Two weeks until THE HAPPY NEW YEAR BLOGATHON!

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Got a favorite movie with a New Year’s Eve theme or subplot? Celebrate it with our upcoming blogathon — because old acquaintances should not be forgot! Click here for more details.

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The strange case of Mira Sorvino

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Let me preface this by saying that I am not casting aspersions on actress Mira Sorvino, any other actress who might have suffered any form of sexual harassment from former Miramax honcho Harvey Weinstein, or by extension, any woman who has found the nerve to speak for herself in light of the #MeToo movement. It’s a badly kept secret that women have suffered such harassment in the workplace, including Hollywood, for far too long, and I’m truly glad for any woman who finds her voice in this matter.

However, there is something that has puzzled me ever since I saw Woody Allen’s comedy Mighty Aphrodite (1995, and produced by Miramax when Weinstein headed it), in which Sorvino co-starred and for which she won an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress.

(SPOILER paragraph follows.)

The movie’s premise that sports writer Lenny Weinrib (Allen) and his wife adopt a child, whom they name Max. Max eventually reveals himself to be a very gifted boy, and Lenny becomes obsessed with finding out whom Max’s birth mother is. To Lenny’s surprise, he discovers that the woman is a porn star and prostitute named Linda Ash (Sorvino). (The scene where the two first meet is embedded below.)

Throughout the years, I have enjoyed Allen’s wide range of movies — from his “early funny films” (as one of Allen’s own movie characters derisively calls them) to his thoughtful dramas and “dramadies.” But when Linda Ash appeared on the scene in Mighty Aphrodite, my enjoyment of the movie dribbled away.

The general consensus is that actresses love appearing in Allen’s movies because he writes well-rounded female characters (a prime example being one of my favorite “Woodys,” Hannah and Her Sisters). But by contrast, Linda Ash is a grating stereotype. She speaks in a high-pitched voice that’s enough to shatter brass, and her idea of humor is a wall clock whose pendulum shows a pig fornicating another pig from behind.

As previously noted, Sorvino won an Academy Award for this role. In her acceptance speech, she thanked Allen for writing such a “beautiful character” for her.

Did this all occur in some alternate universe? Allen writes a tone-deaf dumb-blonde part, and not only does Sorvino play it to the rafters, but she even regards it as a gift?

Again, I don’t mean at all to belittle Sorvino’s suffering at the hands of a sexual predator. But did she not know what she was getting into going in?

When the allegations against Weinstein first came out, Allen said that he hoped Hollywood would avoid “a witch hunt atmosphere” where “every guy in an office who winks at a woman is suddenly having to call a lawyer to defend himself.” When those remarks were roundly treated by the press and the public as less than sympathetic to female victims, Allen walked back his comments and said, “When I said I felt sad for Harvey Weinstein, I thought it was clear the meaning was because he is a sad, sick man.”

Maybe part of the problem is that most of the movie-making industry is self-delusional. An acclaimed comedy giant writes a very demeaning female role. An actress accepts the role and later acknowledges it as “beautiful.”

No wonder everyone in Hollywood is so shocked — SHOCKED!! — at all of the recent harassment allegations. They’ve been saying Up Is Down and Wrong Is Right for so long, they’re knocked sideways when someone actually tries to right the course of the ship.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

GET HAPPY: THE LIFE OF JUDY GARLAND (1999) – Engrossing Garland bio is anything but happy

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According to Gerald Clarke’s Get Happy: The Life of Judy Garland, at one point, the famous actress looked at the doctors who were treating her for drug abuse and declared, “There is something you fools do not understand. I am an addict. And when I want something, I can get it.”

Unfortunately, between Garland’s celebrity status and her appetite for self-destruction, this comment proved all too true. Men, drugs, food, and (though one wouldn’t think this would be desired) people who belittled, cheated, and abused her — she had it all, which probably accounts for her death at age 46.

