Friday, January 28, 2011

Spaceballs: Laugh Your Schwartz Off

Well, last week I talked about the sci-fi movie of all sci-fi movies, "Star Wars" (1977).  So how about flipping all that upside down with the essential sci-fi spoof "Spaceballs" (1987)?

"Spaceballs," Mel Brooks' destruction of the space genre, isn't his best (hello, "Young Frankenstein" (1974) and the original "The Producers" (1968)), but it's the film I always think of first whenever anyone mentions Brooks' name.  This was the first Brooks film I ever saw, and as a kid, I thought it was hilarious.  Spoofing what I love?  Genius!  And although I've grown out of some of the jokes as I've gotten older, it's still a hoot and a half to watch.

This science fiction parody starts out with the classic Star-Wars-ish scroll across the screening, explaining the villains of the movie, the Spaceballs, and their sinister plot to steal the air from planet Druidia.  (You see, they destroyed their own planet's air through years of pollution.  I wonder if that means one day we'll have to go suck another oxygen-loving planet's air dry...if we can find one.)  On Druidia that day, however, Princess Vespa (Daphne Zuniga) is getting married...or is she?  She runs away from the altar, only to be captured by the Spaceballs (who include Brooks himself and Rick Moranis as Dark Helmet).  Luckily, our hero Lone Starr (Bill Pullman) is close by and saves the princess from capture.  Together, they must evade the Spaceballs and get the princess back to Druidia safe and sound, while bickering and falling in love with each other along the way.

There are so many hilarious jokes in this film, it's hard to go through them all.  My favorites are the Leia-like hair-bun earphones Princess Vespa is listening to (I have wanted a pair since I first saw them!) and John Hurt's cameo just so another creature can pop out of his stomach...and then go dancing across the counter.  To this day, I can watch this sequence and laugh, yet the anticipation of seeing the more gory original version in "Alien" (1979) has caused me never to be able to watch the latter.  Very odd, I know.  Brooks said the two jokes he is most proud of from the film are Spaceballs: The Merchandise and the villains being able to rent the VHS of "Spaceballs" while they are still filming it.

No Spaceballs merchandise was ever released though because of a fair-use agreement between Brooks and George Lucas.  (The coloring book and lunch box are actually "Transformers" items with the Spaceballs logo slapped on it.)  Yes, you read that correctly.  Lucas did know about "Spaceballs" before it even began pre-production.  After finishing the script, Brooks sent it to Lucas for permission.  He was nervous that he might be offended, but Lucas had no problems, for he was a fan of "Blazing Saddles" and "Young Frankenstein".

Brooks put together a hefty effects and makeup team for this one.  The visual effects were actually run by John Dykstra, an ex-ILM employee.  His company Apogee Inc. did most of the effects but ILM did actually help out a little.  They created Hurt's stomach creature.  As for John Candy's costume, it doesn't seem that elaborate at a glance but it required three people to control.  Candy controlled his own tail with a little joystick in the palm of his hand while two other assistants controlled his ears, one per ear.  It also had to be powered by a large battery (probably would be the size of a pen today) that Candy had to wear on his back.  And Brooks himself wasn't without his own effects pain.  The golden makeup he wore for the role of Yogurt caused a rash to break out on his neck.  Also the constant walking around on his knees really caused pains, even with kneepads.

So, I recommend getting your laugh on this weekend with "Spaceballs."  It's a blast to watch, especially if you've just watched "Star Wars."  Have a wonderful weekend, everyone!

(Post-tidbit: Thanks to knowing this movie probably too well, I managed to sweep the first round when I was on "Trivial Pursuit" the game show one time...Of course I lost the second round, but that's beside the point.  It's the only time I will ever thank Joan Rivers (aka Dot Matrix).)

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Hollywood 101: It's Oscar Time!

