Monday, March 29, 2010

His Girl Friday: Love that Repartee

There used to exist this wonderful type of movie called the screwball comedy. Many have tried to recreate the magic of that genre today, but it never matches up to the charm of those original movies. It’s the changing times that have caused that format to die away, and will never be able to be brought back to life like it was before. But I can’t help but long for someone to finally bring it around again. Until that magic happens, I’ll stick with one of my favorites – “His Girl Friday.”

From 1940, “His Girl Friday” stars the man who was truly the best at screwball comedy, Cary Grant, the ever delightful Rosalind Russell, and Ralph Bellamy. Adapted from the play “The Front Page” by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, it is the story of newspaper editor Walter Burns (Grant) and his attempt to stop his star reporter – and ex-wife – Hildy Johnson (Russell) from getting married and quitting the newspaper business. In the original play, the leads are actually two men, but after director Howard Hawks heard his secretary reading Hildy’s lines during auditions, he liked how a woman sounded so much better. He asked the playwrights’ if they would mind turning Hildy into a woman, and with their blessing, they continued with the rewrite.

Of course, in the play, Hildy and Burns were never married. (The world was not that provocative yet). However, the addition of the leads’ previous marriage made Hawks enjoy the dialogue even more. See, it was the cutting and sharp dialogue Hawks enjoyed most about the play, and made him want to turn it into a fast-paced movie. He wanted it to feel like real conversations, where people, especially people arguing, tend to talk over one another. This was a new concept for film at the time, because up until this film, most all dialogue in films wasn’t spoken until the character’s line beforehand was finished. Of course, this made for much more dialogue than usual and a much longer script. The final screenplay for “His Girl Friday” was 191 pages long, yet the film runs only 92 minutes. This contradicts the traditional screenplay rule in Hollywood that a page of dialogue usually runs about one to one and a half minutes on film.

During filming though, Hawks encouraged adlibbing by the actors. Grant had become a pro at it after working on films like “The Awful Truth” and “Bringing Up Baby,” another Hawks film. One of Grant’s most famous adlibs in “His Girl Friday” is when he talks about the last man to cross him, naming him Archie Leach. Grant’s real name was Archibald Leach. Another great adlib by Grant that almost didn’t make it into the final cut of the film is when he is trying to describe Bellamy’s character, Hildy’s fiancĂ© Bruce. Grant ends up saying “He looks like that fellow in the movies, you know…Ralph Bellamy!” Columbia studio head Harry Cohn didn’t like that line at all when he saw the dailies, saying it was too cheeky and Hawks had to take it out. But luckily Hawks convinced him otherwise, and it survived.

I simply adore Rosalind Russell. She was one of those actresses I wanted to be like as a kid, like Ginger Rogers and Lucille Ball. I loved when they played those spitfire characters, women who could hold their own to any man and still be beautiful and funny. Russell shines in “His Girl Friday,” one of the few films of the time to actually put a woman at equal level with a man. However, Russell almost wasn’t cast. The part originally went to Carole Lombard, but the studio could not afford her. It then went out to Jean Arthur, Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, Irene Dunn, and Claudette Colbert, but they all turned it down. When Russell finally was cast and production started, knowing she hadn’t been first choice, she felt like Hawks was treating her like leftovers. Finally she went up to Hawks and said “You don't want me, do you? Well, you're stuck with me, so you might as well make the most of it.” She went on to get much critical praise for the role of Hildy.

Even though the original play is still under copyright, “His Girl Friday” is in the public domain now, so you can see it for free on practically ever sight out there, including Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube. (And for all my friends out there who might want to make their own version of the film, go for it!) So kick-start your week with some great witty repartee this humdrum Monday. Have a great week, and I’ll be back on Friday!

(Post-tidbit: Both Grant and Russell reprised their roles for an abridged radio version of “His Girl Friday” on “The Screen Guild Theater” on March 30, 1941, exactly 69 years ago tomorrow. But thanks to YouTube, you can hear it below. (Click here for Part 2 and Part 3.))

