Archive for the 'actors' Category

Happy birthday, Clint Eastwood!

“I just wanted to know whether you knew where San Quentin was. You do, don’t you? Asshole.” – Harry Callahan, Magnum Force

Clint Eastwood, someone who is very high on the list of actors I love, turns 81 today.

Here’s a Top 5 from The MacGuffin from a couple of months ago, where I speak a bit about my love for Mr. Eastwood and my sincere desire to see another Dirty Harry film (starts at 7:25):

Here is Eastwood himself, talking about the concept of going another round as Harry Callahan, on David Letterman several years ago:

For the record: I WOULD WATCH A DIRTY HARRY FLY FISHING MOVIE.

I love you, Clint Eastwood. Please continue being alive and awesome for forever.

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Today, try to be more like…

…a Goonie. Happy 40th, Sean Astin!

I love you, Edward G. Robinson

The great actor Edward G. Robinson was born on this day in 1893, in Bucharest, Romania. He lived to be 89, dying January 26, 1973 in Hollywood. Just before his death, he had been chosen to receive an Honorary Academy Award at the upcoming Oscars; his widow accepted it on his behalf. Though he never won or was even nominated for an acting Oscar throughout his career, I am of the opinion that his brilliance cannot be denied. With a voice and face teetering on giving the impression of a claymation figure, he somehow embodied characters so that their depth, their undertones, and their motivations were subtle.

My two favorite roles of his could not be more different characters, yet I can hardly pin down what magic Robinson uses to depict them each so convincingly, hardly changing his expressions or the pitch of his voice. In 1944’s Double Indemnity (a brilliant noir from Billy Wilder that has been on my mind lately since discussing it with Allen for an as-yet-unaired MacGuffin piece: stay tuned), Robinson is Barton Keyes, a curmudgeon of an insurance man with a heart of gold and a deep affection for his friend and employee Walter Neff, who has unfortunately committed insurance fraud. We meet Keyes as he’s confronting a man who he simply knows has lied on his insurance claim.

Later in the film, Keyes will struggle as suspicions he wishes he didn’t have tell him again and again that his friend has done something terribly wrong. Another actor might have let Keyes’ pain over this situation be something much bigger and flashier, but Robinson keeps everything just under the surface.

Four years after Double Indemnity, Robinson played gangster Johnny Rocco in another great noir, John Huston’s Key Largo. Rocco and his gang take shelter in a hotel during a hurricane, harassing the owners in a truly bizarre hostage-type situation. As they pass the time, he heaps abuse upon his girlfriend-of-sorts, an alcoholic former stage singer.

In each of these incredible scenes, Robinson plays a man using his power in the situation to get the better of someone for whom he has contempt. But the scenes, and the impression he leaves in each of them, end similarities there.

If you are unfamiliar with Robinson, or with these films, I highly recommend a double feature. It will leave you wanting much more of him.

Tony Curtis, 1925-2010

There are a lot of beautiful Tony Curtis performances to appreciate, and he was quite a knockout personality. But what is most indisputable is that he turned in the flat-out funniest impression of another celebrity that has ever been, or will ever be.

“I heard a very sad story about a girl who went to Bryn Mawr…she squealed on her roommate, and they found her strangled with her own brassiere!”

Nothing better.

Great Films by Women – Down to the Bone

A few weeks ago, I went on a bit of a rant about acclaimed author/capital Douchebag Bret Easton Ellis’s comments regarding women film directors. At the end of said rant, I promised that this blog would soon be getting “really, really womany.” I’ve been delayed, but I have not forgotten this promise. This post begins a series that will highlight films I love that happen to have been directed by women. First up: Down to the Bone, an indie drama from 2004, directed and co-written by Debra Granik.

From the vantage point of 2010, there is one simple thing I can say about Down to the Bone that should be enough for me to get you to watch: it stars Vera Farmiga. If you have any doubt after her Oscar-nominated turn in Up in the Air that this woman is the real deal, well then Down to the Bone is not just recommended, but required. Many aspects of the film impress, but her performance entrances.

