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The Best Movie Writing 2001 is dedicated to collecting the best writing about our most influential medium, our most popular, evocative and hotly debated art and mode of storytelling, and includes several new features: introductions of each piece by the guest editor; comments by the contributors on their pieces: and a catalog of America's most important movie magazines. Discussions are not limited to individual films, actors and directors but range from the racial politics of Gone With the Wind to the protest ...
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The Best Movie Writing 2001 is dedicated to collecting the best writing about our most influential medium, our most popular, evocative and hotly debated art and mode of storytelling, and includes several new features: introductions of each piece by the guest editor; comments by the contributors on their pieces: and a catalog of America's most important movie magazines. Discussions are not limited to individual films, actors and directors but range from the racial politics of Gone With the Wind to the protest surrounding the 1999 adaptation of the book American Psycho; from how the MPAA rates independent films, to the battle between proponents of film and the new digital technology. Includes selections from Ian Buruma, Molly Haskell, Michael Herr, John Irving, Lawrence Kasdan, Jack Kerouac, Stuart Klawans, Stanley Kubric, and others.
"Memorize your lines and
don't bump into the furniture."
We begin with a book review by Molly Haskell of Burt Lancaster, An American Life written by Kate Buford. Why a review and not an excerpt from the book itself? Because of the nature of many book reviewers, their reviews will contain their own viewpoints on the subject of the book as well as an assessment of the author's. Burr Lancaster is a movie star of icon status, and represents the power shift from the studios to the star that began in the fifties. In Lancaster's case, he was directly responsible for some truly great films (Marty, The Sweet Smell of Success) and many great and indelible performances. Read this review, and then read the book.
"Barbara Dayton: A Memoir" by Robert Polito reads like an Edgar Ulmer movie, tough and sad. It is almost the perfect antidote to dreams of Hollywood stardom.
The Three Stooges are probably the most popular and successful film comics of all time. There is never an instant when one of their Columbia shorts is not shown somewhere in the world on television. Like all comics with long careers, their huge body of work collapses under its own volume. Laurel and Hardy, Abbot and Costello, The Marx Brothers, Martin and Lewis, and others found it impossible to sustain a standard of excellence in part because they were so prolific. Stand-up comedian Jay Leno had an early routine on how what really differentiated the sexes was an appreciation of the Three Stooges. Men loved them,women hated them. They have always amused me, not only for their straightforward stage-bound routines, but also sometimes for their sheer artlessness. A total lack of pretension goes a long way in my book.
I found the Jack Kerouac story "Cody and the Three Stooges" printed as an appendix to Larry, the Stooge in the Middle, a biography of Larry Fine by his brother Morris "Moe" Feinberg with G.P. Skratz. Kerouac's style wonderfully captures the lunacy of the Stooges' best work.
Since the studios evolved into a factory system of production, film companies tended to regard their sets, props, and costumes, etc., as industrial by-products. The physical ephemera of production was recycled or more usually, trashed. Over the years, much of what remains of film history has been the work of private individual collectors. Eccentrics like Henri Langlois, Forrest J Ackerman and Bob Burns saved priceless material that otherwise would be lost forever.
There is a new book, It Came From Bob's Basement by Bob Burns with John Michlig, which is lavishly illustrated with photographs of Bob's collection. On the flyleaf Bob's bio reads, "After a long and varied career spent in the company of monsters, space aliens, and gorillas, Bob has accumulated what may be the world's largest private collection of props and artwork from our favorite creature features and sci-fi pics." Bob actually has the genuine King Kong!
I have always had a love of and fascination with apes, especially gorillas. I have only met three others in my lifetime with my own passion for the great apes, Rick Baker, Ray Harryhausen and Bob Burns. All of us agree that the original King Kong is a perfect film. All of us collect gorilla figures (Rick Baker gave my wife Deborah and I as a wedding present a life-size fiberglass sculpture of a male Mountain Gorilla which still stands proudly in our living room, and a Ray Harryhausen sculpture in bronze of Kong battling the Tyrannosaurus with Fay Wray cowering nearby is in the hall), and three of us have actually portrayed apes in the movies.
