The Last Tycoon (1976, Elia Kazan)

 

Photo 02-09-2017, 16 10 41Elia Kazan was a coward who named names to the House of Un-American Activities Committee to protect his own career so I’ve never felt ashamed about not having seen many of his films. I quite liked On the Waterfront until somebody pointed out the film was a thinly veiled justification for Kazan’s own actions at those hearings. However Kazan’s adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon has been on my list since attending a workshop held by novelist Stewart O’Nan at the Edinburgh Book Festival a couple of years back. O’Nan had just published West of Sunset, a novel based on Fitzgerald’s experiences as a screenwriter in Hollywood working at MGM for two years. His only screenwriting credit was for 1938’s Three Comrades (Frank Borzage), but his time in the film industry clearly gave him enough material for The Last Tycoon and there are moments in the novel that feel like they come from first hand experience.

Published posthumously The Last Tycoon is only a fragment. You can read it in a few hours. It’s loosely based on the short life of MGM’s wunderkind producer Irving Thalberg who passed away in 1936, the year before Fitzgerald took up employment at the studio. The novel is narrated by Cecilia Brady, daughter of a studio boss, who is attempting to carve out a career in Hollywood despite her father’s objections to her working in the industry and in particular the close relationship she forms with his younger partner Monroe Stahr.

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I think this story works better if seen through Cecilia’s eyes but in the film Stahr (Robert De Niro) takes centre stage while Cecilia (Theresa Russell) is relegated to a supporting character. Otherwise Harold Pinter’s screenplay remains largely faithful to the narrative. Later editions of the novel include Fitzgerald’s notes which show the novel’s third act would have been much more dramatic with blackmail plots and murder but these are ignored.

The opening scene establishes Monroe Stahr’s involvement in all aspects of the studio production and his near mythical status in the eyes of the public. An elderly tour guide (John Barrymore) leads a group of visitors through the studio and tells anecdotes about Stahr and his tragic love affair with the late movie star Minna Davis (Ingrid Boulting). Barrymore’s presence, “I’ve been here since the silent days,” lets us know this is a film about Hollywood and it’s past. Then we are introduced to Stahr at work as he oversees the editing of a movie, fires a director because the leading lady (Jeanne Moreau) doesn’t respect him, and has a heart-to-heart with an ageing matinee idol (Tony Curtis) who is unable to make love to his wife anymore.

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There’s a rueful moment when Curtis stares at a publicity still on the wall showing him in his younger days and it must have chimed with the former movie star who was now working regularly on television. Had Kazan made The Last Tycoon in the 50s’ Curtis would have been perfect as Monroe Stahr. He’s got a restless hurt quality which would have suited this part, but I’m not sure about De Niro. Charm isn’t exactly his thing. He’s good in the quiet reflective moments but his Stahr orders people around like a gangster.

The lack of story means there’s a lightness to The Last Tycoon, but this works in the film’s favour. At times it feels like a Hollywood ghost story with Stahr haunted by the absence of his wife. When returning home after working late he looks to the stairs as if expecting Minna to appear suddenly. When he enters his bedroom Kazan cuts to a scene from one of her movies as if he is retreating into that world. Later he’s stunned to see a woman on the lot who resembles Minna, Kathleen Moore (Boulting again), and he seeks her out as if to reassure himself she wasn’t an apparition. They begin a tentative affair but they both want different things from each other. With it’s Hollywood setting, doppelgängers, and potential for melodrama I wonder what David Lynch could have done with this kind of material.

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I don’t know if Kazan meant this to be his final film but it feels like a farewell and a fuck you to the business. While Fitzgerald was writing a tragedy about a man brought down by his own flaws Kazan’s version of Stahr is undone by the machinations of those around him. The climactic scene is taken from the book, a lengthy meeting between a writer’s union rep which ends in a booze-fuelled punch-up. Here this is the incident which gets Stahr removed from his position at the studio. The talented filmmaker finds himself exiled from Hollywood, undone by the work of a Communist agitator (played by Jack Nicholson). I get the feeling Kazan never felt any shame about destroying his former friends lives at all.

The film closes with a reprise of an earlier scene in which Stahr had schooled an over-literary screenwriter (Donald Pleasance) in the art of keeping the story simple and yet dramatic (something I think Fitzgerald probably had said to him during his time in Hollywood) but with De Niro now addressing the camera. “I was only making pictures…” which given Kazan’s history feels like he’s speaking directly to the viewer and insisting his work is more important than any other aspect of his life and that’s what he should be remembered for. He’s still a grass though. I’m with Nick Nolte and Ed Harris who refused to applaud Kazan when De Niro presented him with an Honorary Oscar in 1999.

