Category Archives: Film

OPENING NIGHT: JOHN CASSAVETES’ UNROMANTIC ODE TO THEATRE IS STUNNING ·

(Chris Wiegand’s article appeared in the Guardian 1/19/; Photo: Going on … Gena Rowlands in Opening Night. Photograph: Alamy.)

One of many tantalising theatre shows cancelled last year by the pandemic was The Second Woman, a 24-hour-long production at the Young Vic, London, in which Ruth Wilson was to repeatedly perform the same scene with a succession of 100 actors. This exploration of gender and power was inspired by John Cassavetes’ 1977 film Opening Night, about a troubled star’s out-of-town tryouts for a Broadway-bound play called The Second Woman.

After months of watching stage productions on screen while venues are closed, from archive NT Lives to lockdown live streams, I returned to Opening Night to start a new series looking at the ways cinema has depicted the world of theatre. I’m avoiding some of the more obvious titles (Birdman, All About Eve, movies based on plays or musicals such as A Chorus Line) and will be including a range of international choices over the next few weeks to see how film-makers have depicted the theatrical experience.

Cassavetes is hailed for ushering in a new style of American independent movies with naturalistic classics including Shadows and Faces, but he was no stranger to ambitious theatre. Within a few years of Opening Night, he was staging a trilogy of plays in Los Angeles with the same lead actor, his wife Gena Rowlands.

When we first see Rowlands in Opening Night, she is waiting to go on stage, calming her nerves with a nip of booze and a last drag on a cigarette. Cassavetes captures the jittery energy behind the scenes as well as the intense sensation of simply being on stage: when the curtain goes up, we feel the glare, echo and volume of the experience, the sheer nowness of it all. This is immediately juxtaposed with a rather dreary perspective from the stalls, where a fixed camera shows the uninspiring drama in which Myrtle stars.

What Cassavetes does brilliantly is present brief moments that exist somewhere between the private and public as we see the actor, Myrtle Gordon (the superb Rowlands), entering and leaving the stage, switching in and out of character, waiting for cues while hidden from an audience who loom in the background. This is what I’d love to see captured in more streams of theatre productions: multiple cameras used not just to shoot the drama but also showing actors immediately before and after their scenes.

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HAPPY BIRTHDAY, CARY GRANT ·

Recollections in His Own Words and by Those Who Knew Him Best

Nancy Nelson’s Evenings with Cary Grant, which uses the icon’s own words—and is enhanced with material from Grant’s personal papers—draws from the remembrances of Katharine Hepburn, Gregory Peck, James Stewart, Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Burt Reynolds, Sophia Loren, Quincy Jones, Deborah Kerr, and George Burns (over one hundred and fifty voices in all). Together these friends, colleagues, and loved ones provide a sublime, truthful, and candid portrait—as close to a memoir as Grant ever got.

Foreword by Barbara and Jennifer Grant.  Available now.  

“Forget the other Grant books, this is it.  Superb.”–Kirkus Reviews.

“It’s a lovely, funny book about Cary.”–Katharine Hepburn.  

View on Amazon

 

AT THE MOVIES: MARLENE DIETRICH ·

(Michael Wood’s article appeared in The London Review of Books, 12/17.)

I had​ misremembered The Scarlet Empress (1934), one of the thirteen Marlene Dietrich movies currently showing at the BFI. Or rather, I remembered vividly its latter stages, when Dietrich, playing the future Catherine the Great, rides her horse up the steps of a palace dressed as a Cossack in white fur and uniform, and demonstrates a ruthless appetite for rule. I had retained only the vaguest notion of the long first part, when Dietrich is an innocent child, a sort of babe in the Russian woods by way of Prussia. Of course, my failed recall is more than a little overdetermined. How could Dietrich ever be innocent? Even when she is playing the child part she asks: ‘When I grow up, can I become a hangman?’

