Sunday, January 31, 2016

Hail and farewell to Frank Finlay

You can thank Frank Finlay — the prolific and prodigiously talented British actor who passed away Saturday at age 89 — with saving audiences from the dreary spectacle of mediocre or worse performances by an infrequently employed character actor: Me.

No joke: There was a time in my life — very early in my life — when I wanted to be an actor. And I was so determined to be a stage and screen superstar that I let nothing, not even my painfully obvious lack of talent, stand in the way of pursuing my dream. Indeed, even after my clumsy performance as Shylock in a disastrous high school production of The Merchant of Venice — highlighted by a scene in which, while demanding my pound of flesh, I tossed a fellow student cast as Antonio onto a table that promptly collapsed under his weight — I opted to hone my craft as a drama major at the University of New Orleans (then known as Louisiana State University of New Orleans).

It didn’t take long for me to realize, however, that I enjoyed my journalism courses much more than my drama courses, and that I had, despite persistant urges to act, a genuine fire in my belly for writing. Whatever lingering doubts I had about my true calling were pretty much banished the first time I saw a re-release of Othello, director Stuart Burge’s stripped-to-essentials 1965 film of the National Theatre Company’s production of Shakespeare’s classic. I was greatly impressed by Laurence Olivier’s controversial performance as the Moor, and thoroughly enchanted by Maggie Smith as a sensual Desdemona. But I was downright astonished by Frank Finlay — by turns silkily beguiling and blunt-force brutal — in the role of Iago. 

All three of the lead actors received well-deserved Academy Award nominations, but Finlay’s was the performance that stayed with me for days, months and years afterward. And for a long time afterward, each time I thought about that performance, I also thought: “I can study acting all I want, and maybe even build a career as an actor — but I will never, ever, at any time in my life do anything that good.”

And that — along with my junior-year self-appraisal that I was the worst actor in all of Christendom — was what pushed me in what I hope has been the right direction.

Even so, I never held my rude awakening against Frank Finlay. In fact, I suspect his inadvertent vocational advice was part of the reason why I became such a fan, and why I always took such delight in seeing him not only in starring or co-starring parts, but as a supporting player (sometimes a scene-stealer, sometimes a fleeting presence) in movies as diverse as Martin Ritt’s The Molly Maguires (1970), Stephen Frears’ Gumshoe (1971), Alan Bridges’ The Return of The Solider (1982) and Norman Jewison’s The Statement (2003).

A personal favorite: His stylish swashbuckling turn as Porthos in Richard Lester’s The Three Musketeers (1973), The Four Musketeers (1974) and The Return of the Musketeers (1989). The first of these films — which also featured his amusing cameo as a jewelry maker — allowed Finlay an opportunity to commit first-degree alchemy, so that he could transform even throwaway dialogue into laugh-out-loud funny business through his dry-wit delivery. When reminded that discretion is the better part of valor, his Porthos airily disagrees: “I can’t be discreet about how valiant I am. Shouldn’t be asked.” At another point, as he and his comrades gallop off to a rescue, he asks, more annoyed than anxious, “Can someone please tell me just where we’re going?” For decades after seeing The Three Musketeers together, my wife and I quoted that line to each other, in Finlay’s quizzical tone, usually — but not always — during extended road trips.

Finlay also played Inspector Lestrade to two different Sherlock Holmeses — John Neville in A Study in Terror (1965) and Christopher Plummer in Murder by Decree (1979) — and made the most of a bad situation (playing the straight-man part of a British police superintendent) while Alan Arkin tried his best to replace Peter Sellers in Inspector Clouseau (1968). He was aptly seductive and affectingly wistful as the eponymous romancer in Casanova (1971), a six-part British miniseries written by Dennis Potter (The Singing Detective), and relentless and resourceful as vampire slayer  Abraham Van Helsing opposite Louis Jourdan’s prince of darkness in Count Dracula (1977).

