Rules Don’t Apply (2017)

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A girl can get in trouble for having a case of the smarts. 1964 Acapulco:  a decrepit and isolated Howard Hughes is on the verge of making a televised phonecall from his hotel hideout to prove he doesn’t have dementia to dispute a claim by the writer of a book who may never actually have met him. Flashback to 1958, Hollywood:  Small-town Virginia beauty queen and devout Baptist Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins), under contract to the infamous Howard Hughes (Warren Beatty) arrives in Los Angeles with her mother (Annette Bening) to do a screen test for a film called Stella Starlight. She is picked up at the airport by her driver Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich) only two weeks on the job and also from a religiously conservative background. He’s engaged to his seventh grade girlfriend. He drives them to their new home above the Hollywood Bowl where the sound of evening concerts wafts their way. She’s earning more than her college professor father ever did. The instant attraction between Marla and Frank not only puts their religious convictions to the test but also defies Hughes’ number one rule: no employee is allowed to have an intimate relationship with a contract actress and there are 26 of them installed all over Hollywood. Hughes is battling TWA shareholders over his proposals for the fleet as well as having to appear before a Senate sub-committee;  Marla bemoans the fact that she is a songwriter who doesn’t sing – so what kind of an actress can she be? And Frank wants to become a property developer and tries to persuade his employer to invest in him but Hughes is talking about a new birth control pill to him and when he meets Marla he talks to her about this thing called DNA that some English people discovered a few years back … It’s quite impossible to watch this without thinking of all the references, forwards and backwards, that it conjures:  that Beatty was tipped to play Hughes by Time after the mogul’s death, a decade after he had already espoused an interest in the mysterious billionaire who also lived at the Beverly Hills Hotel for a spell;  that he himself arrived in Hollywood at the end of the Fifties (via theatre) from Virginia and liked to play piano and got by with help from the homosexuals he impressed and the actresses like Joan Collins he squired about town;  Ehrenreich might be another aspect of Beatty as a youngster on the make, keen to impress mentors like Jean Renoir and George Stevens;  the motif of father and son takes a whole meta leap in his casting Ashley Hamilton, a Beatty lookalike who might well be his son (I think this is an inside joke, as it were), as a Hughes stand-in;  the dig at Beatty’s own rep for having a satyr-like lifestyle with the quickie Hughes has with Marla which deflowers her after she’s had her first taste of alcohol. It’s just inescapable. And if that seems distasteful, Beatty is 80 playing 50, and it has a ring of farce about it, as does much of the film which telescopes things like Hughes’ crash in LA for dramatic effect and plays scenes like they’re in a screwball comedy. There’s a lovely visual joke when he orders Frank to drive him somewhere at 3AM and they sit and eat fast food (after Frank says a prayer) and eventually we see where they’re seated – in front of Hughes’ enormous aeroplane (and Frank has never flown). This is too funny to merit the lousy reviews and too invested in its own nostalgia to be a serious take on either Hollywood or Hughes but it has its points of interest as another variation on the myth of both subjects. In real life it was long rumoured that Hughes had a son by Katharine Hepburn who allegedly had him adopted at the end of the Thirties. Timewise it picks up somewhere after The Aviator ends, but not strictly so. All it shares with that film is the banana leaf wallpaper. Tonally, it’s shifting from one generic mode to another (all that Mahler from Death in Venice is pointing to tragedy and age and decay, not youth and beauty and promise) but it’s difficult to dislike. It’s extremely well cast: Collins is terrific as the gauche naive young woman in the big city who’s given up her music scholarship and Ehrenreich is very good as the ambitious and conflicted guy who wants a mentor; Matthew Broderick does well as Levar, the senior driver jaded by long years of service to this eccentric and Oliver Platt (who did the great Bulworth with Beatty twenty years ago) has fun in a small role but Candice Bergen is wasted in the role of Nadine, the office manager. Bening is really great as Mrs Mabrey but she just … disappears. Beatty plays Hughes sympathetically, even unflatteringly (he knew him, albeit very slightly) and these young people’s relationship is ultimately played for its future potential despite its signposting as evidence of the hypocrisy lying directly beneath a church-led society. Written by Beatty with a story credit to him and Bo Goldman, and directed by Beatty, his first film in two decades.