The Scarlet Empress was the sixth film Dietrich made with Joseph von Sternberg. They made seven together between 1930 and 1935, the first in Germany, the others in the US. Sternberg said she attracted him with her ‘cold disdain’, her lack of interest in what she was supposed to be interested in. And it’s worth recalling the answer she once gave to a question about sex. Men demand sex, she said, and one has to comply from time to time, but ‘one can also do without.’ Man kann auch ohne. Do without men, that is, or without sex. The remark is interesting not so much for its truth or falsehood as for its bravura. It is a declaration of independence from a common form of unfreedom, what a song by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill calls ‘sexual bondage’. So, when we think of Dietrich’s films, innocence is not the first word that comes to mind. But there is something unmarked about her persona, as if the ironic wisdom her characters often express comes from an infinite experience that left no trace.

Partly this is an effect of the writing. In Shanghai Express (1932): ‘It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily.’ A pretty good line in itself – Jules Furthman’s – but Dietrich manages a further implication: if she hadn’t wanted to change her name, she wouldn’t have done, no matter how many men were involved. In the same film, when her companion Warner Oland says, avuncularly, that in time she’ll weary of him, she says: ‘I’m weary of you now.’

It all starts with The Blue Angel (1930). Lola Lola is a nightclub singer who drives an old schoolteacher crazy, but she can’t help it. At least that’s what she says in the song ‘Falling in Love Again’: ‘Men flutter to me like moths around a flame/And if their wings burn, I know I’m not to blame.’ In the original German version she doesn’t say anything about falling in love again, or even for a first time. She says she’s made of love from head to toe, meaning some combination of sex and lethal magic. When she first sings the song, she looks relaxed and amused. When she sings it again something harsher has entered the performance, a form of denial perhaps. She doesn’t want to think about what she can and can’t help. Dietrich was still singing ‘Falling in Love Again’ forty years later as part of her live act. She stopped performing in 1975 and died in 1992.

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AUGUST WILSON, AMERICAN BARD ·

(Maya Phillips’s article appeared in The New York Times, 12/4/2020; via Pam Green. To accompany this essay, the Baltimore-based artist Jerrell Gibbs painted “Portrait of August Wilson” (2020), exclusively for T.Credit…Courtesy of Mariane Ibrahim. Photo by Joseph Hyde.)

Perhaps no playwright has asserted the richness and complexity of everyday Black lives and language so deeply. Now, two screen projects affirm his legacy for new audiences

IN THE WOODS of Barnesville, Ga., two Black men are running, barely visible in the dusk. There are crickets chirping, dogs barking in the distance and, more immediately, the urgent pants of their breath. This seems to be a familiar horror, but the men aren’t being chased; they’re heading toward a tent. Inside, Ma Rainey — played by Viola Davis, her lips painted burgundy, eyelids smoked with black, cheeks stained merlot — beckons the audience in a royal blue dress. “Daddy, daddy, please come home to me,” she sings, shimmying in the heat.

 “Anytime you see two Black people running in the South, you think the Klan’s somewhere, but, no, they’re not running from something. They’re running to something — to this woman whose voice is telling their story,” says George C. Wolfe, the director of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” the Netflix film version of August Wilson’s beloved play, which debuts this month. The scene feels appropriate for the opening of a Wilson adaptation: One of the most acclaimed Black playwrights in America, he spent more than three decades telling the story of Black America with pride and verve, with language that beckoned like Ma’s voice in that tent.

