Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Kid Stays in the Picture (2002)

You've probably never seen another movie quite like The Kid Stays in the Picture, but, trust me, novelty value isn't the only thing it's got going for it. Equal parts illustrated history, cautionary fable, kiss-and-tell memoir and star-studded extravaganza, this uniquely fascinating and robustly entertaining documentary is a raffish, rollicking masterpiece of first-person myth-making.

Robert Evans is the center of attention here, even though – except for a fleeting, near-subliminal glimpse – he doesn't allow himself to be recorded by the cameras of documentarians Brett Morgan and Nanette Burstein. All we see is an artfully shrewd montage of archival photographs, interview clips, stock footage – and excerpts from a couple of '50s movies that aptly illustrate Evans' self-appraisal: "I was a half-assed actor."

That's right: We don't see today's Robert Evans, but we certainly hear him. It's the same voice that launched several thousand audio books when Evans recorded The Kid Stays in the Picture, his well-regarded warts-and-all 1994 autobiography. It's a gravelly baritone that seems to synthesize hard-won wisdom and hung-over pugnacity. And when Evans speaks here, we can't help listening, because his insights and anecdotes are so fabulously engrossing.

The word "fabulous," by the way, is not idly chosen. As in his book, Evans warns his audience early on: "There are three sides to every story: Yours, mine and the truth. And no one is lying." The Kid Stays in the Picture is entirely Evans' side of the story. There are no talking-head interviews with friends or foes, no competing narrator to cast doubts or raise questions. Morgan and Burstein obviously have shaped the material to their own overall design, editing or eliminating certain items for brevity and narrative momentum. (We learn a lot about Evans' marriage to Love Story star Ali MacGraw, and almost nothing about his several other wives.) But this is Evans' show – his career, his life -- and the filmmakers are smart enough to let him do all of the talking.

 Evans presents himself as being in the right place at the right time, time and again. He lucked into business success, then lucked into an acting career. And after his acting career tanked – he was "a half-assed actor," remember? – he lucked into a new career as a producer.

After that, he lucked into the job of production chief at Paramount Pictures in the late 1960s.

All this talk of luck, of course, recalls another memorable Evans quote: "Luck is when opportunity meets preparation." Maybe he wasn't fully prepared when he first landed the Paramount job, but Evans learned quickly, worked passionately and gambled frequently. To his credit, many of those gambles – Paramount released The Odd Couple, Rosemary's Baby, Harold and Maude, Chinatown and a couple of Godfather epics during his watch – paid off as critical and commercial hits. Indeed, The Kid Stays in the Picture can be viewed a persuasive argument that, during the 1970s, a period many view as the last golden age for Hollywood cinema, Evans was among the most significant shapers of American pop culture.

The movie is most delicious when Evans dishes about the making of classic movies with Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino, Mia Farrow, Dustin Hoffman and other notables. (He says he drove Roman Polanski to direct faster while making Rosemary's Baby, and ordered Francis Coppola to bring him a longer, more satisfying cut of The Godfather.) But Kid is every bit as interesting, even compelling, as Evans describes his own role in his post-Paramount downfall.

 Evans is amazingly frank when discussing his self-destructive behavior, and totally unapologetic about the myriad excesses – including substance abuse and prodigious womanizing – that are part of his living legend. His bluntness often sounds comical, like a bad imitation of tough talk in a hardboiled novel. (It's not love at first sight when he lunches with Ali MacGraw, but he tells her: "Remember, if it doesn't work out with that other guy, I'm only seven digits away!") And it's hard to ignore that his self-abnegation is threaded with steadfast pride: Even as he tells the worst about himself, Evans always manages to paint himself as a survivor.

But, then again, he's entitled: He has survived.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Quiz Show (1994)

For past two decades or so, it has been a favorite sport of good, bad and indifferent filmmakers to define that precise moment in 20th-century history when America lost its collective innocence. Until the release of Quiz Show, the handsome and provocative 1994 film directed by Robert Redford, the consensus had been that this despoiling process began sometime between the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the U.S. troop escalation in Vietnam. One of the more intriguing ideas set forth in Redford's thoughtful yet viscerally exciting drama is that the first signs of corruption and disillusionment already were apparent as early as 1959.

