To open up a play, or to not open up a play? That is the question. For we’ve all been told that films are supposed to be “cinematic”, and a filmed play is static and boring, therefore, allowing it to move will mean, at the very least, you’re not just watching people in rooms talking to each other. On the other hand, plays are tightly constructed experiences (even lavish musicals), so opening them up for film means you risk tearing apart the dramatic fabric (and even logic) that made them work so well on the stage. Of course, just as there have been examples of good movies that were just “filmed plays” (as well as, to be sure, bad ones), there have also been examples of movies that opened up the play and were still good movies. One prime example of the latter is Six Degrees of Separation, director Fred Schepisi’s film of John Guare’s award-winning play (which Guare adapted). I chose this not because it’s my favorite movie adaptation of a play (that list would include Stage Door, You Can’t Take it With You, West Side Story, Glengarry Glenn Ross, the Kenneth Branagh versions of Much Ado About Nothing and Hamlet, and many others; I left off movies like Trouble in Paradise, Casablanca, and Some Like it Hot because I’m unfamiliar with the source material), but because it’s a good movie to illustrate my point.
Both the play and the movie are inspired by the true story of David Hampton, a young con artist who, in the 80’s, was able to convince several people in New York City to let him stay in their homes briefly and even gave him pocket money because he claimed (a) he was a friend of their children, and (b) he was the illegitimate son of Sidney Poitier. In reality, of course, Poitier has no son, and Hampton never knew any of the children of the people he conned, instead stealing an address book from someone who, like the people he conned, lived on the Upper East Side. Among the people Hampton fooled were Osborn Elliot, the dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and his wife Inger. Guare happened to be a friend of theirs, and when he heard the story of Hampton from them, and read about his subsequent arrest, Guare became interested in turning it into a play. It eventually premiered at Lincoln Center in the spring of 1990, eventually winning the New York Drama Critics’ Circle award, and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony for best drama. Three years later, it was adapted into a movie.
Both the play and the movie center on Ouisa (Stockard Channing, who originated the role on stage – according to Guare, she replaced someone during rehearsals – and reprised the role for the movie) and John Flanders “Flan” Kittredge (Donald Sutherland), the couple we first see with Paul. Flan, an art dealer without a gallery (he sells to people who don’t want to go through a gallery for whatever reason), and Ouisa are entertaining Geoffrey (Ian McKellen), a mine tycoon in South Africa, and a potential client for a Cezanne they want to sell when their doorman brings in Paul (Will Smith), a well-dressed man who’s bleeding in the abdomen area (he claims he was mugged). Because Paul says he doesn’t want a doctor, Flan and Ouisa end up patching him up themselves, and when Paul is better, and realizes he was interrupting (Flan, Ouisa and Geoffrey were going to go out to dinner), insists on cooking them dinner. During the evening, he charms them not only by his graciousness and manners, but also by telling them about his thesis (on why The Catcher in the Rye seemed to be a template for people like Mark David Chapman and John Hinckley Jr.), what he knew about their children, and of course, the fact he was the son of Sidney Poitier (whom, he claimed, was directing a live-action version of Cats, and by the way, would they like to appear as extras in it?). Everything goes well – especially since Geoffrey agrees to buy the Cezanne before he leaves; Flan is so exultant, he ends up giving Paul $50 – until the next morning, when Ouisa goes to wake Paul up, and discovers him in bed with another man. Flan ends up chasing both of them out, and while he and Ouisa are both relieved to find nothing’s been stolen, they’re still shaken.
Some time later, Flan and Ouisa meet their friends Larkin (Bruce Davison) and Kitty (Mary Beth Hurt), and discovered they too met Paul (though in their version, Paul “chased a burglar” away, and they mostly left him to himself). They eventually go to a police detective (Daniel Von Bargen), though he points out there’s really no crime. They also meet Dr. Fine (Richard Masur), an obstetrician, who treated Paul when he came to his office, wounded, and even let Paul have the keys to his apartment, until he called his son and his son had no idea who Paul was, after which Dr. Fine kicked Paul out. Eventually, they discover Poitier has no son, and they all convince their reluctant teenage children (Tess (Catherine Kellner) and Woody (Osgood Perkins) – Flan and Ouisa’s children – Ben (Anthony Rapp, the only actor other than Channing to reprise their role from the play in the film*), Kitty and Larkin’s son, and Doug (J.J. Abrams – yes, that J.J. Abrams), Dr. Fine’s son) to try and figure out how Paul knows so much about them. The four teens eventually find Trent Conway (Anthony Michael Hall), a former classmate of theirs in boarding school who’s now at MIT, and he admits he found Paul in the street one night, picked him up, and told Paul whatever he wanted to know about the people in his address book (which Paul later stole, along with some other things), simply so he could be close to him. And then the story takes a darker turn with the introduction of Elizabeth (Heather Graham) and Rick (Eric Thal), two struggling actors who met Paul in Central Park, where he was passing himself off as Flan and Ouisa’s illegitimate son.
Ouisa gives the major speech of both the play and the movie – it also gives both play and the movie its title – after she finds out how Paul managed to find them and know so much about them:
I read somewhere that everybody on this planet is separated by only six other people. Six degrees of separation between us and everyone else on this planet. The President of the United States, a gondolier in Venice, just fill in the names. I find it extremely comforting that we’re so close. I also find it like Chinese water torture, that we’re so close because you have to find the right six people to make the right connection.
In the play, Ouisa delivers that speech to the audience, as a soliloquy. In the movie, however, Ouisa says it to Tess, as they’re gathered together in Tess’ bedroom, and this is but the simplest example of how Schepisi and Guare have opened up the play while staying true to the material. The play is presented as a story the characters are telling us in between all of the action. The movie, on the other hand, has the characters telling their stories to others. Each part of the story Flan and Ouisa are telling, except for when they’re being interviewed by the detective, is told to people they meet up with at various events in their lives – at a wedding, at a gallery opening, at a christening after-party – so we not only get a sense of the lives Flan and Ouisa live (as well as why Paul wants to interact with their lives so much), we also see this really is an anecdote told over and over again (Flan and Ouisa will sometimes beg off, or pretend to, only for someone to demand to know what’s happened). This helps lend the other major speech of the story – when Ouisa yells at Flan about how they’ve, in essence, reduced Paul’s life to just another funny story – real force. In his introduction to the play, Guare mentions how Tony Walton (the production/set designer of the play; Patrizia Von Brandenstein (production) and Gretchen Rau (set) handled those duties for the movie) encased the back wall (made of black scrim) into a picture frame, so when the actors first appeared, it made them seem like they were floating almost. Schepisi and Ian Baker, his usual cinematographer (they’ve worked together on all of Schepisi’s features except for Last Orders), capture that feeling by, as per usual, keeping the camera moving, which makes the flashbacks and transitions seem more fluid. Finally, Guare mentions the Kandinsky painting Flan keeps in his apartment (painted different ways on each side; one side representing chaos, the other control) was a big part of the set design of the play, and while Schepisi doesn’t go that far (the replicated Kandinsky is just another object in the apartment, though Flan spins it around to demonstrate to Paul, who’s very impressed), he incorporates art, and its importance to the characters, visually. This isn’t just in the scene where Flan and Ouisa go to the Sistine Chapel (and Ouisa gets to high-five the ceiling while it’s being renovated)**, but also in scenes like when Flan is describing his dream about painting, and Ouisa’s dreams about Paul, where he seems more like an object in a panting than a person.
The film isn’t without its flaws. While every single character in the story is a caricature of some sort, the children come off the worst; with one exception, they’re all written one-note, and the actors playing them all play just the one note (whatever you think of Abrams as a TV showrunner` or movie director, he is clearly not an actor, while Rapp may fall into the category of stage actors who don’t work on film, except for his work in Dazed and Confused). Only Tess is written with any kind of dimension, and Kellner responds in kind; unlike the other actors, she modulates her anger so it seems genuine rather than merely boorish, and in both the scene where Tess interviews Trent, and the scene after, when she’s told her mother, she acts as if she’s really paying attention to the other person.“ More damaging than the one-note younger characters, however, is the soft-pedaling of Paul’s character. When Trent is telling the story of how he met Paul, we see Paul stripping for Trent every time Trent told him something about people in his address book, and when Trent asks Paul to take his shirt off, Paul instead kisses him on the lips and says Trent will get more next time. Smith refused to do this, apparently on the advice of Denzel Washington, who told him kissing another man on-screen would ruin his career (it’s faked through shots of the back of their heads). To Smith’s credit, he later admitted this was immature of him, but it still rankles (also, Hall camps it up a little too much). Finally, while the movie sticks very closely to the play (all of Guare’s dialogue from the play is in the movie, except for a couple of descriptive passages that Schepisi and Baker are able to show instead, such as Paul and Rick at the Rainbow Room and riding in a carriage in Central Park), including the ending, Schepisi does allow for a more hopeful note at the end that is meant to be triumphant, but as filmed, comes across as a little sitcom-ish.
But those are minor flaws compared to how well the movie is able to capture the play’s seamless ability to go from the comic to the tragic without seeming heavy-handed. In her rave review of Atlantic City, which Louis Malle directed from Guare’s original screenplay, Pauline Kael wrote:
“In a Guare play, the structure isn’t articulated. There’s nothing to hold the bright pieces together but his never and his instincts; when they’re in high gear, the play has the excitement of discovery…When I see a Guare play, I almost always feel astonished; I never know where he’s going until he gets there. Then everything ties together. He seems to have an intuitive game plan.”
Six Degrees of Separation is the only one of Guare’s plays I’ve read, and that, Atlantic City and a segment of the made-for-HBO movie Subway Stories: Tales From the Underground (entitled “The Red Shoes”, it starred Christine Lahti as a woman who got upset when a wheelchair-bound vet (Denis Leary) ran over her red shoes) are the only works of his I’ve seen on film (I’ve also never seen any of his plays performed), but from this movie, you get a good idea of what Kael was writing about. The dialogue doesn’t sound stagy at all, even when it’s speeches (such as Paul summing up his thesis, or when Paul, in Ouisa’s dream, explains the rationale for making a live-action movie of Cats). And the intuitiveness shows up in how the film handles the darker turn, when Paul is indirectly responsible for what happens to a character late in the film. Guare doesn’t make light of what happened, obviously, but he also doesn’t make the mistake of flattening the material, either. You can see that in the climax of both the play and the movie, where Ouisa is on the phone with Tess and joking about the phrase “cruelty-free cosmetics” one minute (Tess thinks her mother is endorsing cosmetics companies testing their products on animals, and Ouisa has to explain it’s not the sentiment she finds funny, it’s the phrase), until Paul calls, and Ouisa tries to convince him to turn himself in to the police (Paul, in turn, says he’ll do it only if she comes along with him). The implicit point of the story is Ouisa realizing all Paul wants is what they have, and to be included in that lifestyle, and it also leads to her wondering if maybe that lifestyle, at least for her, isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. Yet Guare is never heavy-handed about making that point, and Schepisi honors that approach as well.
Of course, they also have the help of the rest of the cast. While Channing has not only been renowned for her stage work (she was nominated for a Tony for her performance in the original stage production), as well as her TV work (her best-known work in that department is probably as Abigail Bartlet, the First Lady, on The West Wing), but hasn’t had a big film career (her best known role, over 35 years later, remains Rizzo in Grease; before Six Degrees, she had also appeared in Without a Trace (the 1983 film that loosely inspired a TV series nearly 20 years later) and Heartburn, among a few others). Of course, stage performers don’t always translate well to film, and revisiting a role you’ve already done many times has its own pitfalls, but Channing avoids them. She plays sophistication well, which makes her the perfect fit for an upper East Side New Yorker, but she also gets Ouisa’s hidden depths – the intelligence, sadness, and anger – especially in that final conversation with Paul. Sutherland, as usual, underplays very well as Flan, and you fully believe his passion for art, yet also his shortsightedness when it comes to Paul. And Davison (who recently worked with Schepisi again in Words and Pictures), Hurt, McKellen, Masur and Graham (who really should have had a bigger career) all do well in smaller roles. Which leads me to Smith. In recent years, Smith has come under fire from many in the media, especially the blogosphere, for his nepotism (the implication he’s trying to buy a movie career for his son), his belief in Scientology, the heavy-handedness of his more recent films (particularly Another Earth, his post-apocalyptic film), and especially how he seems averse to stepping outside his image (whatever you thought of Quentin Tarantino’s spaghetti Western/slavery film Django Unchained, taking on the title character would have been the type of risky move Smith has avoided). I can understand, and even agree with, many of those charges, yet I still think Smith is capable of being an engaging performer. It’s also easy to forget how this film was Smith taking a chance; at the time, he was still best known not only for his rapping, but also for the “Fresh Prince” persona he had maintained on his NBC sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. When I first saw the movie, I thought Smith was being a little too careful in his performance as Paul, only to realize that was perfect for the character. He didn’t rely on any of the mannerisms from the show (which I was never a fan of) or his goofy persona, but won you over with his charm, yet, except for the instance I mentioned above, doesn’t shy away from his dark side either (the only time he gets angry is when Ouisa calls him stupid). It’s because of his performance that Paul resonates more than just as an anecdote, and it’s because of him, the rest of the major cast, Guare, Schepisi, and the crew that Six Degrees of Separation stands not only as a very good film, but as a very good adaptation.