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Happy 80th Birthday Warren Beatty! 03/30/2017

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Actor, producer, writer, auteur, legend. Warren Beatty turns 80 March 30th. From his discovery by homosexual playwright William Inge to his part in the Best Picture debacle at this year’s Academy Awards he has never seemed too far from the significant centre of writing and cinematic artistry that is Hollywood. He hero-worshipped Jean Renoir, George Stevens, the directors he felt that mattered and who could help him. He starred for Elia Kazan in Splendor in the Grass, that startlingly emotive Freudian psycho-fest that commenced his relationship with Natalie Wood, one of a series of Oscar-nominated actresses to whom he hooked his star over the following two decades. He became an actor-auteur proper in the wake of Mickey One, that New Wave-inspired drama about a Lenny Bruce-type comic made by Arthur Penn. When he bumped into novice screenwriter Robert Towne at the office of their mutual psychoanalyst he found the right man to do a major overhaul of a script called Bonnie and Clyde and changed cinema history.  (For more on their working relationship and friendship see my book ChinaTowne:   https://www.amazon.co.uk/ChinaTowne-Elaine-Lennon-ebook/dp/B01KCL3YXQ/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1490790984&sr=8-1&keywords=elaine+lennon. ) The pair decamped to London and were part of the Swinging Sixties – those 200 or so people who all seemed to have sex with one another in 1967 – and when Towne saw a Restoration play there he thought up an idea for a movie about a heterosexual hairdresser based in part on an ex’s stylist who lived like a rooster in a henhouse. It became Shampoo several years later and it’s a profoundly caustic, sad, hilarious take on what was wrong in the US using Election Night 1968 as its fulcrum. Beatty plays George Roundy, the promiscuous motorcycle rider who is outwitted by absolutely everybody and he is superb in a role which yields unexpected pathos. It was a very personal story but also a political one, an interest which he’d espoused since he and sister Shirley MacLaine had campaigned for George McGovern. He had previously tried to express his worries with the government and the existential dread behind it with The Parallax View, a stunning look at the major conspiracy theories of the time. He pursued his interest in screenwriting (he’d persuaded Towne to give him a co-credit on Shampoo) with Heaven Can Wait, a light comic remake which had unexpected success following his brutal and rather low awards campaign.  He expended a lot of energy making Reds, about American communist John Reed, which despite its epic political text is really about free love, infidelity and naivete. Following the failure of buddy comedy Ishtar made by his friend Elaine May (who occasionally did uncredited script rewrites for him) he made the comic strip extravaganza Dick Tracy which didn’t do as well as everyone had predicted. He bounced back with the gorgeous gangster flick Bugsy about the notorious mobster, a film that introduced him to wife Annette Bening (which came as a surprise to his girlfriend of the time who allegedly found them in flagrante in his trailer one lunchtime). They starred together in Love Affair (with a script assist again from Towne) but he really bounced back with the hilarious political satire Bulworth, one of the best films of the Nineties. If he never backed the winning political horse – Gary Hart, John McCain (close friends) – he has taken his time, too much, perhaps, in making films that he wants to make a splash. His latest, Rules Don’t Apply, a paean to Hollywood and Howard Hughes that was a box office flop with an ill-advised wide release, was preceded by a rare interview in Vanity Fair. He revealed that he had been at a gathering at Peter Lawford’s the evening of Marilyn Monroe’s death which Lawford always said she hadn’t attended. He said that he had walked on the beach with her and played piano and she’d been drunk by sunset. He didn’t say what time she left but she was found dead in her home a couple of hours later. But that wasn’t the story that made the newspaper headlines – it was the ‘revelation’ of the number of women he’d allegedly slept with, which he’d debunked. Don’t look here, look there, has always been his mantra. David Thomson got it right when he constructed that half-biography, half-fiction about him, Warren Beatty and Desert Eyes. He has retained long friendships and associations and been loyal to collaborators and made a lot of astonishingly persuasive and lengthy phonecalls, usually commencing with the line, What’s new, pussycat? Which tells its own story. People never really see what’s in front of their eyes, or what really matters. That’s why Beatty kept the envelope on Oscars night. He knows what’s important. Life. Reality. Now that’s a real star.

