The Parnassus Times

May 10, 2009

The List is Life: #73

73.

The Dame;

Michelle Pfeiffer.

Early work as a Vons check out girl and brief, boredom inducing college stints in the fields of Court Stenography and Psychology filled out the early part of Michelle Pfeiffer’s life, before, at the age of 20, she won the Miss Orange County beauty pageant, and after participating in Miss Los Angeles pageant that came after, was signed by Hollywood agent John LaRocca. The early part of her career consisted of commercials and bit parts playing nameless blondes, at one point she is reported to have tearfully exclaimed down the phone to her agent how “They’re putting me in hot pants, again!”. Personal insecurities lead her to join a cult, dealing in vegetarianism and metaphysics, they eradicated her drinking, smoking and drug habits, but took a huge amount of money in the process, control of her life was handed over to them before meeting budding actor/director Peter Horton during acting class at the Beverly Hills Playhouse, after helping her away from her predicament and getting her life back on track, the two married in 1981, and Pfeiffer’s rise began. She worked successfully through the 80s in all manner of films, Grease 2, Scarface, Ladyhawke, The Witches of Eastwick, some challenged her as an actress, some required her to stand around being pretty, something she actively loathed. It was at the tail end of the decade that after 10 years of toiling, her breakthrough finally came, first with her BAFTA winning, Oscar nominated turn in  Dangerous Liaisons, and then following it up the next year in  The Fabulous Baker Boys, BAFTA and Oscar nominations again coming her way, and a Golden Globe win her triumph. Another Oscar nomination and a host of Golden Globe attention would come her way over the next half a decade, her crowning glory in the 90s coming as Catwoman in Tim Burton’s  Batman Returns, her performance going down as as perfect an embodiment of any character in comic book history as there has been, capturing the human frailties of the character, and exuding every ounce of sexiness the role could have asked for. As 40 approached, the parts slowed down, though she still worked her charms in comedy and drama, period and contemporary, as a leading lady, as a supporting one, she displayed a great deal of range, tackling Shakespeare, working with the likes of Scorsese putting her up there as an actress as capable as any other of her generation. In the latter half of the first decade of this new century, the roles started to flow again, turns in  Hairspray, Stardust and reteaming with  Dangerous Liaisons director Stephen Frears, to take the lead in  Cheri, putting her back on the grand stage as an actress of a certain age to watch with a great deal of interest.

The Dude;

Robin Williams.

Mork and Mindy put Robin Williams on the map as one of the funniest performers around, at the same time his stand up comedy work, including 3 HBO specials brought him to an even broader audience, as did a 1986 co-hosting stint at the Academy Awards. It was the following year in  Good Morning, Vietnam that he finally put himself on the map as a movie performer to watch, landing an Academy Award nomination, he charmed audiences worldwide with his motormouth antics, and the incredible improvisation he had put to use during his years as Mork on the small screen. Two years later Williams showed a side not seen before, in Peter Weir’s  Dead Poets Society, the glint in the eye was still there, the sense of humour still prevalent, but the entire performance was infinitely more reigned in, far more calm control kept on proceedings, and Williams was thoroughly convincing, absolutely inspiring, BAFTA, Oscar and the Globes all sent nominations his way, his attempts at proving his range successful. Over the next few years Williams star went through the roof, varied work in the intimate dramatic  Awakenings, the madcap, sweet romantic in  The Fisher King, bringing a whole new side to Peter Pan in  Hook, not to mention  Aladdin, his magical voice work as the Genie, ushering in a new era of star power in animated features. In  Mrs. Doubtfire he reached perhaps the peak of this early period, turning in a performance that blended the most riotous comedy with some of the most heartfelt, pained drama, this mixture of humour and heart has always been Williams’ calling card, perhaps what has made him most popular. An Oscar finally came his way in 1998 for  Good Will Hunting, his transition to respected dramatic thespian well established, and perhaps paved the way for him to venture deeper into dramatic territory as he did in 2002, in Insomnia and  One Hour Photo, the former zany comic revealed a side of himself never seen before, venturing to a  dark, disturbed corner of the human psyche, he captured his characters disturbed mentalities, but found the humanity in them, found the heart, and proved himself beyond question as one of the most brilliantly diverse and capable actors of his generation.

The Director;

William Wyler.

Born in 1902, in the Alsace region of France (then part of Germany) William Wyler was the son of Melanie, his mother was a distant cousin of Carl Laemmle, found of Universal Pictures, and in 1921, after making contact with his uncle, who was always on the look out for promising young Europeans to come to America and work, he set sail to New York. After working as a messenger there for Universal for two years, he made his way west with dreams of becoming a motion picture director. After a number of years of toiling with odd jobs, cleaning stages, moving sets, he beame the youngest director in Universal history when he started taking the helm of the dime a dozen Westerns that the studio was famed for in the era. As the 30s came, he began to branch out, drama, comedy, romance, even gangster work coming under his umbrella, Wyler was famed for his insistence on multiple takes, pushing his performers to the brink, and often getting career best work out of them, a point proven by the fact that he directed a record 31 performances to Oscar nominations in his career, 13 of whom went on to win, including the only wins in the careers of Audrey Hepburn, Charlton Heston and Barbra Streisand. Wyler’s career, which had begun in the silent era, went on strong past the fall of the Hays production code into the realms of new Hollywood, in that time he sat at the helm of 3 Academy Award Best Picture winning films, all of which he won directorial honours for, he brought  Ben-Hur to the screen, the film that stood alone for almost 30 years as the only film to win 11 Oscars, he was credited by Bette Davis as making her the box office star she became after directing her to her second Oscar in  Jezebel, and his  Mrs. Miniver was said to have awakened support for the British war effort against the Nazis in the till then uninterested United States. The man gained success in all manner of different genres, was as comfortable at the helm of the most intimate drama as he was in control of the biggest epic Hollywood had ever seen, and continued going strong for 45 years.

The Picture;

Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes (Werner Herzog, 1972)

Werner Herzog is a filmmaker, who in his movies combines great visual poetry, with the most primal humanity. This was perhaps never better on display than in this film, the 1972 picture than brought him to the attention of the wider cinema going world. Partly funded by the public broadcasting company of Germany, Hessischer Rundfunk, it premiered on television in the country on the same day that it opened in cinemas, the film did not perform so well in its native country, but around the world, in Latin America, and when it was finally released in the United States, its reputation as a cult classic was quickly solidified. The production is legendary, shooting on location for 5 weeks in the Peruvian rainforest on the Amazon, shot entirely in sequence, so that the journey of the cast and crew would be directly represented on screen in line with the journey of the characters, the low budget no stunt men or elaborate effects were possible, the crew had to trek over mountians, cut their way through thick jungle terrain, and travel down often treacherous waters on rafts built by the natives. Though perhaps the toughest obstacle of all was the films leading man, Herzog and Klaus Kinski’s infamous relationship has gone down in history, and for good reason, the two clashed from the beginning, Kinski firing off a gun on set, taking off the top joint of one extras finger, continually walking off set until being threatened with an act of murder-suicide by his director. However for all the obstacles before them, what ended up on screen is pure poetry, a work of carnal beauty, a harrowing portrait of the destructive nature of obsession, shot through the lens of a man who makes it look like a documentary, and very often…seems amused by the whole thing. It is an inspired, unique piece of work, and one that shall surely continue to go down in history as testament to just how much can be achieved, with so little.

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April 6, 2008

The List is Life: #87

87.

The Dame;

Madhuri Dixit.

The Indian film industry is the largest in the world, it has the highest annual output of motion pictures of an industry around the globe (1200 in 2002, 877 in 2003) and the highest numbers in annual ticket sales. As such, its stars, many of whom turn out numerous productions every year, are iconic in status. Their popularity is so great, that many of the major names not only appear on film, they also perform songs from their films in concert. Madhuri Dixit is no different, acting on screen since 1984, a trained and highly accomplished dancer who first dreamed of being a micro-biologist before finding her calling. Though widely recognized for those abilities as a dancer and indeed as a singer, Dixit has a subtlety and control as an actress not widely found in Indian cinema, her heartbreakingly painful (and deservedly award winning) supporting turn in the 2002 production of Devdas, completely stole the show from the films two megastar leads. Following this success she retreated from the silver screen, finding her way to Denver, Colorado where she quietly enjoyed married life and the raising of her family. She did not return to the screen for 5 years till 2007’s Aaja Nachle, a film that while generally not well recieved, garnered much acclaim for its leading lady, and the proclomation of the New York Times that “she’s still got it”.

The Dude;

Bill Murray.

Among the dryest of the dry, Bill Murray somehow managed to establish himself as one of the funniest performers in American cinema. After graduating from the small screen, where he made his name on Saturday Night Live, Murray quickly established himself as a promising up and coming funny man in films like Caddyshack, Stripes, Tootsie and Ghostbusters. Soon thereafter he attempted to build a reputation as a dramatic lead with a starring role in an adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, which he co-wrote, the film was a failure and hurt by its resception Murray walked away from the limelight, leaving movies behind to study Philosophy and History at the Sorbonne in Paris, nothing but a cameo appearance in The Little Shop of Horrors for 4 years, until he returned to doing what does best, comedy, over the next few years turning out Scrooged, Ghostbusters II, What About Bob, and coming to a head with the widely acclaimed Groundhog Day in 1993. Following his reestablishment as a star he retreated largely to supporting roles for the next decade before in 2003 taking the starring role in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, earning an Oscar nomination, numerous awards and critical acclaim in a film that while shot through with the comedic touch you cannot help but find in Bill Murray movies, was largely dramatic in tone, helping him to find that dramatic leading status he had sought some 20 year earlier, he followed this with further leading turns in quirky dramadies The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Broken Flowers further establishing himself in his new niche as a leading force in indie cinema.

The Director;

Carol Reed.

Carol Reed was one of six illegitimate children of the stage actor, drama teacher, and the impresario founder of the Royal School of Dramatic Arts, Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree. As such, when as a teenager he sought to follow his father into acting, nobody could blame him, yet as time went by, it was as a director that Reed quickly established himself. In 1932 he began working at Ealing Studios, and the transition from stage to screen began, he made his directorial debut 3 years later with the adventure film Midshipman Easy. As the second world war began, Reed contributed to the war effort through doing what he knew best, his 1945 Ango-American documentary, The True Glory covering everything from the Normandy landings to the taking of Berlin, it won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature and quickly established Reed was a name worth watching. A few years later he turned the crown jewel of his career, the iconic adaptation of Graham Greene’s The Third Man, perfectly pitched between darkness and humour, the magnetic and mysterous presence of Orson Welles looming in the long shadows as around his aura Reed crafts a perfectly shot, gloriously scored and wonderfully written piece of work that still towers over most films made in its era, or ever since. Over the next few decades he continued working steadily, mainly on adaptations, his finest moment coming when in 1952, he became the first British director to be knighted, before in 1968 he struck big, bringing to the screen Lionel Bart’s musical adaptation of Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist. Oliver! was a movie musical that while never lacking a lightness in touch, was never afraid to stray into the dark and savage places at it’s stories heart, with now famous turns from Jack Wild and Ron Moody, it was really the directors nephew, Oliver Reed, whose monstrous Bill Sikes stole the show. The film brought Reed his first Oscar as Best Director after 3 nominations and established his legacy beyond all doubt.

The Picture;

Last Days (Gus Van Sant, 2005)

With 2002’s Gerry, Gus Van Sant abandoned bigger budget studio pictures to return to the lower free form style of directing pioneered by the likes of Bela Tarr, he delved into experimental cinema in a way no major director had ever done before after achieving the sort of mainstream success that he had achieved with films like To Die For and Good Will Hunting. Following Gerry and 2003’s Palme D’Or winning Elephant, Van Sant turned in Last Days, the final part of what he has termed his ‘Death trilogy’ the physical isolation of Gerry, social isolation of Elephant came to a head with the mental isolation of Blake. Loosely based on the final days of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, Last Days chronicles the downfall of a man losing the will to live, that simply through stylistic directorial choices makes the audience feel something similar. As our lead character sees nothing but mundanity all around him, through the sterile, static, hushed way in which Van Sant brings each barren, desolate shot to the screen we are left with some sort of understanding of just what is going through his mind. Last Days is not an easy film to watch, indeed it can be an incredibly harsh viewing experience, but the sheer artistry at its heart cannot be denied. With Elephant, Van Sant was accused of not giving answers or offering any sort of explanations as to the actions of his high school slayers, here he is not posing questions, he simply crafts a dark portrait.

March 19, 2008

The List is Life: #92

92.

The Dame;

Jean Simmons.

Jean Simmons came to the fore in the latter half of the 40s taking on two classical literary rules as the young Estella in David Lean’s Great Expectations, whose classic bitchiness bewitched the lead character, then 2 year later, she took on the role of of Ophelia in Olivier’s Best Picture winning, Hamlet  and at the age of just 20, picked up her first Oscar nomination. In the 60 years since then she has starred in an incredibly wide variety of films, from musicals, to swords and sandals Roman epics, animated films and Westerns. She has one of the longest most successful and varied careers in Hollywood history and is still going strong.

The Dude;

Morgan Freeman.

In an age of ‘stars’ both lacking in charisma and talent breaking into the spotlight in their teens it is quite something to believe that Morgan Freeman did not become a star until the age of 52, 1989 starring in both Glory  and the Best Picture winner Driving Miss Daisy  he was suddenly catapulted to fame after 18 years in the business and in the almost two decades since that breakthrough he has time and time again, established himself as an absolutel legend in the industry. His monumental turn at the heart of The Shawshank Redemption  probably remains the crown jewel in his career to date, but fine work under the Oscar winning work of Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven  and Million Dollar Baby has added to that prestige and playing the character he played in Bruce Almighty  certainly helped to shine a light on the general consensus of Morgan Freeman.

The Director;

Ben Sharpsteen.

Ben Sharpsteen is a man who worked a 60 year career for Walt Disney, yet across those 60 years his reputation as an icon of animation  was solidified by a 2 year period when he turned out Fantasia  and Pinocchio  in 1940, and Dumbo  in 1941, three all time classics of animated cinema, guided to the screen by the same man. Sadly he spent the rest of his career working mainly as a producer and his only directorial output came in the form of documentary shorts but those three legendary pictures proved more than many can manage in a lifetime and ensure that his reputation in the business is preserved forever.

The Picture;

Spiderman 2 (Sam Raimi, 2004)

When Sam Raimi brought Spiderman, the most iconic of Marvel superheroes to the big screen in 2002 his effort was met with rapturous approval as he turned in a wonderfully executed origina story with a great lead performance from it’s hero Tobey Maguire and remained true to the light comic book touch of its source. Yet it was at heart, just an origin story, and when all involved returned 2 years laters for the sequel they eclipsed their original effort in every possible way. It is an altogether bigger affair with a more complex villain, a far more powerful emotional story at its centre, Tobey Maguire on even better form than before, moment after moment of laugh out loud comedy and beautifully played heartaching humanity and one of the most satisfying conclusions in the history of the movies. It is pure and simply one of the most enjoyable moviewatching experiences that there is.

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