Happy 89th Birthday Robert Evans 29th June 2019!

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He was a successful child actor on radio and made the transition to juvenile roles on the silver screen. When that ran out of road he sold ladies’ slacks with his brother, making a million in women’s pants, as he liked to put it. Then he became the head of production at Paramount and was behind some of the best films in the last era that we can truly call a golden age of cinema, the New Hollywood.  He prioritised story above all so it’s apt that he wrote one of the best memoirs ever about the movie business The Kid Stays in the Picture which became a documentary (and an ace radio book). He’s hilarious and now he’s eighty-nine. Happy birthday Robert Evans!

 

 

 

 

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Little Big Man (1970)

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I am, beyond a doubt, the last of the old-timers. My name is Jack Crabb. And I am the sole white survivor of the Battle of Little Big Horn, uh, uh, popularly known as Custer’s Last Stand. When a curious oral historian (William Hickey) turns up to hear the life story of 121-year-old Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman), he can scarcely believe his ears. Crabb tells of having been rescued and raised by the Cheyenne, of working as a snake-oil salesman, as a gunslinger, and as a mule skinner under General Custer (Richard Mulligan). He learned the way of the Indian and the Creation story at the foot of Old Lodge Skins (Chief Dan George) who ponders the difference between Custer and Human Beings.  He also claims to be the only white survivor of the infamous Battle of the Little Bighorn but is he telling the truth or is he the biggest liar ever?… Am I still in this world? Calder Willingham’s adaptation of Thomas Berger’s novel is a superb, caustic, funny, shocking and humane saga of the West as you have never seen it before. Told in a circular structure through this self-proclaimed adopted son of Cheyenne, it debunks myths, casting an acerbic eye over the rationale of the genocides carried out by so-called American heroes and how they have previously been dramatised. Inevitably the awful violence calls up parallels with the Vietnam War. Hoffman is quite brilliant as the ridiculously old guy who claims to have been there and done that with Faye Dunaway lending terrific support.  This grand, flavourful shaggy dog epic is beautifully crafted by director Arthur Penn making it an insidiously charming, educational entertainment that is virtually a masterpiece of Seventies cinema. I was afraid it would turn out this way

Straw Dogs (1971)

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If you can’t catch ’em … shoot ’em.  David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman) is a mild-mannered American mathematician married to Amy (Susan George), an Englishwoman. They have relocated to the small town in rural Cornwall where Amy was raised, to a house filled with her father’s belongings. David is writing a book because he has a research grant to do a project on astrophysics.  He is ostracized by the brutish men of the village who are renovating the garage beside the cottage, including Amy’s old boyfriend Charlie (Del Henney). Eventually the taunts and lewdness escalate, their cat is strangled and hanged and two of the locals rape Amy while they distract David by taking him out hunting and leave him alone for the day on the moor. When the village idiot Henry Niles (an uncredited David Warner) winds up at their house after accidentally killing the local slut Janice Hedden (Sally Thomsett) following a church social, the locals come a looking and lay siege to his house and the passive aggressive David finally takes revenge …  David Zelag Goodman loosely adapted the 1969 Gordon M. Williams novel The Siege of Trencher’s Farm with director Sam Peckinpah and its sustained atmosphere of unbearable tension and brutality shocks to this day. The campaign of harassment is inscribed in the titles sequence in which we open on a gravestone and children torturing a dog:  we are quickly introduced to the casual viciousness of the village, the acceptance of violence – mentally retarded Henry is bitch slapped by his brother John (Peter Arne) for playing ball with schoolchildren;  Tom Hedden (Peter Vaughan) breaks a glass into the publican’s hand when time is called despite the presence of the local magistrate (T.P. McKenna);  Hedden’s trampy daughter Janice (Thomsett) and son Bobby (Len Jones) watch David and Amy in bed together. The goons played by Ken Hutchison and Donald Webster are uncomplicated thugs who nonetheless question David about his familiarity with guns (the anti-Vietnam war poster and the animal trap indicate where the film is going textually). He makes it obvious that he is anti-violence. The gang rape is anything but simple:  Amy tries to pacify the first assailant because like most rape victims, she knows him and that’s what makes this so convincing, never mind that it’s brilliantly shot and constructed.  She has gone around the place without a bra – even David tells her to start dressing appropriately and stop complaining that the locals are making horrible remarks. The marital strains are echoed when the vicar (Colin Welland) gives his wife a condescending look because she doesn’t know who Montesquieu is;  Amy doesn’t understand binary numbers. The drama is then structured about the outsider intellectual amid backward yokels, of whom his wife still appears to be one;  the awful Hedden’s concern for his daughter reminds us that Amy’s father dominates her domestic surroundings and she resents David’s retreat to his study. This is where I live. This is me.  I will not allow violence against this house. This was much misunderstood upon release but it’s a genre mashup whose antecedents – the western, the horror film (isn’t this a Hammeresque village with a Frankenstein’s monster?), the home invasion movie – are delineated clearly. The crosscutting (Nic Roeg’s collaborator Tony Lawson is one of three editors, including future director Roger Spottiswoode) also clarifies the complex and ironic psychology. You simply cannot say, as many did at the time of this film’s initial release, that this celebrates violence:  the technique just does not permit it.  David’s shit-eating grin at the film’s conclusion is perhaps what bothers people but as someone who has suffered outrageous violence at the hands of my thick neighbours I can relate to his turnaround and wish I were in a position to emulate it. When I asked the local plumber what was behind it he told me an apocryphal tale which ended in the deathless words, Y’see, nobody wants someone with too much education in their neighbourhood. So when anyone asks me what it’s like to live in the countryside, I tell them, Watch Straw Dogs. As far as I’m concerned, it might be a documentary.