Friday, March 26, 2010

For the Weekend: It's 80s Time!

I have been in such an 80s mood since writing about "Romancing the Stone" on Monday, that I thought I'd suggest more 80s comedies for you to watch this weekend.  And the great part?  All these films can be seen instantly on Netflix right now (including "Romancing the Stone")!  So let's see how many of these movies you remember...

Can you tell me who Johnny 5 is?  He starred alongside Ally Sheedy and Steve Guttenberg, king of the 80s, in 1986's "Short Circuit."  The robot, Number 5 (later changing his name to Johnny 5), who was struck by lightning and brought to life, and brought up that perplexing question "what exactly does 'alive' mean".  Originally written as a dark high-tech thriller, where Number 5 was the villainous, escaped robot-on-the-rampage, "Short Circuit" morphed into a high-tech comedy instead, and forever imbedded Number 5 in our brains.  So much so, that the similarities between Wall-e's design (you know, from 2008's "Wall-e") and Number 5's were immediately noticed by everyone, even though the creators say he was not the inspiration for Wall-e (a pair of binoculars was).

How about the movie that introduced Dennis Quaid to Meg Ryan?  That's "Innerspace" from 1987.  Also starring Martin Short, it's the story of a lieutenant (Quaid) who is shrunk to the size of a speck of sand in a secret experiment.  However, after bad guys break into the lab to steal the technology, the only remaining scientist escapes and injects him into an hypochondriac store clerk (Short).  Together they must fight of the bad guys and save the lieutenant's life.  Quaid and Ryan married four years later in 1991, becoming Hollywood's cutest couple (until their divorce 10 years later).

Can you name the 80s movie that recently made a comeback as a new television series?  "Parenthood" from 1989 was the brain child of director Ron Howard, writers Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, and producer Brian Grazer, based on their experiences as parents.  (Collectively, they had 14 children between them.)  Starring the great ensemble cast of Steve Martin, Mary Steenburgen, Diane Wiest, Jason Robards, Rick Moranis, Martha Plimpton, Keanu Reeves, and a young Joaquin Phoenix (oh, sorry, I should say Leaf Phoenix, his name then), this film was great success, earning over $100 million domestically alone.  It also garnered an Oscar nomination for Diane Wiest for Best Supporting Actress and one for Randy Newman for Best Original Song.  Newman said his song "I Love to See You Smile" was inspired by Steenburgen's smile herself.

So, get out those neon leg warmers, some buttery popcorn, and your computer, and watch some gems from the 80s this weekend.  Have a wonderful weekend, everyone, and I'll be back Monday.

(Post-tidbit:  "Parenthood" was first made into a television show in 1990, and starred some then-unknown actors like Leonardo DiCaprio, David Arquette, and Thora Birch, as well as having an unknown writer on the show, Joss Whedon.  However it did not last past its first season.)

Monday, March 22, 2010

Romancing the Stone: For Hopeless Romantics Everywhere

The lead character in "Romancing the Stone"...that's totally me in a nutshell (well, minus the awesomeness of Kathleen Turner, of course).  I am the ultimate hopeless romantic.  Though I never got into reading the sappy romance novels like Joan Wilder writes in the film, I did get into the sappy romance movies as a young girl.  And I'm sure that has screwed my perception up for life.  But in the meantime, a movie like "Romancing the Stone," which makes fun of and revels in the hopelessly-romantic-storybook world, that's a movie that was meant to be one of my favorites.

Released in 1984, the film teams up director Robert Zemeckis with Kathleen Turner, Michael Douglas, and Danny DeVito.  Turner plays Joan Wilder, a romance novelist who has to travel to Columbia to save her kidnapped sister.  Along the way, she gets help from Jack T. Colton (Douglas).  And of course, romance and adventure follow, just like in one of Wilder's novels.  It's a comedy every woman in the world can identify with, from her dreams. 

