Saturday, December 28, 2013

Antiheroes Never Die 
The Life & Strange Death of William Holden
Gloria Swanson and William Holden in Sunset Boulevard (1950)
      Born William Franklin Beedle, Jr., the son of an industrial chemist, the man who would soon be called William Holden left Illinois in the late Thirties to become one of the most famous Hollywood stars the world has ever known. By the time the 1980s rolled around he was a divorced father of three living a near hermetic life in a Santa Monica, CA apartment on Ocean Avenue. It would be at this address, the Shorecliff Towers, room 43 on the fourth floor where William Holden's life would come to a tragic end. The Academy Award and Emmy winning actor of over 70 films would leave behind an impressive body of work spanning more than 40 years in front of the camera. His final act however could not have been imagined even by Joe Gillis, the cynical screenwriter turned gigolo he played to such perfection in Billy Wilder's immortal classic Sunset Boulevard (1950). Holden won his only Best Actor Oscar for another Wilder movie, Stalag 17 (1953), which takes place inside a Luftwaffe P.O.W. camp. While the setting doesn't exactly reek of comic potential, the film was a precursor to the television show Hogan's Heroes which had its premiere in 1965. Holden's portrayal of the craggy, opportunistic downed airman, Sefton, is one of the only viable things the film has to offer. As he gets beaten up and left hung out to dry by his fellow prisoners (one of which is the same Nazi spy he's been accused of being), the gears in Sefton's mind slowly begin to turn as he sets a plot in motion to uncover the real rat. It's a near flawless performance, coupled with the knockout one he gave for Wilder a few years prior, and very easy to see why the Academy would choose that particular time to honor him.
as Pike in Sam Peckinpah's iconic The Wild Bunch (1969)
Just as comfortable in romantic leads as he was blowing up bridges in another prisoner-of-war picture, this time David Lean's The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), arguably Holden's two best performances would come late in his career. The first was for director Sam Peckinpah, inspired by the graphic violence and elegant use of slow motion action sequences seen in Kurosawa's John Ford-inspired samurai epics, The Wild Bunch (1969) would provide western fans with a new classic that nearly redefined a whole genre. Holden's tough-as-nails antihero Pike Bishop would prove to be a drastic change of pace as well as an all-time career high. The next heavyweight role he would get would sadly be the last noteworthy one of his long career. In Sidney Lumet's prescient Network (1976), Holden would earn his final Academy Award nomination playing an over-the-hill, jaded television exec who cheats on his wife then has the nerve to confide in her about how his mistress may just be using him. Complex barely begins to describe the character, and Holden made this otherwise self-serving bastard somehow likeable and deserving of our pity. Holden would lose the Oscar to his more flamboyant costar, Australian Peter Finch who died shortly after filming and was the first posthumous winner of the Best Actor award (later achieved by Heath Ledger for Supporting Actor), but everyone (including Holden himself) knew that Holden acted his guts out in that film and deserved to win it.
Network (1976) for which Holden received his last Academy Award nomination
Fast forward to early November, 1981. By this point, Holden had lived quite a full life. In addition to his film and television career (and winning an Emmy for Joseph Wambaugh's The Blue Knight), earning a reputation as a serious ladies man (having relationships with several lovely co-stars including French actress Capucine and Audrey Hepburn), killing a man in Italy in a drunk driving incident (some might say Holden got away with a slap on the wrist) and being best man at Ronald Reagan's wedding to Nancy in 1952, Holden is perhaps best known for being one of the first truly involved and passionate wildlife preservationists on the Hollywood scene. It was a passion he shared with his longtime girlfriend, actress Stefanie Powers and one that would remain central to him all the way to the end.

