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5 for the Day: Katharine Hepburn

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5 for the Day: Katharine Hepburn

A. Scott Berg, longtime friend of Katharine Hepburn, and author of the wonderful and thoughtful biography Kate Remembered, once asked Hepburn, near the end of her life, why she thought she had flourished professionally for so long when most actors and actresses have only a good decade or two. He reports that this was one of the only questions he asked where Hepburn had to pause before replying. She thought a bit and then answered, “Horsepower.” It is not just talent that helps one succeed.

An acting teacher of mine once said, “Those who are successful are not the most talented. Those who are successful are the ones who are most fanatical about success.” Hepburn’s gifts as an actress are extraordinary. It is a sweeping career, with many facets and phases. But what really strikes me, when I try to look at it as a whole, is not her talent, not her artistry—but her “horsepower”. She had it from the start. She was always in this thing for the long-haul.

My “5 for the Day” focuses on that aspect of Hepburn. Rather than specific films or performances, I have chosen five anecdotes that show, to my taste, what it was that was so special, so positively great about this American icon.

1. In 1930, Harold Clurman, director, producer, dramaturg, big-wig at the Theatre Guild, then the most important theatre group in America, began to hold informal get-togethers for the New York theatre community. His interest was in creating new work, work that was relevant to the times (this became especially important after the stock market crash), as well as forming an ensemble along the lines of The Moscow Art Theatre. Clurman, a brilliant and verbose man, felt that commercial considerations were important, but that they also had the potential to kill really good work. Would it be possible to form a theatre group that could resist those pressures? The people he invited to join these informal get-togethers (which was really an excuse for him to expound on his theatrical theories—he apparently he could go on for hours at a time) were not just unknowns, but stars of the day. Producers, actors, playwrights, people appearing on Broadway at that time, young hopefuls who had shown promise in small roles … Clurman wasn’t interested in a top-down organization, like the Guild—he wanted to create something entirely new. A collective. (And, eventually, he did. Along with Lee Strasberg and Cheryl Crawford, the Group Theatre was born. It had a decade of success before folding. A few of the Group Theatre alums eventually went on to become some of the most influential teachers in American theatrical history: Stella Adler, Bobby Lewis, Sanford Meisner. And then, of course, there were folks like Elia Kazan and Clifford Odets who began with the Group.) Clurman’s ideas about theatre attracted many who were disappointed in the typical Broadway fare of the day. There was an economic depression on. Why wasn’t that fact being addressed by the playwrights of the day?

Katharine Hepburn, a young and unknown actress at the time, was invited to come to one of Clurman’s talks. She sat. She listened. Wendy Smith, in Real Life Drama, the encyclopedic book about the Group Theatre, describes the moment:

“The ideas Clurman propounded were intoxicating, but not everyone was convinced. An oft-told story concerns a pretty young understudy who attended a few meetings with her friend Eunice Stoddard. Asked what she thought of the Group Idea, she replied, ’This may be all right for you people, if you want it, but you see, I’m going to be a star.’ Then, as always, Katharine Hepburn knew what she wanted.”

It is not that her goals were better than theirs. They were as successful, eventually, as it was possible for them to be. It is that “know thyself” is one of the most important qualities an actor can ever have.

2. While rehearsing for Bringing Up Baby, it became quickly apparent (to Hawks, to Grant, and to Hepburn herself) that she was in a bit over her head. She was by now a star, but she had never before played a screwball comedy and wasn’t sure how to do it. She suffered beautifully as an actress—had the Oscar to prove it. But Susan Vance, the wacky insane heiress of Bringing Up Baby, was daunting to this seemingly undaunted actress. Cary Grant, whose sensibility was naturally comedic, had no problem submitting to the screwball nature of the thing. But Hepburn struggled. She was telegraphing to the audience, “I know that I’m in a comedy. Watch me be funny,” And it wasn’t working. In a sense, she was condescending to the material. Not out of any malice, but out of insecurity. She was used to drama with a capital D after all.

Grant was very close to Hepburn, so he was able to speak frankly to her. He said, “Listen, dear, every time I fall, I am just going to look more and more depressed.” Meaning: we don’t have to “act” how funny it is that I just fell on my ass. What is funny in the moment is how embarrassed I am, how devastated I am that once again I look so foolish. But Hepburn still wasn’t quite clicking in to the energy of the thing. Howard Hawks understood the problem and said later, “I tried to explain to her that the great clowns, Keaton, Chaplin, Lloyd, simply weren’t out there making funny faces, they were serious, sad, solemn, and the humor sprang from what happened to them … Cary understood this at once, Katie didn’t.” [excerpted from Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood, by Todd McCarthy]

So Hawks enlisted the services of a friend, Walter Catlett—an old vaudevillian warhorse who had major comedic chops. Hawks showed some of the rushes to Catlett, and Catlett immediately grasped what the problem was in Hepburn’s performance. Hawks wanted Catlett to talk with her about it, but Catlett hesitated. He said he would “coach” Hepburn, but only if Hawks set it up with her beforehand. Hawks set up a rehearsal with Cary Grant, Hepburn, and Catlett.