Oscars 2017

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Given that neither Cary Grant nor Alfred Hitchcock won an Academy Award (supply your own copyright symbol) the Oscars are basically a knees-up for well-paid advertising campaigns and schmoozefests that often finish up in a very long snoozefest round this time of year with all our Best Films overlooked. However … Oscar 2017 was a different animal. The opening number by Justin Timberlake (his song from Trolls) leading a team of dancers down the steps of the auditorium and winding up onstage was great fun; Jimmy Kimmel’s script and timing were immaculate, making great points without wearing everyone out (remember Chris Rock who just went on … and on … and on … throughout the three and a half hours last year? Because a snappy one-liner just wouldn’t do.) The awards were surprisingly well spread – the first eleven went to different films – and the LA LA Land juggernaut wound up with six awards for thirteen noms including Director with the sound and film editing going elsewhere making a Best Picture win less likely. It looked like seven for fourteen … and briefly was … but this year something odd happened. For the first time in living memory, Best Actor was called before Best Actress, which went to Emma Stone (Natalie Portman didn’t even show up.) And then Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway (allegedly – one couldn’t be entirely sure) came onstage to celebrate 50 years of Bonnie and Clyde and hand out the award for Best Picture. But the accountants (the only two people on the planet who knew the result) had unwittingly given them a duplicate of the Best Actress envelope. After the usual spiel, Beatty opened it and looked at it curiously. Then he made a show of checking for something else in the red envelope, looked at the card again, played for time, handed the card to Dunaway as if for confirmation, and she called out LA LA Land. The entire production team or so it seemed was in the midst of their speeches, when all of a sudden there were some people with headsets running around behind them, Beatty was handed another envelope, and when a bearded man, LA LA Land producer Jordan Horowitz said that the real winner was Moonlight, Kimmel looked chastened, Beatty puzzled. Horowitz pulled the card rather roughly from the new envelope the legendary Beatty was holding and showed it to camera where it clearly made the announcement, Best Picture: Moonlight. Horowitz called up the team from that film. The cameras showed the shocked and confused reactions around the auditorium. Beatty calmly explained he’d been given the wrong card and it had not been a joke. Horowitz repeated none of it was a joke, Moonlight was the real winner for Best Picture. Kimmel manfully took the blame, and in truth, he was probably regretting live-Tweeting/trolling the POTUS earlier because, after all, if this isn’t the biggest Fake News in history, what is?! You couldn’t make it up. Was it the Russians? No, it was PricewaterhouseCoopers. An accounting firm. That’s showbiz! Moonlight director Barry Jenkins was very gracious and referenced that the teams behind both films had done a lot of this awards show schlep together for the past few months and if this was a dream, that was okay. The little picture ($1.5m budget) that could went and did. Talk about a twist ending!  It was a great show. And, as ever, a very, very long one. And the best one in oh so many years. Kimmel was terrific, even if the tour bus from Star Line was a little OTT – but boy did those tourists handle their sudden stardom effectively. Overall, Oscar 2017 was a display of (mostly) impeccable behaviour, some fun running jokes and rising to the occasion when everything went hopelessly wrong even if Emma Stone bizarrely decided to throw some shade at hapless Beatty by waving her envelope around in the Press room before clarifying anything with the floor managers. (Maybe she really did watch Rebel Without a Cause:  she was like James Dean screaming “But I got the bullets!”). Beatty at least showed some class in comparison with both her and Horowitz. And I’m definitely getting new accountants:  to quote a former Celebrity Apprentice judge, You’re fired!

Shampoo (1975)

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The unthinkable death of Carrie Fisher prompted me to put on one of my favourite Seventies film and the one which marked her striking debut.  She’s the spoiled precocious teenage daughter of Felicia (Lee Grant) and Lester (Jack Warden). The former is screwing her Beverly Hills hairdresser, George Roundy (Warren Beatty) and it is one of their couplings that opens the film in radical fashion – in the dark. Lester meanwhile is having his own adulterous affair with Jackie (Julie Christie) whose former BF is George, who is currently co-habiting with Jill  (Goldie Hawn). All the women think they are unique in George’s affections but one of the film’s good visual jokes is that he gives them all precisely the same hairstyle (and that’s not all he gives them…) They all meet up at a party  on Election Night 1968 and their complex roundelay of relationships and infidelities unravels piece by piece. Some of this arose from screenwriter Robert Towne’s experiences with a dancer whose former boyfriend was a Beverly Hills hairdresser, who, far from being gay, was like a rooster in a henhouse. Apparently there were quite a few of them around Hollywood at the time. The other influence was Restoration comedy.  Towne regretted giving co-writing credit to his star, Warren Beatty, but it does have a political component not evident in his other work. Directed with great finesse by Hal Ashby and boasting a host of marvellous performances in a naughty, caustic tragicomedy that just improves on every viewing, this is a key film of the period. You can read more about it in my book about Towne, https://www.amazon.com/ChinaTowne-Elaine-Lennon-ebook/dp/B01KCL3YXQ/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1482705700&sr=8-3&keywords=elaine+lennon. Rest In Peace, Princess Carrie.

Reds (1981)

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Warren Beatty is emerging from his shell with another film this Fall (about Howard Hughes) and it’s been a long time coming. He takes his time (over some things, apparently) and it’s always worth waiting for. This epic film about American radical John Reed took a very long time to make – weather conditions were part of the problem, the script was the other. The spine of the story is his romance with a married woman, Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton), who was a dilettante journalist who left her husband to shack up with him,  and their love triangle with poet (later playwright) Eugene O’Neill (Jack Nicholson). He travels to Russia to document the Revolution and returns a Bolshevik. In any dimensional epic a romance is inscribed as the secondary line of narrative but this is really dominated by the personal story because it’s principally about characters who are diverted by ideas and ideologies – free love is just about escaping responsibility, not assuming it. Discovering too late in the day that Soviet rule is corrupt and corrosive and murderous (with Jerzy Kosinski a suitably intimidating Zinoviev), our heroes are incapable of being saved from their own foolishness. Notable for its cinematography (Vittorio Storaro who got an Oscar) and a score by Stephen Sondehim and Dave Grusin, this includes ‘witness’ interviews with personalities as diverse as Henry Miller and Rebecca West and is perhaps the kind of film Godard would have made if anyone had been silly enough to give him Beatty’s budget. Maureen Stapleton won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her no-nonsense Emma Goldman and Beatty won for Best Director.