"Bill" Holden and Batian the cheetah in Kenya
No one knows exactly what transpired on the day Holden died, but his body was found at least four days later (Monday, November 16, 1981) by building manager Bill Martin who hadn't seen the reclusive Holden for several days and let himself into the apartment out of curiosity. Los Angeles County Coroner Dr. Thomas Noguchi concluded that Holden (with a blood alcohol level of .22 percent) had slipped getting out of bed on a scatter rug and gashed his forehead open on the edge of a bedside table. It was reported that all of the lights were off except for a television when Martin (with the use of a flashlight) stumbled onto the scene. It appeared to Martin that Holden may have been attempting to put on his robe when he finally became unconscious after obtaining the severe three-inch head laceration. There was a considerable amount of blood, rigor mortis and maggots associated with the body, already in a state of advanced decomposition. Holden's dental records were allegedly ordered for identification purposes.
Holden's autopsy report showing the 3" laceration on his forehead
The Coroner concluded that there was no evidence of foul play. Holden simply fell, or slipped on a rug, and hit his head so hard that he drove the teak nightstand into the wall leaving a three or four inch indentation in the plaster. He likely died from severe blood-loss within 15-minutes. Ironically, there was a phone next to him within arm's reach, and a pool of blood that had incidentally formed in a tissue box. It's entirely possible that Holden didn't realize the severity of his wound, especially in a drunken state, or he was instantly too delirious to call for help. In either case, he may have simply passed out from the head trauma. When former girlfriend Powers heard about the incident, she was on her way to work on the hit television show Hart to Hart. Clearly devastated by the news, and in a daze, she received comfort from her friend and co-star Robert Wagner, but it was to be short-lived. Wagner's own life would take a devastating turn only a couple weeks later, when his wife Natalie Wood (whom he had remarried for a second time) drowned to death (she was terrified of the water) near their yacht Splendour off Catalina Island. Wagner along with actor Christopher Walken were somewhere on board the yacht when the mysterious incident occurred. Powers, still in shock from her own grief stated: "Tell me this all isn’t true." She would go on to set up a wildlife foundation in Holden's name.
with Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina (1954) directed by Billy Wilder
William Holden's final role was in Blake Edwards' S.O.B. (1981), a dark satire centered around Hollywood and the movie industry. In the film, Holden plays a film director and friend to a suicidal movie producer who finally gets his wish and goes out in a blaze of glory. Holden's character with the help of some friends kidnap the producer's body (in a nod to an infamous Hollywood legend surrounding the death of actor John Barrymore and his friends the Bundy Drive Boys) and give him a grand burial at sea. Oddly enough, this would mirror Holden's own last wishes. His will specified that his cremated remains be handed over to the Neptune Society and scattered into the Pacific Ocean. He also requested no official funeral or memorial service be held. William Holden made a good living in Hollywood. His most memorable parts were usually characters who skirted the edge of morality, and did so with a large dose of charm. As for his family, friends and legions of fans the world over, as well as lovers of classic Cinema in general, the memory of William Holden will live forever. But man, what a way to go.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Imitating O'Toole

