Monday, November 29, 2010
(Imagine that Wise's hard-drive didn't die and this was actually posted 11/26/10).
Wise: Happy Thanksgiving, Werth!
Werth: Happy Thanksgiving, Wise!
Wise: Sorry if I’m a little distracted this week, but I’ve just reached the crisis point with my turkey. It’s decision time and I can’t decide whether to slow roast or deep fry.
Werth: They both sound scrumptious.
Wise: Scrumptious isn’t the point. I’m more interested in bragging to my foodie friends about what a pain making the turkey is. In the past I’ve roasted, dry roasted, butter roasted, butterflied, brined, salted, rubbed, grilled, injected, smoked, stuffed, herb-crusted, honey-glazed, and citrus-braised. Thanksgiving just gives you the chance to put a lot of effort into something that might turn out terrible.
Werth: It’s funny you say that, because when I think of Thanksgiving, I think of—
Wise: Let me guess…
Werth: Blockbuster movie releases!
Wise: How did I know?
Werth: Thanksgiving is the gateway drug to the big Christmas narcotics stash that gets sold to us on every street corner until we’re snorting and shooting up in every theater in the country! Sometimes it’s the good stuff-
Wise:- and sometimes it’s cut with Drano
Werth: I mean, look at this week! The first half of the final Harry Potter movie! A run-away train flick with Denzel and Captain Kirk! A serious Oscar® contender about stuttering King George! A Disney re-telling of Rapunzel-
Wise: Don’t forget Cher and Christina Aguilera in Burlesque.
Werth: Oh I didn’t forget…
Wise: Here it comes.
Werth: —I’ve been pondering lately how often music stars try to crossover into the movie business in an attempt to make oodles of cinematic cash. Al Jolson—
Wise: Doris Day—
Wise: Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears.
Werth: Even Liberace made a movie!
Werth: 1955’s Sincerely Yours. There’s a piano-shaped pool in it. But one of my favorite music star vehicles is the 1972 bio-pic of jazz giant Billie Holiday, Lady Sings the Blues starring Motown diva Diana Ross. Now it’s no secret that Diana Ross is ambitious and Berry Gordy liked to make money, so once the Supremes were finished, it makes perfect sense that Diana and her svengali would turn to Hollywood.
Wise: But Diana Ross as Billie Holiday?
Werth: True, both stars dealt with racism and that special brand of sexism that comes with not being classically good-looking, but the smooth sound of Ross’ pop vocals bear little resemblance to the rough, soul-exposing sounds of Holiday. And just ‘cause you stick a gardenia in your hair, doesn’t mean you look like Billie Holiday. Despite these discrepancies, Motown and Paramount were determined to make Diana Ross the music star into Diana Ross the moviestar. Movie posters for Lady Sings the Blues trumpeted far and wide, “Diana Ross IS Billie Holiday.” And you know what?
Wise: The movie’s fantastic?
Werth: The movie’s fantastic! Ross portrays the complicated life story of Holiday with surprising gusto. She is scrappy as she works her way from prostitute to cabaret singer to jazz star. She is tender and coy as she falls for the slick Louis McKay played with devilish charm by everyone’s favorite beer spokesperson, Billy Dee Williams.
Wise: I do love an ice-cold Colt 45
Werth: And she is heartbreaking as the heroin addict who can’t escape the grip of addiction. Her fits of mania when she can’t get her “shiiitttt!!!!” are stunning. Legend has it that Ross turned to her co-star Richard Pryor to find out what it was like to do heroin. She must have gone to the right place. Her performance earned her an Academy Award® nod for Best Actress and the film itself would garner another 4 nominations.
Wise: What about the songs?
Werth: Ross’s take on the Holiday songs that fill the soundtrack, while not dead-ringers for Holiday’s sound, are great interpretations of the material. Ross’ take on pathos is less primal and more sedate- but effective nonetheless. Before I ever saw the movie, I was very fond of Ross’s “Good Morning Heartache” and would play it any chance I got when I DJ’d at the local Adult Contemporary radio station.
Wise: You were a radio DJ?
Werth: That’s a story for another time. Ross would only make two more movies and while she certainly chewed the scenery to shreds in Mahogany and threw her stick-like legs around in The Wiz, she never topped her performance as Lady Day. She would continue to make money (and headlines) in her music career, but this chanteuse’s reign as a movie queen was short-lived.
Wise: But isn’t that true for most singers who try to make it in the movies? Vocal talent demands a dramatic story, and if the music star can’t act the same emotions that she’s able to sing, then the whole movie suffers. Casting radio stars in movies is a tricky business.
Werth: It sounds like you have someone in mind.
Wise: Actually, I do. Madonna. Because she’s terrible in some movies, yet she’s great in others.
Werth: Should I bust out a chorus of “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina”?
Wise: That would be lovely, but I was thinking about Madonna as Breathless Mahoney in Dick Tracy.
Werth: I love Madonna in that movie.
Wise: She’s really great in it, I think, not because she’s acting very much, but because she’s using her star persona to inform the character. She basically plays a talented sexpot who’s trying to lure Dick Tracy to the bad side while hoping for a chance to make good.
Werth: While in real life—
Wise: She’s a talented sexpot who’s luring Warren Beatty into tempestuous affair while hoping to make good in one of her biggest screen roles.
Werth: Not really a stretch.
Wise: But it doesn’t have to be. She is at the height of her fame and beauty at this point, and she uses her already familiar talents to infuse this role with a quality it wouldn’t have had with another actress in that role. Plus she has some great Stephen Sondheim tunes to sing.
Werth: So you like Dick?
Wise: Parts of it- and yes I got your joke, but I'm ignoring it. Dick Tracy is beautifully designed and there are a couple witty performances, but it’s one of those movies where all the good ancillary ideas kind of drown out any focus the movie has.
Werth: I think that happens a lot with these comic book movies. The best of them have one hero and one villain and everything else serves the main conflict. Too often there’s just too much going on.
Wise: And Dick Tracy is packed with minor characters, all of them played by Warren Beatty’s famous friends in elaborate make-up. There’s Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Paul Sorvino, Kathy Bates, Dick van Dyke, Catherine O’Hara, Mandy Patinkin, and one of my favorite actresses as Dick Tracy’s girlfriend Tess Trueheart, Gleanne Headly. When every role is filled by a big name star, though, there’s nothing to telegraph who’s important to the plot and who’s not. And while that kind of casting might work in a more nuanced film, these caricatured parts demand flamboyant performances in order to work.
Werth: So it’s not Dinner at Eight.
Wise: Not exactly, but there’s lots to enjoy. And like I said, Madonna is pretty special in it.
Werth: This must have been before Abel Ferrara ruined her acting forever in Dangerous Game.
Wise: Right. I mean, she’s not playing Lady Macbeth, but she gets to chew a little scenery, toss off some witty barbs, and yet has a pretty affecting scene at the end.
Werth: So you wouldn’t call Madonna’s performance a turkey?
Wise: Are the food jokes just going to get worse as we get deeper into the holiday season?
Werth: Do you think my jokes are corny or just canned?
Wise: More like overstuffed.
Werth: Touche. Enjoy your holiday and join us next week for more Film Gab with Werth and Wise.