Pop Culture Musing for a Thursday 2/23/17


Faces of Oscar: In 2011, a slight, gimmicky, and not particularly transcendent film swept the awards season, culminating with five Academy Awards after garnering a whopping ten nominations. Shot entirely in black and white and with the added novelty of being a silent picture, The Artist was the toast of Hollywood – yet now, just six years later, is not much remembered.

I feel pretty much the same way about this year’s cinema célèbre – the slight, gimmicky, and also not particularly transcendent La La Land. It’s sweet, it’s cute, and one can appreciate its escapist musical charms at a time when they’re more necessary than ever. But 14 Oscar nominations? My feeling is it’ll be joining The Artist in barely remembered territory a few years down the road.

Count me in the Moonlight camp for this year’s Best Picture. It’s really the one true work of art amongst this year’s nominees, carving a little piece of real estate in that cultural and artistic landscape of the soul. (Yes, this one IS transcendent.) In colors and music and use of silence it paints a coming of age story that sings of hope amongst despair, and those connections that mark us for life, no matter our backgrounds. Though I’ll be more than delighted when Viola Davis wins the Supporting Actress award for Fences, Naomie Harris as the crack-addicted mother in Moonlight runs a close second, and Mahershala Ali, as mentor to the child version of the protagonist, Chiron, is similarly moving.

isabelle huppert
Isabelle Huppert in “Elle”

In spite of what looks to be a La La Land juggernaut which will likely include its female star Emma Stone as Best Actress, I’ll go on the record that it’s long past due that Isabelle Huppert, known in film circles as the French Meryl Streep, wins her first Oscar. In Elle, a psychological thriller (inexplicably left out of the Foreign Language Film nominations), directed by Paul Verhoeven, she owns a role which I’d venture to say even Streep would find a challenge. It’s a quirkily dark depiction of a woman who suffers from unspeakable emotional damage, yet finds some weird empowering strength in those very elements that would have put anyone else over the deep end. Well, most would actually say she is off the deep end, but Huppert’s steely-eyed performance, devoid of any pathos whatsoever, is a master class in deliberative acting. Not much chance she’ll steal the award from Ms. Stone, but one can hope.

Speaking of theft, the biggest case of robbery in the acting nominations concerns Annette Bening. Though much has been made of the passing over of Amy Adams (for both Arrival and Nocturnal Animals) for a Best Actress nod, the exclusion of Bening for her extraordinary performance in 20th-Century Women is nothing short of grand larceny.  As much as I adore Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins was really no more than a curio piece elevated only by her usual magnificent presence; another nominee, Ruth Negga in Loving, though luminous in a quiet and stoic performance, could also have been painlessly sacrificed for the inclusion of Bening. Arguably the greatest living American actress whose initials are not MS, one wonders how long she has to wait to claim the prize that’s been rightfully hers — going on the fifth time.

Regarding the men, I had a late change of heart about Casey Affleck, so lauded for his introspective characterization of a janitor carrying the weight of the world on lonely shoulders in the melancholy Manchester by the Sea. Not a change of heart about the performance itself, mind you, which is haunting, fragile yet tenacious, remarkably inward without bordering on indulgent. Nope, Affleck was indeed quite wonderful. But there was something about Denzel Washington in his adaptation of the August Wilson play, Fences, that unexpectedly won me over in its solidity and strength. What a treasure he is. Should he win, it would mark Washington’s third Oscar, a testament to his reassuring survivability.

sunny pawar
Sunny Penwar in “Lion”

As for feel-good movie of the year? Let the Lion roar. As engrossing a first half of a film I’ve seen in a while, Lion’s real-life message of hope that cannot be quenched (buoyed by a touchingly absorbing performance by the child actor Sunny Pawar) is one that’s long lingers. Its place in the wildly creative and diverse jumbo of the Oscar mix this year is more than welcome. And one more reason to tune in and see what happens on Sunday.

Pop Culture Musing for a Thursday 2/25/16

Oscars 2016Girl Power: You know it’s an outstanding year for women in film when one of our greatest living actresses is considered an also-ran in the run-up to the Oscars. I’m referring, of course, to Cate Blanchett, who at one point seemed a lock for the Best Actress prize for her performance in the moody and evocative Carol, which proved the critics’ darling — but not so much of the Academy, it seems. How the film wasn’t nominated for Best Picture, with a couple of slots left open in the category, is beyond me. Adding insult to injury was denying a nod to Todd Haynes’ brilliant direction.

I felt for sure that Blanchett would be difficult to beat…until. Three other nominated performances—Brie Larson for Room, Saoirse Rohan in Brooklyn, and Charlotte Rampling in 45 Years — all unexpectedly moved me in distinctly different ways, and all of a sudden Blanchett wasn’t such a sure bet. (Jennifer Lawrence, the fifth nominee, was perfectly serviceable in Joy, but a bit out of her league in this assembly.)