But wait, there’s more: Finlay was the breeder of The Deadly Bees (1966), the foil of Shaft in Africa (1973), Jacob Marley to George C. Scott’s Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol (1984), the ill-fated father of Adrien Brody’s title character in The Pianist (2002) — and the aged dad of Helen Mirren’s formidable Jane Tennison in the final two seasons of Prime Suspect (2003, 2006).

Here is an exhaustive and entertaining montage, obviously prepared by an informed and enthusiastic admirer, that offers an overview of Finlay’s many stage, screen and television credits. Watch and be impressed by the versatility of a man who played everything from Jesus Christ to Adolf Hitler, Shylock to Jean Valjean, Sancho Panza (opposite Rex Harrison’s Don Quixote) to Captain Bligh (in a 1985 stage musical of Mutiny on the Bounty titled – no kidding – Mutiny!) I don’t know if Finlay ever played Hamlet, but I am going to take my own first and last crack at the part by offering him the same tribute that the melancholy Dane paid to his father: “Take him for all in all. I shall not look upon his like again.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Remembering Glenn Frey remembering Robert Duvall and Let's Get Harry -- and shooting down hopes for an Eagles reunion -- in 1986

(In 1986, while I was film critic for The Houston Post, I had the privilege of interviewing Glenn Frey while he was on a promotional tour for his first film, Let's Get Harry. On the occasion of his passing at age 67, I want to share this piece that originally ran on October 30, 1986.) 

First, there was the popular video — a mini-movie, really — for his hit single, ''Smuggler's Blues.'' Then there was his well-received guest spot as a seedy pilot on the Miami Vice episode based on the same song. And now, Glenn Frey, the singer-composer who continues to soar on the charts long after leaving The Eagles, has a key supporting role in a feature film: Let's Get Harry, an action-adventure set to open Friday nationwide.

What's next? The romantic lead in a Hollywood blockbuster?

“If I could stretch that far,” Frey said a few days ago in his Inn on the Park suite, “I would like that. But with my limited experience in this field, I'm looking for safe parts right now. I don't want to overextend myself, or have a French accent, or do something I might not be able to handle at this early stage of my acting development.”

In Let's Get Harry, Frey plays Eddie Spencer, one of five small-town men who embark on a renegade rescue mission when their best friend, Harry, is kidnapped by drug smugglers while working on a dam project in South America. Led by a ruthlessly efficient mercenary played by Robert Duvall, the working-class commandos make their way into the wilds of Colombia.

When they reach the den of the drug smugglers, however, there's some doubt as to whether Frey's character, a cocaine abuser, will withstand the temptation of being near so much nose candy. With his background as a musician, Frey joked, “Maybe the producers thought I knew a little bit more about this subject than other people.

“But that didn't bother me. The thing that was attractive about Spence was, he's just a regular guy with a cocaine problem. And I think there's a lot of people like that. You know, you have the classic line, where Spence says, ‘It's cool, I can handle it.’ Which is what every junkie says. Even when they're doing five grams a day, they'll say, ‘It's cool, I'm not addicted, everything's fine.’”

Frey, a bearishly-built Detroit native with a lightly sandpapered voice and an ingratiating bent for self-mockery, looks at Let's Get Harry as an educational experience. He was especially eager to work with such respected actors as Duvall and Gary Busey. His enthusiasm waned only slightly when he found himself unnerved by Duvall's mercurial mood swings.

According to Frey, Duvall would often shatter the silence on the set in Mexico by shouting, without warning, What am I doin' in a movie with a rock star!?!” Frey couldn't tell for certain whether Duvall was joking. But the animosity, real or affected, brought a certain vigor to the scene where Duvall punishes Frey for opening a door without first determining who's on the other side.

“Yeah,” Frey said with a grin, “we had a real good time doing that one. That particular day, Duvall wouldn't talk to me. In between takes, he wasn’t around — he'd be standing outside in the hall, pacing back and forth. And then we'd do another take, and I'd open the door — and he’d slam me up against the wall. I think he wanted to do that anyway. It was always, ‘A (expletive deleted) rock star! I'd work with a million Gary Buseys before a rock star!’

