Friday, January 27, 2012

Drag Gab

Wise: Hiya, Werth.

Werth: Hello, Wise.  I assume you've been ogling over the Oscar noms this week.

Wise: I was pleased to see that my fellow alum Glenn Close scored a sixth nom for her work in Albert Nobbs.  Her chances at taking home the gold seem pretty good.  Even The Huffington Post was excited enough to publish a piece about other women who have taken on trouser roles. 

Werth: I love Glenn Close, but there's no way she'll be taking home the statuette this year. It's all about the Meryl... or the Viola... or the Michelle. 
But speaking of cross-dressing roles that earned Oscar noms, the king/queen of drag films has to be 1982's Tootise. With ten nominations and one win, Tootsie stars Dustin Hoffman as Michael Dorsey, a frustrated, struggling character actor who knows how to play a part, but doesn't know how to be himself. He really creates an identity crisis when he decides to prove to his agent he is castable by auditioning for a part in soap opera Southwest General... as a woman.

Wise: Is that how Katherine Heigl booked Grey's Anatomy

Werth: Dorsey gets the part, but finds that playing the role of hospital administrator Emily Kimberly is nothing compared to playing the role of his drag-ego Dorothy Michaels. What starts off as a satire of the acting world turns into a heartfelt romantic comedy with lots of love angles. 

Dorsey falls in love with castmate Julie (Jessica Lange) whose father Les (Charles Durning) falls in love with Dorothy, who has to make sure that Sandy (Teri Garr), who is in love with Michael doesn't find out that Michael is Dorothy while Dorothy avoids the advances of soap-star John Van Horn (George Gaynes).

Wise: I got whiplash just from reading that.

Werth: While Hoffman is not necessarily known for his comedy, what he instinctively understands is character. Dorothy's lilting, no nonsense Southern voice is the perfect core for the strong-willed, semi-dowdy Dorothy. Hoffman's make-up and costume aren't flashy, and his physicality isn't campy. Hoffman doesn't pretend to be a woman, he becomes one. 
Dorothy's reveal scene where she/he sheds the character live on the set of Southwest General is one of the most memorable moments on film, not just for the situation, but for how brilliantly Hoffman navigates between two seemingly real people.

Wise: If only he'd coached the Wayans Brothers before they made White Chicks. 

Werth: Tootsie's script by Larry Gelbart and Murray Schisgal is airtight and full of the kind of lines comic actors kill for—and boy is the cast full of killers. Bill Murray is hysterical as Michael's morose playwright roommate Jeff (it is said that he improvised his lines). Garr is a riot as the perkily neurotic Sandy. 
Lange earned an Oscar for playing Julie as a jaded-but-vulnerable soap-stress. Durning, Gaynes, Dabney Coleman, Geena Davis, and Doris Belack show how good character acting can elevate even the smallest of roles. 
And Sydney Pollack not only seamlessly directed this awesome cast, but put in a stellar performance himself as beleaugured agent George Fields who believes, "A tomato doesn't have logic!"

Wise: Although this tomato had a penis.

Werth: And with fantastic NYC location shots and an 80's soundtrack with enough saxophone to choke Kenny G, Tootsie is one of those must-see classics that will have you laughing your wig off.

Wise: Wig-wearing is beside the point in the gleefully absurd Girls Will Be Girls (2003).  Starring drag queens Evie Harris (Jack Potnick), Miss Coco Peru (Clinton Leupp) and Varla Jean Merman (Jeffery Roberson), the film never acknowledges that these are men in drag.

Werth: I won't even acknowledge that this is a real film.

Wise: All three characters existed long before the movie was made, and that process of honing these personalities through performance—Evie as the drunk has-been; Coco as the girl with big dreams and bad luck; Varla as the small-town girl determined to make it—lends each of them a certain verisimilitude.  I mean, no one is going to mistake any of them for some Disney Channel 'tween queen—

Werth: Although Venessa Hudgens has been looking a little burly lately.  

