irony upon irony, it wasn't even his name to start with, and he had to fight to keep it.

He was born Schmuel Gelbfisz, in Warsaw, probably in 1879. He became Samuel Goldfish when he left Poland for England in 1895. The name Goldwyn wasn't created until 20 years later in America, when Sam Goldfish formed a partnership with Edgar and Archibald Selwyn. As A. Scott Berg explains, "The partners realized that several portmanteau words could be formed from the names Goldfish and Selwyn. . . . In 1916 Goldwyn Pictures was incorporated. . . . For years, show business wags joked about the abandoned syllables of their surnames."

Just as Selfish Pictures wouldn't do, the appellation Sam Goldfish also failed to inspire the respect the company's head wanted. Those of us born to relatively euphonious names can laugh, but it makes perfect sense to me that, when a man named Goldfish receives mail and phone calls for "Samuel Goldwyn," he should decide to make it his legal name.

So in 1918, Goldfish became Goldwyn. Five years later, after he was ousted from Goldwyn Pictures, Sam Goldwyn tried to form a company called Samuel Goldwyn, Inc. Goldwyn Pictures Corp. protested that he had no right to the name, which had been the company's before it was his own. Eventually, Judge Learned Hand (who certainly must have known what's in a name) ruled: "A self-made man may prefer a self-made name."

And that ruling suggests why Sam Goldwyn is worth a biography -- and one by a writer who earlier won the American Book Award for his life of editor Maxwell Perkins. For there's no more quintessentially American tale than that of the rise of Sam Goldwyn, the epitome of the self-made man. It's a story that would have Horatio Alger goggling. Born in the poverty and despair of the Eastern European ghetto, through pluck and luck Goldwyn amassed an estate that was worth more than $16 million when he died in 1974. And he did it all in an industry that didn't exist -- was undreamed-of -- when he was born.

He was almost present at the creation: He produced the first feature-length film made in Hollywood, The Squaw Man, in 1913. He made his last film, Porgy and Bess, 46 years later. Without having a bit of education, talent or taste, he produced a long string of movies noted for their literacy, skill and finesse. Of course, he knew how to use the education, talent and taste of others -- up to a limit. It's that limit that makes Goldwyn's story so interesting.

Berg tells his story well, having been given access to several vaults full of the intimate details of Goldwyn's life. His portrait of Frances Goldwyn, who provided her husband whatever touches of class would stick, is particularly fine. Among other things, we learn that the first love of Frances' life was director George Cukor, who would never have made a satisfactory husband because he was gay. Frances' mother, who was quite mad, loathed Sam, and once tellingly gave her son-in-law a set of bookplates inscribed "Ex libris: George Goldwyn." When Cukor died, he was buried in the Goldwyn family crypt alongside Frances, Sam and Frances' mother.

Berg's book is full of such wonderful information. What it lacks is a coherent critical point of view. Berg says that when Sam Goldwyn Jr. read the manuscript of the biography, he "limited his comments to the correction of facts, not the shaping of opinions." But someone should have shaped Berg's opinions, for the book never comes to terms with the central fact of Goldwyn's career: that he was never as great as he wanted to be.

As an independent producer in the heyday of the great studios, Goldwyn challenged enormous odds. Until 1947, when the Supreme Court made them sell off their theaters, Paramount, Loew's (MGM's parent company), Warner Bros., Twentieth Century- Fox and RKO owned 70 percent of the first-run theaters in the nation's largest cities. This gave them an obvious advantage: an easy outlet for their own films. Independents such as Goldwyn had to wheel and deal to get their films distributed, and to secure the services of big stars, good directors and technicians, and the rights to plays and novels.

Goldwyn played this game longer than anyone else, and he played it better than everyone except, perhaps, David O. Selznick. Unlike Selznick, Goldwyn never produced a Gone With the Wind, never discovered a star of the magnitude of Ingrid Bergman or a director of the stature of Alfred Hitchcock. On the other hand, Selznick, 20 years younger than Goldwyn and the son of industry pioneer Lewis Selznick, got his start in the big studios before going independent. He also died, a burnt-out case, nearly a decade before Goldwyn.

And even Selznick didn't achieve "the Goldwyn touch," the reputation for excellence that his best films -- Dodsworth, Wuthering Heights and The Best Years of Our Lives -- deserve. Goldwyn did it largely by hounding and driving the people who worked for him, demanding precision and clarity in their films -- and by hiring director William Wyler, who was as persnickety as Goldwyn, often driving actors to tears and rage with his perfectionism.