     There have been many tributes and remembrances circulating about Peter O'Toole since the actor passed away December 14, 2013. For me, a life-long fan, it comes as a bittersweet reminder of my own Father's passing one year prior (fourteen days apart). Bitter because losing a loved one is never an easy thing; sweet because it was my Father's own enthusiasm for O'Toole that helped turn me on to film in the first place. I still remember him urging us to watch Lawrence of Arabia together in our family living room. I can vividly recall the old double VHS tape box and how foreboding the thought of enduring a nearly four-hour desert snooze-fest was to my delicate 8-year-old psyche. Little did I know at the time, watching Lawrence on VHS (in pan and scan no less) was not the proper way to view such a masterwork anyway. I never did get further than the first thirty minutes. My Father was usually already asleep by that point, so it was easy to make a clean escape. I suppose it gives me a little comfort knowing now that had we ever attempted a full screening of David Lean's historical epic (the epic by which all epics are judged), he would have likely only been awake for maybe 2/3 of it. I held off watching the film on my own for many years. Partly because of those early memories of impending boredom. Naturally when I finally did return to it sometime in my early twenties, it became something akin to a quasi-religious experience. When I showed the newly released and fully restored Blu-ray to some friends last November (the closest one can get to experiencing the film as it was originally intended without having to forsake your pajama bottoms) in my own living room, it was truly a night to remember. Sadly, my Father passed away not soon after that, so I never got to share the same experience with him. I'm sure it would have been like coming full circle; him sitting in my living room and me imposing the viewing on him this time. The question remains would I have gotten up to leave the room or not once the obligatory snoring began? I'd like to think that (like T. E. Lawrence) I would have endured, but I know myself a little better than that.
My next most endearing memory of O'Toole comes courtesy of my Mother, a rabid fan of The Lion in Winter (1967). The tenth grade drama tryouts were looming and I had little idea what monologue to choose. I only knew that this was something I had to do. Perhaps I was inspired by the high school plays I'd seen when I was still in my middle school years. But what speech to select? The answer was solved on a four-hour bus ride back from New York City, where my Mother and I had just journeyed to see the stage musical Miss Saigon with Johnathan Pryce, whom I recognized from Terry Gilliam's Brazil, a film I had seen probably a dozen times on a videocassette tape we duped off early satellite TV. Still impressive to me, she recited from memory the entire Henry II speech from the end of Act I where Henry/O'Toole disowns his sons. Line by line she said it back to me as I did my best to commit it to memory. The method paid off. The next day at tryouts, I so impressed the instructor (possibly by my choice of material alone) that I easily secured the role of Egeus in A Midsummer Night's Dream. It ended up being a shoddy production; I tripped walking onstage opening night releasing a mushroom cloud of white dust (they used the dust from chalkboard erasers to whiten my hair) and shouted nearly every line as if I were performing for the matinee audience in a retirement home. However, a couple years later, I was able to use the same monologue (I later honed to perfection by shabbily imitating O'Toole) to win acclaim amongst my fellow student thespians, as well as a prestigious acting award. Well, prestigious to a high school senior anyway.
Over my ensuing, formative years, I came to see as many O'Toole films as I conceivably could. My favorites still include: My Favorite Year (1982); The Ruling Class (1972); What's New Pussycat? (1965); Becket (1964); Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969); The Stunt Man (1980); How to Steal a Million (1966); Zulu Dawn (1979); The Last Emperor (1987); High Spirits (1988); Man of La Mancha (1972); Club Paradise (1986); and Venus (2006). There were always a few along the way that I wish I hadn't seen him totally wasted in (Phantoms with Ben Affleck springs to mind; and Supergirl...eesh) but, as they say: a bad O'Toole movie is still worth the price of admission. Lesser-known highlights of his career would have to include his brief cameo in Casino Royale (1967), the lovely send-up of Fellini's in What's New Pussycat?, and of course the legendary occasion O'Toole arrived on David Letterman's stage riding a camel, replete with his obligatory cigarette holder and alcoholic beverage (for the camel); the best "stupid pet trick" of all-time (YouTube it, thank me later).

If it weren't for both my parents and their own unique appreciation for this man's work and genius, I'm certain I would not have grown into the impassioned appreciator for the arts that I am today. I once saw an interview with O'Toole, where he said that acting is simply an expression of the poetry of words; or something to that effect. I suppose that's true to a large extent. It's also the expression of the human condition. It's what separates great actors from mere movie stars. Anyone can be a movie star, all you need is a good chin (look at Ben Affleck). Being able to express what it means to truly be alive, in all its pain and glory, is the mark of a true artist. It's something Peter O'Toole was able to do with unflinching honesty and class. I'm not about to assume that it was effortless for someone like him, but I am reasonably sure that it was something he was born to do.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Top Ten

A list of my favorite Blu-ray releases of 2013 in descending order.

