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Awake in the Dark
The Best of Roger Ebert Reviews, Essays, And Interviews
By David Bordwell
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2017 The Ebert Company, Ltd.
All rights reserved.
Interviews and Profiles
In a perfect world, movie critics would perhaps never do interviews. There is a potential conflict involved in talking with someone, even dining with them, even visiting the set of their film, and then writing a review that is intended to be objective. Many papers make a clear distinction between critics and interviewers, and at Cannes when you apply for credentials they ask if you are a "critic" or a "chronicler." I have always been both.
It was a lucky break for me, after all, that the Sun-Times had one person on the movie beat, me. I wrote the reviews and did the interviews. That allowed me to build up a more complete database of reviews than any other critic of the same period, and it also allowed me access to hundreds of directors and other film artists.
From time to time I would grumble about the workload, and indeed the Sun-Times has had many other writers involved in writing interviews, but I never wanted to give it up entirely because I was interested in talking with these people about their work. As the publicity mechanism grew more calculating, the carefree access of earlier years shrank into the Dreaded Hotel Room Interview — three minutes taped for TV in front of a poster of the movie — and these I tended to avoid. What I would not have missed were visits to the sets or locations of Sam Peckinpah, Altman, Jewison, Bergman, Fellini, Carol Reed, Henry Hathaway, dozens of others. I talked with Hitchcock, Astaire, Streep, Groucho, John Wayne, Herzog, Mitchum, both Fondas, two Hustons, Jeanne Moreau, Elizabeth Taylor, Antonioni, Mae West.
My strategy as a writer evolved during some of my early pieces for Esquire. In reaction I suppose to Rex Reed and Tom Wolfe, who did some fancy footwork for the magazine, I developed a deadpan style in which I simply observed my subjects as they spoke and behaved, and commented on them with understatement. The Lee Marvin piece is an example of this approach.
Gene Siskel and I hosted a tribute to Warren Beatty in the 1980s at the Toronto Film Festival. Many of those he worked with agreed to appear: Arthur Penn, Robert Towne, Jerzy Kosinski, Jack Nicholson. Beatty himself did not agree to appear. He agreed to sit in the audience next to Diane Keaton and see how the tribute went, and then, when it concluded, he would see how he felt about getting up on the stage. In the event, he did mount to the stage, but to make remarks, not to answer questions.
He is protective of himself. Once I went to interview him and as I waited in a hotel room I was asked by a publicist what I thought about Beatty's new movie. I later discovered that he was sitting on the other side of a door, listening.
In Los Angeles one day I got a message from James Toback, inviting me to visit the set of his new movie Bugsy. I am customarily uninformed about films in production; I don't much read the trades and the press releases, or I would have known that Bugsy was not precisely Toback's film. He wrote it. Barry Levinson was directing it. Warren Beatty was coproducing and starring in it. I arrived at the house, was pointed up the driveway by a production assistant, walked in behind the cameras, and was seen by Beatty:
"Roger. Uh, yeah. Hi. Yeah. How are you?" This was all clearly an evasion of the question he wanted to ask, which was, what in the hell was I doing there? It was a closed set. Toback materialized and my presence was accounted for. How Toback eventually explained his invitation to Beatty is something I have never asked him.
Do I sound critical of Beatty? The fact is that I have enormous admiration for him. He has made some great films. He was personally responsible for the existence of Bonnie and Clyde, and it was his decision to trust Arthur Penn after they had gone down in flames together with their previous film, the underrated Mickey One (1965). It was Beatty who persuaded Jack Warner to give the film a proper release, although several versions exist of the story about how he did that. I am proud that as a new critic I was absolutely right about the greatness of Bonnie and Clyde at a time when much critical opinion was against it.
I don't think Beatty owes me a thing. His job is to make the movies. He can refuse to get up on the stage if he wants to, he can listen to my opinion of his movie before he talks to me, he can suggest a luncheon interview and then take me to a hot dog stand. "I want you to personally experience the best hot dogs in Burbank," he told me. I did.
SEPTEMBER 24, 1967
LONDON — No film in the last 10 years has gotten better reviews in London than Warren Beatty's Bonnie and Clyde, which opened here last week and in Chicago Friday. Beatty had all the reviews clipped out and stuck in a cardboard folder, which was resting on the coffee table in his room at the Gloucester Hotel. He kept pointing to the folder as if it was an exhibit and this was a trial.
"Hard to believe," he said. "Great reviews. Tremendous reviews. One critic called it the best American movie since 'On the Waterfront.' And you know what really hurts?"
He paused, and then continued to pace up and down the yellow carpet.