And here is the genius of Hepburn. Here is, for me, the reason that her acting and her work ethic touches me so much: Catlett, during this rehearsal, read through some scenes with Cary Grant, with Catlett playing Hepburn’s part. He was basically showing her how to do it. So many other actresses would balk at such interference. Not Hepburn. Within 2 or 3 exchanges between Catlett and Grant, the light-bulb went on over Hepburn’s head. Hawks describes what happened:

“Walter played a whole scene of hers out with Cary Grant, played it with every mannerism of hers, very serious, and she was entranced. She said, ’You have to create a part for him in the picture.’ And I did.”

Catlett played the buffoonish sheriff of the town who puts everybody in jail at the end, before being bamboozled by Susan to let them all out.

What I love about this anecdote was that Hepburn, a huge star, realized where she was lacking. She was still learning, and still open to learning. She could have been completely resentful of the “interference” of someone like Catlett, showing HER, the Oscar-winner how to play the scene. But no. She watched, agog, soaking it up, pores open, mind open … and look at the result. Bringing Up Baby was not a hit at the time, but history has obviously vindicated everyone involved. The film is a classic. Hepburn allowed herself to be in the position of student—and she allowed people who “knew better”, people like Hawks, and Grant, and Catlett—to show her the way. This is a true survival instinct at work.

3. Another example of Hepburn’s willingness to learn, to take direction, is this anecdote from the chaotic bug-ridden filming of The African Queen. Hepburn, in her book The Making of The African Queen, describes her initial frustration with John Huston on that shoot, how he never wanted to sit down and talk about the script with her. She loved to have script conferences, to talk about the story … but Huston was always putting her off, “Sure, honey, sure, we’ll get to it … tomorrow … we’ll talk about the script tomorrow …” Tomorrow then came and again it was, “Sure, honey, sure, we’ll talk about the script … tomorrow …”

Now at this point in her career, it may be assumed that she knew how to act. Of course she did. But what this anecdote shows is, again, her flexible mind, her willingness to give up her OWN idea about playing the part, and recognizing when someone has given her a gem, a “way in”.

After the first day of shooting, Huston came up to her. He obviously had a sense of HOW she was planning on playing this part, and he needed to gently steer her in another direction. Hepburn describes their conversation in her book. Watch how he handles her. And watch how she lets herself be led.

Excerpt from The Making of the African Queen, by Katharine Hepburn:

John came one morning to my hut.

“May I have a cup of coffee?”

“Yes, of course—what?”

“Well—I don’t want to influence you. But incidentally … that was great, that scene, burying Robert. And of course you had to look solemn—serious … Yes, of course—you were burying your brother. You were sad. But, you know, this is an odd tale—I mean, Rosie is almost always facing what is for her a serious situation. And she’s a pretty serious-minded lady. And I wondered—well—let me put it this way—have you by any chance seen any movies of—you know—newsreels—of Mrs. Roosevelt—those newsreels where she visited the soldiers in the hospitals?”

“Yes, John—yes—I saw one. Yes.”

“Do you remember, Katie dear, that lovely smile – ?”

“Yes, John—yes—I do.”

“Well, I was wondering. You know, thinking ahead of our story. And thinking of your skinny little face—a lovely little face, dear. But skinny. And those famous hollow cheeks. And that turned-down mouth. You know—when you look serious—you do look rather—well, serious. And it just occurred to me—now, take Rosie—you know—you are a very religious—serious-minded—frustrated woman. Your brother just dead. Well, now, Katie—you’re going to go through this whole adventure before the falls and before love raises its … Well, you know what I mean—solemn.

“Then I thought of how to remedy that. She’s used to handling strangers as her brother’s hostess. And you ’put on’ a smile. Whatever the situation. Like Mrs. Roosevelt—she felt she was ugly—she thought she looked better smiling—so she … Chin up. The best is yet to come—onward ever onward … The society smile.”

A long pause.

“You mean—yes—I see. When I pour out the gin I—yes—yes—when I …”

“Well,” he said, getting up to go. He’d planted the seed. “Think it over .. Perhaps it might be a useful …”

He was gone.

I sat there.

That is the goddamndest best piece of direction I have ever heard.

4. The fact that at the top of her game, at the top of her film career, Hepburn decided to go back to the stage and “work on Shakespeare” is indicative to me that, with all her stardom, all her ambition, Hepburn was interested mainly in the work itself. Shakespeare scared her. Therefore, Shakespeare must be tackled! She toured with Shakespeare productions for years. She toured the world with As You Like It, The Merchant of Venice, The Taming of the Shrew. She writes in her autobiography (with the unceremonious title Me):

“Looking back on my notices, which I had not read at the time, I have the impression that I was irritating to the critics. They liked me in Philadelphia Story, but in Shakespeare—well—it was sort of ’she has a nerve to be doing this.’ Well, I don’t know. I did study and work hard and Constance [Collier] was a great help and it was exciting. At least I enjoyed it.”

