The Parnassus Times

May 3, 2008

The List is Life: #78

78.

The Dame;

Meryl Streep.

Making her screen debut in 1977 at the age of 28, Meryl Streep made her mark quickly. A year into her career, making an appearance in the award winning Julia, before winning an Emmy for her role in the television mini-series Holocaust. Two years later, her reputation was established when aged 30 she won a supporting actress Oscar for her role in the Best Picture winning Kramer vs. Kramer, it was her second Best Picture appearance in as many years after her quietly pained turn in the Vietnam epic The Deer Hunter and established the New Jersey native as one of the brightest sparks on the Hollywood map. Immortality was hers 3 years later with her leading turn in the emotionally harrowing, physically draining Sophie’s Choice, she won the lead actress Oscar and immediately took her place at the head of the quickly emerging generation of actresses. She went on to garner 4 more nominates in the 80s, and with Out of Africa appeared in her 3rd Best Picture winning film in 7 years. As the years have passed she has continued to gain a great deal of attention, racking up further Oscar nominations till she became the most nominated performer in history with her 13th nomination in 2002. Though often accused of being a mechanical, mannered actress, Streep is at times perfectly capable of playing loose, of being effortless and flowing as her detractors claim she is impossible of being. She rose above the turgid middle aged romance of The Bridges of Madison County, to give a heartfelt, melancholy turn, and with her role in Spike Jonze’s Adaptation, gave the sort of beautifully subtle mix of comedy and drama which she had never come close to displaying before, and leaving many to wonder why she doesn’t do it more often. Whether or not Meryl Streep is one of the great actresses of all time is a matter of opinion, but that she is an incredibly gifted performer, equally capable of earning laughs, and tears, with restraint or theatrics is a plain and simple fact. Pushing 60, she shows no signs of slowing down.

The Dude;

Peter O’Toole.

Playwright Noel Coward once told Peter O’Toole that if he had been any prettier, the movie would have had to be called Florence of Arabia. Depending on a persons tastes, that may or may not be the case, but if it is, nobody could deny that the Irish born son of a bookie who abandoned boyhood dreams of journalism to enter the world of acting has ever taken the simplistic route of coasting by on his looks. After small parts in small movies and bit parts on television, graduation day came; in 1962, at the age of 30, Peter O’Toole beat out some of the biggest names in the business to land the lead role in David Lean’s majestic Lawrence of Arabia, and an icon was born. In the 46 years that have come and gone since, O’Toole has amassed 7 further Oscar nominations, yet it was that first that almost half a century later remains the role for which he is, and most likely always will, be best known for. T.E Lawrence was a larger than life character, he was special at what he did and he knew it, O’Toole plays the part with absolute conviction, never attempting to reach out for the audience’s sympathy, simply bringing the character shining to life with a God like ferocity. He has brought that same ferocity to the vast majority of his roles since, whether providing the storm to Richard Burton’s calm in Becket, taking the lead in epic literary adaptations such as Lord Jim, more intimate ones such as Goodbye Mr. Chips, the thundering fireworks of his verbal duels with Katharine Hepburn in The Lion Winter, the odd but interesting choices of films like Supergirl or Caligola, or as the elder statesman, bringing his parched, resounding tones and towering pathos to supporting roles in the likes of Troy and Ratatouille. Peter O’Toole carried a degree of grandiosity out of that desert and into anything he has been involved with since, that he has played Presidents, Popes, Kings and…film directors, will come as no surprise, the world knows what he is suited for, and it’s majesty.

The Director;

Roberto Rossellini.

Roberto Rossellini was born into a bourgeois family in Rome in 1906, his father built the first cinema in Italy, and granted his son an unlimited free pass. As such, the youngster began frequenting the theatre from an early age, falling in love with the medium he helped to define decades later. Following his fathers death, Rossellini began working as a soundmaker on numerous Italian productions, quickly learning the different aspects of the moviemaking trade before in 1937 he made his first documentary, after this he went on to work as assistant on numerous other directors productions, gaining further experience. Though his directing career began soon after, it was not until 1945 that he began to establish the reputation that endured ever since with Roma, citta Aperrta. Made in the final year of the war it ushered in the beginning of the neo-realist movement that has been the hallmark of Italian cinema ever since, it told the harrowing tale of the city of Rome under Nazi occupation and made a star of Anna Magnani. He followed it up the next year with Paisa, a larger scale chronicle of Italy during the war. He completed his legendary neo-realist trilogy in 1948 with Germanna anno Zero, leaving his native land behind, Rossellini turned his attention to Germany, and the conditions in the country in the wake of the war, told through the eyes of a young boy, the nation’s future, and its struggles to overcome the past. In 1950, Rossellini married Ingrid Bergman, and over the next 4 years they made 6 films together, most famously Stromboli, Europa ’51 and Viaggio in Italia, all character dramas dealing with wider world issues. Though as a cinematic icon it was these later years that made him most famous, it was in that first decade, during the neo-realist period of the 1940s, that Roberto Rossellini made his most defining works as a filmmaker. He took non professional actors and put a camera to them, against the backdrop of one of the most turbulent times in the continents history, perhaps as close as narrative cinema has ever, or will ever come to capturing life on screen. He continued working till the year of his death, but it was in those first ten years of his career, that Rossellini earned cinematic immortality.

