A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

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.