Hepburn was a woman who made risk-taking part of the game. So many actors, when they become stars, begin to make choices based out of caution, and self-protection. Perhaps at the beginning they took risks, when they had less to lose, but once the peak is reached, some actors lose that fearlessness. They are afraid of being “found out”. Hepburn never gave a crap about all of that. Her entire career is a testament to that courage.

5. And I’ll end with yet another anecdote of Hepburn and a director. Sidney Lumet was at the helm of the film version of Long Day’s Journey Into Night. A young man, a phenom, he was not at all lacking in ego. But the prospect of directing Hepburn was a bit frightening to him. She was a legend. A grande dame. How would he handle her? Would she test him? Would she be difficult? At first she was. She struggled to dominate. She wanted to hold rehearsals at her house in Connecticut. She told him point-blank that she needed to know more about the script than he did. Lumet knew enough to back off at first. He writes about this experience in his book Making Movies.

These stories bring tears to my eyes. The bravery, the willingness to NOT KNOW, to still learn, to be okay with failing, to get up and try again.

Excerpt from Sidney Lumet’s Making Movies:“During the first three days of rehearsal I said nothing to her about Mary Tyrone’s character I talked at length with Jason [Robards], who’d played his part before, with Ralph [Richardson] and Dean [Stockwell], and, of course we talked about the play. When we finished the run-through reading on the third day, there was a long pause. And then, from Kate’s corner of the table, a small voice called out, ’Help!’ From then on, the work was thrilling. She asked, she told, she fretted, she tried, she failed, she won. She built that character stone by stone. Something was still tight about the performance until the end of the second week. There’s a moment in the script when her youngest son, trying to cut through her morphine haze, screams at her that he’s dying of consumption. I said, ’Kate, I’d like you to haul off and smack him as hard as you can.’ She started to say that she couldn’t do that, but the sentence died halfway out of her mouth. She thought about it for thirty seconds, then said, ’Let’s try it.’ She hit him. She looked at Dean’s horrified face, and her shoulders started to shake. She dissolved into the broken, frightened failure that was so important an aspect of Mary Tyrone. The sight of that giant Hepburn in such a state was the personification of tragic acting.”

Sheila O’Malley blogs about movies, books, and mortifying high school memories at The Sheila Variations.

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Review: Guns of the Trees Wears Its Looseness as a Badge of Honor

The film is but one deliberately imperfect piece of a vast slipstream.

2.5

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Guns of the Trees
Photo: Anthology Film Archives

Jonas Mekas establishes the tone of 1961’s Guns of the Trees with a director’s statement, declaring that the “mad heart of the insane world” has prevented him from finishing the film. What follows, Mekas asserts, is “a sketchbook,” a “madhouse sutra,” “a cry.” And such a description aptly articulates the film’s melodramatic, self-pitying sense of yearning, which is driven by Mekas’s career-spanning need to contexualize the divide of artifice that separates artist from audience. To Mekas, sketch-like scenes represent a refutation of staid, insidious craftsmanship that can smooth out rougher and more resonant contours.

In the case of the quasi-fictional Guns of the Trees, Mekas follows a handful of young people in New York City as they hang out and grapple with the state of modern existence, decrying America’s involvement in Cuba, the development of the atom bomb, and various other atrocities that underscore the awfulness of the imperial machine. Occasionally, Allen Ginsberg reads his poetry over the soundtrack, his scalding free-associational verse conjuring an anger that the film’s characters can’t quite articulate, while providing Guns of the Trees with another element of the literary. A little of Ginsberg’s poetry goes a long way. What is the “hunger of the cannibal abstract” and why can’t man endure it for long?

Ginsberg’s bebop phrasing complements Mekas’s fragmentary images, which are alternately ludicrous and lovely. In keeping with the sketchbook concept, the film wears its unevenness and looseness as aesthetic badges of honor. A framing device in which two businessmen in white mime makeup wander a cabbage patch in near hysteria, in all likelihood embodying the ageless corruption of man, is self-consciously oblique and edgy, feeling like an earnest film student’s pastiche of 1920s-era avant-garde tropes. Other scenes, however, poignantly detail life in the early ‘60s, such as when a woman sits her husband down in a chair in their loft and cuts his hair, or when a man tries to talk his drinking buddy down from an intoxicated rant. These scenes have the humor and behavioral specificity of John Cassasvetes’s films, evoking the comforting rhythm of the little moments that come to define us.

