‘Lovely, Still,’ that Rare Film Depicting Seniors in All Their Humanity, Earns Writer-Director Nik Fackler an Independent Spirit Award Nomination for Best First Screenplay
I am reposting this article I wrote about Lovely, Still, the sweet and searing debut feature film by Nik Fackler, because he has been nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for Best First Screenplay. The film stars Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn in roles that allow them to showcase their full range humanity, a rare thing for senior actors in movies these days. If the movie is playing near you, take a chance on this low budget indie that actually has the look of a big budget pic. If you didn’t have a chance to see it in a theater, you can look for it on DVD. As deserving as the film is for Oscar consideration, particularly the performances by Landau and Burstyn, it’s unlikely to break through due to its limited release. The following article I wrote for the New Horizons comes close to giving away the film’s hook, but even if you should hazard to guess it the film will still work for you and may in fact work on a deeper level. That was my experience after knowing the hook and still being swept away by the story. It happened both times I’ve seen it. My other Lovely, Still and Nik Fackler stories can be found on this blog.
NOTE: The Independent Spirit Awards show is broadcast February 26 on cable’s Independent Film Channel (IFC). That is the night before the Oscars, which is fitting because the Spirit Awards and IFC are a definite alternative to the high gloss, big budget Hollywood apparatus. I will be watching and rooting for Nik.
‘Lovely, Still,’ that Rare Film Depicting Seniors in All Their Humanity, Earns Writer-Director Nik Fackler an Independent Spirit Award Nomination for Best First Screenplay
©by Leo Adam Biga
Published in the New Horizons
Hollywood legends seldom come to Omaha. It’s even rarer when they arrive to work on a film. Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney did for the 1938 MGM classic Boys Town. Jack Nicholson and Kathy Bates crashed for Alexander Payne’s About Schmidt in 2001.
More recently, Oscar-winning actors Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn spent two months here, during late 2007, as the leads in the indie movie Lovely, Still, the debut feature of hometown boy Nik Fackler.
True, George Clooney shot some scenes for Up in the Air in town, but his stay here was so brief and the Omaha footage so minimal that it doesn’t really count.
Lovely, Still on the other hand was, like Boys and Schmidt before it, a prolonged and deep immersion experience for the actors and the crew in this community. Landau and Burstyn grew close to Fackler, who’s young enough to be their grandson, and they remain close to him three years later.
Since the production practically unfolded in Fackler’s backyard, the actors got to meet his family and friends, some of whom were on the set, and to visit his haunts, including the Millard eatery his family owns and operates, Shirley’s Diner. It’s where, until recently, Nick worked. It’s also where he carefully studied patrons, including an older man who became the model for Lovely protagonist Robert Malone (Landau).
Then there’s the fact the film drips Omaha with scenes in the Old Market, Gene Leahy Mall, Memorial Park and Country Club neighborhood. Omaha’s never looked this good on the big screen before.
After select showings in 2008 and 2009, including a one-week run in Omaha last year, Lovely is finally getting a general release this fall in dozens of theaters from coast to coast. It opened September 24 at the Midtown Cinema and Village Pointe Cinema in Omaha and other cities across the U.S..
For Fackler, 26, it’s the culmination of a long road that goes back to when he first wrote the script, at 17. Over time, the script evolved and once Landau and Burstyn came on board and provided their input, it changed some more. Finally seeing his “baby” reach this point means much to Fackler.
“I’ve been very emotional,” he said. “I didn’t think I was going to be emotional but I have been. It’s been nine years of persistence and positivity and not giving up. It’s always been this thing in my life, Lovely, Still, that’s never gone away, and now I’m going to let it go away, and it feels good because I’m ready to let it go…
“I wanted it to come out a couple years ago, and it was delayed. Now it’s finally coming out and I feel sort of a distance from it, but at the same time it’s good I feel that because there’s nothing a bad review can say that won’t make me proud of the accomplishment. It just feels good to know that it’s out there.”
Martin Landau and Nik Fackler
The film, which has received mixed critical notices, does well with audiences.
“People that pick up on the emotions and the feelings in the film seem to really be attached to it and love it,” Fackler said. “It’s either people really get it and get something emotional from it or people don’t get it.”
The PG movie’s slated to continue opening at different theaters throughout October before going to DVD November 9.
Lovely had its requisite one-week screenings in Los Angeles and New York to qualify for Academy Awards consideration. While many feel Landau and Burstyn deliver Oscar-caliber performances, the odds are stacked against them because of the film’s limited release and non-existent budget for waging an awards campaign.
Rare for features these days, the film focuses on two characters in their late 70s-early 80s. Rare for films of any era it stars two actors who are actually the advanced ages of the roles they essay. The film also approaches a sensitive topic in a way that perhaps has never been seen before.
Now for a spoiler alert. The film hinges on a plot twist that, once revealed, casts a different meaning on events. If you don’t want to know the back story, then stop reading here. If you don’t care, then continue.
Without getting specific, this story of two older people falling in love is about a family coping with Alzheimer’s Disease. Unlike perhaps a Lifetime or Hallmark Hall of Fame movie, Lovely never mentions the disease by name. Instead, its effects are presented through the prism of a fairy tale, complete with exhilarating and terrifying moments, before a dose of stark reality, and an ending that’s pure wistful nostalgia.
What makes the film stand out from most others with a senior storyline is that
Landau and Burstyn create multidimensional rather than one-note characters. The script requires they play a wide range of emotional and psychological colors and these two consummate actors are up to fully realizing these complex behaviors.
A Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner for Ed Wood, Landau returned to Omaha last year to promote Lovely. He said he was drawn to the material by its depth and nuance and by the opportunity to play an authentic character his own age.
