Elvis Aaron Presley 01/08/1935-08/16/1977

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It was forty years ago today that Elvis Presley died. His film career echoed his musical life – the early films were better and some approached classic status:  Jailhouse Rock is a great musical, while his very first performance, in Love Me Tender, was impressive, a reminder that James Dean was his hero. His own favourite film remained King Creole but there were so many afterwards, thanks to the influence of his manager, Colonel Tom Parker. Some are cult favourites, some are terrible, some are great for kids and thus endeared him to me at an impressionable age (It Happened at the World’s Fair, Paradise Hawaiian Style), while some were instrumental in bringing huge tourist numbers to Hawaii! The better ones like GI Blues have wonderful songs or a great romantic pairing like Ann-Margret in Viva Las Vegas. Two didn’t have musical numbers at all and he was able to flex his acting muscle – Flaming Star, Wild in the Country – and very good he was too. Just as his musical choices became more baroque, his movies became ropy and questionable albeit some are redeemed by their settings (Speedway) or their lunatic elements (Harum Scarum).  There was one very good late film, with Mary Tyler Moore, Change of Habit, but it’s a very long time since I’ve seen it and would love to reappraise it. His screen legacy has been inherited by the wonderful actress (Danielle) Riley Keough, his granddaughter. But there’s only one Elvis. The King is Dead. Long Live the King.

 

Happy 80th Birthday Dustin Hoffman August 8th 2017!

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Such a surprising star – and such a lucky break for the audience that he broke through in the late 60s with The Graduate:  the perfect choice for the perfect film. I got such a surprise when I found out he was an LA native. He seemed pure NYC.  As the Seventies progressed it looked like he got even better with every new film,  with some extraordinary performances in magically good movies. Look at them! Midnight CowboyLittle Big Man. Papillon. All the President’s Men…  What a run! He got a bit of a telling off from Laurence Olivier on Marathon Man (“why don’t you try acting, dear boy?”) but starred in that Ur-film of abject masculine paragons, Kramer Vs. Kramer, getting the Oscar. He started directing Straight Time but left it to Ulu Grosbard and wouldn’t return to that role until Quartet in 2012.  The Eighties were straightforward star vehicles albeit with some Oscar bids in Tootsie as the cross-dressing actor and the lovable numbers-obsessed autistic brother in Rain Man.  In between more conventional parts in the 90s were the comic and satiric – wasn’t Wag the Dog pretty great?! Especially his take on Robert Evans! As the roles became less important and more supporting characters he took to kids’ films and quirky family comedy but made time for auteur directors like Tom Tykwer (Perfume) and most recently Noah Baumbach (The Meyerowitz Stories). His heyday may be in the rearview mirror but he is constantly surprising us as he always has. What a guy! Happy birthday Mr Hoffman. Please don’t stop acting!

Sunset (1988)

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Blake Edwards’ adaptation of Rod Amateau’s unpublished manuscript about the friendship between movie cowboy Tom Mix (Bruce Willis) and real life Wyatt Earp (James Garner) had the potential to be something quite brilliant:  it doesn’t carry it off due to inconsistencies of tone (never quite slapstick, never quite thriller) and performance (Willis didn’t heed his director to take his role seriously) but it retains its interest. Hollywood’s well-preserved 1920s villas provide a magnificent backdrop to a story set in 1929 just when the industry was getting to grips with the transition to sound. Earp in real life had moved to Los Angeles in 1910 but here he’s newly arrived and hired on a silent movie set to advise Mix and they get embroiled in a murder at the Kit Kat Club, a high class brothel where the whores are movie star lookalikes (shades of LA Confidential) run by the cross-dressing Cheryl (Mariel Hemingway.) Earp tries to help his old girlfriend Christina (Patricia Hodge) who happens to be married to studio boss Alfie Alperin (Malcolm McDowell), a thinly disguised version of Chaplin, and her son, who is in constant trouble and goes missing. The mystery at the story’s heart involves police corruption with those reliable villains M. Emmet Walsh and Richard Bradford and Warhol stud Joe Dallasandro showing up as a gangster. There’s a scene at that year’s Academy Awards (not anatomically correct, but still fun) and lots of really interesting performances in the wings including John Fountain playing his grandfather, the legendary John Gilbert. Willis’ unpreparedness made for a difficult time and Garner (a gentleman) commented on it, a rare instance of his speaking out against a colleague and his own performance really saves the film. Garner had of course worked with Edwards before – on Victor/Victoria. His interpretation of Earp is markedly lighter than his earlier one in Hour of the Gun.  There’s a cute running joke about his inability to drive a car – he does it a lot and in real life Garner was an accomplished racer and stunt driver particularly on The Rockford Files. In a neat nod to that, Dermot Mulroney makes his debut – he would play (my beloved!) Rockford in a TVM reboot. The other pluses are the LA locations used including the Ambassador Hotel, the Roosevelt Hotel, Melody Ranch, Bell Ranch and Orange Empire Railway Museum. Not great Edwards but worth a watch for the idea and Garner, with the usually reliable score from Henry Mancini as well as delectable photography by Anthony B. Richmond. A missed opportunity to make a satisfying Hollywood murder mystery but heck with all that talent I’ll take this anyhow.

