Harry Dean Stanton, the Actor’s Prophet

September 18, 2017 § Leave a comment

Harry Dean Stanton in “Lucky”

It was shortly before going to see his new film “Lucky” on Friday that I heard of Harry Dean Stanton’s death at 91. As in his work, his timing was uncanny. His exit from life that day made his last film, a wry examination of an elderly desert dweller coming to grips with death, all the more poignant for those of us who saw it.

Throughout his long career, which began in TV and movie Westerns and dramas in the 1950’s, Stanton was described as a character actor, one who excelled in secondary roles. The character actor label followed him even after he became a leading man in two 1984 films: “Repo Man,” and “Paris, Texas.” It was, I suppose, a reference to his anti-movie star looks: a slight build and a gaunt, weathered face that became more fascinating as he aged. Stanton’s nose, always prominent, came to dominate his face as the rest of his features receded. Increasingly, his visage looked less made of flesh than carved from wood.

But his looks had little to do with his acting. His method relied heavily on observation and stillness, two qualities that elude most actors and almost all movie stars. Lucky is a man of few words, yet there’s never a moment when Stanton isn’t fully thinking his thoughts and feeling his feelings. We see Lucky going through his day– getting dressed, shaving, brushing his teeth, exercising, venturing out to talk with fellow residents of his tiny town–quotidian activities made profound by Stanton’s acting. I wouldn’t have minded if the film had gone on in this way, like a more mundane “Groundhog Day,” but the screenwriters Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja had a bigger theme in mind: mortality, and Lucky’s reconciliation with it. Filling out the story are colorful characters played David Lynch, Beth Grant, Ed Begley, Jr. and Ron Livingstone, but the film–and every scene in it–belongs to Harry Dean Stanton. For me the highlight is his unexpected, perfect singing of “Volver,” (“To Return”) at a child’s birthday party. More than a showcase for Stanton’s musical talents–he was an accomplished singer and guitarist–“Volver” is a song about memory, love, the passage of time and the inevitability of death:

To Return with a withered brow/the snows of time silvered my temples
To feel life’s a puff of breath/that twenty years are nothing

Through his performance of “Volver,” Lucky gains an acceptance of his own end, a moment of grace that affects everyone in the scene. Days later, I’m still thinking about it.

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“Star Wars” and Its Ever-Changing Boys’ Club of Directors

September 9, 2017 § Leave a comment


It’s hard not to be puzzled by recent director changes in the “Star Wars” series. The latest to be fired is Colin Trevorrow, who was supposed to direct “Star Wars: Episode IX.” He follows Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who were fired during production on the untitled Han Solo film (and replaced by Ron Howard), and Josh Trank, who was either supposed to direct the Han Solo movie or the Luke Skywalker one–no one seems to know for sure. Then there’s Gareth Edwards, who received directorial credit for “Rogue One” but was relieved during production by its screenwriters, Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy. Because Weitz and Gilroy did extensive reshoots and fixed the third act, they are widely credited with the success “Rogue One.”

Producer Kathleen Kennedy’s formula for directors seems to be: find them at Sundance, give them a bigger picture and then move them up at warp speed to “Star Wars.” Hence Trevorrow, whose successful indie film “Safety Not Guaranteed” led him to direct “Jurassic World.” The critical and box office failure of his latest, “The Book of Henry,” sealed his fate on “Star Wars: Episode IX,” but shouldn’t have been his modest resume? Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s animated hit “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” led them to “21 Jump Street” and “The Lego Movie,” but none of the three predicted a successful transition to the world’s biggest franchise. Josh Trank’s indie hit “Chronicle” gave him the director spot on “Fantastic Four,”–again, not an obvious pathway to “Star Wars” glory.

As every knows, there has never been an experienced woman director of a “Star Wars” film, much less one with as little directing experience as these men. Women with critically successful first films tend to spend years trying to finance their second, not juggling action film offers from major studios as their male peers do. Often they wind up directing TV shows–hardly the purgatory it used to be, but not the same as having their name on the poster of the big summer movie. I can think of three excellent women directors with long resumes off the top of my head–Kathryn Bigelow, Mimi Leder and Ava DuVernay. All have successful action and effects films to their credit, but were they even considered for “Star Wars”? It’s easy to say they wouldn’t want the oversight that comes with the job, but I wonder if any of them were asked.

As it happens, Ava DuVernay–fresh off her Oscar nomination for “13”–is already directing the forthcoming “A Wrinkle in Time” for Disney, which owns “Star Wars.” She is the favorite candidate of many fans for “Star Wars: Episode IX” and a likely choice. Let’s hope Kathleen Kennedy thinks so too.

