Friday, April 24, 2020

Rewind: The Big Lebowski

Doug Harris, president of the Houston Film Critics Society, continues to thumb his nose at COVID-19 by hanging on his balcony spirit-lifting banners emblazoned with quotes from classic movies. And once again, I’ve been inspired by my favorite currently sitting president to rummage through my hard drive to provide an appropriate accompaniment. This time, it’s my original 1998 review of The Big Lebowski. And remember: It’s, like, just my opinion, man.

And now for something completely different: The Big Lebowski, an outrageously funny and indescribably weird shaggy-dog comedy from Joel and Ethan Coen, the moviemaking siblings who last enthralled us with the darkly ironic absurdism of their Oscar-winning Fargo.

Not that the Coens have ventured too far afield from what they’ve done in the past. The anything-goes inventiveness of their latest effort recalls the high-velocity lunacy of their Raising Arizona. And the vaguely Raymond Chandleresque pattern of their new movie’s plot reflects their obvious affection for fiction of the hard-boiled school. (Blood Simple, their first movie, had its roots in James M. Cain, while Miller’s Crossing, their affectingly melancholy drama about lethally competitive gangsters, is a superior Dashiell Hammett pastiche.) Even so, as The Big Lebowski shambles along from one bizarre incident to the next, with a randomness that is more apparent than real, the comedy seldom covers familiar ground. Which is one of several good reasons why it’s so enjoyably loopy.

Jeff Bridges, an actor whose subtle sense of timing serves him equally well in dramatic and comedic roles, is extremely engaging as The Dude, a chronically stoned layabout who seems forever lost in the 1970s. (The movie is set during the early ‘90s, on the eve of the Gulf War, for reasons that the Coen brothers feel no need to share with us.) The character’s real name is Jeff Lebowski, which turns out to be a problem when two tough customers mistake him for a bilious millionaire with the same name. The bad boys break into The Dude’s comfortably seedy apartment and demand payment for debts incurred by the wife of Jeffrey Lebowski. When The Dude insists that he has neither a wife nor a disposable income, one of the thugs urinates on his rug.

Under normal circumstances, such rude behavior would be easily forgotten, if not forgiven, by The Dude. But the rug meant a lot to him — “It really tied the room together!” — and he’s determined to make someone pay for a replacement. So he somehow manages to locate the palatial home of the more upscale Jeff Lebowski (David Huddleston). Not surprisingly, the millionaire gives The Dude the bum’s rush. Very surprisingly, the millionaire later summons The Dude back to his mansion, to seek our hero’s help in retrieving his trophy wife, Bunny Lebowski (Tara Reid), from kidnappers.

The Dude is singularly ill-suited for the role of private detective. Indeed, if he had his way, he would simply continue to concentrate on his favorite pastimes: smoking, drinking and, along with a few buddies, bowling. In this, he is very much like the Coen brothers themselves, who regard their ridiculously complex storyline merely as an excuse to place The Dude in the orbit of various oddballs and evil-doers. To say that The Big Lebowski rambles would be to give it more credit for momentum than it deserves. Even so, despite a final quarter-hour that is unduly protracted and, worse, insufficiently inspired, the movie is very amusing in its what-the-hell pointlessness, and often hilarious in its contrast between the blissed-out Dude and the desperate characters he encounters.

As Walter Sobchak, the hot-tempered Vietnam vet who is the Dude’s best friend and bowling partner, John Goodman offers furious comic bluster as a sharp counterpoint to Bridges’ foggy-headed nonchalance. Julianne Moore plays the movie’s most rational and tightly-focused character, Maude Lebowski, the millionaire’s sardonic daughter, who has her own plans for taking advantage of the Dude’s obliviousness. The extremely eclectic supporting cast includes such notables as Ben Gazzara as a well-to-do producer of cheesy porno movies; John Turturro as a flashy bowler with a checkered past as a sex offender; Jon Polito as a shamus who optimistically assumes that The Dude must be smarter than he looks; and, during one of the film’s clever but overly extended fantasy sequences, Jerry Haleva as Saddam Hussein.

