Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Idolmaker

Directed by
Taylor Hackford
Written by Edward Di Lorenzo
Starring Ray Sharkey, Peter Gallagher, Paul Land, Tovah Feldshuh
IMDB Entry

The Idolmaker is a story about obsession in the music business.

Vincent Vacari (Ray Sharkey) is a songwriter in the late 50s.  He had a great deal of talent, but this is at a time when talent was less important that having a good image.  Vicari’s looks weren’t good enough to cut it, so he went to find someone who could.

He found Tomaso DeLorusso (Paul Land), a saxophone player who had the right look.  Vacari played Pygmalion, turning DeLorusso to “Tommy Dee” and making him into a rock star.  But Tommy had a mind of his own, and Vacari goes to prove he could do it again, by finding Caesare (Peter Gallagher), a busboy, and controlling his every move.  Of course, Caesare also has issues.

This is Sharkey’s film; he dominates the screen as the talented but obsessed Vacari.  It was a strong performance and won him a Golden Globe.  And while Sharkey worked regularly, he rarely had starring roles.

This was the feature film debut of director Taylor Hackford, who did And Officer and and Gentleman two years later.  It was also the first feature for Peter Gallagher.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

William S. Hart (actor)

William S. Hart(1864-1946)
Wikipedia Entry

One of the earliest narrative films genres was the Western, and William S. Hart was one of its biggest early stars by doing something that was unusual in Hollywood Westerns not only in his time, by many years afterwards:  by insisting on making as realistic story as possible.

Hart was born in 1864 and began acting in his 20s, joining various companies and traveling around the US and finally becoming a moderate success on Broadway.*  But Hart was always fascinated by the West.  He knew Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson, and somehow managed to acquire Billy the Kid’s guns.  He performed in a couple of stage westerns on Broadway, but moved West in 1914, where he quickly became a star, first in short subject, and then in features.

Hart was a stickler for realism; he wasn’t a white knight on a horse, but rather a real man, who would wear old clothes and deal with historical events.  And it caught on:  by 1915 he was Hollywood’s biggest star.  Audiences appreciated his gritty look at the west, with the strong moral sense and relatively sophisticated stories.  He looked the part of a hard-nosed man scrambling to make it in a difficult place.

But by the 1920s, he was falling out of favor.  Audiences began to prefer the cleancut good guy of Tom Mix and others to Hart’s more down-to-Earth version.  After the disappointing box office for Tumbleweeds in 1925, Hart retired from film.

*Including a substantial part in a stage version of Ben-Hur.

Sunday, November 16, 2014


Written and Directed by
John Duigan
Starring Hugh Grant, Tara Fitzgerald, Sam Neill, Elle Macpherson, Portia de Rossi, Kate Fischer, Pamela Rabe
IMDB Entry

Sexual themes have been common in movies since the beginning, but sensuous ones far less so.  Sirens is one example of the latter, and one of the best.

It’s set in Australia between the World Wars, where a young minister Anthony Campion (Hugh Grant) and his wife Estalla (Tara Fitzgerald) travel to the estage of the artist Norman Lindsay (Sam Neill), an acclaimed artist, known for his flouting of authority.  Campion has been sent to determine if a work the church has commissioned is going to be appropriate.

Lindsay* has them stay, where they meet his wife Rose (Pamela Rabe) and his two models Sheela (Elle Macpherson) and Giddy (Portia de Rossi, in her first film role), and their maid Pru (Kate Fisher). The group is something like a stereotypical hippie commune, especially in the talk of sexuality and a lot of casual nudity.

Campion and his wife are shocked, but also intrigued.  Estella slowly becomes enmeshed in the group’s sensuality and has it open new possibilities to her.

The movie is best known now for the nudity, of course.  Elle Macpherson was a supermodel, appearing on the Sports Illustrated swimsuit cover three times at the time the movie was produced.**  Screencaps quickly appeared all over the fledgling Internet. 