Guns of the Trees belongs to an easily mocked beatnik era, when people discussed whether to conform or be free while listening to folk music and reading Ginsberg and smoking grass. At times, even Mekas seems to be on the verge of ribbing his subjects’ sincerity. For all their thrashing about, these people seem prosperous and more interested in speaking of revolution than in truly sparking it. Ben (Ben Carruthers) sells life insurance, prompting the film’s funniest line, when a potential client asks, “Don’t you still believe in death?” A young woman named Barbara (Frances Stillman) is gripped by authentic depression though, and her suicide haunts Ben, Gregory (Adolphus Mekas), and Ben’s wife, Argus (Argus Spear Julliard).

If the beatnik navel-gazing dates Guns of the Trees, Mekas’s docudramatic eye memorably revels in poetic details throughout. His protagonists wander through fields, which suggest the rice fields of Vietnam, and junkyards that testify both to the beauty and the waste of mainstream society. The play of light off the twisted metal of the trashed cars suggests found sculpture, while indirectly conjuring the wreckage wrought by the wars the characters protest. Such images, which include profoundly intimate close-ups of the characters’ faces, also anticipate the rapture offered by future Mekas “sketchbook” films such as Walden.

Mekas would go on to pare away the preachiness of Guns of the Trees from his subsequent work, as he increasingly honed a personal style that would make ecstasy out of the commonplace, utilizing multimedia and a restless syntax to suggest how memory intricately shapes life. Guns of the Trees is but one deliberately imperfect piece of a vast slipstream.

Cast: Adolfas Mekas, Frances Stillman, Ben Carruthers, Argus Spear Juillard, Frank Kuenstler, Louis Brigante Director: Jonas Mekas Screenwriter: Jonas Mekas Running Time: 86 min Rating: NR Year: 1961

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Animated Feature

Forky rules.

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Toy Story 4
Photo: Walt Disney Studios

Completist-prone Oscar prognosticators were dealt a merciful hand last week when the Oscar nominations were announced and Frozen II didn’t show up in this category. But the winning hand belongs to Toy Story 4, which likely lost the Golden Globe to Missing Link as a result of a vote split between the two Disney properties. Sentiment to reward the American-based production studio Laika is brewing, and the fitfully droll Missing Link will, like Kubo and the Two Strings before it, probably find favor at the BAFTAs, but Laika’s latest and most expensive production to date dramatically bombed at the box office. And while no one will be weighing between the film and I Lost My Body, a singularly and actively morose and creepy film that won’t appeal to the academy at large, this category’s short history tells us that the Mouse House is only vulnerable to the biggest money makers. Also, Forky rules.

Will Win: Toy Story 4

Could Win: Missing Link

Should Win: I Lost My Body

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Supporting Actor

Pitt winning here will seem like the stars are lining up given what went down when he was first nominated in 1995.

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Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood
Photo: Columbia Pictures

We didn’t predict Anthony Hopkins to get nominated here, thinking that the Golden Globes’s enthusiasm for The Two Popes was a fluke. We were wrong, and he ended up becoming the elder statesman in an acting lineup that contains, on average, by far the oldest nominees. The person we predicted to get in instead, Marriage Story’s Alan Alda, is a year older than Hopkins, so we certainly weren’t betting the farm on any male ingénues.

On the other hand, it sure feels like spry 56-year-old Brad Pitt, who opened his acceptance speech at last night’s SAG Awards with a joke about having a Tinder profile, had this award in the bag the moment his Marlboro Man-ish handyman hopped atop his buddy’s roof to fix the antenna in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, whipping off his shirt to reveal a tawny, fully-abbed torso that scarcely seems to have aged in the nearly 30 years since he seduced the country in Thelma & Louise. He, as Leonardo DiCaprio’s co-lead, has a lot more to do throughout than just doff tees, but the “I’m still here” virility of that moment embodies the entire film’s love letter to old-guard masculinity in Tinseltown.

Not that anyone’s reading too deeply into it, not when there’s good old-fashioned awards numerology to fall back on. Within minutes of the nominations being announced, Oscar Twitter jumped on the fact that the best supporting actor slate this year is composed of acting winners from 1990 (Joe Pesci), 1991 (Anthony Hopkins), 1992 (Al Pacino), and 1993 and 1994 (Tom Hanks). Fewer pointed out that Pitt was also a nominee in 1995 for 12 Monkeys, losing out to the now-canceled Kevin Spacey. Which makes it seem all the more poetically like the stars are lining up when Pitt wins for a film whose finale proposes a rousing bit of alternate, corrective history in which the “good” guys obliterate the “bad” ones.

Will Win: Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Could Win: Joe Pesci, The Irishman

Should Win: Tom Hanks, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Documentary Feature

Every film nominated in this category grapples with the nature of freedom in a world gripped by war and shaped by technology.