The film was a big success, considered one of the best of 1984, and the only hit for studio 20th Century Fox for that year.  It won the Golden Globe for Best Picture - Musical or Comedy, as well as Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy for Turner.  This is the film that launched Turner into true stardom, and helped bring Douglas back into the public eye.  And this was also the first major success for Zemeckis.  However, ironically enough, after viewing a rough edit early on, the studio decided "Romancing the Stone" would be a huge flop, and preemptively fired Zemeckis from the upcoming production "Cocoon."  Thanks to that firing though, and the success of "Stone," Zemeckis was able to work on his own production - "Back to the Future."

This was also the first of three films Turner, Douglas, and DeVito would star in together (those being "Jewel of the Nile," the sequel to "Stone," and "War of the Roses").  Though it was the first time Turner and Douglas worked together, it was not the first for Douglas and DeVito.  Back when the two men were both struggling actors in New York, they met while working on a play Douglas was directing.  After that, they became roommates for awhile.  Later on, when Douglas was producing his Oscar winner "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," he hired DeVito to play one of the inmates, who did a brilliant job. 

While promoting "Romancing the Stone," DeVito was asked to do a special promo for the film.  Zemeckis and his crew took DeVito out to a beach in Malibu, next to a large cliff.  The promo required DeVito to be raised by a crane first about 50 feet.  However, when he was raised up, DeVito noticed a house on top of the cliff, where a woman in a bikini was sunbathing.  When she noticed him hanging there, she started screaming and throwing things at DeVito, saying he was a pervert and a peeping Tom.  He yelled down to the crew to lower him, but they said the crane had jammed and he was stuck.  After a few minutes trying to calm the woman down, she finally told him he was being filmed for "TV's Bloopers and Practical Jokes."

Though most of the music score for "Romancing the Stone" is instrumental stuff written by Alan Silvestri, the producers did hire singer Eddy Grant to write a song for the film.  However, the producers ultimately decided not to use it, not even on the film's soundtrack album.  (Some of the song's guitar solo can be heard in the bell-maker's house though.)  After the success of the film, though, Grant decided to release it himself, even using some movie footage for his video.  So for your Monday treat, please enjoy Mr. Eddy Grant singing "Romancing the Stone" below:

I hope everyone has a wonderful week and I'll be back with more movie trivia Friday!

(Post-tidbit:  "Romancing the Stone" was the first script by a Malibu waitress named Diane Thomas.  Unfortunately, she didn't get to enjoy any future success.  She was killed in a car accident shortly after the release of the film.)

Friday, March 19, 2010

For the Weekend: Need a Little Adventure

I'm in one of those moods today, where I feel I just need to get out of town.  To find myself, to just relax, to have a little fun?  I'm not sure which reason, but it's there.  Maybe it's just because I finished reading "Eat, Pray, Love" yesterday.  Or maybe I'm having an early midlife crisis.  Whatever the reason, I thought I'd choose some adventure movies for this weekend, to try and satisfy my thirst.

First off is "Lawrence of Arabia" from 1962, the ultimate see-the-world-through-different-eyes story.  The great Peter O'Toole plays the title character, a British officer who recruits Arab desert dwellers for war during World War I.  This is considered to be the best epic film ever made.  Each shot, even the grandest of ones, helps add more depth to the story.  Director David Lean even shot every scene of traveling from left to right, to emphasize the continuing journey of the characters.  O'Toole is now synonymous with this film, but originally Lean wanted to cast an unknown actor at the time in the lead, Albert Finney.  He even shot extensive screen tests of Finney, in full costume and everything.  The entire test ended up costing £100,000.  However, due to the urging of Katharine Hepburn, they cast O'Toole instead.  You can catch "Lawrence" on TCM Saturday night at 8pm EST.  (And if you want to see more O'Toole, stick around for "The Ruling Class" and "Lord Jim" afterwards.)

