As noted here before, storytellers are drawn to boxing for the rich drama and conflict inherent in the sport. So when I learned that Holt McCallany, star of the new FX series, Lights Out, spent a formative part of his youth in my hometown of Omaha and that his mother is singer Julie Wilson, a native Omahan, I naturally went after an interview with the actor, and setting it up proved unusually easy. In wake of the series’ cancellation, I know why. Producers and publicists were desperate to get the show all the good press they could but even though the show was almost universally praised by small and big media alike it never found enough of an audience to satisfy advertisers or the network. Because I enjoy charting the careers of Nebraskans who make their mark in the arts, particularly in cinema, I expect I will be writing more about McCallanay, who is a great interview, in the future. In addition to his television work, which between episodic dramas and made-for-TV movies is extensive, he has a fine tack record in features as well. I am also planning a piece on his mother, the noted cabaret artist Julie Wilson.
Canceled FX Boxing Show, ‘Lights Out,’ May Still Springboard Omahan Holt McCallany’s Career
©By Leo Adam Biga
As published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Storytellers drawn to boxing’s inherent drama invariably find redemption at its soul and conflict as its heart.
Ring tales are on a roll thanks to Mark Wahlberg’s Oscar-winning film The Fighter and FX’s series, “Lights Out,” (the series finale airs next Tuesday, April 5 at 9 p.m.). Although FX recently announced it has decided not to renew the show for a second season, the show received favorable reviews from critics while generating more than usual interest locally, as it stars former home boy Holt McCallany in the breakout role of the fictitious Patrick “Lights” Leary, an ex-heavyweight champ attempting a comeback.
McCallany grew up in Omaha, the eldest of two rambunctious sons of Omaha native and legendary New York musical theater actress and cabaret singer Julie Wilson, and the late Irish American actor/producer Michael McAloney.
Like his hard knocks character, McCallany was truant and quick to fight. He was expelled from Creighton Prep. He says most of the “unsavory crew” he ran with outside school “wound up in jail.” At 14, he ran away from home — flush with the winnings from a poker game — to try to make it as an actor in Los Angeles.
“I was a very rebellious and a very ambitious kid,” he says.
In the spirit of second chances linking real life to fiction, he got some tough love at a boarding school in Ireland and returned to graduate from Prep in 1981, a year behind Alexander Payne, whom he hopes to work with in the future. McCallany, who’s returning to Omaha for his class’s 30th reunion in July, appreciates the school not giving up on him.
“I got kicked out but they eventually took me back, and they didn’t have to do that. Near my graduation I said to one of the priests, ‘Why did you guys take me back?’ and he said, ‘Because we believe in your talent, Holt. We see a lot of boys come through here and we believe you can be one of the first millionaires out of your class and a good alumnus.’ When you’re a kid you take that stuff to heart and it kind of stays with you, and if you believe it, other people will believe it about you, too.”
Tragedy struck when his troubled kid brother died at 26 in search of another fix. It’s a path Holt might have taken if not for finding his passion in acting.
“I felt like I had a calling. My brother didn’t have that, and my brother’s dead now, and I can tell you a lot of the pain and suffering he went through is related to this subject. When you don’t know what it is you want to be and you’re lost and you’re floundering and you’re going from job to job and kicking around and nothing really works out, it’s a very dispiriting place to be. It can lead to substance abuse and a lot of negative things.”
In the show, Leary’s a devoted husband and father trying to rise above boxing’s dirty compromises, but he and his younger brother get sullied in the process.
McCallany, who infuses Lights with his own mix of macho and sensitivity, is the proverbial “overnight sensation.” He’s spent 25 years as a journeyman working actor in film (Three Kings) and TV (Law & Order), mostly as a supporting player, all the while honing his craft — preparing for when opportunity knocked.
Everyone from co-star Stacy Keach, as his trainer-father, to series executive producer Warren Leight to McCallany himself says this is a part he was born to play. Why? Start with his passion for The Sweet Science.
“Boxing was my first love, and way back when I was a teenage boy in Omaha. My brother won the Golden Gloves. We had an explosive sort of relationship, he and I. We would often get into fistfights and all of a sudden he was getting really good.”
As for himself, McCallany’s a gym rat. He’s logged countless hours sparring — “sometimes those turn into real wars” — and training with pros. He appeared in the boxing pics Fight Club and Tyson. He’s steeped in boxing lore. He brought in his friend, world-class trainer Teddy Atlas, as technical adviser on Lights Out.
The pains taken to get things right have won the show high praise. The only critics who matter to McCallany are pugilists. “The response from the boxing community has been really positive,” he says.
“There are a lot of similarities I find between boxing and acting,” he says. “In the theater the curtain goes up at 8 and the audience is in their seats and you’ve got to come out and give a performance, and it’s similar in boxing — there’s an appointed day and appointed time when you know people are going to be there ringside and it’s time for you to come out and perform.”
In both arenas, nerves must be harnessed.
“The anxiety is your friend,” he says. “That’s what’s going to ensure you’re going to do what you’re trained to do and, as Ernest Hemingway said, ‘remain graceful under pressure,’ which is really what it’s about.”
As much as he admires great boxing films he says “Lights Out” is not constrained by the limits of biography or a two-hour framework.
“We have all of this time to explore in rich detail a boxer’s life and his relationships and his psychology,” he says. “With this character the writers and I have the freedom to really create and really see where this journey is going to take us, and that’s very exciting. I can’t tell you exactly what’s going to happen in season two because I’m not sure, and I promise you they’re not sure either. That’s what’s different.”
While they’ll be no second season now, McCallany’s up for a part in the nextBatman installment and has a script in play with
- Holt McCallany and Warren Leight Interview LIGHTS OUT (collider.com)
- Five Reasons to Watch Lights Out (seattlepi.com)
- ‘Lights Out’: A Total Knockout Of A Boxing Drama (npr.org)
- FX’s ‘Lights Out’ has more than punches to throw at viewers (latimesblogs.latimes.com)
- So long, “Lights Out” — you coulda been a contender (salon.com)
- Life is a Cabaret, the Anne Marie Kenny Story: From Omaha to Paris to Prague and Back to Omaha, with Love (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Home Girl Karrin Allyson Gets Her Jazz Thing On (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Home Boy Nicholas D’Agosto Makes Good on the Start ‘Election’ Gave Him; Nails Small But Showy Part in New Indie Flick ‘Dirty Girl’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
UPDATE: So, I went to the An Evening with Steven Soderbergh event that the following post previewed, and it proved every bit as engaging a program as I expected. Alexander Payne handled the introductions with low-key aplomb. Kurt Andersen was his usual studied and witty self as the moderator or interviewer. And special guest Steven Soderbergh was cool, intelligent, frank, and surprisingly self-effacing. He even confirmed reports that have been circulating for awhile now that he plans retiring from filmmaking in a few years. If he does indeed go through with walking away from his film career, it would be an unprecedented move considering his A-list status and relatively young age — he’s only 48. He just completed Contagion and he has a couple more projects in the pipeline that he’s obligated to complete, Liberace and The Man from Uncle, but after those, he said, he has nothing more scheduled to hold him down. He said he’s been turning down every project offered to him for some time. His reason for wanting to abandon filmmaking? He said it’s a case of feeling like he is more and more retreading the same ground and he no longer wants to feel trapped into repeating himself. He didn’t say what he might do in place of making films, though there was an allusion by Andersen to Soderbergh wanting to paint and perhaps write. Speaking of writing, Soderbergh described one of his best decisions as coming to terms with the fact that his best potential lay not in writing films but in directing them. He started out writing his own scripts, including the project that first brought him fame — sex, lies and videotape. But he increasingly turned to other writers to flesh out his ideas. I also discovered that Soderbergh ahas for some time now acted as his own cinematographer and editor on his films, often using a pseudonym rather than taking screen credit under his own name in those categories. All in all, it was a night of stimulating conversation and judging by the packed house at the Holland Performing Arts Center this fund raiser for Omaha’s art cinema, Film Streams, was a resounding success.
