Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans (2015)

Steve McQueen The Man and Le Mans

We had the star, we had the drivers. We had an incredible array of technical support, we had everything. Except a script. The story behind the making of Le Mans, Steve McQueen’s dream project – a realistic film about motor racing set around the great 24-hour endurance race in 1970. He planned a documentary-style production starring himself and made by his own company Solar in collaboration with Cinema Center Films, but it went over budget and schedule. He disagreed with and fired Thomas Crown Affair/Bullitt writer Alan Trustman (who he says in an audio recording knew him like nobody did); and he also fell out with his Magnificent Seven/Great Escape director John Sturges, who walked out; then Cinema Center tried to replace McQueen – on his own film!- with Robert Redford. McQueen agreed to a pay cut. I don’t think there’s any racing drive who can tell you why he races. But he can show you. The film was plagued by crashes, the worst involving David Piper, whose leg was amputated. Charles Manson was on his killing spree at the time and McQueen discovered he was on his hit list and became paranoid, taking to carrying a handgun. His marriage to wife Neile broke up when he found out she had finally paid him back for his multiple infidelities with one of her own. He crashed a car late at night with his young Swedish mistress actress Louise Edlind and blamed it on a 21-year old set assistant who was on his first day at work on the film. McQueen didn’t bear a scratch from the incident. When the film came out in 1971 it received ‘mixed’ reviews … We were winging it. Gabriel Clarke and John McKenna’s film tells an inglorious tale of ego, hubris and racing too close to the sun, a paradoxical move for the coolest man to ever walk the earth. You better believe in what you;re doing. I believe in what I do. It’s stylishly directed, with a plethora of remarkably beautiful clips retrieved from private collections and unfinished on-set documentary footage as well as boasting terrific new interviews (and some from the previous 2001 doc Filming at Speed) which suggest that this was a devastating experience for McQueen, a turning point from which he may never have truly recovered. With Trustman and Sturges on board it was the dream team but McQueen was both stunningly indecisive and doctrinaire. He felt responsible for the racers, above all, but never visited Piper following an accident that only occurred because a scene was shot twice owing to the absence of a script. They never met again. The film reveals to Piper that McQueen had written to the powers that be to release the premiere’s takings to Piper for his medical treatment – they did not; but Piper is pleased at the revelation. He had something hidden. McQueen’s long business relationship and friendship with Bob Relyea was sundered. He was trying to capitalise on his stardom but clashed with the studio ethic of storytelling in the classical style in an ironic bid to strip away filmmaking tricks and falling victim to excess. When he wanted to give back Hollywood wasn’t there for him. Essentially he wanted to build his own empire while also attempting to obtain creative control. Instead he wound up skipping the premiere and quitting racing for good. Yet it’s the film he had shipped to Mexico a decade later when he was receiving treatment for the cancer that would kill him, showing it to fellow patients. It transpires that the asbestos that caused his cancer is the type used in racing suits in the Sixties. In many ways it seems this film was the time when McQueen’s luck finally ran out. This is a visceral experience for the viewer, almost tactile in its power. Smell the fumes and feel the need for speed. Gripping.  I am too old and too rich to be putting up with this type of shit

This Changes Everything (2019)

This Changes Everything 2019

Women are virtually excluded from the directing profession. This recent documentary about the lack of representation of women in front of and behind the cameras is quietly shocking, sometimes by the truisms expressed that all women already know; and sometimes by the gruesome statistics that are sprinkled like so much arsenic throughout the on-camera interviews, featuring women directors (mostly unemployed), actresses and activists (ie former directors who couldn’t get arrested in Hollywood due to their gender).

We have been Other-ized by men really to allow men to give birth to their own subjectivity:  Jill Soloway.

Hollywood is our storytelling machine.

There is an assumption that men are going to be authoritative.

If Starbucks had 93% male staff there would be a problem:  Rose McGowan.