*-Kelly Bishop (who played Kitty in the original stage production, and also took over as Ouisa at one point), John Cunningham (Flan) and Sam Stoneburner (Geoffrey) all have cameos in the film.
**-Obviously, this wasn’t the real Sistine Chapel (even if the production could afford to go to Italy, they couldn’t get permission to shoot there), but a replica built for the movie. The shot of the Sistine Chapel showed another example of the idiocy of the MPAA, as they demanded the portrait of naked Adam on the ceiling be airbrushed out of the film’s trailer.
`-Abrams would later create a show called Six Degrees, which isn’t based on the film per se, but on the idea of characters connected to each other in ways they (and, supposedly, we) wouldn’t expect.
“-Kellner also gets one of the best lines of the film (which was also in the play), where she mocks her mother’s willingness to appear in a movie version of Cats: “I thought you hated Cats (italics mine). You said it was an all-time low in a lifetime of theatre going. You said, ‘Aeschylus did not invent the theatre to have it end up a bunch of chorus kids in cat suits prancing around wondering which of them will go to kitty-cat heaven’.”
Nearly an hour into The Dirty Dozen, Robert Aldrich’s WWII movie about the title group – American army prisoners, on death row or with long sentences – and how they’re trained for a mission behind enemy lines, Maj. Reisman (Lee Marvin) takes the platoon to a base run by Col. Breed (Robert Ryan), where they’re to train in parachute jumping. Except Reisman and Breed hate each other’s guts – Reisman thinks Breed is too much of a stick-in-the-mud in regards to rules and regulations, while Breed thinks Reisman is an undisciplined troublemaker – and to get Breed off his back, Reisman tells Capt. Kinder (Ralph Meeker), who’s been working with Reisman on behalf of their superior, General Worden (Ernest Borgnine), to tell Breed Reisman’s group is part of a secret mission and is being accompanied by a general traveling incognito. What Reisman doesn’t realize is Breed has set up a welcoming committee for the general, complete with military band (playing “National Emblem”, of course), and with his troops ready for inspection. Once Reisman does realize that, he tells Breed he’ll check to see if the general is willing to do the inspection (telling Breed about the “general” traveling incognito, which Breed understands), going to the back of the truck carrying the others, and asking who wants to imitate a general. He finally settles on Pinkley, and while the somewhat slow-witted Pinkley is reluctant at first (“I’d rather be a civilian, sir”), he eventually agrees to do it. As the others fall into formation behind him, Pinkley, wearing an Army helmet, joins Reisman, and turns around to make a funny face at the others, who all laugh at what he’s doing, to Breed’s surprise. Breed and “General” Pinkley salute each other, and Pinkley walks ahead of Breed and Reisman past one line of soldiers, turns, and starts walking between that line and another line of soldiers. He slows down and says, “They’re very pretty, Colonel, very pretty…but can they fight?” “Yes, sir,” Breed responds. “I hope you’re right,” Pinkley responds. He starts to walk again, but stops in front of one soldier (Reisman and Breed have to stop and fall back). “Where you from, son?” he asks, smiling. The soldier says proudly, “Madison City, Missouri, sir!” The smile leaves Pinkley’s face, and he shakes his head and drawls, “Never heard of it.” Reisman is pissed (when they’re alone a few seconds later, he threatens to beat Pinkley’s brains out if he ever does that again), and Breed is starting to wonder if he’s been had, but the others in Pinkley’s platoon are laughing hysterically.
Pinkley doesn’t figure much in the narrative after this (originally, he had very few lines), and ironically, his character wasn’t supposed to be the one who imitated a general at all; it was Posey (Clint Walker), the soft-spoken soldier who only got violent when pushed around, who was originally supposed to play it. However, Walker felt the scene would be ridiculous for him, and asked Aldrich not to do it, so Aldrich assigned it to the actor playing Pinkley instead. That actor, Donald Sutherland, had been studied to be an engineer, but dropped that to pursuit acting. Though he had worked steadily on the stage in London, his on-screen appearances were mostly in TV (he had played a villain on an episode of The Avengers – the show involving John Steed and Emma Peel, not Iron Man and Thor – modeled on Agatha Christie’s “Ten Little Indians”), with only occasional film roles (bit parts in Promise Her Anything and The Bedford Incident, among others). However, he hadn’t made much headway in his acting career to that point; according to him, he was once turned down for a “guy next door” part – even though the powers that be loved his audition – because he was told he didn’t look like he lived next door to anybody. He had only gotten his role in Aldrich’s film because another actor dropped out. Yet that one scene in Dirty Dozen ended up being one of the most memorable parts of the movie (Phil Kaufman, who would direct Sutherland a decade later in the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, told American Film everyone he knew said about Sutherland, “Who is that guy?”), and while Sutherland has never been a “marquee” actor – though he’s been in box-office smashes, he’s never been the guy who “opens” a movie, and though he’s appeared in Oscar-winning films, he himself has never even been nominated – he’s enjoyed a long and distinguished career.
Directly, Sutherland’s performance in The Dirty Dozen led producer Ingo Preminger to cast Sutherland in what proved to be his breakout role, as maverick doctor Captain Hawkeye Pierce in M*A*S*H. As fans of that movie know, Sutherland, as well as co-star Elliot Gould (as “Trapper” John McIntyre), wasn’t immediately receptive to director Robert Altman’s style of filmmaking (using overlapping dialogue, depending on actors coming up with their own methods, focusing on character and vignettes more than story), and he and Gould went to their agent (who handled both of them) and the studio (20th Century Fox) to complain. Preminger stuck by Altman, and Gould eventually went to Altman and apologized once he understood what Altman was trying to achieve, but while Sutherland would later regret his actions, he never went to Altman directly, and the two never worked together again. That’s ironic, as Sutherland seems quite at home in the movie. The whistle he gives when he’s either lost in thought or making a joke (as when he reveals to Duke (Tom Skerritt) and Col. Blake (Roger Bowen) that he’s a doctor and not the driver), the way he convinces Father Mulcahy (Rene Auberjonois) to bless Painless (John Schuck) as he’s about to kill himself (or so Painless thinks), or the imitations he does (when Marston (Michael Murphy), the gas passer on an operation Trapper and Hawkeye are doing on a senator’s son in Tokyo, asks Hawkeye who he thinks he is, Sutherland puts on a creepy voice to say, “I’m Dr. Jekyll, and this is my assistant Mr. Hyde”) all are in sync not only with the style, but also the message of the movie; in an atmosphere as crazy as war (though nominally set in Korea, many understood Altman and writer Ring Lardner Jr. were really talking about Vietnam), decorum doesn’t matter, only professionalism. To that end, Sutherland also handles well the closest thing the movie has to a thesis statement, when he tells Maj. Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan (Sally Kellerman), with whom he had a run-in earlier in the movie, “You may be a pain in the ass, but you’re a hell of a good nurse”.
M*A*S*H was one of five movies Sutherland appeared in that year (1970), which also saw him as a worried director in Paul Mazursky’s Alex in Wonderland (which I’ve never seen, but which was inspired by Fellini’s 8 1/2), as one set of mismatched identical twins (Gene Wilder plays the other) in Bud Yorkin’s uneven but funny French Revolution War spoof Start the Revolution Without Me, as a priest with an unusual relationship with religious fanatic Genevieve Bujold (like Sutherland, a Canadian, though she was from Quebec and he from New Brunswick) in Act of the Heart (which I’ve also never seen), and as an anachronistic hippie-ish soldier in Brian G. Hutton’s WWII adventure film Kelly’s Heroes, co-starring Clint Eastwood (with whom he would work again 30 years later). Sutherland didn’t appear in that many films in one year again (he had done it in 1968), but he would work steadily throughout his career, especially in the 70’s. It also showed how varied his choices were. Alan Arkin’s film version of Little Murders (with Jules Feiffer adapting his own play) is an uneven but often biting and hilarious black comedy, with Sutherland a highlight as the somewhat eccentric priest who marries Elliot Gould and Marcia Rodd. That same year, he played the title character in Alan J. Pakula’s Klute, a detective trying to find his missing friend. The film works best as a character study of Bree Daniels (Jane Fonda), the prostitute Klute ends up falling in love with, and less well as a thriller/mystery, but while Sutherland’s role and performance are essentially passive, he shows how well he works with other performers. Look, for example, at the famous scene where Bree reacts angrily to Klute after she finds out he spied on one of her clients (an elderly garment factory owner who’s never been anywhere; all she does for him is pretend she’s just gotten back from some exotic vacation, and strip for him); while Fonda (who’s terrific) alternates between angry (“And what’s your bag, Klute? What do you like? You a talker? A button freak?”) and seductive (after Klute quietly asks her to zip her dress back up, she purrs, “Men would pay $200 for me, and here you are turning down a freebie”), Sutherland remains quiet and focused, yet the focus is always on Fonda and nothing else. Sutherland and Fonda had a brief affair during and after the making of that movie, and they shared the same passion for left-wing politics (they appeared in the “anti-Establishment” comedy Steelyard Blues two years later – which I’ve never seen – and they were also part of a tour of towns near military bases – which also included Peter Boyle and singer Holly Near – to play for soldiers who were against the Vietnam War, later documented in F.T.A., which stood for either “Free The Army” or “Fuck The Army”), which also probably inspired Sutherland’s appearance in Dalton Trumbo’s heavy-handed anti-war film Johnny Got His Gun, with Sutherland, as Jesus Christ (he appears in dream sequences), being the best part.
Don’t Look Now, the 1973 horror/thriller adapted by director Nicolas Roeg from the short story by Daphne Du Maurier, was not only another big hit, it was another turning point in Sutherland’s career. According to that American Film article I mentioned above, he quarreled with Roeg over a particular scene (Roeg insisted on doing it his way, Sutherland wanted to try another way), and it was that experience that led him to see that the director was the captain of the ship, and should be the one people defer to. Other actors have come to the conclusion that the director holds the power in movies – it’s a major reason why many actors say either they want to direct, or that they prefer the theatre – but few have put it into such stark terms (Sutherland called himself the director’s “concubine”, claiming his job for a good director was to be submissive to him), or in favorable ones (in that article, he gave credit to the director for all of his good work, and blamed himself for all the bad work). Whatever you think of Sutherland’s methods or feelings, they work for the film. I must say I’ve never been the fan of this other people are – for a film about the trauma from the loss of a child, it feels curiously detached, as if Roeg saw the story more as an intellectual exercise – but it is a film that stays with you and bears repeat viewings (as do all of Roeg’s best films), and Sutherland is again very good as the methodical character (he restores ancient architecture and paintings) who thinks in terms of logic, not realizing until too late just what it is he sees (he’s implied to be a seer, though he rejects that notion).
The Day of the Locust, director John Schlesinger’s adaptation of the notorious Hollywood novel by Nathanael West, is another film that doesn’t completely come together, but Sutherland was nevertheless very good in it. Fans of a certain long-running animated TV show will, of course, get a chuckle out of his character name, Homer Simpson, and it’s a part that may seem unplayable (an accountant who seems to be the one “pure” character in the cesspool of 30’s Hollywood). But Sutherland makes believable his Homer’s naiveté, his devotion to Faye (Karen Black) – the aspiring starlet who damages the lives she touches – even as he realizes she doesn’t love him and never will (the scene where he reveals that is touching, and all the more powerful for being one of the few scenes in the movie that’s still instead of frenzied), but also the danger behind him, as when, near the end, he attacks his child tormentor (Jackie Earle Haley), which starts the climactic riot at the end of the film. Homer’s especially short haircut and height (in real life, Sutherland stands at 6’4”) make him look out of place as well, yet Sutherland never overdoes it. The same can not be said, unfortunately, for the Fascist character he plays in Bernardo Bertolucci’s unwieldy epic 1900, where his overacting threatens to derail the movie (once again, Sutherland blamed himself rather than Bertolucci, even as he acknowledged the performance was all wrong for the film).