Omaha’s downtown art cinema, Film Streams, is presenting a Feb. 20 program featuring one of cinema’s top directors, Steven Soderbergh, who will be interviewed on stage at the Holland Performing Arts Center by author-Studio 360 host Kurt Andersen. Filmmaker Alexander Payne, a friend of Soderbergh’s, is introducing the program. The event’s a fund raiser for Film Streams. I didn’t get the chance to interview Soderbergh, which was a bummer, but I still had a good time writing the following piece for The Reader (www.thereader.com) about the filmmaker and his work. I interviewed Andersen and solicited comments from Payne, from Film Streams founder/director Rachel Jacobson, and from film historian Ton Schatz. I look forward to attending An Evening with Steven Soderbergh. This is the third big fund raiser for Film Streams featuring a major cinema figure. Laura Dern was the special guest year one and Debra Winger last year. Payne interviewed each on stage. These are the kinds of cinema events that almost never used to happen in Omaha, and now thanks to Film Streams and the Omaha Film Festival they happen on a regular basis.
The Soderbergh Experience: Director Steven Soderbergh to Talk Shop at Film Streams Feature Event
©by Leo Adam Biga
Published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Steven Soderbergh may not generate the snobby, effete buzz of some name directors, yet he’s arguably the most prolific and accomplished American filmmaker over the past 20 years. As special guest for the Feb. 20 Film Streams Feature Event III, An Evening with Steven Soderbergh, he headlines Omaha’s must-see cinema event of 2011.
Skeptics must concede he has the juice to qualify as an elite director. There are the awards (the Palm d’Or and the Oscar), the glowing reviews, the productive collaborations with mega-stars (George Clooney) and the clout or charisma to get both commercial (Erin Brockovich) and fringe (Che) works produced.
He did one early game-changing film (sex, lies, and videotape) and he’s followed with some prestige mature projects (Traffic). Yes, naysayers point out, but he can’t claim a seminal work like The Godfather or Taxi Driver as his own.
What he does possess is a supple technique he applies to a broad canvas of genres he crosses and bends with equal amounts of restraint and respect and reinvention. He’s not even 50, and his oeuvre may ultimately contain more stand-the-test-of-time credits than any of his flashier contemporaries or senior counterparts.
Yes, but is he an auteur? That may be among the things novelist and Studio 360 host Kurt Andersen explores with Soderbergh during their on-stage interview-clip program at the Holland Performing Arts Center.
For now, Andersen ventures while it’s hard to instantly identify a Soderbergh film the way one can a Scorsese or Allen or Tarantino or Coen Brothers film, or for that matter a Tony Scott film, “he is an incredibly ambitious artist, and that’s an interesting combination.”
Count Andersen an admirer.
“He’s done television as well as feature films, he produces (Syriana, Michael Clayton) as well as directs, he does documentaries, he does these big kind of pure entertainment features as well as these very strange little features, and all of that range continues,” he says. “It’s not as though he did these little movies and then graduated to payday movies. That he continues to be as diverse at age 48 as when he was 25-30 is really singular.
“When you look at the body of work and career there’s nobody of his generation who comes close I think in having all of that, as well as the half dozen or whatever master works you can argue about and point to.”
Before the auteur theory messed with cinephiles’ conceptions of where ultimate film authorship lies, name-above-the-title directors were rare. Today, even hacks are accorded that once privileged status. Soderbergh is anything but a hack. Indeed, Andersen calls him “the anti-hack.”
Alexander Payne, who approached Soderbergh to headline the Film Streams fundraiser and will introduce the program, summed up his fellow artist with:
“I count Steven as a friend and colleague, and I have tremendous respect for his career and his purity — and certainly for his work ethic. He admires the directors of classical Hollywood who honed craft through continuous work, and he has miraculously enabled himself to equal their prodigious output. Some hit, some miss, but craft sharpens and roves. And he supports other filmmakers without question.”
A great filmmaker doesn’t have to also be a screenwriter like Payne. John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock produced great art with recurring personal themes and motifs without scripting a word. Soderbergh has writing credits on a third of his features.
Neither is a clearly defined style a prerequisite for a great director. Witness John Huston and Elia Kazan, whose subtle styles changed from film to film in service of story while their own preoccupations shone through. Soderbergh is in their chameleon tradition.
The fertile mid-1960s through 1970s era saw personal filmmaking flower in and out of Hollywood with Cassavetes, Scorsese, Coppola, Ashby, Altman, et all. In the 1980s this trend retreated in the face of mega pics, sequels and special effects.
Soderbergh is a bridge figure who helped usher in the independent film movement with his 1989 debut feature sex, lies, and videotape. A searching period followed that film’s breakout success. Since the mid-‘90s he’s evolved as a director of high gloss studio projects, including the Oceans series, that win critical and industry praise — and also make money — yet also as the maker of art pieces that exercise other creative muscles.
University of Texas at Austin film scholar Tom Schatz says Soderbergh’s arrival one the scene marked a turning point.
“1989 was perhaps the most important year for Hollywood in the past half-century,” says Schatz. “It was the year of the Time-Warner and Sony-Columbia mergers, which began the trend toward conglomerate control that now defines the movie industry. It was the year of Batman, the first modem blockbuster. And it was the year of sex, lies, and videotape, which ignited an indie-film movement and alongside Batman set a dual trajectory that continues to this day.
“Interestingly enough, Soderbergh is among the very few contemporary Hollywood filmmakers who can move effortlessly and successfully from one of these tracks to the other, segueing from modest, innovative, character-driven films to big-budget franchise blockbusters. In the process he has steadily produced a body of work that is unmatched in contemporary American cinema.”
Andersen says Soderbergh shook things up around the same time the Coens,Tarantino, Gus Van Sant and Spike Lee emerged as a brash new guard.
Kurt Andersen interviews Steven Soderbergh
“It was the germinal moment of a certain era of American films that were strange and singular and idiosyncratic and that everybody was suddenly talking about in a way they hadn’t since the ’70s,” notes Andersen. “What’s so kind of heartening and praiseworthy about Soderbergh’s career is he continues really risky formal experiments.”
Take the director’s choice of revolutionary Che Guevara as the subject of a four-hour-plus, two-part film in Spanish. The sheer length and scope leaves Andersen wondering, “Why do you do that? It’s almost a different thing than a conventional feature film. At one point in the process did he decide this needs to be this epic thing?” He plans to ask Soderbergh that very question.
Andersen’s also fascinated by Soderbergh’s take on the ferment of that time.
“I’ve just written a novel, much of which is set in the ‘60s, and about politics. I’m eager to talk to him about how we’re maybe now just getting far enough away from the ‘60s, with all their power and electricity and iconic resonance, where we can make interesting art about them and talk about them in ways that are not quite so hot and bothered.”
Film Streams director Rachel Jacobson says she appreciates Soderbergh’s “transparent awareness of the commercial pressures that “compromise the art of film” by his jumping back and forth between the two extremes of feature filmmaking.
She adds, “He’s also interested in challenging traditional distribution channels. Both Bubble and The Girlfriend Experience were released On-Demand and on Blu-Ray the same day and date they were released theatrically. His visit is such a terrific match for us as an art house theater dealing with these issues from the other end.”
Film Streams Feature Events I and II guests, Laura Dern and Debra Winger, respectively, discussed acting and offered anecdotes about projects and collaborators. Alexander Payne, who directed Dern in his first feature Citizen Ruth and admired the commitment Winger made to her roles, conducted soft interviews with the stars. This time, with a director in the spotlight and a veteran journalist asking penetrating questions, a different dynamic is in the offing. Both Payne and Andersen serve on the art cinema’s Advisory Board.
“Having had two terrific actors at past Features, I feel like the acclaimed director’s visit is a terrific way to mix things up,” says Jacobson. “Everyone has seen a Soderbergh film but not everyone pays attention to the director. It’s really important to our mission of promoting film as art that people think about the artist with the vision behind the work, the decisions that go into every shot, and the talent it takes to create a good movie.
“We’re thrilled that Kurt is coming to do the interview this year.”
The balancing act of Soderbergh, who’s publicly bemoaned the unwieldy, antiquated system for getting films made and released, intrigues Andersen. He says he’s eager to ask “how he convinced-persuaded the money guys to let him do what he wanted to do” in that limbo period following sex, when the perceived failures of Kafka, King of the Hill, Underneath and the TV series Fallen Angels seemed to signal a fall to irrelevance.
Then came five films that made Soderbergh not only relevant again but gave him cachet: Out of Sight, The Limey, Erin Brockovich, Traffic, Ocean’s Eleven. From then till now Soderbergh’s moved from obscure projects like Solaris and The Good German to star-vehicles like The Informant and the forthcoming Haywire.
