La Strada (1954)

La Strada

What a funny face! Are you a woman, really? Or an artichoke? Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina) is a simple-minded young woman whose mother accepts 10,000 lire from brutish itinerant strongman Zampanò (Anthony Quinn) to take her on the road after her older sister Rosa has died doing the same job. He bullies her and she takes up with high-wire performer Il Matto/Fool (Richard Basehart) who is with a travelling circus which she then joins with Zampanò when he finds her. The men’s rivalry culminates in a death … Here we have a piece of chain that is a quarter of an inch thick. It is made of crude iron, stronger than steel. With the simple expansion of my pectoral muscles, or chest, that is, I’ll break the hook.Written by Fellini and Tulio Pinelli with Ennio Flaiano, this is the first of the maestro’s world hits and one of the classics of cinema. It is a tragedy told with immense humanity and vivid melancholy and is a tribute to the performing brilliance of Masina, Fellini’s wife and the inspiration for the central character, a waif of Chaplinesque attractiveness. Much of the film was shot around dawn, imbuing this picaresque of poverty with its unique tone of fatality. This marks a break with the director’s neorealist cinematic roots,  yet it is an unvarnished picture of post-war Italy, a stark contrast with the American Technicolor tourist romcoms being produced on location. However it embraces the vitality and symbolism of the circus and brings a distinctive worldview to global attention. Quinn seems unbearably tough while Basehart does well as a kind of trickster in this allegorical play on the fairytale.  Nino Rota provides the evocative score and the song which is repeated to such urgent effect. A devastating portrait of the destruction of innocence with the overwhelming power of melodrama. Once you lose your eyes, you are finished. If there’s any delicate person in the audience, I would advise him to look away ’cause there could be blood

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Green Book (2018)

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Travelling while black.  Dr Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) is a world-class African-American pianist, who lives above Carnegie Hall in NYC and is about to embark on a concert tour starting in Pittsburgh and then taking a hard left to the Deep South in 1962. In need of a driver and protection, Shirley recruits Tony Vallelonga aka Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen) a tough-talking bouncer from an Italian-American neighbourhood in the Bronx who needs work while the Copacabana nightclub is closed for renovations. This is the best offer of a job otherwise he’ll be cornered into working for local hoodlums. Despite the stark differences in their origins and outlook, the two men soon develop an unexpected bond while confronting danger in an era of segregation, with Don helping Tony write letters home to his wife Dolores (Linda Cardellini) and Tony displaying a unique approach to the threats and racism they encounter en route … The world’s full of lonely people afraid to make the first move.  Inspired by the real-life experience of Copacabana maître’d Tony Vallelonga and renowned pianist Don Shirley and based on personal letters from Tony to his wife and the Negro Motorist Green Book a guide book for midcentury black people needing safe places to stay, this is a bullet-proof comedy drama. It isn’t just a black and white film:  it takes a half hour for the odd couple to hit the road and Shirley plays with a trio, one of whom is Russian and whom Tony repeatedly mistakes for German – not his favourite nationality after serving in WW2. The opening section principally introduces Tony and his background as a bouncer with a BS radar that irritates people and gets him fired a lot. When we first meet him he’s beating bloody a hood with Mafia connections. The point is that this also examines perceptions of Italian America too, and not just racist attitudes – his are perfectly evident when he trashes two water glasses after black workmen have fixed the kitchen sink for his wife in their rented home.  It’s about how they live and talk and do business and look after each other when they’re out of work and the pressure to take and do favours for gangsters and it’s about what they eat – because this is also a film concerned with food: an array of the stuff that will have you gnawing your hand when you see platefuls of spaghetti and clams and meatballs and pizza. This has a nice corollary when Tony introduces Shirley to the joys of fried chicken. Perhaps there’s an issue for a black audience having this dignified, gifted multi-lingual virtuoso being educated in blackness through take out KFC and music stations on the car radio (he doesn’t recognise Aretha Franklin or any black popular singer – maybe) but it’s done with such warmth and with such a magnificent payoff in the final sequence after Don has taken enough from the Southern racists that only a condescending curmudgeon could get angry. So if I’m not black enough and if I’m not white enough, then tell me, Tony, what am I?  What flips the dramatic situation is when Tony is asked about the origins of his name after they’re pulled over by the police in Alabama.  When he says he’s Italian he’s accused of being a nigger – a common epithet used against Italians – and he reacts by punching out a cop landing both men in the slammer. This is how he reacts to being accused of being black – with violence. It’s the lesson of the film because he urges Don to stand up for himself like he does, but in a nice touch (with the metaphor of their mutual imprisonment in their attitudes intact) it’s Shirley’s connection with Attorney General Bobby Kennedy that proves to be their Get Out of Jail Free card. Sometimes playing for rich white people in Park Avenue apartments and keeping schtum works.  Sometimes. When Don is caught with his pants down in the YMCA with another man, Tony pays off the cops and shrugs it off, because he’s seen it all before in his job at that showbiz mecca, the Copa:  things get complicated, he says and fuhgeddsaboutit. Indeed for a film that wears its heart on its sleeve and declaratively hits hot-button topics about representation of race, sex and class without becoming mired in anything other than common live-and-let-live humanity, it’s an unobjectionable, balanced, remarkable and rather generous piece of work, a prism into the Sixties that throws today’s experiences into relief. Being genius is not enough, it takes courage to change people’s hearts.  The two leads are note-perfect in performances of great scope from a screenplay by director Peter Farrelly, Vallelonga’s son Nick and Brian Hayes Currie. Beautifully shot by Sean Porter, this is scored by Kris Bowers and has some wonderful interpretations of work by jazz greats. Has Mortensen ever been better in this heartwarming story that’s so well told? No wonder it’s awards catnip. Geography isn’t really important

