Sam Shepard 11/05/1943-07/30/2017

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The death has taken place of the extraordinarily prolific and talented Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, author, screenwriter, actor and director Sam Shepard. He’ll always be Chuck Yeager to me. Rest in peace.

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The Country Girl (1954)

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This is the film that earned Grace Kelly her Best Actress Academy Award and nowadays her performance looks better than ever:  look at what she has to do. She plays the dowdy, dependable but once glamorous wife of faded alcoholic Broadway star Frank Elgin (Bing Crosby) whose chance at a comeback is created by temperamental director Bernie Dodd (William Holden) against his backers’ better judgement. Dodd believes Kelly’s a suicidal drinker but she’s actually fronting for the massive insecurity of her husband, an habitual and chronic liar who’s using their son’s death in his care as an excuse for his cowardliness and retreat to the bottle. Kelly has to keep him going while the out of town previews go badly and go along with his stories to Dodd, who thinks she’s destroying him until he finally sees Frank on a bender and Frank confesses. Then Dodd realises his antipathy is based on his pure misogyny – he’s down on marriage since he cheated on his ex-wife obviously – and thinks he’s in love with her. Kelly thinks she is sympathetic to him too but she wants her husband’s comeback to work too. This Clifford Odets story is adapted very well by producer/director/writer George Seaton with key observational touches – there’s a lovely bit where Kelly overhears the audience’s opinions in the interval and smiles to herself – in between the big scenes, which are adorned with some crackling expository and personal dialogue. One of Crosby’s final lines is to die for. However he overplays his moroseness and Holden is occasionally too strident although that’s probably the Odets character – making Kelly’s job of pivoting between the pair that much harder. Some of her best moments are beautifully adorned by Victor Young’s supremely subtle score. A cracking backstage drama that deals with addiction, bereavement, guilt, grief and a dying marriage:  you know, the little things. Now, let’s put on a show!

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!

All About Eve (1950)

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Bette Davis is theatre great Margo Channing, whose home is invaded by the unexpectedly venal Eve (Anne Baxter), a scheming no-name tramp who wants to take her place, steal her man and take over Broadway. Writer/director Joe Mankiewicz’ portrait of womanhood, ageing, rivlary, marriage, theatre and performance was based on industry scuttlebutt about the legendary Tallulah Bankhead and Lizabeth Scott during the Broadway run of The Skin of Our Teeth – or Elisabeth Bergner’s trouble with her secretary, depending on who you believe. Davis was in fact accused of imitating Bankhead – whose hairstyle she sports. In fact she had a cold when the film started and her director asked her to keep her voice like that. She only got the role because Claudette Colbert endured a back injury prior to production, in a case of life imitating art. Margo needs a new hit, written by her great friend Hugh Marlowe, whose wife (Celeste Holm) is her best friend. He’s always writing young, Margo’s getting older. Her lover is her director, Gary Merrill, a younger man, who just might up and run to Hollywood. Her ex-vaudevillian dresser Birdie (Thelma Ritter) doesn’t trust Eve one little bit and once ingratiated into the group, Eve does her best to alienate everyone and isolate Margo. There are endlessly quotable lines, many from acerbic critic Addison De Witt (George Sanders) with a wonderful walk-on from Marilyn Monroe as his latest protegee from the Copacabana Academy of Dramatic Art. Mary Orr’s story The Wisdom of Eve was published in 1946 and then adapted for radio three years later. She sold it to Fox and it was then adapted by Mankiewicz but she never received screen credit. She did however get an award from the Screen Writers Guild for Best Original Story. This is usually referred to as a Camp Classic – which is odd in a way because it’s about a woman asserting traditional femininity against a queer attack in an anti-fairytale (as it were). Davis is simply brilliant, whatever, reconciling the two facets of Margo – grand gestural movement (learned from Martha Graham) and closeup emotionality. Just classic.

The Winslow Boy (1948)

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Terence Rattigan’s play is brought to the screen adapted by the man himself (co-written with producer Anatole De Grunwald) and helmed by Anthony Asquith, directing a cast of the great and good of British acting of the time.When little Naval cadet Ronnie Winslow (Neil North) is sacked from the Academy accused of stealing a postal order, his stern but scrupulous father (Cedric Hardwicke) takes his word for it and insists on justice for his unfairly accused boy. Daughter Margaret Leighton backs him to the hilt and the case goes to trial with barrister Robert Donat leading the defence. This finely calibrated argument about right and wrong, justice, guilt, innocence, decency and family is old-fashioned in the best sense of the term. And how nice it must be to come from a family who don’t hang you out to dry for the fun of it! Fun to see Basil Radford (without Naunton Wayne!) as former cricketer now family solicitor helping out. Everyone pays a high price to see the boy right. Rattigan is little appreciated now but there was a time when his name was a byword for great theatre. Superbly shot by Freddie Young, scored by William Alwyn, this is another wonderful London Films production. Decades later North would play First Lord of the Admiralty in a new interpretation by writer/director David Mamet!