“I get a lot of scripts where the old guy is the crusty curmudgeon who sits at the table and grunts a lot, and that’s that, because we kind of dismiss (old) age. So, the chance of exploring this many sides of a man, and the love story aspect of the older couple, presented an interesting arc.”
The actor marvels at how someone as young as Fackler could tap so truthfully the fears and desires of characters much older than himself. During an interview at North Sea Films, the Omaha production company of co-producer Dana Altman, Landau spoke about the pic, playing opposite his friend Ellen Burstyn, and working with wunderkind writer-director Fackler, whom he affectionately calls “the kid.”
Ellen Burstyn and Martin Landau from Lovely, Still
Before there was even a chance of landing an actor of Landau’s stature producers had to get the script in his hands through the golden pipeline of movers and shakers who make feature film projects possible. Fackler’s script long ago earned him a William Morris agent — the gold standard for artists/entertainers.
Landau explained, “Nick sent it to William Morris, who has an independent feature division, who sent to my agent, who sent it to me. I liked it a lot, but I felt there were bumps in it at the time. Some scenes that shouldn’t be in the first act, some scenes that needed to be in the first act. What the second act was I had no idea.” Enough substance was there that Landau expressed interest. It was only then he learned the unlikely author was a not-long-out-of-high school 20-something whose directing experience consisted of low budget shorts and music videos.
“I said, “I want to meet with the writer, figuring somebody maybe close to my age. I said, ‘How old is he?, and they said 22 (at the time). A few minutes later my eyes were still crossed and I said, ‘Wow. I mean, how does a 22 year-old write an older couple love story with this texture?’”
The venerable, much honored actor took a lunch meeting with the Generation Y upstart at an L.A. cafe. Each was a bit wary whether he could work with the other. Landau recalled that initial meeting, which he used to gauge how open Fackler was to accepting notes to inform rewrites:
“I basically said, ‘This is a terrific script, but it’s bumpy. If you’re willing to do this with me, I’ll do the movie,’ and Nick said, ‘OK.’Well, he did a rewrite on the basis of what we talked about, For two months we talked on the phone, several times a week, five or six pages at a time” to smooth out those bumps.
Landau and Fackler devised a wish list of actresses to play Mary. Burstyn, the Best Actress Oscar-winner for Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, was their first choice. On Landau’s advice Fackler waited until the rewrite was complete before sending the script to her. When she received it, she fell in love with the property, too.
Even as much as he and Burstyn loved the storyl, signing on with such an inexperienced director was a risk “It was a leap of faith working with a kid,” said Landau, “but he’s talented and adventurous and imaginative and willing to listen. He reminds me of Tim Burton. Less dark, maybe a little more buoyant.”
In the end, the material won over the veterans.
“Actors like me and Ellen are looking for scripts that have some literary value. Good dialogue today is rare. Dialogue is what a character is willing to reveal to another character. The 90 percent he isn’t is what I do for a living. It’s harder and harder to get a character-driven movie made by a studio or independents and it’s harder to get theaters to take them, so many go directly to DVD, if they’re lucky. Others fall through the cracks and are never seen, and that’s going to happen more.”
The suits calling the shots in Hollywood don’t impress Landau.
“Half the guys running the studios, some of them my ex-agents, haven’t read anything longer than a deal memorandum. And they’re deciding what literary piece should be made as a film?”
He likes that this movie is aimed for his own underserved demographic.
“A lot of older people are starved for movies,” he said. “They’re not interested in fireballs or car chases or guys climbing up the sides of buildings.”
He attended a Las Vegas screening of the pic before a huge AARP member crowd and, he said, spectators “were enwrapped with this movie. It talked to them. I mean, they not just liked it, it’s made for them. There’s a huge audience out there for it.”
Instead of an age gap they couldn’t overcome, Landau and Fackler discovered they were kindred spirits. Before he got into acting, Landau studied music and art, and worked as an editorial cartoonist. He draws and paints, as well as writes, to this day. Besides writing and directing films, Fackler is a musician and a visual artist.
“I feel that Martin and I are very similar and we get along really well,” said Fackler, who added the two of them still talk frequently. He described their relationship as a mutually “inspired” one in which each feeds the other creatively and spiritually. Fackler also feels a kinship with Burstyn. He said he gets away to a cabin she has in order to write.
“One of the main things Martin repeated to me over and over again was, ‘This is your movie.’ He made sure that rang in my ears,” said Fackler, “just to make sure I stayed strong when I came up against fights and arguments with people that wanted the film to be something I didn’t want it to be, and much love to him for doing that. Those words continue to ring in my ear in his voice to this day, and I’m sure for the rest of my career.”
Landau and Burstyn brought their considerable experience to bear helping the first-time feature director figure out the ropes, but ultimately deferred to him.
“All good films are collaborations,” said Landau. “A good director, and I’ve worked with a lot of them (Hitchcock, Mankiewicz, Coppola, Allen), doesn’t direct, he creates a playground in which you play. Ninety percent of directing is casting the right people. If you cast the right people what happens in that playground is stuff you couldn’t conceive of beforehand.”
“It was collaborative,” said Fackler. “We were a team, it was artists working together the same way a group of musicians make a band. We became friends and then after we became friends we respected each other’s opinions.”
As for working with Burstyn, Landau said, “it’s a joy. She’s a terrific actress.” He compared doing a scene with her to having a good tennis partner. “If you’re playing pretty well and you’ve got a good partner you play better. You don’t know exactly where they’re going to place the ball, and it’s that element when Ellen and I work together we have. It’s never exactly the same. She’ll throw the ball and I’ll get to the ball, toss it back to her, so that it’s alive. I won’t call them accidents but they are sin a way, which is what living is, and that element of unpredictability and ultimately inevitability, is what good acting is about. That stuff is what I care about.”