As Andersen says, “there’s talent and luck and then there’s the personality-temperament things that allow you to make that Hollywood ATM machine cough up the money.” Andersen’s curious to kknow how artists like Soderbergh “actually manage to have other people pay for the courage” of their “private, quirky convictions.”
Even when Soderbergh has played it “safe” with forays into genre themes and variations, whether the caper buddy pic (Oceans) or the romantic suspense flick (Out of Sight) or the revenge story (The Limey) or the underdog-against-all-odds chestnut (Brockovich), he’s made the conventions his own.
“He’s broad enough in his vision of interesting material that he can take something that’s been seen a thousand times and make it a memorable thing,” says Andersen.
The Good German finds Soderbergh taking the duplicity and intrigue and look of Casablanca or The Third Man and at once remaining true to it and tweaking it. His black and white milieu and mis en scene boast mystique with a modern edge.
“You see him setting up a particular kind of obstacle course for himself. He’s doing not just a modern version of a film noir,” says Andersen, “but he’s actually trying to do it in a virtual simulation way — to try and figure out how movies were made then in ways that we don’t now, and yet trying to make it work as a film that comes out in 2006.
“It’s interesting to me to talk to an artist about the kinds of puzzles he sets for himself.”
Andersen admits to being a sucker for spy stories anyway and he says Soderbergh’s riffs with the well-worn form made it a must-see for him.
“That’s interesting in a personal way for me,” says Andersen. “I’m fascinated by the intelligence agencies. In this new novel of mine the serious research I had to do was about how the intelligence business works, so I actually was thinking about The Good German. I rewatched that film in anticipation of talking to Soderbergh.”
Traffic is another example of an overused, often cliched subject — illegal drug trafficking — that in the hands of an imaginative filmmaker becomes a kind of elegiac opus about human greed and frailty told in overlapping storylines.
“A really interesting film,” says Andersen. “It’s the kind of movie that in description could be such a hack work thing. If in a blind taste test that film was simply described to you, you’d think, Yeah, maybe, but you’d expect it to be mediocre. But again with this kind of genre material he brings both this interesting, complicated structure — TV-like in a way because of course it’s an adaptation of a television series — and turns this pulp material into something so much better. Into a work of art.”
Andersen says The Informant portrays business management’s “moral ambiguity” and “murkiness” in a way “that fiction and film seldom do. It’s so unpigeonholable. Is it a comedy? Is it a drama? What is it?” He likes too the improvisational and enigmatic qualities of The Girlfriend Experience.
In the end, Andersen says, Soderbergh distinguishes his work above the fray.
“There’s so many like big tent pole movies that get made just because the deal was made,” he says. “He’s s one who clearly takes seriously the fact that somebody’s going to pay 10 bucks and spend two hours of their life, and so I better try to entertain them. He kind of gives more than necessary. When any artist over-delivers in what they’re strictly required to do, it makes for a great artist and for a career that really lasts.
“You never get the sense he’s phoning it in in any sense, which isn’t to say it always works. I mean, he has lesser movies and greater movies, but he’s always trying. His work never goes off the rails. There’s always a sense of rigor about it.”
Tickets for the 6:30 p.m. concert hall interview are $35 and available by calling 933-0259 or visiting www.filmstreams.org. A post-party and private reception cost extra.
- Warner Bros. Will Distribute Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion (cinemablend.com)
- Steven Soderbergh Assembling A Traffic-Sized Ensemble Film (cinemablend.com)
- Steven Soderbergh’s ‘Haywire’ Gets Official Release Date (moviefone.com)
- ‘Contagion’ Trailer: Steven Soderbergh’s Version of Realistic Horror (slashfilm.com)
My friend and sometime subject, documentary filmmaker Gail Levin, has a new work premiering Jan. 12 on PBS for American Masters – a profile of Oscar-winning actor Jeff Bridges. Her film, Jeff Bridges: The Dude Abides, comes just short of a year since the star accepted the Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of Bad Blake in Crazy Heart. He may well be in contention for the award again on the strength of his performance in the Coen brothers‘ remake of True Grit. I interviewed Levin by phone during a break from her editing of the film in New York, where she lives. I haven’s seen the film, except for a brief excerpt you can find yourself on the American Masters web site. But I know her work very well, and she’s handled similar assignments profiling acting legends quite well. I expect the same with this project. Levin is an Emmy Award-winning filmmaker whose work has appeared before on both American Masters and Great Performances. On this blog site you can find some of my earlier stories about Gail and her films The Tall Ship Lindo, Making the Misfits, James Dean, Sense Memories, and Marilyn Monroe – Still Life. My story on Levin and her Jeff Bridges film is published in The Reader (www.thereader.com).
NOTE: Now that I have seen Levin’s film — on the rebound in a late night reprise screening — I can now say that it one of the better profiles of an actor I have ever seen. Even though Levin expressed frustration to me at not getting in as deep or close with Bridges as she would have liked, I feel like I now have an authentic appreciation for who he is and how he conducts himself in his life and in his art. As I mentioned to Levin when we spoke about the project, I have always felt that Bridges was hugely unappreciated and I think her film will be part of an ongoing reevaluation of his work and his career that will recognize him as one of the masters of his craft.
Long Live the Dude: Gail Levin Chronicles Jeff Bridges for “American Masters”
©by Leo Adam Biga
Published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Omaha native and Emmy Award-winning documentarian Gail Levin profiles actor Jeff Bridges in a new film kicking off the 25th season of American Masters, a series produced for PBS by New York Public Media THIRTEEN in association with WNET.
Jeff Bridges: The Dude Abides premieres Jan. 12, showing locally on NET at 9 p.m.
Levin, an Omaha Central High graduate long based in Manhattan, says the project has been on quick turnaround to parlay the heat surrounding Bridges. A year ago he won the Best Actor Oscar for his performance as country musician Bad Blake in Crazy Heart. Oddsmakers predict a nomination for his rendition of lawman Rooster Cogburn in the Coen brothers’ True Grit.
“We’re really trying to take advantage of all the energy and buzz of everything that’s going on with him,” says Levin (Making the Misfits, James Dean: Sense Memories).
Her film reveals Bridges as a multi-faceted creative. In addition to acting he’s a musician. He performs with his band The Abiders. He’s also a photographer, painter, potter, and vintner. Performing his own music in Crazy Heart surprised many, but it was simply an extension of what he’s always done.
“His great love is music, and it has been all throughout his life,” she says. “He’s now really playing a lot of music, doing gigs. We’ve got a lot of footage of him. We shot at this funny little place he played in Niagara Falls.”
She also captured him at a Zen symposium.
“I don’t know that he would call himself a Buddhist, but he’s certainly in that ether at the moment. He’s very involved with a group called Zen Peacemakers.”
Levin was struck by a passage Bridges wrote in the intro to his book Pictures, a sampling of images the actor takes on movie sets and gifts as photo albums to cast and crew. In describing why he prefers the panoramic Widelux still camera, he offers a key to his creative method:
“…it has an arbitrariness to it, a capricious quality. I like that. It’s something I aspire to in all my work — a lack of preciousness that makes things more human and honest, a willingness to receive what’s there in the moment, and to let go of the result. Getting out of the way seems to be one of the main tasks for me as an artist.”
For Levin, the insight helps explain what makes Bridges a durable star 40 years since his feature breakthrough in The Last Picture Show.
In her interviews with him, his family and colleagues Levin found he’s more complex than his public Everyman-Next-Door, laid-back Dude persona.
“The interesting truth about him is that he’s rather tortured all the time. He says in the film he’s rather reluctant to all of this (film career). I think he came to it obviously through the legacy of his father (the late actor Lloyd Bridges) and his older brother Beau, But he even says he’s a little bit lazy, he’s got a little of the Dude in him, and it’s always kind of hard for him to kind of gear himself up again.”
This “drag me to the party” resistance and ambivalence is how he moves through life. She says some Bridges collaborators, such as Terry Gilliam and John Goodman, speak to his cautious approach.
“He’s not a spontaneous, improvisational actor,” says Levin. “He really needs to know what and where. He has guides who school him in being a junkie or a drunk. He takes that all very seriously and seems to form close relationships with these people who sort of become his models for how to play various parts.
