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5 For The Day (#110 of 68)

5 for the Day: Steve McQueen

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5 for the Day: Steve McQueen
5 for the Day: Steve McQueen

What I learned from Roman Polanski’s playful political thriller The Ghost Writer is that the old man can still bring it. Not Polanski, the 77-year-old director, but Eli Wallach, the 94-year-old actor, who shows up about halfway through to deliver a very brief but charming performance as a crusty, all-weather resident of Martha’s Vineyard. Stepping out from behind a dilapidated screen door, Wallach’s face is revealed to be equally worn, but there’s still a sparkle in his eyes and a distinctive zing to his voice. He’s as feisty as ever, if not quite as intimidating, and seeing him up on the big screen, in what we’ve got to assume will be his final performance, might be enough to make you think that you’re in the middle of a cinematic dream from which you don’t want to wake. And yet, for me, Wallach’s presence is bittersweet. To marvel that he’s still around—more than that: still acting—is to be confronted with memories of Wallach’s costars past who have been off the screen and off this earth for years now. Even decades.

Among them is Steve McQueen, who starred opposite Wallach to memorable effect in The Magnificent Seven, near the start of McQueen’s career, and then to less memorable results in The Hunter, in what proved to be McQueen’s final film. McQueen died a few months later from complications due to cancer, and this November we’ll have been without him for 30 years. He was only 50 when he died, and today would have been his 80th birthday—old enough that he might have long since given up acting, but young enough that perhaps he’d have had at least one cameo left in him, like Wallach in The Ghost Writer, or like Karl Malden, McQueen’s costar in The Cincinnati Kid and Nevada Smith, who at 88 contributed to one of the greatest scenes in the seven-season run of TV’s The West Wing in 2000. We’ll never know.

5 for the Day: Control, Aught, Repeat

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5 for the Day: Control, Aught, Repeat
5 for the Day: Control, Aught, Repeat

Symptomatic of a compulsive streak in my nature, I’ve always been a tad obsessed with seeing the exact moment a digital display on a clock or cellphone clicks off a major milestone. For instance, I often feel a pang of frustration upon glancing down at a car’s odometer to see that it has advanced into a new hundred, thousand, ten thousand, or (heaven forbid) hundred thousand series without my noticing it. If you can recall the extra excitement exhibited ten years ago by New Year’s revelers as 1999 gave way to 2000 even though, technically, the millennium didn’t turn over until the following year, you may be able to empathize.

This probably explains why the cinematic “reboot” phenomenon of the 2000’s decade intrigued me more than it should. More extensive than simply changing lead characters, a reboot involves melting down the component parts of an established film franchise that has run its course and reforging them into a new, yet familiar vision. Successful or not, there’s something about the exercise itself that I gravitate toward. Of course, in addition to being obsessive, I’m also cynical. In my heart of hearts I realize that the decision to breath new life into an otherwise exhausted film series is made on commercial rather than artistic grounds. But that doesn’t mean reboots can’t be done well or aren’t worth the attempt.

5 for the Day: "Aliens Aren’t Scary, Dad"

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5 for the Day: “Aliens Aren’t Scary, Dad”
5 for the Day: “Aliens Aren’t Scary, Dad”

When District 9 came out, I was geeked to see it opening weekend. My older daughters wanted to go but my wife was busy. So, finding a babysitter for my ten-year-old twins remained the only obstacle. Unsuccessful, I would not to be deterred. Why not just take them with me? Because of its “R” rating I was nervous that it might be too intense. Of course, they balked at any such notion. After some due diligence (don’t judge me), I determined that D9 earned its rating based on violent content. I (correctly, it turns out) assumed that the carnage was of the sci-fi/video game variety as opposed to the more visceral gore (pun intended) presented in the Hostel/Saw genre. Nonetheless, as the movie unfolded, I kept a close watch on their reaction (like I said, don’t judge me). Every fifteen minutes I’d ask if they were “doing okay.” Each time, they assured me that they were. After my fifth such inquiry, one of the twins looked up a bit irritated and whispered, “Aliens aren’t scary dad…sheesh.”

And they really weren’t scared. People and “prawns” were getting blasted right and left. Yet my youngest kids were unmoved (my oldest too, for that matter). My guess is that the subject matter seemed so far removed from their own reality that it didn’t have the desired effect. That got me to thinking about what scared me as a child. As laid out in the pages of Famous Monsters of Filmland, the horror icons of my youth in the late ’60s and early ’70s were represented by Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolfman (both Lon Chaney Jr AND Oliver Reed) or the creature from the Black Lagoon. In their day, I suppose they had scared a lot of adults. But as a ten-year-old they left me unfazed. In fact, I thought they were kinda cool. As it turns out, MY kids think that the title character in Ridley Scott’s Alien is kinda cool too.

