Happy 87th Birthday Joan Collins 23rd May 2020!

Bikini Baby

Today marks the birthday of one of the biggest characters on the acting scene in Britain and the US of the last seventy years. Joan Collins celebrates her birthday today and she had a bit of a head start with her dad in the business but her accounts of her early days sound as problematic as for any young actress with poor husband material and the inevitable sexist experiences although she says her talent agent father had given her fair warning of what to expect. After some supporting roles in decent British crime films where she variously played juvenile delinquents, girlfriends and prostitutes, to great effect in productions like The Good Die Young and Turn the Key Softly, she had a terrific run in Hollywood, including a role as Princess Nellifer in Howard Hawks’ Land of the Pharaohs, a Widescreen extravaganza that is still underrated but tipped the nod towards Cleopatra for which she campaigned but lost out to Elizabeth Taylor and wound up instead in Esther and the King. She played opposite Bette Davis, Gregory Peck and Paul Newman but in the Sixties following her marriage to Anthony Newley leading roles were harder to come by although she made memorable appearances in classic TV shows like The Man From UNCLE, Batman and Star Trek.  After working with Newley in a quasi-autobiographical production that marked the end of their relationship she returned to Europe and did some interesting work on terrific cult British items like Inn of the Frightened People aka Revenge, Quest for Love, Fear in the Night and Tales That Witness Madness, as well as adaptations of her novelist sister Jackie’s notorious bonkbusters The Stud and The Bitch. She attracted the interest of TV showrunner Aaron Spelling who needed a femme fatale for Dynasty, his wildly entertaining soap opera about a wealthy Denver family and her legend was truly born as the outrageous Alexis Carrington Colby, a character sharp of tooth and claw, as her devastating put downs and catfights with her ex Blake’s wife (played by Linda Evans) proved. She then powered her way into producing several glamorous TV miniseries of her own as well as writing several novels, beauty bibles and memoirs. She has never been afraid to put her money where her mouth is and has helped fund films like Decadence and The Clandestine Marriage when they might otherwise have never got off the ground or been completed. Recently she was reunited with Pauline Collins (from a great Tales of the Unexpected episode back in the day) for The Time of Their Lives and she’s been having great fun in TV’s The Royals as well as having a fabulous dual role in the 2018 season of the terrifying American Horror Story.  Never afraid to send up her image (is there a less likely candidate to play Roseanne‘s cousin?!) and even with her personal life played out in public she’s a straight talker and a great survivor, a hugely entertaining talk show guest, a total trouper and an all round good sport. Happy birthday, Dame Joan. You are a true star!

Happy 80th Birthday James L. Brooks 9th May 2020!

Happy birthday to a man whose innate decency, humour and optimism have kept US TV on an even keel for the last, oh, fifty years or so: Mary Tyler Moore, Rhoda, Taxi and The Simpsons, to name but a few. And he’s gifted us with some ace movies too, winning lots of Academy Awards for his actors as well as cleaning up with Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay and Best Director for his debut, Terms of Endearment. James L. Brooks is eighty years old today! Many happy returns!

Happy 80th Birthday Al Pacino 25th April 2020!

Al Pacino is eighty years old today. How is that possible? Not just the greatest American actor but the most liked of that triumvirate because he shares the accolade with De Niro and Hoffman. Somehow Al just seems a lot nicer. And it’s not because he plays nice characters. He embodies Michael Corleone, a role he played in just his third film, The Godfather. It is the greatest role any actor could attempt on screen. Watch him move. Watch his eyes change. Watch his very self transform. I watch it every night and I observe different levels of complexity each time. His utter believability is flawless. It’s as though he arrived fully formed, real. It’s an iconic role and it is in a way the prism through which we view all his other performances. That idea of evil is something he carries with him – in his other iconic role, Tony Montana, in Scarface;  and physically, in his beloved The Local Stigmatic, a strange poetic work that was his talismanic project and which hardly anyone has seen but which he shows at private screenings.  He has made perhaps one bad film per decade –  Revolution is perhaps the most egregious. He has made films for friendship. He even shot a few himself, theatrical works that co-starred those he most admires –  Chinese Coffee, Salome.  He is not afraid to be ridiculous – he even won an Academy Award for it in Scent of a Woman. Can you think of a more outrageous performance?  Dog Day Afternoon, probably. He gets away with it because he is brilliant, committed, special. He has spent some of the last two decades impersonating a gallery of truly problematic real-life characters – Jack Kevorkian, Phil Spector, Joe Paterno – and he does it with total conviction, style, aplomb. Al Pacino is the greatest living actor, the greatest American actor, the one we watch with a slightly tempered nervousness because we love him so. He never lets us down. His name will always be in lights.   Happy birthday.