The play, first produced in 1984 at Yale Repertory Theater in New Haven, Conn., is a fictionalized account of a famous blues singer, Gertrude (Ma) Rainey, who is in Chicago with her band in the 1920s to record a few songs. Ma’s musicians rehearse in a back room, or at least talk about rehearsing: There’s the sensible Cutler (played in the film by Colman Domingo), the laggard Slow Drag (Michael Potts), the thoughtful Toledo (Glynn Turman) and Levee (Chadwick Boseman, who died in August, in his final film role), a young and impetuous trumpet player with an idea for what a new sound might be. Ma finds herself at odds with Levee, as she does with her controlling white agent and the white studio owner, both of whom she knows are exploiting her. That’s the conflict, but much of the play’s pleasure is its dialogue: the characters gabbing, joking and arguing. Accordingly, the pith of the show is Ma’s voice — not just her husky murmur but the sound of a Black artist singing her story to and for her community. “White folks don’t understand about the blues. They hear it come out, but they don’t know how it got there,” Ma says in the play. “They don’t understand that’s life’s way of talking.”

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JAMES BOND ACTOR SIR SEAN CONNERY DIES IN HIS SLEEP AGED 90 ·

James Bond actor Sir Sean Connery dies in his sleep aged 90: Oscar-winning 007 legend passes away in the Bahamas after being ‘unwell for some time’

(Ryan Fahey’s and Jack Elsom’s article appeared in Mail Online, 10/31; Photo: Skynews.)

  • James Bond actor Sir Sean Connery died aged 90 at his home in the Bahamas 
  • Sir Sean is known for playing British fictional spy James Bond between 1962-71 
  • Sir Sean, who celebrated his 90th in August, was knighted by the Queen in 2000

James Bond actor Sir Sean Connery dies in his sleep aged 90: Oscar-winning 007 legend passes away in the Bahamas after being ‘unwell for some time’

  • James Bond actor Sir Sean Connery died aged 90 at his home in the Bahamas 
  • Sir Sean is known for playing British fictional spy James Bond between 1962-71 
  • Sir Sean, who celebrated his 90th in August, was knighted by the Queen in 2000

James Bond legend Sir Sean Connery has died in his sleep aged 90 following a long illness. 

Tributes have been pouring in for the Oscar-winning actor who passed away in the Bahamas and leaves behind his wife Micheline and sons Jason and Stefan. 

Sir Sean, whose acting career spans decades, is best known for his portrayal of British fictional spy James Bond who he played between 1962–1971.  

Sir Sean Connery, who is best known for playing James Bond, died today

He was often named the best Bond in polls on the subject. He was awarded an Oscar in 1988 for his part playing an Irish policeman in The Untouchables. 

He also starred in The Hunt for Red October, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and The Rock. 

Sir Sean was knighted by the Queen in 2000 and celebrated his 90th birthday in August.  

Former First Minister of Scotland Alex Salmond described his friend Sir Sean as ‘the world’s greatest Scot, the last of the real Hollywood stars, the definitive Bond.’

Bond producers Michael G Wilson and Barbara Broccoli paid tribute to Sir Sean in a statement: ‘We are devastated by the news of the passing of Sir Connery.

‘He was and shall always be remembered as the original James Bond whose indelible entrance into cinema history began when he announced those unforgettable words – “The name’s Bond… James Bond” – he revolutionised the world with his gritty and witty portrayal of the sexy and charismatic secret agent.

‘He is undoubtedly largely responsible for the success of the film series and we shall be forever grateful to him.’

Hugh Jackman tweeted: I grew up idolizing Connery. A legend on screen, and off. Rest In Peace.’ 

From bricklayer to 007: Sean Connery enjoyed 50 year film career but he will undoubtedly be remembered as the first – and some say definitive – James Bond 

He enjoyed a long and varied film career spanning 50 years, but Sir Sean Connery will undoubtedly be remembered as the first – and some say definitive – James Bond.

His performance in Dr No in 1962 set the jobbing actor and former milkman on a path that would lead to Hollywood stardom and all its trappings.

Roles in Highlander, The Untouchables and Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade helped seal his position as one of Britain’s best-loved stars, and his brooding good looks and distinct Scottish brogue won him legions of fans worldwide.