All the President’s Men (1976)

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Where’s the goddamn story? There’s a break in at the Watergate building and a laidback and very green Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) is suspicious when the Cuban-American burglars appear in court with high-level representation. Boss Harry Rosenfeld (Jack Warden) teams him up with chippy Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) to help out  – Bernstein writes better copy. Editor Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards) is not convinced that there’s much there but reluctantly gives the go-ahead.  With the help of a mysterious source, code-named Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook), the two reporters make a connection between the burglars and a White House staffer. They encounter dirty tricks, ‘rat-fucking’ and an organisation known as CREEP. Follow the money Despite dire warnings about their safety, the duo follows the money all the way to the top… Part conspiracy thriller, part detective story, part newspaper flick, this only errs on the forgivably smug side that you’d expect if you’d been one of the hacks who’d (mistakenly) stumbled on an Oval Office-level conspiracy in the early 1970s. Part of director Alan J. Pakula’s unofficial paranoid trilogy (along with Klute and The Parallax View) this was adapted from Woodward and Bernstein’s book by William Goldman in the first instance – or actually four – before it was rewritten by Bernstein and Nora Ephron and then by Pakula and Redford, albeit those claims have been debunked. It’s a film that shows you the process of how to get and write the story – the sheer drudgery of sitting at desks, making phonecalls, being fobbed off, meeting strange men in car parks, going to libraries to borrow books, boredom, fear, anticipation, surveillance, and typing, typing, typing, the whole kit and caboodle. But when it’s played by two of the world’s biggest film stars at the time and they make calling someone on the phone so unbearably tense, you know you’re in good hands. As Redford’s biographer Michael Feeney Callan clarifies, Redford’s mind was already elsewhere during production despite the project being his and he was permanently distracted, yet we are carried on this tidal wave of information that started as a local story and became a national scandal – despite knowing the rather fabled outcome. What a way to make your name. Katharine Graham’s role was excised entirely from the action, to be resurrected in the preceding scandal of the Pentagon Papers dramatised in the recent The Post. Remarkable on every level, with the characters becoming at times functionaries of a cannily authentic production design by George Jenkins and a shooting style by Gordon Willis that emphasises light – its presence and absence, its curtailment and its blazing power – amid an ensemble of brilliant players in roles large and small, thrillingly brought to life. Classic.

 

 

Marathon Man (1976)