Brian Dennehy 9th July 1938 – 15th April 2020

That great barrel-chested bear of an actor Brian Dennehy has died. An Irish-American to the core, he was a great exponent of Eugene O’Neill and made many memorable contributions to theatre including The Iceman Cometh on the Dublin stage in 1992. His Death of a Salesman was filmed in 2000 and he played Toby Belch in Twelfth Night. He might have been on your radar as a kid, in Big Shamus Little Shamus, or perhaps in First Blood, opposite Stallone, or in a run of fantastic thrillers like F/X, Gorky Park, Presumed Innocent and Best Seller;  you might have admired him in his first truly great screen role, The Belly of an Architect; or maybe you watched him play in any number of TV Movies including the Jack Reed series, which he took to directing himself; or a slew of other roles – he could do romantic comedy (Foreign Affairs) or serial killers – remember his John Wayne Gacy? Or maybe you watched everything he was in because he was just that good. An actor who embraced everything with gusto and never lost his intrinsic appeal, getting even better with age, like the finest of wines. He will be missed. Rest in peace.

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

The Uncanny (1977)

The Uncanny

Horror author Wilbur Gray (Peter Cushing) tells publisher Frank Richards (Ray Milland) of his fear that cats are preparing to replace humans and regales him with three true stories that prove his point. London 1912. The cat gets everything. wealthy dowager Miss Malkin (Joan Greenwood) is planning to write her only nephew Michael (Simon Williams) out of her will, and bequeath her large fortune entirely to her large multitude of cats. When her maid Janet (Susan Penhaligon), hears the old woman making these changes with her lawyer Wallace (Roland Culver) she alerts Michael and they plan to destroy the last copy of the will locked in Miss Malkin’s bedside safe. Janet waits for the perfect moment to crack the combination but Miss Malkin catches her in the act and attempts to call the police, forcing Janet to kill her. But the cats witness everything and stop her from destroying their inheritance. Quebec Province 1975Why can’t you be more like Angela? She never puts a foot wrong. Young orphan Lucy (Katrina Holden), moves into her aunt Joan’s (Alexandra Stewart) home along with her pet cat Wellington. Her cousin Angela (Chloe Franklin), however, gets extremely jealous when she discovers that Wellington will be living with them, since she’s not allowed any pets herself. When her whining does little to change her parents’ (Alexandra Stewart and Donald Pilon) minds, Angela delights in getting both the cat and Lucy in trouble, prompting her fed-up father to bring Wellington to be put down. Wellington somehow finds his way home, and helps Lucy plot her revenge against the troublemaking Angela by shrinking her cousin down to the size of a toy. Hollywood 1936.  It was the cat that did it. B-movie star Valentine De’ath (Donald Pleasance) does away with his leading lady wife in an artfully arranged accident, persuading his producer Pomeroy (John Vernon) into handing over the role role to the actor’s vapid girlfriend Edina (Samantha Eggar) who calls him ‘VD’. As the two celebrate back at De’ath’s mansion, they are constantly interrupted by his wife’s cat, who is taking care of her newborn litter. De’ath hates the little creatures and drowns them all, but the mother cat escapes and follows him to the studio to take her revenge, eating through ropes to drop a light on his head and then shutting an iron maiden with his girlfriend inside… This British/Canadian Amicus anthology features a great cast but offers fairly slim pickings even if the theme of feline revenge is immensely appealing. It just doesn’t serve it with sufficient variety. There are some nice moments – including a photo of Pleasence in his Bond role, white pussycat on his lap;  but the framing story isn’t sufficiently surprising even with its twist ending. The cats are delightful, if somewhat intimidating. And hungry. Written by Michel Parry and directed by porn stalwart Denis Héroux.

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

Gemini (2017)

Gemini 2017

I want to kill you right now. When Hollywood actress Heather Anderson (Zoë Kravitz) is shot dead in her home, LAPD Detective Ahn (John Cho) becomes suspicious of her assistant, Jill LeBeau (Lola Kirke) whose gun is found beside her boss’s body. Jill, on the other hand, decides to investigate on her own and clear her name, uncovering a list of suspects in a tricky web of relationships including Heather’s ex-boyfriend Devin (Reeve Carney), girlfriend Tracy (Heather Lee), agent Jamie (Michelle Forbes), producer Greg (Nelson Franklin) whose passion project is destroyed by Heather’s decision not to do it and then there’s her lookalike superfan stalker Sierra (Jessica Parker Kennedy)… You think you understood Heather. Written and directed by Aaron Katz, this noir-ish thriller stars two of the most interesting young actresses around and a nice setting – contemporary Hollywood. The story of the personal assistant has been done elsewhere – notably by Kristen Stewart, in a different context; and previously by Julia Roberts to Catherine Zeta-Jones’ romcom queen – and it’s a loaded gun of a premise with this hipster iteration complicated by murder. However it’s let down by underpowered writing which teases and suggests, extending to the occasionally oblique shooting style, and that means the twist doesn’t entirely carry the weighty intensity it ought. The shadow of Mulholland Drive falls far into this indie story’s LA dark night of the soul but it boasts a great sense of the city’s architecture, from 24-hour laundromat to modernist mansion. Ricki Lake appears as a TV host offering the usual redemption narrative conduit; while Forbes, whose appearance is all too brief, is one of the coolest of the Nineties cool girls and it’s a shame the script didn’t give her more to do. A film that has inappropriate lightness where it ought to fill you with anticipatory dread, it still has an oddly haunting quality you can’t quite let go with its circle of women carving out lives and identities not quite separate from each other. You know how you said you didn’t feel safe?  I feel like that all the time