Not every review of the film has been positive. Some critics seem uneasy with or dismissive of its emotionalism, complaining it’s too cloying or precious. That emotional journey of a man who believes he’s falling in love for the first time, only to find out the bitter truth of what he’s lost, is what appealed to Landau.
“The interesting thing about this movie is that if you took away the last act you could cast 15 year-olds in it and not change a lot,” said Landau. “Nick (first) wrote it when he was 17. It’s basically a teenage romance. There’s something simplistic and sweet about these two people who want to be together. Robert’s naive, he’s a kid on his first date. That’s why Nik was able to write it — because he was going through stuff, his first love. The primal feelings people have at 15 or 50 or 80 are pretty much the same.”
Landau is proud to be associated with the film for many reasons, among them its effective portrayal of memory loss.
“I absolutely believe in this film. When I did Ed Wood I felt that way. But this one because I know so many people who’ve had memory problems or are having memory problems. My brother-in-law had Alzheimer’s. A lot of close peers of mine. The Alzheimer’s Association is very behind this movie because it rings true…”
- Movie Review | ‘Lovely, Still’: A Late-Life Relationship (movies.nytimes.com)
- Filmmakers to Watch (gointothestory.com)
- Martin Landau, A ‘Lovely’ Leading Man (npr.org)
- Seniors Are Having Lots of Sex (newsweek.com:80)
- Martin Landau and Nik Fackler Discuss Working Together on ‘Lovely, Still,’ and Why They Believe So Strongly in Each Other and in the New Film (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- “2011 Film Independent Spirit Award Nominations” and related posts (filmofilia.com)
- Filmmakers to Watch (gointothestory.com)
- Omowale Akintunde’s In-Your-Face Race Film for the New Millennium, ‘Wigger,’ Introduces America to a New Cinema Voice (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Yolonda Ross is a Talent to Watch (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Finding Forefathers: Lincoln Motion Picture Company Film Festival Gives Nod to Past and Offers Glimpse of Future
I am always on the lookout for a good film story. This one came to me out of left field, and I am grateful did. My hometown of Omaha, Neb. is slow to pick up trends, which makes sense since it sits smack dab in the middle of the country. While indigenous indie filmmaking caught on just about everywhere else 15 or 20 years ago, it’s only in the last decade really that the city has had anything like a filmmaking scene, and it’s still a small, sporadic community of filmmakers compared with, say, Austin, Texas. What’s lagged even more behind is the development of an African-American film community here, although events in the last three years indicate that might finally be changing. For Love of Amy and Wigger are two features shot here in 2008 and 2010, respectively. John Beasley is planning a film on the life of Marlin Briscoe. Robert Franklin is a documentary filmmaker with a new project near completion about the 1919 lynching of Will Brown. Vikki White is a promising new filmmaker. And then the story that came my way recently announced a new film festival whose title is drawn from the nation’s first black filmmaking enterprise, the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, which got its start in Omaha, of all places, in the silent era. Brothers Noble and George Johnson were the founders and operators behind Lincoln, whose run was short but historic. Videographer Jim Nelson of Omaha was inspired by the example of the Johnsons and has launched a film festival showing the wares of aspiring filmmakers he mentors. My story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) previewed the fest ,which unreeled Nov. 19. He and I and the filmmakers showing their work hope it’s the start of something big.
Finding Forefathers: Lincoln Motion Picture Company Film Festival Gives Nod to Past and Offers Glimpse of Future
©by Leo Adam Biga
Published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
The first annual Lincoln Motion Picture Company Film Festival, Nov. 19, is inspired by a historic Nebraska-based business that scholars call the nation’s first African-American film production company.
Brothers Noble and George Johnson founded the company in 1916 in Omaha and later opened a Los Angeles office. They produced five pictures. Their work actually predated that of the great black film pioneer Oscar Micheaux, who had contact with the Johnsons before launching his own film endeavors.
When Omaha television and video production veteran Jim Nelson learned of the Johnsons’ legacy, it hit him like a revelation. As an African-American videographer, he’s a rarity in the local industry. From the time the Lincoln company folded in 1921 until recently, black filmmaking largely lay dormant here. Discovering that black Omaha filmmakers made and owned their own images nearly a century ago moved Nelson.
“I thought, damn, I do come from someplace. It gives me a connection. You always hear about standing on the shoulders of giants, well, now I know whose they are,” says Nelson, who began his career at now defunct Omaha black owned and operated radio station KOWH.
The Texas native came to Omaha in the 1960s when his Air Force father transferred to Offutt Air Force Base. Except for leaving Nebraska a few times to try his fortunes elsewhere, the University of Nebraska at Omaha graduate has been based here, yet he somehow never heard about the Johnsons and their Lincoln efforts until a few years ago. He feels the story is not as widely celebrated in these parts as it should be.
“I say to people,’ Do you know the significance of this?’”
He says he’s sure many in Omaha’s African-American community don’t know this history, which he sees as part of a larger problem of not enough being done to promote achievements by black Nebraskans.
“The idea is there are people who grew up here who made contributions,” he says. “It’s about valuing not only what you have or had but using that value to help you grow,” he says. “People need to feel they are worth something.”
Nelson’s nonprofit Video Kool Skool and Sable Accent Media Experience are training grounds for minority youths and adults to learn the necessary skills to tell their stories in images. The programs, along with his for-profit Jim Nelson Media Services, are based at the Omaha Business & Technology Center, 2505 North 24th Street., where he has ample studio and production space.
