A birthday shout out to one of Britain (and Ireland’s…) finest actors, Natascha McElhone, who celebrates her 50th today. She started out on TV cutting her teeth on the great Dennis Potter’s distinctive original series and then made a splash in her big screen debut Surviving Picasso opposite Anthony Hopkins. Since then she has gone from strength to strength in everything from Hollywood top-liners like The Truman Show and Ronin to period dramas such as Ladies in Lavender and latterly has led TV series like Californication and lately The First. Here’s to your Fabulous Fifties! Many happy returns.
I was forty when I did my first movie. You’ll know Danny Aiello: from his deadly line in The Godfather Part II: Michael Corleone says Hello! to playing Madonna’s dad in the music video Papa Don’t Preach, you know him. From his dazzling start in Bang the Drum Slowly to his police chief namesake in Once Upon a Time in America to Mia Farrow’s husband in The Purple Rose of Cairo or Sal the pizzeria owner in Do The Right Thing, the titular character Ruby, or formerly successful film director Harry Stone in The Pickle, any time you see him you know this is going to be one hell of a good movie. What a legacy he leaves. The hapless Romeo Johnny Cammereri in Moonstruck, Chester Grant in The Closer, Tommy Five-Tone in Hudson Hawk, Aiello seems as much at home in crazed comedy as serious drama. Sometimes he was a leading man in TV series, lots of times he supported short filmmakers and it’s ironic that his last completed work is Vinnie Favale and Patrick Kendall’s fantasy Hereafter Musical. He liked to sing and recorded and toured for the past two decades. He was probably Vincent Gardenia’s lucky charm because each time they appeared together Gardenia netted an Academy Award nomination. He wasn’t just good, he made everyone around him better. He took to acting late and had spent years working as a Greyhound Bus driver and union rep. He got his start after he landed the role of emcee at The Improvisation comedy club where he’d been working nights as a bouncer. He was a great supporter of charities, donating to everything from AIDS to disabled children. He was a hell of an actor and lit up every role he took on, embodying the term class act. The auteurs certainly knew it but now he is gone. We have the films. Rest in peace.
I’ve got this, I think, unjustified reputation for being grumpy. I’m angry or disappointed at the condescension which I encounter from people who are 30 years younger than I am and know 100 per cent less than I do. That’s all. The death has taken place of the sensationally gifted Jonathan Miller – writer, actor, humorist, director, who first came to prominence in that gifted generation who reinvented British comedy with the musical revue Beyond the Fringe. As a young director he was responsible for what remain two of the best films ever made by the BBC – an astonishing adaptation of Alice in Wonderland (probably the best ever) and Whistle And I’ll Come to You, a spooky tale by M.R. James regularly televised at Christmas. The star of that film would contribute years later to Miller’s groundbreaking medical series, The Body in Question. Another adaptation, this time of Kingsley Amis’s novel, Take a Girl Like You, provided the material for his cinema debut, a sardonic take on romance. His theatre interests (the National, the Old Vic, Broadway) materialised on the small screen with the BBC Television Shakespeare project starting with King Lear and continuing with The Taming of the Shrew and Timon of Athens. His acclaimed stage productions garnered him several opportunities to direct opera including rocker Roger Daltrey in The Beggar’s Opera and he wrote many books particularly on neuropsychology. Supremely erudite, unbelievably witty and incredibly tall, this genial gentleman scholar belonged to an age sadly fast disappearing from view when the notion of the public intellectual recedes in significance. This giant of the culture shall be missed, never mind Private Eye. RIP. I have a simple formula as a director. It’s nothing more really than reminding singers of what they know already and have forgotten
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams. Talk show host Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson) is the Queen of Late Night. Her world is turned upside down when she hires her first and only female staff writer Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling) because the head of the network Caroline Morton (Amy Ryan) is threatening to replace Katherine with a younger more provocative standup Daniel Tennant (Ike Barinholtz). Originally intended to smooth over diversity concerns because Molly ticks the boxes of gender and colour, and Katherine is determined to disprove her colleague Brad’s (Denis O’Hare) accusation that she’s a woman who hates women. Katherine’s decision brings about unexpected consequences as the two women separated by culture and generation become united by their love of a biting punchline despite the fact that Molly’s previous experience is Quality Controller in a chemical plant and they’re in a sea of unsympathetic men … Don’t take this the wrong way but your earnestness can be very hard to be around. Kaling wrote this with Thompson in mind and it shows: she plays the heck out of it, a diva on the outs who hires and fires without breathing. It’s a setting that has yielded a lot of US comedy and it’s a smart satire with remarkable timing, in more ways than one: a battle of the sexes comedy set in the notorious boys’ club environment that is comedy (and the writers’ room) and it recognises that the system is longstanding and women have never been the beneficiaries and that’s okay because that’s fertile ground for discursive, subversive dramedy. Kaling turns this into something of a dramatic strut we might call Truth to Power as Thompson’s character is forced to defend the entire raison d’être of her career – in so doing she threatens to wreck her long marriage to her sick husband Walter (John Lithgow). Kaling’s own role is that of disrupter, although ironically it’s not as significant to the story as it might have been despite hitting the right millennial notes such as needing to make enough money to finally move out of home – think Devil Wears Prada with a race slant. She incorporates just enough rom into this com to fit to genre expectations without untethering the narrative although it’s warm rather than vicious. Thompson and Kaling are fantastic as they try to navigate the problem of being mentor-mentee-friends-colleagues in a hostile workplace. Sharp stuff at times though, a sociocultural comedy that takes jabs at a slew of subjects including #MeToo, but with a gender twist. That’s what I call a punchline. Directed by Nisha Ganatra, who has worked with Kaling on TV’s The Mindy Project and a very good job she does too. You’re a writer, so write
Happy birthday to the extraordinary Meg Ryan. She spent a decade and a half at the top of her game – not only was she America’s romcom queen, she had impact in serious dramatic roles, bookending that period with Flesh and Bone and then the heavy hitting twofer of In The Cut and On the Ropes, some of the best female screen performances of the past few decades. In between she was Nora Ephron’s muse and Tom Hanks’ best romantic partner – but mostly she was Sally. And isn’t that enough for one career? She’s been producing for years and is now directing but wouldn’t it be nice to see her toplining a movie again? What a glorious run and what a great American woman. Many happy returns.
