Monday, June 28, 2010

The Sound of Music: Songs and Nuns and Children, Oh My!

I realized over the weekend that I have managed to go through half the year and have only talked about four musicals ("All That Jazz," "Easter Parade," "Mamma Mia!," and "Take Me Out to the Ballgame").  Four, only four!  From me, the musical-obsessed child!  And not one of them has been the biggest one.  So it's about time I say...time to talk about "The Sound of Music" (1965).

I'm sure you know this story (if you don't, you probably live under a rock).  Julie Andrews stars as Maria, a nun-in-training who becomes the governess for seven children and falls in love with their widowed father Captain von Trapp (Christopher Plummer), all the while singing their way through Salzburg, Austria.  However, when the Anschluss happens, they must flee Austria to stay free of the Nazis.  This is the mega-sensational film adaptation of the smash-hit Broadway play by the legendary team Rogers and Hammerstein.  Directed by Robert Wise and screenplay written by Ernest Lehman, it broke the 25-year-old box office record held by "Gone With the Wind" and went on to win Best Picture and four others at the Academy Awards that year.

I consider this film my first true favorite, and I owe it all to my brother.  I know I've mentioned before how much my brother has influenced my taste growing up by watching his choice of film, but this is something different.  Musicals were not really his thing back then.  But, for my 12th birthday, he bought me the Silver Anniversary VHS set of "The Sound of Music."  It was the first ever store-bought film of my very own.  Sure, we had family copies of things that we all watched together, but this was the first time anyone had given me personally a movie.  And that was it, I was hooked.  If there were devices on VHS tapes counting how many times a tape was viewed, I'm sure my copy would be 200-something.  And I still have that VHS today.  I've wanted to get the DVD of "Sound of Music" for some time now (I mean, my copy isn't even letterbox!)  But I just can't seem to get rid of my gift.  It's what started it all.

"The Sound of Music" opened on Broadway in November of 1959, starring Mary Martin as Maria, and became an instant success, winning numerous Tony Awards.  When Twentieth Century Fox started production of the film version though, they needed fresh faces for all the leads.  Wise, who finally agreed to direct after pre-production of "The Sand Pebbles" dragged on for too long, wanted only one person for Maria - Julie Andrews.  At the time, Andrews was only really known for her stage work.  "Mary Poppins," her first film, had not even been released yet, but he had seen some rushes from Walt Disney of "Poppins" and knew the mainstream unknown was the one.  (Ironically enough, Andrews had lost out on playing Eliza in the film adaptation of "My Fair Lady," a role she originated on Broadway, because she was an unknown.)  At first, she was a little wary, thinking Maria was too similar to Mary Poppins, but luckily she changed her mind, because it is her talent and presence that really make "The Sound of Music" soar.  Also, during the filming of "Music," she won her Oscar for "Poppins," solidifying her as a star.

As for the von Trapp children, Wise searched both the US and UK for the perfect group of kids.  He needed them to truly look like a family more than anything, so regardless of talent, he auditioned over 200 kids from both sides of the Atlantic.  Among some of the young hopefuls were Kurt Russell, Richard Dreyfuss, Patty Duke, and the four oldest Osmond brothers.  Angela Cartwright, who already had years of experience under her belt from working on "The Danny Thomas Show," won the part of Brigitta, but she originally auditioned for the role of Louisa, donned with a blond wig and all.  She later said she was glad she got Brigitta because that personality suited her more...and she didn't have to dye her hair.  A couple of the boys, though, had to go through grueling hair bleaching for their parts.  Both Nicholas Hammond (Friedrich) and Daniel Truhitte (Rolfe) each had to have continuous dye jobs throughout filming so that they would appear more Austrian. 

As for the Captain, Wise knew he needed someone who would appear stern and strong, but still be lovable and attainable.  He thought of lots of stars, like Yul Brynner, Sean Connery, and Richard Burton, but the only actor he really wanted was Christopher Plummer, known for his Shakespearean stage acting at the time.  Plummer initially refused, so Wise had to court him personally to get him to accept.  Plummer did and to his dismay.  He is the only actor who considered the experience grueling.  He called the story too saccharine, and compared working with Andrews to "being hit over the head with a big Valentine's Day card every day." (Plummer and Andrews have remained close friends ever since "Music.")  And even though he considers "The Sound of Music" (or "The Sound of Mucus" as he likes to call it) the shallowest role he has ever played, it is too his testament that this film isn't more sugary than it already is.  Wise knew the story was super sweet in and of itself, so he desperately tried to make it as real as possible.  That's why they spent 11 weeks filming on location in Austria, and that the colors are so much more muted than standard musicals of the time.  And that's why Wise needed Plummer's gravitas for Captain von Trapp, something many of the critics picked up on.

