May 21, 2020 § 2 Comments
Soon after Netflix released the new Ryan Murphy-Ian Brennan miniseries “Hollywood,” I heard from Chris Yogerst, a University of Wisconsin film professor who has corresponded with me off and on since 2010, that Peg Entwistle’s story was a major theme. Naturally, I got right on it.
Since releasing my short film “Peg Entwistle’s Last Walk,” my documentary “Under the Hollywood Sign” in 2009 and my book of essays (Peg Entwistle and The Hollywood Sign) in 2013, a number of Peg-related projects have been announced, such as this one ://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2014/10/05/the-newly-announced-peg-entwistle-biopic/ , but “Hollywood” is the first major one to be completed. It’s also the most imaginative, using Peg’s story not as a grim cautionary tale but the departure point for a wildly revisionist Hollywood history.
At the outset of “Hollywood,” a script about Peg is greenlit by the Paramount-like Ace Studios. The screenwriter, Archie Coleman (Jeremy Pope) is predictably male but also black, and his struggle to make it in Hollywood gives him empathy for Peg’s tragic story. Fortunately for Archie, his champions at Ace Studios are self-professed outsiders: the director Raymond Ainsley (Darren Criss), though passing for white, is half-Filipino, and the acting head of production Avis Amberg (Patti Lupone) is a former silent film star whose acting career was cut short by her apparent Jewishness.
Though the Peg Entwistle project begins as a straightforward biopic featuring a blonde, white starlet, Avis agrees to cast Claire Wood (Samira Weaving), a Dorothy Dandridge-like actress whose screen test blows away the competition, in the lead. Thus Peg becomes Meg, and the film changes from a tragedy to a triumph of interracial romance and career redemption. If that weren’t enough, a major subplot involves Archie’s romance with the young Rock Hudson, and the couple soon smash racial and sexual barriers by walking the red carpet hand-in-hand at the Oscars. When Anna May Wong (Michelle Krusiec) becomes the first Asian to win an Academy Award, every studio-era wrong is righted, and it’s only 1948.
In short,”Hollywood” is a fantasia of racial and sexual justice. Though it’s based in fact–Rock Hudson, his manager Henry Willson (Jim Parsons) and the gas station/prostitution ring all existed–the series becomes increasingly fantastical as it careens toward a universal happy ending. This revisionism actually works for Peg Entwistle’s story, which–stripped of her Depression Era suicide–becomes a tale of movie stardom and true love.
Unfortunately, Ryan and Brennan can’t let go of the biggest myth about Peg: that the Hollywood Sign symbolized Hollywood The Industry. In fact, it didn’t even symbolize Hollywood The Place. As I’ve said many times, the Hollywoodland Sign (which is how it appeared even when “Hollywood,” is set) was a billboard for the neighborhood where it stood. What it symbolized was real estate, nothing more. If Peg Entwistle hadn’t been living in Beachwood Canyon in 1932, she would have chosen another spot from which to jump–or might not have jumped at all.
As for Peg’s drinking beforehand, it didn’t happen, not only because there were no legal alcohol or bars during the Depression but because no inebriate could have climbed Mt. Lee, let alone the ladder to the top of the H. In “Meg” this fiction does, however, give Rock Hudson something to do: in the role of bartender, he not only serves Meg a drink but tells her how to get to the Sign. The directions, it should be noted, are accurate.
For Peg Entwistle’s actual story, as well as photos and artifacts, here are links to my film, documentaries and book:
April 7, 2020 § Leave a comment
During my first week of lockdown, when I was still getting adjusted to being home all the time, my thoughts seized on “Room,” a movie so claustrophobic that I never want to watch it again. Mercifully, I soon started thinking of Todd Haynes’s 1995 masterpiece “Safe,” which approximates the isolation and angst of our present moment better than any film that has come since. As others have noted, images of a masked, desperately ill Julianne Moore—so strange and otherworldly when “Safe” came out—appear almost normal in the midst of Covid19.