We four are most likely the only ones who can hold forth on the different gorilla suits, masks, and performances of Emil van Horne, Crash Corrigan, George Barrows, Janos Prohaska, Bob Burns, Rick Baker, and the greatest "gorilla man" of them all, Charlie Gemora. These were the men inside all those Hollywood gorilla and monster costumes in all those movies.
The Monster and the Girl, a Paramount picture released in 1941, is a delirious mixture of film noir/white slavery/mad scientist-transplants-human-brain-into-gorilla/revenge picture, with an outstanding performance by Charlie Gemora. Check it out to understand why I've included him.
by Molly Haskell
To fly through the air with the greatest of ease is what we expect of the young man on the flying trapeze; to enthrall women sexually in the name of the Lord is the dubious gift of the religious revivalist. Yet Burt Lancaster, onetime circus performer (see him swing through The Crimson Pirate in 1952 and Trapeze in 1956) and Oscar winner for his Bible-thumping evangelist in Elmer Gantry (1960), was neither a natural athlete nor a natural seducer. He had a great many qualities—leonine beauty, acrobatic dexterity, physical strength, street smarts, serious ambition, a political conscience, and, by the end of his career, a number of good and a few great performances under his belt. But ease, natural ease, eluded him; too often he had a deliberate, overheated quality on the screen, mirrored, it seems, in the way he played golf: he never managed the relaxed swing essential to the game that attracted and frustrated him.
He had charisma—in many scenes, as Kate Buford points out in this splendid biography, he is the only person you watch on the screen. But not being able to blend in with one's fellow actors is hardly an unqualified asset. That sort of megawattage defines star cinema, and Lancaster, who had it in spades, almost could not not be a star. But charisma, with its overtones of divinity, is one thing; charm on the human scale is something else. A few stars have both, the blast of star power and the quieter lure of intimacy, but Lancaster was like those Olympians who bestrode the earth and laughed at puny mortals, whose gestures were larger, whose words were weightier and whose diction was more precise than anybody else's.
Indeed, and not just incidentally, in the many interesting descriptions quoted by Buford from friends, directors, and journalists, phrases like "golem," "Adam," "young Sun god," "sculptural," "Greek hero," "hyper-man," and "wounded colossus" are used, and the people most often doing the describing in this biography are men. Lancaster's was a male ideal of power and grace, classical in form: the sculptured physique, the exultation in the body, the sense of being complete without a woman.
At least that was how he appeared to us in the 1950's—strenuously physical, preeningly patriarchal, decidedly uncool, almost an embarrassment, or, as Buford says in the prologue to her first book, "too earnest to be chic." But as time went on, that earnestness paid off. In the retrospective view that Burt Lancaster: An American Life invites, his career now looks infinitely more interesting—richer and more ambitious on the whole than Brando's, the more gifted contemporary who beat him out for coveted roles like Stanley Kowalski and the Godfather but languished in middle and old age. Lancaster used his autumn years not just to make a few bucks or stay in the game but to explore new facets of his character and come to terms with age itself, to risk losing his fans in wildly unconventional roles. Not only did he allow himself to be Luchino Visconti's alter ego as the Sicilian aristocrat of The Leopard (1963) and the fussy professor of Conversation Piece (1975) and, no less perversely, Bernardo Bertolucci's randy landowner in 1900 (1976), but he wanted desperately to make a film of Kiss of the Spider Woman and play the gay hairdresser!
Descended from Protestant Irish immigrants, Lancaster (1913-94) grew up in a raffish East Harlem neighborhood like that of another pugnacious Irishman, James Cagney. Along with other kids in the area, he was a lucky protege of the Union Settlement House, that extraordinary church-run institution that got young people off the streets with a range of activities, from sports to theatricals, and helped the immigrant poor organize within their communities. Encouraged by an artistic, opera-loving mother and two inspirational pastors, he discovered a talent for acting—balanced always by the more "masculine" love of sports.