In the world according to the Coen brothers, the Iraqi leader doesn't appear at all incongruous as he stands behind a counter and rents bowling shoes to his customers. Sam Elliott also drops by from time to time as The Stranger, a drawling cowpoke who serves as narrator, adviser and overall master of ceremonies. He, too, seems right at home.

BTW: The Big Lebowski inspired such a humongous cult that somebody made a movie about that cult. Here is my Variety review of the 2009 documentary The Achievers: The Story of The Lebowski Fans.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

This Could Be The Last Time

I forget where I read or heard this, but: There was a day in your life when it was the last day you played with your childhood friends. Not because anyone died, or because you or any of them moved away, but it was simply the last day all of you were together. And you didn’t realize it at the time. Hell, you might not be able to remember that day even now. But that day happened.

Must admit: I have been thinking a lot about that this week. Especially last Saturday, April 18, the 25th anniversary of the day The Houston Post shutdown. I’ve been trying to remember what I did in the Post newsroom on April 17, 1995 – who I spoke with, what we said – and I’m sad to say that, with precious few exceptions, I’ve been drawing a blank.

But now I have a more pressing concern: I’ve been trying to remember what I said to my University of Houston and Houston Community College students during our final class meetings before the lockdown last month. I hope I said something encouraging, or optimistic, during those meetings. Especially at HCC, since this is my final semester teaching there. I’m still keeping up with all of my students online, of course, as I receive and grade assignments after switching over from lectures to “distance learning” instruction. Yet still I wonder: If I’d known then that I would never see many of them ever again – what would I have said? And would it have mattered?

Our lives, unfortunately, are littered with last days that we don’t see coming, that we might not recognize until long after the fact. Most of them have nothing to do with death, and everything to do with life. Maybe the best way to live our lives is to live each day like it might be the last time we see the people in our lives?  

Monday, April 20, 2020

Rewind: Thousand Pieces of Gold

At long last: Kino Lorber is re-releasing at virtual theaters Friday, April 24, through May 7, Thousand Pieces of Gold. This is my January 3, 1992, Houston Post review.

Nancy Kelly’s Thousand Pieces of Gold is billed as “a testament to the strength of the human spirit,” but don't let that keep you away. This exceptionally fine, independently produced film is a small-scale, clear-eyed, sharply observant drama that, among other notable things, does something movies do very well, but all too infrequently: It offers the audience a vivid and involving look at a fascinating chapter in American history that usually is relegated to the status of footnote.

The title refers to the price paid one morning in 1880 when a desperate farmer in famine-stricken northern China sells his adolescent daughter, Lalu (Rosalind Chao), to a marriage broker. Lalu is summarily shipped off to San Francisco, where she is purchased by Jim (Dennis Dun), the eager-to-assimilate agent of Hong King (Michael Paul Chan), an even more coldly pragmatic Chinese immigrant. King operates a saloon in the Idaho mining town of Warren’s Diggens, and he wants to offer the local “white demons” something more exotic than beer and whiskey. Lalu, renamed China Polly by her new “owner,” is expected to work as a prostitute.

But Polly refuses to be exploited in such a way, and, unsurprisingly, has the gumption to back up her protests with a knife. Angry, but also a little impressed, King forces her to work as his personal slave, to pay off the cost of her purchase. Polly turns out to be a worker of indefatigable energy and endless resourcefulness. She quickly earns the respect, and slowly wins the love, of the one white man in town who fully understands what it means to be a prisoner: Charlie (Chris Cooper), a taciturn Civil War veteran who survived the horrors of Andersonville.

Working from a 1981 novel by Ruthanne Lum McCunn, which recounted the life of the real “China Polly,” director Nancy Kelly and screenwriter Anne Makepeace take a straightforward but sympathetic approach to Polly's story, viewing the strange new world of the Idaho mining town through the eyes of their feisty heroine, but also allowing other characters to develop and reveal themselves. Thousand Pieces of Gold unfolds at an unhurried pace, but it never seems dull, because the events and details that it takes time to observe are often richly amusing, sometimes suspensefully gripping, and always utterly engrossing.