Next reach of enlightenment comes with "Seven Years in Tibet" (1997), free to watch on Hulu right now.  It's based on the real-life adventures of Austrian mountaineer Henrich Harrer.  When World War II breaks out, he and his friend Peter (played by David Thewlis, now of Harry Potter fame) are arrested by the British in India for having German citizenship.  They escape from prison and crossover into Tibet, where Harrer befriends a young Dalia Lama.  Sure, it's another example of an actor's (Pitt's) sore attempt at an accent, but it's fun (at least for me) to see how far Pitt has come since then.  After making this movie though, the director, Pitt, and Thewlis were forbidden to ever enter China.

On a much lighter adventure topic, we also have Disney's "Swiss Family Robinson" (1960) on TCM this weekend.  Loosely based on the 1812 book by Johann David Wyss, it tells the story of a family shipwrecked on a deserted island on their way to a new life.  And if you've never seen or heard of this film, you are losing out on some true childhood fun.  The family encounters a mass of different animals, lives in trees, and battles with pirates.  Every friend I know would have given anything as a kid to live in that treehouse.  The Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse is one of my strongest memories of my first trip to a Disney park.  (Sadly, Disneyland changed their Treehouse to Tarzan themes several years ago.)  You can watch "Robinson" on Sunday afternoon at 2pm EST.

Finally, one more adventure to feel your weekend - "The Mummy" from 1999.  There's something about this movie that makes me watch it over and over again.  It's not the best any many people's eyes, but it's oh so much fun to me.  It's one of those films that is just pure fun, and that's its only purpose for being.  And the majority of that has to do with the chemistry and personality of the film's stars, Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz.  Released by Universal in their attempt to rehash some of their old classics, it was a huge hit spawning several sequels (though only one of those with the entire original cast) and even rides at Universal's theme parks.  "The Mummy" is on AMC this Sunday at 7pm E/P.

So, I hope these movies fill your adventure needs as much as I hope they will fill mine.  Enjoy!  And I'll be back with more adventure on Monday.

(Post-tidbit:  Not a single woman speaks any dialogue in "Lawrence of Arabia," which runs 227 minutes long.)

Monday, March 15, 2010

All That Jazz: Just Plain Great

"All That Jazz" from 1979, I'm ashamed to say, is one of those movies that I used to inexplicably avoid watching.  I'm not sure why it didn't intrigue me when I was younger.  I have liked Bob Fosse's style of dancing since I saw "Sweet Charity" as a teenager.  However, it was not until a friend of mine (who lists this as one of his favorites too) finally convinced me to watch it a few years ago.  And I must!  It's now one of my tops.  How I could have missed it before, I don't know.

"All That Jazz" is the semi-autobiographical story of the life of writer, director, and choreographer Bob Fosse while directing the original 1975 Broadway production of "Chicago."  During that production, he had a heart attack because of the extreme stress with that show and his laborious work trying to finish the editing of his film "Lenny," starring Dustin Hoffman.  (His smoking and drug use didn't help either.) While he was in the hospital recovering, he got the idea to make a "musical about his death."  (In Shirley MacLaine's autobiography "My Lucky Stars," she wrote that she was the one who suggested the idea to Fosse while visiting him in the hospital, though Fosse later said to not remember if that was true.)

Roy Scheider stars as the Fosse-based lead character Joe Gideon.  Richard Dreyfuss was originally cast to play Gideon, but dropped out of the picture during the rehearsal process.  And though Dreyfuss might have done a good job, Scheider shines in this role, which was very against type.  As critic Vincent Canby of the New York Times wrote, "With an actor of less weight and intensity, 'All That Jazz' might have evaporated as we watched it. Mr. Scheider's is a presence to reckon with."  I couldn't agree more.

