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.
March 8, 2017 § 1 Comment
The director who won:
And those who didn’t:
On this International Women’s Day, it’s worth noting that the average American fire department offers more opportunities for women than the film and television industry. I’m not just talking about women directors, though the fact that only four women have been nominated for the Best Director Academy Award in the Oscars’ 89-year history looks really bad, as does the fact that only one has won. I’m talking about opportunities for women across the board. The statistics are not only deplorable but actually getting worse.
The 2016 annual report of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film states:
In 2016, women comprised 17% of all directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers working on the top 250 domestic grossing films. This represents a decline of 2 percentage points from last year and is even with the percentage achieved in 1998.
Women accounted for 7% of directors, down 2 percentage points from 9% in 2015 and 1998. Last year, 92% of films had no female directors. In other roles, women comprised 13% of writers, 17% of executive producers, 24% of producers, 17% of editors, and 5% of cinematographers.
This year’s study also found that only 3% of composers working on the top 250 films were women.
What is to be done? It’s not enough to increase the female and minority membership of the Academy, which remains overwhelmingly white, male and old. The executives who greenlight films and TV shows have to change too, both in their gender makeup and outlook. It’s one thing to have more women executives who embrace the status quo, and another to have female–and male–executives who champion women writers, directors, cinematographers and composers. Another factor plaguing film and television is the lack of urgency. As long as the powers that be think things are fine as they are, nothing will change.
January 24, 2015 § Leave a comment
The recent hand wringing over the lack of nominations for “Selma” beyond Best Picture was surprising, given the fact that most of the people writing about it should know that nominations are not given out of fairness or merit. (Profitability is also beside the point, otherwise at least one “Fast and Furious” or “Spiderman” movie would have been nominated for Best Picture by now.) It’s as if they’ve forgotten that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is not some sort of Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval-giving organization but a by-invitation-only private club whose members (according to a recent LA Times poll) are:
86% fifty or older, median age 62
Not exactly a picture of diversity, yet over the years these members have nominated a raft of offbeat choices for Best Picture, films like “The Tree of Life,” “Pulp Fiction,” and this year’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” Winning is another matter: although other nominations come from the corresponding branches, every eligible member votes for the Best Picture nominations, which explains why the directors of Best Picture nominees aren’t necessarily nominated for Best Director. Given the size and occupational variety of the AMPAS electorate, the Best Picture winner is often not so much a matter of what everyone loves most as what everyone hates least. Accordingly, the winners are usually bland and sometimes the worst of the bunch. Does anyone really think “Crash,” is a better film than “Brokeback Mountain”? That “Forrest Gump” is better than “Pulp Fiction”? That “Dances with Wolves” is better than “Goodfellas”? Yet all the former won Best Picture; the latter lost.
My all-time favorite undeserving Best Picture winner is 1980’s “Ordinary People,” a family melodrama that even at the time of its release looked less like a feature film than a middling TV Movie-of-the-Week. But it starred Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore and was directed by Robert Redford, all formidable stars near height of their powers, so it beat not one but three vastly superior films: “Raging Bull,” “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” and “The Elephant Man.” (If that weren’t enough, the voters gave the Best Director award to Robert Redford, who beat not only Martin Scorsese but David Lynch and Roman Polanski for the award. Did anyone really think Redford was the best director of the group?) Never mind: history determines the real winner. Today “Raging Bull” is considered one of the greatest films of all time, while “Ordinary People” is remembered mainly as the movie that introduced Timothy Hutton, whose Best Supporting Actor win is the apex of his career so far.
Whichever nominee wins this year’s award for Best Picture, the real best picture winner won’t be determined for at least a decade. How will we know? It’ll be the movie we’re still watching and thinking about. If the past is any indication, it won’t be the one with the Oscar.
Beachwood Canyon in the 1940 Census, Part II: Discovering Bernard B. Brown, the Academy Award-Winning Original Owner of My House
May 20, 2012 § 19 Comments
When I first saw my 1937 Cape Cod in Hollywoodland, I laughed at its description: it’s not a Cape house that anyone in Massachusetts would recognize. In fact, it’s a typical pre-WWII California country house, heavy on the clapboard and decidedly simple in design. For me, it has been ideal: a box for living and working that is equally suited to both. My home has changed hands many times during its history, and I’ve enjoyed hearing neighbors’ stories about its previous owners: an old lady who owned standard poodles, circa 1960; the family of 6 who in the 70s crammed three children in two small bedrooms upstairs and one daughter in the dining room; the 80s TV actor whose drug habit ended his ownership of the house, along with his career; the couple who in the 90s set up a home art gallery that attracted a steady stream of customers. But until I searched the 1940 Census, I never knew anything about the original owner, the one for whom the house probably was built.
His name was Bernard B. Brown, and the Census lists his occupation as sound supervisor at a motion picture studio. On IMDB, I found evidence of prolific three-decade career at Universal: sound credits on 528 films between 1930 and 1958, composing credits on another 30, and directing credits on 2 shorts. He was well paid for the time, listing his income in excess of $5000 a year. The height of Brown’s career came in 1945, when he won two Academy Awards, a competitive award for sound (for “Lady on a Train,” starring Deanna Durbin and Ralph Bellamy) and a technical achievement award for the “design and engineering of separate soloist and chorus recording room.”
Brown was part of the second wave of film industry immigrants to Los Angeles. The first wave consisted of the actors, directors and crew members who worked on Silent films. The second wave, which began in the latter half of the 1920s, brought those who created Talkies: sound men. In 1940, Bernard Brown lived in my then-new house with his wife Mildred. The Browns listed no children on the Census, which–because they were 41 and 37, respectively–means they probably didn’t have any. This was a surprise to me because the garage floor boasts, along with the 1937 date of the house’s completion, two small children’s hand prints. (Children putting their names and handprints in wet cement, Grauman’s Chinese Theater-style, seems to have been common practice in Hollywoodland.) The other surprise was Brown’s birthplace: Lafarge, Wisconsin, a stone’s throw from my maternal grandparents’ hometown of LaCrosse, and the closest thing my peripatetic family has to a hometown.
The probable reason no one in the neighborhood remembers Bernard Brown is that he and Mildred moved out of the house long ago, at the end of his career in 1958, if not before. But they didn’t go far: when Brown died in 1981 at the age of 83, he was living in Glendale. It’s possible that someone reading this might remember working with him during the late 1950s, in which case I would welcome any information. In the meantime, I’m trying to find a photo of Bernard Brown so that I can hang it in the house. It’s the least I can do for a man who epitomized the original Hollywoodlander–someone whose life was spent behind the camera, making movies.