Raw Deal (1948)

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Aka Corkscrew Alley. Waiting. Waiting. All my life I’d been waiting. For Joe. Joe Sullivan (Dennis O’Keefe) has taken the rap for criminal Rick (Raymond Burr) who owes him $50,000 and now double-crosses him into a flawed escape plan from prison.  Joe’s helped by his streetwise girlfriend Pat (Claire Trevor) and his lovelorn legal caseworker Ann (Marsha Hunt) and their competing love for him complicates things as he goes on the lam and the police are on his tail while he plans to board a ship bound for Panama … Close in on him from every side. Don’t give him a chance. Anthony Mann’s post-war noir is of a different variety from most, with a striking tone. The cinematography by John Alton is delicious, capturing the early morning sea fog as it licks the shore rolling in on tides of impending doom, perfectly complementing Claire Trevor’s mournful voiceover. A tragic noir, wonderfully executed with a complex protagonist whose motivations aren’t entirely clear. The love triangle is unexpectedly moving with the differences between the women well delineated although Trevor’s is the stronger part:  Suddenly I saw that every time he kissed me he would be kissing Ann. The story is by Arnold B. Armstrong and Audrey Ashley, and the screenplay is credited to John C. Higgins and Leopold Atlas.  I never asked for anything safe. All I want is just some decency, that’s all

The Last Movie Star (2017)

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I should have stayed a stunt man. Ageing film star Vic Edwards (Burt Reynolds) has to put down his ailing dog. His spirits appear to be lifted by an invitation to the International Nashville Film Festival but he’s only persuaded to go by his friend Sonny (Chevy Chase) who points out that previous recipients of the Festival’s Lifetime Achievement Award were Nicholson, De Niro, Pacino. When Vic boards the plane he’s in coach; his limo is a BMW driven by angry tattooed Goth girl Lil (Ariel Winter); and his first class hotel is a crappy motel. He wants out, especially when the Festival is in a bar with projection on a sheet and Shane (Ellar Coltrane) irritates him by asking on-the-nose questions about his choice of roles which tees off Festival organiser Doug (Clark Duke). After hitting the bottle, then hitting his head, Vic persuades Lil to take him three hours out of town to Knoxville where he goes on a trip through his past … What a shit hole. A riff on the career of Burt Reynolds himself, as the well chosen film inserts illustrate, in which his avatar Edwards appears and comments (as his older incarnation) on the presumptions of youth and the lessons he has learned as age and illness have beset his life, his stardom a thing of the past. An explicitly nostalgic work, in which the trials of ageing are confronted head-on by the only actor who was top of the box office six years straight, with Reynolds’ character (aided by the walking stick he used in real life) taking a tour of his hometown in Tennessee including visiting the house where he grew up and seeing his first wife Claudia (Kathleen Nolan) in an old folks’ home where she’s suffering from Alzheimer’s.  The buddy-road movie genre was something Reynolds helped pioneer and he and Winter wind up being an amusing odd couple, both eventually thawing out and seeing the good in each other as they learn a little about themselves. Adam Rifkin’s film is an unexpected delight, a charming excursion into the problems for a man faced with life after fame and it concludes on something Reynolds himself must have approved for what transpired to be his final screen role – his shit eating grin. Bravo. An audience will forgive a shitty second act if you wow them in Act Three  #MM2200