honorable mentions: Christine (Twilight Time); The Conjuring (Warner); Corruption (Grindhouse Releasing); The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (20th Century Fox); The Insider (Touchstone); Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (Criterion); Ishtar (Sony); The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (Criterion); Mary Poppins (Walt Disney); Nashville (Criterion); The Odd Couple (Paramount); Oliver! (Twilight Time); Oliver Stone's Untold History of the United States (Warner); On the Waterfront (Criterion); Psycho II (Shout! Factory); Repo Man (Criterion); Reuben, Reuben (Olive Films); The Right Stuff (Warner); Rolling Thunder (Shout! Factory); Things to Come (Criterion); The Uninvited (Criterion)
imports: The Adventures of Prince Achmed (BFI); Cinema Paradiso (Arrow); City of Women (Eureka); Dracula/Horror of Dracula (Lions Gate); The Long Goodbye (Arrow); Nosferatu (Eureka); Time Bandits (Arrow); Valentino (Bel Air Classiques); The Wicker Man 3-Disc 40th Anniversary Edition (StudioCanal)

You don't need to be a fan of zombie films to appreciate this third entry in director George Romero's classic Dead Series. Connoisseurs, on the other hand, will recognize its genius right away. It somehow manages to avoid the comic book trappings that could have overpowered it (take that striking Shout! Factory cover for instance) and instead remains a scaled-back, ambitious little thriller with hands-down the most memorable zombie character in any film. Yes, you may know him better as: Bub.
I've been a Luc Busson fan dating all the way back to Subway (1985). I still remember scouring local video stores that were going out of business looking for that holy grail of priceless objects: a used copy of Subway on VHS. I didn't care if it was a crappy English-dubbed version or not; I had never seen another film like it. The same can now be said of Besson's Adèle Blanc-Sec. Sure, it finds itself in Raiders of the Lost Ark territory a few times, but that finale in the museum (I wouldn't spoil it for all the gold in Egypt) is the stuff of pure, childlike fantasy; something in limited supply these days.
Another maddening Hugh Hudson vehicle, that flirts with greatness (like Revolution) but merely comes off as an interesting cult anomaly. Gone are the box-office-safe, triumph of the human spirit vestments of Chariots of Fire. What we get here is a film that doesn't quite know if it wants to be a literal adaptation of a pulp novel, or a true-to-life adventure story. It somehow manages to teeter along in between. The score, the cinematography and the unforgettable presence of Sir Ralph Richardson (who should have won the Oscar) easily make up for any missteps along the way. Personally, I could have done without so many people in ape-suits brutally dying. Cheers to the Warner Archive Collection for resurrecting this one (and more recently Peter Weir's Fearless) from the dead.
I've seen this European horror/cult/sci-fi film several times now. I still have no words to describe it, or my feelings about it. I only know it's given me multiple panic attacks, watching Isabelle Adjani's hysterical performance. Not funny, ha-ha, hysterical, but completely out of her mind, barking mad, hysterical. It's certainly worth the price of admission. Sam Neill seems to be vying for the same interplanetary crazy award as Adjani, and no one (perhaps for the director) seems to really know what it's all about. The fact that I can experience this over and over and still care about what's going on, is a testament of some kind. If David Lynch, Luis Buñuel, Werner Herzog and David Cronenberg all made a baby together, it might look something like Possession.
This was Mel Brooks' first film. It shows. I mean that in a good way. Not everything everybody says has to be funny all of the time (something Woody Allen eventually learned by Annie Hall) but a comic actor must be able to sell funny. I don't think there was a man alive who could sell funny better than Zero Mostel. The man simply was: funny. You only have to look at him to laugh. Just look at that cover. I'm laughing right now (on the inside). The Producers might not be Brooks' best, or even funniest film (that might still be Young Frankenstein) but it is effortlessly fresh from start to finish without relying on gags. For that, I applaud you, Mr. Brooks.
The next two are a tie since I really feel they both deserve an equal mention. First up: Disney's The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. This is the original theatrical feature from 1977. It's actually sort of a portmanteau film, cobbling together several animated Pooh shorts (some preexisting) wrapped around a narration. In any case, it's classic children's storytelling and classic Disney. I still love these characters, perhaps more than any others in a kids film. Only two other characters even come to mind that can rival this ensemble in likeability: Jiminy Cricket from Pinocchio and Baloo from The Jungle Book (sorry kids, I'm just not a Lion King or modern Disney fan). It's a seriously sweet film (ah, the memories), and the transfer is flawless (thanks for not screwing this one up, Disney).