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MURRAY SCHISGAL, WHO BROUGHT THE ABSURD TO THE MAINSTREAM, DIES AT 93 ·

(Will Dudding’s article appeared in The New York Times, 10/2; via Pam Green.)

With “Luv” on Broadway and “Tootsie” on the screen, he wrote with knowing, slightly askew humor about subjects like sex, family and failure.

Murray Schisgal, a playwright and screenwriter who took his offbeat brand of humor to Broadway in the Tony Award-winning comedy “Luv” and to Hollywood in the hit farce “Tootsie,” died on Thursday in Port Chester, N.Y. He was 93.

His death was announced by his son, Zach.

Over a six-decade career in theater, Mr. Schisgal employed elements from the theater of the absurd — like flooding dialogue with clichés and presenting fantastic situations as probable — to write about such domestic themes as marriage, sex, family, loneliness and failure.

His first Broadway success, “Luv,” opened in 1964, with Eli WallachAnn Jackson and Alan Arkin in the original cast. It ran for 902 performances, won three Tony Awards (including one for Mike Nichols’s direction) and earned Mr. Schisgal nominations for best play and best author of a play.

While the play was a hit, Mr. Schisgal, with characteristically self-deprecating humor, implied that during the previews the Broadway crowd questioned coming to a play that thematically seemed like more of a downtown experience. But the critics were encouraging.

“Whatever the truth of the old saw that misery loves company,” Howard Taubman wrote in his New York Times review, “the chances are excellent that you’ll love the company of the three recurrently miserable characters that make up the cast of ‘Luv.’”

Writing in New York magazine, Walter Kerr described Mr. Schisgal as “one step ahead of the avant-garde,” referring to the stagnant state of trans-Atlantic theater in the decade since Samuel Beckett addressed the meaninglessness of existence in a post-atomic age. The theater scene, in the early 1960s, was full of derivative playwrights stuck in Beckett’s philosophical purgatory, and Mr. Schisgal’s approach, to trade gloom for irreverence, provided an escape hatch.

“If the avant-garde, up to now, has successfully exploded the bright balloons of cheap optimism,” Mr. Kerr wrote, “Mr. Schisgal is ready to put a pin to the soapy bubbles of cheap pessimism. Whatever social and philosophical stalemates we have come to, wit at least need not be halted in its tracks.”

Mr. Schisgal explained his unusual title as an expression of his belief that the word “love” had become so misused that what people experienced, felt and thought could be discussed only by using a different word.

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THE NIGERIAN-BRITISH WRITER PUTTING BLACK JOY ON STAGE AND SCREEN ·

(Alison McCann’s article appeared in The New York Times, 9/18; Photo from The New York Times: Theresa Ikoko; via Pam Green.)

“There’s so much more that comes with being Black apart from dealing with racism,” says Theresa Ikoko, a Londoner whose movie “Rocks” opened this week.

LONDON — The first play Theresa Ikoko wrote wasn’t necessarily meant to be a play — not yet, anyway.

At that point it was simply a story she had written for herself after years of collecting characters and scenes in her head, all of them rooted in the communities she knew as a Nigerian-British woman. When she read parts of it over the phone to a friend several years ago, he was taken by the way she had captured the experience of being Black and British.

“After I finished, he said to me, ‘Theresa, there’s no difference between this and Shakespeare as far as I’m concerned,’” Ms. Ikoko said with a laugh while sitting on a park bench in East London.

It has since been a remarkable rise for the playwright turned screenwriter, who until last year was working as a case manager at a youth violence organization, pretending to compose long emails and writing scenes instead.

Ms. Ikoko eventually submitted her writing to the Talawa Theatre Company, Britain’s renowned Black-led theater group, which jumped at the chance to produce it as a play. The work, “Normal,” ran as a stage reading in 2014, and a year later she wrote “Girls,” a play about three girls abducted by a terrorist group. That earned her the Alfred Fagon Award for Best New Play of 2015 and the George Devine Award for Most Promising Playwright in 2016.