And, boy, did I have a crush on Plummer when I was a kid!  This was truly the start of my romantics.   I used to watch Plummer's and Andrews' scenes over and over again.  Of course, I'm not the only who had a crush on Plummer.  Charmain Carr, who played the eldest von Trapp kid Liesl and who sang the famous "Sixteen Going on Seventeen," was actually 21 during filming.  She admitted in her autobiography to having a crush on Plummer, then 35, and flirting with him some.  Plummer, being the character he is, flirted back a little too, but, don't worry, nothing went beyond that.

As for the music, I can still sing every song, backwards and forwards.  They are all classics stuck in our heads like "Do-Re-Mi" and "My Favorite Things" (which, by the way, needs to stop being sung at Christmas.  It's not a Christmas song!  It's a scared-of-thunder song!)  Two of my favorite songs from the film, "I Have Confidence" and "Something Good," were not part of the original stage production at all.  Wise and Lehman went to Richard Rogers and asked him to write two new songs for the film.  (Hammerstein died in 1960, with "The Sound of Music" being his last play.)  The songs have become so synonymous with the story that most stage productions nowadays use those songs as well.

And be sure not to blink when you see Sister Sophia.  She is Marni Nixon.  You won't recognize her face, but you might recognize her voice.  She was the singing voice for Deborah Kerr in "The King and I," Natalie Wood in Wise's previous Best Picture winner "West Side Story," and even Audrey Hepburn in "My Fair Lady" (that Andrews, of course, lost out on).  This was the first of a very few onscreen roles in her career.  She didn't have to dub Andrews for "Music."  However, Plummer ended up having to be dubbed by singer Bill Lee, and Peggy Wood, knowing she couldn't hit the high notes anymore at age 72, was dubbed by Margery McKay.  As for the children, they all sang but Wise added about 4 or so more children to the soundtrack singing, to give them a fuller sound.

So, get out your lederhosen and watch "The Sound of Music"!  And if you're in LA, get your tickets for the Hollywood Bowl's "Sound of Music" Sing-along in September.  (I'm going for the first time myself this year and can't wait!)  And, Stephen, thanks so much for the gift!  You rock!  Happy birthday this weekend!  Love you!  Until Friday, everyone.  Have a great week.

(Post-tidbit: In 1962, before she was even cast in "The Sound of Music," Julie Andrews did a spoof of the musical with Carol Burnett during "Julie and Carol at Carnegie Hall."  Watch the hilarious number below.)

Friday, June 25, 2010

For the Weekend: Just the Classics

I don't know about you, but I really don't think weekends ever get here fast enough.  And why aren't they all 3-day weekends (like next weekend will be)?  Two days is just too short a time to really relax in this fast-paced modern world.  So, I say let's spend the weekend enjoying stories of a slower time.  Let's spend the weekend watching some classics!

First up, on TCM this Sunday at 6am EST, is "Mr. and Mrs. Smith."  No, not the high-octane action movie from 2005 that gave us Brangelina, but the romantic comedy from 1941 starring Carole Lombard and Robert Montgomery.  Lombard and Montgomery play the titular married couple, Ann & David Smith.  One day after three years of marriage, Ann asks David if he would marry her again if he got the chance, and David jokingly expresses his doubts.  However, later that day, they both learn that their marriage is not valid due to some state line changes.  David tries to have some teasing fun with Ann, but she takes the situation more seriously, and thus, screwball comedy antics ensue.  It's a wonderfully fun film directed by none other than Alfred Hitchcock.  His only lighthearted romantic comedy ever, he said he was convinced to do the project by Lombard herself (though some reports state that he had actually wanted to try his hand at a "typical American film about typical Americans").  Together, they both wanted Cary Grant to play the male lead, but unfortunately he was booked solid.  So they found the amazing Montgomery instead, whose chemistry with the beautiful Lombard is unmistakable.  Funnily enough, Lombard was a die-hard Democrat and Montgomery was a steadfast Republican, so to have her fun, Lombard would often spend her breaks during filming plastering Roosevelt re-election bumper stickers on Montgomery's car.

Next up, check out "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir."  From 1947, it stars Gene Tierney as Mrs. Muir and Rex Harrison as the ghost, aka Captain Gregg.  Based on the book by R.A. Dick (pseudonym for Josephine Leslie), it tells the story of a young widow, Mrs. Muir, at the turn of the century who decides to move her and her daughter out to a cottage by the sea, but the cottage is haunted by the ghost of the late sea captain Gregg.  After Gregg and Muir start talking to each other though, a kind of romance begins as he helps her stay strong and independent living on her own.  Twentieth Century Fox purchased the rights to the book after its initial publication in 1945, which was only in the UK at the time.  When the film was made, Tierney thought she needed to play Mrs. Muir more lighthearted and screwball-y, but director Joseph Mankiewicz and Darryl F. Zanuck decided she should have more depth, so they reshot the first two days of scenes for her.  Tierney ended up getting some of the best acclaim of her career.  "Mrs. Muir" is available for instant viewing on Netflix right now.