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One Man Up (2001, Paolo Sorrentino)

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I’ve been calling myself a fan of The Young Pope director Paolo Sorrentino for a while but I’d never seen his debut movie One Man Up. I reckon I’ve got a decent alibi for this Cinema Shame entry as the film didn’t get a UK cinema release only becoming available as part of a pricey (£60) Sorrentino box-set in 2011. It’s always interesting going back and looking at a director’s first film, especially if they have developed their own distinctive style. One Man Up is more understated than his later films but there a few hints of the visual flamboyance to come in films like The Great Beauty, notably an elaborate dream sequence featuring ballerinas.

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Despite the title it’s a film about two men, one a footballer and the other an ageing rock star. Like the dual protagonists of The Double Life of Veronique (91, Krzysztof Kieslowski) they share the same name and seem to have some kind of otherworldly connection. However they are not mirror images of each other like Veronique/Veronika. Antonio Pisapia (Andrea Renzi) is a quiet man, a centre-half for a Seria A team who sports the classic mullet and moustache combination favoured by defenders in the 1980’s. Tony Pisapia (Toni Servilla) is a hedonistic pop singer who still dresses like it’s the 70s’ and performs his greatest hits to his loyal fanbase then drags his middle-aged entourage out to nightclubs when they’d rather be at home with their families.

Photo 14-04-2017, 21 02 02We first meet Antonio during the half-time break in a match they’re clearly losing. You can tell by the way the manager (Italo Celero) takes off his jacket, swings it over his head, then throws it across the room, before launching into a spectacular rant targeting each player individually for abuse but also telling them what they should be doing out there on the pitch. While his teammates are terrified and stare at the floor, Antonio calmly offers tactical advice to his disbelieving manager. When it’s rejected he storms out of the dressing room and out onto the pitch where he takes the acclaim of the crowd.

Both of these introductions hint at their downfall. Antonio’s separateness from his teammates is emphasised in a later scene where he refuses a bribe to throw a match. One of the players who wanted to take the money goes studs up in a 50/50 challenge in training and destroys Antonio’s leg. Tony’s decision to bed a young admirer he meets in the nightclub costs him dearly when his wife catches them together and points out the girl is clearly underage. The Pisapia’s find themselves in limbo. Their careers are over but they’re still recognisable everywhere they go. Tony is probably going to jail, but Antonio has planned for this moment. He has developed his own tactical system and wants to try out his new ideas as a coach but nobody’s willing to take a chance on an untried young manager. Even his former club fobs him off with an empty promise of a job at some point in the future.

Sorrentino films pretty much all tell a similar story about an isolated male protagonist (usually a creative) struggling to connect with those around him. They either come to terms with some past traumatic event or destroy themselves. In The Consequences of Love an exiled mafia accountant puts his life in danger when he falls in love with a barmaid at the hotel he’s hiding out in. The Family Friend subversively reworks Beauty and the Beast into a tale of a vicious loan shark being tricked out of his fortune by a young woman. Sean Penn’s Robert Smith inspired rock star leaves his reclusive Irish home to hunt down the Nazi war criminal who tortured his father in This Must Be the Place, while in The Great Beauty Jep Gambardella’s hack writer is shocked out of his hedonistic complacency by the death of an old lover. Both protagonists in One Man Up fall into this category of being creatives at a moment of crisis in their lives, though to be honest I was only interested in one of them.

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Antonio is loosely based on ex-Roma captain Agostino Di Bartolomei who struggled with depression after retiring from the game and eventually took his own life at the age of 41. There are plenty of films about rock stars finding themselves (Sorrentino revisits this theme with This Must Be The Place) but One Man Up is the only film I can think of about a footballer coming to terms with ageing out of their profession. It’s a portrait of somebody slowly drifting away from their own life. The attempts to create some otherworldly connection between the two men feels like warmed over Kieslowski and just gets in the way of the more interesting story. Maybe the contrast is needed between the two leads though to appreciate Renzi’s quietly moving performance. Servillo is a commanding performer and would go on to become Sorrentino’s regular leading man, but it’s Renzi who is the heart of the film.

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When accepting his Academy Award for The Great Beauty Sorrentino thanked Federico Fellini and Diego Maradona. It is clear he regards both men as being equals in terms of artistry. Maradona even appears as a character (though not sadly played by the real one) in Youth, while Cardinal Voiello in The Young Pope is an avid Napoli fan and relaxes by watching old clips of the Argentine legend on Youtube. It wouldn’t surprise me if once he’s finished with his HBO series Sorrentino follows it up with a biopic of Maradona.

