Sunday, June 19, 2011




I came to The Oprah Winfrey Show that first nationally syndicated episode in 1986 because I loved her acting in THE COLOR PURPLE. That trailer and this photo really struck me. ‘This is some good / authentic casting’.  This still photo of Oprah as Sofia I looked at a lot before I saw the film. Something about that look in her eyes I related to. That far-away gaze had a mixture of being present, but also being somewhere far, far away. Then I saw the film and became even more impressed with Whoopi Goldberg's range of talents and began my long love affair with Oprah Winfrey. Unfortunately, her acting career took a backseat to that other career. You know, that changing of the world thing that she was doing.

When an actor gives a great performance I always want to know more, know them off camera a little bit. Get a sense of the differences (between them and the character) or the similarities. How did they do it?, how did they connect, how did they do those big emotional scenes.  Oprah had a few of them in The Color Purple. The cornfield scene, the Christmas ‘thank you’ to Celie, and the big transformation Thanksgiving scene at the end where Sofia finds her voice and power again.

I remember an acting teacher took issue with her performance. I instantly wanted out of the class. ‘What are you talking about !!! She knows how to personalize and the ‘girl’ can deliver on those close-ups – what else is there?’

Sofia (Oprah Winfrey) is arguably the most tragic figure of the entire narrative because her self-assured and daring personality — a refusal to submit to anyone — is ironically her downfall. One single mistake made from an instinctive reaction transforms a strong-willed person to a quietly submissive individual. Her act of self-defense serves as part of a larger leitmotif — depictions of how hands are used throughout the film. We see her often with hands swinging at her side or with clinched fists. But after her prison release, those same hands are hidden in her lap or pretty much useless for the simplest tasks like picking groceries.

She does some amazing acting with her tight close-ups. It’s a full thrust and commanding achievement for a debut film performance. From the punch, (with that brilliant half squint after she is slapped) that got her in trouble in the street, to her prison scene, to her closing celebration moments with Harpo as Celie’s sister comes home. You are with Sofia to the very core of her being. Oprah completely lets you in with the smallest of moments. A quick sweep of the camera and you know exactly where she is at and you feel it as she does. Now we know that her trademark compassion, humanity and empathy as a person - those are exactly the true blue qualities of a good actor. Her selflessness and ability to identify with the oppressed. She believes in the material with the depths of her soul, commits fully with every fiber and it shows. I always say the best actors are the best citizens in life. They listen, they truly do care about something bigger than themselves. Sean Penn, Blythe Danner, Meryl Streep – when they see an injustice going on in the world, the good ones, aren’t afraid to act quick, speak out and do something. It’s not just PC Hollywood humanitarianism for copy – but real concern.

Lesson with Oprah for actors is that you can’t separate person with actor – they are intertwined. It's best to personalize. You can’t fake it. It has to really happen. Oprah Winfrey is THE COLOR PURPLE is a master class in commitment, ‘it has to happen for realzies’, and for the love of God... listen, and love thy scene partner and thy neighbor.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011



Expertly written and directed by ( THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT, writer/director) Lisa Cholodenko. Her magic as a screenwriter is the truth under the story. The intangibles. The unseen forces that push our lives forward and the things that keep us frozen. Usually once you bring drugs into a story, audiences usually quickly judge the entire problems of the central relationships – as well “this is just about a bunch of druggies, who cares, they deserve whatever is coming”. But not in this movie. It takes you further than that. Deeper and you can’t help but care. HIGH ART deeply examines the lives that people who like to escape and that are stuck and a few that are trying to move forward. Is Syd using Lucy to further her career? Her brilliance as a director is her eye for details and casting. (This was daring, out of the box casting of Sheedy and for Clarkson). Along with her talents for telling a strong story, it's her detailed work within 'the frame' as it were - the surroundings, the light, and the performances. This by far is Alley Sheedy’s best work but the performance that blew my mind here was Patricia Clarkson as Greta. The heroin-addicted girlfriend of Alley Sheedy’s Lucy and a former Fassbinder actress. Lucy and Greta play host to an assortment of hard-living party kids. The two women, who lived in Berlin for a while, have relocated to New York so that Lucy could pursue her artistic calling. Unfortunately this film was about twenty years before it’s time. Audiences never really found it because of the girl/girl stuff, or the drugs or possibly its overall  smarts but it’s one to search for and watch. Patricia Clarkson succeeds in creating a complete, complex character without ever overplaying the stoned behavior. 