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How am I to fathom your mind if you continue to hide it from me?  Thomas ‘Babe’ Levy (Dustin Hoffman) is a Columbia graduate student and long-distance runner who has just enrolled in a doctoral seminar with Prof. Biesenthal (Fritz Weaver) where his focus will be the fate of his father a fellow historian driven to suicide in the McCarthy era purely on the grounds of his Judaism.  He is oblivious to the fact that his older brother, Doc (Roy Scheider), is not in fact an oil executive but a government agent chasing down a Nazi war criminal Christian Szell (Laurence Olivier) and who is almost murdered by a blue-eyed Asian hitman in a Paris hotel. Doc visits Babe in NYC and meets his girlfriend the allegedly Swiss Elsa Opel (Marthe Keller) whom he figures out immediately as one of Szell’s couriers. Babe doesn’t believe there’s a bad bone in her body.  Doc is murdered and his colleague Janeway (William Devane) tells Babe the muggers who ambushed him in Central Park are Szell’s henchmen but they won’t come for him tonight – but they do, and Babe is held at the end of Szell’s dentist’s drill constantly being asked Is it safe?  He is caught in the middle of a transaction being expedited by The Division who clean up matters arising from disagreements between Washington and the CIA ...  Director John Schlesinger reunited with his Midnight Cowboy star Hoffman to make this iconic paranoid thriller adaptation by William Goldman of his 1974 novel which invokes all sorts of historic nightmares not to mention the fear of unnecessary dental surgery. For a liberal pacifist you have some sense of vengeance Doc tells Babe when he realises he still has the gun their father used to blow his brains out. The last time I saw this was in the middle of another sleepless night during a three-month bout of glandular fever and the words Is it safe? made it impossible for me to recover, for, oh, probably another month at that point. There might be plotholes you could drive a truck through that not even Robert Towne’s putative and uncredited rewrite fixed but even fully conscious and in broad daylight it remains a transfixing piece of work whose echoes are still felt. The schematic structure is emblematic of a film whose many well-constructed sequences take place in famous locations – Columbia, Central Park, the diamond district, where Szell is recognised by two of his victims. Szell! Der Weisse Engel! shrieks a camp survivor as the old Nazi is ironically forced to get a price for his diamonds from the very race he tortured and executed with extreme prejudice thirty years earlier. The entire text is replete with such irony, expressed by Janeway in the line Everything we do cuts both ways after he supposedly rescues Babe only to deliver him back to the Nazi. The dialogue is biting and great:  I believe in my country/So did we all. Michael Small’s score is superb with a real feel for the emotive fraternal and familial issues underlying the narrative action whose logic turns on the notion of history itself and the versions of truth which we tell ourselves and in turn are told to keep us happy.  He did much the same job on The Parallax View, another paranoid conspiracy thriller whose similarly allusive style (and on which Towne also did some controversial rewrite work during a writers’ strike) makes it the best political film of its time. It looks incredible, thanks to Conrad Hall. Oh the Seventies really had great films. Nowadays they’d probably give Szell a sympathetic backstory. Not so much in real life for Keller whose father actually was a Nazi. History is all around us in this persistent, resonant film. Pauline Kael called it a Jewish revenge fantasy. Goy veh.

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!

Tootsie (1982)

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Dustin Hoffman is the out of work actor (twenty years and counting) who can’t even play a tomato without creating friction. His agent, Sydney Pollack (the film’s director after Dick Richards then Hal Ashby didn’t do it) has to tell him he’s unemployable. The real-life actor’s legendary on-set behaviour is tapped here for the obnoxious New Yorker who cross-dresses and becomes a hit on a dreadful daytime hospital soap where he falls hopelessly in love with Jessica Lange, the star who’s schtupping the nasty director, Dabney Coleman (always a joy).  With Bill Murray as Hoffman’s deadpan playwright roomie, Charles Durning as Lange’s widower farmer dad who falls for ‘Dorothy’ and Teri Garr as his actress best friend the cast is an Eighties joy. The chaos behind the scenes is something of a movie myth but none of it shows onscreen. Sitcom maestro Larry Gelbart wrote the story with Don McGuire (adapting McGuire’s early 1970s play) but Pollack (who compulsively hired and fired screenwriters) and Hoffman (in a role first offered to Peter Sellers, then Michael Caine!) put more through their paces – Murray Schisgal, Barry Levinson and Elaine May. Despite this, the story goes down smooth as butter even if the central conceit is as ludicrous as making Bruce Jenner Woman of the Year. Condescending to women? Just a bit! But extremely funny. Hoffman was distressed to learn that even with makeup he would never be an attractive woman and confessed that this epiphany led him to regret all the conversations with interesting women he might have missed. Oh, the humanity!