On Friday, her first movie, “Rocks,” which she wrote with Claire Wilson, opened in Britain. It centers on the joy and resilience of young women of color — a group rarely given mainstream attention in British film — and positions Ms. Ikoko as a major new voice.

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LINN ULLMANN ON HER FATHER, INGMAR BERGMAN: ‘IT WAS AS IF ALL THE WINDOWS OF HIS MIND HAD OPENED’ ·

(Alex Clark’s article appeared in the Guardian, 8/29; Ingmar Bergman with his daughter Linn Ullmann during the filming of Autumn Sonata (1978). Photograph: Arne Carlsson © AB Svensk Filmindustri.)

When Linn Ullmann’s father was well into his 80s, he began to refer to the life that he was now experiencing as “the epilogue”. Lying in bed in the mornings, he would tot up his ailments, allowing himself one per decade: if there were fewer than eight, he would get up; if there were more, he would stay put. But these strategies denoted realism rather than appeasement, and his determination to continue work remained largely unshaken.

Ullmann’s father was the great Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman, and the work that he fixed on in his last years was a collaboration with his daughter, a book that would capture something of his life and thoughts as he approached the end. Recalling the beginnings of the project as she talks to me from Oslo, Ullmann emphasises the centrality of the creative process to Bergman’s life. “When it’s work, you know, then we know what we do. We’re working: good. We had so much fun discussing when we were going to write the book, how, what form it would take.” His preferred title, he joked, was “Laid & Slayed in Eldorado Valley”, a phrase that he’d always hoped to use for the name of a film.

Instead, what emerged, over a decade after his death in 2007, was Ullmann’s sixth novel, Unquiet, a powerful and unsettling hybrid of memoir, fiction and meditation, braided together in a fragmentary structure that reflects, among other things, Bergman’s love of Bach’s Cello Suites.

It is, she tells me, a work built on “the ruins of a book that I didn’t write”. As father and daughter delightedly planned their project in numerous letters, phone calls and meetings, Bergman “kept getting older”. By the time work began in earnest, in the spring and summer before his death, physical frailty had been joined by something else: “Things had changed very much; just in a few months, his language had changed, the memory loss was now very obvious to him and to me. It was as if all the windows of his mind had opened up so that things that were real and things that were imaginary or dreamlike – he didn’t always have the capacity to see the difference.”

The six conversations between them, recorded at Hammars, Bergman’s home on the Swedish island of Fårö, form a vital strand of Unquiet but for many years Ullmann didn’t even listen to them, believing them to be part of the “huge fiasco” that the unfinished project had become: “It was physically painful, almost, to listen to those tapes. So I just put away the tape recorder … I mean, I should have started earlier, I should have insisted that we do it earlier, I should have asked different questions when we sat there, I should have had a better tape recorder because the tape recorder was lousy. I shouldn’t have been so high pitched.” It was her husband, the writer Niels Fredrik Dahl, who prodded her into retrieving the recorder from the attic: “Don’t you want to just listen to it now that you’re writing this book? And then I listened to it. And I transcribed it. And I translated it from Swedish to Norwegian. And it was just delightful.”

These initial feelings, of course, are an acute form of the regrets that so often accompany death; the conviction that had we acted differently, we might somehow have mitigated our bereavement, or preserved something more tangible of our loved one. But in Ullmann’s case, there is a sense of something particularly heightened – almost primal – about the experience.

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Read the Stage Voices review of the book, 2/20/19

 

HAMILTON REVIEW – BROADWAY HIT IS NOW A BREATHTAKING SCREEN SENSATION ·

(Arifa Akbar’s article appeared in the Guardian, 6/30; photo: The Guardian.)

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical is smart, witty, funky and leaves us reflecting on America’s past and future

Hamilton was hailed as revolutionary theatre in 2015, with its rapping 18th-century statesmen, its funky, feelgood hip-hop and a cast predominantly comprising actors of colour. It went on to conquer Broadway and West End audiences. How does that original Broadway staging fare on the flat screen, streamed by Disney+ in the midst of lockdown?

