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.

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.

April 3, 2008

The List is Life: #89

89.

The Dame;

Deborah Kerr.

First rising to fame in the films of Powell & Pressburger, Deborah Kerr carried herself very well as the shining light at the heart of the secluded nunnery in Black Narcissus  and as the numerous golden visions of womanhood throughout the life of the great man himself in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. Following her breakthrough into American cinema she began crafting her reputation in period pieces like Quo Vadis, Prisoner of Zenda  and Julius Caesar  before immortality came knocking as she rolled on the beach with Burt Lancaster in From Here to Eternity. In all she amassed 6 nominations in 12 years,  from her first in 1949 alongside Spencer Tracy in George Cukor’s Edward, my Son  to the final time in 1960 for Fred Zinnemann’s The Sundowners, her career continued on for about a decade more before she retreated from the spotlight in 1969, at the age of 48, in disillusionment at the changing face of the industry she loved so much. She returned briefly in the 80s to make a handful of appearances, but her legacy was already built, forever young on the screen, dignity and grace her trademarks, Deborah Kerr was, and remains, a model of cinematic class.

The Dude;

Robert Mitchum.

A model of machismo for 50 years on the screen, Robert Mitchum blazed his trail playing monstrously masculine symbols of uncompromising power. There was never another like him in his era and though many came after that attempted to recapture that dark fire, none quite succeeded to the extent of the man himself. Mitchum outlasted basically all of his peers and continued to work regularly through the 70s, 80s and into the 90s, working right until death in the sort of way that only he could. He only ever garnered one Oscar nomination in his whole life all the way back in 1945 but his one of a kind nature, his calm and collected yet utterly menacing nature, his laidback air that never gave up an inch of control ensures that his reputation will remain. With classics under his belt across 6 decades, Robert Mitchum is about as legendary an icon as ever the medium is likely to see.

The Director;

Alan Resnais.

Born in 1922, Alan Resnais first made his mark on the movies in 1955 with Night and Fog, a short documentary unlike all that had came before. Yearning for a realism he did not feel was attainable with gruesome archive footage, Resnais chose instead to shoot the empty concentration camps, grim and desolate, contrasting them with the horrific events that took place there; posing questions of guilt, of responsibility. Four years later, Resnais is responsible for predating Godard and Truffaut in the beginning of the French New Wave, his Hiroshima mon Amour, a love story dealing with a nurses memories of her time during the second world war, proving to be revolutionary in editing form. It’s use of splicing short flashback scenes into scenes lending itself to that cinematic purity that is visual storytelling. He continued to experiment with form in 1961’s L’année dernière à Marienbad  in which he blurred the lines of truth and left audiences with much to ponder, leaving the exact relationhip of events almost entirely open to question. Where as Hiroshima mon Amour‘s primary tool was editing technique, this film was much more to do with image, shot in a dreamlike manner that has influenced filmmakers, and inspired everything from commericals to music videos. Resnais may not have achieved the fame of many of his peers, but his level of artistry and a sustained career of quality, put him among the foremost filmmakers in history.

The Picture;

 

Casablanca  (Michael Curtiz, 1943)

Since the movies began, there have been love stories. Some with happy endings, some with sad, set in every realm of existence from the long gone past to the far off future, human love stories, animal love stories, alien love stories, some blossoming and innocent, others matured and jaded, yet standing at the pinnacle of all, almost without equal, is this one. Set at the height of the second world war, in the midst of conflict, its routes of thought and discussion are almost too varying and ponderous to mention, yet all politics aside, it is the absolute love of one man for one woman and the triumph of goodness in the human spirit over all else, that towers above everything else. Bogart is the world weary American, overseas and just trying to make his own way, Bergman the lady, torn from her love without even the possibility of an explanation, hurting inside and torn between duty to the heart and obligation to the brain, Claude Rains turns in the kind of showstealing yet humble supporting performances that only the greatest of players could achieve, Peter Lorre makes a brief appearance, doing what only Peter Lorre can, and throughout, from top to bottom, the film is filled with small characters making the absolute most of the time that is given to them, written fully and performed completely. Then there is that ending, when most films settle for the walk into the sunset or the tragic parting of death, Casablanca  is unique, it’s not about what the heart wants, it’s about what the world needs. Nobody can turn their back on the bigger picture, and despite our deepest desires, sometimes letting go is the best thing a person can do.

March 16, 2008

The List is Life: #95

95.

The Dame;

Lily Tomlin.

Since her career took off during the 1960s, Lily Tomlin is an actress who has found great success on television, film,  and with her famed one woman shows on stage. Her most famous  cinematic collaborator is unquestionably Robert Altman with whom she made four films, including earning her one and only Oscar nomination to date in his Nashville, and was one of the standouts in his swansong, A Prairie Home Companion. She is a wonderously electric comedic performer, yet at the same time so perfectly adept at finding small, beautiful moments of humanity whenever she ventures into dramatic territory.

The Dude;

Steve Carell.

Though unquestionably loud, the majority of times that he appears on screen, Steve Carell is at the same time, incredibly subtle in the small moments. Small glances, shrugs, and gestures that add layers of depth and humanity to the laugh out loud moments of riotous comedy. His performance in Little Miss Sunshine works in complete contrast to almost everything that he has done in that, though full of humour, it is entirely deadpan and laying beneath everything is a heartbroken melancholy. I don’t think it would be too much of a stretch to say that even with his worldwide fame, Steve Carell probably doesn’t get enough credit as an actor.

The Director;

Stanley Donen.

The director of iconic films brimming with iconic moments, the sailors of his debut, On the Town, letting loose in New York, New York, Cary Grant’s last great screen hurrah, alongside Audrey Hepburn in Charade, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore unleashed upon cinema audiences in Bewitched, those Seven Brides for those Seven Brothers and of course, Gene Kelly in the rain, dancing his way to immortality. Donen’s forte was generally in the musical arena, yet when the songs were nowhere to be found, the fun certainly never dreid up. His films were always fun, always a breeze to watch; he was not a director who ever let himself get to attached to one type, he simply told stories, and entertained millions.

The Picture;

Naked (Mike Leigh, 1993)

The searing work of a master, Naked is an unrelenting rant, a dark and bitter portrait of lower class England in the 1990s. Revolving around Johnny, played with dark, bitter humour and a weary knowingness by David Thewlis, this film is all about him; we journey through this world with him and are constantly subjected to his rants. Whether or not you appreciate the film may depend entirely upon how you feel about him, this is not an easy film to stomach and it is absolutely certain that repeat viewings will do wonders for one’s appreciation of it. This is a dark, dark world of morally greay human beings, and yet Mike Leigh makes it endlessly fascinating by managing to probe through the wordiness to find the humanity in each and every one of the sublime cast.

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