''Tell me," Wyler asked in 1980, "which pictures have 'the Goldwyn touch' that I didn't direct?" But the Goldwyn touch was also cinematographer Gregg Toland's and set designer Richard Day's and composer Alfred Newman's. The debt Goldwyn owed to them was never acknowledged. Once Goldwyn overheard someone referring to a Goldwyn production as a Wyler film. "I made 'Withering Heights,' " Goldwyn retorted, mispronouncing the title as usual. "Wyler only directed it."

The trouble is, the Goldwyn touch hasn't worn well. His best films are still watchable, but they don't speak to us the way the greatest Hollywood movies do. Dodsworth is an absorbing, literate film, but a minor delight, a second-order classic like a novel by Trollope. Wuthering Heights grabs us with the sheer physical beauty of the young Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon, but it never scales the demonic heights of Emily Brontë's great mad novel. The Best Years of Our Lives profoundly captured the experience of the generation that fought World War II, but one has to make an imaginative connection with its first audiences to enjoy it today.

What's lacking in Goldwyn's polished, glossy films is personality, the spark that brings to life the great Hollywood movies. They lack the gargantuan egotism of Orson Welles, the lively gregariousness of Howard Hawks, the spacious humanity of John Ford, the delicious perversity of Alfred Hitchcock, the slapstick cynicism of Billy Wilder, the loopy bumptiousness of Preston Sturges. Goldwyn's films try too hard to be perfect.

Goldwyn's perfectionism was of the kind that shades over into paranoia, a fear that underlings, unless they are watched and hounded constantly, will goof off -- or worse, intentionally screw up to embarrass the boss. In The Last Tycoon, F. Scott Fitzgerald describes a studio head "with a suspiciousness developed like a muscle." I can believe that he had Goldwyn in mind, for as Berg points out, Fitzgerald was brought in to labor on a Goldwyn film, and observed in his notes for The Last Tycoon: "You always knew where you stood with Goldwyn -- nowhere."

But more damaging in the long run is that Goldwyn couldn't trust himself. The self-made man can never go back to what he was before, a child of ghetto poverty, an illegal-immigrant glove salesman, a show-business hustler. Those who knew Goldwyn early were frequently surprised at what he became. His daughter, Ruth, estranged from him after his first marriage disintegrated, observed when she met him some years later that "he seemed almost manufactured." Ben Hecht caricatured him as an almost machine-like assemblage: "The yellow, billiard-ball head, the nutcracker jaws, the flossy tailoring, high-priced cologne, yodeling voice and barricaded eyes that were Sam Goldwyn greeted us en masse." What was barricaded behind those eyes? Perhaps a man whose experiences, whose energy, whose drive, if he had allowed them to be unleashed, could have made better pictures.

Berg provides a revealing anecdote about the making of the film Dead End. Sidney Kingsley's play, set in a New York street that divided elegant apartments from squalid tenements, was the kind of "prestigious" Broadway production Goldwyn could hardly resist. But when filming began, he was enraged when he found the set littered with garbage. The director, William Wyler, patiently explained that the picture was set in a slum. Goldwyn persisted in having it cleaned up. It's certainly not that Goldwyn didn't know what a real slum looked like. Realism was not the issue: "His pictures had a distinctive look about them -- a feel that was always tasteful, even in an East Side slum," Berg notes.

The trouble with Goldwyn, finally, is that he didn't have the courage of his own vulgarity.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

I Found It at the Movies

My dear friend Jo Brans published a lovely book called Feast Here Awhile: Adventures in American Eating about 15 years ago. Like (sigh) my own book, Feast Here Awhile is out of print, but it's easy to find a copy from lots of online booksellers. Just Google it.

Of course, I'm biased because Jo quotes me in the book. According to her, I said, "I was rinsing off a bunch of raspberries the other day, when it occurred to me that as a kid I always wanted two things: a machine that would play movies and enough raspberries. Now I've got both."

This is true. But I might note that Jo is more impressed with the raspberries -- which as she notes were available to us in Mississippi back when we were kids only in their frozen form -- than with the wonderful movie machine. It's the other way around for me: Though I still prefer raspberries over any other fruit on my morning cereal, it's the movie delivery systems -- first the VCR, then the DVD, and next whatever technology emerges as dominant -- that blow my mind.

I don't know how I would have survived childhood in a small Mississippi town without the movies. They were my tickets out of the place, out of small-mindedness and racism. If I had a boyhood hero, it was Gene Kelly, dancing down the street in the rain, an emblem of joyful liberation from the conventional.

