Entr’acte | March 31, 2011
“I have never felt more alive than when I watched my children delight in something, never more alive than when I have watched a great artist perform and never richer than when I have scored a big check to fight AIDS. Follow your passion, follow your heart, and the things you need will come.”
—Elizabeth Taylor, her final interview, Harper’s Bazaar, February 2011
Entr’acte | March 29, 2011
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
“Miss Taylor… is terrific as a panting, impatient wife, wanting the love of her husband as sincerely as she wants an inheritance.”
—Bosley Crowther, The New York Times, 1958
Not everything as Tennessee Williams intended it to be, but the film still packs a powerful punch. During production, Elizabeth Taylor’s third husband, Mike Todd, died in a plane crash. It was the only one of her marriages not to end in divorce.
No. 112 | June 7, 2010
“Drill, baby, drill!” is not an argument meant to win a debate. It’s a slogan mocking the idea that we should even have a debate. But like it or not, it’s been the de facto energy policy of the country for many decades. Presidents for as long as anyone can remember have been promising change. Nothing happens. Maybe now the time has come. We shall see.
I generally don’t aim to be topical with weekly themes, but the story that’s dominating the news is not going away. Oil gushes into the Gulf of Mexico today, and it will again tomorrow, and the day after. Based on the latest predictions, the gushing will continue until August, if not Christmas. This isn’t just a news story. It’s history as it happens.
Before we get to the five films of the week, you may want to look at a clip from the great Robert Flaherty, a filmmaker with a fondness for exotic locations and the people who live in them (Nanook of the North, Man of Aran). Near the end of his career he filmed Louisiana Story. A film about life on the bayou, it’s a relatively early depiction of the effects of oil. When a cajun family finds oil bubbling up in their swamp, they lease the land to an oil company, which erects a derrick to drill 14,000 feet into the earth. After a blowout, the rig is soon capped, but mostly the film portrays the harmony of industry and nature, and the promise of oil to bring prosperity to the people. The film won accolades at the time. It is arfully done, though today it seems somewhat naïve. There may be a reason for that. The film was funded by Standard Oil of New Jersey.
The film has value, in any case. It offers us a glimpse of Louisiana life that doesn’t exist anymore. There’s no oil derrick in the clip here, just a cajun boy with a lot of courage, and an alligator.
Louisiana Story (1948)
Robert Flaherty, director
Virgil Thomson, composer (the only film score to win a Pulitzer Prize for Music)
Our theme this week
Films about oil, and what it does to people
Don’t bother to watch the movie unless you have nothing else to do for three hours and twenty-one minutes. They don’t call it Giant for nothing.
In the last of his three great film performances, James Dean co-stars as Jett Rink, a worker on a ranch in Texas owned by the Benedict family. When Luz Benedict (Mercedes McCambridge) dies, she leaves a small plot of land to Jett. Before long, he strikes oil, and that changes everything. Tensions run high between Jett and the rest of the Benedicts, including Bick and Leslie (Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor), before Jett heads off to start an oil drilling company. Jett goes from rich to super-rich. During the war Jett persuades Bick to get into the oil business, and soon Bick and the Benedict family are wealthier than even before. They are all rolling in it, though not particularly happy, and feuding. Jett is worst off, ending up a pathetic drunk. Ain’t oil grand?
More than just a story about the bad fortunes of getting rich, Giant is also a reminder that poor treatment of Mexican Americans has a long history. The Benedicts are less than enlightened in their attitudes toward immigrants, but after some time—and children, intermarriage, and grandchildren—Bick, at least, has a change of heart.
Adapted from the Edna Ferber novel, the film garnered ten Oscar nominations, including a posthumous nod for Dean, who died before the film opened. George Stevens won the Best Director prize. The film did great box office, setting a record for Warner Bros., its top grosser until Superman in 1978.
One casting note, from the “please check that woman’s ID” department: Elizabeth Taylor played the mother of the late Dennis Hopper and Caroll Baker. Yet Taylor was only four years older than Hopper, and is a year younger than Baker.
No. 109 | June 2, 2010
Our theme this week
“Summer” movies (not soon playing at a theater near you)
Suddenly, Last Summer may have been the most disturbing film I saw as a child. It’s hardly a children’s film, but it played many times on local television while I was growing up in New York. We didn’t have many choices back then. No doubt certain elements of the story were over my head at the time, yet it haunted me. I could watch a war movie with a thousand men dying in battle and be less troubled than by scenes of madness and cruelty from this twisted tale of Tennessee Williams. What was so scary? Plenty, actually, and the icy matriarch played by Katharine Hepburn was part of it. But the idea that you could have to face a truth so terrible that you might lose your mind was pretty damn frightening. (The older I got, the better I understood that the fear of admitting uncomfortable truths is not just an aberration. It’s one of the defining characters of society.)
Elizabeth Taylor stars as Catherine, whose cousin Sebastian died on their vacation in Europe. Catherine is so distraught after witnessing his death that her family has her institutionalized. Katherine Hepburn is Mrs. Violet Venable, Sebastian’s wealthy mother, who simply does not want to know the truth about her son. Good ol’ Aunt Vi tries to force the sanitarium into giving her niece, Catherine, a lobotomy.