“I think he’s very particular about the kinds of things he chooses. I think he picks films that have some intrigue for him and not necessarily what are going to be the biggest blockbusters. He’s a very individual star. I think he’s really on his own path.”
While Levin enjoyed “amazing access” to Bridges and Co., she found his well-protected veneer hard to penetrate:
“You’ll see in this film there’s a much darker side to Jeff than people realize, and this kind of push-me, pull-you about the acting is really a great revelation. People think he’s easy going about it, and he’s really not. But he doesn’t divulge dark disappointments and things like that. Others say it.”
She says if there are secrets to pry loose, “you gotta be long and deep with him,” adding she didn’t establish a rapport that might have led to such intimacies.
As for Bridges being an American Master, she says, “He’s worked with remarkable directors, he has an extraordinary body of work. He’s an amazing amalgam. He’s an artist on many, many levels.”
- Jeff Bridges looks back on “Lebowski” for “The Dude Abides” (hollywoodnews.com)
- WATCH: Jeff Bridges Almost Told Coen Brothers No On ‘Big Lebowski’ (huffingtonpost.com)
- Jeff Bridges, from The Dude to The Duke (thestar.com)
- Jeff Bridges Previews Debut Album at L.A. Show (musicbusinessheretic.wordpress.com)
- Jeff Bridges Looking to Adapt and Star in ‘The Giver’ (moviefone.com)
- Jeff Bridges Previews Debut Album at L.A. Show (musicbusinessheretic.wordpress.com)
- Jeff Bridges Looking to Adapt and Star in ‘The Giver’ (moviefone.com)
Hollywood Legend Debbie Reynolds and Classic Film ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ to Be Saluted at Nov. 5 Event
I have always loved the great MGM musicals. Singin’ in the Rain is perhaps the best known and loved of those films, and while I admire the picture, I actually prefer some others to it, especially The Band Wagon and On the Town. But there’s no getting around the fact that Singin’ is a high achievement and an always entertaining watch. Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor carry the film but there is no denying that Debbie Reynolds holds her own in what was her breakout role in Hollywood. I have seen very few of her films but what I have seen I have been impressed by. She has one of those indomitable spirits that I suppose made her a natural choice for portraying The Unsinkable Molly Brown when Hollywood got around to adapting that Broadway smash to the screen. I’ve only seen a couple minutes of the film, and one of these times when it’s showing on TCM I’ll have to make the effort to sit down and watch the whole thing. The following story for the New Horizons was written in advance of Reynolds making an appearance in Omaha, Neb., where I live, for a screening of Singin. I interviewed her by phone for the piece and I found her gracious and forthcoming in answering questions she’s likely been asked hundreds or thousands of times. I found revealing a particular anecdote she shared about Fred Astaire — it’s in the story. Singin‘ was a grueling experience for Debbie and when she was at her lowest Astaire befriended her by helping her learn what it means to be a professional. That same perseverance has helped see her through many difficult times since them. I look forward to seeing this consummate trouper in person.
Hollywood Legend Debbie Reynolds and Classic Film ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ to Be Saluted at Nov. 5 Event
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the New Horizons
As Old Hollywood royalty goes, Debbie Reynolds is still a princess more than 60 years since inking her first studio contract and 58 years since her star-making turn in the classic MGM musical Singin’ in the Rain (1952).
Reynolds, 78, is one of the last remaining stars from Hollywood’s Golden Age and the only survivor from this iconic musical’s principal cast. Even though she’s made scores of movies and still appears on the big screen and makes guest spots on television, she’s perhaps most closely identified with Singin’ in the Rain.
Consistently rated one of the all-time greatest movies in American Film Institute polls, the musical spoofs Hollywood’s messy transition from silent to sound pictures. Gene Kelly stars as matinee idol Don Lockwood and Donald O’Connor as writer Cosmo Brown, with Reynolds as the plucky ingenue Kathy Selden, the girl who breaks into pictures and steals Don’s heart.
Singin’ rarely gets a theater screening now, so when Omaha film impresario Bruce Crawford asked Reynolds to be the special guest at a November 5 charity showing, the actress and nightclub entertainer said yes. Join Reynolds for the 7 p.m. revival at Joslyn Art Museum’s Witherspoon Concert Hall. Tickets are $25 and available at Omaha Hy-Vee store. Proceeds benefit the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul.
The artist will be the latest in a long line of Old Hollywood figures Crawford’s brought to Omaha. Two past guests were Patricia Neal and Kevin McCarthy, While those recently departed stars came to Hollywood as theater and Actors Studio veterans, Reynolds was a neophyte with zero acting experience when discovered.
At age 16 the then-Mary Frances Reynolds won the Lockheed Aircraft-sponsored Miss Burbank beauty pageant in 1948. Her lip-synching to a record of a Betty Hutton song caught the attention of two pageant judges who just happened to be talent scouts, one for Warner Brothers and the other for Metro-Goldywn-Mayer.
Soon, Mary Frances, who was born in El Paso, Texas and lived a hardscrabble life with her family during the Great Depression, found herself making a screen test for Warners. The charmed execs signed her to a $65 a week contract. Jack Warner changed her name to Debbie, but she refused attempts to alter her surname. The precocious young woman had just moved to Burbank eight years earlier. Her family had fled the Dust Bowl as part of the great migration West in search for a better life.
Attending public school, “Frannie” excelled in sports, baton twirling and music. She was a Girl Scout. She came from a evangelical Christian household yet her mother indulged her daughter’s expressive talents and love for the movies and radio. A favorite pastime was mimicking cinema stars and radio personalities.
The newly dubbed Debbie Reynolds made her motion picture debut as an extra in 1948′s June Bride. Her first speaking part came in The Daughter of Rosie O’Grady. When those appearances failed to ignite with audiences or critics, Warners elected not to renew their option. That’s when MGM, whose talent scout had noted her charisma, cast her in a small part in Three Little Words with Fred Astaire and Red Skeltonl. She made enough of an impression that that most prestigious of studios put her on a standard seven-year contract at $300 a week.
In a phone interview from Biloxi, Miss., where she was performing her cabaret act, Reynolds recalled the serendipity of it all.
“Well, first of all I was very lucky to be there during that stage,” she said. “MGM was the largest studio that made the greatest musicals of all and that had the largest of roster of stars. I came in in 1949, near the very end of this wonderful era of musicals, and I was fortunate enough to be taught under all those great stars. I was a very fortunate young lady and it paid off all these years because I’m still around.”
She said she couldn’t help but blossom in the training ground that MGM presented.
“When you have great teachers and you learn under the really marvelous tutelage of all those wonderful talents and all the stories they have to say and all the teachings they have to pass onto you, why those are things that never really leave you. It’s like going to the finest of universities let’s say.”
A few more forgettable pictures followed. One, Susan Slept Here, she did on a loan out to RKO. In another, Two Weeks with Love, she created a buzz with her rendition of the “Abba Dabba Dabba” song. Then the biggest break of her fledgling career happened when cast in her first starring role, opposite Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor, in Singin’. MGM mogul Louie B. Mayer ignored the wishes of producer Arthur Freed and co-directors Kelly and Stanley Donen, who preferred someone with polished acting-singing-dancing skills, by giving the part to the inexperienced Reynolds.
Freed, a former song plugger and lyricist, oversaw the fabled Freed Unit that churned out the classic MGM musicals with their sumptuous production details. He packaged the creative talents behind Singin’ and such other gems as An American in Paris and Gigi. For Singin’, he brought together Kelly, Donen, screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green, composer Roger Edens and character actors Millard Mitchell and Jean Hagen.
Getting third billing in a Freed musical starring Kelly was a coup for Reynolds but it brought tremendous pressure. Her role required her to act, sing and dance. The vocals posed no major problem, but the dance numbers did for the unschooled Reynolds. She had to match, step for step, the moves of two world class hoofers after only a few weeks rehearsal. It was a trying time for the starlet. She felt overwhelmed by it all.
“I was just a young little girl who’d done just a few pictures. I had done nothing of any noteworthy dimension,” she said.
After one rehearsal she waited till everyone left the sound stage before crumpling to the floor in tears, hiding under a piano to conceal her distress. That’s when she said Omaha’s own Fred Astaire came to her rescue, not so much by consoling her as by giving her a tough love message about what it means to be a professional.