When half of the filmmakers and writers are allowed in our cultural life will change. Issues of ‘cultural curating’ are addressed when Julie Dash talks about her gorgeous film Daughters of the Dust only having 13 prints on release for her hit movie – the curators preferred black male narratives like Boyz n the Hood. Kimberly Pierce didn’t direct for 9 years after Oscar-winning Boys Don’t Cry and when she was making Carrie (the remake) with Chloë Grace Moretz they both describe how the mostly male crew presumed to know what it was like for a girl to be shocked by her first period. For women, the arrival of TV show runner Shonda Rimes has been a game-changer, not just because Meredith Grey on Grey’s Anatomy goes out and gets drunk and has a one-night stand before her first day on the job, which apparently baffled studio heads at the first screening. And it’s on episodic TV that we now find some of those women directors cast aside by the movie studios: we all recognise the names.  Hollywood has never had a mechanism to regulate discrimination. When Title VII (Employment Equality) was used to take a case against the studios in 1969 it didn’t work. Nixon’s government wasn’t having it and the black lawyer taking the case was stigmatised so bowed out. One of the revelations is a 1985 legal case against the Directors Guild taken by The Six (six gifted, award-winning but out of work women directors, one of whom deadpans, What we figured out we really needed was a penis.) They went to the  Margaret Herrick Library at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and studied the period from 1949-1979 going through every industry publication to make their case, finding that one half of one per cent of all Hollywood productions in thirty years were directed by women. Their case was thrown out by a woman judge on the grounds that the DGA was self-discriminating:  (male) directors didn’t hire women ADs, ADs didn’t hire women 2nd ADs and so on. So the Guild itself was misogynistic. She wasn’t wrong. That’s when they needed to go to the ACLU. That happened following an increase in female hires to 1995 when it fell off a cliff again. And the decision that the DGA was ‘gagging’ and ‘red-flagging’ as one contributor puts it. The woman behind contemporary activism on this front is Maria Giese, a director and screenwriter who made her feature debut with a British film, When Saturday Comes, in the mid-90s, was courted by Hollywood and then … never worked again. Now a mother, she has campaigned so that her daughter will never have to endure her failure. Misogyny is part of Hollywood. It wasn’t always that way, as we are reminded that the Steven Spielberg of early Hollywood was Lois Weber. Then the money men came in, Wall Street got involved, sound arrived and by the 1930s only Dorothy Arzner was helming films. This is not happening naturally on its own. Sharon Stone recalls being asked to take direction by sitting on directors’ laps and asking them, Do you ask Tom Hanks to do this? Meryl Streep remembers on Kramer Vs. Kramer [the Ur-film of contemporary screen post-feminist paternity:  read Hannah Hamad’s book on the subject] all the men scratching their heads and wondering why her character might be acting the way she is. Her input was not appreciated.  As she diplomatically frames it, this was being told from a male perspective. What is being done to turn things around? John Landgraf of TV channel FX, that’s what. Or who. A rare CEO who decided to up the game and hire talented people regardless of gender. But then it transpires that women are simply low on agency lists, if at all – it’s staggering to see one agent’s list of directors and find Kathryn Bigelow …. way, way down. Kathryn Bigelow. Not a single film studio head would agree to participate in this film which says it all. The venerable Reese Witherspoon discusses a meeting she had with one or more of them a decade ago when they admitted they currently had no leading roles for women but one had a male role that could be rewritten for a woman:  that’s when she started her own company, acquired options on books and started making films and TV shows – thanks to her we have, among other productions, the water-cooler show of our time, Big Little Lies. What has changed in the culture? One thing. The release of a recording of TV star and hotelier Donald Trump declaring he can grab ’em by the pussy. Even then he was voted in as President of the United States. And then came the revelations about Harvey Weinstein, which explained the enforced disappearing from our screens of fabulous women like Ashley Judd and Annabella Sciorra, whose brutal testimony has since been disparaged because she didn’t have the ‘correct’ response to being raped by one of the biggest, ugliest and most powerful men alive who had the ear of liberal darlings the Clintons and the Obamas. Film when it was born was not gender-specific. How I would love to declare that this was written, directed and produced by women. It wasn’t. How horribly ironic.  It was directed by Tom Donahue, presumably hired by one or all of the Executive Producers, including Geena Davis, extensively featured here,  who has done so much through her Institute on Gender in Media but clearly is tone-deaf to the argument about brilliant unemployed women filmmakers that this proposes – albeit she is the engine for this particular production and many of those figures and facts flashing up like a psychiatric treatment administered to the hard of thinking. Isn’t that ironic, etc. Sheesh. In the week that we have been reliably informed that 90% of the world’s population hates us (was this news to anyone female?!), Happy International Women’s Day. Every day is Women’s Day in my house. What’s good for women is good for everyone

S is for Stanley (2015)