“And then, when they filmed my reaction shot, he held this knife this far away from my throat, and yelled, ‘I could kill you right now, you . . . punk!’ And then he just let me go. They started rolling the camera — and I wasn’t acting. I was completely in shock.

“That was kind of interesting. But it wasn't exactly fun.”

So what does Frey think of his performance in Let's Get Harry? “I’d say I was adequate. I don't think I was terrific, but I certainly didn't stink it up.

“I was kind of pleasantly surprised, actually. I was very skeptical. While we were doing the film, nobody saw any rushes, nobody saw any dailies. So I really didn't know what to expect. But when I saw the first screening, I was a little bit surprised that I was able to just watch this guy with the mustache.”

As Frey sees it, the only serious drawback to working in movies is the lack of artistic control. “I'm not used to not having control,” he said. “When we make records, what I turn into the record company is what gets pressed, and what comes out. It's not like somebody at MCA Records says, ‘Well, I think we should edit the bridge out of that, and add some bongos.’

“But in the film business — and I was quite surprised by this — it's art by committee. After they shoot all the preliminary footage, and do the director's first cut, they bring in four or five people who know absolutely nothing about film, but are in charge.”

In the case of Let's Get Harry, Frey noted, director Stuart Rosenberg (Cool Hand Luke, The Pope of Greenwich Vilage) had his name removed from the film after producers insisted on re-cutting and re-shooting certain scenes. (The movie is now credited to the pseudonymous Alan Smithee.) That's the sort of artistic conflict Frey rarely has to worry about in his recording career.

When Frey recorded his last album, The Allnighter, Elektra-Asylum, his label at the time, was less than enthusiastic. (“One of their comments was, ‘You know, it's not very contemporary.’ And I said, ‘Exactly. And I don't want it to be.’”) Unperturbed, Frey brought the album — which featured “Smuggler's Blues” — to MCA Records, the label that eventually released it.

“Fortunately,” Frey said, “I was sort of vindicated. The Allnighter is sort of like Lazarus. It came out, and sold about 200,000 copies, and disappeared. And then Miami Vice, and the re-release of  'Smuggler's Blues,’ put the damn thing right back on the charts, and I ended up selling 300 or 400,000 more copies. So that was very gratifying.”

If he can continue releasing albums like that, Frey said, you can definitely forget all the wishdreaming rumors about a possible Eagles reunion.

“So if you hear about an Eagles reunion — you can bet your life that I've got income tax problems.”

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Want to see something really scary?

They saved the worst for last: This was the final image on the Image 3D Viewer I received in the mail today from the distributors of The Forest. As Count Floyd would say: "Scary stuff, kids!"

Saturday, January 02, 2016

A lifetime achievement award for... me?!?!

I have just learned -- seriously, I got the email only a few minutes ago -- that I am going to receive a tribute next weekend from a group of my peers, fellow members of the Houston Film Critics Society, for my "long and important contribution to film criticism and education." This award will be given during the annual HFCS awards show, during which far more prestigious people also will be honored.

As anyone who knows me can tell you, I don't believe in fake modesty -- or any other kind, for that matter. Still, I feel very humble, immensely grateful and altogether unworthy. I can only assume I am getting this award primarily because, at 63, I have somehow attained the status of gray eminence while I wasn't looking. 

Right now, I am reminded of something Roger Ebert wrote about our friendship back in 2009: “I first met my old friend Joe Leydon when he was the film critic of the Houston Post. When we see each other at the Toronto Film Festival, we are usually the oldest active critics in the room.” I also am reminded of John Huston's classic line in Chinatown: "Of course I'm respectable. I'm old. Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough."

The annual Houston Film Critics Society awards show will be at 4 p.m. January 9 at the Sundance Cinemas in downtown H-Town. Admission is free and open to the public. And don't worry: My tribute is only a small part of the program, and I promise to keep my acceptance speech reasonably brief. Remember: I'm old, so I can't stay on my feet too long anymore.