The 1968 television pilot for the series "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir" starring Hope Lange and Edward Mulhare:

Finally, how about the little-known classic "Holiday" (1938)?  Directed by George Cukor and starring Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, it's a wonderful romance that reunited Cukor, Grant and Hepburn from their first production together, "Sylvia Scarlett" in 1935, as well as teaming up Grant and Hepburn again after 1938's previous release, "Bringing Up Baby."  In "Holiday," Grant plays a free-spirited man who gets engaged to a young woman (Doris Nolan) during a trip.  When they return to New York though, he discovers she's a millionaire, and is all about the material stuff.  While trying to decide to what to do, he falls for her free-spirited sister (Hepburn).  Now, he's torn in all sorts of ways.  Hepburn and Grant are of course great together, like always, but this was made during Hepburn's "box-office poison" phase.  The studio was hoping that Irene Dunne could star with Grant instead of Hepburn, reuniting the "Awful Truth" pair, but Cukor insisted on Hepburn.  The film wasn't a box-office success, but it is now considered one of the duos finest films.  You can catch this gem on Netflix or watch it on YouTube here.

So take a tip from the classics and slow down this weekend.  Not everything in life has to be full speed ahead.  Have a wonderful weekend, everyone, and I'll be back Monday with another favorite film to discuss! 

(Post-tidbit:  Another playful joke from Lombard during filming "Mr. and Mrs. Smith" was her response to Hitchcock's often-quoted statement that "actors are cattle."  She had a mini pen constructed on the set that included three heifers, each with a nameplate - Carole, Bob, and Gene (for costar Gene Raymond).)

Monday, June 21, 2010

Finding Nemo: Just Keep Swimming

Well, Pixar has done it again.  This past weekend was the opening of "Toy Story 3," and what an opening it had, making an estimated $109 million, Pixar's highest grossing opening to date.  This, of course, solidifies what everyone already knows, Pixar can do no wrong.  It's truly amazing how many great films they have made, and it's impossible to pick the very best.  Everybody has his or her favorite of the bunch though.  So, today I decided to talk about my favorite Pixar film - "Finding Nemo."

Released in May 2003, "Finding Nemo" takes place in the waters off Australia and tells the story of a clownfish named Marlin and his young son Nemo.  Due to the loss of his wife and other children, Marlin is extremely over-protective of Nemo, never letting him venture anywhere far from home.  However, when Nemo is taken by a fisherman, Marlin races into the unknown to find his son.  Through his adventures and Nemo's attempts to get back to his dad, they each learn to not be so afraid and love each other and the world more.  It's a great story with great characters voiced by great actors, such as Albert Brooks, Ellen DeGeneres, Willem Dafoe, Allison Janney, and Geoffrey Rush.  Basically, I think it's great!  (teehee)

This was the first Pixar film directed by Andrew Stanton.  (His second is my second favorite Pixar film - "Wall-e.")  All the way back in 1997, Stanton pitched his story idea to Pixar head John Lasseter in an hour-long session.  Stanton went all out, using voices, props and other visual aides.  At the end, the exhausted Stanton asked Lasseter what he thought.  Lasseter just said, "You had me at 'fish.'"  And thus began the six years it took to bring "Nemo" to the big screen.

The key animators were all sent to Australia to become SCUBA-certified and swim in the Great Barrier Reef itself.  Lasseter and Stanton wanted authenticity.  The animators were even challenged to make the ocean above and below absolutely realistic.  They ended up doing such a good job that they had to tone it back a bit, so that the audience would believe it was a cartoon, not real-life footage thrown in to the mix.  All the animators spent countless hours of research for "Nemo" studying at local aquariums, diving off the coast, watching Pixar's own 25-gallon tank at the studio, and even listening to lectures from ichthyologists.  There was only one type of research that wasn't fish-related, directly at least.  Since fish don't have enough facial expressions for a cartoon themselves, the animators studied the facial expressions of dogs to create them.

This is another one of my favorite films whose music is composed by my favorite film composer Thomas Newman.  (Remember?  He did "Road to Perdition" as well.)  Well, Newman originally wasn't hired to write the score for "Nemo."  First Pixar hired Danny Elfman to write the score.  He was going to do it for quite some time, so much time that some original promotional material for "Nemo" said "Music by Danny Elfman."  However, he eventually backed out.  So Pixar then turned to Hans Zimmer, but he turned it down as well.  Luckily, Newman was ultimately hired because I think his style of music fits so well with this story.  His music always makes me feel light and dreamy, almost like I'm floating in a sea of music.  And thanks to the lasting relationship he made with Stanton during "Nemo," his style blended perfectly again with Stanton's next project, "Wall-e." 