The Graduate (1967)

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It was Mike Nichols’ second film and his second adaptation, this time with Calder Willingham and Buck Henry translating Charles Webb’s brilliant satirical short novel. Willingham did the first draft, which Nichols discarded in favour of a rewrite by Henry. The Writers Guild determined the shared credit. And yet if you read the novel you can see that it’s a pretty straight lift and most of the film’s acclaimed dialogue is right there! Nichols had learned all he knew about making movies from watching A Place in the Sun one hundred and fifty times or more plus three days of tuition in lenses from Haskell Wexler on the set of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  Billy Wilder gifted him with his supervising editor to put this together but he quit in high dudgeon because Nichols didn’t follow his theoretical scheme – he couldn’t because he simply didn’t understand it. He needed to edit according to where he felt the camera should be. His brother had sent him a copy of an LP by a duo called Simon and Garfunkel and he played it each day in his apartment before he went to the shoot then he had a lightbulb moment and Sounds of Silence became the movie’s soundtrack after he used it to pace the editing, but it needed a new song about Mrs Robinson. The performers huddled in back of the studio for a few minutes and came back and performed their famous paean – it transpired that Simon had been working on something called ‘Mrs Roosevelt’ and they just changed the words. Dustin Hoffman is panic incarnate, Anne Bancroft’s role was offered to Doris Day but she turned it down and Katharine Ross is the lovely Elaine (sigh!). Everything Nichols had learned from George Stevens is on the screen:  the framing, the size of the shots, timing, placement, staging, the immaculately sustained tone, the perfectly judged performances that seem to radiate ordinariness and yet are precisely its opposite, these are all here in just the right measure in the story of returning college grad Benjamin Braddock and his affair with the mother of the girl he thinks he loves. This is so brilliant it simply has to be seen, again and again.

Agatha (1979)

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In 1978 writer and notorious drama critic Kenneth Tynan’s wife Kathleen devised a speculative account of crime writer Agatha Christie’s mysterious 11-day disappearance in 1926. It was initially proposed as a documentary for the BBC.  Christie had died shortly beforehand and her representatives tried to get it stopped. This elegant and suspenseful big-screen account is daubed in an autumnal palette shot by Vittorio Storaro and effectively contained by Michael Apted.  Tynan’s story is a pastiche of Christie tropes in a screenplay she co-wrote with Arthur Hopcraft (and her novel came out to chime with the film’s release). Vanessa Redgrave is simply luminous as the shy, introverted writing genius whose husband Archie (Timothy Dalton, Redgrave’s real-life long-term boyfriend) has confronted her about his affair with a woman in his office and his desire to get a divorce in order to marry the other woman. Agatha takes off and arrives in Harrogate, the destination spa town where his mistress is heading with her aunt, in order to plan a ghastly revenge. All of Britain is searching for her. The police don’t like her husband’s reaction and suspect him of murder. In a story where practically everyone is pretending to be someone else, the only occasional downside is the effect of Dustin Hoffman’s pantomime as (fictional) US journalist Wally Stanton, obsessed with tracking down the world-famous woman who had just published The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Perhaps that’s what they call star power. This lies somewhere between mystery and romance, biography and faction. Christie notoriously refused to address this episode in her autobiography and it was officially attributed to amnaesia. We shall never really know. Now that’s REAL star power.

Straight Time (1978)

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This had a convoluted birth. The novel on which it was based was written by Edward Bunker, a career criminal who wrote it in prison on a typewriter provided by producer Hal B. Wallis’ wife, a woman he’d befriended on the outside. Mrs Wallis died in 1962, Wallis didn’t like her old friends, and Bunker wasn’t finally released until 1975 when he began writing in earnest and No Beast So Fierce finally got published two years before he got out. Dustin Hoffman picked it up and intended that it be his directing debut – which it was, for a few weeks, until it all got a bit much and Ulu Grosbard was brought on board. The screenplay was credited to Bunker, Alvin Sargent and Jeffrey Boam but Nancy Dowd and Michael Mann (the same) were also involved in rewrites. Hoffman plays Max, the ex-con who gets major grief from his parole officer but secures  a job courtesy of a sympathetic recruiter (Theresa Russell). However his attempts to go straight start to go awry when he hooks up with old friend Willy (Gary Busey), a junkie … This is a fine 70s movie, with some of the nihilism and the unclear ending you might expect from films of the era. Hoffman makes the most of his role and with Harry Dean Stanton as support this is pretty fantastic from the point of view of performance. It was the incredible Russell’s sophomore movie, after The Last Tycoon. The following year she would be in the classic TV mini-series Blind Ambition;  the year after, the modern masterpiece, Bad Timing. All by the age of 23. Bunker wrote more novels and screenplays and acted a little – for Tarantino. Who else? (He was Mister Blue.)