My portals of escape were the ticket booths of the town's two movie theaters, the Lyric and the Ritz. They divided the film world between them: The Lyric showed films from MGM, Paramount and 20th Century Fox; the Ritz exhibited Warner Bros., RKO (which meant Disney when I was a kid), Columbia and Universal. Even as a boy, I could identify the house style, the peculiar production values of each of the studios.


I don't go to movie theaters anymore. The last film I saw in a theater -- or what passes for a theater these days, a little compartment in a multiplex that has all the charm and atmosphere of an airline terminal -- was Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. They tell me that I'm missing out on the community in the dark that's part of the mystique of movie-going. But what I'm missing out on is hearing the attention-deficient guy behind me having his girlfriend explain the plot to him. Since the completion of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, there has been no film momentous enough to draw me into the theater.

Which means, of course, that I'm behind on this year's Oscar-nominated films. (I can probably squeeze in Michael Clayton before next Sunday's awards show, since it comes out on DVD this week.) But the Oscars still excite me, for reasons I can't quite explain. (Maybe one of them is that I wrote a book about them.) Their record for singling out truly exceptional achievement is poor; they value high seriousness over originality; they reward actors for playing against type instead of for playing well; the craft awards -- cinematography, art direction, etc. -- often go to members of the clique instead of to true innovators, and so on. This week the newspapers will be full of stories about who should have won in the past and why they didn't. Next week, they will be full of stories about who should have won this year and why they didn't.

But that's part of the charm of the Oscars: Everybody knows what's wrong with them, and yet everybody wants one. Ever been to a party where someone brought an actual Oscar statuette? You've seen it happen: Everybody picks it up, cradles it, and gives a thank you speech. One year, the magazine for which I worked received a chocolate Oscar as part of a promotional package for something or other. Our office manager placed it on her desk at the entrance to the offices, and sure enough, everyone who entered picked it up, cradled it, and gave a thank you speech. Needless to say, nobody actually ate the thing after it had been handled so often.

So to celebrate Oscar week, I'm going to post some old reviews of books about the movies. Today, a 1995 review of two movie star biographies -- one of a star who never won an Oscar but probably should have, and one of a star who did win but probably shouldn't have.

GARBO: A Biography
By Barry Paris
University of Minnesota Press, 680 pp., $22.95 paperback

PORTRAIT OF JENNIFER: A Biography of Jennifer Jones
By Edward Z. Epstein
Simon & Schuster, 464 pp., out of print, but available

She was a delicious Ninotchka, a stunning Queen Christina, the definitive Lady of the Camellias, but Greta Garbo's greatest role, which she played for more than half a century, was as Enigmatic Recluse in I Want to Be Alone. As Louise Brooks put it, "Alfred Lunt said Garbo couldn't sustain a long scene. But she has probably sustained the longest scene in theatrical history, ever since 1925 -- her private life."

Garbo made her last movie, a botch called Two-Faced Woman, in 1941, when she was 35, and lived on until Easter Sunday 1990. It was an accidental retirement: From time to time, film roles were offered to her, and she agreed to play some of them, but the deals fell through for various reasons, usually financial. So she lived out her post-Hollywood life dodging paparazzi, autograph hounds, interviewers.

Barry Paris seems to be making a specialty of writing the lives of women who have no lives: He previously wrote about Louise Brooks, who retired from films in 1938 and lived in relative seclusion until her death in 1985. But where Brooks was merely a cult figure, celebrated for her performance as Lulu in the 1929 German film Pandora's Box, but otherwise not widely known outside cineaste circles, Garbo is a legend, one of the most famous women who ever lived. In fact, Paris opens his book by calling her, "The greatest phenomenon in film -- if not all twentieth-century art." (Where, one wonders, would Paris rank Chaplin, Picasso, Joyce or Stravinsky among the phenomena of 20th-century art?)

The success of Paris' biographies is in inverse proportion to the celebrity of his subjects: The Brooks biography is fascinating, a vivid portrait of a gifted, witty but ultimately tragic figure -- a woman whose potential was never fully realized. In Garbo, Paris almost busts a rhetorical gut in an attempt to recapture the magic we feel watching her die in Camille ("perhaps the most memorable death scene on-screen . . . executed in an aura of sublime and ravishing tranquillity") or say goodbye to her son in Anna Karenina ("in their bedside nimbus, the mutual adoration of mother and child is something greater than the passion of man and woman"). But those images speak louder than his words, so the Garbo biography becomes merely a compendium of everything that can be known about the woman, down to her shoe size (7AA, according to Ferragamo). God may be in the details, but Garbo isn't. The more we know about her, the less interesting she becomes: Do we care that she kept a collection of plastic trolls under a sofa, or that she loved to watch Paul Lynde on "Hollywood Squares"?