Rosalind Chao dominates the film, as well she should, with her strong, subtly detailed performance as Polly. By turns frightened and bewildered as she enters Warren’s Diggens, Chao's Polly nonetheless maintains a strength of will that makes it very clear, right from the start, that no man — not even Charlie, not even after he “wins” her from King in a poker game, then grants her freedom — will be able to have her on any terms but her own.

Charlie, who seems bemused and perhaps a bit proud as Polly develops into an entrepreneur, is played with winning self-effacement by Chris Cooper (the union organizer of John Sayles’ Matewan). Hard-drinking and war-weary, yet always a gentleman in his dealings with Polly, and a fair businessman in his dealings with King, Charlie is a complex character, and Cooper is remarkably good at bringing his many facets into sharp focus.

Thousand Pieces of Gold touches upon the injustices that afflicted Chinese immigrants in America of the 1880s — King must have Charlie as a business partner because of race-conscious laws restricting property ownership — and depicts, even-handedly, the bitterness of the white miners toward Chinese laborers, who are willing to work for lower wages. But the film is less interested in creating heroes and villains than it is in re-creating a specific time and place, and revealing full-bodied, sometimes contradictory characters. Even the rapacious Hong King, played with sly and robust charm by Michael Paul Chan, is allowed some redeeming qualities, while Charlie occasionally seems self-pitying and weak.

One particularly nice touch: Polly strikes up an easy friendship with Berthe (Beth Broderick), a hearty German-born prostitute who teaches Polly how to bake an apple pie. Two women from different, distant parts of the world, each recognizing the other’s essential humanity as they settle — awkwardly, reluctantly — into a new home. That, too, is part of the uncommonly interesting American history lesson offered in this uncommonly good American independent movie.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Some random thoughts about the Oklahoma City Bombing, my wife, Chuck Norris, and a spectacularly ill-timed Top Dog

On April 19, 1995, one day after the closing of The Houston Post, at 9:02 am CST, there was a terrorist bomb attack on the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Office Building in Oklahoma City. Sixteen Social Security employees were among the 168 people who were killed. My wife was working for Social Security at the time.
I feared this would be the first in a series of terrorist attacks on federal offices across the entire nation. So, the next day, I begged my wife not to go to work. Her reply: “Fuck it. You lost your job. One of us has to be making money.” I couldn’t argue with that, so I stayed home and cooked dinner and washed dishes.
 Less than two weeks later, I covered for Variety “Top Dog,” an unfortunately ill-timed Chuck Norris dramedy about a San Diego cop, his love-hate relationship with a bomb-sniffing K-9 and, as I said in my review, “right-wing extremists who plant bombs in public buildings as part of their campaign of terror.” The movie wasn’t half-bad, and it certainly wasn’t Chuck’s fault that I got creeped out, but…
BTW: Note in the review the reference to April 20 as Hitler’s birthday. I wonder what fresh hell might await us tomorrow?

Saturday, April 18, 2020

It Was 25 Years Ago Today: The End of The Houston Post

At around 10 am on April 18, 1995, one of my Houston Post editors called me at home while I was eating breakfast to break the bad news: The Post was shutting down, effective immediately, and we had until 5 pm to get all of our belongings out of the building.

It was a shock. But it wasn’t a surprise. 

Truth to tell, The Post had been on shaky financial ground long before the owners opted to pull the plug. And by the way: By “closing,” the owners were able to sell all their assets for a hefty sum to the Hearst Corporation, owners of the competing Houston Chronicle, allowing Hearst to avoid any inconvenient anti-monopoly regulations that might have kicked in had Hearst simply bought The Post. There were rumors that other companies had made offers to purchase our paper, and keep it afloat, but Heart evidently dangled a bigger check than anyone else.