Opinion has coalesced around Brie Larson, as a mother whose ferocious love under unthinkable circumstances saves her son but brings her to the throes of madness in Room. She’s the definite front-runner, and her wins at the Screen Actors Guild and BAFTA awards only solidified that perception. As good as Larson was, and as extremely difficult it was a role to play, I still have to say that Saoirse Rohan in Brooklyn was also a real discovery. A quiet, beautifully shot film filled with nuance and emotion, Brooklyn captures the heart largely through Rohan’s luminescent, inward melancholy, and stamps her as one to watch going forward.

It’s likely that many won’t see 45 Years, which is a shame, as Charlotte Rampling — star of a number of art-house films in the ‘60s and ‘70s — carves a breathtakingly intelligent performance as a woman whose world is rocked after decades of marriage to a man she only thought she knew. Rampling’s fortunes in the Best Actress category fell precipitously after some inartful comments regarding the “Oscars-so-white” controversy, but her performance is nevertheless a revelation: the damage of a belated emotional betrayal conveyed in all its confounding complexity.

An interesting conundrum takes place for Best Supporting Actress, with the awards season’s “It” girl, Alicia Vikander, nominated for The Danish Girl. The performance is no more “supporting” than Lawrence’s was in Joy, but, alas, the Academy moved her out of the main group into this competition, which also includes another Jennifer (Jason Leigh), as well as Rooney Mara, Rachel McAdams, and Kate Winslet.

The truth is Vikander’s haunting role as an AI creation in the magnificent Ex Machina is the one that deserved the supporting nod, and she should have gotten a double nomination for leading actress in Danish Girl. (Guess the voters were afraid of showing too much love.) Eddie Redmayne, playing a pioneer in the annals of the LGBT movement, may have received more of the attention, but Vikander’s turn in Girl largely made his wonderful performance possible.

As for the others, Rooney Mara’s chances have sort of faded in the same way as Blanchett’s for Carol, leaving Kate Winslet as Vikander’s main competition in the category. An actress I usually rave about, Winslet fell off my Oscar radar with a major technical glitch – not of the computer kind – in the biopic, Steve Jobs. A third of the way into the movie she whips out an Eastern European accent that comes from seemingly out of nowhere, totally disrupting the continuity of her character. A rare faux-pas for an artist at her level. (Throw some shade director Danny Boyle’s way, also, for letting it pass.)

But no matter a boo-boo here or there, it’s one of the strongest years in recent memory for female performances. Let’s not forget it wasn’t that long ago that Sandra Bullock actually won an Oscar for the forgettable The Blind Side.

Whoever wins this Sunday, I doubt I’ll come way disappointed.

Hearing Brando

Marlon BrandoSurprisingly overlooked in the feature documentary category at this year’s Academy Awards is an unforgettable depiction of the man considered the greatest American actor of the 20th Century — as told in his own words, and culled from private audiotape recordings that served as a therapeutic escape for one of the most complex and fascinating personalities to ever appear on a movie screen.

Listen to Me Marlon (which David Edelstein of New York magazine has called “the greatest, most searching documentary of an actor ever put on film”), is directed and edited by Stevan Riley in mesmeric fashion, complementing the jarringly personal narrative of Brando’s often stream-of-consciousness thoughts with rarely-seen video footage perfectly in sync with each moment.

The film begins amid scattered scenes of the lonely refuge that was the actor’s Los Angeles home, and Brando’s voice describing himself as a “troubled man, alone, beset with memories, in a state of confusion, sadness, isolation, disorder…” Brando, who died in 2004, was speaking in the years after his son, Christian, was convicted and sent to prison for manslaughter in the death of his half-sister’s lover. (Cheyenne, Brando’s second child, herself committed suicide just a few years later.) Facing the press after the Christian incident, a shaken Brando sadly commented, “Misery has come to this house…”

The emotional turmoil that tore him apart in his later years was epilogue to the psychological trauma suffered throughout his youth at the hands of a physically abusive father and an alcoholic mother. In tapes that he labeled “self-hypnosis,” he drifts back to his early childhood in Omaha, Nebraska, attempting to recapture “the state of peace of the boy you remember, watching the elm leaves coming down…” The reality was far harsher. “When what you are as a child is unwanted…you look for an identity that will be acceptable.”

Marlon ShowtimeThat identity found its form in acting, and was largely shaped by the legendary teacher Stella Adler, whom Brando hooked up with at the Actors Studio after arriving in New York in the ‘40s (“with holes in my pocket, holes in my mind”). Adler’s espousal of what was known as “method” acting, based on the theories of Constantin Stanislavski, was a perfect fit for the young thespian’s talents. After beginning work with Brando, Adler presciently told him, “The world is going to hear from you.”