2017 List of Shame

First confession, I’m still trying to finish a list from two years ago so I’m going to ask other writers here to call me out on Twitter when I don’t manage to do one of these a month. I’m going to be flexible with this updated list and amend it depending on what’s available or if there’s something else I want to write about. Right now there’s a distinctly Italian flavour, but for the moment this will be my twelve.

  1. Blithe Spirit – Written by Noel Coward and directed by David Lean. Enough said.
  2. Berlin alexanderplatz – Making my way through Fassbinder’s TV series right now and by Christ does it feel prescient with its story of an embittered middle-aged failure embracing the rise of Nazism in 30s’ Germany.
  3. Roma – Big fan of Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty and people mention this as an influence so this I must see.
  4. One Man Down – Speaking of Sorrentino I’ve never seen his debut movie so it goes on the list.
  5. Daisy Miller or What’s Up Doc? –Depending on which one I can get hold of there will be a Peter Bogdanovich film present.
  6. Quartet – Merchant-Ivory are unfashionable today. Tarantino publicly dissing them in the early 90s’ probably didn’t help their reputations with younger audiences, but I’ve more time for their best work than his. Besides Quartet has Isabelle Adjani in it
  7. Police Story 3: Supercop – I thought I had seen this because there was a Michelle Yeoh movie titled Supercop for its UK release in the early 90s’ featuring a Jackie Chan cameo but that is apparently a completely different movie.
  8. Wings – Bloody hard to find but I really want to see this 1966 war film by Larisa Sheptiko about a female Soviet fighter pilot
  9. Unnamed Pasolini film. Seen Theorem & his Jesus film but very little else so must make amends.
  10. Hell Comes to Frogtown – I have no idea what this is.
  11. The Damned: Don’t You Wish That We Were Dead – Favourite band as a kid. This documentary came out three years ago and I still haven’t seen it.
  12. La La Land: Was going to see this but went to see XXX: Return of Xander Cage instead.
  13. Tuff Turf: adding this to the list as well. 80s’ teen movie with James Spader as the new kid in town falling out with a local gang of punks. How the hell have I not seen this  but I have seen director Fritz Kiersch’s Cannon produced Italian time-travelling barbarian movie Gor ?

Welcome to L.A. (1976, Alan Rudolph)

 

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My initial choice for a Cinema Shame confession was Robert Altman’s Nashville, but it led me instead to Alan Rudolph’s Welcome to L.A. which I liked so much more. Rudolph worked with Altman on Nashville and he in turn helped produce this movie. Altman’s style of filmmaking  is clearly an influence. Both films feature interweaving narratives, music by Richard Baskin, and some of the same actors. Welcome to LA. is also an ensemble piece, but these characters are representative of the city they live in, rather than what’s going on in the country as a whole.

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There’s Carrol (Keith Carradine), a musician returning from London to work with Eric (Baskin) on a new album. Somehow he’s a successful womanizer despite having an appalling proto-hipster half beard which makes him look like Scooby Doo’s pal Shaggy. Carrol takes his music seriously and considers himself “authentic” which almost certainly means he’s a fake. His millionaire businessman father Carl (Denver Pyle) set up the record deal as part of a ruse to get him back home so he can persuade him to take an interest in the business. Carrol is more interested in reaching out towards his dad’s much younger girlfriend Nona (Lauren Hutton), a photographer who dresses like a 1940s’ private eye in a trilby and trench-coat.

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Carrol also puts the moves on Anne (Sally Kellerman), the realtor for the house he’s renting. Her husband Jack (John Considine) is obnoxious before he even has a drink in him and has his lecherous eyes on young housekeeper Linda (Sissy Spacek). Linda also seems to have a prior relationship with Ken (Harvey Keitel), who works for Carl and feels put out that the old man intends to hand over the keys to his empire to a returning prodigal son. Carl is a consummate businessman and expects his wife Karen (Geraldine Chaplin) to play the role of the dutiful wife but she’s complicated and maybe a little damaged. She’s given to wandering the city cadging lifts from strangers and delivering monologues straight-to-camera about the impossibility of really knowing another person. “People deceive themselves don’t you think?”

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I can certainly see why some critics at the time found it to be pretentious. Richard Eder in the New York Times called it “a fashion pose masquerading as a position.” I liked its artfulness though. These characters are pretentious. They’re all selling themselves or trying to present a version of themselves they would like the world to see, but they can’t hide their pain from us. There’s one moment, a close-up of Lauren Hutton which is held for longer than is necessary until she directs her gaze right back at the camera forcing the viewer out of the narrative for a moment and to observe an actress playing a part. Baskin’s music recurs throughout the film. Sometimes it’s the same song but played a little differently and the repetition gives the impression everybody is moving to the same rhythm and feeling the same way. What really sold me on Welcome to L.A. though is Rudolph being one of the few American directors use Geraldine Chaplin as well as European filmmakers like Carlos Saura or Jacques Rivette did in their movies. She’s the main reason Welcome to L.A. goes on my list of Cinema Shame confessions.