That the fourth largest city in the United States had suddenly become a one-newspaper town was really big news for, oh, I dunno, maybe 24 hours. The next day, however, the Oklahoma City bombing occurred — a much worse tragedy, I would readily agree — and people stopped paying attention. Nowadays, I suppose, the Post closing might have remained fodder for cable TV chat shows for a week or so. But that is now, this was then. I vividly remember being interviewed by a headhunter for an out-of-town paper — one of several that descended on Houston the day after the closing, to see who might be worth recruiting — in a Holiday Inn hotel room. The guy was polite, and seemed truly sympathetic. (He represented the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and I did wind up landing a few free-lancing gigs from that paper.) But throughout our conversation, it was obvious that while he had one eye trained on me, he had the other eye trained on a TV across the room that was telecasting live reports on the Oklahoma City horror.

For years afterward, I likened what happened to me 25 years ago today to being aboard a ship that had suddenly been shot out from under me. Instead of grasping for any debris that might keep me afloat, I lunged toward anything, anywhere, that might keep me, at least temporarily, solvent. The Post closed on a Tuesday. By the following Friday, I had a free-lance piece in the Houston Chronicle — an interview with director Nikita Mikhalkov, whose Oscar-winning Burnt By the Sun was the opening-night film that year for the WorldFest/Houston International Film Festival. The following Sunday, I was one of a small group of Post survivors who were interviewed on the morning news show aired by KPRC-TV, the NBC affiliate. When the show ended, I approached the producer and suggested that, hey, wouldn’t movie reviews be a swell addition to his program? The following Sunday, I was on the air.

And yes, I have no doubt that had there been podcasts then, I would have launched one of those, too.

To this day, I can tell you who called me within hours after news of the Post closing broke to offer condolences, job leads and/or, no kidding, office equipment. I can also tell you who returned my calls during the days and weeks afterward. And I can tell you who immediately stopped taking my calls.

Clint Eastwood had one of his people call me to promise that he’d make himself available for an interview to promote his next movie, and he didn’t really care when or even if I could sell it. (He made good on that promise, and I did sell the interview pegged to the release of The Bridges of Madison County.) Todd McCarthy, then my editor at Variety, called with a fistful of free-lance review assignments — I had been writing for The Showbiz Bible since 1990 — and a promise that the paper would cover my expenses for the next Sundance Film Festival. (Again: Promises made, promises kept.)  Saundra Saperstein of the Toronto Film Festival called to assure me that I would get my press credentials for that festival the following September, no matter what. 

It was during the 1995 Toronto Fest, incidentally, that (with a little help from fellow critic Jami Bernard) I did an interview with Denzel Washington (tied to Devil in a Blue Dress) for the New York Daily News. Not long afterwards, when my son George asked me how he was able to have such a swell 9th birthday party even though daddy was, ahem, unemployed, I responded: “Uncle Denzel came through for us.” Years later, when I told Washington that story, he laughed heartily.

It helped a lot that, within days of the Post closing, Hunter Todd of WorldFest/Houston gave me an aging IBM PC that had been gathering dust at his headquarters. Up to that point, I had been getting by in my free-lance work for the better part of a decade with a Kaypro 2X. The upgrade increased my productivity immeasurably. (On the other hand: I still have 5-inch floppy discs of WordStar files from my Kaypro that I haven’t been able to access in a very long time.)

I worked so fast and furiously to assemble a patchwork of free-lance gigs, I didn’t have or make time to truly mourn the Post. The impact of what I had lost didn’t fully hit me until, while I was at the Toronto Fest, I got a call from my wife telling me she had gotten a call from the editor at a newspaper where I had been absolutely certain I would get my next film critic job. Except I didn’t. And somehow this shocked me even more than the closing of The Post.

Yes, that sounds impossibly arrogant. But consider: I started writing film reviews for professional publications in 1967, while I was still in high school, and continued while working in various capacities at The Clarion Herald in Jackson, Miss; The Shreveport Times; and The Dallas Morning News. When I landed my first (and, so far, last) full-time job as a film critic at The Post in 1982, I was truly in the right place at the right time. Editors under three different owners saw having a “celebrity” film critic as an asset to exploit while competing with the Chronicle. (At one point, God help me, I even starred in my own TV commercial.) So they encouraged me to attend as many junkets and film festivals as possible — it was not uncommon for me to attend Sundance, Berlin, SXSW, Cannes, Montreal, Toronto, and the Sarasota French Festival within the same 12-month period — review everything from Hollywood blockbusters to art-house obscurities, and accept every interview request from any TV or radio station.