Now, unfortunately, there were some drawbacks to "Finding Nemo"s success.  Even though the film dramatizes the desire of fish to be free in the ocean and not in tanks, the sales of clownfish in the US skyrocketed.  Also, many sewage companies feared children might decide to set their fish free down drains because of the movie's statement "all drains lead to the ocean."  In an effort to stop this, the JWC Environmental Company put out a statement that even though all drains do eventually make it to the ocean, everything is siphoned through filtration systems before it even gets there, making a more appropriate title for the film "Grinding Nemo."

Nevertheless, I think this film is my favorite because it celebrates life and all the fun you can have in it.  Life isn't worth being worried and afraid all the time of everything that could possibly happen to you.  As Dory says, then nothing would happen to you.  To be enjoying life as much as possible is the best thing we can do while on this planet.  And cherishing all the loved ones in our life along the way.  So, check out the beauty of life today and watch "Finding Nemo."  Until Friday.  Have a wonderful week.

(Post-tidbit: You can see hints of future Pixar films in "Nemo."  A boy is reading a Mr. Incredible comic book in the dentist's waiting room (from "The Incredibles" (2004)) and later on, Luigi from "Cars" (2006) drives by the dentist's office.)

Friday, June 18, 2010

For the Weekend: All About the Boys

Did you find something nice to give your father this Sunday?  Good!  How about some great movies to go along with it?  For your weekend suggestions today, I present some great films starring men of all types, sure to please any father out there.

First up is the western "The Big Country" (1958), starring Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, Carroll Baker, Burl Ives, and Charlton Heston.  It's a wonderfully understated story about a sea captain (Peck) who decides to give up the sea and follow his fiancée (Baker) back to her father's ranch in Texas.  But when pacifist Peck learns the true spoiled, selfish nature of his bride-to-be and the West, he finds himself in the middle of a local civil war between her father and their neighbors.  Directed by William Wyler, this film ushered in the trend for the pacifist western.  Based on the novel by Donald Hamilton, good friends Wyler and Peck decided to team up and produce the film themselves so that they could make it their way.  (Wyler had always felt shortchanged and edited by the studios.)  Unfortunately, Peck and Wyler's "ways" were very different during filming, and fights ensued.  It was a harsh production for all, but it ultimately destroyed their friendship.  It would be years before they would patch up their friendship.  The only one not to have a horrible experience filming "The Big Country" was Ives, who ended up winning the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance.  You can catch this great film on TCM Saturday at 12 noon EST.

Next up, how about a couple of loving fathers directed by Vincente Minnelli?  The first is the classic "Father of the Bride" from 1950, starring Spencer Tracy and Elizabeth Taylor.  You know this story.  It's the lighthearted tale about the wedding of a young woman, all told through the eyes of her father, from announcement to ceremony.  This smash hit premiered just two days after Taylor's first marriage (out of eight, you know) to Nicky Hilton.  Her marriage was the talk of the tabloids...and great publicity for the film.  MGM even had costume great Edith Head design Taylor's wedding dress, to give it that little extra push. It all helped skyrocket the film to box office success, and Taylor's tabloid popularity even lasted until the sequel "Father's Little Dividend," making it almost as successful as the first.  This classic is on TCM Sunday at 2pm EST.

The next Minnelli-directed father story is "The Courtship of Eddie's Father" (1963).  Starring Glenn Ford, Shirley Jones, and an adorable 9-year-old "Ronny" Howard (aka Ron Howard, the award-winning director), it's the story of a young boy who decides his widowed father is lonely and needs a wife, so he helps find one for him.  This was actually Howard's fourth film and concurrent with playing Opie on "The Andy Griffith Show."  It's an amazing performance by the child star, playing comedy and drama, and stealing every scene with it.  Ford is also great to watch as he completely lets Howard steal the show.  Even though reviews were good, the film did not make a profit.  However, it did become one of the first ever movies to inspire a television show (starring pre-"Hulk" Bill Bixby).  You can watch this gem on TCM as well Sunday at 5:45pm EST.

The final men-of-all-types film is actually about the younger ones - "Stand by Me" from 1986.  This coming-of-age story, based on a short story by Stephen King called "The Body," stars Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, Jerry O'Connell, and Kiefer Sutherland.  Four young friends, in the last days of the summer of 1959, decide to go in search of the body of a missing kid near their town.  While out on their own though, they start to grow up and lose that childhood innocence through laughs, fights, and even danger.  Brilliantly directed by Rob Reiner, you can tell the real-life personalities of the boys are not too far off their characters', making the story feel even more real.  It was a knack of Reiner's that Wheaton pointed out in a 2000 interview, along with his unbelievable patience working with 12-year-old boys.  (They were such a mischievous bunch that at their hotel they threw all the poolside furniture into the pool, and even dared Phoenix to cover Sutherland's car in mud, which he did.)  Its box office was actually very small, but thanks to word of mouth and video/dvd releases, it is now a cult favorite.  "Stand by Me" is on TCM Sunday night (aka Monday morning) at 4am EST, but you can also stream it on Netflix right now.