With a bow to the Lincoln Company’s heritage, Nelson hit upon the idea of a showcase for aspiring black filmmakers. Making himself and his facilities available, he worked with newbies on five short films, all featuring aspects of the black experience. The collaborative projects include one Nelson directed, Rockin’ the Deuce Four, an appreciation of the jazz scene that once flourished in and around North 24th Street.
“This is about a community that has not had its story told on any regular basis,” he says. “Now there’s a platform (the festival). I want to catch these new voices when they’re small. They have to be encouraged, they have to be nurtured, they have to know there’s a place where, even on a part time basis, they can pursue it.
“What’s my role? Well this has always been a dream of mine because I never had a mentor. I didn’t get it, I wasn’t supposed to get it, I was supposed to help others get it. I find myself being more a catalyst I guess for those who really want to do it.”
In this “each one, teach one” capacity he worked with three adults — all students of his at Metro Community College, where he’s an adjunct broadcast media instructor. Their work comprises the festival.
Danye Echtinaw, an Army reservist who served a tour in Iraq, says her film If the Hair Ain’t Tight, Ain’t Nothin’ Right expresses “a very adamant attitude of reaffirmation” about black women” and their “crown of glory.” Eris Lamont Mackey, who made an anti-gang film that placed at the NAACP’s national ACT-SO competition, reflects on the importance of families sharing meals and conversations together in Left at the Table. Lisa Washington, who attended Grambling State University, examines African-American icons in The Beginning of a Positive Image.
Nelson doesn’t pretend there’s a budding Spike Lee or Kasi Lemmons in the queue…yet. He views the event and his mentoring as “a spark to ignite others.” He feels as more participate, it’s only a matter of time before a significant filmmaker emerges.
“The participation of minorities in the industry has always been a struggle. With today’s technology, the opportunity to make films is there,” he says. “There’s a wealth of stories, but we need storytellers. Just seeing yourself in that position is empowering. Once you learn to do it, it can’t be taken away. It’s just a matter of getting the tools to do it.”
The fest unreels from 6 to 8:30 p.m. at the Omaha Public Schools‘ TAC Building auditorium, 3015 Cuming Street. Admission is $10. Call 614-8202 for ticket locations.
- Long and Winding Saga of the Great Plains Black History Museum Takes a New Turn (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Monty Ross Talks About Making History with Spike Lee, the Star Filmmaker He’s Collaborated with Since 1981 (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Ben Gray – Man on Fire (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Omaha Native Steve Marantz Looks Back at the City’s ’68 Racial Divide Through the Prism of Hoops in His New Book, ‘The Rhythm Boys of Omaha Central’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.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.
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.
- Mean Street: Greed Is Good – Hollywood and Wall Street (blogs.wsj.com)
- Unusual Film Gets Innovative Marketing (nytimes.com)
- It’s a Wonderful Life – Capra’s Best (mrmovietimes.com)
Count me among those who adore the film classic Casablanca. For my taste, it is the perfect Hollywood film from that Golden Era when the studios operated as dream factories and churned out picture after picture, most of them forgettable, but when they worked, oh my, how they made magic. This most iconic of American films from that era has so much to admire about it that one doesn’t quite know where to start. Suffice to say that every element in the film is masterfully rendered, which of course is what makes a film great. Every line of dialogue, every glance, gesture, action, camera angle and movement, every plot point, every musical note, et cetera, is honed to its finest, most nuanced possibility. The film is like a gem that has been polished to its maximum effect, yet it never feels packaged or manipulated. It all comes off naturally, capturing you from the opening shot through the closing shot, your sense of disbelief thoroughly suspended in the drama’s grip. The following article I wrote about Casablanca for The Reader (www.thereader.com) previewed a special screening of it. If by some strange fate you’ve still never seen this movie, make sure you do. It will capture you, too.
‘Casablanca,’ A Film Classic Still Enchants Us As Time Goes By
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Casablanca. The very name drips nostalgia. The 1942 Warner Brothers film classic starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman still enthralls viewers with its story of star-crossed, wartime lovers. An emblem of intrigue and romance, it’s one of those rare movies whose popularity only increases with time. Perhaps more than any other film, it embodies the textured chiaroscuro look and feel of Old Hollywood studio-bound productions. It really sets mood, time and place. Notice too the fluid camera work that brilliantly utilizes closeups to reveal character and relationships. Add bigger than life personalities, a conflict drawn in both human and political terms, a witty yet pungent script, mix well, and you have a masterpiece.
In recognition of this ageless treasure Omaha film impresario Bruce Crawford is screening Casablanca on Saturday, October 21 in Joslyn Art Museum’s Witherspoon Concert Hall as a benefit for the Nonprofit Association of the Midlands. The 7 p.m. program will include remarks by special guest Stephen Bogart, the only son of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Bogart was 8 when his famous father died of cancer. He’s the author of a 1995 memoir, Bogart: In Search of My Father, that describes the struggle of being the legend of an icon-father he barely knew.
To help set the Cafe Americain mood, local jazz pianist Orville Johnson and his vocalist wife Servalia will perform “As Time Goes By” and other standards.
A sure sign of the movie’s enduring appeal is the honored place it holds in the American Film Institute’s “100 Years…100 Movies” polls voted on, as AFI puts it, “by a blue-ribbon panel of leaders from across the film community.” The picture has been selected number one among Love Stories and number two among the “Greatest” American Films ever made. Also, no fewer than six lines from Casablanca, more than from any other film, made AFI’s Best Movie Quotes ranking.