That Sinking Feeling – (1979, Bill Forsyth)

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Of all the Cinema Shame confessions I’ve made this is probably the most embarrassing. Up until a couple of years ago I didn’t even know Bill Forsyth’s comedy That Sinking Feeling existed. To make matters worse I’m Scottish, so I have no excuse for not having even heard of his debut feature. In my defence while growing up in the 80s’ Forsyth’s most famous films Gregory’s Girl (1981) and Local Hero (83) aired regularly on television. Occasionally Comfort and Joy (84) would appear in the early hours on STV but I can’t recall That Sinking Feeling ever appearing in the schedules.

It probably didn’t help That Sinking Feeling has only recently become available in its original form on DVD through the BFI’s Flipside series focusing on little seen British movies. Prior to that the only previous release featured the awful re-recorded audio track used for the film’s international release replacing the actors thick Glaswegian accents with middle-class voices and dubbed with all the skill and care usually reserved for kung-fu movies. For a long time this was the only version available.

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A tongue-in-cheek disclaimer at the start of the film claims any similarities to the real city of Glasgow are coincidental,  but it’s clear Forsyth is making a serious point here about the bleak prospects facing working class youngsters at a time when Scottish industries were in decline. That Sinking Feeling wears its social commentary lightly though and gives audiences a first taste of the understated often absurd humour of Bill Forsyth. Essentially the film is a series of comic set-pieces utilising Forsyth’s wonderful use of dialogue, and setting up sight gags that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the silent era.

Unemployed teenager Ronnie (Robert Buchanan) reflects on his place in the world and decides drowning himself in a bowl of cereal is no way to go out. Instead he decides he can make a small fortune by robbing a warehouse full of stainless steel sinks.  Ronnie enlists his equally unemployed mates to pull of an elaborately planned albeit eccentric heist. There’s Vic (John Hughes) and Wal (Billy Greenlees), wannabe master-thief Andy (John Gordon Sinclair), and Bobby (Derek Millar) whose homemade chemistry experiments have led to the invention of a drug which causes suspended animation.  It is to Forsyth’s credit that Bobby’s scientific breakthrough never feels incongruous even though it’s essentially science fiction. “Just think, waking up to start a new life in the Glasgow of 2068. The ring road will be finished” says a doctor later in the film and this mixture of absurdity and melancholy runs throughout Forsyth’s early Scottish films.

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People often compare Forsyth to Alexander Mackendrick for obvious reasons but there’s a hint of Michael Powell in there as well. Powell made two great films in Scotland The Edge of the World (1937) and I Know Where I’m Going! (1945) and both have great affection for its people and a sense of the landscape defining their place in the world.

Very glad to have finally seen That Sinking Feeling and might well follow up by re-watching Bill Forsyth’s later American films which I haven’t seen since they came out. Particularly his last Hollywood movie Being Human (1994) which flopped spectacularly despite the presence of Robin Williams but I remember being an interesting if flawed epic.

New York New York (1977, Martin Scorsese)

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No idea why I avoided seeing New York New York. A musical paying homage to the Golden Age of cinema sounds like something I’d really like but somehow I just never got around to it until now.

Synopsis:

VJ Day celebrations, New York, 1945. Despite her reservations Francine (Liza Minelli) spends the night with obnoxious jerk Jimmy Doyle ( Robert De Niro). Both turn out to be musicians. She’s a big band singer, he plays the saxophone. For reasons even Francine does not seem to understand she begins a long term relationship with this joker. Their destructive romance contrasts with the success their musical partnership brings them professionally.ny2I sat down to watch New York New York with with high expectations because I tend to prefer Scorsese’s more atypical movies than the gritty violent dramas people consider his default setting. I’ll take After Hours (1985) or The Age of Innocence (1993) over Goodfellas (90) any day of the week. New York New York a fine film beautifully shot by László Kovács and fuelled by nostalgia for the classic musicals of the 40s’ and 50s’. Boris Levan’s set design perfectly recreates the artificiality of studio built sets, which were meant to look better than real life ever could. The excellent musical numbers are a mixture of jazz standards and new tracks by John Kander and Fred Ebb, writers of the stage-play Cabaret. I wish I could really love it, but there’s just one problem.