So, make sure you enjoy your weekend, you and your dad together.  There are so many stories to share, yet always so little time.  Have a wonderful time, everyone!  I'll be back Monday.

(Post-tidbit:  A remake of "The Courtship of Eddie's Father" is currently in preproduction, to star Nicolas Cage.  Really, Hollywood?  Cage?)

Monday, June 14, 2010

Animal House: For My Dad

Oh my goodness, what a day today.  It almost made me miss my post for the first time ever!  And I couldn't miss today's.  Why?  Because it's Father's Day this Sunday!  Which means it's time to talk about a favorite film of both my dad and me.  Now, if you're a faithful reader of mine, you already know that my father has been a huge influence in my taste in movies.  So to pick just one film to talk about for Father's Day was a difficult choice.  Do I go lighthearted romantic comedy with "The American President"?  Or more the epitome of male favorites "Die Hard"?  Or do I just stick with science fiction like "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan"?  As good as all those films are (which I'll surely talk about eventually), nothing says "my dad" to me more than National Lampoon's "Animal House."

Released on July 28, 1978 (less than a month before I was born, I must add), it is a raunchy comedy about the members of a under-achieving, laid-back, but party-hard college fraternity of misfits, known as the Delta House (aka Delta Tau Chi).  It stars Tim Matheson, Peter Riegert, Thomas Hulce, Stephen Furst, Karen Allen, and of course, the late, great John Belushi.  Directed by John Landis, and written by Chris Miller, Harold Ramis, and Douglas Kenney, it is based on some short stories Miller wrote for National Lampoon magazine about his experiences as a Alpha Delta Phi at Dartmouth College, as well as both Ramis' and Kenney's own college experiences.  Thus we got "Animal House" and the start of National Lampoon's venture into film.

Now, I know what you're thinking.  One - "wow, her tastes keep getting stranger and stranger for a girl."  And two - "you're dad is an over-grown frat boy?!"  No, not at all, the complete opposite.  That's why I love when he tells me stories of his college days.  Many times he has told me how much the Deltas remind him of living in the Crow's Nest at UT Austin.  A member of the ROTC (ironically one of the groups the Deltas torture the most), he and his fellow naval cadets lived together in a frat-like house, and much like Delta House, were a bit rowdy at times.  My favorite story of his is when some of his housemates decided it would be a good idea to build a canon in the dining room...and subsequently blew a 6-foot hole in the ceiling.  To think of my dad with that group just makes me laugh.  Why?  Because that's where my great sense of humor comes from.  I 100% have the humor of my father, that great sense of wit, sarcasm, and all the laugh-at-the-world characteristics that I love so much about myself.  It's not the raunchy parts of "Animal House" that we both love so much.  It's the carefree, sarcastic humor.  I am truly my daddy's little girl, and it's great!

"Animal House" actually had a very small budget, only $2.7 million.  After shopping it around to all the studios, Universal was the only one to bite, and they didn't even have faith in it either.  As producer Matty Simmons said, "They just figured, ‘Screw it, it’s a silly little movie, and we’ll make a couple of bucks if we’re lucky – let them do whatever they want."  Of course the big surprise to Universal came with how many bucks this filmed ended up making.  The film made $121 million at the box office, and has made to date $142 million, making it one of the most profitable movies of all time.  It was even selected to join the Library of Congress' National Film Registry in 2001 for its "cultural significance."

Except for the grand finale parade sequence and the road trip, the rest of "Animal House" takes place entirely on the fake Faber College campus.  Originally, the production wanted to film it all at the University of Missouri but when the president of school read the script, he turned them down.  After much searching, the production finally found a "yes" at the University of Oregon.  This only happened because Oregon's president, unable to understand scripts, had passed on a previous filming request, "The Graduate."  Determined not to make the same mistake twice, he agreed to this filming.  However, he only gave them 30 days to film, which meant a grueling 6-day workweek for the cast and crew.  (They finished with two days to spare.)

Landis had the Deltas come up first, so that they could bond before filming.  Then a week later he had the Omegas come up (the Deltas' main rivals), and purposely kept the two groups apart as much as possible.  Many of the two groups even pestered each during off-hours to keep the animosity going.  The only one not to participate with this was Belushi.  Not only was he flying back and forth between Oregon and New York every week, to do "Saturday Night Live," but also Landis knew of his substance problems and wanted to make sure he stayed clean during filming.  Belushi was okay with this because he knew this film was a big step for him, his feature film debut.  He did not want to screw it up.  Originally, the producers were hoping Belushi would have been joined by more of his "SNL" castmates, like Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, and Dan Aykroyd (the part of D-Day was written for Aykroyd specifically), but unfortunately they all had prior commitments.

