All That Jazz (1979)

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To be on the wire is life. The rest is waiting.  When he is not planning for his upcoming Broadway stage musical or working on his Hollywood film, choreographer/director Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider) is popping pills and sleeping with a seemingly endless line of women including Kate Jagger (Ann Reinking). He has to deal with his ex-wife and collaborator Audrey (Leland Palmer) and daughter Michelle (Erzsebet Foldi) and survives with a daily routine which always commences to the accompaniment of Vivaldi but must include drugs and sex to keep going.  The physical and mental stress begins to take a toll on the ragged hedonistic perfectionist. He has angina leading to hospitalisating and open heart surgery during which all the shows and episodes of his life appear to him in dreams led by Angelique (Jessica Lange) and his stuttering existence is a neverending chorus line on repeat, meanwhile the financiers are wondering if they should bet on his death …  You could be the first show on Broadway to make a profit… without ever really opening! With Fosse/Verdon upcoming on the small screen, it’s time to sit back and relish the great Fosse’s achievements as choreographer and filmmaker once again.  This was based on a period in his life when he was editing the Dustin Hoffman starrer Lenny and staging Chicago. At the same time. Considering that this is about life as performance, it’s crucial that Fosse’s avatar be as intense and rivetting as he was – and Scheider utterly inhabits the role in an enervating interpretation. It’s incredible that Reinking had to audition to effectively play herself, given that she was one of Fosse’s women at the time. Lange is wonderful as the death angel and the literal intercutting of Joe’s open heart surgery with episodes of his life clearly alludes to Fellini’s similarly autobiographical 8 1/2.  And why not. And it’s a musical! With simply stunning production numbers whose editing makes your nerves jangle with joy. This is how dance is meant to be cut!  Co-written by Fosse with producer Robert Alan Arthur, it’s ironic that it was the 56-year old Arthur who died following production and he was posthumously nominated for a slew of awards. I have no idea how, but somehow, somewhere, probably at a festival many years after its initial release, I had the opportunity to see this on the big screen and boy was I lucky. Film as fantasy? It was never more like life:  vicious, funny, dark, nightmarish and doomed.  A fabulously hallucinatory cinematic experience. Jazz hands, flicks and moonwalks? Absolutely! Assume the position.  It’s showtime, folks!

Happy 70th Birthday Jessica Lange 20th April 2019!

 

It’s time to celebrate the birthday of one of the most fascinating actresses to grace the cinema screen because Jessica Lange turns 70 today. She first came to attention in the remake of King Kong – widely derided at the time but worth reconsidering, trust me! She is exquisite as the angel in All That Jazz, a film whose sensibility she seemed to effortlessly inhabit. Although she won an Oscar for her supporting role in Tootsie it doesn’t represent her offbeat power which was more cleverly exploited in Frances even if the treatment didn’t always give her everything she and the subject deserved. She is astonishing in The Postman Always Rings Twice but after reading Sally Field’s memoir I dread to think what she may have gone through to get the role – look at what she does on screen. The arresting quality of her work seemed to be dissipated during her life with Sam Shepard or maybe that was a coincidence – but she turned in magnificent performances in The Music Box and Men Don’t Leave and was rightly celebrated for her role in Tony Richardson’s final film, Blue Sky.  Perhaps her altering appearance affected the receptions of fine performances in films like Cousin Bette and Titus but she kept working with big ticket if offbeat directors such as Tim Burton for Big Fish and Jim Jarmusch for Broken Flowers She threatened to tip into caricature in Grey Gardens, but that’s understandable with that material. In recent years her work on TV’s American Horror Story with auteur Ryan Murphy has made her a pleasingly constant presence and her role as Joan Crawford in Feud:  Bette and Joan was masterful, a conflating of not just the character with the characters Crawford played, but also an homage to Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest. What she does next is always worth waiting for. Happy Birthday!