Memorable line after memorable line grace the Oscar-winning script by Howard Koch and twin brothers Julius and Philip Epstein. “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” “We’ll always have Paris.” “Round up the usual suspects.” “Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” “Here’s looking at you, kid.” Bogart, perfectly cast as the world-weary but noble Rick Blaine, fittingly has most of the best dialogue.
Any discussion of Casablanca, released in special edition videos and the subject of documentaries in recent years, must touch on how this masterpiece came together as if by fate or luck. The Hal Wallis produced pic was adapted by a team of writers from an obscure play called Everybody Comes to Rick’s by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison. Then, as now, Hollywood looked for material anywhere it could be found. In this case, an unstaged play.
America was at war and the play’s basic narrative of refugees caught in a no-man’s land where humanity is cheap and courage in short supply, remains unchanged on screen. The story contained everything studios-audiences want, namely, a topical story, suspense, sex appeal, a tragic hero and a redemptive ending. The film would have surely ended up routine, even forgettable, had the original casting discussed for it come to pass: Ronald Reagan as Victor Laszlo, the selfless freedom fighter Paul Henreid ended up playing with just the right note of defiance and naivete; and Ann Sheridan as Ilsa, the former lover of Rick, now the wife of Laszlo, and a part Ingrid Bergman made her own. Her wan yet radiant Ilsa is the epitome of desire. For such a melancholy film it’s remarkably engaging.
Bogart was always the first choice for Rick. His presence alone would have made Casablanca a must-see. But the elusive chemistry he has with Bergman, Claude Raines (Louie), Sydney Greenstreet (Senor Ferrari), Peter Lorre (Carl) and Maj. Strasser (Conrad Veidt), is a magic something peculiar to him and them. It only stands to reason director Michael Curtiz, co-writer Howard Koch, who was on the set, and crew were inspired by the spark between Bogie, Bergman and Co.
As the story goes, the cameras began rolling with an unfinished script, leaving the actors unsure of the end. Would Rick reclaim Ilsa? Or let her go off with Laszlo? That doubt lingers over every frame and helps explain why the film transfixes us so. It all worked to create a film that’s as potent today as when it first came out.
“It’s a great example of serendipity, where everything just fell into place and all the stars aligned just right,” Crawford said. “This is the one film above all others that film snobs and average Joes both love. That’s very rare. It has a universal appeal. It and It’s a Wonderful Life are probably the two most popular black and white movies of all time; so deeply loved they almost transcend their own medium.”
“The film is very entertaining but also very haunting,” he said. “For anyone who’s ever been in love it touches a real emotional nerve, and that’s part of its timeless appeal. It’s completely of its era but it doesn’t date. How can a story so set in its time still seem so fresh now? I don’t know how to explain that. I think it’s got to be that love triangle. Ricks give Ilsa up and does the right thing.”
Of its time, yet timeless. Ah, yes, love and loss and desire never go out of style.
- ON CLASSIC CINEMA Here’s looking at you (tech.mit.edu)
- Written Interview: Howard Koch, Julius Epstein, Frank Miller (“Casablanca”) (gointothestory.com)
- Book Review Humphrey Bogart: Tough Without a Gun by Stefan Kanfer (blogcritics.org)
- Song: “As Time Goes By” (americanthings.wordpress.com)
- Hollywoods legendary on screen couples (funstuffcafe.com)
In keeping with my passion for classic cinema, here is an article I wrote in advance of a special screening of the great John Ford-John Wayne Western, The Searchers. Early in my cinephile life I have to admit I was not familiar with this film except for reading references to it in various history books and seeing an occasional clip from it in documentaries. These teases definitely whet my appetite to see the movie, but growing up Omaha , Neb. offered limited opportunities at best to see classic films in theaters and I do believe The Searchers was unavailable for television screenings for a long while due to rights issues, or even if it was available it would have not have been shown in letterbox format, and thus the film’s impact would have been severely diluted. I seem to recall that a friend of mine, Gary Anderson, whom I worked for on a few occasions, first turned me onto the fact this was a film essential I absolutely had to see. If memory serves, Gary named his first born son Ethan after the character Wayne plays in the picture. I finally did see The Searchers in my 20s or 30s, and I was immediately struck by the sweep of its epic storytelling and the power of its uncompromising themes. I have seen it several times since, always finding it a richly rewarding experience, and like the best Ford films, always discovering ever deeper currents in the images and the performances, in the music and the settings. This article for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared in advance of a revival showing at the Indian Hills Theatre, which was one of the few remaining Cinerama theaters in the nation. Watching The Searchers on the big screen, from the balcony, has to rank as one of my all-time filmgoing experiences. As it turned out, it was one of the last films shown at the theater, which was torn down to make way for a parking lot.
NOTE: This blog also contains my take on Ford’s and Wayne’s other late masterpiece, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, in a story I called, “Through a Lens Darkly.” I also have many other 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.
‘The Searchers,’ a John Ford-John Wayne Masterwork
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the New Horizons
Legendary Hollywood director John Ford, that great visual poet of American cinema, cut his teeth on two-reeler horse operas in the silent era. Bigger-than-life actor John Wayne, that symbol of virle patriotism, learned his craft toiling in cheap cowboy flicks. Ford helped give Wayne his on-screen start when he hired the charming young prop man as a bit player in his 1929 picture Salute.
By the early 1930s their careers were heading in opposite directions. Ford, already a top-flight director at Twentieth-Century Fox, achieved great acclaim outside Westerns while Wayne, who got a break starring in Raoul Walsh’s epic The Big Trail, discovered Hollywood fickleness when, after that pic failed, he was banished to quota-quickie shoot-em-ups.