Just how elevated was my profile? One year at Cannes, Bertrand Tavernier introduced me to friends as not merely a Houston film critic, but “the film critic of Texas.” After reading my review of Bugsy, Warren Beatty asked that I be invited to the Love Affair junket, where he granted me one of a very few one-on-one interviews. I had enjoyed similar exclusivity when I got to sit down with Francis Coppola and George Lucas for an hour at the Tucker: The Man and His Dream junket. Harvey Weinstein (yeah, I know) took me aside at a film festival to inform me that I ranked among the handful of critics working at the No. 2 papers in their markets to be considered, by a wide margin, more influential on local moviegoers than their competitors at larger papers.

Fortunately, Jeff Millar, then the film critic at the Chronicle, was… well, it might be unfair to describe him as burnt out on being a film critic. But he had other things on his plate — like authoring novels and writing the Tank McNamara comic strip — so he didn’t attend junkets or film festivals, and he really didn’t write as many reviews as I did. He was nice fellow and a true gentleman — he took me out to lunch the week after The Post closed — but I have often wondered if I would have achieved anywhere near the recognition I did had I been up against a 1980s version of, say, Justin Chang or Inkoo Kang.

Anyway: I got the call in Toronto, and that’s when it hit me: The Post was really, truly gone, and I probably would never again have it as good as I did there. So I lay down on the couch in the living room of the friends with whom I was staying — friends who, fortunately, were not at home at the time — and starting crying. For a long time. And then I got up, wiped my eyes, and headed out to the next screening.

Things weren’t too bad for a while. It was a Wild West period on the Internet in the mid-1990s, and some newly established websites paid astonishingly huge sums for free-lance pieces. (For the better part of a year, I was paid $1,000 for every interview I wrote for; today, I would be fortunate to earn a tenth of that sum for the same product.) It didn’t take long, unfortunately, for editors to realize how many younger, hungrier free-lancers would work a lot cheaper than veterans in their 30s and 40s (or older). I got a gig writing for the weekly Houston Press that lasted about a year, until the people running the chain that owned it started using the same critics in all their alt-weeklies. The KPRC-TV job actually expanded for a while — I did interviews (many now available on You Tube) and interviews on both the Saturday and Sunday morning shows — but ended in 1999. The same year my wife and I filed for bankruptcy.

(Thank God she remained gainfully employed the whole time I was between jobs — and was able to keep me on her health insurance plan. If she had not been there, I would not be here.) 

And since then? Well, I must confess: When a dear friend introduced me to Coldplay in 2008, and I heard the lyrics, “Now I sweep the streets I used to own,” the shock of recognition was more than a little discomforting. But then as now, I press on.
Truly, I have no reason to complain. I started teaching at the university level in 2001, a job I enjoyed so much that I went back and earned an MA degree so I’d be qualified to teach even more. (I’m still an adjunct, not a full-timer, but that’s the way it goes.) I still write free-lance reviews for Variety — I will celebrate a much happier anniversary, my 30th, with that paper next month and I’ve been fortunate to discover some fresh talents over the years. Indeed, I am often reminded just how important a Variety review, by me or anyone else, can be. (I once got an email from a cinematographer who thanked me because, after I singled out his work on an indie film, he finally was able to land an agent.) And since 2006, I have held posts as contributing editor and senior writer for Cowboys & Indians magazine, which has put me in contact with many movie and music notables I admire. 

Looking back, I can see that I was a kinda-sorta canary in the coal mine when The Post closed in 1995. Many other newspapers have closed since then; many more no longer employ full-time film critics. I foolishly assumed that I would just leap into another film reviewing gig shortly after the shuttering of the Post. Even now, I remember what a friend and fellow journalist told me at the time: “They’ll be kissing your sneakers to hire you.” Every so often, I remind her of that statement, and we both have a good chuckle.