"What really hurts," he said, "is that one lousy review in the New York Times. Bosley Crowther says your movie is a glorification of violence, a cheap display of sentimental claptrap and that's that. The New York Times has spoken, hallelujah."
So Beatty, who produced and starred in Bonnie and Clyde, was getting it off his chest at last. It was the first time he had replied to Crowther's charges, although Arthur Penn, the film's director, had a succinct word or two to pronounce about Crowther last week.
The whole Bonnie and Clyde controversy is something of a rarity in American movie circles. You'd probably have to go back to Psycho to find another Hollywood film that has generated such intense debate. There's a little war going on right now in the little world of movie critics and it's beginning to look as if Crowther is getting the worst of it.
"The man at the New York Times has once again blown his tiny supply of cool," Wilfrid Sheed, Esquire's movie critic, wrote this week. Andrew Sarris of the Village Voice accused Crowther of setting back the American film industry by refusing to recognize a great film when it finally made one. Variety covered Crowther's attack on violence cheek by jowl with a paragraph reporting that the Legion of Decency had praised the movie for its treatment and approach.
And after Crowther, in a second article, served notice to Hollywood that he will "no longer favorably review a movie with too much violence in it," Orson Bean wrote the Times: "More and more it seems that a liberal is someone who will fight to the death for your right to agree with him."
The funny thing is that the storm over Bonnie and Clyde has blown up so quickly. This wasn't exactly a movie that everyone stood around for months with their tongues hanging out waiting to see. For a long time, Bonnie and Clyde was just some movie that Warren Beatty was shooting down in Texas. It was about Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, two folk heroes of the 1930s, who robbed banks, killed people, and snapped each other's pictures to send in to the newspapers. The Barrow Gang, as the ads have it, "was the strangest damn gang you ever heard of."
The story sounded interesting enough, sure, but who expected much? Penn was a director with moments of brilliance but an uneven track record, and Beatty — well, everybody knew Beatty was a crazy kid, kind of eccentric, who might throw an ashtray at you.
That was the attitude until Bonnie and Clyde was premiered at the Montreal Film Festival, when suddenly people realized they had something to deal with here. This was probably the best American film of the year. Beatty and Penn (who would have guessed it?) had gone out into the desert and labored and brought forth a masterpiece.
Most of the people who saw the film believed so, anyway. But not Crowther. And not — for a week, anyway — Joseph Morgenstern, the critic at Newsweek. In an unprecedented about-face, Morgenstern panned Bonnie and Clyde one week, and then reversed his stand in the next issue. "I was wrong," he wrote, analyzing where he'd gone astray and praising the movie extravagantly.
The Newsweek episode brought a smile to Beatty's lips. "Can you picture it?" he said. "Morgenstern is honest enough to admit he changed his mind. So he goes in to the editors, and they say, Good Lord, you can't change your mind. You're a critic — you're infallible. But Morgenstern stands his ground, so they let him have his way. I'll bet some doors slammed at Newsweek."
So Newsweek came around. The other reviews were good. All except for Crowther. And it was his review that Beatty simply could not forget. He walked up and down in his hotel room, he shook his head, he picked up the clippings of the London reviews for reassurance, he talked.
"Because Crowther writes for the New York Times," he said, "he has influence all out of proportion to his importance. Out in the bush leagues, the theater owners, they read the Times. For them, Crowther is God. Everybody in the world can like a movie, and if Crowther doesn't, he kills it."
Beatty said part of the trouble might have been the audience at Montreal.
"Maybe Crowther thought when the audience cheered, it was cheering for violence. See, there are several scenes in which we carefully develop one emotion in the audience, and then — zing! — we cut very fast to the opposite emotion. So you're sitting there laughing and suddenly you look at the screen and what you're laughing at isn't very funny at all.
"That was kind of the way with Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. They didn't seem to be able to see their crimes in context. They killed all these people, and it was still a game for them, a lark. What we tried to do in the movie was put the humor and the violence in the same framework, to make a point about the social climate that produced the Barrow Gang."
Beatty said he would give an example.
"Bonnie and Clyde are strictly amateurs at the hold-up game, of course. They take incredible risks for nothing at all. So remember the scene where Clyde is waving around this enormous pistol, and he's in a grocery store and all he's stealing is a sack of groceries. So the grocer fills the Kraft paper bag, and Clyde says. 'You sure you ain't got any peach pies?' And the grocer is very nervous with that thing waving in his face, and he says, 'No, sir, mister. I'm sure we ain't got any.'