S is for Stanley

Aka S is for Stanley – 30 Years Behind the Wheel for Stanley Kubrick, S Is for Stanley – Trent’anni dietro al volante per Stanley Kubrick. He was fast. Filmmaker Alex Infascelli came across Emilio D’Allesandro upon the publication of his memoir, Stanley Kubrick E Me and decided to make a documentary about the man who was the auteur’s driver and assistant for more than a quarter of a century. Emilio relates to camera and over montages and home movies his story of emigration – he took the train from Italy to London in 1960 and made a splash driving at Brand’s Hatch but needed to make money for his new family with English wife Janette and became a taxi driver. One night in 1970 when the firm couldn’t get anyone else to take ‘an object’ to a house outside London he was the only driver brave enough to go in a snowstorm. He was greeted at the front door by Kubrick who had a newspaper cutting about him in his pocket and asked if he was the same man who had driven at the famous racetrack and whether he drove that quickly on normal roads. Emilio said, no, he did not drive fast outside races and started working for Kubrick the following day, using his own car. He found that his new employer loved cars as much as he did and particularly Mercedes because he believed the German marque was the safest. He asked Emilio if he could drive an imposing truck constructed to withstand immersion in water. Emilio said if it had a steering wheel and four wheels he’d give it a try. There was a house move, from Abbots Mead (owned by Simon Cowell’s father!) near Elstree Studios to Childwickbury Manor, a huge country house ten minutes away that had enough stables to serve as production offices and vast lands for rescue animals to roam. The place was a zoo, Emilio sighs and photos show him on the back of a poor sad donkey. The documentary is a feast of information, with Kubrick’s many notes and letters narrated by Clive Riche, and they are a marvellous insight into his working method and his home life with wife Christiane and their three daughters. He believed in labels and lists  – one of which dominated the house:  Basic Training. It starts, If you open it, close it. There are 11 further lessons to live by. The meticulous approach, as detailed by Emilio, and some of which is catalogued in the many archive boxes in his own garage filled with memorabilia, is known to Kubrick’s fans but its application domestically, including pet care – he took in all the dogs and cats that came into his purview and housed them and took care of them and left particular notes on each of their needs – demonstrates the mindset that was above all utterly practical. The first production Emilio was directly involved in was Barry Lyndon, to be shot in Ireland. He would fly from London to Dublin as many as four times a day, back and forth, with highly confidential items. He recalls being asked to find a candle manufacturer that could produce candles for three years straight:  he would discover later that Kubrick planned on shooting the film by candlelight. Emilio had a run-in with Jack Nicholson on the set of The Shining and when he told Kubrick, I would like to stay away from him, the director understood and it was not a problem.  His home telephone always rang at meal times. When Emilio said it wasn’t fair to Janette, Kubrick asked if it would be alright to install a separate line for his calls at their home. Emilio recalls having call Federico Fellini on Kubrick’s behalf to find out how he achieved a certain effect. Kubrick’s calls were lengthy, and even Fellini finally had to make his excuses and hang up. Why did they do this to me? asked Kubrick in the wake of his daughter Anya’s marriage and the other two girls moved to London. He was a gregarious sort, a devoted spouse, father and family man and he felt abandoned. Emilio declares bemusedly that only Christiane and all those animals were left at the house. While Emilio and he were driving one day Kubrick spotted an abandoned gasworks that would serve as the main location for Full Metal Jacket and Emilio was like another father to Matthew Modine, the star. In 1991 when Emilio was turning 50 and his parents were ageing and infirm he wanted to return to Italy. He gave Kubrick three years’ notice, during which his father died. On the eve of departure, Kubrick asked him to stay two more weeks. He and Janette suffered when their racer son had to have his leg amputated following a crash and Kubrick sent them to the best doctors, taking care of the bills. What do you do during the day? Kubrick asked Emilio when he had finally gone home to Italy. Emilio remembers, I started watching the films and that was when I realised what a genius he was. Kubrick asked him to return to England for a fortnight. Janette believed it was a trick to get Emilio back working again but knew her husband was happier working with Kubrick. When he and Janette went for afternoon tea he asked the director about his current film and Kubrick responded he couldn’t do it without him. If you tell me you’ll come back I’ll do it. Emilio and Janette stayed in England and Kubrick shot Eyes Wide Shut half an hour away from home, at Pinewood Studios, where Greenwich Village was reproduced. He made the film partly in tribute to Emilio – he had him in the film at a news stand where Tom Cruise buys a paper;  and a café is named for him (Caffé Da Emilio); he found every possible way to include him. Love, Stanley.  After editing the film Emilio found Kubrick in need of assistance one day as he tried but failed to break a tablet in two for one of his pet cats. Kubrick regularly needed oxygen and was exhausted from the film. His beard had turned white and he was utterly drained. He died that night, one week after a screening for Warner Brothers in New York. In the present day, Infascelli drives Emilio back to Childwickbury, where a Private sign hangs on the closed gate. Emilio doesn’t want to enter. (Kubrick is interred there, along with Anya).  It’s a gentle and touching recollection of things past, a lovely personal account of a long-lasting friendship and working relationship told across the background of four major films made by one of the cinema’s most astonishing filmmakers. For a man who ironically disliked being photographed, some of the happiest pictures here of Kubrick are from the home movie of the party he held for Emilio when he was leaving for Italy in the early 90s.  I still think when the phone rings it might be him

Whitney (2018)

