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“…the transition between old and new is never elegant or seamless.” – from the Introduction to Pictures At A Revolution

The Academy Awards are often controversial — either legitimately or artificially. And since they’ve been around so long they tend to have an identity crisis every twenty years or so. Or, maybe more accurately, every couple of decades the Oscars reflect a generation gap and/or an identity crisis within the movie industry. Witness The 1967 Academy Awards. Held at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium on April 8, 1968 the 1967 Best Picture Nominees included a mix of movies that hardly seemed like a matched set.

Half of the nominees seemed to be sneering at the other half: The father-knows-best values of GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER were wittily trashed by THE GRADUATE; the hands-joined-in-brotherhood hopes expressed by IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT had little in common with the middle finger of insurrection extended by BONNIE AND CLYDE. (from Pictures At A Revolution)

Mark Harris’s wonderfully engaging book, Pictures At A Revolution, takes the five films nominated that year (BONNIE AND CLYDE, DOCTOR DOLITTLE, THE GRADUATE, GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER, IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT ) and weaves together the stories of how those films came to be and with how they ended up reflecting the conflicted state of Hollywood’s body politic at the end of the 1960s. Harris is a seasoned writer with a strong commitment to research. He’s also not afraid to share a point of view. If you’re an Oscar buff this is a great book to dive into. If you’re a student of the American 1960s, Pictures At A Revolution, is also a great glimpse of that era through the lens of the USA’s biggest cultural export.

 
Pictures At A Revolution by Mark Harris | 2008 | The Penguin Press

THE MALTESE FALCON is my favorite movie of all time. My Dad introduced it to me when it aired on some local TV Friday Night Late Movie long ago. My memory tells me I was 13 or 14 years old. The banter, the intrigue, the humor, the drama of greed and desperation – it gripped me and never let me go. I’ve seen it many times on broadcast television, cable, VHS, DVD and Blu-ray over the last 35+ years. Last night I finally saw it – a pristine print – on the big screen. Thank you TCM Classics, Fathom Events and my favorite theater on the planet, Regal 12 (Little Rock). I wrote a short piece about the film here. May try to catch it again in L. A. on Wednesday. Check out an encore performance if you missed it yesterday.

the comedians cover_1I’ve been diving into Kliph Nesteroff’s “The Comedians” every night for the last few days – it’s fantastic! If you’re a fan of comedy and/or showbiz history it is, as Joel Hodgman says, “essential!”

Tracy and I finally got into a showing of DEADPOOL – still the #1 movie in the land. The mega-meta superhero is as outrageous, shocking, dirty, and funny as billed. Jeffrey Wells is taking the contrarian view on the movie’s charms. Fox made a bet on smirk and smut and won big. I wonder though if there really is a franchise here once the bracing shock of the thing wears off. How will a second DEADPOOL movie feel fresh? We’ll just have to wait and see because there’s one coming whether it works or not.

Can’t wait to see BECOMING MIKE NICHOLS on HBO tonight. Kim Masters spoke with director Douglas McGrath about the documentary on KCRW’s The Business. It’s worth a listen.

I’ll be in L A the rest of this week. It’s Oscar week – which adds a level of crazy/fun to an already crazy/fun town. I’ll post something about it here for CineFriday.

In the 1970s Steve Martin dated Mitzi Trumbo, Dalton Trumbo’s daughter. In his memoir, Martin recounts observing Dalton Trumbo’s exercise regimen in those days. Mr. Trumbo would walk laps around the perimeter of the swimming pool in his backyard. Every time he passed the diving board he marked the lap with the click of a counter in his hand. In his other hand Trumbo carried a cigarette, which he puffed on intermittently during his workout.

It’s hard to believe that elected officials in Washington considered the eccentric, contradictory, and talented Trumbo such a danger to Truth, Justice, and the American Way. But then again we should never be shocked at what elected officials believe, say, or try to put over on “we the people.”

116029580_origTrumbo was one of the infamous Hollywood Ten. The infamy was not the Ten’s, it belonged mostly to the members of the House Un-American Activities Committee and their associates. You can dive into two films (both with same title) that tell Trumbo’s story in vivid detail. One is the outstanding (and personal favorite) documentary from 2007. The other is this year’s Oscar nominated narrative feature starring Bryan Cranston as Trumbo and a stellar supporting cast.

Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party? That was the refrain heard over and over in the chambers at the U.S. Capitol as American citizens were questioned about their interest and involvement with Communism.