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For Sama
Photo: PBS

Few Oscar categories are bigger snub magnets than this one. And while the failure of Apollo 11 to secure a nomination this year was indeed surprising, it was not as telling as the omission of The Biggest Little Farm, a handsomely, if conspicuously, sculpted “pop” documentary that’s very much in the academy’s wheelhouse. It was almost as if the committee responsible for selecting the nominees here was sending a message by embracing, at a time of increased global instability, five documentaries that looked only outward: not at mankind’s possibilities, but at the ways in which we’ve become our own worst enemy.

When discussing the potential winner in this category, Eric and I were pulled in two different directions. “Doc will go American Factory and, by extension, the Obamas, right?” Eric asked. “Honeyland notched an Oscar record by being the first documentary to also be nominated for international feature. That has to mean something?” I asked. Which is to say that he and I, no strangers to this Oscar-predicting process, were sacrificing ourselves to rigamarole, forgetting that, at the end of the day, academy members vote with their hearts above all else.

Every film nominated in this category grapples with the nature of freedom in a world gripped by war and shaped by technology. American Factory specifically takes the closing of a Chinese-owned factory in Ohio as a jumping-off point for a study of the wiles of global capitalism, and it’s every bit as smart as you might expect from a film produced by the Obamas. A more sobering reminder of how the global order of the world has been cataclysmically disrupted in the last four years is another Netflix documentary, The Edge of Democracy, about Brazil’s own national(ist) sickness. It’s a harrowing lament, but it offers the viewer no sense of escape.

Which isn’t to say that the The Cave and especially For Sama, both filmed in Syria and in the midst of war there, are escapist. The two most viscerally powerful documentaries in the category confront us with the chaos of imperial domination. Both films center the female experience of war, but For Sama does so more shrewdly, positing itself not just as a chronicle of war, but an act of remembrance. In a film that doesn’t lack for gut-wrenching images of the dead, one particularly stands out: of a child, after being pulled from his mother’s womb via C section in the wake of a bombing, being brought back to life. Combined with the scenes depicting the citizens of war-torn Aleppo finding humor in the midst of conflict, the film attests not only to the perseverance of the Syrian people, but to the possibility that the country might still be brought back from the edge of oblivion.

Will Win: For Sama

Could Win: The Cave

Should Win: For Sama

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Makeup and Hairstyling

There doesn’t seem to be much standing in the way of the triumph of the red, white, and blue neo-Juggalo.

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Joker
Photo: Warner Bros.

We couldn’t really say it any better than Odie Henderson, who recently scoffed: “Who wins the Costume Design Oscar for Joker? The Goodwill? Who wins the Makeup Oscar for Joker? A blind Mary Kay consultant?” While we think the Academy will stop short of awarding the motley threads of Todd Phillips’s risible throwback machine in the costume category, the fact that they were nominated at all over, say, the imaginatively garish ‘70s finery that Ruth Carter created for Dolemite Is My Name indicates a level of affection for Joker that no one who doesn’t use the word “snowflake” on a daily basis seems prepared for.

While, to us, Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker looks like nothing so much as Marge after sitting still for a makeup gun, as Homer put it best, “Women will like what I tell them to like.” From his lips to the Academy’s ears (and face). And given this category’s expansion didn’t add more multicolored prosthetic creations along the lines of Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, but instead more invisible character augmentation along the lines of Judy and Bombshell, there doesn’t seem to be much standing in the way of the triumph of the red, white, and blue neo-Juggalo.

Will Win: Joker

Could Win: Judy

Should Win: Maleficent: Mistress of Evil

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: International Feature Film

Parasite is a pervasive presence in the news cycle, and at just the right time.

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Parasite
Photo: Neon

Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite is a pervasive presence in the news cycle, and at just the right time. As I write this latest prediction for Slant’s rolling Oscar coverage, the top article on the front page of Rotten Tomatoes is a ranking, by Tomatometer, of the nine films nominated for best picture this year. Number one? Parasite. Immediately next to that article is a callout to readers to vote for their favorite film of 2019 that uses Song Kang-ho’s face from Parasite’s poster as the featured image. Regarding that poster, in simply placing black bars over the actors’ faces, it succinctly, eerily, perfectly underlines the film’s obsession with social strata. And you don’t need to look far beyond the aggregate site to land on some article praising the perfectly lit and designed architectural purgatory that is the film’s main setting.

Perfect. That’s a funny word. There are no objectively measurable criteria for perfection, but given how many times I’ve heard Bong’s film described as being “perfect” since it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Palme d’Or, you’d think that there were. Still, the impulse to use it to describe this particular film, so balanced and attuned to the ties that both bind and separate us, evident in everything from the dimensions of Bong’s aesthetic, to his actors’ faces, to their words, makes a certain kind of sense. Quick, can you name the other four films nominated in this category? How apt if you can’t, as this is a film profoundly obsessed with the subterfuge that can be weaponized during class warfare. Or awards campaigns.

