Thursday, July 24, 2014

When James Brown met Alfred Hitchcock... and Frankie Avalon


Because of an embargo on early reviews, I can't tell you how much I enjoyed Get on Up, or whether I think Chadwick Boseman is a Best Actor contender for his get-the-funk-outta-da-trunk portrayal of James Brown. What I can say, I think, is that I was pleasantly surprised by the accuracy of the film's re-creations of events and performances documented in The T.A.M.I. Show and The Night James Brown Saved Boston.

And, yes, I was amused by the allusion to Ski Party, a 1965 teen-skewing romp starring Frankie Avalon (who gets a none-too-complimentary shout-out in Get On Up) and showcasing James Brown (and The Famous Flames) in an on-camera rendition of "I Feel Good."


But I really wish the filmmakers also had made room for a re-creation of this surreal showbiz moment -- which, as I have said before, only serves to reinforce my long-held suspicion that, back in the day, The Mike Douglas Show had the most eclectic guest lineup of any talk show, at any time, anywhere on TV.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Pia Zadora: The legend continues


There are guilty pleasures, and then there are guilty pleasures. Houston QFest programmer and board president Kristian Salinas is not ashamed to admit his fixation on the notorious Pia Zadora -- a fixation that drove him to track down the exuberantly campy Voyage of the Rock Aliens for a special festival screening. You can read all about it here in my Houstonia Magazine report. And just in case you want a taste of the film itself:


Monday, July 21, 2014

And the hits just keep on coming: More responses to my review of D'Souza's America


Dinesh D'Souza's America: Imagine the World Without Her may be fading at the boxoffice, but the passion of its champions remains unabated. A couple weeks back, I offered a sampling of the responses posted online at Variety.com to my less-than-favorable review of the film. Here are a few more postings -- once again, reprinted verbatim via cut and paste.


Joe Leydon demonstrates with epitome of the Leftists who hate America and are contemptuous of our great founding and the United States of America’s contribution to the world and mankind. Joe Leydon is a bitter, deluded man who has imbued his life and himself with hostility and resentment towards what is good. His hostility prevents him from viewing America, this country, and the movie, as a celebration of the ideals and the values that make America a beacon and a land of hope and opportunity. Joe Leydon should live in socialist countries that by their very nature, do not have our values, freedoms as embodied in our Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights and our Constitution. I have traveled the world and there is no better country than America. Joe Leydon and those like him ARE what is WRONG with America today because they would seek to destroy that which is the great hope and life’s breath to the citizens. To put this bluntly, Joe Leydon is an ignoble pig who does not deserve the freedoms this country affords him. Let him live elsewhere because he pollutes this great nation with his self-righteous ignorant hatred.

We all know what side of the argument you are on since you show so well…what do you have to offer this awesome country. You are a fool if you do not see the “good” in the country you live in. Go make fun in some other land.

It’s amazing how hard it is for people like you to appreciate America. You should go live somewhere else.

Bitch Hilliary and her lying piece of sorry shit husband should be in prison for having political opponents murdered. Start with Vince Foster who was about to spill the beans on both of them. They are almost as evil as Obama if that is possible. Anyone that supports either is an enemy if the USA.

What an unmitigated fool you are. I suggest you speak of your Marxist, left-wing credentials before you try to write of something you clearly don’t understand. Not only are you a propagandist that Goebbels would have been proud of your writing is sophomoric at best. YOU ARE THE ENEMY and we know it now more than ever.

It was refreshing to have a person that came LEGALLY from another country TELL the regular Joe HOW GREAT OUR LAND IS. I am sick of the wah wah people crying about crap. The only thing that needs to be cried about is the Fundamental Transformation of our Nation we love but this Jerk uneducated voters voted for. SMOKE AND MIRRORS vote smarter next time.

Joe Leydon sounds like a rocket scientist.


To that final comment, I can only reply: Well, comparatively speaking...



Sunday, July 20, 2014

When the blurb bespeaks desperation


You know, there was a time when you wouldn't see a pull-quote like this in a movie ad. It was a time when shame had not yet become an antiquated concept. (And before you ask: Yes, I reviewed it, too. But I guess I failed to give them a quote worth pulling. Or blurbing. Or whatever.)

Remembering James Garner, a maverick on and off screen


Sometimes, an interview just clicks. James Garner and I communicated directly only once, during an extended conversation for a 2004 cover-story profile I wrote for Cowboys & Indians magazine. But right from the start, I felt like I was conversing with an old friend who was forthcoming and unfiltered.

Maybe it was because we discovered we had something in common – each of us lost his mother at an early age, dealt with an abusive stepmother, and remained forever shaped by those tragedies. Or maybe, just maybe, Garner turned on his irresistible charm for anyone and everyone he ever met. Whatever the reason, he was an exceptionally gracious gentleman, and an absolute dream of an interview subject, while we chatted.