Whitney 2018

Her parents were preparing her for legacy music. Kevin Macdonald’s documentary about Whitney Houston was made with the co-operation of her family and is executive produced by her agent Nicole David, one of several associates interviewed here, and he has access to the music, so it’s a different creature to Nick Broomfield’s film on the subject, Whitney:  Can I Be Me. Macdonald admirably makes this a story of a time and place by dint of regular montages placing us in a year – culturally, socially, politically – with news and current affairs footage and symbols giving a firm context. And it’s jarring to hear Houston’s brother tell us how she got her name – their mother, the famous backing singer Cissy Houston, liked ‘a white sitcom’ on TV so named her for the actress Whitney Blake. Racism of all kinds looms large in this story. Newsreel footage of the Newark riots and the bodies of black men killed by the police remind us of what life was like for black people in New Jersey in the Sixties. Her father John is called both a dealmaker and a hustler, a man who gained powerful status in local circles, and he nicknamed their light-skinned daughter ‘Nippy’ because she was a beautiful but tricky child, and she was bullied in the neighbourhood. She sang in the church choir and sometimes sang backup for her mother who was trying to launch a solo career that didn’t take off. When her parents divorced following her mother’s affair with their church pastor, Whitney left home as soon as possible and moved in with her friend Robyn Crawford who she had met aged 16. Her brothers were aware that Robyn was a Lesbian. One interviewee says that these days Whitney’s sexuality would be designated ‘fluid’ while her longtime hairdresser and friend Ellin Lavar says Houston loved sex, with both men and women and discussed it with her to an embarrassing degree. Whitney modelled but soon sang on her own and two big labels courted her and she signed with Arista’s Clive Davis. He announced her to the world on the Merv Griffin Show and the footage of her singing Home from The Wiz is spinetingling. It is used on the audio track later in a different context in the film, to chilling effect. One contributor talks about the issue of ‘double consciousness’ – the problem that a black entertainer has in having to satisfy a white country and a black world, but in this context it could also refer to Houston’s sexuality and the difference between being Nippy and being Whitney, a stage character. Macdonald does not shirk from the role of the black community – divided on colour lines of its own – and the pressure it exerted on Houston directly or otherwise. In the Eighties, Rev. Al Sharpton appeared in front of her venues with signs calling her ‘Whitey’ Houston (ironically his TV condolences are aired when her death is announced); and of course there is the infamous incident at the 1989  Soul Train awards when the audience booed her – presumably for not being black enough, for having sold out, for singing pop and being brilliant at it. She was asked in an interview why she thought it might have happened – and she claimed she didn’t know. It was the kind of bullying that had provoked her parents into sending her to a private Catholic school in the first place. That was the night she met bad boy (and acceptably black soul singer) Bobby Brown – the ghetto type the Houstons had wanted to keep her away from – and the conclusion is that the couple who would marry and have a child were mutually co-dependent. As her star rose with The Bodyguard, his could never hope to meet it, a year after she had performed The Star-Spangled Banner at the Superbowl, an appearance that still stuns the viewer and nailed her ability and popularity simultaneously when the US was at peak patriotism following the Gulf War. Her Bodyguard co-star, Kevin Costner, was proud of the fact that their interracial kiss was such a significant shot in the film – pointing out the 180 degree camera move, replayed here. (How odd that thirty-plus years after Island in the Sun this should still be a contentious point [and odder still that when he gave a eulogy at her funeral his entrance was greeted with booing by the black attendees – not something mentioned here]. Odder still to a white viewer is Lavar saying that she and Houston were afraid of making the film because they were so outnumbered in the middle of ‘all these white people’:  racism is a beat constantly underpinning the narrative.) She was a good actress. I always used to tell them, Whitney’s in there somewhere. But she’s trapped. That film and the theme song I Will Always Love You (written by Dolly Parton) made her a global superstar:  she is shown being comforted by Nelson Mandela when she gave the first concerts in South Africa after he came to power.  She could find nuance in songs that even the writers didn’t know was there. That record got a British woman gaoled for a week when she drove her neighbours nuts playing it 24/7. An Arab version played endlessly on his campaign trail propelled Saddam Hussein to power. When Brown is asked directly by Macdonald about Houston’s drug use he refuses to discuss it – and perhaps given that it was her own brothers (two full, more half-) who admit introducing her to drugs when she was still a child, he has a point, despite the tabloid headlines about their married lifestyle and on-camera evidence produced here about their home lives (which they eagerly broadcast in their horrifying reality TV show). About two-thirds of the way through the film is the big revelation: her brother Michael volunteers the idea that it’s something in a person’s childhood that drives them to drug use and declares that as a boy he was abused by a female relative. Then Whitney’s aunt says the singer revealed her own experience to her of abuse by the same woman when they were discussing their daughters – this is supposedly why Whitney was afraid to leave Bobbi Kristina (called Krissie) at home while she toured:  the same female relative was her cousin Dee Dee Warwick (Dionne’s sister, another singer). Dee Dee is shown in TV clips from the Sixties, a dour-looking heavy-browed character. Bizarrely, Houston is pictured in one home movie lying on a bed under a huge photo of the sinister woman. For all her concerns about her own daughter, Krissie was an unstable cocaine addict by 18 and in and out of rehab, unsurprisingly given what family and friends say she was growing up around [and her own dreadful death, replicating her mother’s, is recounted here]. Houston made a lot of magazine headlines (the National Enquirer alone was running almost weekly updates for a decade) for her drug use; and many more complications arose from 1999 onwards when she signed a $100 million contract for new recordings. By that point she knew her father and accountant had been robbing her blind and her father then sued her – for $100 million. Once her father had taken over managing her there were many members of her family riding the gravy train, other than her mother and Robyn, who was invited to tender her resignation, a decision Whitney endorsed, despite the fact that Robyn had been doing her best to protect her from the sharks throughout her career. I don’t think she knew the layers being created by others. After an excruciating performance in honour of fellow fame victim Michael Jackson, a car crash interview with Diane Sawyer did not help. She had to quit rehab after 8 months because the money ran out. Then there was appalling evidence of her drug-ravaged singing voice in mobile phone footage of one of her last concerts, with one concert goer offering that a dead rat would have performed better. Years were spent pointlessly attempting to record new music, recalled with tragic diplomacy by the producer Joseph Arbagey, who remembers her disappearing for weeks at a time behind her hotel room door and returning emaciated.  Many millions of dollars were expended on the fruitless project. No longer fit to perform, she was given a lifeline in a remake of the movie Sparkle, a lodestone film from her childhood that had starred Irene Cara. She played the mother. Her agent says that Whitney had been clean throughout the production and didn’t go home for three or four days after the job was done but at the time she wasn’t aware of it until her driver told her Whitney simply didn’t board the flight and eventually asked him to drive her cross-country to her home. Her agent refers to it as ‘that hole’ in Atlanta.  We don’t need to be told what followed. Despite the access, the film still feels curiously incomplete, as if the dots have not been joined: sex abuse, parental ambition and divorce, drugs, Lesbianism, being a light-skinned black in a community divided, being a black singer performing pop songs better than anyone ever had. Cause and effect are not entirely or convincingly linked. Perhaps because this is the official version, unlike Broomfield’s, who talked to Robyn. Or perhaps because the person at its centre had stopped doing what she was good at long before her incredible demise in a bathtub in a Hollywood hotel while her aunt went out to get her donuts with sprinkles and found her dead when she returned just thirty minutes later, as she tells us. The camera enters the hotel room and tracks into the bathroom where Houston was discovered face down in the water. Graced with the voice of an angel in the body of a beautiful black woman exploited by all the people she trusted most in a divided industry produced in a divided country, this biography is a tale of total tragedy, something that regularly occurs in the music business but it’s a story that shows absolutely nobody in a good light, not even Houston herself. It was in every sense a life half-lived. Whitney Houston died 11 February 2012. I’m pissed off. And people think that it’s so damn easy