Wise: The plot is nonsense—the script cribs from all manner of classic Hollywood camp—but writer/director Richard Day (who cut his teeth producing for Ellen, The Drew Carey Show and Arrested Development) keeps the jokes and dramatic twists at a cheerful clip, never letting the action get bogged down.  

Werth: It's like an evening at Lucky Cheng'swithout the two drink minimum.

Wise: It's certainly not a great movie, but it does have a cheerful panache that stems, I think, from the actors' refusal to wink knowingly at the audience.  And while I have trouble believing that genuine camp can be created rather than found, these ladies exert themselves manfully in maintaining the illusion that they're just as real as any Hollywood star.  

Werth: Well, at least as real as any star in Wigstock: the Movie (1995) 

Wise: Just as long as you keep it real and meet us back here next week for more Film Gab.  
Young Werth practicing for his future Film Gab.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Who Gabbed Laura Palmer?

Wise: Hi there, Werth.  

Werth: .esiW, ydwoH  

Wise: Um, what's going on?  Why are you dancing around in a red velvet suit and flashing a strobe light?  

Werth: !yadhtrib s'hcnyL divaD gintarbelec m'I  

Wise: Wait, is that cherry pie?  A snakeskin jacket?  And Richard Farnsworth on a tractor?  It must be David Lynch's birthday!  

Werth: Exactly.  And what better way to salute one of cinema's truly unique auteurs than to Gab about two of his best flicks?  

Wise: I'll grab a log and see if David Duchovny can still fit into a dress.  

Werth: It's hard to believe it now, but for his first studio film, Lynch avoided twisty mystery plots, ultra-violence and aliens and instead produced a heartbreaking, Oscar-nominated drama. The
Elephant Man (1980) is based on the true story of Joseph Merrick (re-named John in the film to follow the real-life Dr. Treves' journal entries), a Victorian Era man who was horribly disfigured by a then unknown genetic disease. Dr. Treves (Anthony Hopkins) finds Merrick (John Hurt) in a freak show where he is treated as a horrifying grotesque causing women to faint and righteous men to howl about "abominations."

Wise: Kind of like Melanie Griffith's plastic surgery.

Werth: Dr. Treves rescues Merrick from his abusive owner and puts him up in London Hospital where he discovers that this Elephant Man is actually an intelligent, curious human being who makes models of cathedrals and quotes the Psalms. But sadly, there is no Dumbo happy ending for Mr. Merrick—which is where Lynch's unique, dark style of filmmaking comes in.
Mimicking some aspects of his first film, cult favorite Eraserhead (1977), Lynch films his vision of Victorian England in black and white, making it dark, dingy and ugly. The filthy machines of the Indrustrial Age choke the air and chop up men and their souls, leaving madness, depravity, and contempt around every corner. But the world is not devoid of kindness.
Dr. Treves, hospital administrator Carr Gomm (John Gielgud), famous actress Mrs. Kendal (Anne Bancroft) and head nurse Mothershead (Dame Wendy Hiller) all discover Merrick's hidden beauty and attempt to nourish and protect him.

Wise: Dame Wendy is the hidden beauty in every film she's in. 

Werth: But Lynch doesn't limit himself to the traditional structures of a historical drama. Surreal nightmares and a beautiful visual daydream of the joy and escapism of theater are evidence of Lynch's evolving, non-realistic style. Sound design is overemphasized with clacking shoes, hissing gas lamps and screaming train whistles giving scenes an other-worldly feel. Even his editing skips ahead in time, cutting out details from scenes without losing their essence.
Roger Ebert, among other critics, accused Lynch of sentimentality, but Lynch is more restrained than most directors at dramatic climaxes. Many of the most gut-wrenching scenes are performed without underlying orchestration, allowing the realistic acting of this talented cast to tell the tragic story of a beautiful soul trapped in a monstrous body and an even more monstrous world.