Belushi is not the only one to have a feature film debut with "Animal House."  So did Karen Allen, Peter Riegert, and Kevin Bacon.  In fact, it was Allen's and Bacon's first appearance, period.  And look how far they've come.  Bacon has made so many films that the "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon" game was created.  And Allen, of course, became the best love interest Indiana Jones ever had in "Raiders of the Lost Ark."

So, be sure to have some fun with your pappa this Sunday, whether it be watching a silly, ridiculous, hilarious movie like "Animal House" or whatever your father loves to do.  The main thing - have fun.  Have a great week, everyone.  And Dad, I love you!

(Post-tidbit:  The three writers, Ramis, Kenny, and Miller, were all new to writing screenplays at the time so they ended up writing a 110-page treatment, a synopsis of the script, for the producers to shop around Hollywood.  The average treatment is only 15 pages long.)

Friday, June 11, 2010

For the Weekend: Pick Your Drama

I don't know about you, but thank goodness it's almost the weekend.  With the morning I've already had, I can't wait to just relax the days away and forget all the frustration of the week.  And for this weekend, I've selected a few different dramas for your enjoyment, because there's nothing more cathartic than watching someone else's problems instead of your own.

First up, "The Wreck of the Mary Deare," the film that Alfred Hitchcock and screenwriter Ernest Lehman were supposed to make for MGM.  The two men were unable to write a compelling enough story though (Hitchcock predicted it could only be made into "a boring courtroom drama"), so they used MGM's money, without telling them, to make "North by Northwest" instead.  The task of directing then went to Michael Anderson, and with stars Gary Cooper, Charlton Heston, Michael Redgrave, and Richard Harris, it was finally produced and released in 1959.  Based on the novel by Hammond Innes, it tells the story of a sea captain who stays aboard a sinking ship to prove it was sabotaged.  Unfortunately, critics agreed with Hitchcock's prediction, and it didn't fare well at the box office.  It should still be fun to watch though, with such powerhouse actors, and the thought of "what would Hitch have done?" in the back of your mind.  You can catch "Mary Deare" on TCM this Saturday at 4pm EST.

The next selection comes from the literary world too - "Fahrenheit 451," the 1966 movie adaptation of Ray Bradbury's bestselling novel (and every grade school kid's required reading).  Written and directed by Francois Truffaut and starring Oskar Werner and Julie Christie, it tells the tale of a futuristic fireman, yet this fireman starts fires instead of stopping them.  Mainly he burns books, which are forbidden, but when he decides to actually read one of the books he is supposed to burn, his whole life turns upside down.  Truffaut always thought science-fiction was too trite and cheesy for him, but when someone told him the story of "Fahrenheit 451," he immediately started adapting it into a script, even though he had still not fully grasped the English language.  It would take him three years to get the production started.  Originally, Terence Stamp had been cast in the movie's lead, but when Truffaut decided to have Christie play both female leads, he dropped out, thinking his former lover would overshadow him too much.  However, Truffaut's resulting lead choice Werner did not turn out well.  Werner and Truffaut detested each other.  Werner even purposely cut his hair while filming a scene so that Truffaut would have to deal with continuity errors.  It's still a great story about censorship though.  "Fahrenheit 451" is on TCM this Sunday at 3:45am EST (which is really Monday morning but TCM's schedule makes it confusing, which I just noticed, so be sure to check out my update on the scheduled time for "Love with the Proper Stranger" too) or you can stream it on Netflix.

Next up is a more recent drama, comparatively, starring this past week's birthday boy Johnny Depp - "What's Eating Gilbert Grape" (1993).  Also starring Juliet Lewis and Leonardo DiCapro in one of his best performances ever, it's about Grape (Depp) who feels trapped in his small town by both his mentally handicapped little brother (DiCapro) and his extremely obese mother (Darlene Cates).  The cast directors found Cates by calling up "The Sally Jessy Raphael Show" to ask them if they had any candidates.  When the director saw the reel the show had sent of Cates, she was cast on the spot.  Depp had a hard time acting with her though, not because of her lack of experience, but because he felt so bad about the lines he had to say to her.  Many times after a shot was done, he would apologize to her, making sure she knew he didn't mean any of it.  DiCapro is the standout of this film.  According to him, playing Arnie was "the most fun I've ever had," and it led to his first ever Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.  "Gilbert Grape" is now available to watch on both Hulu and Netflix.