Frank Rose’s landmark book, The Agency (1985, Harper Business) devotes significant space to the villains, victims and heroes in the whole sordid affair. I’d never realized until I read Rose’s book how HUAC effectively ended Edward G. Robinson’s career. I can’t recommend Rose’s book highly enough. (It’s a comprehensive history of Hollywood through the lens of the William Morris Agency.) For an up to date, in depth – and highly entertaining – audio examination of the Hollywood Red Scare era, check out the current season of Karina Longworth’s You Must Remember This (Podcast).

And hooray for the Coen Brothers’ comedic portrait of the era in HAIL, CAESAR! It manages to be cheeky and sobering at the same time. The movie captures the paranoia, inhibitions and hypocrisy. At the same time there’s a genuine sense of the shifting ground under the characters’ feet. (I had a few things to say about the film in last Sunday’s Notebook.) The great joke in HAIL, CAESAR! — well, I won’t say it here in case you’re going to see the film soon.

For more on the subject of Hollywood and The Red Scare check out:

Films:

Hail, Caesar! (2016) A comedy from the Coen Brothers in theaters now

TRUMBO (2015, 124 mins, R) A narrative feature starring Bryan Cranston, on DVD & Bluray 2/16/16

TRUMBO (2007, 96 mins, PG-13) – Documentary

Books:

The Agency (1985, HarperCollins) by Frank Rose

Podcast:

You Must Remember This (Podcast) – Current season is all about HUAC & Hollywood

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Fred Thompson, Harry Thomason, and Tim Jackson, on the set of THE LAST RIDE (Little Rock, AR 2010)

 

I remember walking back to the make-up trailer with Fred Thompson shortly after one of the A.D.s announced to the crew, “Ladies and Gentlemen, that’s a wrap for Mr. Fred Thompson.”

The crew applauded – as is customary – for the actor who was now officially done with his work on the film. But there was a little extra warmth in the applause. Thompson was a great presence on set and he’d done a remarkable job that day.

Moments later as we reached the make-up trailer, someone standing in a gaggle of onlookers shouted out: “We wish you were our President!”

Thompson stopped, smiled, and without missing a beat, shouted back, “I wouldn’t be havin’ near as much fun!”

These are the things I remember, the way I remember them, about Fred Thompson and his work on THE LAST RIDE. And these are some of the reasons, besides just loving his work over the years, that I’ll always remember him fondly.

Hal Holbrook was originally set to play the role that Fred Thompson eventually signed on for in THE LAST RIDE. Holbrook, a longtime friend and collaborator of our director, Harry Thomason, would have been great. He’s always great. But it was clear as we neared production that Holbrook’s wife, the very talented, beautiful Dixie Carter, would need Mr. Holbrook’s full attention. Ms. Carter had been recently diagnosed with cancer. She died a few weeks after we wrapped production.

Harry Thomason and the producers held out hope that somehow Holbrook would be able to do the film but Harry wanted a back up just in case. The back up turned out to be another first round pick. Harry put in a call to Fred Thompson and explained the situation. Fred said he understood and assured Harry that he could rest easy – if needed, we could count on Fred to show up.

If Harry Thomason calling Fred Thompson doesn’t strike you as remarkable, then a little history lesson is in order. Harry Thomason and Linda Bloodworth-Thomason are FOBs from way back. FOB stands for Friends of Bill (Clinton). The Thomasons were early supporters of Clinton’s run for the presidency and they were responsible for helping him make key connections in Hollywood, long before it appeared he had a chance at winning. They continued to work tirelessly alongside Clinton through the campaign, election, transition, inauguration, and into his terms as Commander in Chief.

Fred Thompson was a young Republican lawyer during the Watergate hearings. He went on to have a lucrative law career that morphed into a successful acting career, which he parlayed into a successful run for the U.S. Senate. Thompson was a sitting U.S. Senator on the committee that held impeachment hearings over the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal. Thompson agonized over the impeachment and ultimately voted against a charge of perjury and for a charge of obstruction of justice. A few years later Thompson made a run at the Republican nomination but ran out of gas early on. Quite a backstory for that fateful call from Harry to Fred in late 2009.

A couple of months before we started production on THE LAST RIDE, Harry came to Little Rock and we spent a few days scouting locations with Producer Benjy Gaither and Director of Photography, Jim Roberson. Harry had already secured a home in which to shoot Fred Thompson’s interior scenes. We went to scout the house and were greeted by the homeowner – another enthusiastic FOB.

“It’s going to be Fred Thompson,” Harry said to the homeowner as we arrived.

She sighed, “Well, we’re spending New Year’s Eve with Al Franken so it’ll all even out.”