This performance is why I like talking about actors, acting and what makes something signature. It’s a very specific quality that only that actor could make possible.

Having made her film debut in The Untouchables in 1987 and her career-changing German-lesbian heroin-addict debut in High Art in 1998, Patricia Clarkson has over the past ten years transcended the ageist stereotype of the American female actor. Since turning 40, she has had major roles in over 30 films including The Station Agent; Pieces of April; Far From Heaven; Good Night, and Good Luck; Lars and the Real Girl; Married Life; Vicky Cristina Barcelona; and Elegy, to name a few. With a career as distinctive as the voice that has given it life, it is her generosity of spirit that one remembers best. On screen and on stage she inhabits characters with a deep humanity, a languid, exquisite intelligence and charm that lives, breathes, and simmers inside.

She has a Tennessee Williams quality to her acting. A very powerful poetic realistic quality. A softness with smarts with a sprinkling of the tragic. She infuses Greta with all of these qualities. Her face shows us everything – the past and the future. There’s a lot of photo stills used in HIGH ART – even in the tiniest of snapshots of Greta – you feel her inevitable tragic future. When asked about Greta and if there were similarities – how did you play someone so different than you? , Ms. Clarkson said “It’s cliched, but it’s always more challenging to play a character further removed from one’s own. That said, sometimes with that challenge you can travel the greatest distance as an actor.” She points to her training at Yale Drama school and Lisa Cholodenko for her good fortune in the movie business.
Greta’s will is strong. She’s trying to bring Lucy back to the way they were in the beginning, when times were better. When love was easy, new and fresh. How tough it is to be in a relationship when it’s over and you’re the only one wants to stay in it. Plus she’s got the dope on Lucy and knows where she is going, and what she wants. Ultimately, Greta pulls her back, dangling their seductive past and some killer dope to a tragic end for everyone.
After her early brush with Hollywood left her cold, Ms. Clarkson found herself at home on the fringes and re-emerged as cinema’s independent woman. A rotation of eclectic, shrewdly chosen roles has resulted in mainstream success, a devout following and an orderly queue of directors running her ragged.

 It’s a paradox in keeping with a career built on contradictions: over 25 years she has reserved the right to be both chameleonic outlier and known quantity, self-effacing artist and scene-stealing operative, consummate mother and quintessential dame, indie stalwart and A-list darling. Patricia Clarkson has become a stealth weapon of choice for Hollywood's best directors.
Funny, warm, tough, troubled, demanding, insightful, piercing and full of zingers and sass, Greta is the life of the party. And Patricia Clarkson will have many more chances to show us her range, grace and gifts thanks to her incredible, funny, daring performance in HIGH ART. She is exactly that, high art. 

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

CHER as Loretta Castorini in MOONSTRUCK


Brilliant in SILKWOOD, which will probably make my top 100 favs – that last moment just kills me. MASK had some great moments, especially when she finds out her son has passed away, she literally comes undone, wrecking her Sunland Valley home and then sticking pins in his beloved Europe poster telling him he can ‘now go wherever he wants'.  I even thought she was really good in SUSPECT. I know – Cher as a lawyer – but I liked it. As for her signature work, I’d have to agree with the OSCAR voters, she is exceptional in John Patrick Shanley and Norman Jewison’s MOONSTRUCK.  A fantastic ensemble. Like WORKING GIRL, it’s a big 'Cinderella' romantic comedy set in the Italian American Brooklyn and NY areas but the film also deals with some serious heartaches, male shortcomings and female superstitions. It’s a great film about elusive things that hold real power under the surface of human behavior, not just for Italian Americans: old grudges, vendettas, deep wounds, superstitions, and loneliness. Blame it on the moon. Love, romance and its desire for either, too, has a strange power over us, affecting our judgment, and making people take risks rather than playing it safe. Centered on the Castorini family, 'Moonstruck' is about all these things and so much more, like good food, family tradition, money, growing old together and that age-old question of why men chase after younger women… This comedy is very much about the crazy things we do when the moon is out and full.
What is most remarkable about this performance from Cher is her listening and her reactions: her stillness. When someone’s talking, this character can’t hide her true feelings, whether it’s sarcastic, lust filled, or frustrated to rage…her KNOWING deadpan looks are extraordinary and very funny. The comedy comes from her history of men going the wrong way, and being left in the wake of their mistakes - accidents "he got hit by a bus". It’s not just because we feel we know Cher that it works – it works because she’s a really good actress. She takes us to places where we have great fear in acknowledging in our own lives. It’s a dynamite performance.