Tied with the entry above. John Ford's The Quiet Man has been languishing away on sub-par, mediocre transfers for decades. Well, finally somebody got it right. That somebody was Olive Films. While nowhere near my list of favorite Ford films, The Quiet Man is nevertheless an important one. Perhaps even the most beautifully composed film Ford ever made (though I'd still rank The Grapes of Wrath and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon among the top contenders). This film is a Valentine; a fairy tale; a storybook romance that ends with one of the most justifiably famous fist-fights ever captured on film. While not on par with The Searchers for me, it is pure John Ford, and perhaps the most personal film he directed. He won an Academy Award for his direction, his fourth and final (an unprecedented achievement). The Blu-ray will take your breath away.
Over the years, Roman Polanski has been panning out to be my all-time favorite director. Okay, so Fellini will likely always hold the top spot, but Polanski is definitely a strong runner-up. As far as living directors go, I'd easily say he is my personal favorite. Upon its original theatrical release, Tess didn't quite receive the customary fanfare of other instantly-heralded Polanski masterpieces (like Rosemary's Baby or Chinatown) yet it is a masterpiece all the same. Perhaps the world was too busy trying to lynch Roman Polanski at the time to really notice. The film, dedicated to his beautiful, late wife Sharon Tate, is another perfect literary adaptation that exists on many planes at once: the physical as well as the metaphysical. Chronologically, I would not fall this in love with another Polanski film until 2005's Oliver Twist (though I do have a soft spot in my heart for The Ninth Gate). No matter which author he is adapting for the screen, be it Hardy or Dickens, a Polanski film never fails to live up to the internal life its original creator intended.
Satyajit Ray gave us so many films before he passed away in 1992, thank God. When the best film directors are often listed, the name Ray almost certainly comes up. Renoir, Welles, Kurosawa, Ford, Ray. Everything else sort of stems from there. These directors gave us pure cinema. They may have influenced each other to a large degree, but these artists seem to be the very source of every great thing that was to come out of the medium: every Fellini, Bergman or Kubrick can be traced back. Sure, I can't leave out the likes of Lang, Murnau and of course Chaplin (among many others) but in terms of influencing film culture as a whole, it is this group that created the watershed. Like all of Ray's films, Charulata is a simple one. It's about basic human emotion. Plot is only a necessary evil. In fact, for the simple reason that I can completely identify with an Indian woman's emotional crisis, in a film made in 1964 (set in 1870's Calcutta), Ray becomes more than just a director. He is something like a mystic.
I have waited years to see The Magic Christian again. I'll never forget the first time I blindly rented it on VHS (remember when there was such a time?), having no idea what I was getting myself into. On the surface, it's a silly, episodic, little film. Peter Sellers and Ringo Starr run around trying to prove that every man in this world has his price. Oh, yes, it's an ugly, cynical, little film too. Fortunately, there was once a time when films dared speak the truth about the sad state of affairs we find ourselves in. Less fortunately, the more our civilization moves forward, the less people change. If we had only learned the not-so-subtle lessons on display in The Magic Christian, our world might not be the selfish, materialistic place it is today. On the other hand, there might also be a helluva lot more people running around in drag.
This is the title I've been waiting for all year. As soon as Criterion began releasing Chaplin's films on Blu-ray, I waited on baited breath for only one to be announced: City Lights. To be honest, I don't know if this is Chaplin's best feature film. I find myself gravitating more toward The Great Dictator the older I get. Still, the best films are often ones that contain some hidden shred of the meaning of life. I don't know if Chaplin intended his film here to operate on that kind of level, but the immortal ending has gone on to influence many works: from Fellini's Nights of Cabiria to Woody Allen's Manhattan. It's the kind of thing that only gets better each time you see it. Indeed, there are great films and great directors; then there is Chaplin and City Lights.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Mr. Micawber & W. C.