Wise: That's part of what makes Lynch such a fascinating filmmaker: how intimately he observes the details of everyday life and how those same details can suddenly turn monstrous.  And nowhere is that slippery connection more apparent than in Blue Velvet (1986), the story of a small town boy, Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan), who finds a severed ear in a field and discovers the sordid dealings beneath the idyllic surface of his hometown.  Along the way, he nearly loses his girlfriend Sandy Williams (Laura Dern), falls for the self-destructive allure of Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini), and has to escape the machinations of gangster Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper).  

Werth: Not to mention showing off his tuckus!  

Wise: After his big-budget adaption of Frank Herbert's sci-fi epic Dune (1984) bombed at the box office, Lynch was relegated to the lower rungs of the Hollywood ladder until legendary producer Dino De Laurentiis gave him another shot (and a much smaller budget). 
Tellingly, the constricted circumstances freed Lynch's powers, and—away from the monstrous worms and overblown space fantasy—he is able to address more personal themes: curiosity, innocence, depravity, love, and violence.  

Werth: Sounds like the usual Friday night at Mel Gibson's house.  

Wise: The film isn't always pleasant to watch, but it's almost impossible to look away.  There's rape, murder and every other stripe of brutality you can imagine, plus Dennis Hopper's Frank may be one of the most compelling villains in film: a sadist who weeps at Rossellini's torch songs, tortures her, and then caps it off by huffing a mysterious gas from a hospital mask.  

Werth: All of that is great, but I still don't know whose ear is in that field! 

Wise: Maybe Mr. Lynch will let us know in next week's Film Gab!

Friday, January 13, 2012

Jazz Gab-ies

Werth: Hello there, Wise!  

Wise: Oh, hi, Werth.  

Werth: Why so glum?  You weren't nominated for a Golden Globe?  

Wise: No, it's not that.  I always get a little blue this time of year.  I took down the Christmas tree, all the holiday lights are disappearing, and the only things I have to look forward to until spring are whiskers on kittens and snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes.  

Werth: You mean you've been having your very own Julie Andrews film fest. 

Wise:  I got a giant TV for Christmas; what else am I going to do with it?  I've climbed every mountain, taken a parrot-headed umbrella out for a spin, and gone cross-dressing with James Garner.  But one of my most enjoyable trips was a return to the Roaring Twenties of Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967).  

Werth: Time travel with Julie Andrews. Sign me up!

Wise: Playing Millie Dillmount, Andrews bobs her hair, gets a swank Jean Louis flapper wardrobe, and sets her cap for her handsome, but dim boss Trevor Graydon (the similarly handsome, but wooden John Gavin).  Meanwhile, she becomes pals with beautiful orphan Miss Dorothy Brown (Mary Tyler Moore) who lives across the hall from Millie at the Priscilla Hotel for Single Young Ladies.  At a dance hosted by the hotel's matron, Mrs. Meers (Beatrice Lillie), Millie and Miss Dorothy strike up a friendship with gadabout paperclip salesman, Jimmy Smith (James Fox).  

Werth: Don't forget the elevator that only works if you tapdance in it.  

Wise: Oh, the whole film's a mess with crazy plot twists, ironic asides, mistaken identities, masquerades, unfortunate racial stereotypes, a 
white slavery ring, and Carol Channing as an oversexed society widow who dances on bi-plane wings, has a stable of lovers and belts a grab-bag of novelty tunes.  

Werth: Nothing says entertainment like Carol Channing being shot out of a cannon .  

Wise: Director George Roy Hill (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The World According to Garp) keeps things moving cheerfully along, and screenwriter Richard Morris (The Unsinkable Molly Brown) sweetens his witty scenes with some great Tin Pan Alley confections, but attempting to make sense of the entire movie is nearly impossible. 
Audiences didn't seem to care about the lack of coherence when it premiered, and the film had an extended theatrical run that culminated in seven Oscar nominations.  I'm not sure it deserves recognition from the Academy, but Millie is certainly full of delights. 

