Entr’acte | February 3, 2011
Going out with guns blazing.
Entr’acte | February 1, 2011
Butch and Sundance in Bolivia.
No. 193 | November 9, 2010
Our theme this week
Films about the newspaper biz
All the President’s Men is a film made during the ’70s about events during the ’70s and watching it today you may notice that the times have changed. Hair was longer, cars were larger, telephones were stationary, but the biggest difference between then and now is in role that journalism played in covering, and shaping, momentous happenings of the day.
Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward are the two young and hungry reporters who crack the story, one of the biggest of the century. The film starts with a bungled break-in at Washington’s Watergate office complex, and (let’s hope no spoiler notice is needed here) ends with the downfall of Richard Nixon, the only president ever to resign from office. The focus of the film is the under-the-radar investigation taking place during Nixon’s successful reelection campaign of 1972. Articles about the burglary and its aftermath are at first buried inside the Washington Post. Tenuous connections between the burglars and the White House raise suspicions, but it’s far from certain whether Bernstein and Woodward have big news to break. No one is willing to cooperate. Except, finally, a source named Deep Throat, a mysterious figure (identified in 2005 as W. Mark Felt, a top official at the FBI) who meets Woodward late at night in dark parking garages. He steers the reporters cautiously and warns them their lives are in danger. In the scenes with Deep Throat we get a glimpse of the machinations behind the scenes, the lengths that those in power will go to keep power and to cover up their tracks. Near the end we see Nixon at his second inauguration, the flickering image of the world’s most powerful man at the height of his power. The two reporters are at their desks, ignoring the television while they work. The real story would be coming in the newspaper, which day after day would build and build till soon the world would learn what it did know as it watched live that day. The film spares us scenes of all the legwork to come. The growing scandal, the indictments, the convictions, are summed up in a series of headlines that come across the news wire. It’s a startling and effective close to the story, with the final shot a close-up of a white sheet of paper, and on it written the message:
GERALD FORD TO BECOME 38TH PRESIDENT AT NOON TODAY
All the President’s Men is one of the best political thrillers to come out of Hollywood. It’s a true story and a famous one, and there’s no doubt about what happens in the end. But the virtue of the film is that so much is at stake. We get to be a witness to history and see the inside story as it unfolds.
The two stars, Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, deserve credit for their portrayals of Woodward and Bernstein, with Jason Robards their boss, editor Ben Bradlee, and Hal Holbrook perfectly cast as the shadowy Deep Throat. Redford was instrumental in getting the film made, having purchased the rights to the book, and Alan J. Pakula directed from a William Goldman script. All hit the target with exactly what was needed.
It is a film of its time, and a reminder of how the news business has changed over the years. The reporters in All the President’s Men had the benefit of some luck, but also the backing of the paper. The Washington Post took big risks in breaking the Watergate story. It’s hard to imagine reporters today having the same institutional support to take on White House. The news is a corporate-owned, star-driven business now, and those who make news and cover the news are in the same club. Watergate wasn’t the end of dirty tricks in high places, but the fourth estate is more likely now to look the other way. (Case in point: the Plame affair. I’ll take a look at the new film, Fair Game, later this month.)
No. 84 | April 28, 2010
Our theme this week
Card games at the movies
“You can’t con an honest man” always has struck me as a suspect piece of wisdom—but the converse is a truism I can agree with. A crooked man can be conned. When it happens, it’s fun to watch, and that’s a good part of the pleasure behind The Sting, a clever and stylish period piece starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford. It’s a Depression-era story made for a Watergate-era audience with the uplifting moral that the good guys are sometimes better cheaters than the bad guys. (The look of the film is mostly appropriate for its 1936 setting, including Norman Rockwell-like illustrations for the titles. The music, however, borrows from an earlier time, with a memorable score largely based on the ragtime of Scott Joplin.)
The film is expertly plotted, as con men Henry Gondorff (Newman) and Johnny Hooker (Redford) set up and execute an elaborate sting to swindle crime boss Doyle Lonnegan, played by Robert Shaw. One small part of the operation is the “hook,” a high-stakes poker game on the Chicago train, in which Lonnegan is foiled by his own cheating.
The Sting was a big hit with critics and with audiences—the Best Picture winner of 1973 and #1 film at the box office the following year.
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