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working with George Cukor in Sylvia Scarlett and played a character I know, as Jonathan Pryce relates from Grant’s unpublished autobiography: he was finally acting and he was good.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

Bergman: A Year in a Life (2018)

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If you look for Ingmar Bergman the only place you find him is in his films.  Jane Magnusson’s film (in Swedish, Norwegian and English) was made to celebrate Ingmar Bergman’s 2018 centenary and pivots on 1957, a year in which he made two award winning films, a TV movie and he had four theatre smashes. How did he do it? What spurred this sudden surge in productivity and arguably his career masterpieces (Wild Strawberries, The Seventh Seal on film, Peer Gynt on stage)? (The biggest surprise is that once actor who saw Gynt describes it as follows:  This is all adventure movies rolled into one! Not what the viewer would expect of an auteur known for austere and sexualised work – he knew everyone would go to see Summer With Monika if he included nude shots). He worked quickly on low budgets and hadn’t even conceived of Wild Strawberries at the beginning of 1957 but it was released by the end of the year and is examined here as a version of himself, Viktor Sjöstrom might even be perceived as dead already, looking back upon his life with that wonderful combination of wistful yearning and regret while he journeys to collect his award. Bergman’s work rate can’t be explained scientifically – he certainly had a bad temper and was plagued by a rotten ulcerous stomach. One interviewee posits that his diet of yoghurt and Marie biscuits constituted what would today be called an eating disorder (he thought vegetables were evil).  Perhaps he had all kinds of hunger issues. He didn’t believe in therapy and claims in a TV interview to have visited a psychiatrist just once. (One actress contradicts his declaration that the doctor found him healthy). His relationships were complex and unfaithful, yielding 6 offspring by 1957 (he thought 5, and he would eventually father 9 in and out of marriages, one of whom didn’t know she was his illegitimate daughter until she was 22). He was involved with three women in 1957 other than his then wife and one was actress Bibi Andersson. Apart from anything else, he had a lot of people to support financially. It seems that in 1957 Bergman realised that his best source of material was himself and the film uses his achievements in that annus mirabilis as a prism to analyse his entire life and career. Fassbinder was on amphetamine. Maybe Bergman was on sexuality. When it came to Persona, a film interpreted here as a dramatising of his two sides, he commenced a relationship with Liv Ullmann who lived with him on his island, eventually bearing him another child and she cries when recalling that he was the best friend she ever had. Bergman describes the camera as seeing more than he ever did,  a phenomenal tool for registering the human soul and it is this journey into the soul that he believes he was on through his films. Perhaps his most beloved work is Fanny and Alexander but a long-suppressed interview with his brother Dag (recorded in the 80s) deflates Bergman’s claim of bullying by his father or a horrible time at school – it all happened, just not to him, but to Dag. Bergman’s flirtation with Nazism raises troubling questions – he claimed to have been sent on an exchange to Germany when he was a young child. However it happened in 1936 when he was 18 and his support of the regime lasted until 1946, long after the camps had been exposed. His biographer is conflicted about whether or not he was claiming to be a fascist acolyte as part of his extensive self-mythologising:  the son of a Jewish refugee in his father’s home seems to think so. And Bergman determined in the aftermath of that period that he would never engage politically in his films. There is no limit to what Bergman will do to get the best out of his actors. On Winter Light he had a doctor diagnose lead actor Gunnar Björnstrand with depression so that his reaction to illness could be caught on camera (and boy did it work). His relationship with other screen actors is more heartening:  instead of words he’d give you an emotional gesture, says one, so that that if they were quick enough and inventive enough they would pick up on it and use it in their characterisation. Barbra Streisand speaks of her envy watching him direct her then husband Elliott Gould in Bergman’s English-language debut The Touch, including one scene when he actually sat underneath the camera while Gould was being shot in close up and guided his performance. Gould himself says, There’s no one like Ingmar Bergman. An artist. A craftsman. A master. In later years Bergman’s antics directing theatre productions are remembered by victims as bullying, in a period when his celebrity and indulgence by the establishment was only tarnished by a highly public tax problem; while his personal life disintegrated in 1995 after the death of his fifth wife Ingrid von Rosen (the love of his life, he said) and he withdrew almost totally, albeit his last filmed interview reveals a sense of self-deprecating humour. His autocratic persona was out of time and he seemed to be jealous of younger men. His conduct toward lead actor Thorsten Flinck in The Misanthrope at the Royal Dramatic Theatre is horrible to hear. This is a fascinating, confounding and compelling portrait of a man whose importance to Swedish art is finally declared to be more influential than that of Strindberg with some jaw-dropping interviews from actors, technicians and colleagues.  Written by Mattias Nohrborg, this is a marvellous, informative documentary about one of the most important filmmakers in cinema. The now is all that exists

David Cassidy: The Last Session (2018)