At the beginning of “Safe”, Moore’s character, Carol White, a 1980’s suburban housewife as bland as her name, circles through life like a goldfish in a bowl. Unhappily married but too passive to do anything about it, Carol is forced to change her existence when struck by a mysterious environmental illness. After conventional medicine fails her, she flees to a desert community where similarly afflicted people live under the rule of a cult-like leader. In the end, Carol is utterly alone in her suffering—and yet it’s clear she always was.
Four weeks into my Safer At Home life, the films I recall are all about other times and places. Before Covid19 brought the world to a halt, 2020 was going to mark my return to overseas travel, something I haven’t been able to do since being sidelined by surgery in 2017 and a recovery that lasted two years. After that financial constraints put far-flung destinations beyond my reach until this spring, when I planned to visit Japan during the cherry blossom season. When that trip became impossible I set my sights on Scotland this summer, but that too seems unlikely.
Marooned in my living room, I find myself thinking about movies in which travel is a major theme. Two of my favorites, “The Sheltering Sky” and “The English Patient,” are set in the same place and decade: North Africa in the 1940’s. Far from home, the expatriate characters of both movies regard the desert as an exotic refuge and adopted country. In “The Sheltering Sky,” the bohemian Kit and Port flee the dissatisfactions of post-WWII America for a culture whose dangers they fail to grasp. In “The English Patient”, an aristocratic Hungarian cartographer’s wartime affair with the wife of a British intelligence officer leads all three to separate, tragic fates.
Despite the attractiveness and complexity of these characters, the real star of both films is the Sahara. Vast, beautiful and unforgiving, the desert is beloved, fetishized and misunderstood by its foreign visitors, regardless of their origins or intentions. As Michael Ondaatje writes in the novel on which “The English Patient” is based:
The desert could not be claimed or owned–it was a piece of cloth carried by winds, never held down by stones, and given a hundred shifting names… Its caravans, those strange rambling feasts and cultures, left nothing behind, not an ember. All of us, even those with European homes and children in the distance, wished to remove the clothing of our countries. It was a place of faith. We disappeared into landscapes.
February 26, 2020 § 2 Comments
Of the many heartfelt acceptance speeches by “Parasite” director Bong Joon Ho, the most memorable was not made at the Academy Awards, where his film won four Oscars, but at the Golden Globes. Accepting the award for Best Foreign Language Film, Bong said, “Once you overcome the 1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” Who could argue with that? Well, President Trump, for starters, who recently ranted bizarrely about the injustice of “Parasite” winning the Academy Award for Best Picture at a rally. Beyond the fact that his predecessors never involved themselves in awards season, Trump clearly hadn’t seen “Parasite.” Why would he? The film is entirely in Korean, which means that he would have had to read subtitles for two hours and twelve minutes.
Ah, subtitles. From the time I was a child, I remember hearing that Americans—apart from intellectuals who worshipped French cinema and the films of Ingmar Bergman—would never willingly read them, thus dooming all foreign language films to art house theaters and meager receipts. I always found this hard to believe, but then I grew up in Japan, where every non-Japanese film was subtitled and audiences of all ages and backgrounds still flocked to see them.
Japanese is a difficult language to master, with complicated grammar and levels of formality, the highest and lowest of which sound quite different from standard speech. Korean is even more complex, but at least its writing system—Hangul—is a single alphabet. In contrast, written Japanese mixes kanji (Chinese characters) with hiragana and katakana, syllabaries that bridge the gaps between Chinese and Japanese, which are very different languages. Though homonymous, kana serve different functions: hiragana is used for Japanese words, while katakana is used for foreign and technical terms. In addition, Japanese subtitles use furigana—hiragana renderings of harder kanji that younger viewers might not know yet. So Japanese audiences, while at the same time following the onscreen action, appreciating the performances and listening to sound effects and music, have to read several lines of dialog at rapid speed. This is far more challenging than reading English subtitles on foreign films, yet no one objects.