Clarke admirably details Garland’s life from its beginning, when she was born Frances Gumm and indoctrinated into the family show-biz act commandeered by her mother, to its sordid end, where she was on her fifth marriage and died of an accidental overdose. Clarke often adopts a sob-sister tone when deconstructing Garland’s career — he is given to extensively quoting John Milton, and he calls one of Judy’s manipulators an “artful Iago.”

But Clarke succinctly catches Garland’s appeal to vast audiences (some of them blatantly gay) and shows that in the destruction of the phenomenon called Judy Garland, she was as much to blame as anyone. The book also provides a nice mini-bio of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the studio where Garland toiled for 15 years and was robbed of her childhood.

This is a must-read for Judy Garland fans and show-biz buffs alike.

THE 50 GREATEST MOVIES NEVER MADE (1999) – A more accurate title would have left out the word “greatest”

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Did you ever see the Marx Brothers comedy A Day at the U.N.? How about the Who Framed Roger Rabbit sequel where it turns out that Bugs Bunny is Roger’s father?
If you never saw these movies, don’t worry — nobody else has, either. However, they are (or were) legitimate movie projects, well-chronicled in Chris Gore’s The 50 Greatest Movies Never Made.

The book lovingly details 50 films which never got beyond the planning stages for various reasons. Many of them involved heavy Hollywood hitters, from Steven Spielberg (who helped to get the first Roger Rabbit off the ground), to Double Indemnity director Billy Wilder (who brainstormed the aborted Marx Brothers film as well as a Laurel & Hardy comedy), to Alfred Hitchcock (who proposed a movie about a blind pianist whose sight is restored).

While the book is a fast-paced, popcorn-ish read, the book’s not-so-subtle point is to make film purists gnash their teeth at the thought of these potential film classics never getting made. For me, the book’s only surprise was that they left out many of my favorites, including Buster Keaton’s proposed take-off of Grand Hotel, Charlie Chaplin’s The Freak (about a girl who sprouts wings), and a planned Western starring The Beatles (eventually made in 1969 as A Talent for Loving and starring Richard Widmark).

It’s easy to cry about potential film masterpieces that never got beyond the planning stage. The trouble is that, like many real lost films that come to light after being re-discovered, they often turn out to be classics only if they remain lost. And considering some of the awful ideas which do make it to the light of a movie theater — as witness 1999’s At First Sight, starring Val Kilmer as (shades of Hitchcock) a blind artist who regains his sight — maybe these movies have rotted in Development Limbo for some very good reasons.

That said, the book will be an eye-opener to novices who have never heard the term “turn-around,” and brain candy for those who have seen awful ideas that did get made into movies.

AGEE ON FILM (1948) – James Agee, an inspiring critic

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Ever wonder what causes a movie reviewer to become a movie reviewer?

When I was a 10-year-old kid just getting into classic movie comedies, I went to the library and checked out the book Agee on Film solely because it had references to Charlie Chaplin and W.C. Fields. Thus was my introduction to high-quality film criticism.

James Agee (last name pronounced “AY-gee”) made his reputation writing sterling movie reviews for Time and The Nation magazines in the 1940’s. Among other glories, he wrote a much-heralded essay titled “Comedy’s Greatest Era” that helped to bring silent-comedy icons (most notably Harry Langdon) out of mothballs and caused them to be re-viewed and discussed seriously among film historians. He later went on to work on the screenplays of a couple of gems titled The African Queen and Night of the Hunter.

Unfortunately, many film buffs and readers who revere the critics Pauline Kael and Stanley Kauffmann have either forgotten Agee’s work entirely or have assigned his own work to mothballs. But among the faithful are film director Martin Scorsese, who serves as editor of the “Modern Library: The Movies” series of film books. In 2001, the series reissued Agee on Film, and re-reading Agee’s work (or reading it for the first time, if you’re lucky enough) proves that film criticism can make for reading material as compelling as any fictional novel.

Agee passes the acid test for any film critic: Even if you don’t agree with him, his writing is so lively that you can’t help enjoying it. His work ranges from three separate columns (three weeks’ worth, in print terms) to Chaplin’s much-maligned (at the time) Monsieur Verdoux, to the most concise, funniest review ever: Reviewing a musical potboiler titled You Were Meant for Me, Agee replied in four simple words, “That’s what you think.”