Irene is a mom of two young boys, about nine and seven years old. She and her husband scrape by as members of the working class in upstate New York, in a happyish, stableish marriage. He does some contracting work and tries to improve their house; she works in a supermarket. He smokes a little dope now and then. Irene is addicted to cocaine. The thing about cocaine is, it’s expensive. Irene is not so up-to-date on payments to her dealer.

This premise could easily swing into Requiem for a Dream territory, begging the viewer to feel shocked, disgusted, but maybe vicariously thrilled by the behavior of an addict. We don’t go there. The dealer asks Irene to leave his house. She comes back later with cash, and he firmly takes it in exchange for her debt and sends her on her way without new product. She flounces away in exasperation the way most of us would if, say, we wanted to return a shirt but had forgotten the receipt. Of course, Irene’s drama is not that simple. But her drama is with herself—not with the dealer, or the system, or with America, or with life. She ponders her various courses of action, as a cocaine addict with no immediate access to cocaine. She visits a state-run rehab center. She tells a counselor, answering routine questions, that her kids don’t notice her addiction. The counselor wonders if that could possibly be true. Irene checks in.

Here we go, though—the film is not a rehab drama any more than it was going to be an exposé about moms who snort. It is a character study in the most subtle and effective way I have ever known a character study to function. Are you waiting for the scene in group when Irene tells the other characters and the audience about the first time she tried coke? It never comes. How about when we learn about her sad childhood and how her dad was never around and mom drowned her sorrows in wine? Nuh-uh. I have never seen a film about an addict that lets itself simply tell the story at hand the way this one does. The film never manipulates us into feeling sorry for Irene, nor asks us to get on her side, nor makes her seem pathetic, nor glamorizes her life. Irene is Irene, and whatever the viewer thinks of her is what the viewer thinks of her.

Throughout all this, Vera Farmiga is incredible. Honestly, my eyes could not leave her. In this gray, drab, upstate-New-York-winter of a setting, she manages to be gray and drab and electrifying all at once. She never seems to be trying to emote a certain emotion at a certain time for the audience’s benefit (Irene is strong, Irene is vulnerable, Irene is confused, blah blah blah). She just always is Irene, who may be all of these things and may be none of these things at any given moment, but is always a complete person. Irene’s choices, attractions, and priorities will drive the story, and their validity never needs to be justified or vilified beyond Farmiga’s expression in any given moment.

Every element works in this film. Beyond Farmiga’s performance, also the supporting actors (particularly the young boys and Caridad de la Luz as a friend made in rehab), the script, the cinematography and the direction. This film reminds me of the more recent Frozen River, which shares a very similar tone and tells another story of a working class woman just making the best of it (and is another great film made by a woman: Courtney Hunt). I feel sure it must have been an inspiration.

Watch this movie. It is currently available on Netflix Instant. Debra Granik’s newest film, Winter’s Bone (not a sequel, just a coincidentally similar title) is in theaters now. Much Oscar talk abounds, especially for its lead actress. With this as its precursor, I can’t wait to go.

Miss Davis, victorious.

From the year 1939 to the year 1944, Bette Davis was nominated for an Oscar at every ceremony. She won in 1939 for Jezebel, playing just the sort of character you’d expect her to be playing with a title like that. (That second Oscar would turn out to be her last; she would end up with 11 total career nominations, and you better believe that each one was for best leading actress.)

The movie she was nominated for in 1940 was 1939’s Dark Victory, a huge, tear-jerking success for Warner Brothers. If you’ve ever heard the line “I think I’ll have a large order of prognosis negative!”, this is the movie that comes from. Bette is Judith Traherne, a selfish but not unlovable socialite, who neglects to tell anyone when she starts having pounding headaches and double vision. Eventually a fall from her horse forces her to go to the doctor, and he figures out what’s wrong with her. You guessed it: brain tumor. The thing is, the doctor falls for Judith, and so when the operation isn’t a success and he believes her death is imminent, he lies to her. She thinks she’s fine, but when she stumbles across her file while breezing around his office in his absence, it leads to a tense, terrific confrontation scene in a restaurant and the delivery of that immortal line.