But the movie is far more erotic than the photos.  The name of the film is a clue:  the women at the estate draw Estella into a whole new world that she has never know.

The movie was one reason for Hugh Grant’s stardom, being released about the same time as Four Wedding and a Funeral.  He plays what has been his usual act of charming awkwardness, but it still seems fresh and unmannered.  Tara Fitzgerald has always been a favorite of mine in films like Brassed Off, Hear My Song, and The Englishmanand is wonderful as she slowly succumbs to the sirens’ charms.

Director John Duigan has been successful in Australia, but few of his films made a big splash in the US.  Sirens is a treat for those who love to revel in the feelings of sensuality.


*Based upon a real artist by the name, though the story is made up.  A  movie based on Lindsay’s autobiographical novel, Age of Consent, was made into a film in 1969.

**And twice more afterwards.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Last Detail

Directed by
Hal Ashby
Screenplay by Robert Towne, from a novel by Darryl Ponicsan
Starring Jack Nicholson, Randy Quaid, Otis Young, Carol Kane
IMDB Entry

In the early 70s, after years of small roles in some very forgettable pictures, Jack Nicholson broke through to stardom with his turn in Easy Rider.  He soon was cast in Five Easy Pieces* and Carnal Knowledge.  Nicholson like doing odd, small films, and one of his most acclaimed role of the era was in The Last Detail.

Nicholson plays Billy “Badass” Budduski, a petty officer in the navy.  He and Richard “Mule” Mulhall (Otis Young) are assigned to take 18-year-old Larry Meadows (Randy Quaid) from Virginia to the brig in Portsmouth, NH. Meadows had been court martialed and convicted of stealing $40 from a collection box.  It might have been a minor offense, only the box was from the favorite charity of the commander’s wife and the book was thrown at him:  eight years.

The movie is the story of their trip.  They have a few days and Budduski decides to give Meadows the time of his life:  drinking in Washington, seeing his mother in Philadelphia, skating in Rockefeller Center.  Few things work out well, though, even when they take Meadows to a hooker (Carol Kane**), there are problems:  fights and disappointments, but Meadows keeps charming Budduski to keep helping him do his best.

The role helped cement Nicholson’s persona.  Budduski is profane, hard nosed, and utterly fascinating.  Quaid is excellent as the innocent Meadows.***

The movie gained Nicholson his third Oscar nomination, and Quaid got a best supporting nomination.  Robert Towne’s screenplay was also nominated, but none won.  It was a critical success, but not a box office smash, partly due to the fact there was just so much profanity in it.

Director Hal Ashby had made two successful but not smash movies before this**** and he later went on to win an Oscar for Coming Home.  and Robert Towne had a successful career, teaming up with Nicholson again for Chinatown.  And Gilda Radner had a bit part, a few years before SNL premiered.

Overall, a fine movie that was at the start of the careers of several big name talents.

*A film of limited success.  Most moviegoers know one particular scene that cemented Nicholson’s reputation, but have no idea of anything else in the film.

**Very memorable in a small role.

***It’s sad that his life has become a train wreck.

**8*Harold and Maude gained promenance over the years, but was only a moderate success at first.

Monday, November 3, 2014

L’il Abner (comic)

Abner and familyBy Al Capp
L’il Abner website.

Though L’il Abner is still remembered, its been dropping in critical and public acclaim over the years.  If you listed the greatest comic strips of all time in 1960 it would be among the titles, but now it gets overlooked.  Partly, that’s just a numbers game:  something has to drop out so you can include Calvin and Hobbes or other great modern strips.  But partly it’s because the comic strip is slowly being forgotten.