1978 saw two of Sutherland’s biggest hits, National Lampoon’s Animal House and the remake of the 1956 low-budget sci-fi film Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Michael Crichton’s film version of his novel The Great Train Robbery, which saw him, Sean Connery and Lesley-Anne Down rob a train in mid-19th century England – inspired by a true story – was a more modest hit, and a modest though entertaining film). In the former, Sutherland played another character out of step with the others, here a literature professor who professes contempt for what he’s teaching (he calls Milton boring, but says teaching it is his job), and is more interested in smoking pot (which he does with three students, played by Karen Allen, Tom Hulce and Peter Riegert, and he later has an affair with Allen’s character). This is another film I’m not as much a fan of as others – fratboy comedies are not my style – but Sutherland helps ground the movie in his few scenes. The latter, according to that American Film article, represented another turning point in his career. Tired, as he said, of being typecast as “weirdo” characters, he lobbied hard for the role of the film’s hero, a health inspector who at first doubts his partner’s (Brooke Adams) assertion something strange is happening to people (insisting, yet again, there must be a logical explanation), only to realize it’s even more horrifying than he previously guessed. Director Phil Kaufman and writer W.D. Richter follow the lead of Don Siegel’s original film in using the story as metaphor (placing it within the self-help and cult movements of the time, especially in big cities like San Francisco, where the movie is set), but go beyond the original by upping both the humor (upon told the object he’s found in a soup pot is a caper, not a rat turd as he claims, Sutherland deadpans, “If it’s a caper, eat it”) and the viscera (we actually see the pod bodies being formed, as well as Sutherland smashing his clone, though he can’t bring himself to smash the others). And again, Sutherland’s performance is crucial to why the movie works so well (though he’s not the only highlight; Adams, Veronica Cartwright, Jeff Goldblum and Leonard Nimoy are all terrific as well), as he again grounds the movie in reality. That reality is also what makes the ending – the only version of this story that doesn’t end on a triumphant note – so shocking.
Wanting to play, again, more ordinary characters naturally led him to a movie with “ordinary” in the title, Ordinary People, based on the best-selling novel by Judith Guest, and marking the directorial debut of Robert Redford. Sutherland plays Calvin, an upper middle-class man who is trying to connect with his troubled son Conrad (Timothy Hutton, in his film debut). Calvin at first may seem excessively cheery, but then you realize he’s the main one who’s trying to make sure Conrad is okay (as the film opens, Conrad’s just back from the hospital after trying to kill himself), and you also see how devastated he is when he realizes how much his wife Beth (Mary Tyler Moore) has cut herself off emotionally from him and Conrad. The picture is mostly remember today as the film that deprived Raging Bull of winning the Oscar for Best Picture and Director, and that’s unfair. The film is somewhat schematic at times, but it is ultimately touching, and features terrific work from Hutton, Judd Hirsch (as Conrad’s psychiatrist), M. Emmet Walsh (as Conrad’s swim coach), Elizabeth McGovern (as a student Conrad becomes friends with), and, of course, Sutherland. The highlights of his performance are his scene with Conrad’s psychiatrist, and the scene near the end of the movie when he tells Beth he doesn’t think he loves her anymore. Sutherland plays it both times as if the emotions roiling underneath were just occurring to him, making them all the more powerful. Yet again, it’s surprising how, considering everyone else in the main cast (Moore, Hutton and Hirsch) received Oscar nominations (Hutton ended up winning), Sutherland was ignored, as his performance, next to Hutton’s, is arguably the most crucial.
As I mentioned earlier, Sutherland was a prolific actor when his career got going (in The Eagle Has Landed, a rote 1976 adaptation of Jack Higgins’ novel about a Nazi plot to kidnap Churchill, he co-starred with Michael Caine, arguably the most prolific star at that time), but starting in the 80’s, for whatever reason, he seemed to take things easy for a while. In that American Film article, he mentioned how while he loved acting, he felt it had become a compulsion, and he wanted to get back to working because he wanted to, not because he felt he had to (this also may have had to do with an attack of meningitis he suffered in 1979). But as with many actors who came to prominence in the late 60’s and the 70’s, he wasn’t able to find as many good movies and roles in the 80’s. Sometimes, he’d be the best thing, or one of the best things, about a mediocre or bad movie, as in the leader of a group of would-be robbers in Crackers, Louis Malle’s indifferent remake of Big Deal on Madonna Street, as the firm but fair priest in Michael Dinner’s uneven comedy/drama Heaven Help Us (though, to be fair, he’s not the only highlight; John Heard and Mary Stuart Masterson are equally good), or as a doctor who tries to help troubled teen Adam Horovitz (aka Ad Rock of The Beastie Boys) in Hugh Hudson’s overwrought Lost Angels. However, he also seemed to show indifference, as when he played a British colonel in Hugh Hudson’s abysmal Revolution, or played the warden menacing Sylvester Stallone in the equally abysmal Lock-Up, directed by John Flynn, or was surprisingly flat, as when he played a South African who becomes radicalized in Euzhan Palcy’s well-meaning but heavy-handed A Dry White Season (to be fair, Marlon Brando and Zakes Mokae were the only ones who came off well).* The only films where he not only seemed engaged, but the film seemed to support that engagement, were Eye of the Needle, which is not a great movie, but sizzles when Sutherland, as a Nazi agent, is stranded on an island with lonely housewife Kate Nelligan, Threshold, where he and Jeff Goldblum shone as doctors who performed the first artificial heart transplant, and the Neil Simon-penned Max Dugan Returns, where he plays a police detective investigating con man Jason Robards. And while all three of those were watchable, none measured up to his best work in the 70’s.**
As the 90’s began, Sutherland started to work more again, but seemed no better off than he had been in the 80’s. For the second time in his career, he played Norman Bethune, a well-known Canadian doctor who helped the Chinese during their war with Japan in the late 30’s, in Bethune: The Making of a Hero (he had earlier played Bethune in a made-for-TV movie in 1977), but the film was somewhat stilted. John Irvin’s Eminent Domain was at least an interesting try – he and Anne Archer play a couple in 1979 Poland whose lives are turned upside down when he’s drummed out of his government position for what seems to be no reason – but the film runs aground after a suspenseful first half. As the psychotic arsonist in Ron Howard’s impressive looking but shallow firefighter drama Backdraft, Sutherland gives the movie its only charge, particularly in his scene with Robert De Niro (as the arson investigator who caught him), and he does it by underplaying. By contrast, while Sutherland’s hardly the only reason why the movie of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is nowhere near as good as the subsequent TV series – director Fran Ruben Kuzui made the film campy and joke-filled, cutting out the emotion that helped make the show so memorable – he is completely bland as Merrick, the man who reveals to Buffy (Kristy Swanson) her destiny (fans of Joss Whedon, who wrote the script and created the show, know he and Sutherland clashed during filming). Only his cameo in Oliver Stone’s controversial JFK, as a “Deep Throat”-type figure who gives crucial information to Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner), seemed to not only fully engage him, but also be worthy of his talents. In 1993, however, he gave a terrific performance in Fred Schepisi’s adaptation of John Guare’s Tony-nominated play Six Degrees of Separation. He played Flan, an art dealer who, along with his wife Ouisa (Stockard Channing, reprising her stage role), is charmed by Paul (Will Smith), a man who claims to be friends with their children, and the illegitimate son of Sidney Poitier. Understandably, he was overshadowed by Channing and Smith’s performances, but Sutherland is very good in showing the hypocrisies of his character without being condescending.
Sutherland hit his 60’s in the middle of the 90’s, and whether by happenstance or design, ended up playing mentors or authority figures. Often, the films ranged from mediocre (Disclosure, which was better than the Michael Crichton novel it was based on, but not by much, The Puppet Masters, adapted from the novel by Robert Heinlein, The Assignment, a fictional film about trying to catch the terrorist Carlos with a double) to awful (A Time to Kill, an overheated adaptation of John Grisham’s overheated novel, Shadow Conspiracy, a dopey governmental conspiracy movie), though it must be said he was good in all of them. However, he gave his two best performances of the decade – and two of his best performances ever – in mentor roles as well. The made-for-HBO movie Citizen X, directed by Chris Gerolmo (who wrote the screenplay for Mississippi Burning), is based on the true story of a serial killer that terrorized the former Soviet Union in the 1980’s. Sutherland plays Col. Fetisov, the one military officer who is sympathetic to the efforts of forensic specialist/detective Lt. Burakov (Stephen Rea) in trying to solve the case – the official Soviet position was that “serial killers” were an entirely Western phenomenon, and the government was more interested in locking up gays than in trying to find the real killer – though he does so by pragmatism and even blackmail while Burakov has no talent for dealing with bureaucracy, at least at first. Sutherland, of course, had played this type of part before, but what was especially notable was the sharpness and humor he brought to it (when Burakov, late in the movie, actually butters Fetisov up in order to get what he wants, Fetisov dryly notes, “I’ve created a monster”), and he also underplayed his character’s hidden decency as well. Arguably the best scene in the movie is after communism collapsed, and Fetisov tells Burakov they are now free to conduct the investigation the way Burakov has wanted to all along. Rea has the showier role here in that his character breaks down in tears – though it’s understandable, and he doesn’t overdo it – but Sutherland perfectly compliments him, especially when he’s retelling an FBI agent’s praise of Burakov. Sutherland deservedly won his first Golden Globe (for Best Supporting Actor in a Series, Mini-Series, or Made-For-TV Movie) for his performance here. I’ve written about Sutherland’s performance as track coach (and co-founder of Nike) Bill Bowerman in Robert Towne’s Without Limits, and he was nominated for a Golden Globe for that performance as well. Again, the role shows off his humor (as when Steve Prefontaine (Billy Crudup), frustrated by all the orders Bowerman is giving him, asks if he thinks there’s such a thing as over-coaching, and Bowerman deadpans, “Yeah…I’m against it”) and his ability to underplay (as when he tells Pre about his relationship with his wife (Judith Ivey), whom he doesn’t understand but loves anyway).
Nothing Sutherland did after Towne’s unjustly neglected film has been quite as memorable, although he has had a few bright spots. When Clint Eastwood’s Space Cowboys, about four aging astronauts (Eastwood, Sutherland, Tommy Lee Jones and James Garner) who go into space on a mission, is a comedy, it’s on sure ground (it loses its way when it becomes an action movie in the second half), and Sutherland is a hoot as lech (when Blair Brown, as a doctor, comes in while the four are naked, the other three all try to cover themselves, while Sutherland stands still with a smile on his face and tries to flirt with her). Playing another mentor – albeit a twisted one – in Panic, another unjustly neglected film (written and directed by the late Henry Bromell), he’s quite chilling as the father of reluctant professional killer William H. Macy. Though he doesn’t give the standout performance in John Frankenheimer’s last film, the made-for-HBO road-to-Vietnam docudrama Path to War – Alec Baldwin, as Robert McNamara, has never been better in a dramatic performance, and should have received the Golden Globe Sutherland won – Sutherland is very good as Clark Clifford, the close adviser to Lyndon B. Johnson (Michael Gambon), and one who, like many others, parted way with the President over Vietnam. Joe Wright’s adaptation of the classic Jane Austen novel Pride & Prejudice wasn’t well received by many Austen fans for being grittier than Austen adaptations usually are, but Sutherland is very good as Mr. Bennet, especially in the scene near the end when Elizabeth (Keira Knightley) tells him she wants to marry Mr. Darcy (Matthew Macfadyen), and Sutherland also brings a dry humor to the role. And whatever you think of the Hunger Games movies to date, Sutherland is appropriately creepy as totalitarian leader President Snow (I also liked the movies Cold Mountain, the remake of The Italian Job, and to a lesser extent, Reign Over Me, but admittedly, his work in those films was routine, if watchable). Whether he’ll find another role or movie as good as his best work (which, IMHO, is M*A*S*H, the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Ordinary People, Citizen X, and Without Limits) remains to be seen, but overall, Sutherland remains, after a career spanning nearly 50 years, one of the best actors working today. Not bad for someone who supposedly didn’t look like he lived next door to anybody.