“Yes it’s a true story,” she said. “I was crying under a big grand piano. It was lunchtime and I was alone, so I could just sob away. I was only 17 and I was untrained and I felt very lost and, you know quite, miserable as a young girl out of my element totally.
“Mr Astaire was walking by because he was rehearsing right next door ,and I guess he heard me, and so he reached down and he said, ‘Who is that?’ I said my name and he said, ‘Give me your hand,’ and he pulled me out and he said, ‘Now, Debby, I’m going to let you watch me rehearse,’ which he never allowed. He always had a guard at the door and the only ones allowed were his drummer and the guard and Hermes Pan, who was his dance assistant.
“So I watched for awhile, until his face turned red and sweat was profusely coming down his face, and he turned to me to say, ‘Now you’ve seen how tough it is, how hard it is. This is the way you have to learn to be really the best. You have to work this hard. No pain, no gain. You have to go back, stop crying, and get to work.’ So I did, and I have continued to do that all these years. Don’t complain, just get better, just work harder.”
She needed to develop a thick skin and a more demanding discipline because Gene Kelly, “the creative mastermind of it all,” drove her and everybody else so hard.
“He was a taskmaster on himself more than anybody,” she said. “It was equal. This was, after all, his pride and joy, and he treated every project that way. I don’t think Gene ever did anything half way. Gene was a perfectionist. He was a creative artist, he was a great dancer, as was Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell. They all worked the same. I don’t know any dancer that ever worked easy. There is no easy way to dance.”
Kelly had earlier put a non-dancer through his paces when he worked with crooner Frank Sinatra on Anchors Aweigh and On the Town. The dancer didn’t cut Old Blue Eyes any slack and he sure didn’t for Reynolds.
Someone who did offer solace from the daily grind was co-star Donald O’Connor.
Said Reynolds, “Well, we were closer because we were nearer the same age. Donald was 27. Being younger, he was a bit more friendly and he had more time to visit with me. He worked with me on the dancing. He taught me how to do back flips and front flips and tumbling. He was very sweet. We had a lot of fun doing ridiculous things together and being young together and laughing together, so he was kind of my release. With him, I was allowed to be young and laugh and not be so dedicated every minute.
“And we remained dear friends. We did an act together many years later on the road called Together Again. It was very successful and we had a wonderful time.”
Perhaps an unlikely confidante was the head man himself, Louie B. Mayer, who was known to be alternately tyrannical and tender. His studio’s rather idealized portraits of Americana and the family reflected his own sentimental leanings.
“Any problem I had I just called him on the phone and said, ‘Mr. Mayer, do you know whats happening?’ He’d say, ‘You come up here and see me,’ and I was just like a little kid and he treated me like a little kid. He took care of any problem I had. He’d always sit me down and say, ‘What’s the problem?’ He always had time for me. I’m not saying he wasn’t a tough man with a lot of other people, but with me he was really very sweet. I found him to be very fatherly.”
Not even L.B. Mayer could protect her from the fallout of her failed marriage to pop singing star Eddie Fisher, who infamously left her for her friend, Elizabeth Taylor. The scandal made headlines. Reynolds’ later marriages also ended badly when her business magnate husbands’ financial problems forced her to declare bankruptcy. Financial woes also dogged her dream of establishing a motion picture museum displaying her vast collection of vintage Hollywood costumes.
“I wanted to do that in my lifetime, but it doesn’t look like I’m going to get it done. It’s very sad for me to say that. That was my dream. Sometimes dreams don’t always come true, even though they have written many songs that they do.”
Her collection, worth many millions of dollars, is due to be auctioned off in 2011.
But like Molly Brown, the indefatigable Reynolds keeps plugging away, just like she learned to do from Astaire many years ago. Even though Singin’ “was a very difficult picture to do,” she said it turned out to be the boost that put her over the top.
“Oh, it made it,” she said of the film’s impact on her career. She went on to star alongside such greats as Bette Davis, Ernest Borgnine, Dick Powell, Frank Sinatra, Glenn Ford, Tony Curtis, Gregory Peck and James Garner. She earned a Best Actreee Oscar nomination for The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964). Years later she and Molly co-star Harve Presnell recreated their roles for a national stage tour. She starred on Broadway in Irene, Woman of the Year and her own one-woman revue, Debbie. She starred in her own network TV specials and in a short-lived series.
More recently, she won good reviews for her work in the Albert Brooks film Mother and her recurring role in TV’s Will & Grace. She mended fences with Liz Taylor on the TV movie These Old Broads, written by Reynolds’ daughter, actress-author Carrie Fisher. After finding stardom as Princess Leia in Star Wars, Fisher struggled. Her best-selling book Postcards from the Edge became a movie starring Shirley MacLain and Meryl Streep as a mother-daughter patterned after Reynolds-Fisher.
Reynolds is no stranger to Omaha, where she’s performed with the symphony and dined with Warren Buffett, whom she calls “the financial Jimmy Stewart.”
For more information, visit wwwomahafilmevent.com or call 320-1944.
- Reynolds’ Hollywood memorabilia set for auction (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- Debbie Reynolds Returns To Movies To Play Katherine Heigl’s Grandmother (cinemablend.com)
- MGM film studio rescued from bankruptcy (guardian.co.uk)
- Remembering the Movies of Debbie Reynolds (omg.yahoo.com)
- Debbie Reynolds On Elizabeth Taylor: “She Was A Symbol Of Stardom” (socialitelife.com)
- Debbie Reynolds auctions off Hollywood treasures (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
If I were forced to choose a Western as the only one I could watch among the hundreds I cherish, I suppose I would select The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the classic directed by John Ford and sarring John Wayne, James Stewart, and Lee Marvin. It is, for my tastes anyway, an enduring work that never fails to move me or to offer me ever deeper, resonant insights into human nature. I wrote the following article for The Reader (www.thereader,com) in advance of a revival screening of the picture. In the piece I was able to express my thoughts on some of the complex shades this film presents. It reminds me in many ways of Wayne’s last film, the great Western The Shootist, which I could have easily chosen ahead of Liberty. Both are dark films in the sense that they do not offer up easy or happy denouements. The central characters in each are conflicted individuals making hard decisions that have unforeseen or unintended consequences. Each film is set in a version of the dying West and their stories turn on the figure of a Westerner (Wayne) who has outlived his time, yet who has something invaluable to give before he fades away. If you have never seen the film or if perhaps you have caught a snippet of it without sitting through the whole thing, then give it a chance. It is well worth your time. And just remember that the fake-looking sets and washed-out black and white images are intentional and wholly in keeping with the themes of the story. I promise, if you sit through the picture, you will not be able to shake it.
NOTE: This blog also contains my take on Ford’s and Wayne’s other late masterpiece, The Searchers, in a story I called, The Searchers, a John Ford-John Wayne Masterwork. I also have many more film entries on the blog, including pieces on such other classic films as Casablanca and It’s a Wonderful Life and on filmmakers as diverse as John Landis, Joan Micklin Silver, John Jost, and Alexander Payne.
Through a Lens Darkly: A Western Masterpiece Looks Past the Fog of Myth to Find the Truth
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
The famous line is uttered in the classic 1962 film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance to decry the public-media inclination for myth over truth. The film is set in the dying Old West and its story is told almost entirely in flashback. The line refers to the unreliability of imagination and memory in sorting out the truth about the taming of the West. The implication is that getting at the truth about any history is problematical. If these spin-doctored times are any indication, then nothing much has changed. Just witness the hyperbole swirling around the War on Terror.
A revisionist Western starring the genre’s two most potent figures in John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart and directed by the genre’s greatest interpreter, John Ford, Valance both celebrates and debunks myths. Its theme of legend versus fact gains resonance from its two iconic stars subverting their Hollywood personas to play flawed characters who cover a lie that binds them to secrecy.
The way inconvenient truths get covered or distorted to further personal/national interests makes the film relevant today, which, in turn, makes impresario Bruce Crawford’s April 27 screening of Valance a must-see. The 7 p.m. event at Joslyn Art Museum’s Witherspoon Concert Hall commemorates the centennial of the Duke’s birth and benefits the Omaha Hearing School for Children Inc..