An Actor Prepares (2018)

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Maybe it would be a good idea to do some bonding. When he suffers a heart attack, hard-living movie actor Atticus Smith (Jeremy Irons) is forced to travel across the United States to his favourite child Annabel’s (Mamie Gummer) wedding with his estranged son Adam (Jack Huston) as he’s not fit to fly before cardiac surgery. Adam is a failing film lecturer and documentary maker whose painfully sincere work is sporadic and his health is problematic hence his frequent visits to a urologist. Girlfriend Clemmie (Megalyn Echikunwoke) is in London finishing up a project and bugging him on the phone. Atticus’ studio get a Hell’s Angel to take the pair across the country in an RV to ensure he’ll be in shape for their next movie but Atticus soon dispatches the guy. The father and son go to their holiday cabin, load up his vintage car and take off, meeting friends new and old along the way, including a former lover (Colby Minifie) of Atticus who’s now married to a preacher (Frankie Faison) … I’m a documentarian. I make documentaries about women in film. This starts out in rather clichéd fashion with a trajectory somehow familiar from Absolutely Fabulous but with balls (literally and metaphorically, since one cataclysm has to do with potential testicular cancer, another with baseball). No observation is too trite, nothing too on the nose for this narrative but some lines are pretty funny and hit home:  Live in the world not in your bloody head all the time. The father-son rivalry extends from penis envy (Atticus is a little too proud of his pecker) back to 15 years earlier to the divorce when Adam gave evidence against his father in court. Huston doesn’t have too many colours in his acting palette so for the most part Irons eats up every scene, with relish. When he watches contemporary porn on Adam’s iPad he comments, Too clean. This is like basketball.  It’s quite funny to see him working on his next part (God) while his son just keeps driving. Adam finally gets a turning point after some extraordinarily irritating phonecalls with his girlfriend Clemmie (pronounced Clammie, maybe pointedly) and even quotes one of his father’s roles but never shaves what Atticus calls his Osama bin Laden nutball beard, sadly. Occasionally however his character is permitted to surprise Atticus, who is named perhaps for Finch, to remind us that deep down he’s probably an okay guy despite his penchant for whisky and women and his tales of living it large with Richard Harris. Like all road movies, this is an emotional journey (yawn) but it gets better as it goes along and – ta da! – gets there in the end. There are nice small roles for Matthew Modine and Will Patton but this is all about Irons. Written by director Steve Clark and Thomas Moffett. The studio gives me stuntman work. Do you have any fucking idea how much that pays in residuals?

Father Figures (2017)

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I can feel your brother inside you. Oddball twin brothers, uptight proctologist Peter (Ed Helms) and laidback face of BBQ sauce Kyle (Owen Wilson) attend their mother Helen’s (Glen Close) wedding. While watching his go-to TV Law and Order SVU, Peter becomes obsessed with the idea that his biological father whose photo he’s kept resembles an actor on the show. Helen admits the photo’s a fake and she slept around ‘cos it was the 70s and says their father didn’t die after all – he was footballer Terry Bradshaw, now resident in Florida with a car dealership. The men take off on a road trip that sees them travelling the East Coast for answers … I stare at assholes all day long because of a fictional man’s colon cancer. Best thought of (if at all) as a kind of lewd fairytale (every father figure gives an inadvertent helping hand to the brothers resolving their fractious relationship, the fairy godfather is a lisping African-American hitchhiker); or a male Mamma Mia! in reverse with a kind of Wizard of Oz ending. I’m not sure that that much construction went into this but there are some funny moments (including a very lateral idea about Irish Twins…) despite – and this is a grievous insult – putting the marvellous Harry Shearer into the thankless role of Close’s new husband and a pissing competition with a kid. I mean, come on. Directed by cinematographer Lawrence Sher, making his debut with a screenplay by Justin Malen. I understand how Luke Skywalker felt now.