It my custom to celebrate lives, not mourn deaths. On the occasion of James Garner’s passing at age 86, I would like to recall the man and his work by sharing this interview.

James Garner would have you believe that he simply lucked into acting more than 50 years ago, and has been coasting along ever since. Which, he insists, is perfectly all right by him. The work isn’t terribly demanding – well, except for the busted knees, sprained legs and other on-the-set injuries – and the pay is great. Better still, there’s no mandatory retirement age.

“Back when I turned 55,” he says during a leisurely lunch, “somebody told me I was middle-aged. I said, ‘Fifty-five ain’t the middle of nothing. That’s getting on with it.’

“And now,” he adds with a wry chuckle, “I’m 76. So I’m not middle. I’m late.”

But that doesn’t mean the man still known to millions of fans as Bret Maverick or Jim Rockford is ready to ride off into the sunset. Even now, a half-century after his acting debut in the premiere Broadway production of The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, Garner is too busy adding credits to his lengthy resume to think much about moseying off to The Old Actors' Home.

Consider this: He recently joined the cast of  8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teen-Age Daughter, his seventh TV series gig. (His eighth, really, if you count his temporary employment in the final episodes of Chicago Hope.) And he’s currently visible in megaplexes as a prominently-billed co-star of The Notebook, a sentimental drama which he unstintingly praises as an old-fashioned tear-jerker. (“When you see it,” he says, “bring a box of Kleenex. That’s my only advice.”) The years have taken their toll: He required a quintuple-bypass in 1988, and endured knee-replacement surgery in 2000 to repair damage dating back to The RockfordFiles (1974-80). And yet, despite his best efforts to affect an image of nonchalance,  Garner’s can-do determination and rigorous work ethic remain undiminished. “I just hope,” he says, “that I keep finding good material.”

Almost in the same breath, however, he insists that he has never thought of himself as a workaholic, or even as especially ambitious. To hear him talk, he has never – repeat, never – been stressed for success.

“Actually,” Garner says, “I don’t take success very well, because I know it’s fleeting. And the next day, it can all fall apart. I know that, too. So I don’t get too high – and I don’t get too low. You get through the world a lot easier that way.

“I’m never that disappointed when something bad happens. Naturally, I don’t like it. But I don’t get seriously disappointed. Because I don’t expect that much. I’m sure some psychiatrist would jump all over that. But that’s their job. I have mine. And I do mine the best I can.”

A hard-scrabble childhood during the Depression Era and a close brush with death during the Korean War did much to shape James Garner’s sense of perspective. Born James Scott Bumgarner on April 7, 1928 in Norman, Oklahoma, he was four years old when his mother passed away. Her death, he admits, profoundly influenced his view of this world as a place where nothing can be taken for granted. “I’ve always put women on pedestals,” he says. “But I’ve also known that they can leave you in a heartbeat. I learned that a little early, I think.”

By the age of eight, he already was working at odd jobs -- mowing lawns, mopping floors – to provide his share of income for his Depression-strapped family. Later, as the Bumgarners moved West, young Jim toiled in the oil fields of Texas, then laid carpet with his father in Los Angeles. In the ’40s, he says, “I met this guy,  Paul Gregory, who was a soda jerk at the Gotham Drug Store on Hollywood Boulevard while I was working in a Shell service station a block away. I used to eat my lunches over at the drug store, and he always thought I should be an actor. But I didn’t want to have any part of it. At any rate, he said he was going to be a producer, and blah, blah, blah, blah.

“Well, we go ten years down the line, and the next thing you know, he is a producer. And I ran into him just before I was going to Korea. He’s driving a big Cadillac convertible, and he’s all dressed to the nines. And he said, ‘Jim, I still think you should be an actor.’ And I said, ‘Well, that’s fine, but I got to fight a war now.’”

Garner was wounded in action, and earned a Purple Heart. All of which, he says only half-jokingly, fully prepared him for the rough-and-tumble world of showbiz. He didn’t flinch during the high-stakes legal wrangling when, in 1960, he walked away from his Maverick TV series over a salary dispute. And he didn’t back down when, years later, he waged a more protracted legal battle to free himself from the debilitating wear and tear of The Rockford Files.

“I always have been very independent. I’m not going to let anybody intimidate me. Because they can’t. Some of the toughest have tried. But, look, in Korea, they were shooting at me. They even hit me a couple of times. After that – what else can do they do to me?

“It’s the same way now, too. I’m not worried about anything. Hey, I’m not going to make it that much longer anyway.”

After returning to Los Angeles from Korea, Garner sought work with an oil company hiring for new enterprises in Saudi Arabia. “But they didn’t want roughnecks, they wanted geologists. I thought, ‘Well, I got to stick with laying carpets,’ which I didn’t want to do.