The Picture;

Singin’ in the Rain (Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly, 1952)

Hollywood had been turning out musicals since they knew how, ever since Al Jolson sang his way to immortality in The Jazz Singer, the movies had been brimming with song, from Top Hat to The Wizard of Oz to On the Town, from those beginnings to the genre’s decline in the mid 60s musicals garnered Best Picture Oscars on six different occasions, yet still, over half a century later, the Hollywood movie musical was perhaps never more perfectly embodied than in 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain. Created in collaboration between Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly (the two who had brought the iconic On the Town to the screen 3 years prior) the film set new standards of musical innovation, from Donald O’Connors physically awe inspiring, manic hilarity on ‘Make ’em Laugh’ to the unflinching joy of ‘Good Morning’, the dreamlike odyssey of the ‘Broadway Rhythm Ballet’ and the soaring precipitation soaked glory of the title song itself. Yet here was not a film built entirely upon its musical sequences, for Singin’ in the Rain featured fine performances from its entire cast, from Kelly’s ballsy, charming leading man, Debbie Reynolds’ sweet softness, Donald O’Connor and his electric verve and Jean Hagen’s greedy, jealous, simple and conniving starlet, and even more impressively, here was a musical social commentary at it’s heart. Telling the tale of the coming of sound to cinema, of the changing world and how all in it learned to cope, about ambition and stardom and glitz, about the ones who toil and make the magic and the ones that shine and create illusions. There were those that made more money, and those that won more awards, but only one, had Gene Kelly…singin’…and dancin’…in the rain.

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April 17, 2008

The List is Life: #80

80.

The Dame;

Marcia Cross.

Acting since her early 20s, Marcia Cross spent the first decade of her career working mainly bit parts on television before establishing herself on Melrose Place in 1992. After 5 years on the show she departed and returned back to the point she had been at before, appearing on such shows as Seinfeld, Spin City, Ally McBeal and King of Queens, before in 2004 she landed the role that put her on the map in a whole new way. For her role in Desperate Housewives, Cross has garnered Emmy, Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nominations. Though often overlooked in favour of her more  actorly, kookier or aestherically pleasing co-stars, Cross has proved from the very start that she is on a different planet all together. Balancing the comedic and the dramatic in perfect equilibrium, she stole the shows first season out from under the noses of everybody around her, with her pitch perfect delivery of every line and the extreme emotive powers of those enchanting eyes. For 20 years she paid her dues, and finally she’s making it count, embedding her Bree Van de Kamp upon the minds of all that bear witness to her.

The Dude;

James Gandolfini.

James Gandolfini began acting in his late 20s, his first screen role coming in 1987. The first decade of his screen career seemed to be generally built around his look, he spent most of his time playing heavies in films like True Romance and Get Shorty. His most substantial film roles both came in 2001 with supporting work in The Mexican in which he straight up stole the whole show from the two A-list superstars at the films heart with his heartfelt turn as a gay hitman. That same year he also worked with the Coen brothers in The Man Who Wasn’t There, for the first time playing a man more concerned with business than brawling and played the character with a slightly lecherous, but whole heartedly enthusiastic vigour. Yet there is no denying that what he is most known for is as the head of one of the most popular television shows in history. As Tony Soprano, Gandolfini rocked audiences as he took the character from one level to the next, charming, loving, amiable, astute, amoral, vicous, conniving. He was the loving father, the ruthless businessman, the venomous gangster and the troubled middle aged man. Serving as a figure of identification for working men everywhere, Gandolfini managed to portray both the human that we all know, and the monster that we are enraptured by, both with absolute sincerity. Over the shows 8 year run he embedded that into the publics conscience, where it will never be forgotten. He was an everyman, but he was something more, and thats what made him unforgettable.