Bombshell (2019)

Bombshell

I’m not a feminist, I’m a lawyer. When Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) is fired following her on-air revelation that she supports an assault weapons ban, she slaps conservative TV channel Fox News founder and CEO Roger Ailes (John Lithgow) with a lawsuit alleging sexual harassment.  But nobody comes forward to provide evidence of similar experiences, not even her protegée, Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie) who migrates to the Bill O’Reilly show, is fired her first day and takes the back elevator to Ailes’ office in her quest for advancement. Eventually Gretchen’s decision leads to Presidential hopeful Donald Trump’s bête noire, Fox News correspondent Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) coming forward with her own story, as well as multiple other women, ultimately bringing the channel’s owners, the Murdoch family, into the fray... He handed me the power to hurt him. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, when it comes to explaining the way the world turns, it has fallen to America’s comedy auteurs to Show and Tell. And here it’s director Jay Roach invading the body politic once more after the TV dramas Recount, Game Change and All the Way as well as the feature Trumbo. Humour helps but doesn’t really feature in this tawdry tale of three contrasting women who have oddly similar looks in the Barbie-style legs-out fashion cultivated by Ailes – and one scene where all the on-air women presenters are Spanxing it up and shoving five-inch heels onto their calloused feet shows the compromises intelligent gutsy women make visually to make it professionally on US TV, at least on Fox News. Theron’s transformation into Kelly is really something – she wears her work look as if she’s armed for war and her decision to finally take it to the bosses, with the backing of her husband Douglas Brunt (Mark Duplass) at the same time as having to battle Trump mania in Summer 2016, tacks sharply when she allows the Presidential hopeful to get away with his menstruation Tweet, to her husband’s disgust. But, as she reminds him, she has to pay the bills. Kidman is good as the woman who has had the sense to record her meetings with Ailes, but is then sidelined with money and an NDA (maybe); and Robbie is impressively touching as the amalgamated character ‘Kayla’ who succumbs to Ailes, believing everyone else must have done it to get ahead (To get ahead, you have to give a little head, as Gretchen regales her lawyers). When Kayla crumbles at the truth, it’s devastating. The fact that these women believe in the political piffle they peddle is what makes the film hold its fire because Kate McKinnon is cast as a secret Lesbian Hillary-supporter in their midst making the politics of it weaker in every sense; and there’s a pretty ludicrous scene when Ailes’ wife, newspaper editor Beth (Connie Britton) has her assistant ask if her sushi lunch is too liberal. (Perhaps it is this very daftness that makes the film’s point). And while the women’s histories shares similar contours, they do not support one another and Kelly’s producer Gil (Rob Delaney) reminds her that all the production team’s jobs are on the line. However Charles Randolph’s screenplay is fast-moving and literate, and there is great use of archive footage.  The female cast are just outstanding, with Lithgow quite horrifying as the disgusting old man who once hobnobbed with Nixon but now intimidates ambitious young women into hoicking up their skirts and a lot worse. The biggest irony? Rupert Murdoch (Malcolm McDowell) gets to save the day. Sigh. Inspired by the accounts of the women who reported their experiences of harassment. Rule number one, Corporate America:  You don’t sue your boss

I Am Heath Ledger (2017)