The Joy of Watching Movies Alone

August 24, 2016 § 2 Comments

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Last month I went to a crowded sneak preview of “Star Trek Beyond.” As I took my seat, the young woman next to me asked, “Did you two get separated?” When I told her that I was alone, she was wildly impressed. “I’ve always wanted to do that but I’ve never had the guts,” she said. I was baffled: after all, this was a popcorn movie, not a week-long Rainer Werner Fassbinder retrospective. “I almost always go to movies alone,” I said. “You should try it; it’s great.”

There was a time when watching films was my job. I generally saw 130 per year, at least half of them in theaters. During this period, I lost all perspective about normal–i.e., recreational–moviegoing. Not only did I no longer regard films as entertainment but I also had no idea what constituted an average person’s intake. Was one movie a week considered a normal number? I didn’t know, because I averaged three a week in theaters and more on video.

Mostly I watched alone, but I never felt alone: my attentions were fully on the screen, rather than on those sitting next to me. Which brings me to back to the woman who was afraid to see movies alone: how much companionship is there in watching movies? Sure, you can hold hands, but you can’t talk. And the experience is far from shared, as anyone whose opinion of a movie has differed a friend’s can attest.

Last night I went to a screening of a terrible new movie that I can’t name because there’s a press embargo on it until next week. I happened to have a friend with me, who fortunately felt much the way I did about it. Still, I couldn’t help worrying about her reaction to what was on the screen, as well as to my flinching from the gunfire and smirking at the script. At some point I realized there were two movies playing at once: the real one and the one in my row. That’s fine for mindless entertainment, but good movies require a level of concentration that’s hard to achieve when you’re wondering if your companion wants to walk out. That’s why I usually watch alone.

On Gender Discrimination, Women Directors and “Carol”

November 22, 2015 § Leave a comment

Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in "Carol"

Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in “Carol”

There’s a big article in the New York Times Magazine today about women filmmakers and the barriers they face in an industry that favors any young, unproven male director over a far more seasoned female director–because, you know, that’s what makes guys comfortable. This is true in all areas filmmaking–writers, editors, producers and cinematographers are overwhelmingly male. But for women directors, the gender bias is so overt that any other traditionally male workplace–the Army, police and fire departments, Congress–is a comparative bastion of equality.

Now that it’s been shown that only 1.9 percent of the directors of the 100 top-grossing films in 2013 and 2014 were women, the ACLU is investigating. Still, nothing has really changed, or is about to. Maureen Dowd, who wrote the article, says that male executives she interviewed called the issue of gender bias “bogus” and “a tempest in a teapot”–in other words, not even a problem. I’d say “read and weep,” except that the article says there’s no weeping allowed if you’re a woman director:

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/22/magazine/the-women-of-hollywood-speak-out.html?hpw&rref=movies&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&module=well-region&region=bottom-well&WT.nav=bottom-well

Last night I saw the beautiful “Carol,” one of the year’s best films. Set in the 1950s and based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith, “Carol” is an honest-to-God woman’s picture, the kind we haven’t seen much of since the days when Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Crawford’s names were on the marquee. “Carol” stars Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara and was written by Phyllis Nagy. All the male roles are supporting ones. With that in mind, you’d think that “Carol” represents an advance for women in Hollywood, but no: it took thirteen years to reach the screen. Whose attachment gave it the green light? Not Blanchett’s, despite her star power and two Oscars. Not Nagy’s, though she is a well-regarded screenwriter and director (“Mrs. Harris”). In the end it was Todd Haynes who got “Carol” greenlit–a male director as usual, albeit one who specializes in films about women.

Toward a Less Sexist Hollywood: “Pitch Perfect 2,” “Spy” and the Evolution of Summer Movies

June 10, 2015 § Leave a comment

Melissa McCarthy in "Spy"

Melissa McCarthy in “Spy”

I moved to Los Angeles in 1989, at the dawn of what I like to call Terminator 2 Era. It was a very bad time for women and their stories and a very good time for men and their stories, especially if those stories happened to be violent. The first studio screening I attended was “License to Kill,” where I was treated to popcorn in a cut-glass bowl, Perrier and, as I recall, the sight of a guy getting shot in the eye. Timothy Dalton’s tepid portrayal of Bond and the instantly forgettable story were afterthoughts; it was the body count that mattered. Despite its subsequent listing as one of the worst Bond films of all time, “License to Kill” grossed $156 million worldwide (roughly $300 million today).

Soon afterwards, I got a job reading scripts on a freelance basis at CAA. Except for those that were already produced (submitted by writers seeking representation), all of them were bad. Emboldened by my dismal competition, I submitted a script of my own and quickly got a pass. This may have been because it had a female protagonist and two males relegated to supporting status, unlike any script I had read. Who, besides a lot of women, would want to see a movie like that? Apparently no one who could greenlight a film. I continued to write scripts and short stories with female leads and male supporting characters. None of them sold, though they got kiss-of-death comments like “quirky” and “charming,” which is code for “we hate stories about women.” Some of these comments came from women, none of whom were in a position to greenlight a film.