Special guest A.C. Lyles, going on 70 years with Paramount Pictures, knew Ford, Wayne and Stewart. Valance was shot on Paramount’s back lot and Lyles, then a producer of “B” Westerns, visited the set. He saw first hand the fear and respect commanded by Ford, the four-time Oscar winner as Best Director. “John Ford was not one of a kind, he was his own kind,” Lyles said. He also saw what made Wayne a thorough professional. “He was like John Ford — he believed in doing it and in doing it right. That’s why their pictures hold up to the test of time,” Lyles said.
In his present capacity as a goodwill ambassador for Paramount, a duty that finds him speaking at events like the upcoming one in Omaha, Lyles is a myth keeper who always polishes, never tarnishes, the patina of the Golden Age legends he knew. When it comes to Ford’s famous temper, for example, he prefers to couch it as “he had a job to do.” A.C.’s mantra could be, When the legend becomes fact, speak the legend. He’s also a consultant on HBO’s acclaimed Western series, Deadwood.
Any Wayne tribute must include at least one of the many films he made with Ford, under whose stern guidance he came to embody the male American ideal. Their collaboration was perhaps the most significant of any director-actor in Hollywood history. Together, they made at least a half-dozen Western masterpieces (Stagecoach, Rio Grande, Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Searchers and Valance). The last two Ford and Wayne teamed up for were darker in tone than the preceding ones. In The Searchers Wayne’s rugged individualist Ethan Edwards, a Civil War vet turned renegade, runs amok pursuing a racist brand of justice. Even as he reunites his family, he belongs to the wild and therefore remains isolated from his own people and community. In Valance his Tom Doniphon is once again a loner, but this time he is a bridge builder, not a destroyer, even enjoying a friendship with a black man. Then, Doniphon violates the Code of the West, sublimating himself for progress and the greater good.
Wayne’s Doniphon, a rancher handy with a gun, and Stewart’s Rance Stoddard, a greenhorn lawyer from the East, represent the wild and civilizing opposites of the West, respectively. Despite their differences they share a love for the same proverbial good woman, Hallie (Vera Miles), and a hatred for the same heinous villain, Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin). Doniphon’s and Stoddard’s fates are sealed when one acts to save the other and, in the process, rid the territory of Valance.
The last great film Ford made, TMWSLV is replete with the theme of legend blurring truth and the consequences that result when lore obscures reality. The one who intervenes on behalf of the other is forgotten. His sacrifice costs him his sense of worth, his way of life and his woman. The sacrifice goes unrecognized and unrewarded. He dies penniless and alone. The one who owes his life to the other gains power and privilege and steals the woman right under his friend’s nose. The debt owed his friend never fully acknowledged. The fraud’s reputation is built on a lie the two men conspire to keep. What really happened is revealed in a flashback within a flashback, which shows how difficult and subjective the truth can be.
Even when the man credited with shooting Liberty Valance comes clean in an interview years later, a newspaperman dismisses it, telling him that when hype is accepted as fact, it trumps the truth.
It is a jaundiced take on American values and the costs associated with them.
“Liberty Valance is a masterpiece. It’s rich, it’s profound. It’s theme echoes something President John F. Kennedy said in a speech. ‘That the great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie…but the myth. Belief in myths allows the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought,’” Crawford said. “In this film Ford deconstructs the myths. It’s so moving. What a powerful, beautiful movie.”
As much as any artist, Ford promulgated such indelible images of the mythic West they became ingrained in the collective consciousness. The poetry and sentiment of his Westerns spoke so deeply and authentically to audiences that his movies were accepted by many as gospel. Whether or not he felt responsible to as Crawford suggests “set the record straight” is unknown, but late in his career he clearly did challenge some of the very precepts he advanced in his earlier work.
The philosophy behind the film’s great line — “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend” — may express how Ford, the super patriot liberal Democrat who never discussed his work, felt popular conceptions of the West, including his own, or of any history, could not be trusted. It may have been as much a call for vigilance in the search for truth among disparate voices as it was an old man’s cynicism in the emerging media age of managed sound bites and headlines. God only knows what the old man would think of these politically correct-parsed times.
Joan Micklin Silver, A Maverick Filmmaker Who Helped Shape the American Independent Film Scene and Opened Doors for Women Directors
Something I tend to harp on is the tendency for my home state, Nebraska, to neglect the significant figures from here who have made their mark in film. One of my favorite Nebraskans in Film is Joan Micklin Silver. The Omaha native became a maverick filmmaker who helped shape the American independent film scene in the 1970s and opened doors for women directors. If her name and work are unfamiliar, then take the time to discover this artist. The following article for the New Horizons is one of a few major pieces I have done on her over the years. You will find my other stories about her on this same blog site. In some ways she was born too early to enjoy the increased freedom and opportunity that today’s women filmmakers enjoy, not that they haven’t had to overcome barriers themselves because the film world is still very much a male-centric arena. Let’s just say though that Micklin Silver is someone who deserves more recognition and that her films merit more viewers. Her feature film career lost steam in the mid 1990s, when she began directing movies for cable networks. More recently, she’s been developing some documentary projects. She would still like to realize a long held dream of coming back to Nebraska to direct a film. If she does, I will be there to cover it.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the New Horizons
For a sparsely populated state far removed from Hollywood, Nebraska has produced an amazing array of movie greats. From the daredevil highjinks of Harold Lloyd to the graceful arabesques of Fred Astaire to the rugged heroism of Robert Taylor to the dignified stature of Henry Fonda to the demure charm of Dorothy McGuire to the brooding machismo of Marlon Brando to the laconic swagger of James Coburn to the bright spirit of Sandy Dennis to the volatile bravado of Nick Nolte, Nebraska-born stars have been as beguiling as the Sand Hills themselves.
Besides these bigger-than-life performers, Nebraska has yielded a bumper crop of storytellers and starmakers who have helped shaped the movies. Darryl Zanuck was a case in point. The Wahoo native catapulted himself from Warner Bros. screenwriter to 20th Century Fox movie mogul, overseeing many Oscar-winning classics (The Grapes of Wrath, Twelve O’clock High) during Hollywood’s Golden Age. Decades later, a new generation of Nebraska filmmakers emerged to put their dreams on celluloid. Take Alexander Payne, for example. The Omaha native is a writer-director of small, edgy, wickedly satiric feature films (Citizen Ruth and Election) that have earned critical praise if not box office success.
In between the old Hollywood of Zanuck and the brash new screen world of Payne came Omaha native Joan Micklin Silver (Hester Street, Crossing Delancey), who arrived on the scene in the 1970s to help spark the American independent film movement and gain a fresh foothold for women behind-the-camera.
Based in New York, where she has lived the past three decades with her husband Ray Silver, she has made an indelible mark on the cinematic landscape. Born in Omaha in 1935, she is the eldest daughter of the late Maurice and Doris Micklin, Russian-Jewish immigrants who came separately to America in the wake of the Russian Revolution and met and married here. Her father later founded Micklin Lumber Co.
Micklin Silver’s deep love for the movies was first nurtured in pre-television Omaha. “I grew up in the days when you’d take the streetcar downtown and see double-features for 35 cents. Those were still the days of stage shows (preceding the main movie bill). It was just marvelous entertainment. It really was. I remember those theaters in Omaha very well. The Brandeis. The Orpheum. I think I was probably most influenced by the traditional Hollywood films I saw as a kid,” she said by phone from her New York home. Besides the movies, reading and writing held her interest. She attended Central High School (graduating in 1952) and Temple Israel Synagogue, writing sketches for school plays.
The stories told by her family of their coming to America — their crossing, culture shock and assimilation — held her enthralled from a young age. Micklin Silver said her father, who was 12 when he and his family arrived from Russia, “had very distinct memories of coming over and what it was like to be young, excited and terrified at having to learn a new language in a strange country…and he told those stories very vividly.” Her mother, only a toddler when she arrived, had no recall of the experience, but her older siblings did and Joan’s uncles and aunts shared their memories with her during visits to the family’s Yiddish-flavored home.
“So many families don’t want to talk about the experience of immigration,” Micklin Silver said. “It’s traumatic. They want to become Americans as soon as possible and they want to leave it all behind them. But my family was of the other variety — that loved to tell the tales. I was always fascinated by all the stories they told. Of the people that made it. The people that didn’t. The people that went crazy. The people that went back. I remember sitting around the dinner table and hearing stories that were very funny and enjoyable and strong and interesting and serious. So, when I began making movies, I was inevitably drawn to stories which had so much emotional weight for me as I grew up.”