This guy.Ny4De Niro gets a lot of stick for his career choices over the last twenty years but this is by far his worst performance because it diminishes an interesting film. For a practitioner of an acting style which supposedly encourages ‘authenticity’ De Niro is unbearably mannered here. Minnelli seems naturalistic in comparison and wears a barely concealed look of astonishment in every reaction shot to her co-star’s over-acting. The lack of chemistry between them is obvious from their first meeting during the VJ celebrations when Jimmy sits down uninvited at Francine’s table and pesters her for a date. These early scenes are meant to echo the first meeting between lovers in a screwball comedy who begin their courtship by hating each other but the attempt at witty repartee falls flat partly because De Niro is about as charming as cement.ny3Casting actors with two very different acting styles is deliberate. Minnelli is showbiz royalty, the daughter of Judy Garland and director Vincente Minnelli, while De Niro honed his technique at the Actor’s Studio. This contrast between the magic of old Hollywood and the grittiness of Scorsese’s work is there in the story too. New York New York might stylistically recreate the crowd-pleasing escapism of the Hollywood musical but at the movie’s heart is a troubled volatile relationship and it’s as tough as anything Scorsese has made. While I’m ashamed of not having seen New York New York until now I don’t feel as guilty as DeNiro should for gurning his way through it.

Cleopatra (1934, Cecil B. DeMille)

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I am not that familiar with Cecil B. DeMille’s output apart from his Chuck Heston movies The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) and The Ten Commandments (56), which I can remember watching on television as a kid some Sunday afternoon years ago. I’ve always regarded DeMille as being a pious old bore but it seems I misjudged him. Cleopatra is hugely entertaining. A mixture of grand spectacle and Hollywood melodrama. Despite the historical setting Cleopatra feels modernistic in tone. Claudette Colbert’s smart and sexually confident Cleopatra is a fast-talking dame who wouldn’t seem out of place downing cocktails in a speakeasy. Instead of faux Shakespearian dialogue Colbert engages in the kind of repartee she would swap with her leading men in films like It Happened One Night (34, Frank Capra).

This may seem incongruous to anybody who expecting a historically accurate period piece but DeMille is more interested in entertainment. Like the Liz Taylor Joseph L. Mankiewicz 64’ version it’s about visually stunning set-pieces and the allure of beautiful movie stars. It does however manage to get beyond the myth of Cleopatra as a gold digging man-eater and sympathetically presents the lack of choices available to her in the face of Roman expansionism.

2015-08-31 18.31.53The film begins in 48 BC with Cleopatra’s exile. Fearing she will cause problems at a peace treaty with the Romans, the Prime Minister of Egypt has Cleopatra abducted and left to die in the desert. Julius Caesar (Warren William) agrees terms for her younger brother Ptolemy to become King of Egypt albeit under Rome’s rule. That is until a scantily clad Cleopatra is snuck back into Alexandria and delivered to him in a rolled up carpet. Though she tries to seduce the ageing Caesar it is by offering Egypt as a route towards India that wins him over rather than her womanly charms. It’s more of a business relationship. They both see the mutual benefits in her being Queen of Egypt and an ally of Rome.

Cleopatra and Caesar travel to Rome as a sort of Ancient World celebrity power couple but the Romans are suspicious of her motives and turn against them.  After Caesar’s murder she seduces one of his killers Marc Antony (Henry Wilcoxon) as a means of defending her country but rather than being a pragmatic alliance this time it’s a wild ruinous affair. Wilcoxon is remarkable. Not for his acting talents which are limited but for his machismo. This guy is one of the manliest men ever to grace the screen. He makes Franco Nero look about as tough as Charles Hawtrey.

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From here the film moves from a lavish costume drama to romantic tragedy as their hedonistic bliss is interrupted by the arrival of Caesar’s vengeful heir Octavian and his army. Demille throws everything and the kitchen sink into the second half of Cleopatra. There’s a massive battle sequence which is thrillingly orchestrated and surprisingly violent. Though the censorious Hays Code was in place Cleopatra was already in production meaning its ridiculous rules didn’t apply. During the battle there’s a close up of a spiked chariot wheel going through a soldiers leg. The very first image seen during the opening credits involve full frontal nudity, albeit discreetly filmed. There are plenty of allusions to sex and one blatantly S&M sequence as a herd of women in leopard costumes are lightly whipped during a feast.

It makes you wonder what kind of movies DeMille would have been free to make if that wee ferret Will Hays and his supporters hadn’t put Hollywood on a leash. I will definitely be taking a closer look at DeMille’s filmography. It seems historical epics were his chosen genre. He followed up Cleopatra by casting macho man Henry Wilcoxon as King Richard the Lionheart in a movie about the Crusades and that’s now high on my must see list.