Near the end of the shoot, in early March 2010, Fred Thompson arrived in Little Rock ready to go. We shot out all of Fred’s scenes in one day, two locations with a full company move – probably 7 or 8 setups. Such is the pace of independent filmmaking.

Thompson was an old pro by then having done many big budget features and a long stint on a network series. He took to the day like a duck to water and I’ll always cherish the memory of seeing him work. Standing outside the make-up trailer it occurred to me that if he had gone on to be President, we wouldn’t have had as much fun either.

Happy Birthday, Howie!

October 28, 2015 — Leave a comment

howard-klausnerHappy Birthday, Howie Klausner. Howie is a prolific screenwriter, producer and recently directed a feature starring Kevin Sorbo and Amy Grant. Howie’s big break was having his script, SPACE COWBOYS, picked up by Clint Eastwood. How would you like for your first movie to star Clint Eastwood, James Garner, Tommy Lee Jones and Donald Sutherland? Yeah — big time, fun stuff.

Howie wrote the screenplay for THE LAST RIDE. Our whole team loved working with Howie on that project. I remember clearly the day I read the script years before we went into production. I was taken with the game-changing idea of getting a sense of a man’s whole life by just hanging out with him for the last three days of his life. In this case, the man was Hank Williams. I keep thinking about the big studio biopic of Hank Williams coming out next month. I wanted our studio to re-release our movie at the same time with a new title: SPOILER ALERT.

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Maureen O’Hara as Mary Kate in John Ford’s THE QUIET MAN

 

Timeless is the first word that comes to my mind when I see this picture. Maureen O’Hara was probably 31, 32 at the oldest, when she played Mary Kate opposite John Wayne in John Ford’s THE QUIET MAN. That was over sixty years ago. Her beauty is a given. What strikes me most about this picture is its timeless quality. The image is instantly recognizable to fans of the film and others knowledgable of Old Hollywood. But one could probably convince someone not as familiar with Maureen O’Hara that this is a recent photo taken of a super model during a fall fashion photo shoot.

Maureen O’Hara is — not was, but is — one for the ages. She’s left us here but her image, her voice, her strength, her dignity, an her talent, will delight movie fans as long the art form exists.

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Steve Martin turns 70 today – August 14, 2015

For about the last four years of the 1970s and the first couple of the 80s there was no bigger star in comedy than Steve Martin. Somewhere around 1981 he decided to walk away from a stand-up career that was selling out arenas. Arenas. Before that he had been working on an act that was new, fresh and often not embraced by audiences. (The day after a Tonight Show appearance Martin walked into a store in Los Angeles. A woman behind the counter asked, “Are you the young man who was on the Tonight Show last night?” Martin, replied “Yes.” She uttered one work: “Yuck.”)

Martin walked away from a lucrative writing job in TV in order to work out the new kind of act he envisioned. There was a moment in the mid-70s when Martin says that after years of struggling he realized he “was no longer at the tail end of an old movement but at the front end of a new one.” And then he turned on the TV one October night in 1975 and saw the premiere episode of Saturday Night Live. The shock of seeing people he didn’t know performing the kind of “out there” comedy he was refining on the road was a momentary emotional setback. But soon the connection between Martin and SNL would be catalytic and no one could say whether SNL took Martin to the next level or if it was the other way around.

Either way, by the late 70s Martin was at the crest of a pop culture wave. He rode that wave to great success, inspired a lot of kids (read Judd Apatow’s thoughts about Martin in Apatow’s book, Sick in the Head), then got off and figured out what to do next. What he did next was make movies. He made lots of them. Some memorable, some not so much. Some experimental, some right down the middle. No matter what he did he brought an artist’s precision to his performance.

I’ve said for many years that Steve Martin is the most underrated dramatic actor in Hollywood. I love to see him in dramatic roles (Parenthood is a great one. See also: Shopgirl and The Spanish Prisoner). But even in some of his most comedic roles he brings a depth of humanity that rings true and deep. (Planes, Trains & Automobiles, Roxanne, L.A. Story and Father of the Bride, are just a few good examples.)

Martin’s memoir, Born Standing Up, is one of the best first-hand accounts of life in show business ever written. I highly recommend it if you’re the least bit interested in Martin, comedy and/or the 1970’s in the U.S. If there is still such a thing as a Reniassance man — Steve Martin is most certainly one. Actor, Comedian, Author, Musician, Collector of Fine Art, Student of Philosophy.

Happy Birthday, Mr. Martin. And, many thanks for all the joy you’ve brought us.