A scene I play for my acting class on how ‘mimic and mock repetition’ can work - the first scene with Cher and Vincent Gradenia, where Cher tells her father she’s going to get married and she needs him to give her away in a church, instead of City Hall , so she doesn’t have ‘bad luck’. The non-verbal looks, the rhythm, how they match vocal tone / volume, physical gesturing, even the eyeballs – it’s brilliant and shows early on in the film that Cher is gifted comedian. Another tiny moment I love right off the bat is when the owner of the flower shop hands her a flower. The way her face lets go for a moment and you honestly feel how touched and appreciative she is..."Thank you Carmine". She waits the perfect amount of time before saying her line. That's good acting. Taking that brief moment. Having the confidence that she could deliver true feeling without speaking - glorious.

Down the smallest of roles – the grandfather and the store owners – are perfectly cast. Real looking people that have talent that add wonderfully to the films authenticity.

John Patrick Shanley's witty and insightful script puts an octet of New Yorkers under a lunar spell one romantic night. There’s a beautiful ethereal quality to MOONSTRUCK – a quality that is under the entire – the shots of the moon, the moon’s reflection through the lace curtains, and there’s magic behind all the actors performances. Even Nic Cage – who for some in this film was like slightly over-cooked pasta. I think it’s amongst his best work. Right up there with ‘Leaving Las Vegas’ and ‘Adaptation’. His odd-ball choices and largeness were perfect for this unusual oddball character with a wooden hand and smoldering primitive sex appeal.

CHER won the OSCAR that year against very though competition:

Holly Hunter in BROADCAST NEWS, Meryl Streep in IRONWEED, Sally Kirkland in ANNA, Glenn Close in FATAL ATTRACTION.

It's hard to imagine another actress playing the lovelorn, guilt-stricken Loretta with such soulful panache. And who else could have pulled off such gigantic hair? The transformation wasn’t the unbelievable part – we know Cher knows how to get dolled up, but it’s the beginning, with the greys, when life’s beaten her down and she’d settled into neighborhood that was so amazing. Big Love to Cher – historic powerhouse performances that year… I think the Academy got it right with their selection. Somehow, even though she’s already had a giant career, Cher is always the underdog. That’s a gift. It’s rare when a female actor wins the OSCAR that the crowd leaps to their feet.  They did this year ( maybe thx to Meryl, always a class act) – way to go CHER!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011



Smart, sexy, tall, hard working – Sigourney Weaver is one of the best under-appreciated actors ever. You can feel her dissecting her roles like a really dedicated archaeologist. Digging around, carefully dusting off her choices until one feels absolutely perfect. I was going to talk about ALIENS first but the one that I watch with silent awe is her turn as Katherine Parker in WORKING GIRL. I love the character's name even, Katherine Parker, it just sounds like a lil pampered brat who was dropped off to kindergarten in a limo. Great writing. Great Director. Great Actress. A thankless role that could have easily gone caricature, but in Weaver's perfect stylized acting hands – it’s a zealous experience. Something about her combination of steeliness and joy that makes me both happy and pissed. Pissed, in a good way. I have issues with those blue blooded types that have had everything handed to them and can’t discern ‘want’ from ‘need’. They need everything and usually get it. Her entitled, pampered, corporate beast is the perfect antagonist in this irresistible fairy tale romantic comedy. It’s not a laugh out loud comedy like ARTHUR, the Dudley Moore ‘Arthur’, it’s a smile all the way through comedy like TOOTSIE.

She's condescending and patronizing but she believes her own propaganda so thoroughly and sweetly that you can’t help but buy into her bumper sticker slogans, “Watch me, learn from me Tess”. Her notes are direct, but softly always cushions the helpful blow, "I'd re-think the jewelry". Under Katharine's tutelage, Tess comes up with new ideas, like a suggestion that dim sum be served at a business reception. ''I'd love to help you,'' Katharine whispers smoothly to the perspiring Tess, ''but we can't busy the quarterback with passing out the Gatorade, Artie.!.”