“So I was driving up La Cienega Boulevard, and I went past this building that I’d already passed a couple of times. And that’s when I saw his name – ‘Paul Gregory and Associates’ – up on the building. And you know what? Just while I was driving there, a lady pulled out of a parking place right in front of the building. So I pulled in. Why? I don’t know. But I sat there for a couple of minutes, thinking, ‘Maybe I can talk to him and see if I can give that acting thing a try.’”

Gregory, a talent agent as well as a producer, signed his friend to a contract on the spot. After a couple of false starts – “He got me an audition over at Columbia, which I was just awful at!” – and a professional name change, James Garner got an enormous break by being cast in The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, which Herman Wouk himself adapted from a portion of his own novel.

Mind you, Garner had a non-speaking role, as one six attentive members of a Court of Inquiry. But that placed him in the perfect position to closely observe Henry Fonda and Lloyd Nolan in lead roles during months of performances in Los Angeles and New York.  “I learned a lot about acting just sitting there night after night,” Garner says. He proved to be such an apt pupil that director Charles Laughton – yes, that Charles Laughton, the infamous Capt. Bligh of 1935’s Mutiny on the Bounty – cast Garner as the defense counsel, one of the play’s key roles, in the national touring company. The earning-while-learning process continued apace.

“One day during rehearsals,” Garner recalls, “Laughton told me, ‘James, I wish you’d come to lunch with me. I need to talk with you.’ And I thought, ‘Oh, boy, I’m going to get it here.’ Because I knew I was terrible.

“But to boil it all down, he said to me, ‘James, your problem is, you are afraid to be bad.’ And he was absolutely correct. I didn’t care if you liked me – just don’t dislike me. Therefore, there was nothing in the performance but what was there. What was obvious, I did. I didn’t put anything else into it. And it was very dull. So he said, ‘Just let it go, let it all out. Let the director bring you down. It’s hard to bring an actor up. But you can bring him down.’ So I learned a valuable lesson from him. Probably the best lesson I ever had as far as acting goes.”

By the time he was offered Maverick in 1957, Garner felt ready to handle the challenge of sustaining a colorful character – Bret Maverick, rogue extraordinaire -- in a weekly TV series. There remained some doubt, however, as to whether TV viewers were ready for a Western in which the central character was a smooth-talking, self-absorbed gambler who went out of his way to avoid gunfights, fisticuffs and other heroic pursuits

“The thing to remember,” Garner says, “is that when I did the original Maverick series, there were already 16 or 17 Westerns on television. Now that’s a lot of Westerns. They were the whole basis for television at the time. But we came along and put our tongues in our cheeks and laughed at them. Everything on these other shows were clich├ęs – they’d already done it all – so they were easy to make fun of.

“And if you look at it, after the Westerns came the detective shows. So we went in with The Rockford Files  years later, and did the same thing with them we did with Maverick.”

Garner looks back on Maverick with a reasonable degree of pride, but relatively little nostalgia. In subsequent years, he would reprise the raffish gambler in Bret Maverick (1981-82), a sort-lived series revival. And he eventually played a smartly-conceived supporting part in a 1994 movie spin-off starring Mel Gibson. But for a long time after he departed the original series -- co-star Jack Kelly continued on as the equally devious Bart Maverick for the show’s final season – Garner took great pains to distance himself from the role that had made him famous.

“I thought – I hoped – I was going to have a longer career than that. So I didn’t want to ride on Maverick. As a matter of fact, the first thing I was offered was the role of a gambler in the West, in The Comancheros. And I turned it down, so Stuart Whitman got the part.”

No big deal: Garner has found steady employment ever since in scads of other films, ranging from playful satires (The Thrill of It All, Support Your Local Sheriff) and romantic comedies (How Sweet It Is, Murphy’s Romance) to gritty action dramas (Duel at Diablo, Hour of the Gun) to brawny adventure epics (The Great Escape, Grand Prix). And while the majority of his roles have been modern-day characters – in The Notebook, he plays a World War II vet with close ties to a nursing home resident (Gena Rowlands) who’s stricken with Alzheimer’s Disease -- he continues to be closely identified with the Western genre.

Indeed, he enjoyed the best of both worlds when Clint Eastwood – who appeared in a long-ago episode of Maverick before riding taller in Rawhide – cast Garner as an aging astronaut in Space Cowboys (2000). “I had only a small guest shot on his show,” Eastwood remembers, “and he was very gracious and down to earth, and we got along right away. He's a great guy and a wonderful actor. And even though it took a few decades, I’m glad we were finally able to work together again.”

To be sure, Garner doesn’t have nice things to say about every Western on his resume. Mention A Man Called Sledge, a 1970 Spaghetti Western in which he co-starred with Dennis Weaver and Claude Akins, and he’ll admit that, even during production, he and others already were calling it A Man Called Sludge.