Werth: Well, Julie Andrews must have really enjoyed her trip back to the Jazz Age because a year later in 1968 she starred as 20's British actress Gertrude Lawrence in the musical bio-pic, Star!

Wise: Isn't Star! supposed to be a legendary flop?

Werth: It was—and at the risk of upsetting Julie-Heads everywhere, it deserved to be.

Wise: I can see the hate mail being delivered by angry airborne nannies now.

Werth: With the talent involved, it's actually quite shocking that the movie is as lifeless as it is. Robert Wise and Andrews had so much fun working together on The Sound of Music (1965), and since she owed 20th Century Fox another picture, it seemed like the perfect opportunity for the two to create yet another timeless musical classic. But they overlooked one thing—a hugely successful bio-pic musical starring Barbra Streisand called Funny Girl

Wise: No one should ever overlook Streisand.

Werth: Released in September of '68, Funny Girl beat Star! out of the gates by about a month with a very similar "came from nothing" story about an entertainer from the '20's (in this case, Fanny Brice) and racked up big box office and critical acclaim for its music and star. 
Unfortunately no matter how much love was banked for Andrews from her previous work, Star! was a critical and financial disaster that paled next to the competition. Andrews tried valiantly to be fresh-faced and plucky as the scene-stealing, temperamental ham Lawrence, but she was hobbled by forgettable tunes (with the exceptions of "Someone to Watch Over Me" and the theme tune) and a clumsy script conceit that had Andrews as Lawrence watching a movie about her life—alternating between faux newsreel footage and flashbacks.

Wise: Was Julie's team too busy burnishing her adorability to bother reading her scripts? 

Werth: The sytlized naturalness that made Andrews so appealing in other films doesn't work here, and Wise's direction is strangely uninspired. It's almost as if the concept of a "show musical" where the music emanates from a stage instead of exploding forth from human emotion and relationships traps Wise in ways that West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music freed him. 

Wise: You know that old adage about if you can't say something nice...?

Werth: Raymond Massey's son, Daniel is wonderfully wry as Lawrence confidante Noel Coward and earned an Oscar nom for his performance. But after all, he was Coward's godson—so he had to have picked up something. Donald Brooks was also Oscar nommed for his period costumes which ranged from Victorian street garb to spangled pajamas. Some of the musical numbers are so strange 
they are actually worth viewing. "Parisian Pierrot" has Andrews dressed as a harlequin; in "Limehouse Blues" she's an Asian callgirl stuck in the seedy part of old Chinatown; and for "The Saga of Jenny," Andrews croons in a staged circus wearing a glittery pantsuit. So on the whole, the film is worth watching—if nothing else to see how Star! earned its stripes as a classic Hollywood misfire.

Wise: I'm feeling a lot better after taking these two little detours in Julie's career—as long as we eventually get back to her playing magical nannies and lovestruck nuns.  

Werth: Have one more spoonful of sugar with this little Julie web tidbit. Tune in for more supercalifragilistic cinema on next week's Film Gab.  

Friday, January 6, 2012

Doonan on Monroe

Werth here. Barney's bon vivant, Simon Doonan, in his new book, Gay Men Don't Get Fat, writes about his stint designing the installation for the famous Christie's Marilyn Monroe auction. Slate published an excerpt and while I'm not sure Doonan's observations about Marilyn's size are accurate (there has been constant back and forth about how big she really was), his unique perspective is worth a read.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Red State Stars

Werth: Happy Friday, Wise!

Wise: Happy Friday, Werth! I trust you survived this week with your chipper-ness intact.

Werth: I did—but with so much focus on Republicans in the media, I got a little antsy.

Wise: Now, now, Werth. Republicans can be a great source of entertainment—and some of them were even great movie stars. Long before she became a pal of high-powered Republicans, or the U.S. Ambassador to Ghana (1974) and Czechoslovakia (1989), but after she had abandoned the frilly dresses and sausage curls, Shirley Temple tried to make a career of being a teenage movie star. 