This film is true proof, though, of what some people will go through to work with greatness.  Fosse, considered by many to be the greatest choreographer of the 20th century, was a notorious womanizer.  Having grown up around strip clubs and such, he grew to love women like a kid loves candy.  His third wife Gwen Verdon (whom the character of Audrey Paris, played by Leland Palmer, is based on) used to say that women were his hobby.  She married Fosse in 1960 after working with him in the original Broadway production of "Damn Yankees."  They later separated in 1971, but never actually got divorced.  In the 70s, his muse and mistress became Ann Reinking.  Yet he even cheated on her as well.  (One such romantic attachment during that time was Jessica Lange, who plays the Angel of Death in the film.)  Yet Reinking stayed by his side, even though he was still tough as nails.  To get the part of Kate in "All That Jazz," which is based on Reinking herself, she had to audition several times before Fosse cast her in the role.  However, with all that emotional torture that those women went through for him, Verdon and Reinking became the driving force to keep Fosse's dancing alive after his death in 1987.

"All That Jazz" was nominated for 9 Oscars that year, and won 4 of them, including Best Editing for Alan Heim, who appears in the film as the editor of the movie within the movie.  It lost out on Best Picture and Best Director to "Kramer vs. Kramer."  However, in 2001, it was included in the National Film Registry.  Unfortunately, it never made AFI's list of 100 Years...100 Movies, which I believe it should have.  I got the pleasure of voting on the 10th Anniversary round of the list, and I voted for "All That Jazz."  Sadly, not enough others did too. 

So, I say for this week, take some advice from Fosse himself: "Live like you'll die tomorrow, work like you don't need the money, and dance like nobody's watching."  Have a wonderful week, everyone, and I'll be back Friday (after I dance the week away).

(Post-tidbit:  Even though Bob Fosse died in 1987, he received a Laurence Olivier Award, along with Ann Reinking, for Best Theatre Choreographer for the revue "Fosse" in 2001.)

Friday, March 12, 2010

For the Weekend: Romantic Sentimentality

I have been in such a mood this week, ever since watching and writing about "Sense and Sensibility."  It's called the Storybook Romantic Syndrome, a powerful condition that some people (mainly girls) are stricken with at a young age.  A dying breed, as some might say.  So, for your viewing enjoyment this weekend (and mine), I suggest some truly sappy romances for the SRS in us all.

First off, a truly sappy (and really corny too, I know, but I still can't help loving it) "Shining Through" from 1992.  Starring Michael Douglas and Melanie Griffith, it's a one of those typical World War II love-story melodramas.  Griffith plays a half-Jewish secretary who falls in love with her American-spy boss Douglas.  But after Pearl Harbor, she volunteers to go undercover in Berlin, and lands in the house of high-ranking Nazi Liam Neeson as his children's nanny.  The normal suspense, drama, bombings, and Nazi-based danger ensue, as you might guess.  True, this film did get the Razzie Award for Worst Film of 1992.  And Griffith's German "accent" is something to laugh about.  But it's still fun to watch and get wrapped up in the WWII romanticism.  It brings me back to the days of my youth when I really was lost in my romantic sentimentalities.  Also, you get the pleasure of watching Sir John Gielgud and Joely Richardson (Liam Neeson's future sister-in-law at the time).

Next, I suggest "Where the Boys Are" from 1960.  Really one of the first teen films of the time to truly explore the changing morals about sex, it tells the story of four college girls as they travel to Fort Lauderdale for spring break, all looking for love.  The main lead, Dolores Hart (who later gave up acting to become a nun), falls for a pre-obsessively-tanned George Hamilton.  Paula Prentiss, in her film debut, is paired up for the first time with Jim Hutton (father of Timothy Hutton).  And recording artist Connie Francis makes her acting debut, as well as sings the title song.  It is largely due to her popularity that this teen movie became such a hit.  Released in the winter of 1960, it also caused a larger flock of kids to travel to warm destinations like Fort Lauderdale for their spring vacation.

And finally, though it's not a movie, I have to talk about the TV series "Scarecrow and Mrs. King," for which its first season is finally out on DVD.  (Yay!)  It stars Kate Jackson and Bruce Boxleitner, and I loved, loved this show as a kid.  I had such a crush on Boxleitner.  (Another time I wouldn't have minded trading lives with another actress was when he married Melissa Gilbert back in '95.)  The series premise is that of a spy and a housewife working together to save America and/or the world.  This show has not been on television for quite some time, and nowhere online, so when I noticed it was coming out, I had to rent it from Netflix.  And can I say, I have been in heaven this week...*sigh*.  It's about as cheesy as the first two movies I mentioned, but I still love it.  And even though the romance between the main characters took awhile to come to fruition, the first episodes tug at my romantic heartstrings just as much.  Yes, Bruce, I still love you, and can't wait to see you in "Tron Legacy."