*-One area Sutherland did sometimes struggle with in his acting was in expressing anger. He could either be merely self-righteous, as in A Dry White Season, or monotonous, as he was in playing an evil army general in Wolfgang Peterson’s disease thriller Outbreak.
**-For my money, the best thing Sutherland appeared in during the 80’s was Kate Bush’s music video for her song “Cloudbusting”, where he played Wilhelm Reich.
This is my entry in the Spielberg blogathon, hosted by Kellee (Outspoken & Freckled), Michael (It Rains… You Get Wet) and Aurora (Citizen Screenings), taking place August 23-24. Please visit these host blogs for a full list of participating blogs. Hope you enjoy my post.
Whatever your opinion has been of Steven Spielberg over the years – I count myself as a fan of many, if not all, of the films he’s made – his fans and detractors alike can probably agree he’s a director of emotion and of viscera (where they disagree, of course, is how he applies emotion and viscera in his films). One of the knocks against Spielberg has been that he’s not a filmmaker of ideas (or a filmmaker interested in ideas), and while I like Amistad more than many people do, I have to admit it was a struggle for him (albeit an intriguing one) to make a movie like this dominated by ideas (which is why he tried to throw in stabs of emotion like the “Give us free!” scene). However, Munich, in my opinion, managed to be a film of ideas while also using viscera and emotion to effectively communicate those ideas.
Munich, of course, is where the 1972 Olympics were held, and where 11 Israeli athletes were kidnapped and later killed by a Palestinian terror group calling itself Black September, and the beginning of Spielberg’s film (credited to Tony Kushner and Eric Roth, adapting the book Vengeance by George Jonas) shows both the kidnapping of the athletes and the coverage the kidnapping and eventual botched rescue attempt received (most of it by ABC, through Peter Jennings – who was hidden in a room where he could see what was happening – and Wide World of Sports anchor Jim McKay). Some time later, Avner (Eric Bana), a German-born Mossad agent who knows Europe, is hand-picked by Israeli Premier Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen) to lead a small group to track down and kill the members of Black September (the only conditions being they don’t go into Soviet countries for diplomatic reasons, and Arab countries for safety reasons). Except for Carl (Ciaran Hinds), a former Israeli soldier whose job is to clean up after every job, the other members of the group are diaspora Jews; Steve (Daniel Craig), a South African driver and gunman, Hans (Hanns Zischler), a Belgian forger, and Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz), a Belgian toy-maker whose specialty is defusing bombs and who is now being asked to make bombs. With money supplied through a bank in Zurich, Avner and his team go to Europe, and through Andreas (Moritz Bleibtreu), a friend of Avner’s, and Tony (Yvan Attal), a friend of Andreas, they come in contact with Louis (Mathieu Amalric), leader of a group who sells information to anyone and any group as long as they aren’t working officially on behalf of a government, and who gives Avner and his group (who pretend to be working on behalf of “rich Americans”) information on how to find their targets.
In basic outline, this is a thriller, and Spielberg does fulfill the requirements of the genre, and in his trademark fashion. Take the second target the group attacks, Mahmoud Hamshari (Igal Naor), a PLO member who is now living in Paris with his wife and daughter. Robert gets into Mahmoud’s apartment by pretending to be a reporter who wants to interview Mahmoud about the Arab hijacking of a Lufthansa jet to get three Black September members released (and the press conference they held afterwards), and when Robert pretends to need to phone his editor, he goes to the phone and draws an outline of its shape and its bottom. When Mahmoud and his family have exited the apartment one day, Avner and Robert pose as workers (while Carl watches over them) to sneak in, and Robert exchanges the phone in the apartment with one wired to go off when Mahmoud answers the phone. Sometime later, Carl is in a phone booth, while Steve, Hans and Robert are in a car across the street from the apartment building, and Avner is on the sidewalk near the building, waiting for Mahmoud’s wife and daughter to leave. When they do, Avner takes off his hat, Carl gets ready to call, and Robert turns on his device to activate the bomb. Except a cargo truck pulls up alongside Steve’s car, and Avner temporarily halts Carl while he checks with Robert to see if the signal still works; unbeknownst to them, the car with Mahmoud’s wife and daughter returns so the daughter can get the phone book her mother left behind; when Avner is assured there’s nothing to worry about, he signals Carl to resume, but when the daughter answers the phone, and Avner sees the car has returned to the building, he and Carl frantically rush to Robert to prevent him from activating the bomb before it’s too late. Finally, when the daughter (along with her mother and their driver) leaves, Carl makes the call and the bomb goes off, but it doesn’t kill Mahmoud, it only wounds him.
That, of course, shows Spielberg, Roth and Kushner playing with genre expectations, but they had already laid the groundwork for it earlier. Meir had been criticized for trying to negotiate with Black September to get the Israeli athletes released (she tells Avner she couldn’t go to their funeral because she had to go to a family member’s funeral, but Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush), the Mossad head who becomes Avner’s handler, guesses she didn’t go to their funeral because she didn’t want to be booed), but is now authorizing the (unofficial) hunt for Black September, and muses, “Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values”. Ephraim, who first appears at the meeting Avner attends with Meir and other government and military figures when Avner is first assigned the job (he’s sitting at a desk behind where Avner is standing, and only speaks after everyone else leaves), gives the type of information to Avner you’d expect in this type of thriller (“We deposit money from a fund that doesn’t exist into a box we don’t know about in a bank we’ve never set foot in. We can’t help you because we never heard of you before”), but even has a little humor about it (Ephraim offers Avner baklava, and when Avner turns it down, claims it’s good Avner turned down sweets, because, now that he’s no longer officially with the Mossad, he no longer has dental insurance)*. And while Avner is willing to follow orders without question, at least at first (Ephraim praises him for not asking questions at the first meeting), he can’t help being a little cynical about the whole operation at first; when Meir says Avner was one of her favorite bodyguards, Avner can’t help asking, “You like having the son of a hero around?” (Avner’s father, a war hero, is now in prison) The rest of the group is also cynical at first, especially when they find out, except for Avner and Carl, no one is really an experienced soldier, and they’re not even sure about them (when Steve asks Avner why he was made team leader, Hans cracks, “Because he really knows how to cook a brisket”, which cracks everyone up).
That early cynicism, however, turns into something more pronounced as the team continues to chase their targets. After they shoot and kill Abel Wael Zwaiter (Makram Khoury), their first target (who’s now a poet living in Rome), Avner decides they should use bombs from then on because of the statement it makes (“it terrorizes the terrorists”). However, this proves easier said than done; while Robert gets criticized for using too small a bomb against Mahmoud, he’s criticized for going too far the other way when he tries to blow up the hotel room where Hussein Al Bashir (Mostefa Djadjam) is, and the bomb not only blows up Hussien’s room, it also blows up the hotel room where Avner was (he was giving the signal from the balcony), as well as the room between them where a couple was staying (since Louis supplied the explosives, Robert blames him; naturally, Louis claims Robert messed it up). Things become even further strained between Avner and Louis when Louis gives Avner the names of three PLO members in Beirut, and Ephraim lets the team go on the condition an Israeli commando team accompany them, which angers Louis because of his rule of not working for governments. Then there’s the close call when the team happens to be in a safe house with a PLO group they eventually have to do battle with (again, the safe house was set up by Louis’ father (Michel Lonsdale), who is in charge of Louis’ group). More important than any of that, however, is while Avner is disinclined to question their orders at first (he tells Carl at one point, “Stop chasing the mice around in your head”), he and the rest of the team are soon having doubts about the mission. They don’t know for sure if the people they’re killing are really Black September or not, as the Lufthansa hijacking and other incidents make clear, the people they do kill are being replaced by people even more dangerous (and who are targeting them), and Avner (and some of the others) are having trouble sleeping at night and are being plagued by nightmares by what they’ve done.
The ideas from that last part – that violence begets violence, and the cost to your soul for using the same methods your enemies use to stop them – aren’t particularly new ones, of course, but they are as relevant now as they ever were, thanks not just to what’s going on in the Middle East right now, but given our memories of the War on Terror here. Spielberg, Roth and Kushner were slammed on both sides for this movie – some thought it was pro-Israel, others pro-PLO – but I’d argue they’re less interested in demonizing either side than in grappling with those questions. Part of that is dealt with in dialogue, of course (Robert at one point says, “We are supposed to be righteous. That’s a beautiful thing. And we’re losing it”), but again, Spielberg, along with cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and editor Michael Kahn communicate those ideas viscerally and visually as well. With the exception of the very first hit they undertake, none of the jobs they undertake go smoothly (the one person who was supposedly the mastermind behind what happened in Munich is never killed by the team), and Spielberg are able to make you feel all this without descending into what has been called “chaos cinema”. Even something as simple as taking revenge – when Avner and Steve kill Jeanette (Marie-Josee Croze), a Dutch assassin who tried to seduce Avner so she could kill him, and when he turned her down, seduced and killed Carl instead – doesn’t go away; Hans refuses to treat her as human (when Avner tries to cover up her naked body after killing her, Hans angrily tells him to stop), but then confesses he’s had nightmares about killing her. The most controversial method they use comes at the very end, when Avner is having sex with his wife Daphna (Ayelet Zurer) after he’s joined her in Brooklyn, and he’s reliving the moment when the Black September group killed the Israeli athletes. When I first saw the movie, I agreed with those who said this was, at best, misguided (particularly since it’s showing events Avner couldn’t have possibly seen). However, I now think it’s another way of showing just how haunted Avner is by what he’s done, and how it’s never going to leave him, even doing something he obviously enjoys as much as having sex with Daphna.
As I mentioned at the beginning, Spielberg does trade in emotion, and one emotion his detractors normally tag him with is sentimentality, which I’ll admit can be a fault of his, in films such as Hook and The Terminal, for example, which are two of my least favorites of his. Spielberg does brush against sentimentality here, but always manages to pull back in time. The scene where the team (who is pretending to be from other revolutionary/terror groups like the Red Army Faction) and the PLO team end up at the same safe house is a good example. Steve and one of the PLO members look like they’re going to get in a confrontation over which music to listen to on the radio until Steve finds Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together”, and they both grin at each other briefly. Spielberg, Kaminski and Kahn hold the moment just long enough to see the temporary bond, yet also show the discord, as we see Avner and the leader of the PLO group arguing over Israel. The women characters don’t get a lot to do in this movie, but Daphna avoids sentimentality as well. After she’s given birth, Avner tries to get her to move to Brooklyn because it may not be safe for her in Israel, but she doesn’t want to move because Israel is home to her; when Avner says she’s the only home he’s ever known, she laughs, calls him corny, and wonders why she married a sentimentalist (earlier, when she was pregnant, Avner asked her how long into pregnancy was she supposed to stop having sex, and Daphna cracked, “Labor”). The final shot of the movie, from a distance, is of the World Trade Center, which is less a nod to sentiment, I think, than a reminder. Finally, even though Avner does come to see Louis’ father as a father figure to him, we also see the resentment it causes Louis, and we never forget Papa, as he is called, is dangerous.
The performances are all terrific across the board as well. Bana’s had a tough time in Hollywood since coming over on the strength of his work in Chopper, and this is probably his best performance in Hollywood, as he not only carries himself like a soldier, but also shows the toll the work has taken on Avner without overdoing it. Kassovitz has talked about wanting to devote himself exclusively to directing, and I think that’s a shame, not only because I’m not a fan of his as a director, but because he’s so good as an actor, as he is here in playing Robert as someone way over his head. This isn’t the best of Craig’s pre-Bond work, but he does show a lot underneath Steve’s bluster, and Hinds and Zischler are dependable and good. Amalric is spot on as the amoral Louis while also showing the bitterness and hidden code underneath. Croze, up till this point best known for her turn as the drug addict/dealer in The Barbarian Invasions, only has a couple of scenes, but is both alluring and dangerous as the assassin. Best of all are Rush and Lonsdale, both showing the worldview of people who have seen too much (along with Rush, Lonsdale also gets food-related humor as a way of humanizing his character; Papa complains he and Avner both have hands that are too big to be effective as cooks, and calls that “tragic”). At one point in the movie, Carl tells Avner, “The only thing that really scares (guys like you) is stillness.” By not being scared of characters who have seen too much, or of ideas, yet not abandoning his prodigious gifts to communicate those ideas or show those characters, Spielberg, in Munich, has made one of his best movies.