After “Parasite” won its historic superfecta (Best International Film, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best Picture), Morning Consult published this survey https://morningconsult.com/2020/02/04/for-u-s-audiences-foreign-cinemas-one-inch-wall-of-subtitles-seen-a-mile-high/?fbclid=IwAR0zLbIpwdtGd89O79M5mTSnlaV7CAK8xVk_UY-ZqaLc5A5w0Ow1nFfq8Ag
In addition to listing American viewers’ many reasons for disliking subtitles, it ranks non-English language movies as the least popular of all genres. Reason Number One: “It’s hard to read subtitles and follow the action of the movie.”
Because Japan and America have the same literacy rate—99%—the American aversion to subtitles is clearly a matter of custom, not ability. It’s understandable, since until recently the vast majority of films shown in the United States were, if not American-made, in English. Now, as international films garner greater recognition and popularity, American audiences are seeing and liking them more. And fans of Jong Boon Ho, whose films explore such universally compelling themes as economic inequality and environmental crisis, already seem to read subtitles without complaint.
January 24, 2020 § Leave a comment
Early January brings one of my favorite film events of the year: the Foreign Directors’ Symposium at the American Cinematheque, where the Golden Globes nominees talk, often illuminatingly, about their films and those of their fellow directors. Before the panel, there’s a reception where I like to to catch up with friends and meet a director or two. (Or, as last year, to complain about subtitles https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2019/01/17/kore-edas-shoplifters-what-was-lost-in-translation/ )
At this year’s reception I was waiting for a friend to arrive when Antonio Banderas sat down across from me with his lunch. This was a surprise not only because I had expected only Pedro Almodóvar to show up, but because it was our second encounter. The first was at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival, where “Desperado” launched him and Salma Hayek into international stardom.
Film festivals are a blur of screenings, meetings, press conferences, lunches, dinners and very little sleep, and none more than Cannes. Compounded by jet lag and sleep deprivation, the days and nights soon merge into one giant day and night, with predictable results. One minute you’re watching a movie; the next you’re standing on the beach with a glass of rosé in your hand, having already forgotten the walk from the Palais. And it’s only 11:30am. After lunch, two more screenings, cocktails, a premiere and dinner, things get really trippy.
Though I’ve forgotten most of the movies I watched and the people I met that year at Cannes, I remember the “Desperado” party vividly. It was a seated dinner near the Palais, and my table included the director Robert Rodriguez and his wife and Salma Hayek. After dinner everyone mingled, and that’s when I found myself standing next to Antonio Banderas. I knew him from the five Almodóvar films he’d made at that point, and was about to introduce myself when I noticed Melanie Griffith giving me an icy stare from across the room. From some Spaniards at the Festival I’d heard they were newly together, so I hesitated, unwilling to risk her ire. Then the speeches began, and the moment was lost.
They say you never have a second chance to make a first impression, but here we were at close range again, a quarter century later. Though I never would have approached Antonio, I decided it was time to speak up. “I met you 25 years ago at a party in Cannes,” I said. He lit up. “Oh no, did I say something bad?” “No, of course not!” I said in horror, unable to imagine him saying anything untoward, and told him how I had almost introduced myself at the “Desperado” party. Instantly we were chatting like old friends: about how quickly time had passed; “Pain and Glory”; his fateful heart attack two years ago; his having just seen Salma; his new theater, Teatro Soho, in his hometown, Málaga; and his new Spanish language production of “A Chorus Line,” bound for New York this spring. While we were talking, he got word on his phone that he had won that National Film Critics Circle Award. “Is that good?” he asked me. “It’s great; now you’re going to win everything, I said enthusiastically.
