Two Adult American Comedies, Seventy Years Apart

March 3, 2010 § Leave a comment

By Lars Trodson
In 1940 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer spent a little money on an adult romantic comedy called “The Philadelphia Story.” It was, at least partially, a story of the very rich; the Lord family at the center of the farce was the kind of family that Grace Kelly came from. It’s the kind of family that probably still exists but doesn’t command the front page of the society section any more.
It was also a comedy aimed at adults. This was a mature comedy — it wasn’t Andy Hardy or a Gene Autry western.
What got me thinking about “The Philadelphia Story”, oddly enough, was a movie that is about to be released called, simply enough, “She’s Out Of My League.” This is the story of a fella, we would call him a nerd, who suddenly finds himself vying for the affections of a very beautiful young woman.

Now Jimmy Stewart was no nerd, but he was not, at least in “The Philadelphia Story”, to the manor born. He was the fish out of water who, graciously, and almost successfully, vies for the affections of the beautiful and very rich Tracy Lord, played by Katharine Hepburn (who, in real life, was to the manor born, and in Pennsylvania, too).

So the parallel between the 70-year-old Oscar winner and “She’s Out Of My League” is not as ridiculous as it first seems. You’ve got two stories about two guys trying to win over the girl who is out of their league, only one is out of reach money-wise and the other beauty-wise. So it goes.
“She’s Out Of My League” is rated R, which signifies that it is a comedy for adults, just like “The Philadelphia Story” was. No one under 17 is supposed to be admitted to this film without a parent or guardian, but it looks, from the trailer, as though it would be excruciating for anyone over the age of 12.
The thing that is interesting is how we’ve redefined “adult.” An R rated film should be right in my bracket. But I would feel foolish and embarrassed to go see “She’s Out Of My League.” It actually would be a little creepy, if you think about it. What does this say about how we view “adult” today?
I just watched “The Philadelphia Story” a couple of weeks back, and it was as sublime and as beautiful as I remembered it. The only part I did not like — and never have — is when, at the end, Jimmy Stewart’s character rashly offers to marry Tracy after she has dumped her stuffy fiance. The problem is Stewart’s Macauley Connor is in love with the photographer he works with — played by the gorgeous Ruth Hussey — so this gesture seems rather cruel, actually, hardly romantic. But everyone recovers nicely.
At the end of “The Philadelphia Story”, the jilted fiance, George Kittredge, yells at Tracy and all the others that they’re “finished! You and your whole class!” He was talking about the old blue-blood money class, of course, which may or may not be finished. But he was also inadvertently talking about another vanished race – the adult American male who wasn’t a buffoon, a sap, a dupe, an idiot or a jackass. Where did they go?

Oh My Stars, Fading Quickly, Quickly Fading

September 26, 2007 § 1 Comment

By Lars Trodson

There are now two Britney Spears crying on the Internet. One is the real one, who seems to have broken down in front of the ever-present paparazzi, and who can blame her? The other Britney, of course, is the YouTube phenom Chris Crocker, whose tearful plea to leave Britney alone is a sensation.

It may have been a generational thing, but I didn’t quite get the attraction of the Crocker video. But when I saw him interviewed on Jimmy Kimmel he was quite funny and together, and I had a little bit more appreciation of Crocker’s particular performance art. But still I thought it pretty slim stuff.

I am personally beginning to get queasy about the real Britney. There is no entertainment in her predicament, even though I have no idea how much of this she has courted or how much of it is due to the drastic and ugly tenor of celebrity watching that has bloomed in the past few years.

Either way it is a depressing sight. As someone who couldn’t hum or even name a Britney song I’m beginning to get nervous for her. The implorations of Chris Crocker to leave her alone have some heft, completely aside its appeal as a comic rant.

This may be the logical conclusion to a career that had no real personal direction. I can imagine Miss Spears was the product of a massive think-tank, which directed and created her every move, whether it was in song or dance or photographs. The same could be said for the old studio stars, but those folks came from the farm or from a rambunctious and ethnic Brooklyn, or the circus troupe, and they had inner lives before they were molded into movie icons. Britney Spears was molded before she had that inner gyroscope in place.

If I never cared really whether Britney Spears succeeded or not, I find myself in the position of not wanting her to crack up. I want her to be healthy, and perhaps if she can let go of the limelight for a while then maybe the limelight will also let go of her.

I think the first movie book I ever really paid attention to was named, simply, “The Stars”, by Richard Schickel, and I still have it. When I pulled it out not so long ago I was surprised to find how much it had informed my thinking about the movies and movie stars in general. It’s a beautifully written book, but its tone is one of deep and empathetic nostalgia, and I’ve never been able to shake it in the 30 years since I first read it.