So, if you suffer from SRS too (Storybook Romantic Syndrome), then I hope you'll enjoy these suggestions for your dosage...or would it be the catalyst?  Who knows, but I say relax and enjoy some corny cheese this weekend anyway.  You can watch all three on DVD, or catch "Where the Boys Are" on TCM this Sunday at 6pm EST.  Have fun and see you Monday!

(Post-tidbit:  A $500,000 building was constructed for "Shining Through," just so it could be blown up.  Unfortunately, when that moment arrived, no cameras were rolling to capture the explosion.  Oops!)

Monday, March 8, 2010

Sense and Sensibility: More Amazing Females

How awesome was the outcome of yesterday's Academy Awards!?  Not only did a woman finally win Best Director, Kathryn Bigelow for "The Hurt Locker," she also got to stick it to her ex-husband and main competition James Cameron by winning that, Best Picture, and 4 other Oscars!  ("Avatar" took home only 3.)  So, to honor more amazing, Oscar-winning women, I chose "Sense and Sensibility" (1995) to talk about today.

"Sense and Sensibility," adapted from the novel by Jane Austen, tells the story of the Dashwood sisters, Elinor (Emma Thompson) and Marianne (Kate Winslet), in 19th century England after the death of their father (a small role wonderfully played by then lesser-known Tom Wilkinson).  Due to silly laws at the time, all of his fortune goes to his son and not his daughters, so they are forced to move to a tiny cottage and pray they don't become spinsters.  However, each finds love, loses it, and finds it again through the course of this charming story about the world of women in England at that time.

This movie is one of the main films that reminds me why I love the movies so much.  When I first saw this movie, I was still in high school, and all I could think about was how much I wanted to be Kate Winslet...or at least British.  (I still wouldn't mind trading lives with her today though.)  This movie was the first to really bring Kate to the eyes of US audiences.  She had made her big screen debut the year before in Peter Jackson's "Heavenly Creatures," but it was not a widely-seen film.  With "Sense and Sensibility" though, she kick-started her own Oscar race.  At only 20 years old, she received her first Oscar nomination for the role of Marianne Dashwood.  (She would receive 5 more nominations before finally winning last year for "The Reader.")  While preparing for her first Academy Awards ceremony, she asked Emma Thompson what to expect.  Emma said, "Listen, it's honestly just like going to see a fantastic show."  However, Kate still fumbled around while there with her parents, saying she felt kind of like the Beverly Hillbillies.

Emma Thompson had an amazing night at those Oscars though.  She had spent over four years adapting Austen's novel to a script.  The first draft she finished consisted of 350 hand-written pages.  She would work on 13 more drafts before finally getting the final script that won her the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.  She had started the writing project when producer Lindsay Duran, discovering their mutual love for Jane Austen while working together on "Dead Again," asked her to adapt the novel.  While writing the script, she had real-life sisters Natasha and Joely Richardson in mind for the roles of Elinor and Marianne.  However, director Ang Lee insisted on Emma herself playing Elinor.  She protested, saying she was too old to play a 19-year-old girl, so Lee told her to change the age to 27.  She received an acting nomination for her portrayal of Elinor that year too.  Emma Thompson actually is the only person to have won both an Oscar for writing and for acting (for "Howards End" in 1992).

Hugh Grant plays Emma Thompson's love interest Edward Ferrars.  This was during the height of his lovable-goof acting phase.  Co-producer James Schamus actually got complaints from the Jane Austen Society over casting Grant though.  They said he was too good-looking to play Edward.  Most people thought Ang Lee was another an odd choice, to direct a film about English women, being he's neither English or a woman, but he did an amazing job capturing the feel of Austen's novel and Thompson's script.  He hadn't even read Austen's novel before he was sent the script to read.  However, he managed to turn it into a Best Picture nomination (though sadly not one for Best Director). 