In the introduction to an interview he did with Pete Townshend for Musician magazine, Bill Flanagan called him “the rarest of men – he gives in to his impulses and analyzes what he’s doing the whole time”. That certainly describes Robin Williams, who died yesterday at 63. It’s part of what gave his stand-up, at its best – and at its best, Williams was one of the greats, just below Pryor and Carlin -its charge; wherever his free-association came from (his addictions, his agile mind, the madness of his life, or a combination of all of those), it was dizzying to watch, and at the same time, you wondered just how he processed all of it. In fact, he did as well; one of his great early routines was taking you inside the brain process of the typical stand-up comedian, and he did a brilliant riff about comedy on Inside the Actors’ Studio, among other places. The capacity for giving in to his impulses while analyzing why he did so is also what seemed to make him candid in interviews when he talked about battling his demons (his addictions, his failed marriages), and it managed to tie together both his cerebral (he’d often reference Einstein, Gandhi and Shakespeare, among others, and lest we forget, he attended Julliard) and scatological impulses (he also did a whole routine on Lorena Bobbitt when she was in the news) both in his act and during his interviews. Stand-up appearances, and talk shows, was where he could both give in to his impulses and analyze them, and make doing both funny. Movies are a different medium, of course, and there were certain impulses he gave into some of the movies he made that didn’t bring out his best side (I’m afraid I’ve never been a fan of Popeye or Mrs. Doubtfire, for example). But when he was at his best, he was able to show how he was more versatile than you might think. Here are my favorite Williams performances on film:
(1) The World According to Garp: John Irving is a novelist whom I’ve never quite been able to warm up to, as I’ve often found him self-consciously quirky (except for The Cider House Rules). When George Roy Hill and Steve Tesich adapted the film in 1982, however, they played it straight (just as Hill did a decade earlier with another adaptation of a strange novel thought unfilmable, Slaughterhouse Five), and it works. The movie was also the first demonstration Williams was perfectly capable of submerging himself into the part instead of tailoring it to suit his persona. Though he admitted in an interview with Rolling Stone that he might have done the role even better at the time he gave the interview (1988) because he knew more then about being a parent than he did while making the movie, he still shows someone totally devoted to his kids (the scenes where he just wants to watch them work very well). He’s also convincing as a writer and as someone who loves his activist mother (Glenn Close) even as he’s exasperated by her sometimes. Williams isn’t the only one who shines in this movie – Close, Mary Beth Hurt (as Williams’ wife), and John Lithgow (as a transsexual former football player) are all terrific as well – but he’s the one who holds it all together, and make Irving’s quirkiness endearing instead of being annoying.
(2) Moscow on the Hudson: Many directors who broke out in the late 60’s-early 70’s had trouble during the blockbuster era of the 80’s. One of the few who seemed to flourish, after a slow start, was Paul Mazursky, who made a string of comedies (even Enemies: A Love Story finds comedy in its dark subject matter) that were both funny and genuinely intelligent (Moon Over Parador was the weakest of them, but it had its moments). His streak began with Moscow on the Hudson, which saw Williams play a Russian saxophonist who, while visiting in New York City with the Moscow circus (whom he plays for) decides, on an impulse, to defect in Bloomingdale’s. The rest of the movie deals with the consequences of that decision. The central joke of Mazursky’s film is that everyone is trying to assimilate in their own way, from Fernando Rey (as the immigration lawyer who helps him, to Cleavant Derricks (as the Bloomingdale’s security guard from Alabama who takes Williams in), and to Maria Conchita Alonso (as the perfume sales clerk whom Williams falls in love with), and while Mazursky is generous with all of the characters (even the KGB agents who warn the members of the Moscow circus against defecting are overwhelmed by New York City), he never lets the film dive into sentimentality. And Williams manages to be both convincing as a Russian (he speaks the language through the first part of the film) and as a saxophone player, while also being funny and staying in character; so we get, for example, how it’s endearing when he hides under Alonso’s dress (when he first decides to defect and is trying to get away from the KGB), but when he does it later in the movie (when he’s trying to win her back after they’ve argued), it isn’t.
(3) Good Morning Vietnam: This was the first film Williams did that attempted to filter his stand-up sensibility into a film role. Barry Levinson’s movie, a fictionalized version of the experiences of real-life DJ Adrian Cronauer’s stint with the Armed Forces Radio Network in Vietnam, doesn’t wear as well as it did when I first saw it in the theater (for a movie set in Vietnam during the war, it shows only a cursory interest in the Vietnamese, and the three prominent Vietnamese characters are all stereotypes), but Williams’ on-air routines are as funny today as they were over 25 years ago (especially when he’s imitating Ethel Merman jamming Russian radar, as well as their response). And again, he also shows his capability for drama, as in the scene after he witnesses the aftermath of a bomb going off at a restaurant and is ordered by his superior officer (J.T. Walsh) not to report it; the way his voice cracks as he’s trying to be funny and failing still gets me every time. And though Williams can sometimes steamroller over other performers, he works very well with Forest Whitaker as the officer who works most closely with Cronauer (and who fights to get him back on the air after the brass, led by Walsh, suspend him following the bomb incident).
(4) The Adventures of Baron Munchausen: Williams wasn’t the first choice to play the King of the Moon character encountered by Baron Munchausen (John Neville) and Sally (Sarah Polley), the little girl who escapes with him from a battle in her town. Sean Connery, who had worked with director Terry Gilliam on Time Bandits, was the first choice, but when he pulled out, Williams, who was a big fan of Monty Python, signed on. As Levinson did on Good Morning Vietnam, Gilliam gave Williams (billed as Ray D. Tutto – “but you can call me Ray”) free reign to improvise his part, and the result was a perfect showcase of the split between his cerebral and scatological impulses while also being true to the character. After all, the King is someone whose head can literally separate from his body, and while his head talks about higher things (“I think, therefore you is”) – or wanting to, anyway (“I have tides to regulate and comets to direct! I have no time for flatulence and orgasms!”) – the body simply wants pleasure of all kinds, from eating to tickling his wife’s (Valentina Cortese) feet (and no, that’s not a double entendre). While watching the King’s head go off on one of his tangents, Sally says, “He’s gone funny”, and for me, she’s right, in both senses of the word. In later years, Williams would occasionally make cameos in both films (as a mime instructor in Bobcat Goldthwait’s Shakes the Clown) and on TV (with Billy Crystal on an episode of Friends), this five-minute (or so) appearance remains, for me, his best appearance in that regard.
(5) Dead Poets Society: I am also not as big a fan of this movie as others are (I don’t think it earns its sentimentality), but I will say Williams is terrific here. While he does a few comic bits (as when he’s imitating Marlon Brando and John Wayne doing Shakespeare), he mostly stays in character in playing a teacher who inspires his poetry students at a 1950’s New England prep school. You believe Williams knows his subject, especially when he gives this speech:
We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race, and the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering; these are noble pursuits, and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance love; these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, “O me, O life, of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless…of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?” Answer; that you are here, that life exists, and identity. That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?
And again, the film shows how a strong director (Peter Weir) is able to not only rein him in (Williams gets top billing, and was nominated for Best Actor, but is arguably playing a supporting role), but also gets him to interact well with the young actors playing his students, particularly Ethan Hawke as a student trying to live up to the legacy of his older brother and Robert Sean Leonard as a student with a difficult relationship with his father. However I may object to the turns the film’s script takes, I have no quarrel with Williams’ performance here.
(6) Awakenings: The same year as this film, Williams also starred in the underrated comedy Cadillac Man, playing a car salesman who tries to calm down Tim Robbins after the latter takes the dealership Williams works at hostage. Awakenings, based on the book by Oliver Sacks, is the one that received more attention, and while director Penny Marshall doesn’t always rise above sentimentality, I do think it deserved the praise and box office it received. As Leonard, a patient who’s been catatonic for several years until a drug treatment revives him for a time, Robert De Niro received an Oscar nomination, and he’s fine until his character relapses (at which point he seems to rely on tics), but I think Williams was actually better. Malcolm Sayer (the doctor Williams played; he agreed to change the name so he’d avoid the problems that came up with the liberties taken in playing Cronauer) is a familiar type – the scientist who’s brilliant at his work but has a hard time with human interaction – but Williams makes it work. Whether trying to convince his superior (John Heard) the treatment he’s proposing works, or his awkwardness with Julie Kavner (as a nurse who has a crush on him), Williams never steps outside the character, or condescends to it. And again, he’s generous with his co-stars; as I said, I think De Niro’s performance goes awry when the side effects of the drug take effect on Leonard, Williams stays patient, calm and sad.
(7) Dead Again: When he was on Arsenio Hall’s talk show in the early-to-mid 90’s, Williams was asked about the possibility of playing a villain in a movie (this was around the time he was bandied about as a possible candidate for the Riddler in the next Batman movie, before Jim Carrey got the role), and he replied he had already played a bad guy, in a way, with his character in Kenneth Branagh’s Dead Again. I have to confess, when he told that to Hall, I was a bit surprised. But when I watched the movie again not long after that, it made sense. When you first meet his character, “Cozy” Carlisle, a disgraced former psychiatrist turned supermarket clerk, he’s definitely abrasive (when Mike Church (Branagh) comes to tell him Myron Spargo has died, Carlisle snaps, “Who the fuck is Myron Spargo?”), as well as bitter and resentful (he’s still angry about being investigated by the state because he slept with a couple of his patients). But you also see his sharp mind (he’s able to pick up right away Church is trying to quit smoking) and even compassion (he says wistfully he used to not charge half his patients because he loved being a doctor that much). So it’s believable when Church is pressed into helping Grace (Emma Thompson), a woman who’s (temporarily) lost her voice and her memory, and Church is skeptical when a hypnotist (Derek Jacobi) reveals the only memories Grace has are of Roman and Margaret Strauss – a couple (also played by Branagh and Thompson, respectively) who had been married in the late 40’s until he was convicted of murdering her, and executed for the crime – that he’d go to Carlisle for a second opinion. Williams, of course, makes Carlisle’s intelligence and compassion believable (he takes Grace’s problem seriously, even as he’s dismissive of Church’s skepticism), and he gets to explain the storyline that made many uncomfortable (“There’s a lot more people on this planet who believe in past lives than don’t”). But in the last of his three scenes (all with Church), after he finds out the big secret of the film (which I won’t reveal), Carlisle turns totally chilling as he gives Church a piece of advice, and Williams makes it believable.
(8) The Fisher King: There are certain films Philip Seymour Hoffman has made that I’m not quite ready to watch again just yet, and I have a feeling The Fisher King, which reunited him with Gilliam, will be that way with me for Williams’ films. He plays Parry, a deranged homeless man who has been this way ever since his wife was killed when a deranged man shot up the restaurant they were in, and who ends up, improbably, bonding with Jack (Jeff Bridges), the former shock radio DJ who’s life has gone downhill ever since a show he did inspired that deranged man. In later years, when Williams got near this type of role, he indulged his unfortunate tendency to get mawkish, but Gilliam keeps that tendency and check, and Williams gets at the pain in Parry’s existence that’s underneath his front. Williams also has to carry the metaphor of the plot, as Parry is on an insane quest to get the Holy Grail (the title of the film alludes to the legend, as does Parry’s name), and he carries it with aplomb. He also makes believable Parry’s crush on Lydia (Amanda Plummer), a painfully shy accountant he watches every day in Grand Central. And again, it shows his generosity; the scene where Parry and Lydia go out on a double date with Jack and his long-suffering girlfriend Anne (Mercedes Ruehl), and Lydia keeps making things awkward because of her table manners, the way Parry copies her actions without making fun of her is both funny and touching.
(9) Aladdin: Williams, of course, had long been a fan of animation (he presented Honorary Oscars to both Walter Lantz – the creator of Woody Woodpecker – and Chuck Jones), and he had done some voice-over work before (most memorably in FernGully: The Last Rainforest as a bat who’s escaped from an animal testing lab). But it was Aladdin, even more than Good Morning Vietnam, that allowed him to use his stand-up gifts on film. Until the Genie character shows up, I found this Disney reworking of the Arabian Knights tales kind of bland (admittedly, I’m not the fan of Disney many of my friends are). But when Williams shows up as the Genie, the movie takes off. I can understand the criticism that the references Williams makes as the genie (he imitates, among others, Hall, William F. Buckley, Carol Channing, Jack Nicholson and Ed Sullivan) basically stop the movie and don’t make sense (whereas in FernGully, they do), but whereas that would bother me in a live-action film, it didn’t here. I think it’s because not only is Williams really funny thoughout (especially when he’s listing his “rules”), but because he does take the story seriously and remembers the character even when he’s off on one of his riffs.