And then there was Sunset, the 1988 Blake Edwards film in which he played an aging Wyatt Earp to Bruce Willis’ Hollywood cowboy Tom Mix.

“I hated that movie,” Garner bluntly admits. “Let me tell you something: Blake Edwards wanted to do that picture with Robert Duvall and I. Now just think about that – wouldn’t that have been a whole different picture?

“But Bruce Willis was not my idea of a Western star by any means. He didn’t even know how to wear a hat. He’d pull it way down over his ears. I told him, ‘Bruce, no cowboy does that unless he’s riding a bronco.’ But he didn’t listen. He’d just pull the hat down even more, until his ears stuck out on the sides. And I figured, ‘OK, I’m only going to tell him once…’

“Bruce really didn’t take his work that seriously at the time. He thought he was a better writer ad-libbing off the top of his head than the writers were. He didn’t pay that much attention to the script.”

Despite that unpleasant experience, Garner sounds wistful as he bemoans the current scarcity of Western movies and TV shows. “I hate that they’re as rare as hen’s teeth,” he says. “They don’t have many of them on television, I suppose, because they appeal to older viewers. And the networks aren’t interested in the older viewers – even though we’ve got more of them than we have younger ones.

“I did watch this thing they have on now called Deadwood. But I was embarrassed. I never heard such foul language in all my life in the movies. I mean, not since Joe Pesci in GoodFellas. Nobody in the West talked like that.”

What are the values that of a true Western hero? Garner pauses to consider the question, then thoughtfully replies: “Well, there’s good and evil. Right and wrong. You know the difference. And your word is your bond.”

And that, James Garner concedes, is why most of the rascals he has played in Westerns and contemporary dramas qualify as anti-heroes. He has no problem with that. “The anti-hero is the best character to play, I think. That’s what Bret Maverick was, and that’s what Jim Rockford was. And look how popular they’ve been.”

In the view of many critics and fans, Garner gave his greatest performance as an anti-hero in The Americanization of Emily, the acclaimed 1964 dramedy – written by Paddy Chayefsky, directed by Arthur Hiller – about a cynical Navy lieutenant commander who’s exploited as an extremely reluctant hero during World War II. Despite the marque allure of Garner and co-star Julie Andrews, Emily was something less than a boffo box-office success in its time. During the decades since its theatrical release, however, it has gained legions of admirers.

The Americanization of Emily actually made money – though not much,” Garner says. “But that’s my favorite film. In fact, it’s mine, it’s Julie’s -- and I think it’s the favorite of more than a few other people who were involved with it.

“If you look at it, it’s very much like stuff that’s in the news today. But it was very daring back then. I mean, you start talking anti-war when they’re already involved in Vietnam and everything like that – you’re daring. But there were a lot of people out there who thought our way.

“[Producer] Marty Ransohoff was a little concerned about it. In fact, that’s how I got to star in it. Bill Holden was originally going to star in it, and I was going to do the role Jim Coburn did. And Holden was doing his banking in Hong Kong at the time. And there was a lot of press about it. You know, ‘He’s un-American, blah, blah, blah.’ Mind you, he wasn’t breaking any laws. He just saw it as a better deal for him financially. But people were getting all over him for being ‘un-American.’ Well, if he comes out and does an anti-war movie at that time, there’s going to be a lot more of that talk. And Marty Ransohoff got scared. So he bought Holden out, and put me in it. And he probably saved money, because my salary wasn’t all that great.”

Does Garner consider this another example of the good luck he claims has guided his career? Maybe. He chuckles as he considers the question, then replies:

“Some things are just meant to be. We think we have total control over them. Well, not necessarily...”

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Trailer Park: Ouija


Yeah, I know: This looks like it could be as hokey as hell. But come on: How can you possibly not want to see a scary movie in which someone actually says "I don't think this is a good idea" before doing something that is, well, a very bad idea? (Ouija opens Oct. 24 at theaters and drive-ins everywhere.)

Hangin' with the man himself: Mr. Robert Duvall


My Cowboys & Indians cover story piece on the great Robert Duvall is now available for your on-line reading pleasure.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Blast from the past: My fleeting transformation into a simian for a Planet of the Apes promotion

Back in 1973, the late, great movie movie makeup artist John Chambers -- yep, the guy John Goodman portrayed in Argo -- went on tour to promote the latest entry in the original Planet of the Apes franchise, Battle for the Planet of the Apes. When he arrived in New Orleans, the local Fox publicist asked for a volunteer to help Chambers demonstrate what he did for Roddy McDowell and other actors in the Apes adventures. Being, then as now, utterly shameless, I agreed to be part of the enterprise for a local newspaper known as The Daily Record.