Preferring to express himself physically rather than emotionally (he would later block love scenes carefully, according to one co-star, in order to "hide his feelings from the camera"), he was disdainful of Stanislavsky's Method, which was overtaking the New York theater and its settlement offshoots, and felt that acting the same role night after night was "sissy." He had "no intention," Buford adds, "of playing dour Russian peasants when he could dream of emulating Douglas Fairbanks in The Mark of Zorro." But from the settlement-house ethic he also developed the progressive and reformist impulses that would characterize his leftist politics, from his mostly staunch solidarity with the Hollywood targets of the witch hunt in the 50's to the underdog sympathies of his films to major personal and financial contributions to the American Civil Liberties Union and other organizations in his later life.
Lancaster figured out what was needed in postwar Hollywood and was way ahead of the game as an independent, forming his own production company in 1945 with the agent and onetime actor Harold Hecht as his partner. Called Norma Productions after his wife, it was one of the first and most successful of its kind, boosting the fortunes of all concerned. With different studios (they eventually put United Artists back on the map), Lancaster and Hecht made offbeat movies like Marty (1955) and serious adaptations like Come Back, Little Sheba (1952) and The Rose Tattoo (1955), as well as more profitable adventure pictures. Lancaster always insisted he was making movies, not films, and if a picture didn't score with an audience it was by definition a failure. Yet best regarded today are not the ambitious ego trips, one-man shows Elmer Gantry and Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), but the less pretentious movies that did not become box-office hits. The cult classics and acknowledged masterpieces are the noirish pictures in which the smiles are few, Lancaster's "Chiclet" teeth are least visible and the endings bleaker than a cold moonless night.
In The Killers (1946), he makes one of the most dazzling debuts on film, lying in the shadow, awaiting death, his bare arms by his side, the muscularity in repose implying both strength and sensitivity. In Criss Cross (1949), also directed by Robert Siodmak, his bank guard gone bad greets death almost passively, the noir antihero as fallen idol. As J. J. Hunsecker, the malicious gossip columnist in Sweet Smell of Success (1957), he scored a critical triumph and gave Tony Curtis the role of his life. As the hawkish and half-mad General Scott in Seven Days in May (1964), he played his own philosophical opposite. Closer to his real-life character was the shrewdly tolerant American Indian scout in Robert Aldrich's brilliant Ulzana's Raid (1972), who dies in the end, victim of a massacre, while lighting a cigarette.
There was gossip about his unorthodox sex life (on which the omnipresent Federal Bureau of Investigation kept a running file), and Buford reports the rumors as such. Through many affairs—he was a compulsive womanizer but not a ladies' man—he nevertheless remained dutifully with his alcoholic wife and their five children until circumstances finally drove them apart. However, by all accounts, he nevertheless lived on the wild side, took advantage of the multiplicity of offerings—orgies, sharing women with his associate James Hill, forays into homosexuality. He was a man of broad appetites and black rages, difficult and sometimes impossibly rude. Siodmak was so disgusted with his behavior on location for The Crimson Pirate that he left Lancaster and Hollywood for good. Yet he could be kind and generous, loyal to friends and indifferent to the Hollywood power game, rarely cultivating the socially important and unconcerned with what people thought.
He could make fun of his own virility and though Mad magazine might parody him and Gary Cooper in Vera Cruz (1954) as "Lambaster" (who takes forever to die) and "Chickencooper," the two stars were already halfway there in this entertaining buddy tale of two laconic he-men cowboys outhustling each other. It was his coming to terms with growing old and the loss of masculine power that makes his later films so engaging, even moving. In Atlantic City (1981), coming full circle back to his runaway felon in The Killers, he plays a has-been mobster who voyeuristically ogles, then befriends, Susan Sarandon's croupier-in-training. Sarandon describes how difficult it Was for Lancaster, whose instinct was to take a woman by force, to accept the idea that the woman "gave herself to him." The man who had shocked audiences of From Here to Eternity (1953) by making graphic love to Deborah Kerr on the sand had never really exposed his emotional vulnerability. Now that the famous torso was past displaying, and the emperor had to wear clothes, there was, after all, as Kate Buford's biography makes clear, more to him than met the eye.