Finally, a slightly more action-packed drama to end your weekend with - 1983's "WarGames."  Starring a then less-known Matthew Broderick (it would be three more years until "Ferris Bueller's Day Off") and a pre-Brat Pack Ally Sheedy, as well as Dabney Coleman and John Wood, it is the story of a young high school computer genius who accidentally hacks into the NORAD system and sets off a Nuclear War simulation that could lead to World War III if they can't stop it.  Written by Lawrence Lasker and Walter Parkes (who would later write another computer hacker drama "Sneakers"), they came up with the idea after seeing a film about Stephen Hawking and wondering what would happen if he couldn't pass any of his brilliant findings on to the world.  Hawking was then approached about starring as the main scientist, but he declined when he thought they might exploit his condition.  The character of Stephen Falken was then changed to a morph between Hawking and John Lennon, and Wood was cast.  "WarGames" can be seen on both Netflix and Hulu.  (And if you want even more, dare to try out the straight-to-dvd 2008 sequel "WarGames: The Dead Code" also available on Hulu.)

All great choices for you to enjoy, I must say.  I hope you all have a drama-filled weekend, just not your own! ;-)  Have fun and I'll be back on Monday.

(Post-tidbit:  Richard Harris hated his experience working on "The Wreck of the Mary Deare" so much that he refused to return to Hollywood for five years.)

Monday, June 7, 2010

Love with the Proper Stranger: Unexpected Sweetness

My favorite film this week is a treat of a movie.  It is not on DVD, and I have yet to find a VHS copy of it.  So for now the only time I can see it is when it is on TCM, the reason I discovered it in the first place (or by going to YouTube).  And lucky for us, it will be on TCM June 21st at 1:15am EST.  So, set your DVRs for an odd but sweet romance called "Love with the Proper Stranger."

Released on Christmas Day in 1963, it stars two icons of the time, Natalie Wood and Steve McQueen.  Wood plays Angie, a Catholic shop girl who finds out she's pregnant from a one-night stand with Rocky (McQueen), a fun-loving musician.  When Angie finds Rocky and asks him to help her arrange an abortion, they spend a day together trying to raise the money, and hiding from Angie's overly protective brothers.  Yet, when it comes down to the line, Rocky finally grows up and love blossoms.  But is that enough for marriage? 

Like I said, it's a strange romantic comedy-drama, with the backdrop of abortion.  But it works for me.  It's one of those 60s films that just seems to be a smooth ride through another life.  It relies on acting and reacting.  It's the pure emotion all over again (which of course I love).  This was actually the first romantic role McQueen ever played.  Originally, director Robert Mulligan wanted Paul Newman to star, but McQueen wanted the part badly.  McQueen knew this would open him up to a much larger audience of female viewers.  Of course, his motivation to beat out Newman for the role wasn't at all hampered by the fact that he always felt he was in competition with Newman all the time.  So, McQueen campaigned and won.

This was the second collaboration for Mulligan and producer Alan J. Pakula under their new production company Pakula-Mulligan Productions.  Their first film together was the smash hit "To Kill a Mockingbird" the year before.  So they had some pressure to follow up with a winner.  It was not as big a success as "Mockingbird" by a long shot, but they still achieved their goal.  "Proper Stranger" received five Oscar nominations including Natalie Wood for Best Actress.  And both Wood and McQueen received Golden Globe nominations.  This was the last Oscar nomination for Wood though (her first two were for "Rebel Without a Cause" and "Splendor in the Grass"). And even though he received great reviews for "Proper Stranger," McQueen had to wait three more years for his one and only Oscar nomination, for "The Sand Pebbles."

This film also boasts a couple of fun supporting actors - Edie Adams and Tom Bosley.  1963 was a big year for Adams.  She had three other films released earlier that year - "Call Me Bwana," "Under the Yum Yum Tree," and the huge comedy "It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World" - and she received rave reviews for them all, including "Proper Stranger."  As for Bosley, this was his film debut, and what a good debut it is.  Of course it would be over a decade before he had his big success in "Happy Days."

"Proper Stranger" was filmed entirely on location in New York City, something that also appealed to McQueen.  Having trained at The Actor's Studio there (alongside rival Newman), he felt that shooting in New York would be like going home.  And in the story, by screenwriter Arnold Schulman, the city is almost like another character itself, revolving around the Italian-American community.  Neither Wood nor McQueen were Italian-American themselves, but they blend nicely to create a familiar, warm picture.  And the chemistry between the two stars is apparent in "Proper Stranger;" however there's another reason for that.  Evidently Wood, who was not married at the time, was extremely taken with McQueen and made several passes at him while filming.  McQueen, however, did not accept them, due to his respect for her former (and future) husband Robert Wagner.  McQueen was married at the time himself, but evidently this had never made a difference in the past.  Some accounts, though, state that McQueen and Wood did have an affair after all.  Sadly, since both have passed, (1980 and 1981, respectively) there is no way to verify the rumor.