What neither of us could have foreseen, of course, is the paradigm shift that led to the drastic reduction of print film critics, and the massive increase of online film critics. For years, I continued to apply for film critic positions that sporadically opened up until… Well, I’m embarrassed to say just how long I kept sending out messages in bottles. But I do remember the day when I heard about a job, felt momentarily excited — and then told myself, “No, that time has passed. And you ain’t ever going to play Hamlet, either.”

Of course, to be brutally honest, it’s entirely possible that I was never as good as my friend thought, or I hoped, and that’s why I never landed another full-time gig. But even if that’s true, hey, I haven’t done too badly for a mediocrity, have I? Call me the Bob Uecker of film critics, and you won’t be far off the mark.

This probably is the last time I will mark the anniversary of the Post closing with any post this long-winded and self-aggrandizing. After all, I am not entirely bereft of shame. Still, I am a melancholy frame of mind right now that has little or nothing to do with the current COVID-19 pandemic. Well, actually, there is some connection: Because of the drastic cutback in advertising for newspapers and websites that can be traced to the pandemic and the accompanying lockdown, I know a lot of my younger colleagues (and a few older ones) currently find themselves in the same position I was 25 years ago today. As bad as I had it then, I fear it may be worse, much worse, for them. 

To the newly unemployed, I can only offer my condolences because, literally, I can feel your pain. I wish I could be more encouraging. But trust me: You’ll be much better off if you don’t expect anyone to kiss your sneakers anytime soon.

Friday, April 17, 2020

Rewind: Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure

As we muddle through the current lockdown, Doug Harris, president of the Houston Film Critics Society, has been lifting his and other people’s spirits by hanging on his balcony banners emblazoned with quotes from classic movies. He’s also been encouraging fellow HFCS members to post reviews of spirit-lifting movies available for streaming. Therefore, suitably inspired by my favorite currently sitting president: Here is my original 1989 review of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Totally, just as it appeared back in the day in The Houston Post.

How far can a comedy get on a single joke? Just about 90 minutes, judging from Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, an exuberantly goofy farce sprinkled with moments of inspired silliness.

The plot is simple, if not simplistic: Two chuckleheaded teen-agers, Bill and Ted, are given a magical telephone booth that allows them to travel back and forth in time. The gift arrives at a fortuitous moment — the boys are in danger of flunking a history class, and they need some impressive exhibits to ace their final exam. So off to the past they go, to corral Napoleon, Socrates, Joan of Arc, Billy the Kid and assorted other “personages of historical significance.”

Scriptwriters Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon obviously are fans of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and fondly recall the scene where an awesomely stoned surfer (played by Sean Penn) took a make-up test in American history. Bill & Ted offers two Valley Guy students instead of one, and allows them unrestricted use of an amusingly polysyllabic vocabulary: “Ted, it’s pointless to have a triumphant video until we have decent instruments!” “We are about to fail most egregiously, Bill!”

Bill (Alex Winter) and Ted (Keanu Reeves) are the heroes of the piece, would-be rock musicians who react with amazing sang-froid when a futuristic visitor (George Carlin) makes the past available to them. Occasionally, the boys are slightly rattled by what they encounter in their time-travels. (“Whoa! Check it out! We're in the middle of a war, dude!”) More often, though, Bill and Ted are highly entertained, if not noticeably educated, by their first-hand research.

Under the energetic direction of Stephen Herek (Critters), Bill & Ted gets by on high spirits even when its invention flags. There is a very funny sequence that places the “historical personages” in a shopping mall — Joan of Arc joins an aerobics class, Beethoven tickles the ivories at a music store, Billy the Kid and Socrates try to pick up girls. The finale, staged very much like a heavy metal concert, is guaranteed to please the party animals in the audience when Bill & Ted makes its inevitable debut on the midnight movie circuit.

To be sure, there are a few slow stretches where time is marked and patience is tested. Overall, though, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure is an exceedingly pleasant surprise. And the best moments are those where our heroes try to interpret history in their own terms. Socrates, they figure, lived in ancient Athens, “when most of the world looked like the cover of the Led Zeppelin album, Houses of the Holy.”