The Duke despaired his second chance might never come. Then, in 1939, Ford instinctively cast Wayne as the Ringo Kid in Stagecoach, a landmark film artfully shot in Monument Valley and dynamically edited for peak dramatic effect. The smash hit proved the Western could be both a box office and aesthetic success and made Wayne a bankable screen presence.
In the post-war years Ford made a cycle of classic Westerns that ensured his status as the great populist interpreter of the American West while Wayne reigned as both a perennial superstar and American icon. When Ford consistently chose Wayne to embody the hero in his films, the men were forever linked in cinema history.
Long into their fabled collaboration, the pair teamed-up for The Searchers, a 1956 Warner Bros. wide-screen Technicolor Western far darker in tone than Stagecoach yet every bit as riveting. A favorite of film buffs, The Searchers displays Ford at the height of his creative powers and stars Wayne in one of his deepest performances.
On September 23, area film fans will join celebrities and surprise guests for a special one-night only salute to John Wayne and The Searchers at Carmike Cinemas’ Indian Hills 4 Theater in Omaha. The program, a benefit for the National Kidney Foundation of Nebraska, begins at 7:30 p.m. with a pre-show, followed by The Searchers projected on the theater’s 70-foot wide Cinerama screen, one of a handful still in existence.
The presentation is the latest event from Omaha film maven Bruce Crawford, who has organized classic movie programs since 1991. In typical Crawford fashion he is pulling-out all the stops for The Searchers. He has secured a restored vault print from the Warner studio archives. And in his usual showman-like way he has planned a gala evening complete with searchlights, paparazzi, red carpets, limos, Western reenactors and balladeers and a theater lobby display of Wayne memorabilia on loan from The Birthplace of John Wayne museum in Winterset, Iowa, where The Duke was born and raised.
Why all this fuss about an old Western?
“The Searchers has long been rated by film historians and aficionados among the Top 100 films of all time. I think it and Stagecoach are the only Westerns in that select company,” said Crawford, a film historian. “The Searchers is also a favorite among many of today’s leading filmmakers. Martin Scorsese, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg all cite it as a major influence and have borrowed from it for films as diverse as Taxi Driver, Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Indeed, the film’s anti-heroic themes resonated with the rebellious cinema and culture of the ‘60s and ‘70s As Crawford said, “The picture is not so much about the West as it is about obsession. It’s more of a psychological portrait and character study. It just happens to take place in the West.”
To double for the Texas setting of The Searchers Ford selected evocative Monument Valley in Arizona, where he returned again and again for his Westerns, and this time captured its sweeping beauty in VistaVision, a wide-screen photographic process.
“The wide-open terrain becomes as much a character as any of the actors because it’s so beautifully photographed in 70 millimeter,” Crawford said. Set against this grand backdrop is the struggle of a nomadic figure (Ethan Edwards) battling the harsh elements as well as his own fierce nature. According to Crawford, Ethan Edwards is another in a long string of “non-conformists” populating Ford’s work. “Ford established very clearly, particularly in his Westerns, the rugged individualist. How one man alone can make a difference.”
It is said John Wayne regarded his role in The Searchers as his favorite, which is surprising given how morally ambiguous the character is compared to the late actor’s typical screen persona as a rough-hewn but fair-minded man of action.
The Searchers came along at a time when the Western genre was starting to reflect the anxious new realities of the Cold War era and, with it, directors like Ford were taking a more mature, even revisionist view of the Old West, which had been depicted in overly simplistic and blatantly biased terms. In keeping with these changes, Wayne interprets Ethan Edwards as an obsessed man with an almost psychotic racial hatred. The character is more troubled than any previous Wayne screen incarnation (with the possible exception of the driven cowhand-turned-ruthless cattle baron he played in Howard Hawks’ 1948 Red River).
As Ethan Edwards, Wayne is a man adrift — a Confederate veteran estranged from society. It is a demanding role and Wayne delivers the goods under Ford’s direction. Ford liked using a core company of actors and Wayne became the marquee member of the stock players Ford repeatedly drew on for his films. By the time the cameras started rolling on The Searchers, Ford and Wayne were as closely identified with each other as any director-actor combo before or since. In Crawford’s view, Ford knew Wayne could project the very qualities his protagonists embodied and utilized Wayne’s “strong silent charisma” like no one else.
The Searchers memorably opens with a lone rider approaching the homestead of Aaron Edwards, wife Martha and daughters Lucy and Debbie. The rider is framed in the doorway of the house amid the vast expanse of the desert. As the rider approaches, a ballad about a man’s lonely wandering plays on the soundtrack: “What makes a man to wander? What makes a man to roam? What makes a man leave bed and board and turn his back on home? Ride away, ride away, ride away.”
Ethan Edwards is returning to the frontier Texas wilderness and the only family he knows after a separation of many years. There is a tragic quality about Ethan, who during his long sojourn has lost his former sweetheart, Martha, to his brother. Harboring a deep hatred for Indians, he cannot accept the part-Cherokee teen, Martin Pawley (whom Aaron and Martha adopted after Ethan rescued him during an Indian raid in which the boy’s parents were killed), as his nephew.
After living a nomadic bordering-on-outlaw life since the war, Ethan clearly longs for the domestication his kin enjoy, but events prevent his reintegration into civilization. When an Indian raiding party, led by the Comanchee renegade Scar, attacks neighboring homesteads, Ethan and Marty (Jeffrey Hunter) join Texas Rangers in pursuit of the marauders. In Ethan’s absence, the raiders attack Aaron’s place, killing Aaron and Martha and kidnapping Lucy and Debbie (Natalie Wood).