So, be sure to tune in to TCM on June 21st at 1:15am EST, and watch a romantic comedy you wouldn't expect to find.  (Or you can click here to watch it on YouTube.)  You won't be disappointed, especially if you like romance.  Until Friday, everyone!  Have a wonderful week!

(Post-tidbit: Be sure to watch out for another familiar face in a bit part, director Mulligan's little brother Richard, of future "Soap" and "Empty Nest" fame.)

UPDATE: I just noticed that TCM's scheduled time of June 21st at 1:15am EST is confusing and actually means 1:15am the morning of June 22nd for EST or 10:15pm on June 21st for PST.  Just an FYI so you don't miss this great picture.

Friday, June 4, 2010

For the Weekend: Judi, Judi, Judi

I've just been in one of those moods lately. You know the kind, where you feel like watching a whole bunch of one person, one type film, until you've gotten your fill of it (at least for the time being). And my current obsession? The incomparable, magnificent, always wonderful to watch Judi Dench! I cannot express how much I love her. She is the epitome of acting. She is the true Queen of England to me (with Helen Mirren second-in-command). So I picked out some films of Dame Judi's that you currently can stream instantly on Netflix, if you'd like to join me in my obsession. ;-)

First up, the film that finally brought her a much-deserved Oscar, even if it was for the wrong film (don't worry, I'll explain in a bit). "Shakespeare in Love," the Best Picture Academy Award winner of 1998, stars Joseph Fiennes (Ralph Fiennes' little brother) as the classic bard William Shakespeare and Gwyneth Paltrow as Viola, the woman for whom he falls and inspires him to write "Romeo and Juliet" and "Twelfth Night." It's a fictional romantic comedy, full of Shakespearean plots, what-ifs, and inside jokes about the real theater people of the time like Christopher Marlow (Rupert Everett), Philip Henslowe (Geoffrey Rush), and the Chamberlain's Men. Written by Tom Stoppard of "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead" fame, it understandably became an instant favorite of every theater nerd alive (me included). And to top it off, like the cherry on a sundae, it has Judi Dench playing Queen Elizabeth I. She is only in a total of eight minutes of the film, but she steals the screen each time with her portrayal of the famous English monarch. And for this short performance, Judi won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar. However, many still speculate to this day that even though her performance was, of course, perfect, she won this Oscar to make up for the mistake the voters made the previous year when she lost the Best Actress Oscar for beautifully playing another great English monarch, Queen Victoria, in the wonderful "Mrs. Brown." Whatever the reasons for her win, though, no one will ever say she doesn't deserve one.

Next is "84 Charing Cross Road" from 1987. This gem stars Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins and, based on a play by James Roose-Evans, tells the true story of the close friendship that formed through letters only between a Manhattan woman and a British used bookstore owner from 1949 to 1968. Judi plays Hopkins wife Nora and received a BAFTA nomination for Best Supporting Actress for this performance. One of the most interesting things about Judi Dench I feel is that she really didn't start making a name for herself in films until the 80s (this film and "A Room with a View" (1985) being a couple of her first). She was already a national treasure in the UK though, for she is an accomplished stage actress. She even became a Dame Commander of the British Empire (you know, that honor that makes her an official Dame instead of just the colloquialism) in 1988, only a year after "Charing Cross." It was because of the James Bond films that she became such a huge international name. 

Of course, Judi Dench is most recognized for period pieces, and "Ladies in Lavender" (2004) is a nice example. Set in the 1930s, it is a sweet little film starring her and Dame Maggie Smith as two sisters who find a wounded young Polish man (played by Daniel Brühl from "Inglourious Basterds") washed up on the beach one day, and decide to nurse him back to health. Based on a short story by William J. Locke, first-time director Charles Dance visited Dench and Smith while the two were appearing together in London's West End theater district. The two dames and longtime friends agreed to the project immediately, before even seeing the script. And thank goodness, because it is so nice to see these two amazing actresses together, who are so perfectly comfortable together. Stephen Holden of the New York Times wrote that Judi and Maggie "sink into their roles as comfortably as house cats burrowing into a down quilt on a windswept, rainy night."

Dame Judi Dench is one of those treasures that I could watch forever. (Of course, if I ever met her, I'd probably faint right on the spot.) If you like her even just a little fraction of how much I do, then check out some of her films this weekend. You can watch any of these films on Netflix or rent them (including "A Room with a View"). Have a wonderful, comfy, British weekend, everyone! Be back Monday with another great film.

(Post-tidbit: Judi had to wear such high heels while filming "Shakespeare in Love," to be the appropriate height, that director John Madden nicknamed her "Tudor Spice.")