So WHAT did frighten me as a kid? Here’s a list of “scary” moments that stayed with me for a LONG time. The employment of a naturalistic approach seems to be a common thread running through all of these examples and may illuminate my child’s comment.

5 for the Day: Childhood

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5 for the Day: Childhood
5 for the Day: Childhood

By the time in Where the Wild Things Are when Alexander the Goat (voiced, appropriately, by Paul Dano) asks Max if he can make the sadness go away and I nearly shouted, “Dear God, I hope so!”, my patience had been pretty much exhausted. I didn’t hate the movie. I came away respecting its effort and ambition (as well as its eloquent defenders, who are welcome to argue otherwise here); I just didn’t feel the kind of pleasure watching it that I’ve felt while watching my favorite films about childhood. Where the Wild Things Are doesn’t condescend to its protagonist; but it does seem to regard his universe with a distinctly adult sense of ennui. My selections below, on the other hand, evoke for me what it’s like to be a kid. All five movies—even at their saddest and scariest moments—give their young characters complete ownership of their respective worlds.

5 For The Day: Robert Wise

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5 For The Day: Robert Wise
5 For The Day: Robert Wise

Robert Wise’s oeuvre is a study in extreme contrasts, a retelling of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde impressed upon the history of the cinema. For every classic he crafted in the many genres he worked, there is an equally hideous companion piece that almost negates it. One could argue that this idea of good and evil was crafted only upon reflection of the director’s full output, but Wise gave us an example of this aspect early in his 60-year career. As an editor at RKO, Wise spliced together a masterpiece called Citizen Kane, then turned his scissors and his viewfinder against its director’s next picture, The Magnificent Ambersons. While Wise cannot take all the blame for Ambersons’ butchering, and the picture that resulted isn’t bad, this early dichotomy was eerily prescient of Wise’s ultimate place in the annals of American film.

Wise’s Robert Louis Stevenson-worthy transformations continued throughout his career. He crafted one of the scariest exercises in the horror subgenre of ghost stories, and one of the worst. He used both capoeira and ballet to depict racial tension. He created a landmark exercise in science fiction, and he rebooted a sci-fi TV franchise that, thirty years later, was again rebooted. He contributed to the end of the all-star disaster pictures of the ’70s and, with Julie Andrews, he helped destroy the movie musical trend of the ’60s despite getting two Oscars for directing them. He worked on Orson Welles’ directorial debut, and on a certain Brat Packer-turned-director’s first movie. Wise also had a knack for picking a good, scandalous or controversial story, but no distinct style in depicting it. Such a rich study in contrasts is prime material for a 5 for The Day.

Like Howard Hawks and Alan Parker, Wise worked in almost every genre, though he skews closer to Parker than Hawks in terms of success ratio. Whether that is good or bad, and which films belong in which category, I leave to your discussion. I will state that when Wise was good, he was very, very good. And when he was bad, as the nursery rhyme goes, he was horrid. Herewith, five noteworthy Robert Wise films. I tried to pick a film from each genre, but history forces my hand on one entry: Predictably I must start with:

5 for the Day: Robert Montgomery

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5 for the Day: Robert Montgomery
5 for the Day: Robert Montgomery

A reliable film presence of the thirties, Robert Montgomery was locked in a “support the female star” vise at MGM for many years. Mercilessly typecast by his studio, he always seemed to be in the drawing room, mixing cocktails and blandly grinning like the cat who ate the canary; he worked six times with Joan Crawford, five times with Norma Shearer and one miserable time with Garbo in a threadbare picture called Inspiration (1931), where he unaccountably seemed mortified to be in her divine presence. Toward the end of his tenure at the studio, he was allowed to direct a movie, Lady in the Lake (1947), a Raymond Chandler adaptation told entirely with a subjective camera from the point of view of detective Philip Marlowe, and this gimmicky “I am a camera” device was just as silly as Montgomery’s “tough guy” accent as Marlowe. Cast as racketeers in The Earl of Chicago (1940) or Hide-Out (1934), MGM’s glossy idea of gangster pics, Montgomery was not convincing, but have him play a well-dressed, tippling, high class jerk and provide him with some bright remarks, and he would be sure to steal plenty of scenes as a friend with benefits to a straying leading lady.