True Romance (1993)

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How do you describe the 90s bastard child of Bonnie and Clyde and Badlands? Total cool. How easy is that to achieve in a movie? Well it helps to have a script by Tarantino. And to be directed by Tony Scott. And then there’s the beyond-belief cast:  Christian Slater. Patricia Arquette. Gary Oldman. Dennis Hopper.  Christopher Walken. Michael Rapaport.  Brad Pitt. James Gandolfini. Tom Sizemore. Chris Penn. And that’s just the start of it. It’s ridiculous! It Boy Slater is Clarence, the comic book-pop culture geek who falls for the pretty call girl Alabama and makes off with a huge coke haul belonging to her pimp and pisses off a lot of the wrong people. His dad Hopper does the astonishing Sicilian-nigger speech to Walken – and how stunning are all those jaw-dropping monologues, no wonder Tarantino is so beloved by actors. (Rolling Stone called his dialogue ‘gutter poetry.’) When the gangsters come calling the violence is sickening and yet the colour lends it an appropriately ripened comic book quality.  There’s a slamdunk shootout involving Hollywood jerks and practically everyone gets killed but Clarence’s very special mentor keeps him chill. Awesome.

John Heard 03/07/1945-07/21/2017

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The death has taken place of one of my favourite actors. Apparently he died a few days after having back surgery while recuperating at a hotel in CA. I first saw him and became immediately besotted as a young kid one long ago Valentine’s Day when a film called  Between the Lines was on TV. It was about a bunch of supposed subversives working on an underground newspaper. On the one hand it appealed to my youthful and romantic sense of rebellion. Hell it was a Seventies movie!  On the other? I couldn’t take my eyes off him. Nor could writer/director Joan Micklin Silver, who then cast him again as the lead in her romantic comedy drama Head Over Heels aka Chilly Scenes of Winter – a movie that I didn’t see literally for decades because it never got to the small town where I grew up. In between he had worked for her husband Raphael in a prison movie called On the Yard which I saw many years ago, somehow, somewhere. As well as a TV mini-series adapted from The Scarlet Letter. I didn’t blame Meg Foster for doing what she did, not even a bit.  He was terrific as Jack Kerouac in Heart Beat but I didn’t see that for many years. However it was then I stumbled across the most amazing film of the Eighties after I found a book called Cutter and Bone which is still a beautiful piece of writing about California and corruption and Vietnam and PTSD.  I read it straight through without sleeping once I accidentally found out – book in hand – that my local cinema had the adaptation opening that weekend under the title Cutter’s Way. I saw it the evening I finished the book – I still can’t see a movie if it’s an adaptation without reading the book beforehand – and believed my earlier judgment of the actor to be on the money. And I still believe it. Heard is simply astonishing in a truly great film. He’s a one-eyed impotent crippled Nam vet who has the opportunity to right a wrong. He was working opposite Jeff Bridges and the heartbreaking Lisa Eichhorn. Everyone did their best work right there. He never really fulfilled that early promise and admitted as much in a late interview. He probably never got offered a role to equal it again. He wasn’t ‘seen’ in the right way by the right writer or director, maybe. Although he worked with some good people maybe the chemistry wasn’t right.  Or, he dropped the ball, as he said. Who knows why. Great films are miracles. A trained stage actor, he never ‘got’ Hollywood but he took roles that earned him huge audiences – Home Alone and its sequel being the prime example. It doesn’t matter. Cutter’s Way is one of my very favourite films. Make it one of yours. You only have to be great in one great film to be truly remembered. Vaya con dios, John.