I Am Heath Ledger wide

He felt life deeper than anyone I ever met. The first time I saw Heath Ledger in 10 Things I Hate About You I was stunned. A star was born, in his first film. He had started out without training in his native Australia, enjoyed what a friend terms ‘a sentimental education’ in his first serious relationship, with actress Lisa Zane when they co-starred in the TV series Roar, and bounded into an audition in Hollywood and got it first time out. He signed with an agent, Stephen Alexander, himself a newcomer to the industry and together they created his career. Acting is thinking about the world about you and the person you are. He was conscious of his lack of professional training and never went anywhere without a camera, shooting footage of himself prepping for roles and this documentary directed by Adrian Buitenhuis and Derik Murray demonstrates the extent to which Ledger taught himself and built characters, paying attention to how he looked, moved, spoke, interacted, responded. The film is replete with that personal footage and boasts a narration excerpted from interviews Ledger did. He couldn’t turn down the opportunity to star opposite his icon Mel Gibson on The Patriot but suffered a crisis of confidence: Mel taught him to come in and out of character. His face was plastered over billboards to publicise A Knight’s Tale, a rollicking mediaeval lark that sent itself up anachronistically and he couldn’t handle the publicity machine’s requirements. He wanted fame but then when he got it, he didn’t want it. By the time Brokeback Mountain came around, he was ready. The film changed his life. Director Ang Lee wasn’t sure he could do the role but he said Ledger’s mouth was like a clenched fist, people had the impression that he barely spoke when in fact he had the most lines in the film – he just delivered them in a way that made you think he hadn’t said a word. He met Michelle Williams on set and they became parents to baby daughter Matilda, whom he adored. His appetite for life was astonishing:  he had energy like nobody else, sensing his time on earth was limited. His favourite place was Burning Man. He brought his friends from Perth there and to his home in California. He was an enthusiast particularly for Nick Drake with whom he felt a kinship, along with other musicians who died young, like Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain. He phoned and emailed at all hours of day and night; he turned up on people’s doorsteps for breakfast at five thirty and six AM;  he shot photos constantly and made music videos and surprised people with his ability to use cameras, to choreograph, to direct:  He had command of his vision. He was an artist first and foremost. He formed a company and intended directing features:  his first project was supposed to be The Queen’s Gambit –  he was so good at chess he was just a few points away from being a Grand Master. When he was offered the role of Joker in The Dark Knight he was fully confident. He had mastered the art of screen acting. He owned the part and he knew it. It would win him the Academy Award and many others, but they were posthumous. There are interviews with his friends, family, co-workers and those with musician Ben Harper and Naomi Watts are especially perceptive and emotional. Their hurt at his loss is palpable. His end was desperate:  he was working with Terry Gilliam on The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus with his sister alongside him in London as his assistant. He became seriously ill with pneumonia in terrible conditions – he was exhausted from the damp and cold, being held upside down from a bridge with water being poured on him didn’t help. He said his sleeping meds weren’t working and he couldn’t stop his mind racing, as dialogue coach Gerry Grennell recalls. He returned to an apartment in New York and the guy who spent his life communicating with people night and day suddenly wasn’t answering the phone. He was found dead 22nd January 2008.  He was just twenty-eight years old. This is a tender and thoughtful account of a brilliant and uniquely gifted young man and his death was a tragic loss to cinema. What he achieved as a major screen actor in a decade is unforgettable. Life is so short and it seems like a blink of an eye since I sent a text message to people during The Dark Knight, YOU HAVE TO SEE HEATH LEDGER!!! Written by Hart Snider. He always said, I have a lot to do. I don’t feel I have a lot of time

Heath Ledger with camera

Zelig (1983)

Zelig

All the themes of our culture were there. In this fictional documentary set during the 1920s and 1930s a non-descript American called Leonard Zelig (Woody Allen) achieves notoriety for his ability to look, act and sound like anyone he meets. He ingratiates himself with everyone from the lower echelons of society to F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Pope becoming famous as The Changing Man. Even Hollywood comes calling and makes a film about him. His chameleon-like skill catches the eye of Eudora Fletcher (Mia Farrow), a psychiatrist who thinks Zelig is in need of serious cognitive analysis as someone who goes to extremes to make himself fit into society. Their relationship moves in a direction that’s not often covered in medical textbooks as she hypnotises him I’m certain it’s something he picked up from eating Mexican food. A formally and technically brilliant and absolutely hilarious spoof documentary that integrates real and manipulated newsreel footage with faked home movies, a film within a film, period photographs of the leads and interviews with contemporary personalities, real and imagined, from Susan Sontag and Saul Bellow to ‘Eudora Fletcher’ (Ellen Garrison) in the present day. Even Bruno Bettelheim shows up to declare the subject the ultimate conformist. The sequence on the anti-semitism Zelig experiences as a child (his parents sided with the anti-semites, narrator Patrick Horgan informs us mournfully) is laugh out loud funny. Of course it has a payoff – in Nazi Germany. The editing alone is breathtaking, there is not a false moment and the music is superlative, forming a backdrop and a commentary as well as instilling in the audience a realistic feel for the time in which this is set. There are moments where you will not believe your eyes as Allen transforms into everyone he meets – regardless of race, shape or colour. An original and funny mockumentary that’s actually about the world we live in, an extreme response to childhood bullying and what we do to make ourselves fit in and where that could lead. You just told the truth and it sold papers – it never happened before!