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I like to think I control a lot of my destiny. So what really happened to teen idol and TV star David Cassidy? Why did he die of kidney failure at the age of 67 following a public admission of dementia? His Partridge Family co-star Danny Bonaduce asks, How did dementia cause organ failure?  This is a distressing fly-on-the-wall documentary about what transpired to be the icon’s last weeks when he invited a documentary crew to film him recording an EP of songs his father taught him. He is in pain, ill, hoarse, suffering from sporadic short-term memory loss and in need of assistance walking.  There are audio inserts of a previously unheard interview from 1976 when Cassidy discusses his ambivalence towards his unprecedented celebrity which took a nosedive when the teen idol years ended. He stopped performing his massive sellout concerts around the world when fans were injured and one died. He struggled to be taken seriously as a musician and songwriter thereafter and a Rolling Stone cover story (The Naked Lunchbox) with explicit photographs backfired spectacularly. The woman journalist who wrote it makes evident her total contempt for Cassidy. He couldn’t get into NYC’s Hippopotamus nightclub one night, the following night he played a sold out Madison Square Garden. But he wasn’t cool! The editor of Tiger Beat explains how the magazine created the feverish culture of stardom for a generation and how manufactured the entire era was. The owner, Chuck Lawford, sensed the potential of a teen idol era and its financial possibilities. The stars had no say in the publicity machine manufactured in their image. Cassidy made the cover of every issue. Friend Alice Cooper is an especially sympathetic interviewee. It’s clear that Cassidy’s  relationship with his father, the actor and singer and consummate showman, Jack, was a rivalry – unintended on the son’s part. The session is dominated by his attempt to sing Wish You Were Here – the theme song of the first Broadway production he saw his father perform: David was just three and half years old and it made him want to emulate Cassidy. His father was on the road so much that David didn’t know for a decade that his parents were divorced and Jack had married Shirley Jones, who had three sons by him. Dad, I miss you, he weeps when the song is played back and his own voice is failing. In 1970 when David was starting out as an actor and a Broadway show he was in shut down, he travelled to Los Angeles and auditioned for The Partridge Family – where he was immediately cast and Shirley Jones would play his mother. The Freudian resonances are astonishing. His father wound up interviewing the heartthrob on Merv Griffin and his resentment of his son was clear. David’s musical and singing talents were only revealed to the TV show’s producers when a lip-syncing session stopped and Cassidy took up a guitar and played like Hendrix. He could play and sing and they didn’t need session players to substitute for him. The path to recording was set. His singles and the Partridge Family records were smash hits. Kim Carnes recalls opening for him on his first tour:  He walks out and it’s thunderous at that point. He was selling out football stadiums. Tens of thousands of girls were in hysterics. As Cassidy listens back to his father’s recording of the song that haunts him, he throws his head back and marvels at his father’s talent:  someone tries to persuade him that his own stardom could never have happened without musicianship but he’s scarcely impressed by his own success. Danny Bonaduce talks of David’s beauty, his haircut, the pookah shell necklace, the kindness – he reached out to Bonaduce and got him to clean up his act but he wasn’t taking care of himself. Jack Cassidy died aged 49 in 1976, burning to death in his apartment from a lit cigarette. He had been a heavy drinker, with his son stating he had once seen him knock back 15 Scotch and sodas. Late in the film, David admits that he is not suffering from dementia at all but the effects of long-term alcoholism. His friend Sam Hyman talks of how Cassidy always sought his father’s approval and it dominated his life, even at the height of his career. What his father understood – and his son apparently did not – was that fame would end. He, however, had never reached his son’s stratospheric levels of celebrity – as Bonaduce reminds us, David Cassidy’s fanclub at its height was bigger than Elvis’ and the Beatles’ combined. The Rolling Stones did five nights at Wembley;  he did six. Still, he was not respected. Cassidy had a kind of fame that was utterly different to anyone else’s – plus, he was a very young guy on his own. He didn’t know about the mechanics of the media powerhouses that had made him. What isn’t discussed is how much money the producers of The Partridge Family made from marketing his image on everything you can imagine and how very little he earned from being the most exploited man on the planet. He became ill during the production of this record and was taken to hospital. The film concludes after his death when the musicians gather again to record the harmony over his vocals:  the EP was released earlier this year. Candid, heartbreaking and honest, this is a haunting piece of work with some extraordinary video footage of concerts and behind the scenes that feels immediate, like it’s happening right now. What a tragic beauty he was.  Made by Left/Right Productions. He was America’s sweetheart for quite a long time there

David Cassidy Rolling Stone Naked Lunchbox cover

What is Cinema? (2013)

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If you get into that world it can be like a dream. Amid thrilling montages of films past and present, drama and documentary, art house and blockbuster, the titular question is addressed and regularly answered:  archive interviews and contemporary pieces to camera with auteurs are interspersed with ideas about audiences and materiality, while intertitles are dotted with aphorisms and quotes from directors and, appropriately, theorist André Bazin, whose collections of essays give rise to the name. There are clips of everything from Zorns Lemma to Vertigo, Ritual in Transfigured Time to Lord of the Rings, The Cremaster Cycle to The Long Goodbye. Choreographer and feminist filmmaker Yvonne Rainer describes butting my head against the wall, against familiar patterns and says of exhibiting her work, I go to some of my screenings and the reason to stay is to see when people will leave.  Critic and director Jack Waters talks about cinema’s functions in relation to passivity and control, everything the camera records being documentation. Robert Altman insists nobody should be able to articulate precisely what his films are about; while Akira Kurosawa declares, A truly good movie is interesting and easy to understand. David Lynch. Alfred Hitchcock. Chantal Akerman. Costa-Gavras.  Ken Jacobs. Michael Moore. Jonas Mekas. Bill Viola. Robert Bresson. They are all here, and more besides.  A wonderful, compelling documentary that takes in the totality of the filmic medium from the actualités of the nineteenth century to the vines of today. Written and directed by Chuck Workman.