Geez, was I ever that young?


Step 1: The devolution begins.


"OK, guys -- now, this stuff will come off, right?"



Like I said: Shameless. Totally shameless.


And here I am flanked by New Orleans makeup artist Edouard Henreques III (right) of Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre and the man himself, John Chambers. By the way: We didn't do this in a private studio or anything. Oh, no: We set up our little show at a table in what was then the main bar at the Marriott Hotel on Canal Street. The same hotel where, three years later, my wife and I had our wedding reception. And no: I didn't put the makeup back on for that occasion.


Actually, I think this might make a dandy avatar for Facebook and Twitter, just in time for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. What do you think?

A sobering thought about A Hard Day's Night

After the 1 pm Thursday screening of A Hard Day's Night at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, I am going to host a brief dialogue with high school students (and anyone else who wants to stick around after the closing credits). And I can't help thinking: If someone had shown me a 50-year-old film when I was a high school student -- it would have been a silent movie.

Like this one, with Buster Keaton and Fatty Arbuckle:


Or this one, with Mary Pickford:


Or this one, with Charlie Chaplin (and a musical score later added by Chaplin himself):


Radio Active: Talking Princess Bride Wednesday on KUHF

I'll be talking about the enduring enchantment of The Princess Bride Wednesday on KUHF-FM's Houston Matters show. The program airs at 12 noon and 7 pm CT -- you can listen to it here -- and will be available as downstreaming audio here from Wednesday evening onward. Hope you enjoy it. And remember: People in masks cannot be trusted.

Sharing the love from readers of my review of D'Souza's America

Evidently, my Variety review of America: Imagine the World Without Her, the latest  feature from conservative commentator and author Dinesh D'Souza, has upset some people. Even a few who, judging from their comments on Variety.com, have not actually seen the movie yet. These are a few of my favorite postings, reprinted here verbatim ala cut and paste.

well we can’t tell that you’re not from Hollywood and so left almost Jane Fonda like. ask for me I was born and raised in California & I have been alive for 63 years I have seen my state being torn apart by third world country mentality and the left hatred of our country where is the tolerant hippies of the 60′s what happened to you ate too many mushrooms you are just so hateful the left so intolerant you have to have everything your way wah wah wah wah just sickening I just want to enjoy this movie and lets you just leave your hate filled comments to yourself nobody wants to hear your crap it’s just more crap from Hollywood Hollywood is a tank for Obama and the left and everybody knows it thats why nobody goes to show anymore hello wanna make a page check then put something on there we want to watch case in point films that have meaning and purpose like this 1 4 God’s not dead hello we’re out here we do spend money and you’re not a favorite of mine

The movie addresses the wrongs done. But puts them in context. I think you should stop thinking.


Seems to me as the reviewer is so duped by his educators and leftist elitist mentality he cannot receive the message D’Souza has brought historical fact to back it….obviously the reviewer doesn’t know or just refuses to accept the facts of history…..mainly because he can’t accept the God of the Bible and His interest in the affairs of man when man endeavors to honor Him


Joe Leydon, why do you hate America so much? And if you do hate her so much, why stay, why not surrender your U.S. Citizenship, and move to Cuba, China, or maybe Russia?


Caution! This film refutes the fraudulent leftist narrative that has been promulgated by our schools, media and radical leftist politicos like Obama who’ve been educated by Saul Alinsky and Cloward& Piven & who have overtaken the Democrat Party. 100 Tomatoes! This film is a wonderful history lesson that should be seen by everyone and especially children! Note the disparity in the film’s tomato meter score between the lemming like unthinking socialist critics who post here and the Audience. The leftists don’t want anything that criticizes the big lie socialist narrative which melts under the slightest scrutiny to have wide exposure with an audience. The feeble minded unthinking leftist critics who post here reveal that they’re merely Obama butt boys doing their job and giving a negative review to anything critical of their hollow idol or any expose & critique of Obama’s socialist and cultural Marxist values. If this were a gay themed movie they’d give it 100 Tomatoes before seeing it. This is an excellent thought provoking film by a deep thinking analyst of the contemporary state of socialism and how it’s achieving it’s ends in America. It’s a very precise intelligent critique of the socialist driven narrative that has been perverting, polluting our society for the past 50 years. And in case you haven’t noticed: the socialists are winning!


Of course 81% of the movie goers liked the film, I am certain out of ever 100 people who saw this film 90 of them were conservative. Most leftists aren’t going to waste their money to go watch a movie in which a conservative ex-con white washes history books. It isn’t that most critics are liberal, it is that lefty critics are the only lefties who are probably watching this tripe.


You know, I think that last guy may be on to something.