"And so the audience laughs because this is so ridiculous. But just then a big fat butcher lunges at Clyde with a meat cleaver. A meat cleaver! And the audience says this isn't so funny. But then Clyde and this fat butcher roll around on the floor, and that's funny, because this butcher looks so comical and so they forget the meat cleaver, they start to laugh again. But then Clyde bashes the butcher on the side of the head — splat! — with his pistol, and then he swings back and hits him on the other side of the head — SPLAT!"
Beatty swung his hand back and forth, fast, as if the pistol were still in it. Then he leaned forward enthusiastically. "What we did," he said, "was, we quadrupled the sound level on the second splat. So it was incredibly loud and sickening. And the audience found the laugh dying on their lips. They hated us for that, hated us for playing with their emotions that way.
"But then — we change the mood again." Beatty sounded like a kid explaining a trick play around left end. "Bonnie and Clyde drive away in their touring car, and on the sound track we have Flatt and Scruggs playing 'Foggy Mountain Breakdown,' giving the whole thing kind of a carnival air. Only this time the music isn't appropriate, see? It's music that says laugh, but you can't laugh. The whole movie kind of weaves back and forth between making you laugh and making you sick."
Beatty was interrupted by a knock on the door. He admitted a bellhop, who carried a gift-wrapped present.
"Humm, probably cyanide," Beatty said, unwrapping the parcel. It was a bottle of champagne. He read the card aloud. It said, "To America's Greatest Producer."
Beatty smiled. "Well, how about that." he said. He put the champagne on the mantelpiece. Then he sat down, for the first time during the interview, and crossed his legs.
"There is one consolation," Beatty said. "At least Crowther was furious at the movie. I couldn't have taken it if he'd been indifferent. But how can you take anyone seriously in this day and age who calls a character in a movie a 'young tough?' I ask you."
Beatty was on his feet again by this time, looking out the window. He said he was only going to be in London for another day or two, and then back to Hollywood.
"A lot of people out there just kind of dismiss me as an irresponsible kid," he said. "All of Hollywood is old, old, old, for that matter. There are as many good young actors and directors in America as there are in Europe, but Hollywood shuts them out. Hollywood is afraid of young blood. It's a ghost town."
He pointed a finger and posed a question. "I'm twenty-eight years old," he said. "I'll give you five seconds to name me another Hollywood leading man under the age of thirty-five."
It was hard to do. Promising newcomers, yes, but no stars. And even later with plenty of time to think, only three names came to mind: Elvis Presley, Frankie Avalon, and George Hamilton. That's food for thought right there.
Frank Casey was the Warner Brothers publicist in Chicago when I became the Sun-Times film critic. He'd gotten his job when mayor Martin Kennelly suggested him to Jack Warner at a time when Kennelly was owed a favor. The mayor called in Frank and informed him that he was now working for Warner Brothers. Frank was not sure this was good news. He had a job at Coca-Cola.
"What can they give you that Warner Brothers can't?" asked the mayor.
Shortly after I joined the paper as a feature writer, Casey announced a junket to the set of Camelot and the paper sent me. In those days we accepted studio junkets without a moment's thought. Casey liked my story about Camelot and told the editor of the paper I should be their new film critic. That had something to do with me getting the job, when it opened up. On the other hand, I was once on Casey's enemies list and did not get invited to a screening or an interview for two years. He never told me why. Then we were buddies again. It was said he had never sat through an entire movie. He once called me up and said, "Whoosis wants to know if you want to talk to Whatsis."
Casey engineered the interview with James Stewart, when I had been on the job less than a year. Firecreek was a Universal picture, but Stewart said he wouldn't do the junket unless Casey handled it. They had a history together. Warners loaned him out. Casey had a history with Ronald Reagan, too; as a favor to his friend Dr. Davis, he introduced the doctor's daughter Nancy to Ronnie.
At the wake at Gene and Georgetti's steak house after Casey's death, his bosses got up and told stories about his expense accounts. A waiter showed me an American Express machine. "This is the machine we used," he said, "when you had dinner here with Frank every night."
"I had dinner with Frank every night?" I said.
"Including Mondays, when we are closed."
Re-reading this James Stewart interview, I am struck by the fact that I apparently asked him why he'd never played a bad guy, and he answered me, "I just really don't know if I could play a heavy." Perhaps he was being nice to me. Certainly he knew, as I obviously did not in 1968, that he had played bad guys. By the time I wrote the piece "Mitch and Jimmy: Some Thoughts," I knew that. You learn on the job.
EL PASO, TX — The morning after the world premiere of Firecreek, his seventieth motion picture, James Stewart pulled a maroon dressing gown on over his shirt and slacks to ward off the chill in his hotel suite.
This took a minute or so and then he returned to his chair and sat down, crossing his arms, rocking back and forth slowly, trying to frame the right words to answer the question his visitor had just posed.