Will Win: Parasite

Could Win: Pain and Glory

Should Win: Parasite

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Original Score

John Williams is in no danger of winning, but a case could be made for any of the other four.

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Joker
Photo: Warner Bros.

That one of the five films nominated for original score this year is not a best picture nominee nor had any shot at being one almost makes this category an outlier among this year’s Oscar races, which seem otherwise fixated on frontrunners. John Williams already had the record-setting strength of 51 previous nominations leading into this week’s announcement, so his nod for the third Star Wars installment, or sixth, or ninth, or…does The Mandalorian count? Anyway, suffice it to say that the only thing that could’ve been more knee-jerk than to select nominations solely from among this year’s best picture probables would be to rubber stamp Williams uploading yet more variations on intellectual property.

Williams is in no danger of winning, but a case could be made for any of the other four. Alexandre Desplat already has two wins here, both in the last six years, but Little Women is finally picking up momentum at just the right time. His richly romantic cues, which are practically wall to wall throughout the film, come on like a crushed-velvet dust jacket, binding Greta Gerwig’s shifting timeline together in a way that makes just about everyone who isn’t Sasha Stone want to clutch the entire thing to their bosoms.

Arguably, another film that’s still reaching its crest stage is 1917, and unlike Desplat, composer Thomas Newman is still waiting for his first win, and now holding the category’s longest losing streak. It can’t be said that Newman doesn’t pull out all the stops, piecing together a work that feels inspired by both Hans Zimmer’s pulsating Dunkirk score and Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” most memorably used in Oliver Stone’s Platoon. And yet, we’re kind of with Bilge Ebiri, who after the nominations were announced, tweeted, “You didn’t give it to DUNKIRK, you’re not allowed to give it to 1917. Sorry, we’re very strict on this matter.”

Not to say that we expect 1917 to roll snake eyes on its 10 nominations. Only that any nominations for the film related to things that Dunkirk already did better two years ago are a tough sell, despite the draw of Newman’s increasingly amplified Oscar backstory. That’s presuming that the narrative doesn’t wind up over-shadowed by the sidebar-friendly cousin’s duel between Thomas and his cousin, Randy Newman, whose jaunty, Terms of Endearment-esque Marriage Story score appears to have as many detractors as it has fans.

Until the nominations were announced, we admit to assuming that Hildur Guðnadóttir’s Golden Globe win for Todd Phillips’s Joker was going to go down the same way as Justin Hurwitz’s did a year ago: with an Oscar snub. We reasoned that Guðnadóttir, who also perked ears up and won an Emmy last year for her work on HBO’s Chernobyl, was still too fresh a talent for the more cliquey AMPAS musicians’ branch. But now that she’s there, Globe in hand and attached to the film that, by the numbers, the academy loved best this year, she offers even conscience-wracked voters the chance to hand a feature-length 4chan fantasy a guilt-free win by also awarding one of the film’s few female nominees.

Will Win: Hildur Guðnadóttir, Joker

Could Win: Thomas Newman, 1917

Should Win: Alexandre Desplat, Little Women

Tags: Academy Awards, Hildur Guðnadóttir, Joker, Thomas Newman, 1917, Alexandre Desplat, Little Women, Randy Newman, Marriage Story, John Williams, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

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Review: Dolittle, Like Its Animals, Is Flashy but Dead Behind the Eyes

Dolittle’s inability to completely develop any of its characters reduces the film to all pomp and no circumstance.

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Dolittle
Photo: Universal Pictures

Stephen Gaghan’s Dolittle begins with a just-shy-of-saccharine animated sequence that spins the tale of the eponymous character’s (Robert Downey Jr.) adventures with his wife, who one day dies at sea during a solo voyage. It’s something of a more condensed, less moving version of the prologue to Pixar’s Up, underscoring our protagonist’s upcoming fantastical journey on behalf of Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley) with a tinge of melancholy.

As soon as the film shifts to live action, we immediately sense the loss felt by Dolittle in the overgrown vines and shrubbery that surround the famed doctor and veterinarian’s estate, as well as in his unkempt appearance. But any hopes that the film might follow through on its promise to explore Dolittle’s emotional turmoil are quickly dashed once he begins interacting with the animal friends who keep him company. Their banter is ceaseless and mostly ranges from corny and tiresome to downright baffling, as evidenced by a pun referencing Chris Tucker in Rush Hour that may leave you wondering who the target is for half of the film’s jokes.

The tenderness of Dolittle’s prologue does resurface sporadically across the film, most memorably in a late scene where the good doctor shares the pain of losing a spouse with a fierce dragon that’s also enduring a similar grief. But just as the film seems primed to say something profound about the nature of loss, Dolittle shoves his hand into the dragon’s backside—with her permission of course—in order to extract a bagpipe and an array of armor, leading the fiery beast to unleash a long, loud fart right into the doctor’s face.