5 for the Day: James Mason

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5 for the Day: James Mason
5 for the Day: James Mason

In Sheridan Morley’s biography of James Mason, practically all of his co-stars described him as a quietly unhappy man, restless, ill at ease, indecisive, a skittish pacifist, and a classic loner. He could be driven to physical violence if provoked, and this aggressive streak was mined in the trashy Gainsborough costume films that first made him a star in Britain in the forties, where he played brutes who gave raven-haired Margaret Lockwood “a good thrashing.” To quote Shaw’s Henry Higgins, Mason had thick lips to kiss you with and thick boots to kick you with, and he could have relaxed into easy stardom in this mode, but he was ambitious for more meaningful work than he could find in the impoverished British cinema. He went to Hollywood in the late forties; always too opinionated for his own good, Mason never quite established himself as a star player, but he managed to make a large and varied impact on some of the finest films of his time. He generally brought a kind of heightened immediacy and intensity to his scenes, letting off flares of irritation, bitchery, anguish and menace that worked best in short-ish takes, so that unlike many actors of his country and generation he was not a man of the theater but totally a man of the cinema.

5 for the Day: Cary Grant

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5 for the Day: Cary Grant
5 for the Day: Cary Grant

Cary Grant said:

“To play yourself—your true self—is the hardest thing in the world. Watch people at a party. They’re playing themselves…but nine out of ten times the image they adopt for themselves is the wrong one.

“In my earlier career I patterned myself on a combination of Englishmen—AE Matthews, Noel Coward, and Jack Buchanan, who impressed me as a character actor. He always looked so natural. I tried to copy men I thought were sophisticated and well dressed like Douglas Fairbanks or Cole Porter. And Freddie Lonsdale, the British playwright, always had an engaging answer for everything.

“I cultivated raising one eyebrow and tried to imitate those who put their hands in their pockets with a certain amount of ease and nonchalance. But at times, when I put my hand in my trouser pocket with what I imagined was great elegance, I couldn’t get the blinking thing out again because it dripped from nervous perspiration!

“I guess to a certain extent I did eventually become the characters I was playing. I played at someone I wanted to be until I became that person. Or he became me.”

These are fascinating statements. He was box-office gold for decades, and the Cary Grant persona was a consciously created phenomenon. He did it. The studios didn’t do it, the marketing folks didn’t do it, the man didn’t even have an agent, for God’s sake. Grant, through a period of trial and error, tried things, kept those that worked, discarded those that didn’t. The fact that he seemed so easy and commanding onscreen is just one of the many miracles of Cary Grant.

5 for the Day: Madeline Kahn

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5 for the Day: Madeline Kahn
5 for the Day: Madeline Kahn

Madeline Kahn was as close as you come to a universally loved performer, a unique comic one-off, like Beatrice Lillie, and her early death in 1999 brought forth a lot of collective mourning, not only for what was lost, but for what might have been. After starting off strongly in several films for Peter Bogdanovich and Mel Brooks, Kahn faltered with a series of disasters that derailed what should have been a major career. These weren’t any ordinary bad films, but notorious flops like Bogdanovich’s you-have-to-see-it-to-believe-it At Long Last Love (1975) and atrocities like Slapstick (Of Another Kind) (1982) with Jerry Lewis. As a little kid, I can remember sneaking downstairs past my bedtime to watch her television sitcom, Oh Madeline, which lasted only a season; I must have been drawn to it because I had seen her singing with Grover on Sesame Street. She never gave less than her best, but her roles got smaller in films as she got older. Kahn turns up very briefly, and delightfully, as Martha Mitchell in Oliver Stone’s Nixon (1995), but her bad luck with larger roles remained consistent; what can anyone do with a film as abjectly awful as Nora Ephron’s Mixed Nuts (1994)? Finally, before her death, she landed on a successful TV show with laidback Bill Cosby in which she played “the eccentric neighbor,” as if she was just a thinner version of Edie McClurg.

5 for the Day: The Space Procedural

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5 for the Day: The Space Procedural
5 for the Day: The Space Procedural

Actor and avid sailor Sterling Hayden once said that no film has ever really captured the true essence of sea travel. On the fortieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, it occurs to me that the same thing could be said about cinematic depictions of space travel. For the most part, movies set in space use it as a backdrop for stories about aliens or Earth threatening phenomenons (or Earth threatening aliens). Even if you discount schlock flicks about hot women on Venus or the Star Wars/Star Trek genre, it’s hard to find a space movie that focuses on the mechanics of the journey itself.