August 24, 2016 § 2 Comments
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.
November 22, 2015 § 1 Comment
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:
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.
June 10, 2015 § Leave a comment
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
October 5, 2014 § Leave a comment
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.
April 24, 2014 § Leave a comment
The documentary that inspired this blog is now available as a download, either for purchase ($18) or rent ($5). Under the Hollywood Sign explores the history and present-day life of Beachwood Canyon in historical pictures, new footage and interviews. Here’s the link:
To purchase a DVD, please go to: http://www.underthehollywoodsign.com
September 26, 2013 § Leave a comment
The trouble with car racing movies is that they’re never just about racing: if they were, audiences would be better off watching Speed Channel. So the plots always focus on off-track matters, usually love, which is where they usually go wrong. Who really cares about the non-racing problems of a professional speed demon? Apparently the directors of such varied car movies as “Grand Prix,” “Winning,” “Two-Lane Blacktop” and “Days of Thunder.” “Rush,” the new Formula One film from Ron Howard, veers into decidedly non-automotive territory as well, by depicting the courtship of the Austrian driver Niki Lauda and his wife Marlene. Fortunately, the main story revolves around Lauda’s professional rivalry with James Hunt, the British playboy who challenged him in the 1976 World Championships.
The script, by Peter Morgan, takes us from the two drivers’ beginnings in Formula Three to the heart stopping final race of the ’76 season–the rain-soaked Japan Grand Prix. On the whole, Morgan tells the story accurately, taking us through the year, race by race, after setting up Hunt and Lauda’s compelling back stories. He takes liberties mainly in painting the two rivals as polar opposites–the untelegenic, humorless brainiac versus the sexy golden party boy–which is too simplistic to be entirely true. As Lauda has said in interviews, he wasn’t as “strict” his grim, monkish portrayal by Daniel Bruhl (How could he have been, in the world of Formula One?) More significantly, the script’s lighthearted portrayal of James Hunt glosses over his disturbing dark side. A compulsive substance abuser and pioneering sex addict, Hunt was mercurial on and off the track, and was said to have had sex with 5,000 women. His death at 45, from a heart attack, is attributed to decades of heavy drug use, despite his sobriety during the last few years. In a libertine era, Hunt’s behavior went far beyond that of his wildest contemporaries. Already notorious for taking drugs and having sex immediately before jumping into his racecar, he prepped for the Japan Grand Prix by having sex with 33 British Airways stewardesses in a drug-fueled two-week orgy at the Tokyo Hilton. (Unsurprisingly, this escapade doesn’t make it into the film.) Another thing that Morgan shows only belatedly is that Lauda and Hunt were friends–comrades in arms who, for all their differences, admired one another. But that wouldn’t have made such a good story, would it?
The acting is uniformly wonderful, although one can’t help feeling sorry for Bruhl, whose prosthetic overbite makes him an unflattering doppelgänger for Lauda. It’s particularly unfair that the real-life Hunt paled in comparison to Chris Hemsworth, who plays him. Hemsworth, who isn’t English but Australian, is a 6’4″ golden god best known for playing the lead in “Thor.” His dazzling half-moon smile and effortless charisma far outstrip James Hunt’s, who in archival interviews and television appearances displays a wry charm and better-than-average-looks, but nothing off the charts.
As far as the racing goes, I can’t fault the film at all. Ron Howard, whose previous films (“A Beautiful Mind,” “Apollo 13,”) have been solid entertainment but not works of genius, shoots the sequences beautifully, combining flawless esthetics–I especially loved the bright reds and blues that made the crowd scenes pop–with the nuts-and-bolts thrills of spinning wheels and moving pistons that owe a debt “Grand Prix.” Not previously known as a racing enthusiast, Howard shoots the track as if he’s lived there. He also puts an aficionado’s emphasis on sound recording and mixing, achieving an aural result that matches the dynamic visuals. It’s a career best, and if “Rush” doesn’t popularize Formula One in the United States, I don’t know what will.
May 28, 2013 § Leave a comment
A version of this article appears–along with new, unpublished essays–in my new eBook, “On Blade Runner: Four Essays.” It can be purchased for $4.99 at:
Other eBook sellers that have it include Amazon, Kobo, Baker and Taylor, Copia, ebookpie and Scribed.
August 8, 2012 § Leave a comment
At the time Epron started movie work, I thought that Hollywood’s gain was journalism’s loss, and a rereading of all three of her collections leaves me even more firmly convinced of that. Journalism today has too many self-important, humorless, money-grubbing bigfeet, most of whom are far less interested in the story than in the storyteller. Ephron, as a columnist charged with expressing her own opinions, managed to strike the right balance between story and self.