Redford and screenwriter Paul Attanasio vividly evoke the mood and shifting mores of that period in the very first scene of their fact-based film, as an aggressively eager automobile salesman seeks to seduce a skeptical young man with the sleek lines and luxury features of a shiny new Chrysler. Dick Goodwin (Rob Morrow), an up-and-coming congressional aide, does his best to appear bemused by the sales pitch. But there's no doubt that he is genuinely impressed, if not transfixed, by the car itself. Everything else that follows in Quiz Show can be viewed as variations on this first scene's themes of false values, reckless optimism, self-delusion -- and, yes, seduction.

Attanasio's literate and richly detailed screenplay is based on a chapter in a nonfiction book (Remembering America) written by the real-life Goodwin several years after the events of this film. But Goodwin is only one of three central characters in this fascinating morality play. The two others are Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes), a patrician, Harvard-educated WASP from a celebrated literary family; and Herbie Stempel (John Turturro), a blunt-spoken, ill-mannered Jewish graduate student who may really be as brilliant as he claims.

What brings these three ill-matched fellows together, and shapes their individual fates, are the misadventures they experience through their involvement with an enormously popular TV quiz show, Twenty-One.

As the movie begins, Stempel is the program's reigning champion. Unfortunately, the producers and sponsors of the New York-based quiz show think he has outlived his usefulness as an audience draw. Even more unfortunately, Stempel has gotten as far as he has as a winning contestant largely because the game has been rigged; the answers have been provided. So Stempel has no real choice in the matter when the same people who helped him cheat insist that he take a dive. With much humiliation, Stempel loses to Van Doren, the kind of glossy, good-looking golden boy who can help a sponsor sell lots of products to millions of captivated viewers.

At first, Van Doren has grave misgivings about his role in deceiving the public. But as the weeks go by, he comes to enjoy his national celebrity (he even appears on the cover of Time magazine) and his media-manufactured status as, in the words of his producer, "the intellectual Joe DiMaggio that this country needs." And, perhaps most important, he appreciates the opportunity to establish a high profile of any sort that will at long last enable him to emerge from the long shadow of his much-respected, superstar-intellectual father (Paul Scofield).

The brave new world begins to crumble for the younger Van Doren only when a bitterly resentful Stempel decides to blow the whistle on the Twenty-One chicanery. Goodwin, who also is Jewish, is particularly attentive to Stempel's charges of anti-Semitism. ("They always follow a Jew with a Gentile - and the Gentile always wins more money!") But as Goodwin continues his investigation of the TV show for a proposed congressional investigation, he falls under the ingratiating spell of Charles Van Doren, almost to the point of becoming a Nick Carraway to Van Doren's Jay Gatsby. That director Redford once starred in a film version of The Great Gatsby makes this development all the more resonant.

Fiennes, who was so fearsomely effective as the Nazi concentration camp commandant in Schindler's List, is equally impressive, in a far subtler fashion, as Van Doren. Likewise, Morrow transcends his own minor shortcomings - his Boston accent is not entirely convincing - to give a strong, sharply defined portrayal rich in ambiguities.

But Turturro is the one who steals every scene that isn't nailed down with his rude, bull-in-a-china shop performance as Stempel, a man who becomes obsessed with dragging down some former partners in deception for their roles in his fall from grace.

 Quiz Show is, first and last, a hugely entertaining story about sharply defined individuals and the qualities that make them unique. But by being so specific about these people and their era, the film also manages to be timeless in what it has to say about the many ways we allow ourselves to be seduced by fool's gold -- by, all too often, things with an allure to which we'd like to think we're immune. Television is only partially responsible for making that seduction so easy in the electronic age.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Vertigo (1958)

Most audiences were puzzled and disappointed by Vertigo when it first appeared in 1958. Ticketbuyers of the time likely wanted a rollercoaster ride much like other Alfred Hitchcock classics of the 1950s (North By Northwest, To Catch a Thief, The Man Who Knew Too Much). What they got instead was something much darker and more complex, even though the movie’s plot seemed – in synopsis, at least -- the perfect blueprint for a straight-ahead, standard-issue popcorn flick.