The killings and abductions set Ethan, Marty and others off on an epic avenging search across the desert. It is a quest fueled more by Ethan’s blind rage than justice. After Lucy is found dead and violated, Ethan leaves no doubt he means to kill both Scar and Debbie, whose virtue he deems irretrievable.
While Ethan is unrelenting in his pursuit, Marty, who abhors Ethan’s plan, is just as unbending in his will to prevent any harm coming to Debbie. When, months later, the decimated search party is no closer to finding her, only Ethan and Marty remain to carry-on. Beyond all reason, their search stretches over a decade, with Ethan growing more callous each year.
In the end, Scar is finally dealt with and, after chasing his niece into the mouth of a cave, Ethan spares her, uttering the famous line, “Let’s go home, Debbie.” By sparing her, he reclaims part of himself. The final scene, Debbie’s homecoming, is perhaps the most poignant ending in movie history. As Debbie and Marty are embraced by the family he is marrying into everyone sweeps inside the house to celebrate except for Ethan, who stands awkwardly in the doorway — poised between redemption inside and oblivion outside. It is the same framing device used for Ethan’s arrival at the film’s start. As the door closes behind him, he is cast adrift amid the wilderness. An eternal wanderer searching for a home to call his own.
The ballad heard at the opening reprises the haunting lament of the wandering man: “A man will search his heart and soul, go searchin’ way out there, his peace of mind he knows he’ll find, but where, O Lord, oh where? Ride away, ride away.”
The ending is rife with resonance. First, it is a suiting elegy for the dying-breed of Westerner Ethan epitomized: he must move on because his job is done and his time has passed. The end is also a requiem for the Western itself, which was fast dying out due to changing cultural tastes and the glut of TV Western series. Finally, the ending is a tribute to Harry Carey, Sr., one of the first great Hollywood Western stars. When Wayne stands astride the doorway, he reenacts a trademark pose of Carey’s — clutching his right hand to his left elbow — before trekking off alone.
There was a strong connection between Carey and The Searchers’ director and leading man. John Ford helmed many of Carey’s silent Westerns and John Wayne admired Carey as a kind of role model. Additionally, Carey’s son, Harry Carey, Jr., has a supporting role in the film and was a regular stock player in Ford pics.
- John Wayne: one last shot before the final farewell (telegraph.co.uk)
- John Wayne: a life in cinema (telegraph.co.uk)
- Other people on John Wayne (telegraph.co.uk)
- Classic Movie Review – The Searchers (swampofboredom.com)
- The Searchers (cinamericanwest.wordpress.com)
- DVD Review: John Wayne: Bigger Than Life (blogcritics.org)
My love of film and writing about film finds me looking for opportunities to wax poetic, or my clumsy approximation of such, about cinema. An example is this story from a few years ago about a Turner Classic Movies Western film festival. I am a big fan of the Western. When I was a film programmer I organized two major Western film fests, and so when I caught wind of the TCM series, I finagled an assignment from my editor at The Reader (www.thereader.com) to write this preview piece. Although the TCM fest long ago aired, the channel regularly screens many of the great Westerns I mention in the article.
This blog also contains articles about two of the best John Ford-John Wayne collaborations, The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The blog also contains dozens of other stories about cinema classics, stars, and filmmakers. Check them out.
The Celluloid West
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
On select nights in November Turner Classic Movies pays tribute to the Western with a lineup TCM bills as “ALL the greatest Westerns ever made, except for Shane,” — the omission of the George Stevens’ classic probably owing to a rights issue.
At first glance, the Western may seem a rather dry form, but to this film buff’s thinking, anyway, it may just be the richest of all genres. The best Westerns, like the best dramas, speak to universal passions. They explore the human quest for power, freedom, independence and wealth and they examine the conflicts that arise when these desires collide with the equally strong needs for home, family, community and civilization. They reveal the struggle of men and women at odds with not only the natural elements but their own human nature as well. Because of all that it encompasses — from the settling of the West to empire building to the genocide of native peoples — the Western covers a landscape that is at once epic, mythic, historical, political, sociological, psychological and geographic.
If there is one Western that is the nexus of the genre, it is John Ford’s cinematic tone poem, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), a memory saga about how what is known about the past is a function of what is told us and what we wish to believe. Near the end of the film a sardonic newspaperman, upon hearing how a celebrated taming of the West episode came down very differently from the way stories purported it to be, utters an aphorism — “This is the West, sir — when the legend becomes fact, print the legend” — that neatly explains how the mechanisms of popular culture make even outlandish lore the gospel truth.
In this same way, Hollywood Westerns through the mid-1950s were like dime novels in their avoidance of historical accuracy for heroic depictions of a fabulous frontier where hard men delivered justice, vengeance and temperance. All the conventions of the Western were in place by the end of the silent era and the first three decades of the talkies only served to reinforce its constructs: the lone rider finding trouble in some town; the corrupt cattle baron protecting his interests with hired guns; the golden-hearted “saloon girl” aiding the Westerner; and Indians laying siege to homesteads and army outposts.
For most of us, our mental picture of the Old West is derived from the images Hollywood has provided of its epochal events — range wars, cattle drives, wagon trains, cavalry campaigns — and its infamous legends — Jesse James, Wyatt Earp, Judge Roy Bean, Billy the Kid. All most of us know about the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral is what the movies tell us.