"Oh, I guess I've been asked often enough when I'm going to get around to playing a bad guy," he said at last. "I never have. Seems like everyone else has taken the plunge. John Wayne. Henry Fonda."
He took another pause, and you could see the grin beginning around his eyes. It was a slow grin that took its time working around to the rest of his face. The Stewart grin.
"I don't know," he said at last. "I just really don't know if I could play a heavy. I've played heroes all my life, and now — well, it would be like playing Hamlet. It's not that you don't want to, but you just don't know if you could. I've never seriously considered it."
Excerpted from Awake in the Dark by David Bordwell. Copyright © 2017 The Ebert Company, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents
Foreword David Bordwell xii
Prologue: Death of a Dream Palace xxxi
Review of La Dolce Vita xxxiv
Part 1 Interviews and Profiles
Warren Beatty 3
James Stewart 9
Robert Mitchum 14
Mitch and Jimmy: Some Thoughts 21
Lee Marvin 25
Ingmar Bergman 35
Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader 47
Robert Altman 53
Werner Herzog 59
Meryl Streep 64
Woody Allen 68
Spike Lee 75
Tom Hanks 82
Errol Morris 93
Steven Spielberg 98
Part 2 The Best
1967: Bonnie and Clyde 105
1968: The Battle of Algiers 108
1969: Z 110
1970: Five Easy Pieces 113
1971: The Last Picture Show 115
1972: The Godfather 118
1973: Cries, and Whispers 121
1974: Scenes from a Marriage 124
1975: Nashville 127
1976: Small Change 131
1977: 3 Women 133
1978: An Unmarried Woman 135
1979: Apocalypse Now 138
1980: The Black Stallion 141
1981: My Dinner with Andre 144
1982: Sophie's Choice 147
1983: The Right Stuff 149
1984: Amadeus 151
1985: The Color Purple 154
1986: Platoon 157
1987: House of Games 160
1988: Mississippi Burning 163
1989: Do the Right Thing 167
1990: GoodFellas 170
1991: JFK 173
1992: Malcolm X 177
1993: Schindler's List 181
1994: Hoop Dreams 184
1995: Leaving Las Vegas 188
1996: Fargo 191
1997: Eve's Bayou 194
1998: Dark City 197
1999: Being John Malkovich 200
2000: Almost Famous 202
2001: Monster's Ball 205
2002: Minority Report 208
2003: Monster 211
2004: Million Dollar Baby 214
2005: Crash 217
Part 3 Foreign Films
Tokyo Story 223
The Music Room 225
An Hasard Balthazar 229
Belle de four 233
The Wild Child 236
Claire's Knee 238
Last Tango in Paris 240
Fellini's Roma 246
The Marriage of Maria Braun 251
Wings of Desire 253
Raise the Red Lantern 255
The Scent of Green Papaya 257
Spirited Away 260
City of God 262
Part 4 Documentaries
Harlan County, U.S.A 272
Gates of Heaven 274
Say Amen, Somebody 276
The "Up" Movies 278
28 Up 278
35 Up 281
42 Up 284
Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam 293
Heidi Fleiss, Hollywood Madam 299
Part 5 Overlooked and Underrated
Thieves Like Us 307
Bring Mc the Head of Alfredo Garcia 309
Saint Jack 313
El Norte 315
To Live and Die in L.A 319
Trouble in Mind 321
The Rapture 325
A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries 328
The Saddest Music in the World 331
Part 6 Essays and Think Pieces
That's the Way It Is: The Color Purple and the Oscars 337
Legacy of Star Wars 341
John Cassavetes: An Appreciation 345
Why J Love Black and White 349
The Case for an A Rating 354
Well, Are Movies Better Than Ever? 364
A Pulitzer for the Movies 368
Celluloid vs. Digital: The War for the Soul of the Cinema 371
The Most Influential Films of the Century 377
In Memoriam: Pauline Kael 381
Part 7 On Film Criticism
Twenty-five Years in the Dark 387
Symposium from Film Comment: All Thumbs, or, Is There a Future for Film Criticism? Richard Corliss 394
All Stars, or, Is There a Cure for Criticism of Film Criticism? Roger Ebert 403
Then Again Richard Corliss 416
Auteurism Is Alive and Well and Living in Argentina Andrew Sarris 420
A Memo to Myself and Certain Other Film Critics 430
Epilogue: Thoughts on the Centennial or Cinema 433
Coda: On the Meaning of Life…and Movies 437
Appendix 1 Ten Best Lists, 1967-2012 441
Appendix 2 More of "The Best," 2006-2012 458