“It is a regrettable fact of life that we here in America have produced few heroes,” begins an essay called “Five Heroes.” While I would disagree with the blandness of that statement, I think it is true that we often feel as though we have too few heroes to turn to at any given time. It certainly seems that way today. It must of course be disconcerting to all those little girls who dressed like Britney and followed her every move to find themselves, just a few years later, to see their hero reduced to fodder, while they themselves look at how their own lives are beginning to turn out.

The five heroes in Schickel’s book are Gary Cooper, Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy and James Stewart. At the time the book was published, in 1962, the only one of those five still alive was Stewart. But all of them are gone now.

I’m not sure that any of them, any longer, have cultural resonance outside their position as iconic movie stars, but that was not the position they held when they were alive and helping the country through both a horrible economic depression and a brutal world war.

Schickel offers all of them polished portraits, and he allows the stars to even take themselves down a bit. He quotes Gable as saying: “You know, this King stuff is pure bullshit. I eat and sleep and go to the bathroom just like everyone else. There’s no special light that shines on me that makes me a star. I’m just a lucky slob from Ohio.” Such modesty seems almost — in the age of almost aggressive self-promotion — shall I say it? Heroic?

The last portrait is of Jimmy Stewart — who as far as I know was never billed that way in the movies — and at the end of the essay Schickel has this to say: “His best work may still lie ahead of him and that, somehow, is reassuring. There are precious few male stars of his generation left. He may well, in fact, be the last of the great men.” It wasn’t true that Stewart’s best work was ahead of him. He made overblown and super-saturated color comedies in the 1960s, and his career was essentially over by the 1970s. And he wasn’t the last of the great men (and women, think Meryl, think Jane, think Shirley — not to mention Kate Winslet and Blanchette) in movies.

Schickel ends his book on notes that are both prophetic and wrong-headed. The last person he writes about is Elizabeth Taylor, and he calls that piece “The Last Star.” That of course is completely wrong. A magazine article published about Clint Eastwood right after “Unforgiven” came out (in 1993) had exactly that same headline for him. And I think we have some radiant stars today. Many in fact — many of whom are waiting for good scripts.

On the last two pages of “The Stars”, there is a picture of a young Charlie Chaplin looking out at the sea, and another of James Mason, at the conclusion of 1954’s “A Star Is Born”, wading into the sea to commit suicide. Images both whimsical and sad.

“Perhaps the symbols are too obvious,” writes Schickel. Yes and no.

“There will be, doom-sayers to the contrary, at least another 50 years of stars. Individuals will dominate the screen as dictatorially as any in the past. They will attain those heights of celebrity which, in our democratic fashion, we so mightily deprecate and envy.”

These words came true. They are especially honest today.

And so are these: “But these stars will not be stars of the movies alone. They will exercise their talents (or, if they have none, their primal appeals) in a wide variety of media.” Unbelievably true. But then Schickel says that stars will go on to be “masters of their own fate and, with the studio system virtually destroyed, it will be less possible to fabricate a personality for a beautiful dope.”

We know this is no longer true. Personalities, from reality TV to shock-jock radio sidekicks, are fabricated all the time. But the point is that they come and go, and they come and go, and then they simply go.

Schickel quotes Buddy Adler (a film producer at 20th Century Fox, who made “From Here To Eternity”, among many others) who predicted correctly that Hollywood deals in illusion, but “when the Elizabeth Taylors and Marilyn Monroes start to think and want to live normal lives like everyone else, soon we won’t have anything left to sell.”

Neither Taylor nor Monroe ever lived anything remotely close to living a normal everyday life. It took another generation to achieve that de-evolution. And while it may be that the movie stars of today have precious little illusion to sell, that is hardly the point: we still want to buy. We still want movie stars, even if it is just to enjoy them purely for the fact that they are stars and offer us no illusion whatsoever.

But if they are to last? Well.

“There will, in the future, be fewer of them,” Schickel writes of movie stars in general, “But they will continue to exist.” Exist, yes, but what is their duration? We may have another 50 more years of stars, but will we have stars that last 50 years?

I don’t think so, but that is because the stars of today both trade in illusion while also engaging in the non-stop grist mill that keeps them before our eyes. You need a presence not only on the big screen, but the small screen, and the computer monitor, and the cell phone, and the CD and as the head of a clothing line. That’s why the burnout is so distressingly massive. They crawl around us all the time: the only illusion now is that they are ubiquitous.