The obligatory material of contemporary biography is sex, particularly movie star biographies, which typically revel in such matters as the alleged affair of Laurence Olivier and Danny Kaye. But Paris isn't much interested in Garbo's sex life, because -- and this may be the most shocking revelation about a Hollywood star ever made -- she wasn't much interested in it. "Garbo was technically bisexual, predominantly lesbian, and increasingly asexual as the years went by," writes Paris.

Most of what he has to tell us has been told before: She never married, and the one grand heterosexual passion of her life, with John Gilbert, flared for only a few years in the late '20s. She had a relationship with Mercedes de Acosta, a writer who later moved on to Marlene Dietrich. But de Acosta was "one of the great celebrity collectors of the century," in Paris' words, and her own purple-prosey account of the affair suggests that de Acosta's infatuation was unrequited. The best-documented sexual relationship of Garbo's life was with Cecil Beaton, the English photographer-designer, who told all in his published diaries. But Beaton's orientation was predominantly homosexual, and Paris suggests that the diary accounts have an element of fantasy.

Throughout most of Garbo's later life, her relationships with both men and women were predicated on how much she could trust them to maintain her privacy, and not on sex. One such relationship was with New York art dealer Sam Green, who telephoned and walked with her daily, and recalls taking a curious Garbo into a Parisian sex shop in the 1970s. After gazing around, she said, "Ah, the sex thing. I'm glad that part of my life is over."

As for Garbo's celebrated reclusiveness, the fuss she made over wanting to be alone was perhaps the only thing that alleviated the boredom of nearly 50 years of doing nothing after her film career ended. True recluses don't subscribe to clipping services, or accept invitations to dinner at the White House, even when the dinner is kept secret, as one arranged by Jacqueline Kennedy was. Garbo tested out the Lincoln bed, but didn't spend the night in it -- or with JFK. (She apparently did, however, turn down an invitation to tea at Buckingham Palace that bore a handwritten note, "You will be alone, ER," with the excuse that she didn't have a dress to wear.)

If Garbo had been a true recluse, she would have found a hideaway in Sweden or Switzerland, not at 450 East 52nd St. in Manhattan. With her millions, she could, like Marlon Brando, have bought her own South Pacific island. (Brando was, for a while, the male equivalent of Garbo, but in his later years he seemed to have tired of the game. Can one imagine Garbo kissing Larry King?) But with various walking companions such as Sam Green, she made daily excursions through the streets of New York, devising elaborate escape plans whenever she would encounter "customers" -- her word for those who would invade her privacy.

Given Garbo's apparent lack of interest in sex, she might well have made a marriage of convenience -- both Beaton and Gayelord Hauser, who were gay, proposed one to her -- that would have given her a life of quietly luxurious seclusion. But one suspects Garbo would have found life as a trophy wife far more boring than the daily game of dodge-the-customers.

Occasionally, she was unsettled by evidence that she had played the game too well. Once, in an antique shop, a companion suggested that the notoriously stingy Garbo might get a discount on something she wanted if the owner recognized her. But when Garbo asked the owner, "Do you know who I am?" and he said no, she was shocked.

The photographer Clarence Sinclair Bull once printed up an image of Garbo's face superimposed on the body of the Sphinx, and it suggests more than anything else in Paris' book what an icon Garbo became. She was the 20th century's Mona Lisa, older than the rock stars among whom she sat. The intriguing thing is that it takes more than beauty and acting talent to achieve that status.

Jennifer Jones, for example, had beauty and talent, and yet she's nearly forgotten today. "Who's Jennifer Jones?" asked my Gen-X daughter, who was brought up on old movies and is familiar with such contemporaries of Jennifer Jones as Ingrid Bergman, Olivia de Havilland and Lauren Bacall. I was hard-pressed to think of a Jennifer Jones film she might have seen.