Producer David O. Selznick and director George Cukor's 1935 film adaptation of Charles Dickens' David Copperfield is a perfectly cast film. Arguably the most perfectly cast film of Hollywood's golden age. It contains definitive versions of these immortal characters: Edna May Oliver as Aunt Betsey; Jessie Ralph as Peggotty; Basil Rathbone as Edward Murdstone; Una O'Connor as Mrs. Gummidge; Lionel Barrymore as Dan'l Peggotty; Lennox Pawle as Mr. Dick; Freddie Bartholomew as young David Copperfield; Roland Young as Uriah Heep; and the incomparable W. C. Fields as (my favorite Dickens character of all-time) Mr. Micawber. It's hard to tell where Fields the personality ends and Micawber the character begins. It could be said that Fields, a lifelong Dickens fanatic, was born to play the part, yet it was almost not to be. Charles Laughton had originally been cast as Copperfield's elder bosom buddy, Micawber. He reportedly loathed his own performance so much (saying he looked like a child molester after watching himself in the dailies) that he left the production after only two days of work. Thankfully, on his way out, Laughton recommended Fields as his replacement. Perhaps more thankfully, Selznick took his suggestion to heart. The rest, as they say, is history.

Wilkins Micawber from Dickens' novel David Copperfield, 1850
W. C. Fields as Micawber in George Cukor's David Copperfield (1935)
Charles Laughton was originally cast as Micawber in the MGM film
William Claude Dukenfield aka W. C. "Bill" Fields, circa 1900
Woody's Walls

Movie paraphernalia in Woody Allen's Broadway Danny Rose (1984)

Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982)

Woody's Walls

Movie paraphernalia in Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)

Clive of India (1935) starring Ronald Colman

John Ford's Judge Priest (1934) starring Will Rogers
Baby, Take a Bow (1934) starring Shirley Temple

Top Hat (1935) starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers
Min and Bill (1930) starring Marie Dressler and Wallace Beery

Woody's Walls

Movie paraphernalia in Woody Allen's Sleeper (1973)

Miles Monroe (Allen) is asked to identify a photograph of movie star Bela Lugosi
Miles holding a photo of F. Scott Fitzgerald; Fitzgerald worked briefly and unhappily in the film industry during the late 1930s; Fitzgerald would turn up again as a character (played by Tom Hiddleston) in Allen's Midnight in Paris (2011)

Woody's Walls

Movie paraphernalia in Woody Allen's Annie Hall (1977)

Ingmar Bergman's Face to Face (1976)

"Coming Soon" posters
John Huston's The Misfits (1961)

Marcel Ophüls' The Sorrow and the Pity (1969)

Keller & Chaplin

Helen Keller visits Charles Chaplin on the set of Sunnyside, 1919

Chaplin & Marx

Charles Chaplin and Groucho Marx flanked by tennis champs Fred Perry and Ellsworth Vines, circa 1937

Chaplin and Marx reunited in the company of Danny Kaye and Richard Avedon (seated); photograph by Candice Bergen, 1972

Woody's Walls

Movie paraphernalia in Woody Allen's Stardust Memories (1980)

Groucho Marx photomural

Woody's Walls

Movie paraphernalia in Woody Allen's Play It Again, Sam (1972) directed by Herbert Ross

John Huston's Across the Pacific (1942) ; The Films of Jean-Luc Godard by Ian Cameron (editor)

Michael Curtiz's Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) insert poster
Frank Borzage's Desire (1936) publicity still with Marlene Dietrich

John Huston's Key Largo (1948)
Michael Curtiz's Casablanca (1942) 1949 re-release poster

Tokyo Joe (1949) publicity still
Howard Hawk's To Have and Have Not (1944)

Sirocco (1951); The African Queen (1951) insert posters
Cecil B. DeMille's Adam's Rib (1923) lobby card

Casablanca (1942)
The Barefoot Contessa (1954); Dead Reckoning (1947); The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948); The African Queen (1951); The Big Sleep (1946)

Charles Chaplin's Modern Times (1936) 1959 re-release title card
All Through the Night (1941); March of the Wooden Soldiers (1934); Tarzan and the Leopard Woman (1936); The Jungle Princess (1936)
Vittorio De Sica's Le coppie (1970)