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 30, 2008

The List is Life: #79

79.

The Dame;

Marcia Gay Harden.

Marcia Gay Harden landed her first major film role in 1990 as the leading lady in the Coen bros. throwback gangster picture, Miller’s Crossing, yet it would not be until another decade passed that her career would be able to really take off. Working through the latter half of the 90s in supporting roles on feature films of varying sizes, it was in 2000 when she appeared alongside such lumanaries as Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland and James Garner in Clint Eastwood’s box office hit, Space Cowboys and then went on to star alongside Ed Harris in the biopic, Pollock, the film recieved a fair deal of acclaim, but the cherry on top came when Harden walked away with the Academy Award in early 2001. Since then, knowing what she was best suited to, Harden has continued to work steadily in prjects of various sizes and differing types, taking supporting roles in films such as Mona Lisa Smile, Mystic River, American Dreamz, The Dead Girl, Into the Wild, and The Mist. She continues to almost always be among the standouts in the cast, if not stealing movies altogether, though the films are often of differeing qualities, her presence is almost always an assurance of at least some quality.

The Duke;

John Wayne.

The Iowan born son of a pharmacist, few would have predicted that the boy named Marion Morrison would ever have emerged as the towering symbol of masculinity in the 20th century. Yet since his first major role in John Ford’s Stagecoach, the man that came to be known as John Wayne blazed a trail as one of the most iconic stars in the history of the Hollywood horizon, across the next 40 years. Though appearing in projects as varying as The Quiet Man, The Barbarian and the Geisha and The Green Berets, it was of course in the old west that the legend of The Duke was forged. Standing for a brand of rugged, towering heroism, from Stagecoach in 1939 to his final melancholy appearance as a legendary dying gunslinger in 1976’s The Shootist, Wayne stood tall against all comers, never backing down an inch. Yet perhaps his most interesting, daring work came in films like Red River and The Searchers, films in which that heroism was mixed with something far darker, Wayne was never afraid to delve into the dark side, never afraid to display the cracks in his myth. He was a symbol of the kind of man that became eclipsed in the movies at the tail end of the 60s, by the emerging new wave of filmmakers, yet even as Midnight Cowboy (as potent a symbol of the changing face of masculinity as there ever was) walked away with the 1969 Oscar for Best Picture, it was The Duke that landed the Best Actor prize that night, for his turn in True Grit. Even as his era disappeared, John Wayne stood tall.

The Director;

Michael Winterbottom.

Michael Winterbottom is one of the most unique and varied directors of his generation, he made his debut in 1995 with the vivid, bleak Butterfly Kiss and quickly established his kinetic visual sense, and naturalistic style. Though the film failed to reach a wide audience, his follow up, Go Now, made in the same year, reached a much wider audience, including a cinematic release (albeit 3 years later) in the United States. Following that initial breakthrough he has continued to prove himself as one of the most diverse filmmakers working today, from his 1996, Kate Winslet starring adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, to his filmed on location, powerful journalistic drama, Welcome to Sarajevo, his 2002 double header with the dramatic-comic chronicling of the Manchester music scene in the early 80s, 24 Hour Party People, and brutally real refugee smuggling drama In This World, the artistic-pornography of Nine Songs, avant-garde comedic stylings of A Cock and Bull Story or the much talked about tale of perseverance, love and humanity, A Mighty Heart. Michael Winterbottom has been all over the world, in all genres, from the perfectly normal to the entirely surreal, he is one of a kind, an ambitious artist, and one who shows no signs of watering down or selling out, no matter how much acclaim and attention he may recieve.

The Picture;

Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974)

In the 1940s, Film noir dominated the Hollywood scene, hard bitten detectives, skulking in the shadows, dark and shady businessmen causing nothing but trouble and women all around, you were never quite sure you could trust. As the television rose to prominence, Hollywod was forced to step up, to become far more grand and epic than it had even been before, and thus those small scale pictures faded away. Yet in 1974, up and coming producer Robert Evans, emerging new-wave writer Robert Towne, and director Roman Polanski, the master chronicler of twisted cinematic horror, combined, and along with the fast rising star Jack Nicholson, put together a neo-noir tale that not only resurrected the genre, but took it to a level that it had never been before. Prior to his first icon-making Oscar win for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Nicholson is on restrained form, caressing every line of Towne’s perfectly crafted screenplay, that now famous grin is nowhere to be seen, as the knowing glint in his eye and the sardonic delivery draw us in and attach us to his quiet charisma, taking us into that dark world in which he delves. Polanski’s control over the whole thing shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that has seen the great man at his best, but this was in an arena he had never entered in to. He holds a very calm, still and simple view on everything that goes on, allowing that story to unfold naturally, leaving the work to his cast and that screenplay, and what a screenplay it is. Composed with delicate nuance, Robert Towne’s words do very little by themselves, but as the big picture begins to come together, the little moments, the seemingly throwaway lines, the tiny details one may consider unimportant all begin to make perfect sense. From head to toe, Chinatown is a perfectly put together piece of work, a towering beacon of its genre, one of the greatest of its era.

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 11, 2008

The List is Life: #83

83.

The Dame;

Julie Christie.