That moment is crass, juvenile, and, above all, cheap in its cynical undercutting of one of Dolittle’s rare moments of vulnerability. But it serves as a ripe metaphor for the filmmakers’ incessant need to respond to a show of earnestness with a dollop of inanity, as if believing that their young audience can’t handle anything remotely sincere without a chaser of flatulence.

But worse than the film’s failure to truly probe Dolittle’s emotional landscape is how it surrounds him with a series of uncompelling character types. While the film seems to mostly unfold through the eyes of young Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett), who becomes Dolittle’s apprentice after witnessing the doctor communicate with animals, he serves little purpose aside from drawing the man out of his shell. And Dolittle’s arch-enemy, Dr. Blair Müdfly (Michael Sheen, chomping on every bit of scenery within reach), has little motivation to justify his ceaseless quest to stop his rival from attaining an elixir that will save Queen Victoria’s life.

Despite repeatedly paying lip service to notions of grief and opening oneself up to the world, Dolittle ultimately plays like little more than an extended showpiece for its special effects. But even the CGI on display here is patchy at best, with the countless animals that parade through the film’s frames taking on a creepy quality as their photorealistic appearance often awkwardly clashes with their cartoonish behavior. The film’s notoriously troubled production, which went so off the rails that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles director Jonathan Liebesman was brought on board for reshoots, is evident in its clumsy staging and lifeless interplay between humans and animals, but it’s the film’s inability to completely develop any of its characters that reduces it to all pomp and no circumstance. Like the CGI animals that inhabit much of the film, Dolittle is flashy and colorful on the outside but dead behind the eyes.

Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Antonio Banderas, Michael Sheen, Jim Broadbent, Jessie Buckley, Harry Collett, Emma Thompson, Rami Malek, John Cena, Kumail Nanjiani, Octavia Spencer, Tom Holland Director: Stephen Gaghan Screenwriter: Stephen Gaghan, Dan Gregor, Doug Mand Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 106 min Rating: PG Year: 2020 Buy: Soundtrack

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Film

Review: Bad Boys for Life Is a Half-Speed Echo of Michael Bay’s Toxic Formula

In the end, the film’s perpetuation of the franchise’s endorsement of police brutality comes back to bite it.

.5

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Bad Boys for Life
Photo: Columbia Pictures

From its parodically overused low-angle and circling tracking shots to its raw embodiment of Michael Bay’s unique brand of jingoism and adolescent vulgarity, Bad Boys II arguably remains the purest expression of the director’s auteurism. Bay doesn’t direct the film’s belated sequel, Bad Boys for Life, leaving one to wonder what purpose this franchise serves if not to give expression to his nationalist, racist, and misogynistic instincts.

Intriguingly, Bad Boys for Life is helmed by the Belgian team of Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, whose streetwise, racially focused crime films, from 2014’s Image to 2018’s Gangsta, represent positions that are nearly the polar opposite of those of Bay’s work. Except the filmmakers do nothing to shake the franchise from its repellent roots, merely replicating Bay’s stylistic tics at a more sluggish pace, losing the antic abandon that is his only redeeming quality as an artist. At best, the half-speed iterations of Bay’s signature aesthetic reflect the film’s invocation of too-old-for-this-shit buddy-movie clichés, with Miami cops Mike Lowery (Will Smith) and Marcus Burnett (Martin Lawrence) forced to contend with growing old and obsolete.

The film is quick to establish that Marcus, newly a grandfather, longs to settle down, even as Mike continues to insist that he’s at the top of his game. It’s then that the partners are thrown for a loop when Mike is shot by Armando (Jacob Scipio), whose drug kingpin father Mike killed and whose mother, Isabel (Kate del Castillo), he helped get imprisoned in Mexico. Both men are left traumatized by the event, with a horrified Marcus forswearing a life of violence, while Mike seeks brutal revenge for his wounded sense of masculine security. And for a brief moment, Bad Boys for Life finds fertile ground in the emotional chasm that opens between the two pals, with Mike’s single-minded rage leaving Marcus morally disgusted.

Almost immediately, though, the film turns to gleeful violence, showing how grotesque the consequences of Mike’s vigilantism actions can be, only to then largely justify his actions. When Mike violates orders during a surveillance assignment to abduct a possible lead, that source is left dead in a gruesomely elaborate shootout that’s played for satire-less kicks. Partnered with a new unit of inexperienced, tech-savvy rookies (Vanessa Hudgens, Alexander Ludwig, and Charles Melton), Mike can only express his dismay at the new generation resorting to gadgets and nonlethal, perhaps even—dare one say—legal, measures of law enforcement. Each one gets a single defining characteristic (Hudgens’s Kelley is a trigger-happy fascist in the making and Ludwig’s Dorn possesses a bodybuilder’s physique that belies his pacifism), and they all exist for Smith to target with stale jokes about old-school justice.