Like, totally visionary, dude.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Farewell to A Man Obsessed: Brain Dennehy

I once joked with Brian Dennehy that we had him to blame for the whole Rambo franchise. After all, if his small-town lawman hadn’t pushed Sylvester Stallone’s troubled Vietnam vet to the brink during the original First Blood (1982), John Rambo wouldn’t have gone on the rampage in the first place.

“Yeah,” Dennehy responded with a wolfish grin, “they’ll probably wind up putting that on my tombstone: ‘He Pushed John Rambo Too Far!’”

But, then again, maybe not. By the time of his passing Wednesday evening at age 81 — a good 30 years after we shared that exchange at the New York press junket for Presumed Innocent — Dennehy had amassed an amazing number of impressively diverse stage and screen credits, most of them dutifully noted in my Variety colleague Carmel Dagan’s obituary tribute. To put it simple and gratefully: He was too prolific and prodigious to ever be name-checked for a single role.  

The first time I spoke with the late, great actor was at the 1987 Cannes Film Festival, shortly after the world premiere of Peter Greenaway’s The Belly of an Architect. I am posting this interview, which originally appeared in a slightly different form in The Houston Post several weeks before that movie’s U.S. release, not because of his extraordinary performance in that drama, but rather because of what Dennehy revealed about what acting meant to him. I’d be willing to bet he always had that same fire burning inside him.

Brian Dennehy, character actor extraordinaire, currently can be seen as a part-time author and full-time cop in Best Seller, an offbeat thriller in which he co-stars with his friend James Woods. Next year, he’ll be seen in The Return of the Man from Snowy River, in a role Kirk Douglas played in the first Snowy River adventure. “Kirk’s cleft fell out,” Dennehy jokes in his
typically gregarious fashion, “and they had to replace it. So I’m filling in for him.”

But during interviews at film festivals in Cannes and Toronto this year, Dennehy spent most of his time talking about a far more esoteric project: The Belly of an Architect, Peter Greenaway’s bizarrely stylized drama about a middle-aged American architect who loses his dignity, his sense of purpose and his much younger wife while overseeing an exhibition in Rome.

Dennehy stars in the film, which will be released later this year, as Stourley Kracklite, the architect who comes to question the value of everything, and everyone, he has held dear. It’s a character Dennehy could identify with very easily.

“When I read this script a year and a half ago,” he told me at Cannes, “I was going through a period — which I'm still going through, to a certain extent — of trying to deal with the fact of being 48, of having achieved a certain success, a certain celebrity. And having to come to terms with the fact, which everyone has to come to terms with, that's it's all bullshit. It doesn’t really mean anything.

“In other words, you spend 20 years of your life saying, ‘If I ever get to this place, if I ever get what I want, I'll be happy. All the mysteries of the world will be solved, and I will know what’s right.’ Well, you get that. And then you say to yourself, ‘You know something? The mysteries are not all solved. And I’m not particularly happy. And it really doesn't make a goddamn bit of difference that you get what you want.’”

Not that Brian Dennehy is a bitter man. Not at all. He ppreciates the respect and acclaim he has earned in such high-profile supporting roles as the friendly alien in Cocoon, the cheerfully corrupt sheriff in Silverado, and the hard-charging New York cop in F/X. And he is extremely grateful to director Peter Greenaway for casting him in Architect, the first movie where he has received top billing.

But for Dennehy, there's something more important than the billing, the good reviews and the public recognition. For him, the most important thing is simply acting.

“The first thing I noticed about Kracklite is, Kracklite is a man who is obsessed. And I am obsessed — I am obsessed with acting. I'm obsessed with what I do. And I have come to terms with that. There was a time, four or five years ago, when people would say to me, ‘You’ve got to find something else. Get yourself a nice girlfriend, get on your sailboat and sail away, find something else. You can’t just care about this one thing.’ But eventually, I got to the point where I figured, ‘This is the only thing I care about. This is the only thing that interests me. Yes, I am obsessed with it.’