So, go out and celebrate the power of women at the Oscars with "Sense and Sensibility."  (And get your Brit fix too.)  Have a wonderful week and I'll be back Friday!

(Post-tidbit: While working on the script for "Sense and Sensibility," Emma Thompson's computer went funky, and she lost her file.  After a computer tech couldn't fix it, she took the computer over to Stephen Fry's house, where he and flatmate Hugh Laurie worked for seven hours and finally fixed the problem and found the file.)

Friday, March 5, 2010

For the Weekend: The Oscars, of Course!

I tried to do my usual scouring of television schedules and internet freebies for you, to find some good movies to talk about for the weekend, but I could only think of one thing to watch - the Oscars.  That's right.  If you haven't realized it yet by the borage of articles and TV specials and commercials now, the 82nd Annual Academy Awards is this Sunday on ABC.  So, since that's the only thing my movie-obsessed brain is thinking about today, I've decided to scoop up some trivia tidbits about some of this year's 10 Best Picture nominees.

James Cameron's "Avatar," of course, is one of the two front runners to win Best Picture, but if you haven't heard yet, Cameron's competition is "The Hurt Locker," directed by Kathryn Bigelow, who happens to be Cameron's ex-wife.  It's the battle of the exes!  However, "Avatar," basically a more violent version of "Pocahontas," is sure to win lots for its amazing special effects.  With an estimated budget of $280 million, Cameron created a film that is 40% live action, 60% CGI.  Although he originally thought of the story back in 1995, he was not confidant in the technology of the time, so he shelved his script.  But after seeing Gollum in the "Lord of the Rings" movies, he realized the technology was finally there, and picked up the production again.  And since its release, "Avatar" has grossed way over $2 billion worldwide, making it the highest grossing film of all time, and beating out the previous winner, Cameron's own "Titanic."

One of the nice things about the larger number of Best Picture nominees this year was Pixar's "Up" getting a nomination.  "Up" is only the second animated film to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.  The first was Disney's "Beauty and the Beast," and with the creation of the Best Animated Picture category, many feared it would never happen again.  Luckily, it was not the case.  Of course, in my eyes, Pixar is a master at storytelling, and should never be left out the Oscar race.  Only Pixar could turn a story about an old curmudgeon into a beloved story by both kids and adults.  The role of Carl, voiced by famous curmudgeon Ed Asner, was based on the personalities of two other wonderfully lovable oldies, Spencer Tracy and Walter Matthau.  The villain Charles Muntz, though, was named after Charles Mintz, the Universal Pictures executive who stole Walt Disney's rights to "Oswald the Lucky Rabbit" back in 1928, which in turn caused Disney to create a new character, Mickey Mouse.  After that is magical history.

The other "Up" Best Picture film, "Up in the Air" is one of my favorites as well.  Written and directed by Jason Reitman and produced by his father Ivan Reitman, this is only the second time in Academy history that a father/son team has been nominated together for Best Picture.  Jason Reitman, director of previous hits "Thank You for Smoking" and "Juno," originally wrote this story before his first films while the economy was booming, and wanted to make this his first film.  He later said it turned out to be a good thing that he waited because the change in the economy made the story much more poignant.  With the exception of the known actors in the film, all the interviews that bookend the story where actual people who had been recently laid off.

Personally, I am not a huge fan of the move by the Academy to expand the number of Best Picture nominees from 5 to 10, because there are still the predictable winners.  But I look forward to waiting to see that smaller gem sweep the award from the blockbuster.  Hopefully, I just won't have to wait that long to see it.  So, cook up those goodies and enjoy the biggest annual night in Hollywood this weekend.  See you Monday.

(Post-tidbit:  Each frame of "Avatar," which is approximately 1/24 of a second, took an average of 47 hours to complete.)