Saturday, July 05, 2014

My 1979 chat with George Harrison (thanks to 2 Pythons)

George Harrison (left) and some other famous guy

So there I was, seated with Eric Idle and Michael Palin, lunching at a posh Manhattan eatery in the fall of 1979. Warner Bros. had taken over the place for an entire day, so ink-stained wretches like myself could have quality time with assorted members of the Monty Python ensemble prior to the national release of Life of Brian.

And I’m not going to lie: I was feeling pretty damn good about myself, since it was only me seated at the table with Idle and Palin. (Remember: This was 1979, back when print journalists -- even print journalists from Flyover Country -- got to enjoy lengthy hobnobs with the stars during junkets.) And I felt even better when one of the Life of Brian producers strolled into the restaurant, ambled over our table, and asked: “Do you mind if I join you?”

The producer was George Harrison.

(Years later, when I reminded Eric Idle of this episode, he quipped: “Yeah, what we should have told him was, ‘Aw, piss off, George. We’re trying to talk here.’” That Eric. Always the kidder.)

What follows is a slightly revised excerpt from a piece I wrote a few weeks after my close encounter with the late, great former Beatle. Please understand: I’m recycling the article not to show off – well, OK, not only to show off – but rather because some of what Harrison had to say strikes me as especially relevant while A Hard Day’s Night takes a 50th anniversary victory lap though venues nationwide this week.

At first, Harrison – then 36 – was understandably eager to join Idle and Palin in discussing Life of Brian, which already was generating outrage among the easily affronted. (A true story: Just a few days after my return to Dallas, where we were living at the time, my wife and I had to struggle to keep from laughing out loud during a Sunday mass while the presiding priest, obviously inflamed by hearsay, devoted most of his sermon to condemning the not-yet-released Python picture.) Once that topic of conversation was exhausted, however, the talk turned to his often frenetic days with The Fab Four.

Did he miss that eventful era? “Well, yeah,” Harrison conceded as the waiter cleared the table. “When you’re in a group, you have problems, you know, conflicts. But at the same time, you would have good moments. You’ve got some pals to hang around with, and you’ve got some more strength in a way.

“You can draw strength, and you can also get some feedback, from each other, when you’re writing and recording together. I miss all that side of it…

“You know, when we first started out, it was fun just being in a band. We weren’t trying to be rich, we were just having fun. I miss all that side.

“Fame is the thing that screwed it all up, really, as far as I’m concerned. We wound up going around the world singing the same old tunes, just to different people.”

Even so, Harrison recalled with a smile, the Beatles tours were not without random pleasures. “The only thing that spoiled the tour was that we had to go and play at the end of the day. If we just toured the cities of the world, checking into hotels and all that, it would have been okay.

“We had great fun in the bathrooms of all the hotels of the world, because that was the only place we could go, with all the crowds everywhere else.”

Harrison would not definitely rule out a Beatles reunion, but he was not holding his breath while waiting for it to happen. And he was not particularly pleased by the efforts of moviemakers and theatrical producers to keep the Beatles legend alive. (Though he had not yet seen either the movie I Wanna Hold Your Hand or the Broadway show Beatlemania at the time of our 1979 encounter, he dismissed both as “a lot of junk… I wouldn’t touch them with a barge pole.”)

As far as Harrison was concerned on that afternoon all those years ago, his stint as a Beatle was something rapidly receding into the distant past. He didn’t seem to mind if it stayed there.

“It was like another lifetime, you know? Some previous incarnation. It’s been a long time. It’s been 10 years since we split up – and we were splitting up for five years before that.

“In actual fact, we’ve been split up longer than we were together. We were only together a short time, really. I mean, in the length of my life, the Beatles was just a very little part of it.”

A part, Harrison claimed, that many people already were forgetting – or never knew about in the first place.

“You know, they asked kids in England – mind you, they asked 6-year-olds – but they gave them our names and they asked them if they knew who we were.” The result of the inquiry? “They said, ‘Oh, yeah, wasn’t he a famous doctor?’ Or something like that. ‘George Harrison, wasn’t he a famous doctor?’ Ringo Starr? ‘He was one of the Muppets, wasn’t he?’”

(Postscript: As Paul Harvey might say, here’s the rest of the story. At one point in our discussion of Life of Brian, I blithely began a question with, “I know you guys don’t have any sacred cows…” And Harrison, with a perfectly straight face, interrupted by saying: “But I do.” It shames me to say that, even after he, Idle and Palin began chuckling, it took me about five seconds to remember that Harrison had converted to Hinduism years earlier. But what the hell: I can honestly say that, even if had to make myself the butt of the joke, I got a good laugh out of a Beatle and two Pythons, all at the same time.)

Friday, July 04, 2014

From me and Bill Pullman: Happy Independence Day!