“If you're really lucky, after going to a psychiatrist three times a week for 20 years, the psychiatrist says, ‘You're not changed, but now you know what you are, you know how you are. And you can live with that.’ Well, that’s the way I feel.”

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Rewind: Bette Davis in Dark Victory

Throughout the final quarter-century of her life, in countless feature films, TV dramas and talk-show appearances, Bette Davis (1908-89) went out of her way to sustain a self-satirizing image as a bug-eyed, raspy-voiced, age-ravaged eccentric. For movie buffs who came of age in the wake of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), the career-reviving gothic-camp extravaganza that permanently recast her as a cantankerous harpy, it may sometimes come as a shock to be reminded of the unconventionally beautiful and uniquely charismatic superstar that Davis was in her prime.

Fortunately, film is a medium that ensures even the dearly departed are always in the present tense, at their very best. In Dark Victory, the must-see 1939 tearjerker directed by Edmond Goulding (Grand Hotel), Davis continues to delight and dazzle in a role that she ranked among her favorites. And despite the passing of years — not to mention the abundance of remakes, rip-offs and spot-on parodies — the movie itself still packs a potent emotional wallop.

Davis earned her third Academy Award nomination for her cunningly dynamic portrayal of Judith Traherne, a fast-living, hard-drinking Long Island socialite who lives her life as one long New Year's Eve party until she realizes her occasional dizzy spells and blurred vision can’t be blamed on hangovers. Dedicated surgeon Frederick Steele (George Brent) — who, not surprisingly, falls in love with Judith – identifies her malady as a brain tumor. But, of course, the audience knows better: Judith has Old Movie Disease, a humbling affliction that strikes only carefree and capricious leading ladies. Victims become progressively more beautiful, and increasingly less self-absorbed, as they stoically approach a peaceful quietus. (Sporadic spasms of kookiness are common symptoms.) 

For no very good reason, her doctor and her best friend (Geraldine Fitzgerald) opt to keep Judith blissfully ignorant of her death sentence. When she inadvertently learns the truth, she turns against her confidants, and resumes her wastrel ways with bad influences. (Chief among the latter: a pre-Presidential Ronald Reagan, who’s unsettlingly convincing as a party-hearty libertine.) Ultimately, however, Judith decides to spend her final months as a supportive wife for Frederick. During the profoundly affecting final scenes, she refuses to tell him of her abruptly fading eyesight – the telltale sign, alas, of a rapidly approaching demise. Instead, she sends him off to an important medical conference, so she can die alone — to the accompaniment of Max Steiner's heart-wrenching musical score — in bed.

Dark Victory is a textbook example of the glossy Hollywood product that rolled off dream factory assembly lines during the heyday of the studio era. And like most similar product – especially the brand produced by Warner Bros. – it features a strong supporting cast of contract players. Brent, an actor best remembered for providing handsome window dressing in movies built around remarkable leading ladies, is impeccably noble as Frederick. Fitzgerald makes the most of a largely thankless part, while Reagan is amusingly lightweight as Alec, a feckless fellow who spends most of the movie in various stages of inebriation. And third-billed Humphrey Bogart struggles manfully with an on-again, off-again Irish accent as Michael O’Leary, a virile horse trainer who’d like to corral Judith.

The main attraction, though, is Bette Davis. Whether Judith is gliding coquettishly through a country-club gathering, or bravely comforting a weepy buddy before striding off to her solitary destiny, Davis demonstrates just what being a gloriously larger-than-life movie icon is all about. An under-rated element of her timeless appeal: She’s not afraid to appear infuriatingly selfish, if not aggressively unlikable, when a scene calls for potentially off-putting extremes. That alone is sufficient to set her far apart from most image-conscious stars of any era. If they don't make movies like Dark Victory anymore, maybe it’s because there’s no one like Davis — this Davis, the luminous immortal of 1939 — to star in them.

And by the way: Never argue with a star who has a sharp eye for spiffy vehicles. Bette Davis saw Dark Victory on the stage, and pressed mogul Jack L. Warner to buy screen rights for her. Warner reluctantly agreed, even though he famously groused: “Who wants to see a dame go blind?”