No, no, no, no, NO!

August 13, 2010 § Leave a comment

Stop, stop, stop, stop, STOP!

By Lars Trodson

I just saw this photo with Helen Mirren giving Russell Brand a bath. They are apparently on the set of their new “film”, “Arthur”, in which Brand is playing the sweet-natured and lost little rich boy, Arthur. “Arthur”, as almost everybody knows, was a character created by writer Steve Gordon and brought to life by Dudley Moore. Moore won a much-deserved Oscar nomination for his portrayal in that 1981 film. When he told his girlfriend, played by Jill Eikenberry, that some people drink because they aren’t poets, most of the world knew what he meant. You didn’t forget Arthur.

So now there is the photo of Brand getting a bath by Mirren, and Brand is quoted as saying, “Never has getting clean been so dirty.” Oh, my goodness. That is one funny line. Yessir!
I guess I’m sentimental. But as far as the movies are concerned, no one owns anything any more. Inspector Clouseau was once owned by Peter Sellers. He helped create him. Now we have these Steve Martin DVDs floating about. John Shaft was replayed by Samuel L. Jackson – not that anybody cared, but there you go. And Arthur was created by Gordon and Moore. Jeff Bridges, as much as I love the guy, can’t be Rooster Cogburn. Can’t we at least let John Wayne have his own Oscar-winning role? The list of these aberrations goes on and on and on.

Since I am sentimental and a writer, I guess I would say that Arthur Bach is supposed to be this slightly goofy, off-kilter, but very, very sweet young man. That’s who the character is and it was how it was written. It should not be some lecherous, hyper-sexualized character who makes pee-pee jokes with Helen Mirren (you know that’s exactly what will happen). If that happens, then it is no longer the character Arthur.

At that point, just change some details of the story, give the guy another name, and no one will be the worse for wear. But Hollywood keeps plying the depths of its own past to the point of ruination.

It’s actually getting to the point that Hollywood has no past. It lives in a constant state of remake-present. Philip K. Dick couldn’t have come up with a more bizarro scenario, but we’re in it, and we have to get out.

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The Redemptive Power Of The Theater: Simon Russell Beale, Ethan Hawke, Rebecca Hall and Sinead Cusack Bring Us To Life

March 10, 2009 § Leave a comment


By Lars Trodson

Here was, on the stage, a genuine movie star, or at least as close of an approximation of one gets to a movie star these days, and his name was Ethan Hawke. Hawke barely seems to register on the screen, his performances at their best and worst are banal, which is a miserable fate for a screen actor. Hawke also causes paroxysms of fury by writing novels; the condemnation comes streaming down from the ranks of those who believe that kind of thing is best left to the professionals, whoever those professionals may be.

But there he was, surrounded by the artfully decrepit interior of the Harvey Theatre at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, barefoot and strumming a guitar. This was in Shakespeare’s extravaganza known as “The Winter’s Tale”, which, if records were kept of such things, must have been written in haste or on a bet. Shakespeare threw everything into this weird play except character development, but there are plenty of jokes.

Some of these jokes are said by Autolycus, played by Hawke, in a fey, lovely, and easy-going turn in the Sam Mendes production of this play which just closed on March 8 in Brooklyn.

If Hawke’s performance is a cobbling together of mannerisms, that is not his fault. It is faint criticism to call an actor in “The Winter’s Tale” unfocused, because the same criticism that Ezra Pound leveled at James Joyce’s “Ulysses” — that there was no need for a new style for each chapter — could be used to describe each act of this vaudeville. It’s a tragedy and then a comedy and then a fantasy and then a ghost story. “Oh, what the hell,” Shakespeare probably said when writing it. “I’m being paid good money and I need a new bed!”

So Hawke, strumming a guitar with authority and grace, comes strolling out on the Harvey’s beautiful wood stage and one might think that New York theater audiences would apply the same snobbishness to Hawke being on the stage as literary critics did to Hawke writing his books. But no. He had them right away, and as well he should. He was acting Shakespeare, and he was great.

This was in the second half. In the first, we had been introduced to Simon Russell Beale, as Leontes, King of Sicilia and the radiant Sinead Cusack as Paulina.

Sinead Cusack should easily command the same concoction of worldwide respect and sensual appeal that her contemporary Helen Mirren receives, but Cusack has not had the same kind of commercial movie success that Mirren has had. You may know her as Naomi Watts’ mother in “Eastern Promises”, and a few of us were lucky enough to have caught her in John Boorman’s Irish mystery “The Tiger’s Tale” at the New Hampshire Film Festival last October, which as far as I know was not released in this country. But she is an inspiring actor, a great actor, and she brought to the stage the kind of grace and loveliness that only the truly great can bring. You can imagine that Sinead Cusack would invite audience fervor no matter what age she happened to appear in.