Early Westerns were simplistic, but occasionally a picture surfaced, like Ford’s 1939 Stagecoach, that both defined and transcended the genre or, as in the case of William Wyler’s 1940The Westerner, that took delight in sending it up. Some Westerns, including Howard Hawks’ Red River and Ford’s The Searchers (1956), are practically Shakespearean in the scale and scope of their conflict and intrigue.
The Western milieu often has been used as a forum for examining social issues, from William Wellman’s 1943 The Oxbow Incident, which condemned intolerance with its attack on lynching, to the Fred Zinneman directed and Carl Foreman scripted High Noon (1951), which championed integrity in a thinly veiled reference to the ‘50s’ witch hunts, blacklists and informants. Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious, Sam Fuller’s Forty Guns and Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar are a carnival of Freudian symbols writ large. Anthony Mann’s The Furies is a Greek Tragedy on the prairie.
By the time Ford, the great interpreter of the Western, completed his early cavalry cycle (Rio Grande, Fort Apache, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon) and got around to The Searchers, filmmakers were reinterpreting their vision of the West. In The Searchers the Western protagonist — John Wayne as Confederate veteran and Indian killer Ethan Edwards — is presented as an anti–hero whose society-building impulses have been usurped by baser instincts and blinded by racist feelings.
In Wayne, Ford found the icon for the latter-day Westerner. Estranged from society, but not averse to aiding it — for a price — he is a stabilizing force who adheres to a personal code of conduct that allows him to straddle either side of the law when it suits him. At the end of the trail, the Westerner dies or rides off alone, unwilling or unable to bend to community strictures. He is the original American rebel.
This same anti-heroic thread runs through two key series of Westerns in the ‘50s, each pairing an inspired director with a perfectly matched star. Much like Alfred Hitchcock did in his suspense films with Jimmy Stewart, Anthony Mann explored the darker more cynical side of Stewart in Winchester 73, Bend of the River, The Naked Spur, The Far Country and The Man from Laramie.
Similarly, Budd Boetticher found, in Randolph Scott, the embodiment of the laconic drifter in The Tall T, Buchanan Rides Alone, Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station. By the 1960s, the Westerner was forever recast as an enigmatic, alienated and even anachronistic figure — a man of fierce independence and great competence whose temper and skill have been forged by years as a mercenary in the service of top dollar.
Not surprisingly, the Westerner is the precursor of today’s action hero — a rough-hewn rogue possessing extraordinary skills of horsemanship, gunplay and physical combat. He is strong, smart, brave and over-the-edge. The Westerns of Howard Hawks made a great point of portraying the Westerner as a professional called on by ordinary citizens to help rid them of some menace. The role of the professional is the theme of his late trilogy – Rio Bravo, El Dorado and Rio Lobo. Taking this theme even farther was director John Sturges, who transposed the samurai warrior philosophy to the professional gunslinger code by drawing on Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai as the inspiration for his hugely popular Western The Magnificent Seven.
The great purveyors of the newer, harsher, de-romanticized Western were neoclassical filmmakers Sam Peckinpah (Ride the High Country, Major Dundee, The Wild Bunch, The Ballad of Cable Hogue and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid) and Sergio Leone (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, The Good the Bad and the Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West).
Peckinpah, who despite the later violence in his films was a storyteller from the old school, seemed to invest the anxiety, anger and alienation of the ‘60s into his work. He developed a lyrical, folkloric, yet ironic approach that subverted many old conventions and exposed the hypocritical forces operating in the West. Leone was also a visual poet, but on a grander, more stylized scale. He staged the Western as if it were an opera, building elaborate sets, scenes and sequences that heightened the Western motifs and then undercut those very same motifs through such obvious but gorgeous artifice that his gaze on the Western landscape became at once reverential and winking.
Leone gave birth to a character, The Man with No Name, and to the actor who portrayed him, Clint Eastwood, that became identified with the revisionist Westerns of the late ‘60s through today. Eastwood’s Westerner is a remote and bitter figure who casts a jaundiced eye on everyone and everything around him. In much the same way John Wayne’s later characterizations were informed by his five-decade body of work and revealed the nuances of an older, grizzled, embittered and, finally in The Shootist, dying gunman unable to escape his past, Eastwood draws on his cinema legacy to create, in Unforgiven, a figure haunted by his violent legacy.
To fully appreciate the richness of the Western, one must be steeped in a wide range of examples of the genre from different eras. For what it’s worth, here is one film buff’s partial must-see inventory, listed roughly chronologically, of essential Westerns:
Stagecoach (Ford’s 1939 version, not the dreadful 1966 remake); The Oxbow Incident; My Darling Clementine; Red River; The Gunfighter; High Noon; She Wore a Yellow Ribbon;Wagonmaster; Winchester 73; The Naked Spur; Shane; The Searchers; Forty Guns; The Tin Star; The Unforgiven (the 1960 John Huston classic, not the Eastwood film); Rio Bravo; The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance; Lonely are the Brave; Ride the High Country; One-Eyed Jacks; The Wild Bunch; Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; The Ballad of Cable Hogue; Will Penny; The Cheyenne Social Club; The Stalking Moon; McCabe and Mrs Miller; Ulzana’s Raid; The Cowboys; The Shootist; Barbarosa; and The Grey Fox.
Enjoy ‘em, pardners.
- John Wayne: one last shot before the final farewell (telegraph.co.uk)
- What’s the Big Deal?: Stagecoach (1939) (seattlepi.com)
- The relevance of Westerns within today’s society. (smiffy1994.wordpress.com)
- “Sam Peckinpah’s Long-Lost Script for ‘The Texans’ Unearthed” (gointothestory.com)
- Classic Review: Once Upon A Time In The West (thesilvermirror.wordpress.com)