Entr’acte | February 3, 2011
Going out with guns blazing.
Entr’acte | February 1, 2011
Butch and Sundance in Bolivia.
No. 152 | September 6, 2010
ONCE, adv. Enough.
That’s Ambrose Bierce, not a man to waste words, in The Devil’s Dictionary. Seems that more than a few actors-turned-directors have read the book.
Acting and directing are different professions offering different rewards. Actors get the limelight, directors the clout, and that may be why they often trade places. Who can blame them for wanting both?
The list of actor-directors goes on and on—Chaplin, Welles, Cassavetes, Allen, Eastwood, and many dozens more. This week we feature a small subset from that roster: actors who took the reins to direct a film once, but never again.
Note, a couple of this week’s filmmakers are still alive and may not be done yet—we’ll see—but I will skip the one-timers who either have second efforts on the way (e.g., Tom Hanks, Johnny Depp), have also directed television (e.g., Tommy Lee Jones, Zach Braff), or seem a good bet to get behind the camera again (e.g., Drew Barrymore, Edward Norton).
Our theme this week
Actors who have directed one film only
Marlon Brando’s production company owned the rights to a Charles Neider novel, a western based loosely on the story of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Brando hired and fired several writers (Rod Serling, Sam Peckinpaugh, and Calder Willingham) and the intended director (Stanley Kubrick) before getting Guy Trosper to work on the script and hiring himself for his first and only credit as director.
Brando teamed with Karl Malden, his costar in a couple of landmark films a decade earlier, A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront, both directed by Elia Kazan. Brando plays Rio and Malden, Dad Longworth, as bank robbers in an ill-fated heist in Sonora, Mexico. The third partner, Doc, is killed, and as the two try to escape, Dad betrays his friend, adandoning him on a hilltop where Rio is surrounded by Mexican Rurales. Rio serves five years in prison, then after his release tracks down Dad in Monterey, California, where he is now sheriff. Rio plots revenge but falls in love with Dad’s stepdaughter, Louisa (Pina Pellicer, in the best known of the few film roles in her too-brief career). Rio’s presence is more than Dad can bear, and the sheriff is merciless in inflicting justice on Rio, who is beaten and later jailed on false charges. After Rio escapes, the two men have their final showdown.
One-Eyed Jacks is a revisionist western, and you can understand what attracted Brando to the material. The good guys and bad guys are not easy to discern. Who’s wearing the badge doesn’t tell you much. In fact, as the title implies (in a deck of cards, one-eyed jacks are pictured in profile), the lead characters are two-faced, one side public and the other hidden. (Think the Harvey Dent character in The Dark Knight.) The film is not a simple morality tale. It’s a swipe at the conventions of westerns, which by the sixties had nearly run their course. Instead of mesas or Monument Valley, most of One-Eyed Jacks is set at the beach, as west as the West can go, along the white sands of Monterey. Charles Lamb beautifully captured the scenes, earning an Oscar nomination for cinematography. It was the last Paramount film to be shot in widescreen VistaVision.
The film runs nearly two-and-a-half hours. It meanders, more interested in contemplating character than tightly plotted action. But Brando’s version was much longer—four to five hours, apparently—and the studio cut it in half before releasing the film. That experience may explain why Brando didn’t direct again, and why no one would hire him.
Opinion on the film is divided. Some say it’s a classic, some say a mess. I’d say it’s neither, but it is a well-done, involving tale, with plenty of good reasons to see it even if it weren’t the only movie that Brando ever directed.
No. 121 | June 18, 2010
Our theme this week
Movies that provide (a certain) R&R
Howard Hawks made most of his movies during the black-and-white era, yet his films are as colorful—and alive—as those of any director in Hollywood history. His work spans many genres, and though he’d made a few westerns years before, none was near the achievement of Red River, a bona fide classic and his first of five films with John Wayne. As Thomas Dunson, Wayne played the tyrannical leader of a cattle drive who keeps pushing his men until they mutiny. The cast includes a young Montgomery Clift and a veteran Walter Brennan. An unsentimental look at cowboy life, the film features lively performances, sweeping photography, and some heart-pumping action.
No. 75 | April 15, 2010
Our theme this week
“Rain”-y day songs from the movies
Raindrops keep fallin’ on my head
But that doesn’t mean my eyes will soon be turnin’ red
Cryin’s not for me
‘Cause I’m never gonna stop the rain by complainin’
Because I’m free
Nothin’s worryin’ me
Years after William Goldman wrote the screenplay for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid he wrote a book called Adventures in the Screen Trade. It made famous a three-word mantra describing the way Hollywood works: “Nobody knows anything.” (Another noted three-word phrase of Goldman’s is “Follow the money,” from his screenplay for All the President’s Men.) Goldman’s point is that success or failure is entirely unpredictable. His first example of the “nobody knows anything” principle was this:
B.J. Thomas’s people, after the first sneak peak of Butch, were upset about their client’s getting involved with the song “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head.” One of them was heard to say, more than once, “B.J. really hurt himself with this one.”
The song was a #1 hit for four weeks, won an Oscar for Burt Bacharach and Hal David, and ranked 23rd on the AFI’s all-time list of American movie songs in 2004. You could have a great career hurting yourself like that.
Thomas’s “people” missed the boat, but they still may have had a point. Thomas made more than one recording of the song. In the movie he sings with a rasp, nearly losing his voice. Another version got radio play.
The movie, raspy singing and all, was a huge hit at the box office, making even bigger stars of the duo playing the title leads, Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Among other things, the film was a re-invention of the western. Based loosely on the Hole in the Wall gang, the story follows the outlaws as they rob banks, blow up a train, and run from the law. Butch and Sundance vie for the attention of Etta Place (the lovely Katharine Ross), and eventually head off to Bolivia, where their destiny awaits.
The musical interlude with the B.J. Thomas song is a definite change of pace. It worked at the time, but it’s hardly what we think of as cutting edge when we think back to the ’60s. Today it seems almost quaint. (For a contrast, listen to “Born to Be Wild” in another movie from ’69, Easy Rider, and you get a taste for what movies were about to become.)
So you may wonder, on a beautiful sunny day, why is B.J. Thomas singing about raindrops falling on his head?
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
George Roy Hill, director
“Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head”
Hal David, lyrics, Burt Bacharach, music
B.J. Thomas, singer
Paul Newman, Katharine Ross