Morvern Callar (2002)

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Aka Le Voyage de Morvern Callar. There’s nothing wrong with here. It’s the same crapness everywhere, so stop dreaming.When her boyfriend commits suicide, supermarket clerk Morvern Callar (Samantha Morton) passes off his unpublished novel as her own after inventing stories to explain his absence then chopping up and burying him, ignoring his instructions for a funeral.  She gets money from a publisher for the book and departs Scotland to bliss out in Ibiza with her closest friend Lanna (Kathleen McDermott) on a druggy odyssey but finds she cannot settle…Fuck work Lana, we can go anywhere you like. Lynne Ramsay’s work always has a striking quality, a visual enquiry into the spaces between but also within people. This adaptation of Alan Warner’s 1995 debut novel spans north to south in Europe so that the journey (internal as well as external) is also filled with an increasing but confusing warmth, from Scotland to Spain, from blood seeping across a kitchen floor to dry dusty roads cracking in the sun. The sense of emotion is silently portrayed as a kind of ennui tangled with growing grief, a bereavement that cannot be danced or drugged away, disaffection through a lack of emotion camouflaged with the simple theft of a book. Morvern is no writer, she doesn’t have the poetry: she’s a shop girl. The pictures shimmer and sing while Morton oozes with sorrow in a thriller without tension, expressing the affectlessness of the unambitious passive aggressive Morvern herself, adrift everywhere. Written by Ramsay and Liana Dognini.  Where are we going?/Somewhere beautiful

A Star is Born (2018)

