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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March 22, 2009

The List is Life: #74

74.

The Dame;

Anna Friel.

Though she began acting at 13, it would be 5 years and a variety of appearances on numerous television shows before Anna Friel got her big break, hired to Channel 4’s  Brookside. Though only on the show for 2 years, it was a memorable 2 years, Friel entering into television history by partaking in the first pre-watershed lesbian kiss ever broadcast on British TV. Following her departure from the show her first work came in Stephen Poliakoff’s television movie  The Tribe, she courted controversy once again after much nudity and an infamous threesome scene proved to be what the show was most directly remembered for. Over the next decade, her most notable work came probably as Hermia in a starstudded production of  A Midsummer Night’s Dream, alongside such luminaries as Kevin Kline, Michelle Pfeiffer, Rupert Everett and Calista Flockhart. It was only in 2007 that her next real breakthrough came, landing the role of Charlotte Charles on ABC’s  Pushing Daisies, providing the sweet, but sparky love interest at the shows heart. Her easy charm, dry wit, telling, emotive eyes and her common but not TOO common voice making her an easy to love actress with underrated abilities.

The Dude;

Martin Sheen.

In spite of his fathers disapproval of the craft, Martin Sheen, bitten by a desire to act, deliberately flunked the entrance exams to the University of Dayton, borrowed money from a Catholic priest and headed to New York City. Early success came his way when in 1965, aged 25, he was nominated for a Tony for his supporting work in Pulitzer Prize winning play  The Subject Was Roses. The following years were filled mainly with work in TV movies and TV shows, before in 1973, he was hired to star in the feature film debut of Terrence Malick. Badlands was a resounding critical success upon release, playing at the New York Film Festival where it is said to have stolen the spotlight even from Martin Scorsese’s  Mean Streets. Despite the attention the film garnered, Sheen’s real breakthrough would not come until Harvey Keitel was fired from the lead in  Apocalypse Now after just 2 weeks shooting and he was drafted into replace him. The shoot lasted for 16 months and in the midst of production Sheen suffered a heart attack, the payoff came though, when the film won the Cannes Film Festival Palme D’Or, was nominated for Oscars and Sheen himself recieved a BAFTA nomination for his work. Movie success finally reached, Sheen worked steadily for the next 2 decades, won an Emmy, appeared in  Gandhi, played JFK in an NBC miniseries, acted as narrator in Oliver Stone’s  JFK, however it was not until 1999 that real superstardom came his way. Cast by Aaron Sorkin to play the President of the United States in  The West Wing, the role was initially intended only intended as a minor one, planned to appear in just 4 episodes a season, however after the pilot this plan was rethought and Sheen’s commanding screen presence benefited the show greatly. Easily, naturally switching between loving family man, mighty commander, poetic muser, or witty old soul, Sheen nailed every facet of the character, creating a President anybody could love, capturing his strengths and his weaknesses, his telling physicality and his complex web of emotions, nailing Sorkin’s trademark dialogue naturally, and finally sinking his teeth deeply into a role worthy of his talents, one that proved once and for all just what he could do.

The Director;

Krzysztof Kieslowski.

Kieslowski’s artistic origins emerged with an interest in theatre, a desire to be a theatre director was quickly quashed upon discovery that no training program for such desires existed at that time, thus film became an intermediary step, applying to the Lodz Film School, an institute that counts Andrsej Wajda and Roman Polanski amongst its alumni, rejected twice he was found himself third time lucky and attended between 1964 and 1968. His interest in theatre quickly subsided as his interest turned to filmmaking, particularly documentaries portraying every day Polish life. He quickly ran into all manner of difficulties, the heavy censorship of his film  Robotnicy 1971 leading him to doubt the ability to tell literal truths under an authoritarian regime, and following this, footage from his film  Dworzec being considered for use as evidence in a criminal case, pushed him towards a belief in the greater artistic freedoms of fiction filmmaking. He worked steadily across the next decade, before international acclaim came his way for his epic display of artistic ambition, Dekalog, a television series of ten hour length episodes, each exploring one of the ten commandements through ambiguous tales set in modern day Poland, two of which were expanded into individual features and played to international audiences, Krotki film o Zabijaniu, and  Krotki film o Milosci, (A Short Film About Killing and A Short Film About Love). 1991s  La Double vie de Veronique, again reached international acclaim, and worked as a perfect example of the directors reliance on telling his story visually rather than through words. However, it would be the last 3 works of his career that would bring him the widest spread fame. His  Trois Couleurs trilogy each encompassed one of the political ideals of the French Republic, liberty, equality, and fraternity. Bleu, told the hauntingly sad tale of a woman coping with life after the death of her husband and child. Blanc, a blackly comic tale of improving ones standing in life, and of gaining revenge for a great humiliation. Finally, Rouge, a visually gorgeous feast, that slowly intertwines the lives of its seemingly complete opposites of characters. Kieslowski died of a heart attack 2 years after the completion of this trilogy, aged just 54, but he had established himself as a master understander of the purest senses of cinema, as a man of grand poetic, artistic ambitions and ideas.

The Picture;

Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989)

Spike Lee made his feature debut with 1986s  She’s Gotta Have It, following it up with  School Daze in ’88, he displayed his knack for telling provocative, social tales, calls to action, and the following year he took that to the next level. Do the Right Thing brings Bed-Stuy to life, gorgeously shot, using red and orange filters to bring that 100 degree day to life in sun drenched visuals. Utilizing, in controlled measure, handheld camera work to drop you right into the action, to bring it viciously to life, occasionaly throwing the framing out of alignment, the disorientating nature of the heat put into visual perspective. The editing giving the film its heartbeat, from long takes and slow cutting to brisk, breakneck cutting, rising and falling with the pace of the picture. The performances all work, all imprint themselves on the brain, from Rosie Perez’s neglected girlfriend, Paul Benjamin, Robin Harris, and Frankie Faison sitting on the sidelines, watching the world go by with the bitter comedic rantings of the unemployed, John Turturro’s lost soul, consumed by confused hatred, Danny Aiello, trying desperately to keep the peace in an unravelling world, and Ossie Davis as the wise old sage of the streets, a king in tramps clothes. The film deals in race relations with an unfiltered, uncompromised view, there is no attempt at poetic profundity, no simple, easy answers, no epic revelations handed to the audience on a plate, no monologuing. The film eschews pretension, it handles its material in simple, straightforward fashion, it doesn’t lecture, it just is, and you soak it in.

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