The last line of the book is this: “We need them.” That’s what Schickel believes of us and the stars themselves. Yes. But, believing in that, if they are to survive there has to be a return of the elusive illusion.

So I say to Britney, and all the other quickly fading stars so gruesomely hanging on to the last shreds of fame and glamour, go home. Come back not when we are ready for you, but rather when you are ready for us. Then we’ll be happy to let you capture our hearts again as we want, and need, to do. Chris Crocker — who is a shadow of the Britney who is just a shadow of herself — will have long come and gone by then.

Marlon Brando, Meet Jimmy Stewart

June 28, 2007 § Leave a comment

By Lars Trodson

I recently watched a biography of Marlon Brando on Turner Classic Movies, and while it didn’t really break new ground, the documentary certainly reinforced the idea that Brando changed the landscape of movie acting. “Reacting instead of acting,” is how one participant put it. There was much discussion about “On the Waterfront”, and the scene in which Brando picks up Eva Marie Saint’s white glove and fits it on his own hand.

It is hard for someone from my generation to truly appreciate just how forceful Brando was because we can’t see his movies in their own time.

While it may seem a stretch to some, one small scene in a very famous movie — a scene almost no one talks about in a film that people know intimately — seems very close to the kind of realistic emotional power that Brando was so readily able to draw on. The movie is “It’s A Wonderful Life” and the actor in the scene is Jimmy Stewart.

Stewart became such a mannered and self-parodied actor — particularly in the late phase in his career when I knew him as a working actor — that it is sometimes easy to forget he was quite effortlessly natural through much of his long career; an actor of rare depth of emotion while projecting an endearing accessibility.

“It’s A Won
derful Life” has also become such a cultural icon it’s hard to fully recognize just how powerful and intricate the story is. Its impact, no one disputes, is made all the more real by an unusually perceptive portrait by Stewart in the role of George Bailey.

George is in real pain throughout much of his story; he’s anguished. This melancholy is not tedious because Stewart imbues his character with small, intimate moments that help connect us to George with our own emotions.

We have all known disappointment, but there is rarely a moment in American films when it is portrayed with such raw emotion. It is this tiny moment I want to talk about here; a moment that Brando himself undoubtedly would have been happy to pull off.

The scene comes when George is waiting for his brother Harry to come home on the train from college. The Bailey family, including Uncle Billy, is waiting on the platform. When Harry disembarks, everyone greets him with appropriate joy, in part because George now knows he will now be able to finally leave “the old Bailey Building and Loan” and start his life’s adventure.

As the little group gets ready to leave the station, Harry suddenly makes a major announcement. He is married. George is introduced to “the wife”, as Harry calls her, and after a moment’s hesitation, George hugs the newest member of his family. Then the crowd moves off, and George is left alone on the platform.

George is by himself, absorbed in the thought that Harry will not take over the Building and Loan, and he is left with the realization that his hopes of leaving Bedford Falls have been destroyed. There are no words.

Once we fully see George’s devastation, he then — extraordinarily, in a moment of what I hesitate to call artistic courage, but if it is not that, then what is it? — George turns away from the camera. George, enraged, disappointed – turns away from us, his audience, his supporters, and when he comes around we see, briefly, the same emotional destruction. George’s eyes (Stewart’s eyes) begin to dart frantically; he’s panicked. He knows he has to do what is right for Harry, and not for himself. So then, quite quickly, George’s face relaxes, a slight smile emerges, the frantic eyes relax, and a small, restricted smile emerges. Not a joyful smile, but a smile nonetheless. George sidles up to Harry’s new wife, and basically asks the questions that he knew the answer to. Will Harry’s new marriage take him away from Bedford Falls? He knows the answer, and your heart breaks for George.

In just a few seconds you have surprise, anger, confusion, fear, acceptance, joy, life.

I don’t dispute Brando’s supremacy. But his late speech in “On the Waterfront”, when he finally confronts his brother Charlie (how brothers can let people down is another theme here), is basically a speech about disappointment. And while Brando performed this feat aided by the words of writer Budd Schulberg, Stewart did it wordlessly, in a much shorter time, in a film not widely noted for realism.

The next time you watch “It’s a Wonderful Life”, and you wait for the final moments of life’s reaffirmation, it’s important to remember that this reaffirmation can only come after a series of setbacks and disappointments. The reason we still want to feel and accept this rejuvenation of George’s is not because of the big, showy scenes of obvious emotion. We appreciate it rather because of those small, deceptive moments: those quiet, inconsolable moments of pain that Stewart had the authority to show in small, excruciatingly private scenes.

It’s hard to believe that Brando did not take notice.

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