Comedy is difficult and as film continues to aim for younger and younger (and dumber) crowds, these kinds of witty / smart comedies are becoming more and more a thing of the past. ‘The Style’ (level / tone) of the comedy has to have been an agreed upon by all departments and actors early on in the process. The level / tone has to be dialed in just right. Any actor that breaks from the style and plays the joke or goes for the cheap laugh…the entire structure could break. Joan did it a couple of times, (“Let’s give her a shout, shall we”, "You decent?" “Coffee, Tea, ME” ) but that’s OK, she brought it back. She was able to do a little shtick and bring the reality of the scene back. All of this has to be monitored by the director, and no better a maestro for this creative orchestra than Mike Nichols. This comedy has a very specific style and tone to it. It’s not just a standard Romantic Comedy. It’s a reality, but a fairy tale reality. Big hair, big colors, big music, almost an expressionistic style. But it has to be played for real, but it can be dialed up big but not overdone big. Sigourney Weaver plays it perfectly. In the right pocket of the films tone. The comedy comes from her manner, not because she thinks she’s being funny or has a funny line. It comes out of her characters truth, her characters limitations / flaws. Her frustrations, and exile is what gets us. That comes from understanding the script, knowing drama and styles of comedies past, and working closely with the director. It’s hard talking to new actors about 'style'.  They think I’m talking about fashion. A current sample of playing the right style / tone of a comedy is Gwyneth Paltrow on GLEE. Now I don't love love love that show, but she matched the style of the show perfectly, the fast, rat-tit-tat-tat line delivery, the quick cuts. She understood the piece as a whole – not just her part. She kept her eye on the prize, the entire entity.  Actors, mediocre actors, sometimes lose that perspective – because well - they’re selfish - and don't like to read.

Sigourney Weaver is a brilliant actress. What she did in this role was hysterical and embarrassing. Playing ‘the fool’ isn’t easy. It’s often like playing someone of lesser intelligence, you end of commenting on the character – rather than relishing the part. The physical stuff at the end was the entire movie. She puts perfume on, throws a shawl over her cast and then Harrison pulls it off and she leans forward still pursuing him, swallowing a slight humiliation but never giving in. Much like the ending when she really has to swallow her male like pride. She excuses herself, the way she walks away in her crutches, and she still holds her chin up as she moves away – GENIUS - a temporary loss. Wicked beasts like Katherine Parker don’t stay down long. They’ll go home and quickly rationalize the entire experience as ‘a difficult work week’ and be back in the game somewhere else Monday, making some other secretaries' life a living hell.

Nominated twice that year. Supporting here for WORKING GIRL and lead in GORILLAS IN THE MIST. I really felt she should have won the OSCAR  that year. Not just cause it was a big year for her, but because she truly deserved it.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

NAOMI WATTS as Cristina Peck in 21 GRAMS


I love Naomi Watts but I just didn’t get MULHOLLAND DRIVE. I’ve seen it a bunch of times and I just don’t get it. If someone could enlighten me, I’m willing to mentor to the wiser. I haven’t completely understood a Lynch film since THE ELEPHANT MAN. He’s off his rocker – I love his tone and the commitment he gets from his actors – but he’s not playing with a full deck, not anymore. I especially loved a lot of the moments from his new arrival Naomi Watts – but it wasn’t a full performance. Not until 21 GRAMS. Overshadowed that year by Charlize – Naomi gave an absolutely thunderous performance here as the grieving wife and mother of two young children. Here the unthinkable happens.

Doctor Elizabeth Kubler Ross defined the various stages of death and dying – which was also later became the manual for grief counseling. Naomi’s Cristina Peck is locked in the anger stage like a runaway train with no breaks. With good reason, fractured by her grief, the sudden death of her husband and two young children, she falls back into her old demons of addiction.  Done to haunting perfection with no stone unturned, NAMOI WATTS is magnificent and terrifying in 21 GRAMS. She bolts through scenes and right through the camera. What I really noticed about her performance – something Amy Ryan also does as well  – is that they never pose or play to the camera – they let the camera find them. They are just in it. Naomi did it first and so remarkably here in 21 GRAMS – fiercely and furiously moves through scene after scene - catch up guys – I’m acting my ass off – stay with me. Her journey is the center of the film, her redemption; her heart is the one we want to see healed. The other characters make choices to a certain degree; Naomi’s Cristina is stuck with the bleak leftovers life has to offer.