BARBARA PAYTON: A MEMOIR
by Robert Polito
For a few years during the early 1960s my father tended bar at The Coach and Horses on Sunset, in Hollywood. Weekdays he inventoried the sale of stamps, money orders, and Pitney Bowes machines as supervisor of a Santa Ana Post Office, close to where he lived in a tidy dingbat studio. But I was about to turn thirteen, and he hoped to send me to a "real college." The Post Office discouraged second jobs for Government employees of his rank, so my father moonlighted only at bars, all transactions cash.
The Coach and Horses lured patrons with the natty coat of arms of a British pub, but inside the landscape registered saloon. This was residential Hollywood. Cocktail lounges unattached to hotels or eateries still tended to be rare in Los Angeles, and survived on local drunks who could swing the tab—wall drinks sixty-five cents. Fourteen stools along a runty bar, half as many booths strung in a miniature railroad, the vibes at The Coach and Horses read dark: dusky paneling, blackout drapes, shaded lamps. Haul in a couple of slot machines and you might feel transported to Vegas, even Barstow.
Excerpted from THE BEST AMERICAN MOVIE WRITING 2001 by . Copyright © 2001 by John Landis and Jason Shinder. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|Preface Jason Shinder||xiii|
|Introduction John Landis||xix|
|Some Thoughts on Critics compiled by John Landis||xxiii|
|Molly Haskell HIGH WIRE ARTIST (Burt Lancaster)||3|
|Robert Polito BARBARA PAYTON: A MEMOIR||8|
|Jack Kerouac CODY AND THE THREE STOOGES||16|
|Tom Weaver HATS OFF TO CHARLES GEMORA,|
|HOLLYWOOD'S GREATEST APE||20|
|Sam Staggs excerpt from ALL ABOUT ALL ABOUT|
|EVE, THE COMPLETE BEHIND THE SCENES STORY OF THE||37|
|Mary Harron THE RISKY TERRITORY OF AMERICAN|
|Doug Atchison HOW THE MPAA RATES INDEPENDENT|
|Leonard J||Leff GONE WITH THE WIND AND HOLLYWOOD|
|Russell Banks NO, BUT I SAW THE MOVIE||89|
|JohnIrving THE TWELVE-YEAR-OLD GIRL||105|
|David Leavitt LOST AMONG THE PINAFORES||112|
|Daryl G||Nickens THE GREAT ESCAPE—OR THE FIRST|
|TIME I DIDN'T PAY FOR IT||120|
|Walter Bernstein New Introduction & Last Chapter|
|INSIDE OUT: A MEMOIR OF THEBLACKLIST||123|
|Lawrence Kasdan POV||151|
|Michael Herr KUBRICK||171|
|Stanley Kubrick 2001: A FILM||179|
|Rick Lyman WHOA, TRIGGER! AUTEUR ALERT!||184|
|Rebecca Mead CHEESE WHIZ: SAM RAIMI, THE AUTEUR|
|OF THE EVIL DEAD||193|
|Natalie Zemon Davis CEREMONY AND REVOLT: BURN!||203|
|David Geffner PEOPLE WHO NEED PEOPLE||213|
|Stuart Klawans AN INTERLUDE||228|
|J. Hoberman WHEN THE NAZIS BECAME NUDNIKS||238|
|John Bailey FILM OR DIGITAL? DON'T FIGHT,|
|Michael Atkinson STOP-MOTION JIM JAMS: RAY|
|David Remnick IS THIS THE END OF RICO?||262|
|Maria DiBattista FEMALE RAMPANT||278|
|Ian Buruma FOUND HORIZON||310|
|Afterword by John Landis||319|
|About the Series Editor||327|
|About the Guest Editor||329|