The nominations for the 83rd Annual Academy Awards were announced this morning.  All in all, I'm pretty pleased with this year's list (especially since my favorite film of the year "The King's Speech" received the most nominations...but I am hugely obsessed with everything British so...what can I say).  Therefore, what better time than now to start up my new post series entitled "Hollywood 101" with a little history lesson about the most coveted award in Hollywood?  Ladies and gentleman, the Oscar!

The first Academy Awards ceremony was held...well, 82 years ago on May 16, 1929.  It was a banquet in the Blossom Room of the Roosevelt Hotel on Hollywood Blvd. hosted by Academy president Douglas Fairbanks and director William C. deMille (Cecil B's older brother).  270 guests paid only $5 a ticket to attend the event and enjoy food such as Lobster Eugenie and Filet of Sole au Beurre, as well as dancing alongside Hollywood's royalty.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (the group behind the awards) was the brainchild of MGM head honcho Louis B. Mayer two years earlier in an effort to stifle the growing unions' power in Hollywood by bringing together the biggest and most influential people in the industry.  Obviously, his efforts failed on that point as SAG, the DGA and WGA, to name a few, are proof.  His other goal with the formation of the Academy was to give some class to the industry.  At that time in America, the moral aspects of the still-new movie industry had started coming under fire by people like mothers and clergy.  Mayer believed that adding a little class with a stylish golden award would be just the public relations he needed...and he couldn't have been more correct.

The first awards ceremony wasn't even broadcast, but the Academy saw its public intrigue right at the start.  The next ceremony would start the long history of broadcasting the awards to the world, starting with just a small Los Angeles radio station doing the broadcast.  Also, the winners of the first awards were told of their wins a full three months before the ceremony.  By the next year, the academy's board of governors had decided on announcing the winners at the ceremony itself.  They did, however, release the list of winners to the newspapers so that they could publish the list at 11pm that night.  That deal fell through though in 1940 when The Los Angeles Times decided to publish the list in their evening edition, which came out before the ceremony even began.  After that, the sealed envelope and auditing firm Price Waterhouse (now called PricewaterhouseCoopers) started protecting the results and keeping the anticipation going.

Now, the famous statuette, commonly called the Oscar, is actually officially titled the Academy Award of Merit.  Its design was created by MGM's chief art director Cedric Gibbons.  He created a knight plunging a sword into a reel of film (with five spokes for each original division of the Academy - actors, directors, producers, writers and technicians) and drew it in the classic Art Deco style of the time with Mexican director/actor Emilio Fernández as his model.  They then hired sculptor George Stanley to carve the little man in plaster and created the first gold-plated bronze statues.  The statuettes are now made of 24-carat gold-plated britannium.  The only time the Oscars were not made of some kind of metal was for three years during WWII, when the metal shortage caused them to switch to painted plaster.  After the war was over though, all plaster-statue recipients were allowed to trade it in for metal ones.  The nickname of "Oscar" has many different stories of origin but the most commonly accepted one comes from Margaret Herrick, an Academy secretary who first saw the little statue in 1931 and commented that it reminded her of her Uncle Oscar. 

The first picture to win Best Picture was the WWI drama "Wings."  Yet, Best Actor winner Emil Jannings was actually the first awarded statue ever.  He wasn't able to be there for the first ceremony (he had to return to Germany) so they presented him with the award early.  Since that day, 2,701 statues have been handed out.  Who will be the next to join that list?  You can catch the winners on February 27th.  I'll be rooting for Colin Firth all the way.  Who will you be rooting for?  Hope you have a great week!  Be back Friday with more fun trivia. 

(Post-tidbit:  The awards ceremony missed its scheduled time only three times throughout history - first in 1938 when a flooded Los Angeles caused it to be postponed a week, then in 1968 by two days in respect for Martin Luther King's funeral, and finally for a day in 1981 after the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan.)

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Star Wars: Happy 100th!

