Thursday, December 9, 2010

There's No Place Like Home For The Holidays!

Werth: Happy Holidays, Wise!

Wise: Happy Holidays, Werth-- Wait, is it the Holiday Season already?  

Werth: I’m afraid so. 

Wise: How did that happen?  I barely made it through Thanksgiving and suddenly I’m expected to be buying gifts, sending cards, decorating trees, baking cookies, pretending to be jolly, and avoiding the crowds of tourists on the streets of Manhattan?  A fellow can only do so much.  

Werth: You’ll manage.  You were born to buy, send, decorate, bake, pretend and avoid. What are your plans for the holidays?  

Wise: You know how I roll whenever the calendar turns festive—beards, buggies, and shoo-fly pie.  I’m off to see my folks in Amish Country.  How about you?
Werth: I’m headed to the Land of Ahs for a couple days packed with family and corn.  

Wise: Something you just said made me a little queasy.  

Werth: It’s actually the perfect lead-in to this week’s films.  Full of schmaltz, conflict, navel gazing, angst, uncomfortable humor, dashed hopes—

Wise: Christmas dinner at the Lohan household?  

Werth: Movies about adult children returning home.  

Wise: Actually, one of my all-time favorite movies explores this very subject.  It’s called Judy Berlin

Werth: Becky Prague?

Wise: Judy Berlin is about David Gold, a 30-something man who returns home to Babylon, New York after trying to make a go of it as a screenwriter in Hollywood.  He runs into a high school classmate—

Werth: Gina Barcelona.  

Wise: Judy Berlin played by Edie Falco just as The Sopranos was making her a star.  Her performance is energetic, wistful, a little bit naive, vastly different from the role of mobster’s wife that made her famous.  She’s about to leave for L.A where she hopes to become an actress and she takes her chance meeting with David as a good omen, but David wants to warn her that things might not turn out as well as she hopes.  Meanwhile, Judy’s mother—

Werth: Debbie London.

Wise: —Sue Berlin is acting out her frustrations with loneliness and her daughter’s leaving by having a flirtation with David’s father—

Werth: Morey Amsterdam.  

Wise: Arthur Gold, who’s the principal at the school where she teaches.  And Arthur feels thwarted in his own marriage to—

Werth: Katie Gstaad.

Wise: Alice, played by the magnificent Madeline Kahn in her final film role.  I know it’s a cliche to describe the performances of certain actresses of a certain calibre as luminous, but Kahn is spectacular in this movie.  An unexpected eclipse plunges the town into darkness, but she wanders the streets, caroling nursery rhymes and emitting a radiance that forces the other characters to confront their deepest disappointments. 

Werth: Sounds like one of those movies where’s there’s a lot going on, even though nothing happens. 

Wise: Kind of, but the tremendous acting carries through the lack of incident.  In addition to Falco and Kahn, Barbara Barrie is great as Judy’s mother, and so is Bob Dishy as the principal.  Plus it’s photographed beautifully in black and white and makes suburban Long Island into a kind of alien landscape.  I really can’t say enough good things about this film.  

Werth: Peggy Lisbon?  

Wise: Are you done yet?  

Werth: Are you frustrated yet?

Wise: Totally.  

Werth: Speaking of frustrated people who go to visit their families, I think we should talk about the grand-daddy “going home” picture of them all, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Wise: Oh that’s a good one.

Werth: It’s such a goodie, it’s hard to know where to start. Let’s begin with the fact that Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman are so gorgeous that it’s difficult to peel your eyes from the screen. Sure there are lots of hot people in the movies, but these two come together and raise the beauty bar to an impossible level. Newman’s unmistakable ice-blue eyes and cocksure, yet approachable, charm. Taylor’s sensual curves and seductive, knowing glances. How do these two not screw each other senseless in every scene?

Wise: Isn’t that the point? Something has to be wrong if they’re not constantly knocking boots.

Werth: Exactly. So, director Richard Brooks cast the two most beautiful stars in Hollywood to play two people who, for reasons of “mendacity,” can’t connect. They come home for Big Daddy’s birthday and an evening of family, greed, lies and confessions.

Wise: Still sounds like the Lohans.

Werth: Now if Taylor and Newman were just pretty, I wouldn’t be as geeked about their performances, but their acting is fairly compelling too. Both were nominated for Oscars® that year but got beat out by David Niven for Separate Tables and Susan Hayward for one of my favorite scenery chewing extravaganzas, I Want to Live! Taylor sometimes overplays her “big” scenes, as is her usual want, but when you realize that she shot this film right after her husband Michael Todd was killed in a plane accident, you understand the perseverance and the dedication that have made this woman a living legend.

Wise: White Diamonds doesn’t sell itself.

Werth: And let’s not forget Burl Ives and one of my absolute favorite character actresses, Judith Anderson. Ives is so gruff he’s lovable and his scene in the basement crowded with a lifetime of mouldering European furnishings is touching in its portrayal of lost sons. And Anderson— no one could play the patrician like her. She’s equal parts stern, flighty, heartfelt and ridiculous. She brandishes a handkerchief and utters gems like, “It ain’t nothin’ but a spastic colon!” with a finesse that only Anderson could employ. These actors take Tennessee Williams’ monumental story about a complicated homecoming and own it, making it almost impossible to see anyone else playing these roles.

Wise: But let’s get to the real question: Brick—gay or straight?

Werth: It’s harder to tell in the movie version since some of the gay subtext was removed for the 1958 censors. But there’s definitely enough left to make this movie groundbreaking in its attempt to name the sin that dare not speak its name… and Skipper was totally a bottom.

Wise: So, if you had a choice of going to see the family from Judy Berlin, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or your own family this Christmas, which would you visit?

Werth: I would go see my family and watch Judy Berlin and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Wise: Good answer. You AND your families tune in next week for more Film Gab with Werth & Wise!

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