I was wrong about the Golden Globes, as it turns out, but the Globes are an unreliable predictor of the award for which he was later nominated, the Best Actor Oscar. It’s a prize Antonio richly deserves to win: his performance in “Pain and Glory” is peerless, both a career triumph and a sign of great work to come. Some of that work will be on the stage, where he was discovered by Almodóvar at the age of 21. “Leaving the theater for movies was like leaving a beautiful woman,” he charmingly told me, adding that his favorite American acting experience was on Broadway in “Nine”. Now, with his Teatro Soho and his arts school, Teatro Jóvenes Artistas Antonio Banderas, the stage is again his home. So is Spain, but the world is his oyster.
January 19, 2020 § Leave a comment
Three months after seeing “Pain and Glory,” it remains vivid in my mind, as movies seldom do these days. (Quite a few I’ve forgotten by the time I get home from the theater—which says something about both the quality and the quantity of films I’ve watched over the years.) Not so Pedro Almodóvar’s latest film.
The story of Salvador Mallo, an aging film director grappling with a cascade of physical ailments and the ghosts of his past, “Pain and Glory” is a triumphant summation of Almodóvar’s themes of art, love, childhood, passion, religion and suffering. But it’s also the high point of his work with his greatest male star, Antonio Banderas, who during the past thirty-eight years has been Almodóvar’s alter ego, leading man and muse.
Those who know Banderas only from American films will find him a revelation in the eight films he has made with Almodóvar–particularly if they understand Spanish. For though Banderas is a reliably strong actor in English, he’s always the exotic foreigner. In Spanish, however, he operates at an entirely different level: both funnier and darker, he delivers performances of great variety and complexity. The roles Banderas has played in Amodóvar’s previous films prove his range—and his gameness:
1982 “Labyrinth of Passion”: Sadec, a terrorist
1986 “Matador”: Ángel, student matador, failed rapist and false
confessor to two murders
1987 “Law of Desire”: Antonio, possessive gay lover of a film director
1988 “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown”: Carlos, the previously unknown son of Carmen Maura’s character’s ex-lover
1990 “Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down”: Ricky, a recently released mental patient who kidnaps a former porn star/B movie actress/recovering heroin addict with whom he had a one-night stand during an escape from the asylum
2011 “The Skin I Live In”: Psychopathic plastic surgeon
2013 “I’m So Excited”: Airport ground technician whose wife, a colleague, is played by Penélope Cruz
As good as Banderas was in these movies, his performance in “Pain and Glory” stands at an entirely different level, suffused with suffering, humor, self-knowledge and acceptance. In a role that could have been an exercise in scenery chewing, he is nuanced and restrained throughout, a feat of immense control.
After being named Best Actor at Cannes and by the New York, LA and National Film Critics societies, this week Antonio Banderas was nominated for the Best Actor Academy Award. Because of Joaquín Phoenix’s nomination for “Joker,” he is considered a dark horse, and the Academy is notorious for favoring what the late Heath Ledger called “the most acting, not the best acting.” But I hope Banderas will triumph, just as he did two weeks ago when he won the National Society of Film Critics’ Best Actor Award while we were talking at a pre-Golden Globes reception. More on our conversation next time.
January 9, 2020 § Leave a comment
This post contains plot spoilers
Although I didn’t set out to see Céline Scíamma and Greta Gerwig’s new films back-to-back, I did last weekend, and was struck by their similarities. Both films are about women who struggle against the strictures of their times, and both feature women who–despite stiff odds–defy convention to become artists.
What’s surprising is that the two movies are set a century apart and in different cultures: “Portrait Of A Lady On Fire” in France in the 1760s and “Little Women” in New England in the 1860s. Though I would have thought a Parisian portrait painter and an aristocratic maiden from 18th-century Brittany would face greater social obstacles than the daughters of a progressive, educated family in 19th-century Concord, Massachusetts, all the female characters grapple with the same problems: how to decide their own futures, including whether or not to marry, and how to earn a living that would enable their freedom.