(10) Insomnia: Williams’ output for the rest of the 90’s showed him indulging his worst impulses, with a few exceptions; his turn as the anarchist in Christopher Hampton’s adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Secret Agent was the best thing about that problematic film (though he was only in a couple of scenes), while I’m not a fan of The Birdcage, he played it subdued (except for his dance demonstration) and, to me, was the funniest part of the film, and while I only like, rather than love, Williams’ Oscar-winning turn as the psychiatry professor who helps troubled math prodigy Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting (he had done that type of part better in other films), he did draw on his own battles with alcoholism without getting too sentimental, and two great scenes – where he tells Damon’s character he knows nothing about life or love or pain, and when he and Damon talk about Carlton Fisk’s memorable home run in the 1975 World Series (unlike Damon, Williams in real life was not a baseball fan) – showcased his talent (his cameo in Branagh’s version of Hamlet, and his voice cameo Steven Spielberg’s A.I. were decent but undistinguished). In 2002, Williams decided to change direction in his career and play three roles that were unsympathetic and twisted. In Danny De Vito’s uneven but often hilarious Death to Smoochy, he went over-the-top but lent real anger to the role of a disgraced former children’s show host. And until Mark Romanek’s One Hour Photo goes awry by trying to explain his character in a simplistic way, he’s genuinely creepy as a seemingly kind and efficient drugstore photo clerk who develops an unhealthy fixation on a family (played by Michael Vartan, Connie Nielsen and Dylan Smith). But it was his turn in Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia, a remake of a 1997 Swedish film, that best showcased his talent. As with Awakenings, he went toe to toe with another acting legend, this time Al Pacino. Williams is a novelist suspected of knowing something about a local teen girl, and who witnesses Pacino (as a shady cop called in to help with the investigation) accidentally kill his partner (Martin Donovan) and therefore blackmails him about it. Williams plays the character completely normal, resisting the urge to go over the top or be a “villain”, even in the scene where he confesses over the telephone to Pacino how he killed the girl; he admits the panic, and even says it feels good to confess before asking about what Pacino did. The darkness of Pacino’s character in the original film was muted somewhat in the remake, but it’s thanks to Williams the remake doesn’t cop out on how dark the story gets.
As I alluded to before with his appearance on Friends, Williams, who broke out on TV with Mork & Mindy, made appearances on TV from time to time as well, coming off best on an episode of Homicide: Life on the Street (done as a favor to Barry Levinson to help the struggling show in the ratings), playing a tourist who’s life goes downhill when his wife is murdered during a mugging gone wrong. Today, the episode stands as an example of how David Simon (who co-wrote the episode and wrote the book – “Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets” – the show was based on) not only gets the drudgery of police work right, but also shows compassion for all sides, but Williams also takes things down a notch playing the angry and grief-stricken husband. During the 1999 Oscar telecast, he gave an inspired performance of “Blame Canada”, the Oscar-nominated song from South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut. And while I’m not a fan of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, he’s memorably creepy as a man who gets people to defy authority, even if the episode ultimately becomes ridiculous (I’m not sure I can bring myself to watch the episode of Louie that he appeared in, as it’s about a funeral). I don’t pretend to know why Williams’ choices, at least for me, weren’t as good after Insomnia (except for the SUV appearance), and I certainly won’t speculate on the demons he dealt with (he fell off the wagon and suffered a heart attack in the past decade) that may have led to his death. I can only say that in the stand-up appearances and talk show appearances I saw him do, he made me laugh an awful lot, and while his film and TV career had its ups and downs, the performances and films I mention above are enough of a legacy that I’m very sorry he’s gone.
Though John Ford was one of the most, if not *the* most, highly regarded directors of the studio era of Hollywood, by critics (Andrew Sarris and others put him in their pantheon of great directors), the Academy (he won four Best Director Oscars) and other filmmakers (when making Citizen Kane, Orson Welles said he prepared by watching movies by old masters, by which he meant, “John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford”), Ford himself never talked about himself in much regard. During the notorious battle between Cecil B. De Mille and Joseph L. Mankiewicz in the Directors Guild in 1950, for example (when De Mille wanted every director to sign a loyalty oath), Ford prefaced his speech by introducing himself and adding, “I make Westerns.” He was notorious for not talking about his pictures or their meaning, with the actors he worked with (Henry Fonda has told of Ford ripping pages from the screenplay if an actor dared ask about them), and even with admiring critics or younger filmmakers (during much of the documentary Directed by John Ford, Peter Bogdanovich is unable to get an answer out of Ford). What Ford did like to talk about was his war service – not necessarily the combat he’d seen, but just the fact he served at all. And that war service helped inform one of his best films, the 1945 drama They Were Expendable.
Like many in Hollywood at the time who were able, Ford signed up eagerly to serve in WWII. Unlike most of his fellow directors, however, who served in Europe and Africa, Ford, who was in the Navy, was mostly involved in the War in the Pacific (though he was part of the crew filming D-Day). And so it seemed fortuitous the first film he decided to take on after he finished his service in WWII was about a naval hero. William L. White’s book (adapted for the screen by Frank “Spig” Wead – whose own story Ford would tell over a decade later in The Wings of Eagles, with Ford regulars John Wayne and Ward Bond as, respectively, Wead and Ford – with an uncredited assist by Jan Lustig; Sidney Franklin and Budd Schulberg also did uncredited work on the film) is an oral account by Lieutenants John Bulkeley and Robert Kelly, along with two other men, about their experiences fighting in the early days of the war in the Philippines on PT Boats. When the film was originally conceived, it was meant, as with the book and the other combat movies being turned out by Hollywood at the time, as a way of boosting morale at home. By the time Ford was put on inactive status in October of 1944, the war was thought to be winding down (though it wouldn’t end in Europe for another seven months, and the Pacific for three months after that), and Ford wanted a more sober and clear-minded view of the war than Hollywood was turning out (one of the reasons why he was reluctant to take on the job at first was he thought MGM would insist on more of a flag-waving movie), which, as it turned out, the public was ready for as well.
The film begins in December of 1941 in the Philippines, as Lt. Rusty Ryan (Wayne) informs his superior, Lt. John Brickley (Robert Montgomery), that he’s applying for a transfer to a destroyer, where the action is, as Brickley once again has been unable to convince the navy brass of the usefulness of PT Boats in warfare, and Ryan is frustrated with sitting on the sidelines. However, everything changes when Brickley, Ryan, and the other members of the crew hear the news of Pearl Harbor, and Brickley’s crews are eventually used in the war. At first, they’re just used to ferry people out of the Philippines after the Japanese invade, including General Douglas MacArthur (Robert Barrat), but after Brickley and Ryan, on separate boats, are able to sink Japanese ships with their torpedoes, the PT Boats are approved for combat. During this time, Ryan strikes up a relationship with Lt. Nancy Davyss (Donna Reed), a nurse who treats his finger (shrapnel grazes it while he’s steering the boat, and he starts to suffer from blood poisoning), though he’s not able to see much of her after he gets back into combat duty.* But while Brickley and Ryan are eventually able to prove to the brass how well the PT Boats can work in fighting conditions (at the end, both of them are called to go back to the States to help train the Navy use them), they end up losing some of the boats, and many of their men, in the effort.
Part of how the movie differs from other war films of the time is the look. Cinematographer Joseph H. August (who had shot The Whole Town’s Talking, Mary of Scotland and the documentary The Battle of Midway for Ford) gives this a darker look than most movies at the time.** Obviously, in scenes such as when Ryan reluctantly goes to the hospital, the low lighting can be explained by the fact these were places under blackout conditions. But even in the scenes where the ships are in combat, such as in late in the movie when the boats go on a nighttime run, Ford and August shoot those scenes so you can barely see the faces of anybody, giving it a level of authenticity. In keeping with the seriousness of the subject matter, and the elegiac tone Ford is striving for throughout, there’s also less humor on display, and much of it is sarcastic, as when sailors who have been stuck on shore while their compatriots have either been on escort or fighting missions tell anyone who’s excited about where they’ve been about the conditions they’ve had to put up with back at the base. The humor is also used to cover up other feelings, as when Brickley and his men visit one of the sailors who’s dying, and they joke around with him to keep him from figuring that out (he sees right through it, of course). As sentimental as Ford could be, he handles this scene just right, without ever getting cloying.
Ford has been accused in recent years of racism in his films, especially in his westerns, but what’s striking about this film is how he avoids the jingoism of many, if not all, of the war films of the time. The Japanese are referred to as “Japs”, but only a few times, and in an offhand manner; also, early in the film, when a naval officer at a bar announces the attack at Pearl Harbor, Ford, August and editors Douglass Biggs and Frank E. Hull cut to a shocked Japanese woman. Also, Ford treats the Filipino characters with dignity for the most part; after the announcement of Pearl Harbor, a singer bursts into a rendition of “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” (which Ford claimed actually happened) that’s mournful rather than patriotic, we later see how the destruction of the navy yard at Cavite has affected the Philippine natives as well as the U.S. navy, and when Lt. Davyss joins Ryan and the other officers at dinner, the waiter is respectful without being obsequious, and doesn’t speak in forked tongue either (only the owner of the bar Ryan crashes after saying a eulogy for his fallen crew can be seen as speaking in the broken English Asian speakers were often stereotyped with).
Another departure from many combat films is just how little combat there is. Except when Japanese planes attack the base (this is when Ryan hurts his finger), and two sequences where we actually see the boats fighting, most of the fighting is done off-screen. What we see instead is mostly the waiting (making everyone’s impatience, particularly Ryan’s, that much more believable), as well as the sequence near the end when Ryan has been separated from Brickley after his PT boat has been sunk by the Japanese, and he tries to find Brickley. This is both believable and accurate to White’s book, but it does have the effect of making one wonder why PT boats (which were smaller and faster than most boats, and were thought to be able to hit enemy ships, especially destroyers and supply ships, more effectively) were held back by the navy so long (Admiral Blackwell (Charles Trowbridge, a Ford regular) and Major James Morton (Leon Ames), to some extent, say the boats wouldn’t hold up to heavy fire, but we don’t get much of an argument from them or Brickley). The other debit of the film is the music by MGM house composer Herbert Stothart (forced on Ford by the studio) is undistinguished, though at least it isn’t used too often, and the best musical moment comes during the dinner Lt. Davyss has with Ryan and the others, and a group of sailors, led by “Boats” Mulcahey (Ford regular Ward Bond) serenade them. However, those are minor quibbles.
As with most, if not all, Ford pictures, he singled out one actor to display his wrath towards. On this film, it was Wayne, though in this case, the rancor was especially pointed; Ford never really forgave Wayne for not serving during the war, even if, for many filmgoers at the time, he was fighting the battle at home (the hardship deferment Wayne claimed – trying to support his family – didn’t impress Ford). By contrast, Ford treated Montgomery, who had commanded a PT Boat (as well as observe Bulkeley to prepare for the movie), kindly; according to Mark Harris’ Five Came Back, Montgomery felt uncomfortable coming back to acting, so Ford told him to go out on a boat by himself, take all the time he needed, and they would wait for him to be ready (it took three days). Montgomery even shot some scenes when Ford fractured his knee while on a sound stage, and he even made Ford apologize to Wayne for his treatment of him.