Elsa Martinelli 01/30/1935-07/08/2017

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One of my favourite women has died. Elsa Martinelli was one of cinema’s real cool girls. Born Elisa Tia in Tuscany, she became a model at a very young age and was spotted by French director Claude Autant-Lara after she had a small role in an Italian anthology film and within a couple of years she did that rite of passage for all italian beauties – a rice film (Mangano and Loren did one too.) Kirk Douglas – who had a taste for fresh flesh – took her to Hollywood for The Indian Fighter but it wasn’t until she played Georgia in Roger Vadim’s perversely wonderful Blood and Roses (1960) (a 20th century update of le Fanu’s Carmilla) that she gained real star status. She had already done amazing work in Mauro Bolognini’s La notte brava (written by Pasolini) so she was by now an auteur favourite.   She played opposite Anthony Perkins in Orson Welles’ underrated interpretation of The Trial (1962) which he shot in Paris and then sent up her own image as Gloria Gritti in The VIPs (1963) – with Welles as the movie mogul to her petulant movie star. Then of course she was the fabulous Dallas in Hatari! (1963) a film that really exhibited her particular brand of Euro cool and of course that haircut framing such a defiantly modern look and determinedly independent character. Never mind that she wound up with John Wayne – just think of all those baby elephants!  That’s one of my desert island movies for sure. That look was what made me pay attention to her as a kid when I spotted her in the extremely bizarre and super fashionable Sixties crime movie Maroc 7 (1967) which was on TV now and then.  She was already out of her troubled marriage into the Roman aristocracy that had produced a daughter and she eventually married the brilliant photographer Willy Rizzo. She also became one of those weird Sixties hybrids – the actor-singer (there were a few of them, like Bardot and Birkin) and if you want to hear some truly mournful and striking chansons you can check her out on YouTube which has some of her TV recordings. She made a really great impression in The Belle Starr Story (1968), a rare western directed by a woman, Lina Wertmuller (who had to make it under a male pseudonym) and continued to appear opposite top Hollywood stars like Dustin Hoffman and even Raquel Welch! In between supporting roles and cameos in Hollywood travelogue comedy movies like If It’s Tuesday This Must Be Belgium and her final screen appearance Once Upon a Crime where she has a small cameo, she was a definite part of the fabled jet set and there are many snaps of her partying with people like Ari Onassis. Latterly she was in a number of TV series, both German and Italian, with her last role in Orgoglio, a period romance which ran for a few years in Italy with Martinelli participating in 2005. Rizzo predeceased her four years ago and she was living in Rome at the time of her death. What a wonderful woman she was.

Martin Landau 06/20/1928-07/17/2017

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If you’d asked me when I was a little kid who Martin Landau was I knew him from old reruns and I could have told you he was the man of a million faces Rollin Hand in the TV show Mission:  Impossible and Commander John Koenig in Space: 1999. (Anything with a colon, basically). Then I saw him playing a particularly gay henchman to James Mason in North By Northwest. And I read in a James Dean biography that they were close friends when Landau was at the Actors’ Studio, which he attended after spending a few years as a cartoonist. He was a stalwart of that institution and eventually served on the board as well as training other actors – including Jack Nicholson. Never the showiest of performers, he was a solid supporting man for a very long time, particularly on television. Then suddenly Francis Ford Coppola came a calling with one of his most wonderful and underrated films, Tucker:  The Man and His Dream, and Landau was lifted up once again to where he belonged earning a Golden Globe for his role. He had his breakthrough after 30 years. He became an auteur favourite with a brilliant leading part as a murderous adulterer in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors and then for Tim Burton in the hilarious biography of the world’s worst ever film director, Ed Wood, when he played horror star Bela Lugosi. He found a kinship with the man who had been treated so terribly in Hollywood.  He won an Academy Award and it was a happy collaboration, with Burton getting him to return to other productions. He continued playing steadily in features and even returned happily to TV with memorable parts in Entourage in particular. His last film, fittingly, as leading man, was The Last Poker Game and he attended its release at the Tribeca Festival. He was married for 36 years to Barbara Bain, his Space: 1999 co-star. It was a good life, well lived.