Which of course it did, and quite loudly, but even worldwide fame and acclaim don’t always win you accolades from those whom you want them most.

In one of the most striking scenes in the documentary, the newly lauded actor (at the time, he was the youngest to ever have won the Oscar for Best Actor, for On the Waterfront in 1954, a record he held until 1978) is shown in a television interview with his father, who’s asked, “I can imagine you’re just a bit proud of your son right now, aren’t you?” “Well,” answers the elder Brando, “as an actor not too proud, but as a man, why, quite proud.” The son’s reaction is priceless, a subtle mixture of ‘huh?’ and WTH that justifies a description of his old man as someone with “not much love in him.” (When Christian was born, Brando swore he would never let him near his child.)

It’s not all about unhappiness. Listen to Me Marlon (which can be seen on Showtime) features remarkable footage of a joyous and unfettered Brando at his most liberated, in the place that he loved best: Tahiti. On the 12-island atoll, Tetiaroa, which he bought in the ‘60s, he was free to be himself and revel in the people whom he said “just took love for granted.” “It was everything I longed for,” he recalled. If he ever felt “closer to a sense of peace, it would be there.”

In the end, after the countless words and analyses that have pondered what lay at the heart of Brando’s genius, it’s also refreshing to learn that the artist himself did not see it as all that complicated. “Acting is just making stuff up. But that’s OK.”

We hear you, Marlon.

On “Gone with the Wind,” 75 Years Later

gable and leigh gone with the windThough it’s considered one of the great love stories of all time, I’ve always been more amazed at how much of an antiwar film Gone with the Wind really is. When one realizes that the movie, which marks its diamond anniversary this year, was released prior to the most crushing conflict in world history, the perception is even more remarkable.

Amidst the spectacle, the emotions, the sheer volume of it all, the underlying “war is hell” theme can be easily overlooked; at best it usually doesn’t leave an overriding impression. In hindsight, however, Gone with the Wind can be incorporated as part of an important group of socially significant films which flourished during the late ‘30s and ‘40s — particularly those of Frank Capra (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town) — that have yet to be equaled in their capturing of folk America with a populist comment.

I think of one scene that is forever etched as far as its depiction of the brutality of war. Shot in silhouette (a technique used often and effectively in the film), a man loses a leg by amputation without the benefit of chloroform, as a horrified Scarlett O’Hara, played by Vivien Leigh, looks on. Though more remembered is the famous panoramic shot of Scarlett as she makes her way through a vast landscape of dead and dying soldiers, the aforementioned scene is infinitely more frightening in its simplicity.  A less sensitive director may easily have deleted it; instead we are left with a moment that is timeless in its depiction of suffering. The depth of the emotional effect is shattering. Its crudity makes it hard to swallow, even in these days when one is inured to superfluous violence — and it’s done without the use of any graphic elements whatsoever. Continue reading “On “Gone with the Wind,” 75 Years Later”

The Brilliance in Boredom

andy warhol film sleepIf the conceptual weirdness of Sleep, the experimental film by Andy Warhol that marks the 50th anniversary of its premiere this year, can still launch a conversation or two, one can imagine the response when it appeared a half century ago. The reception at the time was less than rousing; reports were that of the nine people who attended the debut screening, two left within the first hour.

You couldn’t really blame them. It takes some endurance to sit through a nearly six-hour depiction of a man (John Giorno, Warhol’s then partner) in various stages of slumber, in a mind-numbing and intentionally soporific display that played off the artist’s fascination with the theme of monotony. (“I like boring things,” Warhol once commented.)

But in retrospect, Sleep’s avant-garde contribution to the annals of film, and art in general, gets back to his idea that “we spend much of our lives seeing but not observing.” The element of repetition in Warhol’s work, with the Campbell’s soup cans, the Coca-Cola bottles, the Eight Elvises as examples, is almost his way of saying, “Hey, I don’t think you’re gonna get it on one try. I’m going to have to hit you over the head with this.”andy warhol 1960s

Undeterred, and probably spurred on by the enraged critical reaction to Sleep, Warhol later followed it up with an even longer slow-motion opus, Empire, eight hours of static footage of the Empire State Building taken over an evening in July 1964. Vindication came with the addition of Empire to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress 40 years later.

Leave it to Warhol to discover the art behind the tedium.

Forever Vivien

vivien leigh “Invisibly spotlit.” As the 100th anniversary of her birth is commemorated today, it’s hard to think of a more splendid description of the woman who can arguably be called the most beautiful to ever light up a movie screen.