Werth:  This is the second time you've talked about late-career Shirley Temple.  

Wise: It's a fascinating period as she attempts to transform from Depression-era icon of spirited pluck and into a more complicated image of a young woman whose desire to do right is sometimes torpedoed by her overblown romantic fantasies.  

Werth: The Good Ship Lollipop could have used a torpedo...  

Wise: In The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947) Temple stars as seventeen-year-old Susan Turner who unceremoniously discards her boyfriend after playboy/artist Richard Nugent (Cary Grant) delivers a lecture at her school.  Her sudden infatuation is so intense that her older sister and guardian Margaret (Myna Loy playing a dour, smalltown judge with a bit of a wink) forces Grant to pose as Temple's boyfriend until she gets over the crush.  This leads to some fantastic comedy as Grant gamely delivers nonsensical teenage patois, makes a mad dash in a sack race, and suffers the kind of indignities that only an actor with his unflappable charm could endure.  

Werth: He doesn't tapdance on a stairway with her, does he?

Wise: Screenwriter Sidney Sheldon captures and caricatures the pretensions of each character—including fine comedic work from Harry Davenport, Rudy Vallee and Ray Collins—and won an Oscar for best screenplay.  His script is both funny and savvy and features the kind of cross-talking gymnastics that Grant specialized in during these screwball comedies.  
But it is Temple herself who has the biggest heart and gives the biggest performance in this movie—she is sly, witty, vulnerable and endearing—and it's a shame there aren't more examples of her skills playing a young adult.  

Werth: My favorite Hollywood Republican never had sausage curls, but he was definitely a beefcake. William Holden considered himself a moderate Republican, but was not very politically active, unless you count his stint as best man at Ronald Reagan's wedding to Nancy Davis in 1952 (back when Reagan was still a Democrat.)

Wise: Also before the Republicans abandoned the country club for NASCAR. 

Werth: Holden made a career out of playing leading men who had brains as well as looks, and his turn as journalist Paul Verrall in Born Yesterday (1950) is no exception. Paul is hired by scrap metal magnate cum gangster Harry Brock (Broderick Crawford) to smarten up his ex-chorus girl fiancée (pronounced "fee-an-see") Billie (Judy Holliday) so she won't embarrass Harry while he wines, dines and bribes Washington, DC, congressmen and their wives.

Wise: Now, of course, the obvious path for dim-witted dames afflicted by malapropisms is running for President. 

Werth: Paul wants to write a story on how crooked Harry is, so a civics lesson for Billie is the perfect chance for him to get in close. Following the bible of romantic comedies, Paul and Billie fall in love, but the unique element is how Billie is transformed—not by love—but by knowledge. She goes from being comfortable with being stupid as long as she gets a coupla' mink coats designed by Jean Louis, to a woman who wants a better life for herself and for her country... but who still wears Jean Louis.

Wise: These days you'd be stupid to want mink coats—unless you enjoy having paint thrown at you.

Werth: Directed by George Cukor and based on the successful Garson Kanin stageplay, Born Yesterday has its moments of "too cute" as Billie learns about democracy walking with Paul through quaint '50's DC locations, but the performances of the three leads more than make up for it. Holden is so effortlessly charming on camera that it is impossible not to fall head over heels in love with him—even when he's wearing glasses. 
Broderick Crawford gets the right balance of doofus and menace to make Harry the comic villain that we like less than we hate. And Holliday puts in an Oscar-winning performance as Billie (she beat both Bette Davis for All About Eve and Gloria Swanson for Sunset Boulevard). Following-up her performance in the role on Broadway, she chirps and squawks her way through the film with comic precision and sensitivity—creating a woman that transcends the typical dumb, blonde, mob moll stereotype. 

Wise: See. Didn't I tell you that Republicans could be entertaining?

Werth: At least when they're on the silver screen. Tune in next week when we discuss Michelle Bachman in The Goodbye Girl.