I turned to documentaries in large part because I wanted to direct. In an industry where the least qualified male was more likely to be hired as a feature director than the best qualified woman, documentaries seemed to offer a separate path to the same goal, or so I thought. As it turned out, I had to vie for the respect of my cameramen–whom I was paying, since I was also the producer. I also had trouble with male crew members, who preferred to take their orders from a man. Apparently I wasn’t alone in my struggles: now there’s a whole website devoted to the subject of women directors and others working in non-traditional film jobs. http://shitpeoplesaytowomendirectors.tumblr.com/ask I recommend it highly, particularly to anyone who thinks this sort of behavior went out with the “Mad Men” era.

Fortunately, there have been a few bright spots during the past 25 years. Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win the Academy Award for Best Director, and two more–Jane Campion and Sofia Coppola–were nominated. (This brings the total number of women nominated for Best Director to a whopping four. The first was Lina Wertmuller in 1976; she remained the only female nominee until 1993.) A lot of women directors have found steady work in television, which in the Netflix era is no small thing. But the fact remains that male directors of independent films are frequently catapulted up to the majors, sometimes with only a single credit to their names, while far more experienced women directors are not. It’s also common for women directors to hit a dead-end after making a splash with their first film, finding themselves without prospects for financing or work. This is seldom the case for male directors.

The justification for this exclusion used to be “movies directed by/starring women don’t make money.” Nowhere was this attitude more prevalent than in summer blockbusters, which were the undisputed domain of male stars, directors and writers. It was accepted that female stars, however adored, couldn’t “open” a summer movie. Jodie Foster defied expectations with “The Panic Room,” which grossed $100 million domestically. But even Julia Roberts needed a horde of male co-stars (in “Oceans Eleven” and “Oceans Twelve”) to achieve popcorn movie status.

That’s why this summer is notable. On May 15, “Pitch Perfect 2,” with its female director and cast, surprised everyone by trouncing the presumed box office favorite, “Mad Max: Fury Road. Though “Mad Max” has gone on to be more profitable worldwide because of its huge foreign receipts, the domestic totals (as of June 8) remain significantly higher for “Pitch Perfect 2.” Then this past weekend, the Melissa McCarthy vehicle “Spy” demolished the bro-loaded “Entourage,” out-earning it almost 3 to 1.* (If “Entourage” hadn’t opened two days earlier, the difference would have been even greater.) “Spy,” which got great reviews, is absolutely hilarious. It’s also thrilling, not least because it has shattered the glass ceiling of summer movies.

Next: The Importance of Melissa McCarthy

*Domestic receipts for opening weekend were: “Spy” $29,085,719; “Entourage” $10,283,250. Courtesy Box Office Mojo

Related article: https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2010/03/08/before-kathryn-bigelow-women-directors-in-20th-century-hollywood/

The Newly Announced Peg Entwistle Biopic

October 5, 2014 § Leave a comment

Still from "Peg Entwistle's Last Walk"/Copyright 2007 and 2014, Hope Anderson Productions

Still from “Peg Entwistle’s Last Walk”/Copyright 2007 and 2014, Hope Anderson Productions

I was in New York a couple of weeks ago when two friends emailed within an hour of each other to tell me that a feature film on the actress Peg Entwistle had been announced in the trades. Tony Kaye (“American History X”) is slated to write and direct the film, and producer Arthur Sarkissian promises the result will be “in the vein of…Vertigo and…Seven.” http://deadline.com/2014/09/actress-death-hollywood-sign-movie-jumped-off-h-peg-entwistle-836778/

When I started researching Peg Entwistle’s life for my documentary Under the Hollywood Sign in 2006, the accurate public record of her life was tiny, consisting of three or four photos, her nationality at birth (English) and her suicide from the Hollywoodland Sign in 1932. The amount of erroneous information, however, was enormous. It included her career (she was not a wannabe starlet but a successful and accomplished Broadway actress); her background (she was brought up not in England but as a naturalized American in New York and Hollywood); her motivations for suicide (which were not as much professional as existential). Among the falsehoods was the assumption that Peg’s choice of the Hollywoodland Sign was a message to the film industry. It’s a great bit of symbolism, except that the Sign was nothing more than a billboard for the Hollywoodland tract at the time. Because I knew the history of the Sign and live along the route she took, it was obvious that Peg chose the Sign for two simple reasons: it was high enough to do the job and in 1932 so isolated that no one was likely to stop her. As I progressed in my research, the misinformation kept coming. Even the date on her death certificate was wrong–it appears as September 18th, the date her body was discovered. But because Peg went to the Sign on the evening of September 16th and could not have survived her fall for long, the date of her death was clearly September 16th.