I’ve long been entranced by Vivien Leigh on so many levels, and this occasion, a preamble to the 75th anniversary of Gone with the Wind, coming up next year, is an opportunity to remember why.

Her marriage to the great Laurence Olivier constitutes a large part of the fascination, a union of two acting giants and a love story that is forever captivating. (As glam couples go, they put today’s offerings to shame.) Her Scarlett O’Hara is one for the ages, but for sheer charm, my favorite Leigh performance is in That Hamilton Woman, one of three films in which she appeared with Olivier, and for me the blithest and sweetest of all her portrayals. Perhaps it’s not a surprise that it coincided with the early years of that larger-than-life love affair.

vivien leigh hamilton woman
“That Hamilton Woman” (1941)

There’s always a poignancy about legends and their vulnerabilities. She was self-conscious about her hands, which she thought too large. And, haunted by debilitating manic-depression, it’s even more remarkable that Leigh managed to enact the part of Blanche DuBois for nine months in the 1949 London staging of A Streetcar Named Desire and lived to tell about it. (Surely harrowing for even the soundest of mind and body.) She was later to say that playing Blanche, a role that won her a second Oscar, “tipped me over into madness.”

The burden of great beauty was one she carried throughout her career. In a lovely accolade, the fabled British actress Gladys Cooper said, “She should be in a museum, for history’s sake, as the famous beauty of the English stage.” Yet Leigh was scathed on this count by more than one critic, most particularly the acerbic Kenneth Tynan, who often ridiculed her stage performances — only to recant his previous opinions after Leigh’s death from tuberculosis, at the untimely age of 53, in 1967. (Ironically, Tynan eventually died at the same age.)

olivier and leigh
Original glam: Leigh and Olivier in the ’40s







In later years, the fading looks bring a touch of sadness, especially in The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, shot during her divorce from Olivier. It was a subdued, withdrawn, almost somnambulistic display, during a time when she was quoted as saying she “would rather have lived a short life with Larry [Olivier] than face a long one without him.” (As a point of trivia, playwright Tennessee Williams actually called the 1961 film the best of any of his works. Of Leigh’s rendition of Blanche in Streetcar, he famously commented that she was “everything that I intended and much that I had never dreamed of.”)

Writer Garson Kanin, author of the marvelous “spotlit” quote, once said of Leigh, “Great beauties are infrequently great actresses — simply because they don’t need to be. Vivien was different; ambitious, persevering, serious, often inspired.”

Her legacy far surpasses the shortness of her years, not the least of which includes two dramatically dissimilar Southern belles who remain eternally resplendent in the annals of both film and theatre.

That’s one spotlight that will never be invisible.

Face to Face (Part 2)

jay-z abramovic picasso baby performance art
Jay Z and Marina Abramovic in “Picasso Baby”

An unexpected deja vu-like moment came while watching the premiere of Picasso Baby, rapper Jay Z’s foray into performance art, in a short film that debuted Friday on HBO (and that’s now streaming all across the Internet).

In a post entitled “Face to Face” from last year, I wrote about the “grandmother” of performance art, Marina Abramovic, and a 2010 retrospective of her work, The Artist is Present, at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (a related documentary also later appeared on HBO). The highlight was Abramovic sitting silently in a chair as members of the audience took a seat across from her — for as long as they liked — no speaking allowed. Eye contact only. The impact was memorable.

Taking their cue from the Abramovic show, Jay Z and director Mark Romanek modeled Picasso Baby along similar lines, but in decidedly louder fashion (the title’s from a song on the latest album, Magna Carta…Holy Grail, with the opening lyric, “I just want a Picasso, in my casa”). The event, held last month at New York City’s Pace Gallery, was six hours in length, though the film itself is only about ten minutes long.

It features an infectiously engaging Mr. Carter (Z’s real surname, for the few unaware), rapping and dancing one-on-one with an array of participants (and celebrity guests) that included musicians, actors, a ballerina, street dancers…and, lo and behold, Marina Abramovic. picasso baby logo

There’s a hush when Marina ascends the platform for her surprise turn in the proceedings, providing an imprimatur for the project by way of her credentials in the genre. Gracious and effusive about the effort (and seemingly not in the least bit annoyed by the copycatting of her own previous presentation), she’s heard saying, ”So much energy…it’s hot!”

It’s all quite a joyful affair, and Jay Z explains the intent as being one of bridging the worlds of art and the hip-hop culture (“We’re artists, we’re alike, we’re cousins”).

His newfound creative connection with one of the legends of performance art is certainly proof of that.

(Update: a fun mashup of Picasso Baby, set to Taylor Swift’s “22,” has hit the rounds. Now there’s another face-to-face encounter that would be interesting to watch…)