Monday, November 29, 2010

Gone but not forgotten: Leslie Nielsen and Irvin Kershner

If it’s true, as many claim, that showbiz deaths usually come in threes, then we should fear the worst for some living legends during the next day or so. Why? Within the past 48 hours, we have lost two conspicuously accomplished octogenarians: Leslie Nielsen, the journeyman character actor who deftly reinvented himself as a splendidly straight-faced farceur, and Irvin Kershner, the veteran filmmaker credited by many fans as auteur of the very best Star Wars movie ever made.

Throughout the 1960s and ‘70s, Nielsen found steady employment as heroic lead or reliable guest star in a variety of TV series, often finding himself persuasively cast as a steely-eyed cop (The New Breed, The Bold Ones) or a cold-hearted villain. On the big screen, he made his biggest impact – fleetingly, but unforgettably – as the ship’s captain whose shocked response to an oncoming tidal wave (“Oh my God!”) set the shamelessly melodramatic tone for The Poseidon Adventure.

It wasn’t until 1980, however, that Nielsen got his shot at being a true pop-culture icon, when he was perfectly cast in Airplane! – the free-wheeling laugh riot that spawned an entire genre of movie-lampooning movies – as a tightly buttoned-down doctor who retains his cool during a crisis, but repeatedly warns everyone not to address him as Shirley. It was the sort of straight-arrow role that Nielsen had previously played perfectly straight in dozens and dozens of feature films, TV-movies and series episodes. And that, of course, is what made his deadpan zaniness all the more hilarious – much like co-stars Peter Graves, Lloyd Bridges and Robert Stack, he subtly satirized sobersided shtick for which he was best known, and got his biggest laughs while behaving as though he hadn’t been let in on the joke.

Nielsen reprised that formula in the classic but criminally short-lived Police Squad! TV series – which spawned the considerably more popular Naked Gun movie trilogy – and then more or less repeated himself, with varying degrees of success, for the next three decades. He was so good at self-mockery, even in comedies unworthy of his best efforts – did somebody say Repossessed? – that I’m sure many moviegoers under the age of 30 might be totally unaware that there ever was a time that Nielsen was regarded as a no-joke, dead-serious dramatic actor.

Indeed, Nielsen became so firmly established as a comic actor that, as early as 1987, it was hard to take him seriously as the tough customer who parades around in his underpants while slapping around a high-priced hooker (Barbara Streisand) in Nuts. (Of course, it was even harder to take Streisand seriously as the high-priced hooker, but never mind.) Which may explain why Nielsen accepted his reconstitution and stuck to the funny stuff more or less exclusively in the years following the first Naked Gun flick. If he had any regrets, well, I can’t say I ever read anything about them, and I suspect he was too grateful for his mid-career turnabout to complain very much.

When I caught up with him with in 1995, during a New York junket for Dracula: Dead and Loving It, he was gleefully pranking each journalist who ventured into his hotel suite with a hand-held device that emitted a loud burst of… well, what sounded an awful lot like an industrial-strength fart. Yes, you guessed it: He caught me completely unawares as soon as I sat down. And can’t remember who laughed louder or longer, me or Leslie Nielsen.

As for Irvin Kershner: I would agree with the fans that he fully deserves his place of honor in film history as director of The Empire Strikes Back. And since it’s impolite to speak ill of the recently departed, I’ll refrain from mentioning his filmed-in-Houston RoboCop 2 – except to say I’m grateful that, shortly before that film’s H-Town premiere, I had the welcome opportunity to chat with Kershner about two of his finest non-Star Wars films: The Flim-Flam Man, an unjustly forgotten 1967 dramedy with George C. Scott in fine form as a conniving con artist; and Loving, a quietly devastating 1970 drama with George Segal giving a career-highlight performance as an advertising illustrator in the early stages of a mid-life crisis.

Kershner seemed amused when I told him that, when I first saw Loving back when I was in college, I really didn’t care much for it because I couldn’t relate to its melancholy story about a guy who was beginning to suspect that he’d taken a wrong turn somewhere in his career – and, worse, in his life – and worried whether it was already too late to turn back. But when I watched the movie again 15 years later -- and this is the part that Kershner really enjoyed hearing -- it was much, much easier for me to relate to the lead character, and to appreciate the spot-on accuracy of the movie's insightful observations.

I probably should take another look at Loving – if only to salute Kershner – but, frankly, I’m afraid I now might find it even more relevant.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The night Shirley MacLaine grabbed my ass

Had a lot on my plate these past few days while covering the Cinema Arts Festival Houston for CultureMap. But, mind you, I'm not complaining. Got to write about Isabella Rossellini, Alex Gibney, rodeo champ Clint Cannon and other luminaries in attendance during the five-day event. Best of all, I was privileged Saturday evening to do an on-stage Q&A with the exquisite Shirley MacLaine -- an ageless icon for whom I've long nursed a shameless crush -- after a special screening of Terms of Endearment (the best movie ever made in Houston) at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. (That's where my CultureMap colleague Carolina Astrain snapped the above photo.)