No, "Star Wars" isn't turning 100.  I am!  This is my 100th post!  (Yay, me!  And posted a little late due to a new job, so another yay there too!)  Of course, I couldn't just write about any old film on this auspicious occasion.  It had to be a big one, mind-blowing and life-changing.  So, after much deliberation with myself, my geek side won out, and I decided there was no other choice than "Star Wars" (1977), the original, the one that started it all.

I already wrote about the first sequel "The Empire Strikes Back" in my favorites last year, but let's go back to the beginning.  "Star Wars" is the story of a young man who longs to leave the farm he grew up on and find adventure out in the world...and other worlds too.  His uncle keeps holding him back, but when two droids show up at his door, he's thrust into that adventure he longed for faster than he could ever have imagined, adventure that he was destined for.  Now, with the help of a wise old man and a cocky smuggler, he must learn the ways of an ancient practice and save a princess and her rebel forces from death and destruction.

George Lucas started writing the script for "Star Wars" back in 1973, after he finished filming "American Graffiti."  He described it as a space opera when he shopped it around Hollywood, though, and everyone laughed him out of their offices.  Finally, he went to see Alan Ladd Jr. at Twentieth Century Fox.  Ladd saw "Graffiti" and the talent in Lucas, and agreed to finance "Star Wars."  So, with a budget of only $8 million, Lucas was on his way to the film that would change his life forever.

During casting, Lucas looked at almost every young actor in Hollywood.  For the part of Han Solo (who was originally supposed to be a big, green, scaly creature), he saw Nick Nolte, Kurt Russell, Christopher Walken, Sylvester Stallone, even Billy Dee Williams.  Harrison Ford was never on his list though, because Lucas wanted to work with fresh faces, no one he'd worked with before.  (Ford, of course, got his start in "American Graffiti.")  However, Lucas had asked Ford to help out with casting by reading with all the potential actresses, and after hearing him read the part over and over again, Lucas realized Ford was the best choice for Han.  As for Princess Leia, Lucas looked at lots of actresses including Cindy Williams (whom he'd worked with in "Graffiti") and Sissy Spacek.  Fortunately for Spacek, Lucas was sharing the casting sessions with his friend Brian De Palma, who was casting "Carrie."  When Carrie Fisher was finally hired for Leia, it was on one condition...that she lose 10 pounds.  It's one of Fisher's favorite stories to share about her surreal "Star Wars" experience - they sent her to fat camp to lose the weight.

Finally, casting was done and they were on their way to Tunisia to start filming.  Because of the small budget (which only increased to $12 million during production, still making it the least expensive of all the "Star Wars" films), everyone tried to save money where they could, like flying coach everywhere instead of the standard first class (about which Lucas got an earful from Fisher's mother Debbie Reynolds).  Yet filming still fell to problems right at the start.  On the first day of filming, Tunisia had its first rainstorm in 50 years.  Props malfunctioned left and right.  Even costumers had lots of trouble making the C-3PO costume stay on Anthony Daniels in the heat.  After Tunisia, everyone flew to England, but there were still issues.  Lucas had to argue with the custodial staff of Elstree Studios to stop cleaning and buffing all the sets every night.  (Lucas wanted a dirtied-up, lived-in feel to everything.  They even rolled all the R2-D2s around in the dirt, and kicked them a bit.)  Lucas even had troubles with the British crew, who were very lackluster about working on "Star Wars" because they thought it was just some cheesy kids movie.

The cast had their own mishaps during filming as well.  At one point, one of C-3PO's leg pieces split all the way down to Daniels' foot and stabbed him.  Mark Hamill held his breath for so long in the trash compactor scene that he burst a blood vessel in his face that was difficult to cover with makeup, so many of the rest of his shots are from only one side of his face.  Hamill and Fisher did manage to successfully perform their one big stunt - the swing across the unreleasable bridge - without injury.  Even though she didn't have any more stunts, Fisher did have a daily pain to deal with.  Lucas wouldn't allow her to wear a bra under her costume, because "there is no underwear in space."  So Fisher had to use gaffer's tape for support instead.  (Lucas finally explained his reasoning to Fisher years later.  He said that when you go into the weightlessness of space, your body expands, but your bra wouldn't so you would be strangled by your own brassiere.  Sure, Lucas, suuuure that's the reason.)