The death has taken place of iconic British photographer Terry O’Neill who came of age during the Swinging Sixties and helped launch the era of celebrity with his unconventional, often witty approach to recording his subjects. His most celebrated image is that of his then girlfriend Faye Dunaway (later his wife) poolside at the Beverly Hills Hotel the morning after she won her Academy Award for Network. Rest in peace.
That pocket-sized dynamo Danny DeVito turns 75 years old today. He first became properly famous with TV comedy Taxi as loudmouth Louis but in fact had been plugging away for several years, making short films, appearing in his great friend Michael Douglas’ production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and then reuniting for the brilliant comedy action adventure Romancing the Stone and its sequel. As a director he turned his comic shtick into an unexpected and rather demented and nasty signature with Throw Momma From the Train and The War of the Roses. Latterly he made a rather brilliant version of Roald Dahl’s Matilda: he found an ingenious way to turn those words into pictures and understands children perfectly. We could say that as a director he is a master of black comedy. He is a legendary Penguin in the macabre Batman Returns for Tim Burton for whom he made a recent reappearance in Disney’s live action Dumbo and he continues to be a TV presence in the beloved It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia as well as maintaining screen couplings with real-life wife Rhea Perlman. That core of anger can materialise in fantastically complex characterisations such as he essayed in LA Confidential. Paradoxically his greatest aesthetic achievement as director is also his greatest commercial failure, Hoffa, starring himself and Jack Nicholson, an astounding look at the corruption besetting America, in a collaboration with David Mamet, a part of history recently revisited by Martin Scorsese with The Irishman. He’s always at hand to lend his voice to animations, environmental spots and appear in music videos and we can look forward to his re-teaming with Arnold Schwarzenwegger in the sequel to Twins – Triplets, which will of course co-star Eddie Murphy. Hilarious, constantly surprising and always a joy, Mr DeVito, we salute you on your day of days!
The quicksand of despair – and just before we died a man pulled us out. When Martin Schultz (Paul Lukas), a German expatriate art dealer living in the US, visits his homeland, he begins to get attracted by the Nazi propaganda and breaks ties with his close Jewish friend, Max Eisenstein (Morris Carnovsky) whose daughter Griselle (K.T. Stevens) an aspiring actress is engaged to marry his son Heinrich (Peter Van Eyck) and she has accompanied Martin to Munich to pursue her career for a year. But Martin is swiftly recruited by Baron von Friesche (Carl Esmond) to work in the Culture Ministry with devastating repercussions … You can’t sit on two stools at once. At least not here in Germany. Kressmann Taylor’s 1938 novella sounded a gunshot over the ramparts about the dangers of Nazism and the screenplay by Herbert Dalmas does it justice – and then some. Director William Cameron Menzies deploys the style of German Expressionism (shot by Rudolf Maté) in the service of all that is decent and the escalating tension is brilliantly paced. The near-lynching of Griselle at the theatre is shocking and concludes in the tragic manner you know to expect. The atmosphere of intimidation and dread is expertly sustained while Lukas’ encroaching guilt over his role in the desperate developments in Germany grinds to a logical conclusion in the form of coded communication as the visuals veer from film noir shadows to straightforward horror mise en scène. A superb evocation of how two intertwined families suffer in the murderous Nazi terror. The old Juncker spirit and German arrogance are gone
Birthday greetings to that prolific and gifted playwright and screenwriter Ronald Harwood whose interest in the stage and World War 2 as well as the wider political world has gifted us with such profound work over the past six decades. A brilliant adapter of other people’s work also, his majestic achievement with The Pianist reminds us that he always gets to the heart of the matter. Happy birthday Mr Harwood!
That glorious icon of French cinema Alain Delon celebrates his 84th year. Still working today, few actors have the run of stone-cold classics that decorated his career from his earliest days on the silver screen: Plein Soleil, Rocco and his Brothers, The Leopard, L’Eclisse, Le Samouraï, La piscine, Monsieur Klein. His grave beauty, his chill reserve, his resonant voice, his movement, all contribute to an inimitable cool that has seen him work with all the great European auteurs and co-star in Hollywood films then return to France, ever-popular, starring in a lot of popular cop films, some comedies and romances, enjoying lengthy collaborations particularly with Jacques Deray, turning his hand to directing some crime thrillers (with Robin Davis) and teaming up now and again with old pal Jean-Paul Belmondo, whom he worked with on his first film. The callow enigma he has essayed in several roles was complicated when news of his underworld activities became rumour and then news in the late Sixties, an air of danger now seemingly permanently affecting his cinematic career, dominated by those gangster roles which had their echo in his offscreen life, but as he always says, film is only a quarter of his business interests. Always fascinating, ever handsome and with great reserves of charm and mystery, this extraordinary actor is one of the greats. Joyeux anniversaire, M. Delon! Et merci.