Ex-cop John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart) is asked by an old friend to watch over the friend’s wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak), a beautiful but troubled woman who fears she is possessed by the spirit of a mad ancestor. Ferguson is fascinated by Madeleine, and can’t help falling in love with her. But he’s unable to stop her suicide because of his own weakness: His fear of heights, the “vertigo” of the title, prevents him from reaching her before she throws herself from a church tower.

Guilt-ridden and devastated, Ferguson suffers a nervous breakdown. While recovering, he meets a woman who is (pardon the expression) a dead ringer for his late beloved. Judy (Kim Novak again), a department store clerk, is wary of Ferguson’s attentions, but agrees to date him – and, eventually, to be supported by him. She objects, though not very strenuously, when he tries to remake her in Madeleine’s image, changing her clothes, her shoes, even the color of her hair.

Ferguson is overjoyed and grateful that he’s found someone who resembles Madeleine so strongly. Unfortunately, there’s a very good reason why there’s such a strong resemblance…

Don’t worry: No spoilers here, even though Hitchcock himself spills the beans well before the final scene. For those who prefer to enjoy Vertigo merely as a clever melodrama, and who haven’t seen any of its innumerable imitations, the surprise may come as a modestly satisfying jolt. But there’s much more to this must-see movie than an ingenious plot twist.

At heart, Vertigo is not so much a neo-gothic thriller as a moody meditation on sexual obsession. On one level, the film is a metaphor for the filmmaking process itself – or, more specifically, Hitchcock’s approach to that process. Ferguson represents the director who tries to shape reality to his own ends, and Judy represents the actor who’s asked to simply serve as a color in the director’s palette. (Remember: Hitchcock is the filmmaker who claimed actors should be treated like cattle.)

But Vertigo also can be viewed as a study of sadomasochistic symbiosis, with Ferguson single-mindedly struggling to re-create a “perfect” relationship, and Judy reluctantly agreeing to be stripped of all identity to please the man she loves. You could argue that Judy is the more deranged of the pair, in that every action she takes hints at a bottomless self-loathing. You could also argue, however, that Judy gradually emerges in the movie’s final reel as the more sympathetic character.

James Stewart is at the top of his form here, brilliantly playing Ferguson as a discontent, resolutely practical man who’s swept away by grand passions that are not unlike madness. (There’s a bitter irony at work: Ferguson, the man who’s afraid of falling, allows himself to be drawn into a different but equally dangerous vortex.) Stewart’s subtly nuanced and profoundly affecting performance provides the perfect counterpoint for Kim Novak’s fatalistic intensity as Madeleine and her skittish, anxious submissiveness as Judy.

Vertigo is a fever dream of a romantic tragedy, with elegantly graceful passages – particularly the long, silent sequence that shows Ferguson following, and falling for, Madeleine – and foreboding undercurrents. Bernard Herrmann’s score is at once lush and ominous, the perfect balance of musical moods. And cinematographer Robert Burks bathes San Francisco in an eerie glow that intensifies the lyrical beauty of key images, but also hints at hidden deceptions.

After multiple viewings of Vertigo over the years, I have come to wonder: What would the reaction have been back in 1958 – indeed, how would critics, academics and movie buffs view it today – if Hitchcock had opted to end this masterwork about ten or 15 minutes before he does? (Assuming that the Production Code would have allowed him to do so.) That is: What if The Master of Suspense had announced “The End” immediately after Ferguson and Madeleine share their fevered embrace in her hotel room, bathed in a greenish light that seems to signal a shared madness, as she finally abandons all trace of her true self and he passionately grasps his last hope for a second chance?

And what if the audience were left to consider that the only way these two characters could possibly enjoy happily-ever-aftering is to maintain interlocking lies – his self-delusion, her selfless deception – forever more?

Would even Alfred Hitchcock have had the audacity to spring something so thoroughly unsettling, if not downright perverse, on us?