Her beguilement with those tales informed her acclaimed first feature, Hester Street, a 1975 film scripted by Micklin Silver and produced by her husband. It takes a gritty, witty look at the Jewish immigrant milieu of New York’s Lower East Side, circa 1896, and features a Best Actress Oscar-nominated performance by Carol Kane. Unlike some period pieces that content themselves with depicting history in dull, flat terms, Hester Street sharply evokes the lives of a transplanted people at a particular place in time. Informed by a strong feminist sensibility, Hester Street is really about the awakening of a meek, innocent emigre named Gitl (Kane) who, upon arriving in America, finds her husband an unfaithful scoundrel with no respect for her or their shared past. Torn between cherished old values and strange new ones, Gitl finds emancipation while remaining true to herself.
The idea of transforming one’s self without losing one’s identity is something Micklin Silver, 64, could readily relate to. “I’ve always loved film very much, and I wanted to make it in that field. I wanted to direct, but I didn’t want to be a man. I wanted to be a woman. I wanted to be myself,” she said.
Her departure from Omaha, at age 17, occurred right around the time her father died. She attended Sarah Lawrence College in New York State, met her future husband, married, and moved with him to Cleveland, where he worked in real estate. She bore three daughters and in between raising a family continued haunting cinemas and began writing for local theater.
Inspired by what was happening in film at the time, including the exciting work of mavericks like John Cassavetes and Shirley Clarke, Micklin Silver yearned to be part of this vital scene. But Cleveland offered little hope for launching a project. Then fate intervened when she struck up a friendship with Linda Gottlieb (who went on to produce Dirty Dancing), then an executive with an educational film company, and ended up writing and directing a series of short educational films. One short subject dealt with immigration, and in researching the piece Micklin Silver came across the novella, Yekl, she would later base Hester Street on.
Meanwhile, the Silvers moved to New York. With her feature scripts lying dormant and no directing jobs in the offing, she despaired. Then, one of her scripts, Limbo, an anti-war story about the oblivion wives of Vietnam POWs and MIAs faced, sold to Universal Pictures and the studio brought her out west. When it became apparent she and the veteran Hollywood director (Mark Robson) assigned to it had a “very different take on” the material, she was replaced. Despite being taken off the picture, she found an unlikely ally in Robson.
“Although I didn’t like what he did with my script, he knew I wanted to be a director and he invited me to come and spend any amount of time I wanted on the set. I spent about 10 days there for my first exposure to the Hollywood moviemaking apparatus…with all the cranes and dolleys and budgets. It was very helpful.” She said seeing the process up close “emboldened me to come back to New York and to make films right away. I said to my husband, ‘I don’t want anybody else to do that to a script of mine.’ And I always remember what he said: ‘Go ahead, jump in the water. If you can’t swim now, you won’t be able to swim 10 years from now. This is your chance to try and find out.’”
It took guts for a woman to try directing then because women were simply not taken seriously in the male-dominated film world. Chauvinism reigned supreme.
“When I started,” she said, “there were no women directing at all in the so-called industry. There were no women cinematographers. There were very few women producers, and the ones there were were usually partnered with a man. I actually had an executive say to me, ‘Feature films are expensive to make and expensive to market, and women directors are one more problem we don’t need.’ So, yes, it was that blatant. Unless you’re of a certain age you can’t quite believe it was that awful, but it was. I couldn’t get a job directing at all. At that time the only job I was suitable for in the industry was writing.”
She followed Hester Street with a string of features that fared well with critics but less well with general audiences. Lately, she has directed television movies for HBO, Showtime and Lifetime (Her most recent work, Invisible Child, is a new original Lifetime movie drama starring Rita Wilson.). She has worked inside and outside the Hollywood system. She’s also directed for the theater to great acclaim (A…My Name is Alice). Along the way, she’s become a leading figure in American indie circles and a guiding spirit for the vibrant new women’s cinema scene, serving on the advisory board of the New York Women’s Film Festival.
Often sought out for advice by new filmmakers — male and female alike — she’s gladly shares her wisdom. “Of course, I’m flattered by it. I enjoy meeting with filmmakers and talking to them and comparing notes. They’re looking for almost any kind of help they can get that might help them get projects off the ground.”
More than most, she appreciates the progress women have made in film. “Absolutely. It’s great. Women are definitely in a better place today. Talented women do get opportunities. It’s not nearly as bleak a picture as it was.”
She attributes this breakthrough as much to women pounding at the studio gates long and hard enough to finally gain entry as to any contribution she and her peers made. Whether due to inroads made by these modern pioneers or not, once closed doors have undeniably opened. To wit, her daughters, who grew up on their mother’s movie sets, boast film careers of their own. Marisa has directed features (License to Drive), although these days she’s raising a family. Dina is a producer. And Claudia is a director with an acclaimed new short film (Kalamazoo) out.
Of her daughters following her footsteps, Micklin Silver said: “I think they all felt at home with the process and I don’t think they had an unrealistically rosy view of it all. They’ve certainly been aware of the various things I’ve gone through, but they’ve seen for the most part that I’ve enjoyed it and am proud of what I’ve achieved and am still at and so on. So, I hope they’ve been encouraged by it.”
Yet, even after the success of Hester Street, Micklin Silver still could not get Hollywood backing for her next project, Between the Lines (1977), which examines an underground newspaper staff’s struggle to balance their revolutionary zeal with dollars-and-cents reality. With its large, talented ensemble cast, gonzo sensibility and free-wheeling look at office and bedroom politics, the story accurately captures its time yet remains utterly fresh today.
A major studio, United Artists, did attach itself to her third project, Chilly Scenes of Winter, a 1979 film that steers clear of cliches in charting the ups and downs of a troubled romantic relationship. Micklin Silver’s association with UA turned sour when the studio ordered a new ending (to a less ambiguous one) and a changed title (to the frivolous Head Over Heels) against her wishes. Her critically praised film was a box office bust, but she ultimately prevailed when she got the UA Classics division to release her director’s cut in 1982.
A decade removed from the UA debacle, she finally danced with the studios again when her Crossing Delancey, a 1988 film adapted from the Susan Sandler play, was picked-up by Warner Bros. While not a Jewish director per se, she often explores her heritage on film and with Crossing Delancey she revisited the Lower East Side, only this time focusing on contemporary Jewish life and its intersection with old world traditions. In the mid-‘90s she directed the acclaimed National Public Radio series Great Jewish Stories from Eastern Europe and Beyond. Most recently, she directed the 1997 Showtime movie, In the Presence of Mine Enemies.
Based on a Rod Serling TV script originally produced live on Playhouse 90, Mine Enemies stars Armin Mueller-Stahl as a rabbi trying to hold his community and family together in the Warsaw ghetto of World War II. The film marked the first time she dealt overtly with the Holocaust in her work.
In 1995 the National Foundation for Jewish Culture (NFJC) honored Micklin Silver with a Jewish Cultural Achievement Award in the media arts category, which she accepted in memory of her parents. Her fellow honorees included Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Arthur Miller. Referring to Micklin Silver’s work, NFJC executive director Richard Siegel said, “In Hester Street and Crossing Delancey in particular she does something that very few other filmmakers have done, which is to look at the American-Jewish experience in some depth and with considerable insight, from the inside, as it were.”
Showing her versatility, she followed Crossing Delancey as the hired-gun director of two decidedly non-ethnic, screwball comedies, Loverboy (a 1989 Tri-Star release) and Big Girls Don’t Cry (a 1991 New Line release).
Her career has also seen its share of unrealized projects. Not one to dwell much on what-might-have-beens, she feels an even playing field might have meant more chances but considers her career a validation of women’s gains, noting, “Well, you know, one always feels one could have done more. But I’ve managed to make films for many years now in a field that was extremely unfriendly to women and to make the films I wanted.”
Long attracted to exploring the complex give-and-take of intimate male-female relationships, she has created a string of serio-comic pictures that compare favorably with the work of the best romantic comedy directors in history. The romantic partners in her films are far from perfectly happy and, indeed, often flounder in search of equilibrium if not bliss, as in her 1998 feature, A Fish in the Bathtub, starring Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara as a Queens couple, Sam and Molly, whose 40-year marriage finally goes on the fritz.
“It (A Fish) falls into a special category of film I like very much — human comedy,” Micklin Silver said. “It’s real, wrenching and strikes a chord.”