A doctor played by Montgomery Clift performs an evaluation of Catherine, and with his encouragement, she at last describes the events of the summer, those days on the beach with Sebastian. She was the unwitting decoy in Sebastian’s schemes to attract boys for prostitution. One day he fought with a group of them. They chased him across town, cornered him, and beat him to death. Catherine watched the gruesome killing, screamed, but could not help.
Telling the story leaves Catherine shaken, in tears. But learning the details of her son’s homosexuality and death is more than Mrs. Venable can handle. She loses her grasp on reality and needs to be taken away.
Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz adapted Williams’s one-act play for the screen, with Gore Vidal getting one of the writing credits. Some of the more perverse material was tamed down for the film version, notably the cannibalism of Sebastian’s death. Still, the film had plenty of shock value, certainly more the typical film of the ’50s, and more than anything else I remember seeing on television in those halcyon days before cable TV.
No. 43 | March 2, 2010
Our theme this week (theme introduction)
Film titles with two Oscar nominations for Best Picture
Featured this week
Monday — Moulin Rouge (1952, 2001)
Director: Cecil B. DeMille
Writers: Waldemar Young, Vincent Lawrence, screenplay; Bartlett Cormack, historical material
Cast: Claudette Colbert (Cleopatra), Warren William (Julius Caesar), Henry Wilcoxon (Marc Antony), Joseph Schildkraut (King Herod)
Oscar Summary: 5 nominations, including Picture; 1 win (Cinematography)
Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz (replacing Rouben Mamoulian)
Writers: Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Ranald MacDougall, Sidney Buchman
Cast: Elizabeth Taylor (Cleopatra), Richard Burton (Mark Antony), Rex Harrison (Julius Caesar)
Oscar Summary: 9 nominations, including Picture, Actor (Harrison); 4 wins (Cinematography, Art Direction, Costume Design, Effects)
Egypt had seven queens named Cleopatra but you never see much about the first six. It’s always Cleopatra VII Philopator, the last of the Ptolemaic rulers, who gets the love. Many times her life has been dramatized. In Shakespeare, she splits title billing with Antony. In movies, it’s often her name alone in the title. Among several silent Cleopatras, the most famous is the 1917 Fox production starring Theda Bara, though prints of that film, unfortunately, were lost to fire. The talking era would give the world several more chances to see the queen onscreen.
The tagline for the 1934 version was “History’s most seductive woman! The screen’s mightiest spectacle!” Who but Cecil B. DeMille would have directed that. The film was a lavish, big-budget affair, and a big deal at the time. DeMille squeezed it in just before the Hays production code was enforced, and perhaps got away with more vamping than would have been allowed later. The star of the show was Claudette Colbert, in one of her three memorable performances that year. She made Imitation of Life and won the Oscar for Best Actress opposite Clark Gable in the Frank Capra classic It Happened One Night. Even at the time, Colbert probably seemed like a modern update for the old queen of the Nile. Same for the dialogue. Anyone familiar with Shakespeare’s play might not have been expecting this: “Together we could conquer the world” / “Nice of you to include me” (Cleopatra / Caesar), and “The wife is always the last to know” (Octavia). Not exactly the Bard, but Shakespeare was hardly the language of the ancients either. A 75th-anniversary DVD was released last year.
The 1963 film is better known for its epic failure than for the epic on the screen. It was the most expensive movie ever made, running north of $40 million—quite an overrun for a film originally budgeted at $2-to-$6 million. Elizabeth Taylor became the first Hollywood star to earn more than $1 million for a single film, and her health problems—including an emergency tracheotomy that saved her life—were among the many complications that threatened the production. After the first director and lead actors were replaced, Richard Burton joined the cast, and his affair with Taylor was a huge scandal. A few years after production had started, director Joseph L. Mankiewicz completed the film. His six-hour version, though, was cut by the studio, and at four hours the film was still exceedingly long but perhaps not long enough to tell its story in a coherent way. Theater owners, disturbed by the film’s running time, jacked ticket prices three times the normal rate (all the way up to $5.50!). The film did make money at the box office—it was the number-one draw of the year—but that was not enough. The huge expense of Cleopatra nearly put 20th Century Fox out of business. The success of The Longest Day (1963) and The Sound of Music (1965) ultimately saved the studio, but it had to sell much of its backlot to recoup losses. The high-rises of L.A.’s Century City business district now stand where movies once were made.
Cleopatra is often depicted as a woman of great, classical beauty. It’s hard to judge, since we don’t have pictures of her today, but with her history of attracting and seducing some of the most powerful men in the world, there’s a case to be made. Blaise Pascal had this famous line: “Cleopatra’s nose, had it been shorter, the whole face of the world would have been changed.” In his time, a prominent nose was considered a sign of dominance and strength of character. Ironically, one of the few works believed to have captured Cleopatra’s image is the bust above. The nose did not survive.
Wanna know how you make a movie four hours long? Watch this.