The Director;

Arthur Penn.

After establishing himself in the 1950s as a television director, Arthur Penn moved into movies with The Left Handed Gun, an adaptation of Gore Vidal’s play, a Billy the Kid picture starring Paul Newman, portraying the notorious outlaw as the  emotionally troubled youth that he was. 4 years later came the adapting of another play, William Gibson’s The Miracle Worker, chronicling teacher Anne Sullivan’s relationship with Helen Keller. The film was, as its tagline stated “An emotional earthquake”, it landed Academy Awards for both it’s leading ladies, Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke. After this great success he took a 180 degree turn in taking the helm of the surreal, nouvelle-vague influenced Mickey One, a darkly atmospheric, dream-like tale of paranoia. The next year he got topical with The Chase, a state of the nation piece, dealing with the issues of violence, racism and corruption, running through American society. However it was the next year that he put his name on the map once and for all, with Bonnie & Clyde, as with his last two pictures this was influenced once more by the French new wave and more than anything dealt with the countries disenchanted youth. Set during the depression of the 30s but dealing with the issues of the counterculture age that was sweeping the nation. Bonnie & Clyde was the sparkplug that set off the reformation of American cinema and it was Arthur Penn, his European influences reinvigorating American film and with a finger on the pulse of the nation, concerned with its problems and with giving a voice to its youth, that stood of the forefront of that movement and solidified his place in history.

The Picture;

Rocky (John G. Avildsen, 1976)

If there is one word to describe this film, it’s American, if there is another, it’s fairytale. Rocky is an American fable, and in a decade that had been almost entirely dominated by a new kind of cynicism and bitter venom flowing through the veins of American cinema, it’s coming on the 200 year anniversary of its nations independence was a breath of fresh air. At its heart it is nothing more than a male take on the Cinderella story; of a down on his luck nobody, mixed up with the wrong people, and his one shot at something grander. It is a portrayal of that much talked of American dream, of a mans determination to make it, and the lengths he goes to and the obstacles that he overcomes to get to where he needs to be. Rocky is a character very much of his time, a symbol of the changing world, hulking yet simple and uncertain of his place in the world. Sylvester Stallone creates an icon in the centre of it all, quiet and good at heart, but capable of brutality when need be, a man seemingly at peace with his place in the world yet always dreaming of something more. Not only does Stallone create a beautifully simplistic character on screen (displaying thespian abilities, that make one mourn what could have been, had Hollywood superstardom not come calling), but as writer of the film he brings the working class neighbourhood vividly and romantically to life. In this film (marred somewhat by its sequels) the message is straightforward and simple as it’s titular character; a man with little in the way of prospects yearns to prove himself, a man looked down on by all those around him, seeks to show just what he’s made of, to all the world, on the grandest stage of them all. Winning is never his aim, it’s all in the name of pride.

April 8, 2008

The List is Life: #85

85.

The Dame;

Ava Gardner.

Though so widely reknowned for her looks, over the 18 years that she was at the top of her game, Ava Gardner took huge steps as a performer. Making her name as the deadly femme fatale, alongside Burt Lancaster in The Killers, the first of a number of Hemingway adaptations in which she starred, Gardner displayed the sultry beauty she has become iconic for, over the next few years she took in incredibly varying projects, comedy, drama, musical, adventure, film-noir, romance, she worked with major directors and major performers but all the while she was called on for little else than her looks. However, in 1953, under the employ of John Ford she played the wisecracking, emotionally fragile Honey Bear Kelly in Mogambo and scored herself an Oscar nomination. Her reputation as an actress on the increase, Gardner’s star continued to rise, having reached a level of credibility where now she was able to take lead roles in her own right as opposed to simply leading lady roles as she did in George Cukor’s Bhowani Junction. Probably her finest moment as an actor came almost a decade later when she starred alongside Richard Burton in John Huston’s Tennessee William’s adaptation, The Night of the Iguana, matching Burton blow for blow at the very least, she waltzed away with the entire film landing numerous awards nominations including BAFTA and Golden Globes. Though she continued to work regularly for the next 20 years, that was her last great statement as an actress, thereafter her work was, as she put it “for the loot”. The career that had come before was never tarnished, and the status as an icon of her era remains; in an era of skinny blondes, she was unique.

The Dude;

Tony Leung.