Of course, nobody expected "Star Wars" to become the success it did.  Not only did everyone think it was just a silly space drama, no one had even come close to creating such a popular movie.  Kenner Toys had acquired the merchandising deal for "Star Wars" in a hope of selling just a few toys.  Honestly, they even thought the movie would bomb.  They were so unprepared for the massive demand for toys in Christmas 1977 that they ended up selling vouchers when the stock ran out.  These "empty box" toys sold in the masses but were not even able to be delivered until March.

Like I said, "Star Wars" is the movie that started it all.  No other film had been so successful, had created such a fan base, had created a merchandising empire all its own.  Yet, now it's what every studio in Hollywood tries to match.  So, have some geeky fun this weekend and watch the beginning again.  Have a great weekend, everyone!  Be back Tuesday.

(Post-tidbit:  I actually did rewatch "Star Wars" this week but it was this great new edit done by a fan.  It's called "Star Wars: Revisited" and can be found here.  It's an amazing edit, and I highly recommend watching it if you get the chance.  He corrected mistakes, edits, even added his own visual effects, which are beautiful.  If the "Star Wars: A New Hope Special Edition" from the 90s had been like this, I would have liked it a lot more.  He's currently working on "Empire," a 3-year labor of love so far.)

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

New Beverly Cinema: They Got it Wright

I have had a lot of amazing movie experiences over the years, whether it's been standing in line for midnight showings of "Star Wars" or "Harry Potter," or getting to see classic films on the big screen, like "How the West was Won" in actual Cinerama format or "North by Northwest" at the famous Grauman's Chinese Theater.  But this past weekend, I had one of the best cinematic experiences I have ever had, and I didn't even except it.  This past Saturday I got to watch a triple feature of "Shaun of the Dead" (2004), "Hot Fuzz" (2007), and one of my favorite films of last year "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" at the wonderful New Beverly Cinema, with director Edgar Wright and stars in person!

The New Beverly is this wonderful, old revival theater here in Los Angeles.  Built back in the 1920s as a vaudeville theater, it has seen quite a few changes over the years, from nightclub to foreign movie house to porn house.  Finally in 1978, a man by the name of Sherman Torgan purchased the place and converted it into a revival theater showing double features of classic, foreign and independent films.  He ran the place until 2007 when, sadly, he passed away.  His family has kept the theater going, but in 2010, hard times hit, and the theater was almost sold to Super Cuts, of all places.  Luckily Quentin Tarantino, a longtime beneficiary of the New Beverly decided to buy it full out.  The Torgan family still runs the theater while Tarantino just steps in every once in a while to do his own programming.

Back in 2007 though, the New Beverly started a guest programmer series, and Edgar Wright (director of the triple feature that night) was the first to participate.  This year he's back for his second stint as guest programmer, and he started the two-week funfest off with his own films.  He had promised some very special guests would be helping him introduce the films, and we all thought that would mean Simon Pegg, star of "Shaun" and "Fuzz."  Unfortunately Pegg had tweeted earlier that he was sorry but he wouldn't be able to make it.  So, with Lucy Davis (one of Pegg's costars in "Shaun" and star of the original BBC version of "The Office") at his side introducing the first film, Wright decided to call Pegg in Canada.  Well, it was all a fake.  A phone suddenly rang backstage and out walked Pegg himself!  Ah, social many more ways to psyche the public out.  Pegg and Wright stayed through the night, introducing each film and answering questions from the audience.  Pegg even stuck around to help the cast members of "Scott Pilgrim" - Mae Whitman, Mark Webber, Johnny Simmons, Anna Kendrick, Brie Larson, Michael Bacall, and Brandon Routh (who, in person, totally looks like Superman...I!) - with their Q&A.