The one I finally came up with, The Towering Inferno, was Jones' last, and she's billed eighth (between Richard Chamberlain and O.J. Simpson) in that fricassee of superstars. The film for which Jones won an Oscar, The Song of Bernadette, isn't much seen today, its Hollywood high-gloss religiosity (Linda Darnell plays the Virgin Mary!) having long gone out of favor. Her other big ones include Duel in the Sun, an overblown, campy Western known to wags as "Lust in the Dust"; Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing, a high-'50s soap in which she's a Eurasian woman in love with William Holden, and which is best remembered for the title tune and the brief vogue it caused for the cheong-sam; and several flawed adaptations of literary classics: Carrie (the 1952 film version of Dreiser's Sister Carrie, not the Steven King/Brian De Palma shocker), Madame Bovary (see clip below), A Farewell to Arms and Tender Is the Night. Some would add John Huston's wacky 1954 adventure spoof Beat the Devil, a famous flop that has become a cult favorite over the years. In it Jones, wearing a blond wig, plays a conniving airhead and is absolutely hilarious -- it may be her best performance, but it's not the stuff of which film legends are made.

Still, Jones and Garbo have a few things in common. Both came from provincial backgrounds -- Sweden and Oklahoma -- and made a few obscure movies (Garbo was in some Swedish industrial films, Jones had a contract with Republic and made Westerns and a Dick Tracy serial) before shooting to stardom. Both were "discovered" by powerful film makers -- Garbo by Mauritz Stiller and later by Louis B. Mayer, Jones by David O. Selznick. And both were temperamentally unsuited to the fame that befell them: Jones, said her friend and co-star Joseph Cotten, was "painfully shy. Compared with her, Garbo would seem a screaming extrovert. I can't imagine how it ever occurred to her to become an actress." The important difference between Garbo and Jones, however, seems to be that Garbo knew who she was and what she wanted and was very good at getting it. Garbo's niece is quoted as characterizing her as "one of the early feminists -- when you think of someone coming over at 19 and taking on the studio, and not getting into drugs or alcohol." Garbo won her battles with MGM so decisively that Cole Porter could include "Garbo's salary" in a catalog of superlatives in "You're the Top." And she left movies while she was still the top.

Jones, on the other hand, was so self-effacing that she is in danger of disappearing from her own biography: Edward Z. Epstein spends almost as much time writing about Jones' husbands -- actor Robert Walker, producer Selznick, billionaire Norton Simon -- as he does on the life of his ostensible subject. Did Jones' ambition drive her into the arms of Selznick, or did she passively succumb to his desire for a protégée who would give him a triumph that would surpass his achievement on Gone With the Wind? Epstein sheds little light on this central passage in Jones' life, though it precipitated all sorts of misery: She and Walker, who had married while they were both starving young actors and were the parents of two small boys, split up. Walker had a promising career, but drink, drugs and mental illness -- which some, like Epstein, blame on the breakup of the marriage -- precipitated his early death. Selznick and his wife, Irene, the daughter of Louis B. Mayer, also broke up -- marking the lives of their two young sons. And Selznick became obsessive about Jones' career -- forever searching for the perfect property, and constantly harassing the producers and directors to whom he loaned her. The results damaged both his career and Jones'.

After Selznick's death in 1965, Jones' career came to a shuddering halt. In 1969, she made an unfortunate attempt to restart it with a cheesy exploitation flick, Angel, Angel, Down We Go, in which she played a former porn star. When that flopped, she settled for a life as trophy wife to Norton Simon, becoming the crown jewel of his famous art collection. She emerged from retirement for The Towering Inferno, but Hollywood is a cruel place for middle-aged women. Still planning a comeback, she bought the rights to a novel she admired, planning to play the leading role. But producer James L. Brooks wanted the same property, so he bought it from her and made Terms of Endearment, which won an Oscar for Shirley MacLaine.

Epstein is a former flack for Universal who has parlayed his contacts with celebs into a string of books on Mia Farrow, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, Jane Wyman, Rita Hayworth, Marlon Brando, Lucille Ball and Lana Turner. Most of these are "unauthorized," as is Portrait of Jennifer, which was made without Jones' cooperation, and they draw on Hollywood gossip rather than on Paris' brand of painstaking research. Because Paris is a careful, thorough biographer and Epstein isn't, Garbo, the celebrated enigma, comes across as less enigmatic than Jones, the celebrated girl-next-door.

Apparently unable to find a focus for his biography, Epstein fills it with irrelevant quotes and outlandish speculation. Robert Walker's death, for example, seems to have been a medical mishap -- the wrong drug administered to a man already full of pills and alcohol -- but Epstein tries to hype it into a murder mystery, fingering Selznick and director John Ford as possible culprits. When he can't get inside of what Jones was experiencing, he relies on irrelevant analogies from other celebrities: For example, Jones' feelings on the suicide of her daughter are "illuminated" by a quote from Eydie Gorme about losing her own child. The result of this name-dropping and pasting-together of quotes can be called a portrait of Jennifer, but the medium is decoupage.