Unafraid to tackle the silly, messy, chaotic side of relationships, she probes issues like obsession, desire, infidelity, possessiveness, loneliness, rejection, regret. Like the smart repartee associated with Lubitsch, Wilder, Cukor or Hawks, she delights in verbal sparring matches that deflate gender myths and romantic idylls.
Micklin Silver’s men and women are equally strong-willed and neurotic. That is never more evident than in Crossing Delancey, where Sam (Peter Riegert), the pickle man, patiently waits for the upwardly mobile Izzy (Amy Irving) to come down off her high horse and finally see him for the decent if unflamboyant guy he really is. The story is also very much about the uneasy melding of old and new Jewish culture and the conflicting agendas of today’s sexual politics. Izzy is the career-minded modern woman. Sam is the tradition-mired male. Each pines for affection and attachment, but are unsure how to get it. In the end, a matchmaker and bubby bring them together.
About the male-female dynamic in her work, Micklin-Silver said, “That is something I’m quite interested in. Why? I have no idea, other than a life lived, I guess. In my own life experience I had a really wonderful father who was interested in me and paid attention to me and to my ideas…and God knows I have a wonderful, supportive husband whom I’ve had three great daughters with. I haven’t had the experience of abuse by men, so basically what I’ve done is more observe the differences (in the sexes) than the struggles.”
She and husband Ray (a producer and director in his own right) continue to partner on some projects and to pursue others separately. Their Silverfilm Production company is housed in offices on Park Avenue. Upcoming projects include directing a movie adaptation of the Paul Osborn play, Mornings at Seven, for Showtime this spring. She eventually hopes to make a long-held film noir script.
Although she rarely gets back to her home state anymore, she did come to accept the Mary Riepma Ross Award at the 1993 Great Plains Film Festival in Lincoln. Her visit included a drive across Nebraska that reignited her passion for the prairie.
“I Iove western Nebraska. It’s just so beautiful. I love a landscape that’s long and flat, and where there’s so little in the middle distance that your eye goes on and on.” A landscape reminiscent of that is the backdrop for a project she’s developing called White Harvest, which is set on a sugarbeet farm in far northeastern Colorado. Based on a book called Second Hoeing, it is a period piece about a young girl wanting to escape her tyrannical immigrant father. “It has a great feeling for the place. It’s also a wonderful love story,” Micklin Silver said.
If the project ever flies, it would realize a long-held desire to capture the Midwest on film. “I’ve always wanted to shoot something in Nebraska. It still hasn’t happened but I want so much to come back to that world.”
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Movie Classic ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ Not Just a Staple of the Holiday Season, But a Work of Art for All Time
The first time I saw It’s a Wonderful Life I was overwhelmed by the pathos and beauty and unmitigated emotion of this film classic. I was just getting serious about film in my late teens and I was watching public television one night when I stumbled upon this picture, one I had never heard of up to then. Being vulnerable to its unexpected charms and powers, I was completely taken by it. I mean, I was mesmerized and moved so thoroughly by what I experienced that it remains one of the most potent experiences of my life. I had just started programming a college film series on my campus and I immediately set out to find out all I could about this film and to book a 16 millimeter print of it for next semester’s series. I screened the picture almost every Christmas for as long as I was involved with the college film series, which ended up being something like eight years. I was so into film then that my volunteer work for the film program took up more of my time and energy and interest than my studies, and my grades suffered as a result. I continued with the program even after I graduated, calling myself a consultant. When I worked in public relations at an art museum I made sure to find a way to screen It’s a Wonderful Life there. Sometimes I think the picture gets too narrowly categorized as a holiday staple, which it certainly is, but it’s far more than that. It is a film masterpiece that transcends any particular season or theme or period. Like all masterpieces, it is timeless. The following article for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared in advance of a revival screening. If you have somehow managed not to see the film, then by all means do so.
Movie Classic ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ Not Just a Staple of the Holiday Season, But a Work of Art for All Time
© by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Even with Christmas movies a genre all their own anymore, one stands above all the rest for its stand-the-test-of-time story about a desperate man who finds out that though poor in funds he’s rich in friends. That film is It’s a Wonderful Life, the 1946 drama starring Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, Beulah Bondi, Henry Travers, Ward Bond, Thomas Mitchell and Lionel Barrymore.
The Frank Capra chestnut stands as one of the most beloved, chronicled and screened pictures in cinema history. Viewing this certified classic has become a staple of the holiday season for countless folks. It can be found on several television channels from late November through early January. Many movie buffs have a videotape or DVD copy of It’s a Wonderful Life in their home film library.
Seeing a film on TV is one thing. Seeing it on the big screen is another. Unless you saw the picture when it came out 61 years ago chances are you’ve never viewed it in a theater. Beginning in the ‘70s, the movie’s enjoyed a popular second life at revival houses, yet it’s seldom been run in these parts. One of those rare opportunities to catch It’s a Wonderful Life on the silver screen comes Saturday, Dec. 22 at Joslyn Art Museum’s Witherspoon Concert Hall. Omaha film impresario Bruce Crawford has booked a pristine 35 millimeter print for a one night only showing as a benefit for the Dobleman Head and Neck Cancer Institute in Omaha.
As a homage to the film the Joslyn Fountain Court will be transformed into a set piece from the story’s mythical Bedford Falls, complete with a local dance troupe, Jitterbrats, doing the Charleston in vintage costumes. Memorabilia related to the film and to co-star Donna Reed will be on display courtesy of the Donna Reed Film Festival, an annual event in the late actress’s hometown of Denison, Iowa.
The screening is the highlight of an event-filled night, starting at 7 p.m., that will include comments from Crawford and special guest Karolyn Grimes, the former child actress who played the adorable Zuzu in the film.
Grimes was 6 when she made the Liberty Films project and RKO Radio Pictures release. The film came near the beginning of a short-lived career that saw Grimes appear in a handful of classics with Hollywood royalty. Besides It’s a Wonderful Life, she earned credits in: Sister Kenny with Rosalind Russell; Blue Skies with Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire; The Bishop’s Wife with Cary Grant, Loretta Young and David Niven; John Ford’s Rio Grande with John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara; and Hans Christian Andersen with Danny Kaye. She also worked with icons Cecil B. DeMille, Gary Cooper, Paulette Goddard (Unconquered), Fred MacMurray (Pardon My Past), Randolph Scott (Albuquerque) and Glenn Ford (Lust for Gold).
Grimes, who left the business at 12, went on to raise a family and work as a medical technician. She lives in the Seattle, Wash. area and travels the country as an “unofficial ambassador” for the film at screenings, festivals, conventions, et cetera.
Over the years the film’s become the subject of books, DVDs, documentaries, even a board game, as it’s attained pop culture, touchstone status.
All the fuss over it now is ironic. Even though considered a quality A title upon its release and one that enjoyed moderate box office and critical success — capped by Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor — the film was not the phenomenon it is today. But as years went by film historians noted it as a distinctive example of Golden Age Hollywood studio production. Once rediscovered on TV, the movie developed an ardent following that’s grown over time.
Like Casablanca, it took a generation for the true enduring value and popularity of It’s a Wonderful Life to be appreciated. It’s gone from forgotten gem to being named one of the 100 greatest movies of all time in a ranking by the American Film Institute. The film also topped the AFI’s list of the most inspirational pics in history.
Everyman protagonist George Bailey’s wistful dream to escape the confines of his small town for the big city is one that reverberates with many of us. His realization that what’s most important — family and friends — is right before him also resonates. The revelation that the lives of others would be poorer without him only comes with the help of some divine intervention — in the form of Clarence the Angel. What could have been pure hokum in the hands of lesser artists becomes a rich, multi-layered tapestry of deep psychological insights in the hands of director Frank Capra, screenwriter Jo Swerling and star Jimmy Stewart.
This was the first feature made after the Second World War by veterans Capra and Stewart, who were forever changed by their wartime experiences. The movie reflects the dark, cynical themes that began creeping into post-war Hollywood fare. George Bailey and Bedford Falls are microcosms of America from the Roaring 20s through the Depression era and on through the war. It is a journey from light to dark to light again. Hope and faith may be shaken but never fade away.
The film is a reminder that each of us impacts others and that we should be grateful for the chance at life we’ve been given. The gift of life is wonderful.
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