And not only were all the above mentioned stars in attendance, but some other big names had attended just for the show, like Jason Ritter, Seth Green, and Tarantino himself, just quietly sitting in the back row.  He had even selected the amazing vintage trailers that opened each film.  That's right!  Not only did we get to see three very funny films, plus Q&A's with some of the stars, but we also got some amazing, crazy, original 35mm print trailers to set the mood.  "Shaun" started out with trailers such as "Carrie" (1976), "Modern Problems" (1981), "Groundhog Day" (1993), "The Man with Two Brains" (1983), and Pegg's new film "Paul."  "Hot Fuzz" was proceeded by "48 Hrs." (1982), "Electra Glide in Blue" (1973) ("A 5'4" cop in a 6'2" world"...seriously, that's the tagline), "Fuzz" (1972), "Nighthawks" (1981), and "Super Cops" (1974) to name a few.  And finally "Scott Pilgrim," starting at 1 o'clock in the morning, had trailers for "Zabriskie Point" (1970), "A Clockwork Orange" (1971), "Candy" (1968) (a crazy mindtrip with Marlon Brando, Richard Burton, Lee Marvin, Peter O'Toole, even Ringo Starr!), "Fight Club" (1999), and "The Blues Brothers" to start it off.

It was a long...long night but it was worth every bit of it.  It was hilarious, fun, and perfect for the geek in me.  If you have a chance, try and catch some of the rest of the double features during "The Wright Stuff II" fest.  You won't regret it (and they are only $7 for an entire night).  Wright has chosen a great line up that is going until the end of January.  Have a great week, everyone!  Be back Friday.

(Post-tidbit:  Pegg and Wright said that "Shaun" was kind of a twisted love story to London for them.  They even shot much of the movie around the neighborhood they both still live in.)

Friday, January 14, 2011

I Love Lucy: My Childhood Love

Okay, I've finally come up with the new format for this year.  I'm mixing things up.  Now, my individual favorite topics will be on Friday, to get your juices flowing for more specific Hollywood fun over your weekends.  But it won't be limited to just movies this time around.  I'll be throwing in television shows too, and to start it all off, let's talk about one of the best classic shows in television history, "I Love Lucy"!

I've talked about a lot of actresses before that I longed to be just like as a kid, i.e. Ginger Rogers, Rosalind Russell, even Esther Williams.  But none of them compared to how much I loved Lucille Ball growing up.  I loved everything about her, her television show, her films, her comedic genius, her dramatic talent.  Hey, I even loved her abnormal, chemically-created, bright red hair.  Anything Lucy-related was the thing to get me for a present if you had no idea what else to buy.  And even though I might have only picked up Lucy Richardo's scatterbrained sensibilities, I still reminisce about those days of practicing being just as sassy, just as spunky, just as hilarious as her.

Lucy had already been an actress in Hollywood for 18 years before "I Love Lucy" came along.  Lucy came out to Hollywood back in 1933 to be a Goldwyn Girl (an all-female, all-blonde dance company owned by Samuel Goldwyn) for the film "Roman Scandals."  She was then hired as a contract player at RKO Studios (the studio she would buy years later with hubby Desi Arnaz) and became "Queen of the Bs" from all the B-movies she starred in while there, like the "Annabel" films, "Five Came Back" (1939), and "Dance, Girl, Dance" (1940).  It wasn't until 1942's "The Big Street" that she moved up in status, when MGM's Arthur Freed fell in love with her performance and signed her to an MGM contract for his new musical "DuBarry was a Lady."

Lucy had already met, fallen in love with, and married Desi by this time.  The two met while filming Rogers and Hart's "Too Many Girls" (1940).  Desi had come to Hollywood to reprise his role from the Broadway production of "Too Many Girls."  When Lucy and Desi first met, he actually didn't think that much of her, but it could have been the giant fake black eye still on her face from a day of shooting "Dance, Girl, Dance."  The next time they met though, it was an instant connection, and after a long summer romance, they eloped.