 

The Two-Headed Spy (1958)

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A man cannot control the circumstances of his birth but he can make a choice. In 1939 Alex Shottland (Jack Hawkins) has been embedded as a British agent at the highest levels of the German military since WW1 and is tiring of his role but is urged to continue by his fellow agent Cornaz (Felix Aylmer) who is posing as an antiques dealer. They carry on their meetings under cover of Shottland’s purported interest in clocks. The revelatioin of Schottland’s half-British origins raises the eyebrows of the obsessive and creepy Lt. Reinisch (Erik Schumann) who works as his assistant and he alerts Schottland’s superiors about a potentially traitorous connection to the enemy. Schottland falls in love with singer and fellow spy Lili Geyr  (Gia Scala) whose melancholic songs carry coded messages across the airwaves to the Allies.  Reinisch suspects their relationship is a cover just as the Battle of the Bulge is getting underway and Schottland struggles to communicate the plans to his real superiors I’ll come to your place any time you want me to and spend the night. The amazing true-ish story was based on J. Alvin Kugelmass’ book Britain’s Two-Headed Spy and although A.P. Scotland was an adviser on the production it’s not based on his real escapades. The screenplay is notable for being written by not one but two blacklisted writers, Michael Wilson and the uncredited Alfred Lewis Levitt. Hawkins is excellent as the net seems to be closing in and he has to endure Cornaz being tortured to death;  while Scala impresses as the slinky songstress with espionage at her heart. There are some terrific scenes at Berlin’s highest table with Kenneth Griffith emoting unseen as Hitler.  Taut storytelling, excellent characteristation, glossy monochrome cinematography by Ted Scaife and an urgent score by Gerard Schurmann combine to make this an enthralling spy thriller. Look quickly for Michael Caine as a Gestapo agent while Geoffrey (Catweazle) Bayldon is Dietz. Directed by André De Toth. Truth is allegiance

Becoming Cary Grant (2017)

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Everybody wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant. Born in 1904 as Archie Leach, Cary Grant was the greatest star ever produced in Hollywood. Before he went there he was the younger survivor of two sons with the older dying following an accident for which his mother blamed herself. Then one day aged eleven he came home to be told by his father that his mother had died. Twenty years later he discovered she had been institutionalised on the man’s say-so in order that he could shack up with another woman. The reinvention Archie conjured across the Atlantic having literally run away with the circus to become an acrobat was accompanied by a lifelong mistrust of women and a name change. After two dozen films where he played a piece of jewellery for his leading ladies as contributor Mark Glancy puts it, he found himself working with George Cukor in Sylvia Scarlett and played a character I know, as Jonathan Pryce relates from Grant’s unpublished autobiography: he was finally acting and he was good. When he worked with director Leo McCarey on The Awful Truth nerves got the better of him and he took his lead from his director – McCarey was a suave, urbane, debonair, handsome, beautifully dressed and well-spoken ladykiller, and Grant copied him. That character became key to his screen persona. At the age of 31 he was reunited with the mother he had thought dead for twenty years and when they met, she asked him, Archie, is that really you?  His identity is at the centre of this film by Mark Kidel, as it penetrates the mystery of  his spectacular stardom and his acting technique.  Yet critic David Thomson says Grant’s persona is very democratic,  you can still sense the working class Archie Leach in him, something you can aspire to.  Howard Hawks would further the development of his screen image, locating in Grant something insecure and strange. Their many collaborations would reveal these layers of oddness, some of which was inhabited by Grant’s sexuality. He appealed equally to men and women. The film interrogates his relationships with women (he married among others actress Virginia Cherrill, heiress Barbara Hutton and actress Betsy Drake) but never mentions his long living arrangement with fellow actor Randolph Scott in the Thirties. Thomson claims, This is a man who is exploring gender safeguards as we see a clip of Bringing Up Baby, in which Grant’s character exclaims, I just went gay all of a sudden! wearing a woman’s dressing gown. Grant was well aware of his dichotomy and much of the film explores pictorially what Grant expresses in his unpublished writing, the experience of using LSD in controlled experiments in the late Fifties, an idea pushed by his then wife Drake, a woman who made him feel young again and who was an avid proponent of the therapeutic treatment herself.  It is clear that Grant believed it helped him make psychological breakthroughs. Home movies show him dressing up and acting the clown and in late life when he would do a theatre tour about his career he particularly liked to show those film clips which showed him doing backflips. When he worked with Hitchcock, Thomson declares that the director saw a different level of darkness than other collaborators and excerpts from Suspicion and Notorious accompany the narration. (But the viewer will note that Hitchcock also did the same for James Stewart, albeit he had already exploited a kind of psychopathic edge in the westerns he made with Anthony Mann). You never quite know where you are, Thomson says of this degree of sadism on display. It doesn’t ruin the likability but it qualifies it. Grant went independent so that he could control the roles he played and in the Forties persuaded RKO to buy the rights to the novel None But the Lonely Heart in which he essays the role of the kind of man he might have been had he remained in Britain, as one commentator notes.  Following a period of near-retirement he would work again happily with Hitchcock on To Catch a Thief of whom he said, Hitch and I had a rapport deeper than words.  He was incredibly well prepared.  Nothing ever went wrong. He is similarly complimentary about co-star Grace Kelly of whom he was in awe and he says, There are very few actresses who really listen to you. He could throw any line at her and she had a comeback. They were fast friends. He would team up with Hitchcock again for North By Northwest, and Thomson says of the great Cold War comic thriller, It’s about a man who has to grow up emotionally. He aged better than any other actor and in Father Goose despite its apparent un-Cary Grant-ness he always maintained the louche mariner was the one most similar to himself. He loved children and would finally find personal happiness when wife Dyan Cannon gave birth to their daughter Jennifer. He adored her and would have loved a huge family.  Despite a divorce a couple of years later he and Jennifer would remain close. She says what he really liked to do was stay home and watch TV – He loved television! she smiles to camera as home movie footage shows father and daughter sitting up on a huge bed with snack trays in front of them. His last wife Barbara Jaynes recalls him with love but says of his early perceived abandonment, Somewhere in the back of his mind was the idea that women were not always going to be there. She still lives in his Hollywood house with the panoramic views of the city he loved. In 1986 he had a massive stroke during a rehearsal for his one-man show and he died shortly afterwards. Kirk Kerkorian choppered Barbara and Jennifer over his home and out to sea, to spread the ashes of Archie Leach who insisted there be no funeral or memorial. A film about the best Hollywood star ends scattered in the air, skirting the surface of a fascinating man who was all transatlantic speaking voice and great clothes and beautiful movement, an actor who was never quite there.  Written by Kidel and Nick Ware. I feel fine. Alone. But fine

Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love (2019)

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Hey that’s no way to say goodbye. Documentary maker Nick Broomfield charts the story of the enduring love affair between writer and singer Leonard Cohen and his muse Marianne Ihlen, a young married woman and mother, who spent time together on the Greek island of Hydra in the Sixties, the era before mass tourism.  They made each other believe they were beautiful and she lived with him and took on the role she had previously performed for her writer husband.  It transpires Broomfield knew them both and also fell in love with Marianne who later pushed him to make his first film back in Wales. Cohen’s career is etched against the backdrop of the relationship and it is echoed in the songs he wrote in Marianne’s honour and memory including Bird on a Wire. I was possessed, obsessive about [sex], the blue movie that I threw myself into [and] blue movies are not romantic. However it’s mostly about Leonard, and even Nick. I’m standing on a ledge and your fine spider web/ Is fastening my ankle to a stone.  In some ways this is a bad trip in more ways than one as the film makes clear, with alterations in lyrics making over the original conditions in which they were written. Leonard earned the nickname Captain Mandrax thanks to his gargantuan appetite for drugs.  Hydra became a playground for the wealthy, awash with illicit substances and countercultural encounters structure the narrative as much as Leonard’s songs. Various interviewees agree that poets do not make great husbands.  I was always trying to get away. So what did Marianne do that made her such a significant muse, and not just to Leonard? She had a talent for spotting talents and strengths in people.  After eight years together during which Leonard went from being a penniless poet to a nervous stage performer when Judy Collins discovered him and he became a star overnight, Marianne had had enough. He had an obsessive love of sex which he dutifully indulged while she stayed on the island. When she was summoned she joined him but things did not work and her little son suffered. She endured Leonard’s constant infidelities on the road and she was replaced by Suzanne (Elrod) whose relationship with Leonard overlapped with her own, and one day spider woman Suzanne turned up on the doorstep in Hydra with their toddler son Adam, ready to move in.  So Marianne moved on. Leonard had found himself to be a born performer and she no longer had a role, this sensitive woman who didn’t draw or paint or write yet whose value as muse was frequently cited by Leonard in public, on stage, in interviews. Thereafter there were telegrams to her and invites to concerts when she returned to Norway and remarried and settled into a suburban lifestyle and their relationship fizzled into a kind of long-distance friendship which ended poignantly. Broomfield reveals that on one visit to him in Cardiff Marianne had to go away one day to abort Leonard’s baby – one of several she had by him. One friend comments that if anyone were to have had his children it should have been her. Instead it was the universally disliked Elrod. Marianne and Leonard’s relationship wasn’t the only casualty, as Broomfield finds in this picture of the early hippie lifestyle with its bohemian leanings and open marriages. There are accounts of mental illness and suicides including the sad account of the Johnstons, the friends who made his arrival in Greece so happy and easeful. Re-entering the real world following the isolation of this island adrift from the world was anything but happy. This is a complex story with many participants and audio interviews old and new are interspersed with superb archive footage (some by DA Pennebaker), numerous photographs and revealing chats with friends, bystanders and musicians who survive to tell the tale of this mysterious love.  It is about Broomfield’s own loyal friendship with Marianne. Finally, it is about people finding themselves through each other and a story almost mythical in musical history which has so nourished the world’s imagination. So long, Marianne