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Music is essentially 12 notes between any octave – 12 notes and the octave repeat. It’s the same story told over and over, forever. All any artist can offer this world is how they see those 12 notes. That’s it. Seasoned musician country rocker Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) discovers and falls in love with struggling singer/songwriter Ally (Lady Gaga) when she performs in a drag bar. She has just about given up on her dream to make it big as a singer until Jackson coaxes her into the spotlight, bringing her on stage at one of his gigs to perform a song she’s written and he has arranged. He feels sorry for her when she tells him she is constantly told, You sound great, but you don’t look so great. Jackson is playing better than ever despite his crippling tinnitus which means his ears buzz every time he’s onstage and his hearing is diminishing, while Ally shines in the light of his stardom. As Ally’s career takes off when she’s taken under his wing and then makes a deal with the help of her nasty manager Rez (Rafi Gavron) the personal side of their relationship is breaking down. The self-sabotaging Jackson fights an ongoing battle with his own internal demons, drinking, drugging, fighting with his older brother and caretaker Bobby (Sam Elliott) who taught him everything he knew while Ally performs to adoring fans and he struggles with his hearing problem … Look, talent comes everywhere, but having something to say and a way to say it so that people listen to it, that’s a whole other bag. And unless you get out and you try to do it, you’ll never know. That’s just the truth. The fourth incarnation of this story under this title and a remake of the 1976 pop star version, this is an adaptation of a story that first came to the screen under the title What Price Hollywood? a cautionary tale about movie stardom. Electrifying and enervating by turns, I changed my mind about this film probably three times while viewing it. It hits all the screenwriting marks – one hour into running time, things begin to change and at minute sixty-five Ally is taking over and the last hour is rife with issues. A lot of the problems are summed up by the term naturalistic – something that could be described as a substitute for acting technique by one half of the duo at the story’s centre:  scenes are too long and you long for some reaction shots. Jackson’s earthiness is juxtaposed with the savvy pop Ally manufactures at her manager’s behest.  These people are performing for very different audiences but the film is truly at its height when they are duetting despite their contrasting aesthetics. The last seventy-five minutes drag rather repetitively with the suicide scene and its inevitability triggered by Jack’s admission to the psychiatrist that he first attempted it aged 13 which just indicates what we already know. The Saturday Night Live performance scene is poorly judged. The downward spiral needed one more story beat – to show that Jackson had some will to live:  the appeal of this Evergreen story lies in the will to power transformation of the ugly duckling into the swan while her progenitor dies to make way for her celebrity. It seems too easy for one talent to surrender to another. It gains traction however from the powerful songs which were largely co-written by the stars (with other writers including Lukas Nelson, Willie’s son) and their performance in live settings as they tell the story of the relationship and the diverging destinations of the protagonists. It’s all about her really – as we see from the clever titles in blood red echoing Garland and the final shot, a massive close up on Ally’s jolie laide face. It’s more than forty years since the last incarnation which means we missed the Nineties version and one of the issues here which is lightly touched upon is how the nature of celebrity has altered through social media and paparazzi in an entirely new century – it’s handled just enough to remain cinematic without horrible phone screens and irritating typage appearing (thank you to the debutant director for this mercy). Their differing styles are heightened as he looks from his old school perspective at the dancers Rez has deployed to give Ally mass marketability onstage:  it’s not just popularity she wants, it’s world pop domination. What we know about the woman for whom the story now exists is inscribed in the screenplay: Lady Gaga’s own physical attributes – the nose job was covered, oh, a decade ago?! in her real life and it of course alludes to Streisand in the same role; while she (sort of) protests about photos that don’t even look like me and we have seen for ourselves Gaga’s gradually altering appearance offscreen, meat dresses notwithstanding; and her appeal to Little Monsters is managed through her association with drag queens and her makeover with icky red hair (she objects to the suggestion that she turn blonde – why?) and the content of her lyrics; while her voracious desire for multi-platform fame is given a cover by bringing on a vicious British manager to be the bad guy. The central mismatched lovers find their balance in their family issues – with Andrew Dice Clay coming off like a nice version of Amy Winehouse’s dad complete with his delusions of Sinatra-style infamy. Cooper’s problematically deep speaking voice for the role is actually addressed in the script when he tells big brother Sam Elliott I stole your voice which is both an in-joke and a nod to the audience’s familiarity with the western star’s growl;  Cooper’s self-effacing performance – which of course makes Gaga’s star shine brighter – makes this hard to endure since his alcoholic demise is hard-wired into our cultural DNA and sometimes it’s quite impossible to understand what he’s trying to say – ironically, since, his message here is, you need to make your voice heard. It’s well played because the pair are playing off each other’s inspiring talent albeit the vampirism quickly feels one-sided.  Still, it’s quite a double act, no matter how you feel about them. An imperfect but striking piece of work. Written by Eric Roth and Bradley Cooper & Will Fetters (who says he was inspired by what happened to Kurt Cobain), adapted from Moss Hart’s 1954 screenplay which was an inspiration for the 1976 screenplay by John Gregory Dunne & Joan Didion and Frank Pierson.  The 1937 screenplay was by William Wellman and Robert Carson while the original screenplay about star-crossed lovers colliding, What Price Hollywood?, was written by Adela Rogers St Johns and Louis Stevens. Directed by Bradley Cooper.  Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die

The Straight Story (1999)

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You don’t think about getting old when you’re young… you shouldn’t.  Retired farmer and widower in his 70s, WW2 veteran Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth) learns one day that his distant brother Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton) has suffered a stroke and may not recover. Alvin is determined to make things right with Lyle while he still can, but his brother lives in Wisconsin, while Alvin is stuck in Iowa with no car and no driver’s license because of his frailties. His intellectually disabled daughter Rose (Sissy Spacek) freaks out at the prospect of him taking off. Then he hits on the idea of making the trip on his old lawnmower, so beginning a picturesque and at times deeply spiritual odyssey across two states at a stately pace…  I can’t imagine anything good about being blind and lame at the same time but, still at my age I’ve seen about all that life has to dish out. I know to separate the wheat from the chaff, and let the small stuff fall away Written by director David Lynch’s collaborator and editor Mary Sweeney and John E. Roach, this is perhaps the most ironically straightforward entry in that filmmaker’s output.  He called it his most experimental movie and shot it chronologically along the route that the real Alvin took in 1994 (he died two years later). This is humane and simple, beautifully realised (DoP’d by Freddie Francis) with superb performances and a sympathetic score by Angelo Badalamenti. A lyrical tone poem to the American Midwest, the marvellous Farnsworth had terminal cancer during production and committed suicide the following year. His and Stanton’s scene is just swell, slow cinema at its apex.  The worst part of being old is rememberin’ when you was young