Abandoned by his father at the age of eight, the young and mischievous Tony Leung quickly transformed into a quiet, restrained child. Raised, along with his younger sister, by his mother who worked to put him through private school before financial difficulties forced him to pull out at the age of 15, he worked odd jobs before a meeting with fellow Hong Kong star Stephen Chow, influenced him to take up a career on screen. Beginning as the host of childrens television shows before in 1989 his role as a deaf mute in the Venice Film Festival winning Beiqing Chengshi (A City of Sadness) helped catapult him into the public eye, 3 years later starring alongside Chow Yun Fat he cut a blazing trail in John Woo’s Lat sau san taam (Hard Boiled) soon after he established a long standing working relationship with Wong Kar-Wai, with whom he had first worked in 1991s A Fei zhang chuan (Days of Being Wild), they went on to work together on 5 more occasions, helping each other establish their status as being amongst the finest actors and directors in Chinese cinema. That quiet child of the 1970s, repressed in the wake of his patriarchal abandonment had found a new way of communicating with people, through the close hug of the camera, and those eyes that speak a thousand words.

The Director;

Leni Riefenstahl.

Born into a working class neighbourhood in Berlin, Leni Riefenstahl began life as an interpretive dancer, before a knee injury during a performance called a premature end to her career; soon thereafter upon viewing a nature documantary she became fascinated by the emerging cinematic medium and its possibilities, she soon emerged in her native land as a popular actress of the silent era before being offered the chance to direct in the early 1930s, and in 1932 her debut feature Das Blaue Licht (The Blue Light) was released, during the filming of the movie, she read the autobiography Mein Kampf and as she told the Daily Express newspaper in 1934 “I became a confirmed National Socialist after reading the first page” that same year she attended a rally where she heard Adolf Hitler speak for the first time, she was mesmerized by his abilities as a public speaker, he in turn had greatly admired her debut directorial effort and employed her to film Der Sieg des Glaubens (Victory of Faith) an overview of the 1933 Nazi rally at Nuremberg. Though for political reasons the film was a failure, Hitler was impressed with her work and recalled her for the Nuremberg rally the following year, her subsequent Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will) stands to this day as one of the finest, most influential achievements in technique in all of cinema, documentary or otherwise. Pioneering cinematic techniques such as the use of tracking rails to achieve moving shots,  distortion of perspective via the use of telephoto lenses and aeriel photography she established herself as one of the great cinematic innovators. Two years later her chronicling of the ’36 Olympic games in Berlin (for which she had qualified to participate in cross-country skiing but withdrew to document) went on to champion the use of smash-cut editing techniques, extreme close-ups, tilted camera angles, the footage went on to make the two part documentary Olympia, the first filmed document of the Olympic games. Following this she began work on Tiefland, a feature film adaptation of Hitler’s favourite opera, though filming began in 1940 it was not completed for 4 years and the editing was not finished until after the end of the war at the completion of which Riefenstahl spent 4 years in a French detention camp, the film finally saw the light of day in 1954. This artistic struggle was emblematic of the rest of her career, though she lived till the age of 101 Riefenstahl would only complete on more film, in the 70s she lied about her age,  at 72, claiming to be 52 in order to gain certification for scuba-diving and after taking up underwater photography she worked on what eventually became Impressionen unter Wasser (Underwater Impressions), an up close look at life under the ocean, and was finally released in August of 2002 on her 100th birthday. She died a year a year later at the age of 101, a figure of artistic impression who had once served a pioneer for her entire medium.

The Picture;

12 Angry Men (Sidney Lumet, 1957)

In 2007, Sidney Lumet at the age of 83, directed Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, a vicious, breakneck sickening fable with a fractured narrative and everything from performance to score amped up to monstrous levels. 50 years earlier, the Philadelphia native had  made his debut with this simple work of extreme emotional power a final triumph for minimalist cinema in an age quickly becoming dominated by widescreen and technicolour following the advent of television. Headed by Henry Fonda in as gentlemanly and dignified  a role as ever,  and Lee J. Cobb unleashing the fiery passion he was so famed for; the film stretched far beyond the restrained confines of its courthouse setting and seemingly simplistic murder case and delved deeper into the heart of humanity. Taking in the good and the bad, the patience and intolerance, love and hatred and all their many complications. Nowhere in sight is there a special effect, no over the top production design, garish costuming or blaring score, it’s 12 men sat at a table, and yet adapted by Reginald Rose from his own play, with an eager young filmmaker at the helm and legends of the game in front of the camera, it encompasses more than most can manage.

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