Highly recommended viewing for anyone who appreciates that certain brand of Golden Age Hollywood melodrama. Which, of course, everyone should.

Here, the trailer, which is fabulous in a different way. All that writing spelling out the story on the screen seems pretty ridiculous until you remember the awful “In a world where…” voiceovers we get now. And yes, that is Ronald Reagan playing one of her buddies. How I love it when that guy turns up!

I’d never heard of it before, but it was good!

davis-petrified-forestThe Petrified Forest (1936) is the first movie I’ve seen wherein Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart take the screen together. Let me tell you…it was sweet. This is actually the third film in which they’d both appeared, but neither of the others featured them in starring roles as they have here. Davis is a waitress at her father’s diner in the Arizona desert, where you can also find the last gas station for miles. Just as she’s feeling a bit beguiled by a soulful drifter (Leslie Howard), reports are coming in that notorious gangster Duke Mantee and his men are on the run in the area. Duke would be Bogie—until Casablanca came along, he was much more likely to play the bad guy than the in-love guy.

As you can imagine, the new lovers, along with a few other random characters, have a run-in with the gangsters, who take them all hostage in the diner. Now comes the chance for everyone to talk about what they wanted out of life. Gangsters or no, above all this is a conversation film, quite obviously based on a play. Much of the dialogue is wonderful in that just-barely-over-the-top way: “Let there be killing. All this evening I’ve had a feeling of destiny closing in,” says the drifter. Ooh! Tension builds until we get our inevitable shootout. It’s all well done and very entertaining. And only 83 minutes long! They used to pack so much into such short running times in these old movies. So fantastic.

A month after this film was released, Bette Davis won her first Oscar, for a film called Dangerous. In the tradition of the Oscars, this was viewed somewhat as a consolation prize for her not having won the year previous for Of Human Bondage. Maybe that was true, but maybe not, because the more Bette Davis movies I see the more I feel like they could have just tossed her an Oscar at any time and no one could have argued. The woman just had that something, you know? There’s an energy that comes from her characters that make them feel like whole, real people. She just really, really knew what she was doing when it came to this acting thing. Her portrayal of her character here, who reads books that her long-gone mother sends her from France, but doesn’t know how to pronounce any of the authors’ names, perfectly blends being naively charming and showing obvious intelligence beyond the level she’s had the opportunity to reach. And even though this is the dramatic, big acting style of the 1930s—and Bette Davis could do dramatic and big better than anyone—there is a subtlety at work. It’s marvelous.

howard-davis-bogartSide note fun facts: this movie was Humphrey Bogart’s big break, and the story behind it is pretty great: the film’s third star, the very famous at the time but now somewhat forgotten Howard (who was also ol’ club-foot in Of Human Bondage…new respect for him after this film), insisted that Bogart be able to reprise his role, as he’d played in the stage version with Howard. The studio wanted quintessential gangster Edward G. Robinson, but they wanted Leslie Howard more, so they went with his wishes. The film’s success helped Bogart build his career, and eventually he named his first child–a daughter with Lauren Bacall—Leslie, in honor of Leslie Howard. Additionally, in 1948 Bacall and Bogart made the great film Key Largo, which thematically is very similar to The Petrified Forest, with people in a remote location being taken hostage by gangsters and a budding love story between two people who’ve only just met. This time, though, Bogart was the good guy, and the bad guy was—you guessed it—Edward G. Robinson.


Other projects:


Downton Gabby: podcasting about Downton Abbey from a funny, foul-mouthed, feminist perspective

Quick Lit: reading one short story a day in 2015

Grand Dames: collecting sundry achievements of admirable women

The MacGuffin: archive of my days as a film critic

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