W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings (1975)

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I wish I was in Dixie. It’s 1957 and W.W. Bright (Burt Reynolds) is an easygoing crook who robs banks and gas stations because he has a grudge against the corrupt businessman who owns the SOS Oil Co. He bribes the attendants not to grass on him to the cops. He meets the Dixie Dancekings, a two-bit country and western band looking for their big break when he hijacks their car running from the police. Dixie (Conny Van Dyke), their singer, gives him an alibi. He claims to be in the music business, and ends up promoting the group. Wayne (Jerry Reed), the band’s leader, does not trust him, but the others all have faith in him. W.W. only steals from SOS gas stations, so the company’s chairman sends for Bible-thumping ex-lawman Deacon John Wesley Gore (Art Carney) to track him down. Meanwhile, W.W. and the newly outfitted band go to see Country Bull (Ned Beatty), a highly successful singer-songwriter. He is willing to write them a song for $1,000. W.W. talks the Dancekings into a bank robbery (SOS has just opened a drive-in bank branch) that does not work out quite as planned. When Gore broadcasts the description of the getaway car on a radio revival show, W.W. burns up his car. He is ready to separate from the Dancekings in order to protect them (Y’all keep practising – cos you need it!) but then he hears them rehearsing Wayne’s new song. He persuades Country Bull to listen to it; the man is so impressed, he puts them on the Grand Ole Opry. There Gore catches W.W. using an exact replica of his burnt car as bait…. If I ever turn queer, that’s the guy I’d turn queer for. That’s Burt Reynolds talking about Errol Flynn in The Sun Also Rises, the film within a film featured early on at a drive-in, in this John Avildsen production. Avildsen made this in between Save the Tiger and Rocky (so this is the one right before he got the Oscar for Best Director) and it doesn’t have quite the cutting social edge or drive of either but it’s pacy and energetic and seems to be on the cusp of something mythical. That’s emblemised in the 1955 ‘Golden Anniversary’ Oldsmobile 88 (it didn’t exist but three were made for the film) and in the time period – post-James Dean, with W.W. wearing a deep orange zip jacket that calls to mind Rebel Without a Cause. Just a matter of time. And money.  And luck. And perhaps for screenwriter Thomas Rickman W.W. is a smooth-talking charming Southern version of that character all grown up and wised up and prone to larceny. It was a true star vehicle for Reynolds and he’s well teamed with Beatty, his co-star from Deliverance and White Lightning as the country superstar and Reed (a legendary guitarist) his future co-star from Gator and Smokey and the Bandit (and Don Williams is also in the Dancekings lineup). You can call me anything you like but don’t you ever call me no communist. It has a nice line in irony (literally:  The Edsel’s the car of the future) and getting ahead by robbing The Man provides a nice backdrop for faux nostalgia and a behind the scenes look at the C&W music scene.  It was released just a few weeks before Nashville despite having been shot months earlier and being billed as the first movie out of that fabled quarter. Nashville however has a political element which made it a much more divisive piece of work, an effect generated by many of Robert Altman’s films. Beatty was also in that film, as the character Delbert Reese. But you’ll just die when you see him in the cowboy getup here and it turns out it really is a case of the emperor’s new clothes.  Reynolds is awesomely engaging as the shapeshifting conman, just like you’d want him to be in what is rambunctious entertainment. Rickman clearly understood how to get the best out of Reynolds and a few years later they collaborated on Hooper, which is one of his very best performances and a terrific film, an hilarious look at the life of Hollywood stuntmen.  Rickman also wrote Coal Miner’s Daughter and Everybody’s All-American, some of the best dramas of their era.  If you’re nice to people they’re nice to you right back and that’s what I like about the South