I am an immigrant's son, and I get paid to go to the movies. Truly, this is the land of opportunity. And so, to celebrate the birthday of our great nation, I once again give you the ridiculously corny yet tremendously affecting speech given by a beleaguered U.S. President (potently played by Bill Pullman) to rally a final push against invading extraterrestrials in Independence Day. Let freedom ring.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

One mo' time: Celebrate Independence Day with 1776

Seven years ago this week, I rediscovered 1776 on Turner Classic Movies. At 1:30 ET/12:30 CT Friday afternoon, you, too, can re-evaluate (or see for the very first time) on TCM a restored version of the movie -- one of the last Old Hollywood adaptations of a hit Broadway musical. And take it from me: Even if, like me, you were none too impressed by it back in the day, you'll find it was substantially improved by the restoration of scenes and songs that had been deleted by producer  Jack Warner  before its ’72 theatrical release. (According to Hollywood legend, no less a notable than then-President Richard Nixon "requested" the deletion of a tune that tweaked conservatives.)

As I noted in 2007: "1776 still is something less than an unadulterated masterwork. (Although director Peter H. Hunt manages some impressive wide-screen compositions, he’s a tad too literal-minded in some aspects of his stage-to-screen translation.) Taken as a whole, however, the movie is wonderfully entertaining – and, better still, undeniably inspiring -- as it offers an intelligently yet playfully romanticized account of events leading to the signing of the Declaration of Independence. But wait, there’s more: The cast includes most of the major players from the original 1969 Broadway ensemble – including William Daniels (John Adams), Howard Da Silva (Benjamin Franklin) and Ken Howard (Thomas Jefferson), all at their finest – along with an absolutely luminescent Blythe Danner (who was pregnant with Gwyneth Paltrow during filming) as Martha Jefferson. And the heated debates over individual rights and tyrannical rulers are, alas, every bit as relevant today as in 1776 or 1972." Or 2014.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Flashback: Richard Lester on A Hard Day's Night


Note: Back in October 1985, director Richard Lester -- the bloke being poked by John Lennon in the above photo -- came to Houston for a retrospective of his films at the Rice University Media Center. I had the pleasure of interviewing him before he arrived in H-Town -- and the privilege of conducting a Q&A with him after the Media Center screening of A Hard Day's Night. We talked a lot about that seminal cinematic treat -- and its influence on a then-trendy phenomenon known as MTV. Starting July 4, several venues nationwide (including the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and Nashville's Belcourt Theatre) will celebrate the 50th anniversary of A Hard Day's Night by screening a newly spiffed-up version of Lester's merry masterwork. So I thought it might be a good time to recycle my 1985 feature story about the man behind the merriment.

If A Hard Day's Night didn't exist, someone at MTV might have tried to invent it by now. But it does exist, thank heaven, and it remains as vibrantly fresh as ever, more inventive and exhilarating than 99.9 percent of the music clips introduced by cable VJs. The larky musical-comedy showcasing The Beatles will be on view at the Rice Media Center as part of a two-week retrospective tribute to its director, Richard Lester. After the screening, Lester will be on hand to answer questions about his life, his films -- and his work with The Fab Four.


Earlier this week, Lester laughed politely at the suggestion he created the world's first, and longest, music video when he directed A Hard Day's Night.

''Fortunately,'' he said, ''I didn't know I was doing that. I plead total innocence. But I must say, it was very kind of the MTV people: Apparently, I was their first inaugural Hall of Fame member.

''Of course, I didn't really know there was a Hall of Fame for MTV.''

Lester, a Philadelphia native, had only two features to his credit when producer Walter Shenson tapped him to direct A Hard Day's Night in 1963. At that point, The Beatles were only slightly less obscure than Lester in the United States. By the time the film opened, however, the boys from Liverpool had already launched their first assault on America. Most film critics of the time expected the worst from A Hard Day's Night, which threatened to be just another quickie rock-music exploitation film. But the reviewers were pleasantly surprised. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times called the movie ''a whale of a comedy... much more sophisticated in theme and technique than its seemingly frivolous matter promises.''

Much of the credit for the film's success went to Lester, whom Crowther praised for directing the musical madness ''at such a brisk clip that it seems to come spontaneously.''

Almost overnight, Lester established himself as one of his generation's most innovative filmmakers, a wildly eclectic virtuoso who merged the gracefully zany farce of silent-movie comedy with state-of-the-art editing and cinematography techniques. Just as important, Lester -- who began his career as a director of live television programs, then worked his way into the quick-cut, hard-sell world of TV advertising -- somehow had devised the perfect visual style to accommodate the flashy, frantic ambiance of what was then being hyped as the era of Swinging England.

Modestly, Lester insists his stylistic approach to A Hard Day's Night sprang from necessity, not inspiration: ''Generally -- and I think this is true of almost everybody who tries to earn a crust of bread -- I was just trying to find solutions to problems. And the solutions came out of the set of circumstances given to me.''

