LIFE (2015)

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Luke Davies’ screenplay centring on the circumstances behind the unforgettable LIFE photo essay about James Dean in an issue from March 1955 is uncertain about who the story’s protagonist is:   the most exciting actor most of us have ever seen, as incarnated by Dane DeHaan, or photographer Dennis Stock (Robert Pattinson)? Peculiarly it is Stock who comes across as pathological, unhappy and desperate whereas Dean seems a decent sort being screwed around by Jack Warner (Ben Kingsley) who knows he’s on to something great but wants to control this rebel from bad PR. Stock supposedly met Dean at a party at Nick Ray’s when he was casting Rebel Without a Cause and the distractions are looking at an actress who looks nothing like Natalie Wood and an epicene man who only bares a slight resemblance to Ray, along with the overriding story arc of Stock’s failed teenage marriage and his unwillingness to spend time with a very young son. Dean’s relationship with Pier Angeli is artfully used to construct the parameters of his Hollywood life;  while the trip the two men make back to Indiana before the premiere of East of Eden which commences in NYC’s Times Square is of course the setting for one of most people’s favourite poster, latterly called The Boulevard of Broken Dreams. The real story here is about the relationship between a photographer and his subject, whom he virtually stalked for the story, perhaps sensing something in Dean that Dean did not yet suspect was within himself. It’s nicely put together and shot, as you would expect from Anton Corbijn, a man who knows something about the craft behind creating iconic images – his rock career is probably the most notable of any photographer/video director of the last thirty years. But somehow even De Haan’s uncanny interpretation is not the favoured performance here and the ghastly Pattinson gets equal screen time in some sort of deluded payoff to the director’s former job. I don’t get it. How’d that happen?! There seems to be some kind of queer subtext that isn’t quite brought to the surface – despite the rumours about Dean, it’s Stock who appears to be unhealthily obsessive and projecting something that isn’t really there.  It makes you wonder about all those people who made money off their Jimmy stories when he was no longer around. Oh well, better to be talked about … than not. An opportunity mostly missed, sadly.

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Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969)

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Comedian turned screenwriter (I Love You Alice B. Toklas) Paul Mazursky spent a weekend at the Esalen Institute with his wife and wound up writing a five-page treatment with Larry Tucker (they wrote the pilot for The Monkees) about a filmmaker and his wife whose lives are changed by just such an experience and what happens between them and their friends when they put what they’ve learned there into practice. This elegant satire of New Age mores, the counterculture and late Sixties open-mindedness hasn’t lost its power, its humour or indeed its touching qualities. The casting is everything:  Natalie Wood and Robert Culp as the gullible couple; and Elliott Gould and Dyan Cannon as their friends who suffer their own psychological crises as a result of too much information, are all fantastic;  it’s impossible to pick between them since each conveys the truth of the situation in compelling fashion.  Each performs a perfect mix of comedy and drama, specific, controlled and authentic. There are some truly stomach-churning scenes of oversharing. What a directing debut for Mazursky! And it all ends in highly ironic fashion to the sounds of Jackie DeShannon warbling What The World Needs Now is Love!

Rebel Without a Cause (1955)

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Why? It’s my favourite film. I have adored James Dean and Natalie Wood since I first saw this aged 11. I’ve been to the LA locations and stepped around the High School motto. I’ve read everything there is on the production and I have always admired the cinema of Nicholas Ray and the screenplays of Stewart Stern. This moves me like few films could. It is staggering to watch in so many ways. It is a film about feeling. And because it’s my 1,000th post on Mondo Movies. Scuse me while I kiss the sky.

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

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How can an exercise in realism conceivably work as a magical heartwarming Christmas movie? And yet this does. George Seaton, an admirable writer/director/producer, took a story by Valentine Davies, went on the streets of New York City and into the halls of its most famous department store,Macys, and unravelled the likelihood of there being a Santa Claus. Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara) is the busy working divorced mom who needs to find a convincing replacement for the toy department Santa because the latest one showed up drunk at the Thanksgiving Day parade. She hires as his replacement Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) an elderly gentleman she’s met on the streets because he looks right but when she realises he thinks he’s the real thing she regrets her decision. She can’t get him fired because he has created so much goodwill in the shoppers.  Her small daughter Susan (Natalie Wood) is an outright sceptic and neighbour attorney Fred Gailey (John Payne) is romancing her and trying to persuade the little girl to believe in the magic of Christmas. When Susan sees Kris speak Dutch to a war orphan she begins to change her opinion. An argument with a co-worker sees Kris committed to Bellevue mental hospital and Fred defends him in court where his competence is questioned.  The existence  of Santa Claus is debated and thousands of letters addressed to him are presented as evidence in the court room … Susan’s dream of a proper family home is granted on Christmas morning when Kris recommends an alternative way home with less traffic and a For Sale sign invites them inside, where a red cane indicates Kris has brought them the gift they always wanted. It’s the home she has dreamed of having. Natalie Wood is mesmerising as the little girl who comes to believe in Santa, Edmund Gwenn is the perfect Kris Kringle and Maureen O’Hara, who had returned to live in Ireland, was persuaded back to the US by the quality of the script. Seaton was a significant multi-hyphenate who had early success first as radio’s Lone Ranger, then as a writer for the Marx Brothers. He worked as a director then parlayed his way to auteur status with this (for which he won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay) and The Big Lift. Both can be considered significant examples of post-WW2 filmmaking. He also received the Oscar for The Country Girl and he directed Grace Kelly and several others to Oscar success – including this film’s performance by Edmund Gwenn for Supporting Actor as Santa Claus.  He’d get my vote every year. An evergreen.