The couple struggled to make their marriage work from the beginning, though, thanks to the demands of their jobs.  Lucy's career was building, but Desi was a bandleader and had to tour.  As often as possible, Lucy would accompany Desi on his tours, sometimes participating in the act, but it still wasn't enough.  Then, in 1948, Lucy started a CBS radio series called "My Favorite Husband" about a scatterbrained wife and her Midwestern banker husband, as well as their married best friends.  The show lasted two years before CBS wanted to develop it for television. Lucy said yes on one condition...that Desi play her husband.

CBS balked at the idea, thinking America would never accept an American woman and a Cuban man as husband and wife.  But Lucy and Desi were determined to change CBS's mind because working together on a show meant no more long tours for Desi and crazy movie schedules for Lucy.  They could finally be together.  So the Arnazes spent the summer of 1950 touring the country in a vaudevillian act to prove the studio wrong.  It was a success and the next spring, CBS greenlit a pilot (which was never aired but the script did make it into the first season of "Lucy").  They basically just played themselves for the pilot, a movie star and a bandleader, and the biggest concern during it?  Hiding Lucy's pregnancy (skills they would get to use again a couple years later).

CBS loved the pilot and ordered the series...but they wanted it shot live in New York.  Lucy and Desi did not want to leave California, so Desi negotiated a deal to have the show shot on film in LA (something that was not done at that time).  So Desilu Productions was created, and everyone got cracking on creating what would become the standard for sitcoms to come (until the single-camera craze of today).  They rented two sound stages, created permanent film quality sets, brought in three film cameras, and constructed bleachers for an audience.  As Lucy once said, it was "a three-act play before an audience, filmed like a movie, recorded like radio, and released on television."  The first episode of "I Love Lucy" aired on October 15, 1951 and was an instant success - success that would last for seven years to come.

I could obviously go on and on and on...and on about "I Love Lucy" and Lucy and Desi themselves, but I'll leave that for later dates.  I simply suggest today going back and cherishing the classic television that started it all...and get some good laughs in there too.  And be sure to come back on Tuesday when I start my new weekly feature focusing on elements throughout Hollywood, whether they be person, place or thing.  Have a great weekend, everyone!  Til Tuesday.

(Post-tidbit:  Lucy was actually six years older than Desi and 40 years old when "I Love Lucy" began.  So, thinking it wasn't very acceptable in society for an older woman to be married to a younger man, they knocked off 10 years for the character Lucy Richardo's age.)

Friday, January 7, 2011

Here's to a Great New Year!

I have been trying to write my first blog of the year for a week now with no luck.  I was blocked.  I wanted it to be big, to be grand, to be epic!  I wanted to start out what I know will be an amazing year with a bang!  Yet, for some reason I couldn't match what was in my head with the movie topics I was writing.  So, I have decided to start off the new year with a little note to you all instead.

When I first moved to Los Angeles oh so many years ago, I was in awe of this place.  I wanted to soak up everything, so I started visiting all those iconic places I had been watching and reading about as a kid back in my small Texas town.  I used to hike up behind the Hollywood Sign regularly and gaze over the city, dreaming about finally being a part of that world.  Sadly, as time passed, I became more and more jaded by this industry, and those senses of wonderment that I once thrived on here became blocked by frustrating fog caused by disappointment after disappointment...until this past year.

Thanks to this blog, I have regained that true love of Hollywood again.  The history has revived my senses.  Therefore, I start of this new year with a thanks to all of you.  Thank you, readers, for making my first blogging year so memorable!  When I think about where I was in my life at this time last year, I'm amazed at the difference.  Much of that difference definitely comes from starting "Diary of a Celluloid Girl," and it wouldn't have continued if I had not received so many great responses from you all.

So, here's to the new year!  I know it's going to be wonderful, and I hope you feel the same as well.  And, oh, the topics I already have in store for you all.  Until next week, everyone.  And again...thanks.  :)