This production of “The Winter’s Tale” is part of a project called “The Bridge Project”, which is providing an opportunity for audiences to see the stage work of both American and English actors. So this production, which was lyrical but minor, was playing in repertory with Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” and the actors were able to play parts in both plays that demonstrated their range. The project is a co-production of The Old Vic (headed up by Kevin Spacey), the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and Neal Street Productions. The two plays were directed by Mendes and the Chekhov play was newly adapted by Tom Stoppard, who added his contrarian flair to the English translation of Chekhov’s lines.

There is a scene in “The Cherry Orchard” when Simon Russell Beale is attempting to express his affection for Ranevskaya (played by Cusack), the eternally grieving owner of the cherry orchard that soon must be sold to pay off old debts. Cusack, as Ranevskaya, looks so deeply and understandingly into Beale’s eyes that I wondered if they were in love in real life. (Cusack is married to Jeremy Irons.) It was heartbreaking to watch, and I was later moved when she talked about the memories she had of the house they would soon have to abandon.

My friend Mike Keating, who wrote so well about Joe Strummer here on Roundtable Pictures last year, has been talking about Simon Russell Beale for years. He kept saying I needed to see him, and when I witnessed Beale’s fussy, fuzzed, and fritzed out Leontes in “The Winter’s Tale” I had that rare reaction that I was watching an actor trying to figure out his way through a part. What this means is that I thought I saw someone who was truly confused, as opposed to someone who was playing someone who was confused. It was laugh-out loud funny. And I loved Beale’s head-scratchy, hand-gesturing interpretation precisely because it seemed so un-king-like. It may not have been what Shakespeare wanted, but it suits these modern times.

What Mike and I marveled at were seeing actors able to memorize and then embody two different characters in utterly different plays just hours apart. We saw “The Winter’s Tale” at a 2 p.m. matinee and then “The Cherry Orchard” later at 7:30 p.m. I’m not saying that Beale was stretched too much between his interpretation of Leontes and Lopakhin, the successful businessman in the Chekhov play. But what was evident was the depth of feeling that he brought to the stage, and how he, and Cusack, and Hawke and all the other actors in “The Cherry Orchard” were able to bring the play to its undeniably emotional conclusion.

One other actor deserves mention here, and that is Rebecca Hall. She was the Vicky in “Vicky Christina Barcelona.” Her power is undeniable. There is a scene in “The Winter’s Tale” when she defends herself against the charges of adultery that have been lodged against her by Leontes that is unbearable to watch because you are watching a tortured human being expose her soul.

Imagine an actor speaking the lines of Shakespeare that makes you forget you are hearing the measured beats of poetry and convince you that are hearing the thoughts of a tortured human being. That was Rebecca Hall. And then she was the dedicated and unwanted Varya in “The Cherry Orchard.” She was transformed from the sexually desired queen Hermione to the homely, unprepossessing housekeeper in Chekhov’s play in just hours. And she was beautiful as both.

The redemptive power of the theater is in full swing. Actors dissatisfied with the emptiness of film scripts are returning to the stage. Stage actors like Beale seem content not to make the leap to movie screen. We seem to have entered a new age when actors can once again claim the moniker of “Broadway actor” or “stage actor.” Think Kristin Chenoweth, or Nathan Lane or Patti LuPone or Norbert Leo Butz — or Simon Russell Beale.

The entertainment business landscape is also changing. Tentpole movies thrive because they appeal to the movie geek who appreciates only the spectacle and none of the nuance that film used to provide.

And independent movies fail because they rarely — really quite rarely — capture the delicacy and revelatory power of human emotion that is ostensibly their reason for existing in the first place. Instead we get quirkiness that is supposed to be translatable to our everyday lives. Instead we see movies that have nothing to offer except the underdeveloped sensibility of the moviemaker, and that has increasingly felt utterly unsatisfying.

Just as we are trying to return to the produce of the family farm, or the hospitality of the local store, or the charms of the low-powered FM radio station in our neighborhoods, the theater may reveal to us the charms of just why we wanted to be entertained in the first place.

Entertainment is meant to deliver us from our daily travails, but it is also meant to make our imaginations percolate. The movies, to a very large extant, have made us stop thinking, and their influence islimited almost exclusively to the two hours we spend watching the movie in the theater or in front of the DVD. They have no life almost at all beyond that.

However.

Mike Keating and I, as well as the other theater-goers who left the Harvey Theater on that unseasonably warm late winter night, continued to talk about the plays, and the actors. I was thinking about Sinead Cusack and Simon Russell Beale and Ethan Hawke, and of course Rebecca Hall, and I remembered that at the end of “The Cherry Orchard” a bubble of sadness leapt up out of my chest and into my throat because I felt slightly wounded, just as the very real human beings before me had meant me to feel.