L’il Abner was the creation of Al Capp.  Capp (born Caplin) grew up in Bridgeport, CT* and drifted into cartooning, soon getting jobs freelancing in New York.  His break came when he started working for Ham Fisher, the creator of Joe Palooka.  At one point, Capp created the character of Big Leviticus, a hillbilly fighter who Joe would eventually face.  Using similar characters and ideas, Capp created L’il Abner and set out on his own.**

L’il Abner was set in Dogpatch, a hillbilly village with few modern amenities.  Abner Yokum was a dumb ox type – big, strong, handsome and not very bright.  Daisy Mae was his love interest – only slightly smarter, but gorgeous.  She was deeply in love with Abner, wanting to marry him, and Abner avoided it in every way possible (until 1952, when they married).  There were dozens of vivid characters in Dogpatch, including people like Marryin’ Sam, Evil-Eye Fleagle, Moonbeam McSwine, Earthquake McGoon, Stupefyin’ Jones,Hairless Joe, Lonesome Polecat, Senator Jack S. Phogbound, and General Bullmoose, to name just a few. 

Fearless FosdickHe also was known for his strip-within-a-strip Fearless Fosdick, a broad parody of Dick Tracy that was Abner’s favorite comic book.

L’il Abner’s longest lasting contribution to popular culture was Sadie Hawkins Day.  This was a holiday invented by Capp where the single women would chase after the single men; if they caught them, they would be married.  While it never appeared in that particular form outside the strip, Sadie Hawkins Day dances became popular, a time when the women could ask the men to dance.  Of course, that’s no longer necessary, but the dances lasted far longer than the the last appearance in Dogpatch.

Capp also created the shmoo, a creature who reproduced like tribbles and which could be used for food, clothing, and anything its owner wanted.

The strip was massively popular, the hillbilly characters catching on immediately.  By 1940, a movie was made, though it was not a success.***  It did try to be faithful to the look of the strip, with the actors made up, and sometimes wearing masks, to make sure they looked right.

A Broadway musical followed in 1956, to much greater success, running for 693 performances.  That, in turn, was made into a movie in 1959.

But L’il Abner lost its luster in the 1960s.  Partly it was due to politics.  Capp’s politics became conservative and it showed up in his comics.  The problem was it just wasn’t funny, consisting of humorless snide representations of hippies and the youth culture at the time.  Another issue was that Capp – who had a tendency to beat jokes to death even in the best of times – let that get the better of him.  He would take a slightly amusing idea and repeat it six days in a row so the reader would want to shout, “I get the point.” 

Also, even in the best days, Capp could be a sloppy plotter of stories.  L’il Abner was a pioneer of continuity in a pure humor strip, with long form stories that ran for months.****  But he clearly did not always plot things out from the beginning.  One classic story (“Hammus Alabamus”) hinged on a deus ex machina that isn’t mentioned until the final few strips.  In another, Lester Gooch (Fearless Fosdick’s creator) is shown to be an arrogant egotist in one strip, and a timid little man (he’s even shorter) the very next day.  Capp’s storytelling abilities deserted him in the end, possibly because of his declining health.  He ended the strip in 1977.

Though the last decades of the strip were weak imitations of the original, for the first 30 or so years of its run, L’il Abner was one of the classics of American comic strips.

*The same place where the great Walt Kelly grew up.

**He hated working for Fisher and let his feelings be known in an article for The Atlantic called “I Remember Monster,” where he portrayed Fisher (without mentioning his name) as being cruel and exploitative of his assistants.  Fisher, who resented the fact that L’il Abner was far more successful that Joe Palooka, fought back.  He added pornographic images to the backgrounds of some L’il Abner strips and tried to not only get him fired, but to also get a judge to rule that Abner was porn.  It was a bizarre incident – all Capp’s lawyers had to do was show the originals – but Fisher didn’t give up, trying the same trick when Capp was trying to buy a TV station.  Fisher was expelled from the National Cartoonists Society and died in obscurity soon after.  Capp, though, remembered how Fisher had treated him and treated his assistants well, and, though they didn’t get a byline, Capp would praise them by name in interviews.

***Buster Keaton had a role as Lonesome Polecat.

****The Mickey Mouse comic by Floyd Gottfredson did it a few years early, but Gottfredson turned it into an adventure strip with some humor as opposed to a funny strip with continuity.