Country (1984)

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We’re not dealing in real estate. We’re trying to farm.  Jewell (Jessica Lange) and Gil Ivy (Sam Shepard) run a farm in Iowa that has been in her family for generations. They make enough to just about get by until two devastating events threaten to take their land away. First, a tornado tears through the farming community and devastates the area, then the Farmers Home Administration calls in loans owed by most of the area’s farmers, which most are in no position to repay. The stress buckles Gil and he resorts to getting loaded every night leaving Jewell to do the math and figure out a way to save their way of life… William Wittliff’s screenplay is a properly political piece of work, focussing on the specifics of a family’s response to economic disaster in the era of Reaganomics – to the point that the President decried it which means it hit home.  Gil isn’t exactly a wastrel but his father in law (Wilford Brimley) leaves us in no doubt that he believes he has thrown away an opportunity to make a financial surplus on the best land in the county. Was his drinking to blame for the threatened foreclosure? Terrific performances in this detailed portrait of family life with a standout lowkey characterisation by Levi Knebel as teenaged son Carlisle. There’s an opportunity to see famed drama coach Sandra Seacat play neighbour Louise Brewer whose husband hides sheep from the banks on the Ivy land. The auction scene makes you weep. Heartfelt, powerful stuff. Produced by Wittliff and Lange and directed by Richard Peerce.

Hush (1998)

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Do you see what she’s doing? She wants to be me! Handsome rich guy Jackson (Johnathon Schaech) and Helen (Gwyneth Paltrow) are in love and he introduces her to Mom Martha (Jessica Lange) down home in the Deep South. About to have their first child, an attempted robbery and rape prompt them to leave NYC and they move in with Jackson’s mother in order to take care of the family estate which is a horse breeding ranch with a great yield. But all is not well in this household. Martha is jealous of her son’s affection for Helen, and, despite her smile, she’s starting to act strangely. As Helen tries to create a happy home life, Martha attempts to divide the family so that Jackson will become hers alone… Long before she played Joan Crawford in the first hagsploitation horror What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? pace Feud: Bette and Joan, Jessica Lange was sharpening her claws on Gwyneth Paltrow. Jackson is pretty dumb as sons of controlling mothers go, but Martha lays it on the line for Helen every day even trying to prevent her from seeing her late husband’s mother (Nina Foch) who’s in a wheelchair in an old folk’s home and full of interesting tidbits about her son’s death. When Helen’s departure from NYC is prompted by a burglar who intends raping her but she screams I’m pregnant and he scarpers you just know who’s behind it. Luckily Helen notices a blackened fingernail which leads her to the culprit – after she’s found a very spooky nursery in the stables. And her beloved locket with her late parents’ photo. This wears its influences on its expansive sleeve (Rosemary’s Baby et al) but it never really goes full tilt crazy even during the horrendous childbirth so the finale doesn’t have the delirium of Grand Guignol cacklins you want to see.  Mommie Dearest indeed. Written by Jane Rusconi  and director Jonathan Darby.

King Kong (1976)

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Off to the ocean wave are we! Setting sail to exploit the untapped oil reserves on an undiscovered island – but lo! What have we here?! A beautiful scantily clad blonde (Jessica Lange) washed up in a dinghy, her life saved by walking out of a bad movie screening and managing to make good her escape from an exploding ship … Anthropologist Jack (Jeff Bridges) is mighty taken with her but when they meet the locals on said Indian Ocean island, a large wall indicates that all is not well. That’s when they meet Kong, the island god. And he’s a rather strapping fellow. But there’s a lovely white woman to offer in ritual sacrifice … Lorenzo Semple Jr (what a fantastic writer he was) adapted the screenplay from the Thirties classic (appropriately, one of my desert island faves, written by James Creelman, Ruth Rose, Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace) but manages to make this its own beast, clarifying the tangled updated web of oil interests, (female) exploitation and animal welfare:  there’s no doubt whose side he’s on. The New York scenes are very well executed and the creature work by Carlo Rambaldi and Rick Baker is quite remarkable, a far cry from the CGI-fest of 2005. I’m with Pauline Kael on this one – it’s a comic strip romance that can make you cry. Take that, Tom Hiddleston, who recently stated (unironically uninformed perhaps) that his new remake is “uniquely set in the 1970s.” Bah, humbug, etc. No wonder Kong went on fire. Directed by John Guillermin.

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!