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Philadelphia Story: Masters at Play

It would be impossible, absolutely impossible for me to talk about my favorite movies without mentioning "The Philadelphia Story."  I do have so many favorites that my top films fluctuate sometimes, but "The Philadelphia Story" is always in my Top 5, possibly even Top 3.  This is one of those films that, if it's on tv, I watch it.  I have read the play it's adapted from.  I've even had the opportunity to see it on the big screen as well.  And I must say, there's something about the energy of a fully-packed theater all reacting together that makes even a movie you know by heart more enjoyable than the first time you saw it.

"The Philadelphia Story," released in December of 1940, stars Katharine Hepburn as Philadelphia socialite Tracy Lord.  The day before her wedding, her ex-husband C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) unexpectedly shows up with reporter Macaulay Connor (James Stewart) and photographer Elizabeth Imbrie (Ruth Hussey), trying to pass them off as "friends."  Tracy isn't fooled, but when she learns from Dex that he was blackmailed into bringing them by the magazine's editor Sidney Kidd, she lets them stay.  However, with her ex and a new admirable man around, her world begins to unravel as she learns new truths about herself.  And when the day of the wedding arrives, everything is thrown up in the air.

In my oh-so-humble opinion, this is the best of the romantic screwball comedies of Hollywood's golden age.  Adapted from Philip Barry's play of the same name, it is an amazing example of excellent story writing, both back then and today.  David Ogden Stewart won the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for this film.  He said, though, in his autobiography, that the original play was so perfect that adapting it to film was the easiest job he ever had. 

The play itself was an enormous success.  Barry wrote the role of Tracy for Katharine Hepburn herself, to lure her back to the stage after the movie industry had labeled her "box office poison" from a series of previous flops.  Hepburn ended up not only starring in the play, but backing it as well.  Also, she acquired the film rights to the play for her "comeback" vehicle.  (Millionaire Howard Hughes actually bought her the rights as a gift.)  So when she sold the film rights to MGM, in was on the condition that she have power over choosing cast, director, producer, and screenwriter. 

Her choice of director, George Cukor, was an easy one for her, because she had worked with him before.  However, her cast was not her first choice.  Originally, she asked for Clark Gable for C.K. Dexter Haven and Spencer Tracy for Macaulay Connor (whom she had not met yet, but thank goodness they eventually did).  Both actors were unable to star, so the parts went to Grant and Stewart instead.  Cary Grant actually had the choice of either male part, but wisely chose the less-flashy one.  He did however insist on top billing and $137,000 salary, huge for that time, but donated it all to the British War Relief Fund.

"The Philadelphia Story" is a lesson in perfection all around.  It only took 8 weeks to shoot the movie due to every scene only needing one take.  You can see the actors' dedication and skill (and chemistry) in one of the drunk scenes with Grant and Stewart.  Unbeknownst to Grant, Stewart decided to add some hiccups to his drunkenness and almost caught Grant off-guard.  But in the grace and class that was Grant, he adlibbed "Excuse me" in response to Stewart's hiccup, and only had to turn away slightly to stifle his laugh. 

James Stewart wasn't planning on going to the Academy Awards the year he won Best Actor for "The Philadelphia Story."  He himself had voted for Henry Fonda in "The Grapes of Wrath."  However, right before the event, he got a call from someone "advising" him to throw on some nice clothes and go anyway.  (This was before accounting firms were brought in to protect the outcomes.)  Feeling he never really deserved that Oscar, he claimed it must have been "deferred payment for my work on 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington'."

So, get back to the classics this week with "The Philadelphia Story," an essential for anyone truly wanting to watch the best movies ever made.  Sure, the story might be a bit misogynistic in today's politically-correct standards, but thanks to the skill, grace, class and amazing talent of all involved, you shouldn't mind one bit. Enjoy!

(Post-tidbit:  The word "Philadelphia" is misspelled on Stewart's Oscar, which used to sit in the window of his father's hardware store in Indiana, Pennsylvania...on Philadelphia St.)