If you want to see what high-caliber movie criticism meant in the pre-Siskel & Ebert days, engross yourself in this sprawling book. It’ll make you appreciate the decades before every newspaper, newsletter, and website had its own minor-league deconstructionist of Hollywood blockbusters.

The 12 Days of Blogmas – Day 12

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And here I am at my final stop, gifting the last of my favorite bloggers with a movie-related clip that is also related to their movie interests. (If you’ve missed out on this epic journey, click here for an explanation of what it’s all about.)

Last but not least to be rewarded is Debbie of the blog Moon in Gemini, another blog that is mostly movie-themed but also provides reviews of books and other pop culture ephemera. Debbie’s critiques are always so bright and sunny, I wanted to give her something that reflected that.

Below is a brief history and performance of “Optimistic Voices,” a musical cue from the classic The Wizard of Oz (1939). If you’re not familiar with it, it’s the music played when Dorothy and her friends leave the poppy field and take their final stroll towards Emerald City.

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This is a short but beautiful piece of music that has charmed generations of listeners (see some of the comments about it on YouTube), but in the movie, it’s practically buried. I never really noticed it until I bought the multi-CD Turner Classic Movies soundtrack of the film, where you can enjoy it in all of its stereophonic glory.

The embedded clip explains the tune’s origin and provides an audiotape of the melody being conducted by Herbert Stothart, who also co-wrote it. The clip handily shows how much trouble the movie’s makers went to for every aspect of the movie, even for a 70-second piece of underscoring.

My thanks to the 12 bloggers I honored here, as well as to the blog readers who indulged me. Happy holidays to all!

 

 

 

 

YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974) – Like father, like son

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

I maintain that, next to the original The ProducersYoung Frankenstein is Mel Brooks’ most beautifully realized work.

Why? Because it has heart.

That might sound like a radical statement to those who regarded the movie as simply (simply?) a comedy classic. And yes, there is no shortage of literally breathtaking comedy scenes here — all you have to do is mention them. The Frankenstein monster pounding out “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” Coffee and a cigar with a blind man (a superb cameo from Gene Hackman). Horses’ dramatic reaction to the name Frau Blucher (Cloris Leachman). The list goes on and on.

But you know what? For all of its sublime spoofery, what I take away most from the movie is the oddly touching relationship between scientist Frederick Frankenstein (Gene Wilder at his finest) and his zipper-necked creation (try and do more with a nearly dialogue-less role in a sound movie than Peter Boyle did).

The movie opens by demonstrating how dismissive Frederick is of his ancestor’s supposedly insane past. But Wilder brings gravitas to even this opening scene. Is Frederick truly that dismissive of his heritage, or is he afraid he’ll be drawn to it? There’s subtext beneath the satire.

And when Frederick is trapped in a locked room with his raging creation, he has no choice but to play nice with him. And it’s almost as if, despite his John Barrymore-like presence, Frederick owns up to having as much misfittiness as his erstwhile “son.” Is there another Brooks movie that truly cared about the well-being of its characters as much as this one?

Brooks has perfect pitch here, letting the rest of the cast play their shtick to the fullest in counterpart to the dysfunctional-family stuff. Marty Feldman as pixish “Eye-gor,” Teri Garr as Victor’s fulsome assistant, Madeline Kahn as his stuffy fiancee, Leachman as the castlekeeper with a past, and Kenneth Mars as the spokesman for the town’s lynch mob, all contribute beautiful grace notes of comedy throughout.

But seriously — are comedy viewers not at least subconsciously touched by the connection that Frederick makes with Ol’ Zipper Neck? If you doubt my theory, note how Brooks never quite hit the comedic heights after this one, and how writer-director Wilder tried a similar take on family Freudianism (The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Younger Brother) and never even came close.

A generation of movie makers who were raised on Mel Brooks comedies has long since proven that movie spoofs can concentrate strictly on genre parody and never have to concern themselves with being touching. But Young Frankenstein proved that it certainly doesn’t hurt.