Being the saucy little minx that she is, Ms. MacLaine thought it would be a nifty idea to kick off the evening by acting out a memorable scene from Endearment, the one in which she and Jack Nicholson  share a touching (in every sense of the term) farewell at an airport. So when she embraced me on stage before our conversation, she... she... well, she grabbed my ass. And I felt it would be only good manners on my part to respond in kind. The audience, it should be noted, sounded as though they heartily approved.

Yes, you guessed it: In addition to talking about some of her other classic movies -- including one I was happy to learn we both still enjoy, Ronald Neame's Gambit (1966) --  Ms. MacLaine devoted part of our spirited conversation to a discussion of her fascination with metaphysics. Specifically, she talked -- knowledgeably, passionately -- about dreams. I wonder if she knew that she fulfilled one of mine last night?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Movie madness in the Mile High City

Mark Rabinowitz of IndieWire has posted some exceptionally insightful and discerning comments about the 2010 Starz Denver Film Festival, Elliott Gould -- who received the festival's prestigious John Cassavetes Award -- and me. 

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Coming Wednesday: Filmmaker Bradley Beesley escorts Sweethearts to Alamo Drafthouse

After observing barehanded fishermen in Okie Noodling, an up-close view of small-town sportsmen, and examining alt-rock icons in The Fearless Freaks, his celebration of Wayne Coyne and The Flaming Lips, Oklahoma-based filmmaker Bradley Beesley shifted his gaze to an event billed as "the only behind-the-walls rodeo in the world" in Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo, a critically acclaimed documentary that will have its Houston theatrical premiere at 7:30 pm Wednesday at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in the West Oaks Mall.

Beesely will be on hand for a Q&A after the Wednesday screening – the first-ever CultureMap Night at the Movies presentation -- and I’ll be there to host the event.

At once clear-eyed and compassionate, Sweethearts is a fascinating group portrait of women convicts who are relative newcomers -- but determined competitors -- in a decades-old statewide event previously restricted to male inmates in the Oklahoma prison system. Beesley includes several scenes highlighting a male prison rodeo vet -- a convicted murder who makes no excuses for himself even as he seeks parole – but his movie focuses primarily on the feisty female competitors held in the Eddie Warrior Women's Correctional Center in Taft, OK.

“To be honest,” Beesley told me when I interviewed him at the 2009 SXSW Film Festival in Austin for Cowboys & Indians magazine, “ I never dreamed I would ever make a prison film or a rodeo film. Most prison documentaries bore me to tears. And rodeo documentaries have already been done, you know? But once my producer James Payne and I realized that women would be included in the mix — we figured that would be novel enough for us to show up with our cameras. Which we did — unannounced, basically. That was back in 2006, when they first announced that women were going to participate in this event.”

So he and Payne just showed up one day at the front door of the correctional center?

“Well, we did call the day before we arrived,” Beesley said “But we didn't know who we were going to meet, or whether they were going to let us film. But they let us shoot, and we produced a short — which we premiered [at the SXSW Film Festival] in 2007. And we got some really positive feedback based on the short, which we used to attract funding for a feature-length documentary.”

Like most filmmakers who make films like this one, Beesley and Payne had to rely on educated guesses and gut instincts while “casting” subjects for Sweethearts. “You've got to get lucky,” Beesley said. “ But what we did was, we picked girls who were hopefully going to get out of prison within a year, or two years, because we wanted their stories to have some kind of resolution. And we also picked girls who, for lack of a better term, had drama in their back stories. But even then you don't know what's going to happen.

“Like, we didn't know one of them would get kicked off the rodeo team for receiving contraband. And at first, we were devastated. Here's one of our main ‘characters’ — Jamie Brooks, who did very well the first year women could compete — and she gets kicked off the team, and we're freaking out.

“But after a couple of days, we realized that, for better or worse, it's sort of the best thing that could have happened — for us — because it gave us a bigger arc for her character. For a while it looked like that was going to mess up her parole, after 13 years in prison. But Jamie made parole — and even appeared in Austin for the premiere screening.”

Beesley found himself hoping for the best for all his subjects while filming Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo. And, yes, that sometimes made it difficult for him to be a completely objective observer.

“Look, I'll admit: Whenever I was down there in a chute with one of these women on a bull, I was shaking. I mean, I wasn't doing a very good job shooting at all. In fact, I'd forget I was shooting because I'd get so wrapped up in watching these ladies that we'd come to care about mounting a bull.

“It was really hard to film.”

But wait, there's more: