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.

March 21, 2009

The List is Life: #75

75.

The Dame;

Rachel McAdams.

Taking up acting at the age of 12, at a summer theatre camp, Rachel McAdams went on to earn a BFA degree in Theatre from Toronto’s York University. Following graduation, a few bit parts on TV lead to a role in 2002’s  The Hot Chick, yet it would be another 2 years before the London, Ontario native found fame, first as superbitch Regina George in Lindsay Lohan vehicle, Mean Girls, a show she all but stole from a very talented cast, and then as one of the leads in epic, decade spanning romance, The Notebook, alongside real life boyfriend Ryan Gosling, the two shared a sizzling chemistry that lit up the screen and displayed the great potential of McAdams as a leading lady. The next year brought further success, first as Owen Wilson’s love interest in box office hit  Wedding Crashers, playing a pretty underwritten role, but instilling it with her effortless screen charm, as part of a large ensemble in  The Family Stone, she managed to stand out from the pack, and alongside Cillian Murphy in Wes Craven’s  Red Eye she took another lead role and knocked it out of the park, the two leads working brilliantly off one another, McAdams filled her character up with a sweet naturalism that had you falling for her in an instant. Though the last few years haven’t brought much in a way of major roles, she’s clearly displayed enough talent and range to make her a major name of interest in the future of cinema’s leading ladies.

The Dude;

Michael C. Hall.

Michael C. Hall’s career began Off-Broadway, he spent his time working in productions of  Macbeth, Cymbeline, Timon of Athens and  Henry V, in addition to his Shakespearean work he appeared in controversial, modernizing and homosexualizing Jesus tale, Corpus Christi and displayed his musical abilities in an early incarnation of what later become Stephen Sondheim’s  Bounce, and then in his first Broadway role, as the Emcee in Sam Mendes’ Broadway revival of  Cabaret. It was this role that lead Mendes to suggest Hall to his  American Beauty screenwriter Alan Ball when he was casting for his new HBO series, Six Feet Under. Over the next 5 years his Emmy nominated work as David Fisher brought great internal anguish searing onto the screen, the viewer feeling his pain, his conflicts all the way. Since that shows conclusion in 2005, Hall has spent the past few years finding widespread fame as a righteous serial killer, in Showtime’s hit Emmy winning and Golden Globe nominated, Dexter. His drier than dry wit, and seamless transition from loving brother and boyfriend to vicious killer all working easily and effortlessly in his hands.

The Director;

Jean-Luc Godard.

Godard first rose to prominence alongside contemporaries, Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette writing film criticism for Andre Bazin’s Cahiers du Cinema in 1951, across the next decade he tried his hand at documentary making and produced a number of short films, before in 1960 he directed his first feature, A Bout de Souffle, the film came to encapsulate the Nouvelle-Vague movement, with its frenetic jump cutting, and character asides, it also saturated itself with numerous references to popular culture, most notably the American movies Godard was influenced by. The prime of his career lasted for about 7 more years, turning out films like  Le Mepris, Bande a Part, Alphaville, and Pierrot le Fou, films that generally worked to conventions and with reference to cinematic history, and very often featuring his wife and muse, Anna Karina.  Following the couples divorce in 1967, Godard’s career took a great swerve, suddenly, as if in line with the youth of the nation, his work became almost revolutionary, certainly anti-establishment, he was tagged as everything from a militant, a radical, even a Maoist, he began to delve far deeper into political and social issues that had been there before, but that now sat at the forefront of his work. Along with this change came a denouncement of much of cinema’s history as bourgeois, and thus without merit. He continues to work to this day, turning out usually at least a film a year, aged 78, he shows no signs of slowing down, and no signs of softening his edges.

The Picture;

beauty_and_the_beast1

Beauty and the Beast (Gary Trousdale & Kirk Wise, 1991)

The story, Beauty and the Beast, can be traced as far back as 1740, written by Madame Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, a variety of different versions of the story evolved out of this one over the next few decades, abridged, and transformed into stage plays and opera form. The first major cinematic version was Jean Cocteau’s 1946, La Belle et la Bette, starring Jean Marais. However it was in 1991 when it came into the hands of the mighty Disney that it was forever immortalized for global audiences, and remains to this day, the only animated film to ever be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. The production lends the story an epic grandeur rarely seen in animated movies up till this point, giving it a real feel of prestige, usually reserved for live action pictures, it maintains the tales classical feel perfectly for adult audiences, perfectly portrays the greatly conflicted central relationship that turns from hatred slowly to love for a younger more romantic generation, and fills itself out with a host of wondrously entertaining supporting characters to enthrall children everywhere. The songs are gorgeously written, and brilliantly vibrantly visually realized, as is the entire movie, whether playing out in grand ballrooms, dark forests, or drunk taverns, you can feel the atmosphere shining through the screen. It is a beautiful film to behold, turning a story two and a half centuries old into something both modern and old fashioned, for the young and the old, for lovers of  story or of visuals, it is truly universal, and a real classic for all time.

April 5, 2008

The List is Life: #88

88.

The Dame;

Joan Crawford.

Perhaps most readily remembered for her feud with Bette Davis which came to a head in 1962 with her being blown off the screen in Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? and maybe forever tainted by the damning portrait painted by a bitter daughter in Mommie Dearest, the career that Joan Crawford enjoyed for over 30 years beginning at the dawn of the sound era seems to have been generally forgotten. She was an Academy Award winning actress with numerous acclaimed films under her belt, she worked with major directors and major performers. In Mildred Pierce she gave one of the more iconic performances of the golden era, and a decade later in Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar, she took the lead as the westen was turned on its head, with strong women in the central roles. One of the greatest of the greatest age, she has insured that she’ll never be forgotten.

The Dude;

Paul Schneider.

Entering into the acting profession at the age of 24 (making him a late comer by todays standards) in the films of David Gordon Green, George Washington and more notably as the lead alongside Zooey Deschanel in All the Real Girls, Paul Schneider has in a just a few short years established himself as one of the more accomplished supporting actors in the movies today. In 2005 he took a side role in Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown and with his quirky small town simplicity, literally stole the show from the leads. Then in 2007 he had what could be termed a breakthrough year, with polar opposite roles. Firstly appearing as the villainous Dick Liddil in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a supporting role that he filled with both sinful sleaze and unabashed charm in equal degree, and an almost entirely opposite turn as a quiet, loving brother trying his best to cope with an awkward situation in Lars and the Real Girl. He’s a wonderfully subtle, assured and diverse actor whose career is certainly heading for great heights.

The Director;

Sydney Pollack.

I would venture to say that Sydney Pollack’s finest accomplishments have come in front of the camera rather than behind it. Always taking small roles in movies, he has on more than one occasion, ended up being the finest member of the cast, perhaps most notably in his tiny role in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. However none of these on screen accomplishments can take away from the fact that Pollack is an Academy Award winning director and producer. It was his Robert Redford-Meryl Streep epic Out of Africa that brought him this acclaim, but from where I am sitting his finest work comes in smaller, more character driven movies, where the performers, not the wondrous grandeur take centre stage. As the tagline to his 1969 Jane Fonda vehicle  They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? declared, “People are the ultimate spectacle” and rarely is that more in evidence than in Sydney Pollack’s films.

The Picture;

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, 1977)

Though most widely remembered for the grandiosity of the final sequence, Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a film that is at heart one of his most intimate and human films. Driven at full force by a wonderful performance from Richard Dreyfuss, who won the Oscar for 1977’s The Goodbye Girl, but should probably have picked up the award for this film. It is a performance both comic and dramatic, filled with the wondrous curiousity of an overgrown child yet at the same time shot through with a certain darkness in its examination of a mans obsession and subsequent neglect of his family. It is that performance around which this film is built; there are brief moments of alien spectacle propping it up throughout, making sure that we remember that we are truly not alone in this one, all mysterious, all beautiful to behold but ambiguous in intent, and it all builds to a wondrous crescendo, that magnificently glorious finale in which all is revealed, truly epic spectacle, human curiousity and those 5 beautiful notes.

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