Explicit in both stories is the role of art. Only because she is a talented artist (and the daughter of a successful painter whose ateliér and school she inherits) does Marianne (Noémi Merlant) in “Portrait” have a profession. Her income allows her to remain unmarried, and thus independent of domestic obligations. In contrast the noblewoman Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), whose engagement portrait Marianne has been hired to paint surreptitiously, has no prospects but marriage: one arranged by her widowed mother, a countess eager to return to her native Milan. The countess, having lost her older daughter to suicide after she refused the same match, is determined to force Héloïse into an aristocratic marriage that will ensure her return to Milan and both their futures. Héloïse, after strong resistance and a brief affair with Marianne, submits to her mother’s wishes.
A century later in New England, Jo March (Saoirse Ronan), the second daughter of a progressive, educated family, is determined to become a writer. Her work is soon published, but because Father March (a minister, like many intellectuals of his day, though without a church position) is disinclined to hold a job, her earnings must support her family. For all their modern, egalitarian ideas, the Marches aren’t far removed from the countess in “Portrait”: they place their economic hopes on the marriage prospects of their prettiest daughter Amy, an aspiring painter. Amy obliges by accepting the proposal of Laurie, the neighborhood rich boy/dreamboat (Timothée Chalamet) previously rejected by Jo. This romantic coup is not without a price, however, as Amy must give up her artistic ambitions to become a wife and mother. Meanwhile Jo, who understands all too well that marriage would spell the end of her writing career, embarks on her glorious spinsterhood only to end up marry an admiring professor (dumpy and German in the book; smoldering and French in the movie) in the end. As Greta Gerwig makes clear, this plot twist was forced on Louisa May Alcott by her publisher and readers, for whom a happy ending required marriage. But Alcott herself never married, made a good living off her copyrights and, when asked why she remained single, stated “I’d rather be a free spinster and paddle my own canoe.”
Both films share indelible images: longing glances across crowded theaters, musical performances, unrequited love, even skirts accidentally set on fire. But the strongest link between “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” and “Little Women” is thematic: the struggle of young women for autonomy and artistic self-expression in societies that demand their conformity through marriage.
October 13, 2019 § Leave a comment
The last movie I saw, Todd Phillips’s “Joker,” was inflated by many into a treatise on our winner-take-all economic system (though not by me). This week “Parasite,” the 2019 Cannes Palme d’Or winner, accomplishes that aim, and brilliantly. Unlike “Joker,” “Parasite” not a superhero backstory. It’s not even American. But the Korean director Joon-ho Bong, who co-wrote the script, has made a brilliant, universal black comedy that says everything about the cruelty of class inequality.
It starts with four-member Kim family, long on smarts but short on cash, barely surviving in a dank basement apartment in a poor neighborhood in Seoul. In spite of their work and academic credentials, all the Parks are unemployed until a stroke of luck lands the college-age son, Kim Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi), a lucrative job tutoring the high-school age daughter of a rich tech executive named Park (Sun-kyung Lee). Soon Ki-Woo’s sister, Kim Ki-jung (So-dam Park), a talented graphic designer, is teaching art to the Park’s son, in the guise of her brother’s acquaintance. Realizing the pot of gold they’ve discovered in the naive, vacuous Park family, the Kim parents then get themselves hired as the family’s chauffeur and housekeeper, again as unrelated workers.The Kims’ brilliant plan proceeds without a hitch until the discovery of a disturbing secret in the bowels of the lavish modernist Park home. Then, just as quickly as it succeeded, their clever scheme unravels. In the film’s shockingly violent denouement, neither family escapes unharmed or unchanged. What emerges from the catastrophe is a stark truth: economic inequality is a disaster for rich and poor alike.
“Parasite” owes a debt not to incoherent movies like “Joker” but to last year’s Kore-eda film “Shoplifters.” Like the Shibatas, Kore-eda’s family of unrelated but caring grifters, the Kims are economic losers living at the margins of a rich, uncaring society. But unlike the Shibatas, the Kims are ruthless in their pursuit of money and position, and not above using violence to achieve their aims. In “Parasite” the Kims emerge bloodied but scrappy, while their victims the Parks are vanquished. This reversal of fortunes cries out for a sequel, and I hope Bong makes it.