I first discovered Ephron through her Esquire essays, which are collected in three volumes: Wallflower at the Orgy, Crazy Salad and Scribble Scribble. Though she wrote about a wide range of subjects–feminism, food, breasts, Pat Loud, her mother’s mink coat, and Julie Nixon Eisenhower, and that’s just in Crazy Salad–she approached each in an incisive, original manner. Like an older, funnier, cleverer friend, she had a knack of zeroing in on her subjects and saying, in the pithiest possible way, the perfect thing:
I’m not sure you can make a generalization on this basis, which is the basis of twice, but here goes: whenever I get married, I start buying Gourmet magazine. I think of it as my own personal bride’s disease.
There is something very moving about Julie Nixon Eisenhower–but it is not Julie Nixon Eisenhower. It is the idea of Julie Nixon Eisenhower, essence of daughter, a better daughter than any of us will ever be; it is almost as if she is the only woman in American over the age of twenty who still thinks her father is exactly what she thought he was when she was six.
It is generally agreed…that the entire civic scandal of Richard Collin and the mysterious spaghetti sauce recipe could only have happened in New Orleans…and for fairly obvious reasons. For one thing, New Orleans is one of the two most ingrown, self-obsessed little cities in the United States. (The other is San Francisco.)
Ephron’s importance as an essayist is proven by her imitators, who are legion. In the New York Times alone, the long shadow of her influence stretches, with varying degrees of success, from the Op-Ed pages (Maureen Dowd, Frank Bruni) to the Style Section, where it touches everything, even the execrable Modern Love column.
If she had written nothing but essays, Nora Ephron would have left a powerful legacy, but she forged on, becoming a successful screenwriter in her forties with “Silkwood,” and “When Harry Met Sally.” With the latter she single-handedly revived the romantic comedy, for better or worse, spawning countless paler imitations. Screenwriting made her famous in a Hollywood way, which is to say hugely so, and paved the way for an even more improbable (given her sex and age) third act: her leap into directing. As a director, Ephron made eight films in seventeen years, including successes like “Sleepless in Seattle,” “You’ve Got Mail,” and “Julie and Julia,” and failures like “Bewitched,” and “This is My Life.” Which brings me back to Yardley’s lament: Ephron’s career in film, though probably vastly more satisfying (and certainly more lucrative) than journalism, didn’t really showcase her strengths.
While her screenplays are technically adept, the comedies tend toward the derivative (“When Harry Met Sally” contains echoes of Heartburn, her only novel, which she also adapted for the screen, while “You’ve Got Mail” is an updated version of “The Shop Around the Corner”). As a director, Ephron turned out films that were competent and generally well-acted but not visually memorable, which is a problem in a visual medium. The fact that she approached fimmaking through words rather than images manifests itself not only through her workmanlike shot selection but also glaring errors such as the repeated shots of Meryl Streep’s high-heeled platform pumps in “Julie and Julia.” As most people know, Julia Child was extremely tall (6’2″) while Streep (5’6″ or 5’7″) is not. Showing Streep in the kind of shoes Child didn’t need and never wore, instead of framing the shots from her ankles up, was not an incidental matter: it was a directorial mistake that broke the spell of Streep’s superb performance.
Happily, Ephron took up essay writing again in the last years of her life, publishing two collections, the excellent I Feel Bad About My Neck (2006) and its seemingly hastily written follow-up I Remember Nothing (2010). The essays showed she had lost nothing of her old skill. Although the subjects were more personal than those of the Esquire era, the observations were no less keen:
Most everyone wears black–except for anchorwomen, United States senators, and residents of Texas, and I feel really bad for them. I mean, black makes your life so much simpler. Everything matches black, especially black.
Another good thing about divorce is that it makes clear something that marriage obscures, which is that you’re on your own.
Every so often I read a book about age, and whoever’s writing it says it’s great to be old. It’s great to be wise and sage and mellow; it’s great to be at the point where you understand just what matters in life….What can they be thinking? Don’t they have necks?
It’s clear in re-reading these essays that Ephron, in her increasing preoccupation with old age, sickness and death, was saying goodbye. As for why she kept her cancer a secret, it probably had more to do with a desire to keep working in film than a need for privacy. At the time of her death, she was working on a TV series and several other projects; news of a serious illness would have stopped them from going forward. By then an old Hollywood pro, Ephron knew the score.