Whatever Ford did to his actors, they all responded with terrific performances. I must confess I’ve always found Montgomery flat as an actor, but he’s able do some complex work here while saying very little, whether masking his disappointment when Admiral Blackwell turns him down yet again, or the way he handles Ryan, or the kind reserve he greets Lt. Davyss with when he finally meets her. One of Ford’s most quoted remarks about Wayne was his line, “I didn’t know the son-of-a-bitch could act” after seeing him in Howard Hawks’ Red River, but by this film, Ford must have known something, because Wayne has a more complex character than he played under Ford before, and he responds in kind. Ryan is constantly warring with himself throughout between thinking of himself (which is why he wants a transfer) and of the unit and his commander, and Wayne does a good job with that conflict. He also isn’t afraid of showing Ryan’s more abrasive side either, as with the nasty way he treats Lt. Davyss when he first gets to the hospital, or when he refuses to go to a dance with her at first. Finally, while Wayne was often called upon to give gung-ho speeches, there’s very little of that here; his most memorable scene for me, in fact, comes when he’s speaking over the coffins of his shipmates who have died, he reads the only poem he knows, Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Requiem” (“Under the wide and starry sky/Dig the grave and let me lie”), and his voice cracks. Reed manages both toughness and vulnerability, as well as a certain playfulness when she flirts with Ryan. And there’s good work from Bond, Russell Simpson (as “Dad” Knowland, a shipbuilder), and Louis Jean Heydt (as a soldier at the hospital whom Ryan bonds with), among others.
Though the movie only received a couple of Oscar nominations in technical categories (Best Sound Recording and Best Special Effects), it did well at the box office and received good reviews (James Agee, a tough critic when it came to fiction war movies, wasn’t impressed with the story, but he praised Ford’s direction, the photography, and Montgomery’s performance, and Bosley Crowther praised the sober tone of the movie). Today, They Were Expendable stands as one of the best WWII movies ever made, and one of Ford’s best. Not bad for a director who only said of himself, “I make Westerns”.
*- Lt. Beulah Greenwalt Walcher (known as Peggy Smith in White’s book), the nurse Lt. Davyss was based on, sued MGM for implying she and Lt. Kelly had gotten involved romantically (to be fair to the movie, in White’s book, Kelly implies he has feelings for her, and the movie never shows anything explicit); Kelly also sued for Wayne’s portrayal of him, which Bulkeley has stated was accurate. Wayne and Reed were also named in the suits, and they and MGM eventually settled out of court with Kelly and Smith.
**-Ford originally wanted Gregg Toland, who had shot The Grapes of Wrath and The Long Voyage Home for Ford, to co-direct and shoot the film, but Toland was under contract to Samuel Goldwyn at the time, and Goldwyn refused to release him.
This post is my entry in the “Snoopathon: A Blogathon Of Spies” hosted by Fritzi (Movies Silently). Enjoy!
This Friday, June 6, marks the 70th anniversary of D-Day, when the Allies invaded Normandy. It’s easy to forget after all this time the Allies were desperate to conceal not only when the invasion would be taking place but where, and they tried to mislead the Nazis to that as well. Naturally, the Nazis were equally as desperate to find out this information. History, of course, has provided the outcome, but there has been a number of books and movies, both reality-based and speculative, on both the Nazis trying to find out and the Allies’ attempt to mislead them. One of the better examples of this was Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s film 5 Fingers, adapted by Michael Wilson from the book Operation Cicero by L.C. Moyzisch, a real-life attache to the German embassy in Turkey during WWII.
“Cicero” is the code name given to Ulysses Diello (James Mason), the valet to British ambassador Sir Frederic Taylor (Walter Hampden, who appeared briefly in Mankiewicz’s All About Eve). Early on in the film, Diello approaches Moyzisch (Oscar Karlweis) outside the German embassy, and promises to pass on film of top-secrets documents for money (£10,000 sterling for the initial roll, and £15,000 for each roll afterwards), with the condition that the Nazis never try and find out his identity (though he does admit to working at the British embassy). Naturally, of course, the Nazis, while willing to pay him as long as the information is good, do try to find out who he really is, especially since they’re afraid he might be a British plant. Complicating matters are British intelligence, in the form of Colin Travers (Michael Rennie), a counter-intelligence agent sent to Ankara to find out the source of the leak, and Countess Anna Staviska (Danielle Darrieux), widow to the former Polish ambassador to Britain, whom Diello had once served under, and whom Diello gets to help him (somewhat).
This was a transitional film for Mankiewicz. It was the last film he made at 20th Century Fox, where he had been since the mid-40’s, since he and studio chief Daryl Zanuck were starting to clash with each other (as talented people with big egos are prone to do). Also, Mankiewicz, who had always been known for his dialogue than anything else (it’s no accident the film preceding this one was called People Will Talk, and Kenneth L. Geist’s biography of Mankiewicz is entitled Pictures Will Talk), was planning on writing and directing plays full-time for Broadway (though that didn’t pan out, it’s perhaps no accident Mankiewicz’s first film after leaving the studio was his adaptation of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar). Though according to Geist’s book, Mankiewicz had vowed only to direct movies he had written himself, when he came upon Wilson’s screenplay, Mankiewicz thought would be the perfect film to end his contract on, as he liked the story, and thought only the dialogue and a couple of story points needed polishing. Indeed, despite the fact this was a for-hire assignment, 5 Fingers ranks as one of Mankiewicz’s best films.
Mankiewicz and Wilson pay close attention to the mechanics of spying, not just in what Diello does to get the information, but in how that information is used. We see Diello taking a light bulb to use in a lamp in Sir Frederic’s study to get the best light to photograph the documents from Sir Frederic’s safe, and we see Diello cleaning up after himself to avoid suspicion. Indeed, everything is done so well the only time anything goes wrong is when he’s rushed and forced to work in haste. Having deduced the spy works in the embassy, Travers, with Sir Frederic’s permission, installs an alarm on the safe. Diello manages to get around that by disabling the circuit breaker that controls the electricity in the room. However, when he summarily dismisses the maid who’s come to clean the room, she decides to vacuum the hallway instead, and when she turns the circuit breaker back on before Diello is able to close the safe, he’s forced to flee. Diello has his own reasons for leaving the money he makes from the Germans with the Countess (a character, it should be noted, Wilson invented for the film), but this allows her to get a house, which makes an easier place to meet Col. Von Richter (Herbert Berghof), the Nazi who takes over for Moyzisch in meeting Diello, and who tells Diello about Operation Overlord (what the Allies called the D-Day invasion). The house also works as cover because, at the beginning of the film, we hear of the Countess’ money troubles (she offers her services to Count Von Papen (John Wengraf) as a German spy so she can get back the money and property the Germans took from her when they invaded France, though he rebuffs her). As far as how the intelligence is used, it’s usually a pattern in intelligence agencies when a defector or double agent with contested information comes forward, it causes an argument within the agency as to whether or not the information should be believed, and it’s no different here. Count Van Papen believes Cicero’s information to be true, and is disgusted by his superiors deliberately withholding intelligence that could have save people’s lives just to see if it’s true or not, while Von Richter and his superiors, despite the fact everything Diello has passed over turns out to be true, still believe him to be a British agent.
Of course, being a Mankiewicz film, this is also a comedy of manners. Diello is of course enigmatic throughout, as befits not only a valet but a spy, and one of the ways this is accomplished is showing how witty he can be, especially when trying to put off Moyzisch and Col. Von Richter; when Von Richter wonders why Diello insists on being paid in British pounds if he’s helping the Nazis win the war, Diello counters, “By informing the man about to be hanged of the exact size, location and strength of the rope, you do not remove either the hangman or the certainty of his being hanged” (Wilson would claim later most of the dialogue, as well as the story, was his, but in Pictures Will Talk, Geist shows this to be false). The Countess also can spar with the best of them; when Count Von Papen asks her at the beginning why she’s not still in Poland, she replies, “Bombs were falling. I felt I was in the way”. Even Col. Von Richter, though more clumsy at it than the others, gets into the act; at a party given by the Countess (where he and Diello have arranged to meet), he poses as a Swiss businessman, and when the Countess (who knows exactly who he is) makes a remark about his claim to being a middle man, the Colonel replies, “We Swiss have been in the middle for hundreds of years”. And though Diello and the Countess speak more plainly to each other than they do to others, especially when Diello declares not only his attraction to her, but the fact he knows she’s attracted to him, there’s an element of wit to go along with the charged exchanges between them.
Mankiewicz was a devotee of Lubitsch (though they quarreled when Lubitsch served as executive producer of Mankiewicz’s feature directorial debut, Dragonwyck), and he also seems influenced by Oscar Wilde, though with more speeches than either of them had. Mankiewicz was often accused of overwriting (in his book Talking Pictures, Richard Corliss claims every word a character in Mankiewicz’s films says sounds as if two writers worked on it all night), but at his best, Mankiewicz makes the dialogue fit the milieu. And contrary to what you might think, the more plain-speaking characters, such as Travers, talk differently than the others. In Geist’s book, he quotes a conversation between Mankiewicz and Humphrey Bogart on the set of the film they did together, The Barefoot Contessa, where Mankiewicz argued that film dialogue should be heightened instead of “realistic” so that it sounded intelligent, but that he also knew how to distinguish between, say, Margo Channing’s long speeches in All About Eve and Birdie, her servant, making pithy remarks in the same film. Ironically enough, Mankiewicz seemed to have lost that ability by the time of The Barefoot Contessa, but he’s in fine form on this film. Of course, dialogue isn’t everything, and the story is gripping throughout; Mankiewicz and Wilson even manage to make the obligatory Code-enforced “crime never pays” ending feel true and right instead of tacked on.
Like many writers who turned director (or, in this case, writer/producers), Mankiewicz’s directing abilities were overshadowed by his scripts, and to be fair, Mankiewicz, in interviews, would complain about those who were obvious in their use of the camera, and said he tried to be simple when he used it. Yet simplicity shouldn’t be mistaken for being simple-minded. Mankiewicz, being a director-for-hire here, was not the first choice for this film. Henry Hathaway, who had become Fox’s go-to director for documentary-type thrillers that had become their specialty in the late 40’s (such films as The House on 92nd Street, 13 Rue Madeline and Kiss of Death), was the first choice, but for whatever reason, he was unavailable. Mankiewicz and cinematographer Norbert Brodine, in his next-to-last feature (he shot some of those Hathaway films, and had worked with Mankiewicz on Somewhere in the Night), use many of the real-life locations where the story took place, at least on the outside (the interiors were mostly sets). And while Mankiewicz claimed Zanuck butchered the climax, where Diello, after handing over the plans of Operation Overlord to Moyzisch, eludes both the British and the Germans in a chase scene, what survives is still suspenseful enough. Also, Brodine and Mankiewicz use light well; the reception scenes are all well lit, but the scenes where Diello is meeting with someone, or when he’s photographing Sir Frederic’s files, all look “realistic”, as they would have in a Hathaway film. Finally, Bernard Herrmann wrote the score, and while it might not be as recognizable, or as good, as his scores for Hitchcock or Harryhausen, it contributes to the suspense, particularly in that chase scene.
Mankiewicz also got good performances from his cast. Mason looked nothing like the real-life valet Diello was based on (Geist’s book quotes Mankiewicz as saying he looked like the personification of evil), but he carries himself both as a valet and someone who is smarter than he looks. He also handles Mankiewicz’s bantering dialogue well, especially in Diello’s scenes with Moyzisch (he chides Moyzisch for using the day Hitler took power as the combination to an embassy safe, guessing half of Germany does the same). While Darrieux is mostly (and rightly) remembered for her French films (particularly The Earrings of Madame De, which is arguably the best film she ever did), she had been acting in Hollywood since the mid-30’s, so she was used to it by then, but she proves adept to the challenge of delivering Mankiewicz’s bantering dialogue. However, she’s equally adept when she’s not talking, as with the ambiguous glance she gives after Diello embraces her at one point, which sets up an action later in the film. The other actors don’t get as much to work with (though Berghof, a real-life acting teacher along with his wife, Uta Hagen, has a couple of good moments), but they all fit their roles well. Of course, Operation Overlord went off on June 6, and the Nazis weren’t able to guess where and when it was going to take place. Of all the “what could have been” stories on that subject, 5 Fingers remains one of the better ones.