Many of the lies about Peg came straight from Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon , whose chapter on her tragic end was accepted as fact until I set about correcting it. I identified the book’s half-nude portrait of Peg as a fake, which should have been obvious since the only feature the model shared with Peg was her platinum blond bob, a ubiquitous hairstyle in Hollywood at the time. Yet everyone, including her family, had taken Anger’s word for it.

As a way of telling Peg’s story, I made a short feature film about her fateful climb to the Sign called Peg Entwistle’s Last Walk, incorporating the footage into my documentary Under the Hollywood Sign. After I put the short on YouTube in 2007, it caught the attention of tens of thousands of viewers, including James Zeruk, Jr., who was researching her life for a book. James helped me to find Peg’s family, who generously made available a trove of playbills, photographs and documents about her life. Most importantly, I was able to interview Peg’s half-brother, Milt Entwistle, then 92 and the only living person with direct memory of her.

Under the Hollywood Signwas released in 2009. Peg Entwistle’s Last Walk remained on YouTube until this year, when I pulled it off to release it on DVD and Vimeo, along with her biography, as Peg Entwistle: The Life and Death of An Actress. http://hopeandersonproductions.com/?page_id=3361

Last year I published an ebook consisting of Entwistle family photos, the script of the biographical documentary and the production diary of Peg Entwistle’s Last Walk. http://www.amazon.com/Peg-Entwistle-The-Hollywood-Sign-ebook/dp/B00FSOGCV4
Zeruk’s book Peg Entwistle and the Hollywood Sign Suicide was also published last year.

Biopics can’t be entirely invented, and I can’t imagine whose work Tony Kaye will draw on for his script if not mine and James Zeruk’s. Because alternative secondary sources don’t exist and many of the primary sources can only be found in the Entwistle family’s archive, I await Kaye’s film, assuming it gets made, with considerable interest.

Within “Boyhood,” An Equally Compelling Womanhood

July 18, 2014 § 1 Comment

Patricia Arquette, Lorelei Linklater and Ellar Coltrane in "Boyhood"/Courtesy IFC Films

Patricia Arquette, Lorelei Linklater and Ellar Coltrane in “Boyhood”/Courtesy IFC Films

Although nearly a week has passed since I saw Richard Linklater’s moving twelve-years-in-the-making masterpiece, I’m still thinking about “Boyhood.” As myriad reviewers can attest, it is as close to perfect as any film, and so compelling that its two hours and twenty-four minutes fly by.

Yet unlike plot-driven movies, “Boyhood” has none of the conventional elements: no inciting incident, no climax, no three-act structure. (Take that, screenwriting teachers.) Rather, the film is a compilation of many small and large events that in aggregate become something huge: Life. And not just the life of the boy, Mason (Ellar Coltrane), but that of his father (Ethan Hawke), mother (Patricia Arquette), sister (Lorelei Linklater), and numerous friends and relatives. (Spoiler alert: if you haven’t seen the film and don’t want to know what’s in it, don’t read further.)

Arguably, the character who undergoes the greatest change in “Boyhood” is not Mason Evans, Jr. but his mother, Olivia. When the film begins, she is a young single mother of two small children. Her ex-husband has been absent for nearly a year, and she is struggling to make ends meet. Soon after he returns from Alaska, she moves the children to Houston so that she can finish her college degree and better her job prospects. By the time Olivia is in graduate school, she has married one of her professors, creating a blended family with his two children. But when the marriage ends because of his alcoholism and abusiveness, Olivia must move the children again–this time for safety’s sake. By then a professor, she falls in love with an older student, an Iraq War veteran studying on the GI bill. But that marriage founders too, as her once charming new husband becomes a sullen prison guard who drinks too much. At the end, when Mason leaves for college, Olivia is on her own–older, wiser and a little tearful as she faces an empty nest. But there’s never a doubt she’ll triumph over this new phase of life, just as she has all the others.

Three divorces in two decades is a lot to endure, but Linklater never paints Olivia as less than a responsible, loving parent. (The feckless one is Mason, Sr., with his absences and seatbelt-free GTO, though in time he too grows up.) And although Mason once refers to his mother’s husbands and boyfriends as “a parade of drunken fools,” he is unembittered and loving toward her throughout his eighteen years.

Among the many revelations of “Boyhood,” is Richard Linklater’s genius as a filmmaker. Regardless of whether we’ve shared the Evans family’s experiences, he somehow manages to make them familiar–so much so that we feel they might have been ours. In following this ordinary family’s progress through life, he shines a mirror on our lives too.

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