Likewise, the surprising soulfulness that Lawrence brings to his character is ultimately just fodder for jokes about how the weary, flabby new grandpa isn’t getting laid. Unsurprisingly, then, Marcus only reclaims his virility as a man by lunging back into a life of chaotic police action. Even his turn toward faith and a vow of peace is mocked, as when he finds himself in possession of a machine gun during a hectic chase and Mike reassures him that God gave that to him in a time of need. “Shit, I do need it!” Marcus exclaims, but the humor of Lawrence’s delivery only momentarily distracts us from the film’s flippant take on his spirituality.

By saddling both heroes and villains alike with quests for revenge, Bad Boys for Life broaches deeper thematic possibility than has ever existed in this franchise. Indeed, the film’s focus on aging, when paired with a last-act reveal that forces the characters to think about the legacies that are passed on to future generations, places it in unexpected parallel to another recent Will Smith vehicle, Gemini Man. But where Ang Lee’s film actually grappled with the implications of violence bred and nurtured in our descendants, this movie merely gets some cheap sentimentality to contrast with its otherwise giddy embrace of carnage.

In the end, the film’s perpetuation of the franchise’s endorsement of police brutality comes back to bite it. The aforementioned scene with Marcus discovering the machine gun is played as a joke, even though the man, half-blind but refusing to wear the glasses that show his age, fires wildly at gunmen on motorcycles weaving around civilian vehicles. Watching this scene, it’s hard not to think of the recent, real-life case of Miami cops firing hundreds of rounds at armed robbers despite being surrounded by commuters, not only killing the suspects but their hostage and a random bystander. This coincidental timing is a reminder that the supposed harmlessness of glib entertainments like Bad Boys for Life plays a part in normalizing the increasing police-state tactics and mentality of our nation’s over-armed law enforcement.

Cast: Will Smith, Martin Lawrence, Vanessa Hudgens, Joe Pantoliano, Alexander Ludwig, Charles Melton, Paola Núñez, Kate del Castillo, Jacob Scipio Director: Adil El Arbi, Bilall Fallah Screenwriter: Chris Bremner, Peter Craig, Joe Carnahan Distributor: Columbia Pictures Running Time: 110 min Rating: R Year: 2020 Buy: Soundtrack

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Awards

Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Actress

Well hi, everybody, it’s nice to see you.

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Renée Zellweger
Photo: LD Entertainment

Well hi, everybody, it’s nice to see you. Loyal readers of Slant’s Oscar coverage know that we don’t like to beat around the bush, and this year we have even less reason to do so what with the accelerated awards calendar forcing us to kick-start our rolling predictions earlier than usual. So, as we busy ourselves in the next few days catching up with some remaining blindspots, and being thankful that we don’t actually ever have to see Cats, we will be bringing you our predictions in some of Oscar’s easier-to-call categories.

Which isn’t to say that we’re going to be drama-free. Case in point: the revelation that Eric Henderson, my fellow awards guru, made on Twitter this week that “Scarlett Johansson is genuinely better in Jojo Rabbit than in Marriage Story.” He also asked us to throw the tweet back in this face four or five years from now, but I say right now is as good a time as any.

No, seriously, shocking as that tweet was to this fan of Marriage Story’s entire acting ensemble, that some are already predicting the actress as a possible spoiler in supporting actress in the wake of Jojo Rabbit scoring six nominations, it’s gotten us thinking about the ostensibly evolving tastes of AMPAS’s membership at a time when it’s struggling to diversify itself. And based on how things went down at last year’s Oscars, the only conclusion we can come up with is that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Immediately after Glenn Close lost the Oscar last year to Olivia Coleman, Eric sent me a text wondering why AMPAS hates the former so much, to which I offered that there’s nothing more unwavering than Hollywood’s support for actors playing real-life individuals. Well, that and its support for actors who actually want to be exalted by the industry. Even in a world where Renée Zellweger isn’t also being helped by a comeback narrative, and has yet to follow Joaquin Phoenix’s savvy lead by getting arrested at Jane Fonda’s weekly climate change protest and erasing our memory of her performance at the Golden Globes, she’s nominated for a generally well liked performance in a film that has actually performed well at the box office.

On Monday, more outcry was provoked by the Oscar nominations, again for women being shut out of the best director race, but also for the snubbing of several actors of color, most notably Jennifer Lopez and Lupita N’yongo. Some will speculate that Cynthia Erivo, the only actor of color to be nominated this year, is a potential spoiler here, but whether she stands to benefit from a core of protest votes is something that can never be known. This fine actress’s performance checks off almost as many boxes as Zellweger’s, if not, at the end of the day, the one that matters most: representing a film about the industry itself, in this case one that will allow a reliably backward-looking Hollywood to atone for sins committed against their own.

Will Win: Renée Zellweger, Judy

Could Win: Scarlett Johansson, Marriage Story

Should Win: Scarlett Johansson, Marriage Story

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