In this case, Lester said, he was charged with making a film that would reflect the frenzy of Beatlemania, contrasted with the ironic calm of the four lads -- John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr -- who were generating all the excitement. To get a first-hand glimpse at the phenomenon, Lester accompanied the Beatles on a tour of Paris. He didn't see much in the way of glitz and glamour -- but he did notice The Beatles had to barricade themselves in hotel rooms to hide from zealous fans.

''That weekend,'' Lester remembered, ''the film wrote itself. John mentioned that they'd just come back from Sweden, so I said, 'Well, how did you like Stockholm?' And he said, 'It was a car and a room, and a room and a car.' Well, that was the film. The means of making the music continue the mood of the piece -- all that seemed to grow out of that weekend. Because I saw their behavior was musical, and their music was behavioral. It was easy.''

It was also, in many scenes, improvised.

Essentially plotless, A Hard Day's Night follows The Beatles as they hide from fans, travel by train, hide from fans, rehearse for a concert, hide from fans, perform in concert, and hide from fans some more. One of the film's best production numbers, ''Can't Buy Me Love,'' serves as a liberating break from the rigorous routine.

''All that page of the script said was, 'The boys escape by playing in the field.' So we ad-libbed on three different locations, each two hours long. The circumstances of some shots were dictated by the fact that Paul got drunk one night, and was very hung over -- and didn't show up for filming. So I put on a pair of his boots -- I happened to be wearing black trousers, anyway -- and hand-held the camera, and used my feet as the fourth member of the group. Otherwise, I think the brighter members of the audience might have noticed that 25 percent of the group was missing.

''Expediency does count a lot in art. I think anytime you ask an artist, 'Why that yellow?' he'll probably say, 'I'd run out of blue that day.'''

Ironically, the ''Can't Buy Me Love'' sequence often is excerpted and shown nowadays as a music video -- much to Lester's chagrin.

''Until that point in the film, the boys were in very confined spaces, and being told to go here, do that. They were managed and organized, pushed into this and that, told they should rehearse, go into this hotel room. And, no, you can't get out of the car because the crowd's here.

"So I wanted that scene to be an explosion of absolute exuberance, as they escape into open air. That piece of film works best when you have four reels before it with low ceilings. I don't take offense, but, really, taken out of context and just put on as a rock video, it has less impact emotionally than it would have in the movie.''

With A Hard Day's Night, Help! (another Beatle comedy, and in many ways a much better film) and The Knack, Lester almost single-handedly created in the mid-1960s a new cinematic syntax that was quickly and widely emulated -- most notably, by the producers of The Monkees -- but rarely used with the same kinetic imagination and giddy effervescence. He later polarized audiences and critics when he brought this same flamboyant visual flair to How I Won the War, a scathing anti-war satire, and The Bed-Sitting Room, an episodic black comedy about life after a nuclear holocaust.

Lester matched style and content perfectly, even brilliantly, in Petulia, an unexpectedly moving romantic comedy about two rational adults seeking love in a totally irrational '60s San Francisco. And his romantic streak appeared even more pronounced in his glorious Robin and Marian. In recent years, Lester has toned down the visual pyrotechnics. But his better films -- The Three Musketeers, Juggernaut, The Ritz -- reveal him as a moviemaker blessed with impudent wit, an iconoclastic disdain for genre conventions, and a fondness for inspired offbeat casting.

And, no, he's not interested in offers to direct music videos.


Saturday, June 21, 2014

Joy

Whenever I feel blue, I can count on this clip of Joseph Gordon-Levitt from Marc Webb's (500) Days of Summer to lift my spirits. Go ahead: I dare you not to smile while you watch it.

'Rite of the Sitting Dead' -- or, Dead but enjoying it


Over at Hollywood Elsewhere, Jeffrey Wells posted a link to this New York Times article about funerals in my hometown of New Orleans and elsewhere that... that... well, as writers Campbell Robertson and Frances Robles note, "put the 'fun' in funeral."

The NYT piece begins by focusing on a wake at the Charbonnet-Labat Funeral Home for Miriam Burbank (pictured above), "who died at 53 and spent her service sitting at a table amid miniature New Orleans Saints helmets, with a can of Busch beer at one hand and a menthol cigarette between her fingers, just as she had spent a good number of her living days." (Must admit: The strategically placed bottle of Jack Daniels in the background is the perfect touch.)

Not surprisingly, the chronically uptight Mr. Wells disapproved of such activity. Me? If I had any choice in the matter, I'd be displayed at my wake propped up in a movie theater-style seat, pen in one hand and a notepad in the other, while a DVD player ran continuous loops of The 400 Blows and In the Heat of the Night on a nearby big-screen TV. Laissez les bons temps rouler, dah-lins!

Your choice?