I don’t know if this is still true, but when I was in high school (early-to-mid 1980’s), there was one day out of every year where, for reasons that were never quite clear to me, instead of classes, everyone gathered in an assembly room of some kind and watched a movie (it lasted for two periods). My sophomore year (can’t remember if it was the fall, which would have been ’83, or the spring, which would have been ’84), the movie in question was The Paper Chase. For those of you who have never seen it, it follows a law school student (Timothy Bottoms) as he attempts to make it through his first year at Harvard, specifically his contract law class and his professor (John Houseman, in an Oscar-winning performance). Since they were showing the film during my English class (among other classes), it was that teacher who told us about the film. Given that, it would be reasonable to assume she would tell us about the themes of the film, or the characters, or any other aspect one uses to analyze a piece of literature or drama. Instead, she told us to pay attention to the cinematography. Sure enough, whatever else you think of the film – I think it’s an okay film, not great – it is worth paying attention to how the film is shot, particularly, as my teacher pointed out, the classroom scenes. After the opening credits sequence, we see a closeup of Professor Kingsfield (Houseman) as he’s lecturing the students, and when director James Bridges cuts away to the other students as they try to answer his questions, they’re all shot in medium or long shots. As the film goes on, in subsequent classroom scenes, we see Kingsfield framed in medium or long shots, and the students, particularly James Hart (Bottoms) shot in close-up. This was a way of showing how Hart came to dominate the movie while Kingsfield became more of a supporting figure, but it also showed how Hart came to think he understood Kingsfield and could stay on his wavelength (which he was wrong about). In other words, it’s about taking a complex theme (a young person’s relationship with authority figures), and doing something simple to illustrate it, without being simplistic. This was the working philosophy of the cinematographer of that movie, Gordon Willis, who died yesterday at age 82, and one of the reasons why he was probably my favorite cinematographer of all time.
Willis grew up with the movies; his father (like his mother, he started out as a dancer) was a make-up man for Warner Brothers’ New York studios (Willis was born and raised in Astoria). Willis was a gofer on the sets of many of the movies his father worked on, and entertained the idea of being an actor before becoming more interested in lighting, stage design, and of course photography. During the Korean War, he enlisted in the Air Force and joined the motion picture unit of the Photographic and Charting Service. After the war, on the advice of a friend, he joined the east coast cinematographer union, and worked as an assistant cameraman for over a decade, gradually working his way up to first cameraman. In that time, Willis shot commercials, fashion shoots, and documentaries, and gradually honed what he came to view as both his style and his working method (in various interviews, he’s called himself a minimalist). In 1969, Aram Avakian, an editor-turned-director (he had edited Arthur Penn’s The Miracle Worker, among other films), hired Willis as the DP of his directorial debut, End of the Road, and the rest is history. When the so-called second Golden Age of Cinema is discussed – which took place roughly between 1969 and 1975 – it’s mostly in terms of the actors and especially directors who pushed Hollywood films towards a more realistic take on the world. Cinematographers tend to get overlooked here, but they’re just as important to the equation. Not only were they, like the directors, reacting to the trends of foreign-language films of the 50’s and 60’s and reacting against the garish and overly bright lighting of the Hollywood films of that time period, but they were also coming up at a time when technological advances were allowing them to actually achieve the look of those (mostly) European films. Laszlo Kovacs, Haskell Wexler and Vilmos Zsigmond are just as important figures to the history of 70’s films and beyond as Coppola, Scorsese, De Niro et al. And, of course, Willis staked out his claim as one of the greats during this period as well. Take, for example, his second film, Irvin Kershner’s Loving (1970), one of the most underrated films of the 70’s. As I mentioned in my post about it, in this tale of Brooks (George Segal), an unhappy commercial artist, Willis and director Irvin Kershner (with whom he’d reunite in the Barbara Streisand dramedy Up the Sandbox two years later) use a lot of long takes to let the emotion of each scene play out. I don’t mean, by the way, to disparage the showier editing and camerawork that many tales of the time, and today, use (it can be very effective when used right, as Mike Nichols’ The Graduate, among other films, demonstrates), merely to show how a less-is-more approach can work just as well.
After two more underseen cult films – Hal Ashby’s directorial debut The Landlord, with Beau Bridges giving one of his best performances as the title character, and Alan Arkin’s adaptation of Jules Feiffer’s play Little Murders (I’ve not seen The People Next Door, which Willis also shot during this period) – Willis began one of his two most crucial film relationships, with director Alan J. Pakula. Klute (1971), as seen today, works better as character study than as a mystery; indeed, the title is a misnomer, as the film is more about Bree (Jane Fonda), a call girl who is indirectly tied to the film’s mystery, than the title character (Donald Sutherland), the small-town detective trying to solve it. Along with Fonda’s terrific performance (she deservedly won the first of her two Oscars for it), the best part of the movie, again, is Willis’ photography. Take, for example, the sequence where Klute first goes to Bree’s apartment, and she yells at him not only about the case he’s pursuing (trying to find a missing friend) but also for spying on her and one of her clients (an elderly man for whom she does nothing more than pretend she’s just back from a glamorous vacation). As befitting Willis’ nickname “The Prince of Darkness” (more on that later), the apartment isn’t well-lit (which makes sense, as someone who is watching money wouldn’t want to be wasting electricity), but more important, again, is how Willis and Pakula use long takes to let the emotions play out. And even though this is the scene where Bree undresses to try and get a rise out of Klute, and mocks him when he doesn’t take the bait (“Men would pay $200 for me, and here you are turning down a freebie. You could get a perfectly good dishwasher for that”), Willis resists the urge for voyeurism, instead focusing on the faces of the actors, to get their reactions. I’ve also already written about Willis’ work with Pakula on The Parallax View (1974) and All the President’s Men (1976), but again, it should be remembered Willis shot two of the most gripping thrillers of the 70’s without doing anything showy with the camera. A year after All the President’s Men, Willis began his other major film partnership in his career, with Woody Allen (other than Allen and Pakula, Willis’ most frequent collaborator was Bridges’, but with the exception of The Paper Chase, their work together wasn’t as distinguished). As Allen has recounted in several interviews, Willis came along for him at just the right time; not only was Allen getting more confident as a director (whereas he felt he would have been more intimidated by Willis if they had worked together from the beginning), but he was also ready to push himself to do material that wasn’t as oriented towards the gag, as his “earlier, funnier movies” such as Bananas and Sleeper were (also, fittingly, Allen hates the sunlight in both real life and on film). Annie Hall (1977) gets classified as a romantic comedy (and as one of the few comedies to ever win a Best Picture Oscar), and it certainly is one, but it’s also darker, both in its look and feel, than many of them are, and one of the reasons why it still holds up today. Visually, this is more gimmick-oriented than many films Willis shot – there’s an animated sequence where Alvy (Allen) imagines Annie (Diane Keaton) as the Wicked Witch from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and there’s a split-screen sequence where Alvy and Annie are each talking to their respective psychiatrists – but it fits perfectly within the stream-of-consciousness of the story. It was also where Willis introduced what would be one of his signature shots in an Allen movie, that of two characters starting in the background and then walking up to the foreground (it’s early in the movie, when Alvy is arguing with his friend Rob (Tony Roberts) over whether a remark Alvy heard was anti-Semitic or not), and Allen claimed he would often include that type of shot in subsequent films he directed as a tribute to Willis.
Whatever you think of Allen’s filmography during this period (which went from Annie Hall to The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), their eighth and final film together) – and I’m mixed on his output – there’s no denying the visual brilliance of the work. Even Stardust Memories and A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, two of my least favorite of his films (I find the former whiny and the latter simply isn’t funny), are feasts to the eye; in the former, the transitions between fantasy and “reality” are seamlessly done without calling attention to themselves (credit, of course, should also go to Allen’s frequent editor Susan E. Morse), while the latter, one of Willis’ rare countryside ventures, looks good without being overly pictorial. And on better films he did with Allen, Willis’ visual sense is even more pronounced. Zelig may be a one-joke movie on paper, but Willis and Allen’s ability to re-create old footage for their mockumentary about the title character (Allen) is realistic-looking without being self-congratulatory about it. Black-and-white might seem like an odd choice for Allen’s Runyon-esque Broadway Danny Rose, where Allen plays a third-rate talent agent, but it lends the film a melancholy that feels earned. And The Purple Rose of Cairo delineates perfectly the contrast between the dreary life of its heroine, put-upon Depression-era housewife Cecilia (Mia Farrow), and the movies she goes to see. Still, it’s Manhattan (1979), their third movie together, that remains their finest achievement together. As with Stardust Memories and Broadway Danny Rose, it’s shot in black-and-white, and the nighttime images, particularly when Isaac (Allen) and Mary (Keaton) are walking around the city after spending an evening with her friends, are absolutely stunning. Yet again, they don’t overwhelm the story, which was always Willis’ first concern. Though Pakula and Allen were the directors Willis worked with most often (in interviewers, he said it’s because they were both easy to get along with, and both of them listened to what he had to say), it’s his work with Francis Ford Coppola that remains his finest accomplishment. The first two Godfather movies are two of my favorite movies of all time (Part II is my favorite), and as much as the writing, direction, performances, and editing (particularly of the baptism sequence in the first film), it’s Willis’ work that makes them both landmark achievements. Again, it has to do with his ability to do something very simple and make it powerful. Take, for example, the opening 15 minutes or so of the first film, which not only set up plot and character, but also how the Corleones present a public face with their wedding celebration while doing shady business inside with the meetings Don Corleone (Marlon Brando) takes. It seems like the most obvious thing in the world to illustrate this would be to have the wedding scenes brightly lit, while the interior scenes would use lower levels of lighting. Yet amazingly, Willis clashed with the studio on this, not only on the inside scenes (people wanted to know why you couldn’t see Brando’s eyes; Willis retorted it wasn’t always necessary) but on the outdoor ones (he overexposed them). The result, of course, makes you aware of the two-sided nature of the Corleone family, again without calling attention to it. In the second film, the contrasts between light and dark aren’t so pronounced, because Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) is as cold in his business dealings as he is with his family, and again, that seems perfectly simple yet helps give the movie its power. The contrasts, rather, come between Michael’s scenes and those of the young Vito (Robert De Niro), and Willis’ use of yellow and sepia tones in these scenes helped set a standard for period pieces that followed.
Here’s the truly staggering thing about Willis’ work; he shot three Best Picture winners in the 70’s (the first two Godfather movies and Annie Hall) and another nominee (All the President’s Men), yet his work in those films and others wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar. He would only receive two nominations in his career, for Zelig and the third Godfather movie, neither of which he’d win for; only in 2009 did he finally receive an Honorary Oscar. There has been much speculation as to why he was ignored. Was it because he was defiantly an east coast photographer rather than going Hollywood? (Willis intimated this at times) Was it because he was so critical of the way many other movies were shot (he was particularly harsh on what he called “dump-truck” directing, which was taking a close-up of various angles of a scene and letting the editor sort everything out)? Or was it his reputation as the “Prince of Darkness”? As I mentioned above with the first Godfather movie, Willis clashed with those who felt, as he put it, went with the attitude of, “you’ve got to be able to see it all at the drive-in” (which were still popular at the time) and felt anything where you couldn’t see the actor’s eyes was wrong (as William Goldman recounts in his book Which Lie Did I Tell?, one of the jokes about The Drowning Pool, which Willis shot, was it was the only film Paul Newman did where you couldn’t tell if his eyes were blue or not). Whatever the reason, the fact Willis’ work was so often passed over is one of the major black marks on the Academy’s record. Like just about every great artist, Willis did have his limitations. While he was a master when it came to urban and suburban settings, he seemed lost when it came to the countryside, except for the village scenes in The Godfather Part II. To be sure, Willis’ cinematography wasn’t the primary reason I wasn’t a fan of two Westerns he shot, Robert Benton’s Bad Company and Pakula’s Comes a Horseman, but the lack of visual distinction in both films didn’t help. While I consider Richard Benjamin’s The Money Pit (a loose remake of Mr. Blandings Builds his Dream House) a guilty pleasure, it’s true the slapstick sequences might have played better with a cinematographer more attuned to that sensibility.* The one film he directed, the 1980 psychological thriller Windows (which I’ve never seen) was roundly panned. And again, there are plenty of directors whom I’m a fan of whose work is antithetical to Willis’ style, such as PTA, Malick and Scorsese. Still, there’s a reason why, in their Oscar acceptance speeches, Coppola (when he won Best Director for The Godfather Part II), Goldman (Best Adapted Screenplay for All the President’s Men), and Houseman (Best Supporting Actor for The Paper Chase) all singled out Willis for praise, and why cinematographers today continue to cite him as an influence (in both movies and TV). More than anyone else in his profession, he made the simple powerful.
*-I saw a bad print of Pennies From Heaven, Herbert Ross’ movie version of Dennis Potter’s miniseries, so I’m reserving judgment on that one. As for Willis’ later work, the best showcase of this is his fifth film with Pakula, an adaptation of the Scott Turow novel Presumed Innocent, where Willis is able to avoid the slickness that hampers most legal dramas.