Based On A True Story: Real-Life Portrayals Now A Way To Oscar Glory

February 5, 2009 § Leave a comment


By Lars Trodson

This year, two actors have been nominated in the lead role category for playing real people: Frank Langella as President Nixon in “Frost/Nixon” and Sean Penn as Harvey Milk in “Milk,” and one actor in the supporting category, Josh Brolin as Dan White, also in “Milk.” This follows an interesting trend in the movies of the past decade or so — where the portrayals of historic figures has often paved the way toward Oscar gold.

Are we getting to the point in history when we only recognize good acting when we think we know the person on which the character is based? Or is it getting harder to recognize just good old plain acting when the character is wholly fictional?

Well, the facts don’t lie. You decide:

In the past nine years (since 2000), here’s a tally of Oscar winning roles based on real people: Julia Roberts has won for “Erin Brockovich”; Marcia Gay Harden for playing painter Lee Krasner in “Pollock”; Philip Seymour Hoffman for “Capote”; Forrest Whittaker won top brass for portraying Idi Amin in “The Last King of Scotland”; Helen Mirren for “The Queen”; Cate Blanchett for playing Katharine Hepburn in “The Aviator” (who was also nominated for playing “Bob Dylan” in “I’m Not There”; Marion Cotillard for “La Vie En Rose” — playing Edith Piaf; Jennifer Connelly as Alicia Nash in “A Beautiful Mind”; Jim Broadbent as John Bayley in “Iris”; Adrian Brody as Wladyslaw Szpilman in “The Pianist”; Charlize Theron as serial killer Aileen Wuornos in “Monster”; Reese Witherspoon as June Carter Cash in “Walk the Line” and Jamie Foxx for his portrayal of Ray Charles. Those are some of the winners.

How about nominations? Ed Harris as Jackson Pollock (who was also nominated as the real-life Gene Kranz in “Apollo 13” in 1995); Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash, David Strathairn as Edward R. Murrow in “Good Night, And Good Luck”; Catherine Keener as Harper Lee in “Capote”; Will Smith as Muhammed Ali; Russell Crowe as John Nash in “A Beautiful Mind”; Don Cheadle as Paul Rusesabagina in “Hotel Rwanda”; Johnny Depp as writer Sir James Matthew Barrie in “Finding Neverland” and Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes in “The Aviator.”

There have also been nominations for playing real-life people that no one has ever heard of, such as Paul Giamatti playing Joe Gould in “Cinderella Man” and Judi Dench in “Mrs. Henderson Presents” — they certainly qualify, but it’s also not quite the same thing.

That’s between the years 2000 and now. I randomly picked 1940-1949 to see if there was a similar pattern. Not even close to the numbers of more recent years:

Raymond Massey was nominated for best actor in 1940 for the lead role in “Abe Lincoln in Illinois”; Gary Cooper for “Sergeant York” (1941 — won); Teresa Wright for playing Mrs. Lou Gehrig in “The Pride of the Yankees”; Greer Garson for “Madame Curie” (1943); Cornel Wilde as Chopin in “A Song To Remember”; Larry Parks in “The Jolson Story” (1946); Edmund Gwynn in “Miracle on 34th St.” (1947 — won playing Santa Claus — ha ha); and Ingrid Bergman for “Joan of Arc” (1948).

Some of these portrayals are of people in such a distant past one could hardly expect them to be historically or physically accurate, of course. (The same can be said of some of the more modern roles, too. Who knows how James Barrie — Depp’s role — really sounded or acted?) But I also did a quick search from 1930 — 1939 (Clark Gable as Fletcher Christian; Paul Muni as Emile Zola) and then again from 1960 — 1969 (Greer Garson as Eleanor Roosevelt; Debbie Reynolds as “The Unsinkable Molly Brown”; Faye Dunaway as Bonnie Parker) and found the same sparse sprinkling of historic portrayals among the nominations. In the 1960s there were probably fewer historic portrayals than any other decade, it seems. During these two decades, anyone hardly ever won for playing real people, by the way.

It’s hard to say what this means. I thought Sean Penn was at his loosest, charming best in “Milk”, so it could be that these real-life roles are a terrific source of inspiration. Or it could be that we don’t trust our judgment any more over what is an honest, naturally felt portrayal unless we have some idea of the real-life story behind it.

It may be no coincidence that this age of reality movie portraits more or less coincides with the era of the memoir — both real and fake. Writers now seem to always choose writing an autobiography when fictionalized accounts would once do.

And it is no secret that some writers have written fiction but were successful in passing the writing off as fact. It is as though no one is any longer convinced that readers — or viewers — will “believe” a story unless we are told they’re true.

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