Making her debut in John Schlesinger’s Billy Liar at the age of 22, Julie Christie ushered in the swinging sixties, landing a BAFTA nomination she announced herself on the national stage, before two years later reteaming with Schlesinger once more in the central role, she won an Oscar for Darling. At 24, the grandest prize in the profession in her grasp, Julie Christie played a second role that same year, and though it was the other that built her reputation, it was David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago that made her an icon. Proving diversity was in her grasp she displayed her range over the next decade, refusing to settle into comfortable roles, she starred in Francois Truffaut’s adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, alongside her much celebrated other half in Robert Altman’s lyrical western in McCabe & Mrs. Miller and with Donald Sutherland, in Nicholas Roeg’s grim, horror masterpiece Don’t Look Now. As time went by and her relationship with Warren Beatty grew, her interest in acting seem to dim, though working relatively consistently for the next few decades she turned down numerous major roles that had been major steps for other actresses from They Shoot Horses Don’t They? to Reds, moving back to the UK in the early 80s after her split from Beatty, she began campaigning for animal rights, nuclear disarmament, and numerous other causes. Eventaully in the mid 90s she began a career renaissance, first landing the role of Gertude in Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet before going onto further supporting work and Oscar nominations for her beautifully subtle work in Afterglow and Away from Her. Though she may have priorities in other arenas, Julie Christie certainly makes it count whenever she steps on screen.

The Dude;

Gary Oldman.

Not a performer given to nuanced and subtle work, Gary Oldman is an actor that came from the stage and has never forgotten it. An artist that paints in loud, broad brushstrokes he still strives for the farthest row in the theatre whenever he appears on screen and he nails it out of the park basically every single time. Though loud and brash might be his game, there really isn’t anybody better at it, when Gary Oldman is on the screen, you can rarely tear your eyes away. Those screams, those pulsating veins, those glorious tics and twitches, and the absolute brutally perfect way he delivers every single line has been in evidence from his screen debut as Sid Vicious in the romanticized biopic Sid & Nancy, to his vicious, obsessive sports thug in The Firm to his ‘graduation’ across the atlantic, where ever since the turn of the 90s he has been blazing his way through Hollywood. There was Lee Harvey Oswald, Count Dracula, he hammed it up but was never dull in Leon, The Fifth Element, Air Force One and Lost in Space. He brought his blazing intensity to a role it fit like a glove playing Beethoven in the otherwise ordinary Immortal Beloved, and as the century turned he found himself reaching a whole new generation in as kindly a role as he had every tried his hand at, playing Sirius Black in the Harry Potter films, a role that shall ensure if, for whatever bizarre reason all else fails, Gary Oldman, will never be forgotten.

The Director;

Robert Bresson.

In a 50 year career, Robert Bresson only turned out 13 feature films. A testament to his intrinsic and minutely detailed approach to his work, and to his refusal to bow to commercial restrictions, spending a great deal of his time struggling to find funding for his projects. Following early desires to take up a career in painting, Bresson found his way to photography before directing his first short film in 1934 before spending over a year in a POW camp during the second world war. This time in captivity along with his aspirations as a painter and Catholic upbringing, had a very great impact on his work. Catholicism in particular was reflected in the redemption, salvation, and exploration of human soul that permeated throughout his work. Termed the patron saint of cinema, a term that was not without merit, Bresson strove to define a new cinematic language entirely different from all other artistic mediums. Requiring numerous takes from his actors till all mannerisms and tics of the performer were stripped away and the raw naturalism that only cinema could find was all that remained. He argued for cinematography, how he sought to find it elevated above merely what was essentially the filming of a play to create a new language out of imagery and sound. Though his films were often seen as critques of French society and the wide world beyond, Robert Bresson was never less than an optimist when it came to the artistic possibilities of the cinematic medium.

The Picture;

The Aviator (Martin Scorsese, 2004)

Too often simplistically dismissed as Martin Scorsese turning to old Hollywood glitz and glamour to land an Oscar, The Aviator is a flawed but fascinating epic of one trailblazer of a man overcoming the numerous seemingly insurmountable obstacles in his path only to be constantly plagued and felled by the demons within. In the central role, Leonardo DiCaprio plays Howard Hughes and graduates into adult roles with tremendous aplomb. Aging 20 years over the course of the film, DiCaprio begins the earnest, bright eyed boy that everybody knows, and slowly transforms into a gruff, stilted middle aged man, physically crushed by his exploits but still emerging triumphant. Howard Hughes was a groundbreaker, a 20th century pioneer, and Scorsese charts that innovation in the way that only cinema can, visually. Robert Richardson’s Oscar winning cinematography telling a visual story, entirely through images, charting the cinematic technology of the age, evolving as the years pass from the old two strip colour process to three strip saturated technicolour. Dante Ferretti’s production design compliments Richardsons work perfectly to add to the visual narrative, beginning with the giant, seemingly neverending expanse of youthful idealism and slowly closing in, trapping the titular Aviator in his own personal prison. Though the film is brighter and brimming with more glitz seen in any Scorsese picture this side of 1977’s New York, New York it is still unmistakeably his, a dark, troubled heart laying at its centre. Innovative and pioneering work, reigned in by humanity.

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