It spoke to the moment then, and it speaks to us now, say director Thomas Kail and Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator and star, in their short, socially distanced preamble to this highly anticipated film of the show. “We are all thinking about what it means to be American,” they add. Even if these words are not in direct reference to the America of the past few weeks, with its upsurge of anti-racist protest, their story of the Caribbean-born immigrant hero and founding father of the US, Alexander Hamilton, speaks to us obliquely of all that remains neglected in America’s history while shifting the parameters at the same time.

Its rousing opening scenes remind us of that great American ideal of equality and speaks of slavery and civil rights in the 18th century. “I never thought I’d live past 20. Where I come from, some get half as many,” sings Hamilton at the start, and his words echo the dangerous fate that awaits so many of America’s black or immigrant underclass now, as debate around Black Lives Matter protests has highlighted.

Even more remarkably, it keeps all the power of a live performance while simultaneously adding a filmic pizzazz including some breathtaking aerial shots. There is extraordinary direction – again under Kail – so that the cameras capture the mise en scène of theatre without losing any of the closeup intimacy of film.

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MICHEL PICCOLI (1925-2020), STALWART OF FRENCH CINEMA WHOSE PROLIFIC CAREER INCLUDED FILMS WITH LUIS BUÑUEL, JEAN-LUC GODARD AND CLAUDE CHABROL ·

(Ronald Bergan’s article appeared in the Guardian, 6/18; Photo: The Guardian; via Adam Sullivan)

For more than half a century, there seemed to be one constant in French cinema – the actor Michel Piccoli. With his death at the age of 94 something vital has disappeared from the screen.

Never young looking – he was prematurely bald – Piccoli grew in maturity and power over the years, with directors such as Luis Buñuel, Jean-Luc GodardClaude ChabrolMarco Ferreri and Claude Sautet seeking his services more than once. He also worked for directors of the stature of Alfred Hitchcock, Henri-Georges Clouzot, Jacques Rivette, Costa-Gavras and Louis Malle.

Even when he was a big name, Piccoli was never too proud to play small supporting roles or even bit parts if he liked the screenplay. But whatever the size of the role, whether playing a goody or a baddie, Piccoli would bring to the character a gravitas (with a tinge of humour) and an ironic detachment, simultaneously revealing a real, recognisable human being beneath the surface.

Piccoli was born in Paris to a French mother and an Italian father, both of them musicians – his mother was a pianist; his father a violinist. At 19, he made his screen debut in a walk-on part in Sortilèges (1945), directed by Christian-Jaque.

After several roles in the cinema and theatre, he met Buñuel. “I wrote to this famous director asking him to come and see me in a play. Me, an obscure actor! It was the cheek of a young man. He came and we became friends.” Piccoli appeared in six of Buñuel’s films, usually cast as a silky, authoritarian figure.

His first performance for Buñuel was as a weak, compromised priest trekking through the Brazilian jungle in La Mort en Ce Jardin (Death in the Garden/Evil Eden, 1956). In Diary of a Chambermaid (1964), he was the idle and lecherous Monsieur Monteil, sexually obsessed with Jeanne Moreau as the maid Célestine.

Just as louche was his smooth bourgeois gentleman who persuades a respectable doctor’s wife (Catherine Deneuve) to spend her afternoons working in a high-class brothel with kinky clients in Belle de Jour (1967). Piccoli reprised the role charmingly almost 40 years later in Manoel de Oliveira’s Belle Toujours (2006).

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Khaled Nabawy writes: “What a sad day, Michel Piccoli dies, for the industry and the audience he is a great actor; for me, he is my greatest father ever on screen in The Immigrant!  Through you I learned early how a great human being can be. . . . RIP MY greatest father on screen.”