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Natalie Wood was tiny, barely five feet tall. You can see her footprints – the imprint of stilettos, probably – at Grauman’s on Hollywood Boulevard. And my mentor in LA took me to her grave in Westwood in Los Angeles. You could say I’m a fan. Have been, since I first saw her intense performance in Miracle on 34th Street when I was a tiny child myself. When I was carrying out research at the Margaret Herrick Library of AMPAS, I met her biographer, Gavin Lambert, one of my writing heroes. The book was about to come out and because I had reviewed one of his earlier biographies, we struck up a friendship before his untimely death. He and Wood were good friends and his book is a great tribute to a wonderful actress – she had starred in an adaptation of his Hollywood pastiche, Inside Daisy Clover. Bizarrely, on that same trip, I found myself on a flight out of LA  beside her babysitter’s neighbours – they said the woman had stayed at the Wood family home for 2 weeks following her death that terrible night 35 years ago. She was found near Catalina Island, having supposedly fallen off the Splendor, the boat she owned with husband Robert Wagner and named for what is her greatest performance in the astonishing Splendor in the Grass, where she met Warren Beatty. Wood and Wagner were hosting her Brainstorm co-star Christopher Walken for the weekend. She was afraid of water. And she drowned. Eventually. Speculation persists as to how this occurred but I don’t know and whoever does isn’t telling. Wood played by Hollywood’s rules and survived, until that awful night. When she was raped by a major star who told her he’d always wanted to have intercourse with a child, she and her mother stayed quiet. (A recent documentary made it very clear who did it without having to verbalise it – he is the same nonagenarian thought to have murdered a little known actress from one of his films in another cover up a few years earlier: she just … vanished). What I do know is that Natalie Wood cracks my heart wide open every time I see her. She is just pure emotion. She could do comedy both sly and broad, straight drama, musicals, romance, slapstick, period and contemporary, and she even made Orson Welles look silly when she was just a kid. I adore her. She will never be forgotten. I still find it hard to believe she is gone.

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Marilyn’s Last Day

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Marilyn Monroe is often on my mind. If you were to draw a Venn diagram of people who read the monthly Vanity Fair and people who are fans of Monroe I don’t know for sure but I think the common ground could be pretty significant. Natalie Wood’s anniversary is on my mind this weekend; so Warren Beatty is also on my mind. And his recent interview in Vanity Fair (November 2016) about his upcoming film concerning, among other things, Howard Hughes, and Hollywood, is very much on my mind. But mainly it’s the other things he mentions.  Buried in his summertime chats with Sam Kashner is a revelation that was suggested by Norman Mailer in his 1973 biography Marilyn; and again by Anthony Summers in Goddess (1985) and which elicits no real surprise on the part of the interviewer here or at least in how he presents the information. Turns out that Beatty really was at Peter Lawford’s on August 4th 1962, invited over for tacos and poker. He encountered Monroe there. They went for a walk on the beach. Then he took to the piano and she sat there, wearing a clinging dress, listening to him play and chatting to him. She asked him his age. She was drinking champagne. Beatty says she was tipsy by sunset. They didn’t play poker. If he said anything to Kashner about the time she left, or whether she stayed on for dinner, or who else was actually there, including Natalie Wood, it’s been excised. I wonder what if anything was said off the record because according to Summers,  Wood told someone in 1979 at Darryl Zanuck’s funeral that she too had been at the Lawfords’ that evening and had met Marilyn there. They were friends. For 54 years the myth has grown, exacerbated by Lawford’s own claim, and repeated by every one of the biographers over the past three decades since Summers’ book [and there are a lot] that she phoned him in a slurred voice that evening sometime after eight o’clock cancelling her visit (Fred Laurence Guiles, Norma Jeane, revised in 1984:  465). She was in his house. Is Lawford’s version of events even remotely plausible given that Monroe was certainly in distress if not actually dead by ten thirty and her body found in a clearly contrived situation? Beatty’s admission rewrites the narrative yet again.  I wish more people would tell the real truth. Her death still bothers me that much. How about you?

The Great Race (1965)

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Extremely long and lavish but fun and entertaining comedy version of the 1908 transcontinental land race from New York to Paris – using every means, fair and foul. Jack Lemmon is the moustache-twirling villainous Professor Fate while cleancut white-suited Tony Curtis is the good guy and Natalie Wood is the feminist journalist who joins in but whose car breaks down midway and she hitches a ride … Director Blake Edwards (working from Arthur Ross’s screenplay of Edwards’ original story) pays homage to the slapstick comedies of his youth with pratfalls, barroom brawls and piefights – the film is dedicated to Laurel and Hardy. There’s Jack times 2 in a Ruritanian kingdom so we have a comic take on The Prince and the Pauper with swordfights for good measure. There are some nice performances including Peter Falk as as Fate’s sidekick, Keenan Wynn as Wood’s mechanic and the delightful Dorothy Provine showing up as a showgirl in the western parody sequence. Wood’s recent divorce from Robert Wagner meant he didn’t get the lead as intended and she only agreed to do this in exchange for doing Inside Daisy Clover, the Gavin Lambert adaptation. She looks incredibly pretty and her costumes by Edith Head undoubtedly help. Lambert and Wood became close friends and he wrote a brilliant biography of her. The title cards are a lovely Pop tribute to late nineteenth century French paintings. It was billed as the funniest comedy ever made, it’s not – it’s the most expensive – but it’s good for a laugh.