21 GRAMS is a must-see motion picture. Naomi Watts, mesmerizing here as a broken woman, overflowing with pure hatred and bitterness — but little self-pity.
An unsaid, and sometimes said, bond connects the characters. A mere silent glance; a silent meditation of thoughts; or a silent desire to die. All this is captured by the performances, cinematography and a blank background score with passionate perfection. Watts’ tears leave you moist eyed, Penn’s pain can move a stone, and Del Toro’s self-condemnation make you alternatively pity and loathe him. Sooner or later, you find your ’self’ empathizing with the trials; the characters face tribulations and emotional turmoil.
Ultimately, moving performances augment González’s unorthodox style of non-linear storytelling to transcend the boundaries of gimmick-editing, driving home the point that: akin to this movie, the roller-coaster ride called life too has an uncanny art of disclosing the naked truth only when the time is ripe, irrespective of when, how and for whatsoever reason one is thrown in to a life-changing situation. And instead of confusing you, this screenplay slowly opens up new doors of perception as it progresses, adding hitherto unknown dimensions to both the characters and the story, unraveling one layer after another, finally culminating into a bizarre, yet profound climax that leaves us pondering about life, death, relationships and the deep rooted desire of mankind to desperately seek redemption in this lifetime.
Like the story’s tumultuous nature, director Alejandro González’s 21 GRAMS shakes your soul and stirs it too — all the way to redemption. Thoughts and ideas come at destroyed people in fragments. In the end the three disconnected souls come together and the truth is revealed to all.
Love, hate, revenge, death, and redemption drive the lives of Sean Penn, Naomi Watts and Benicio Del Toro. One fateful incident intertwines their lives, simultaneously delivering them to the brink of self-destruction and redemption. This is her crowning achievement so far. Although I heard FAIR GAME she was fantastic in. Here she is completely wrenching. When she plays her husbands last call on the answering machine with the girls little voices in the background, seconds before they are killed, is shattering stuff. Watch what she's doing on the kitchen floor. She's completely in it; the sounds and the way her body moves is captivating.  It's primitive.  Like a deer that just got hit by a semi-truck, watching the poor thing find it's way back on to it's hoofs on the asphalt - crawling back into the woods to die.  I can’t imagine how she was able to put this character to bed – it’s a performance that lingers and gets you in the middle of your gut – right below your heart. The part that hurts. 

Tuesday, April 19, 2011


Michelle Pfeiffer

The film follows two brothers trying to make their old lounge act work. Times are tough and the two brothers have hit rock bottom on the hotel circuit in Seattle, but maybe with a singer they have a chance to redeem themselves.
Enter Susie Diamond – Michelle Pfeiffer. Stunning.
Susie's had a hard life, and she's got the attitude to match; when she sings a song like ''Ten Cents a Dance,'' she's very nearly singing from experience. Michelle Pfeiffer is as unexpected a choice for this musical bombshell as Jeff Bridges is for the self-hating, lonely Jack, but, like him, she proves to be electrifying. "Introducing Ms. Pfeiffer's furiously hard-boiled, devastatingly gorgeous Susie into the Bakers' world affects the film the way a match might affect a fuse".
THE FABULOUS BAKER BOYS, like its stars, has style and sultriness to spare. The warm, rich hues of Michael Ballhaus's cinematography contribute immeasurably to the film's invitingly intimate glow. And the cast members' ingenuous musical performances work surprisingly well, sometimes even spectacularly. When Ms. Pfeiffer, draped across Jeff Bridge’s piano and setting some new standard for cinematic slickness, performs in the above-mentioned New Year's Eve sequence with the camera gliding hypnotically around her, she just plain brings down the house. Watch her mid-section as she sings to Jack, Jeff Bridges. Her stomach literally waves into the bottom of the piano like a wildcat, while singing, spinning, acting, oozing. It’s remarkable – gorgeous – seamless – incredible acting. Redefining stunning.

The film doesn’t really travel that far in terms of its journey, but the characters each take a substantial step forward in their lives. It’s about finding your truer self, honoring ones own passions artistically and personally and finally opening yourself up to the possibility of love – as hard as that is for a cynic and a pro.
Michelle Pfeiffer is one of the sexiest screen actors ever and this was the film that made her a sensation. She becomes a triple – quadruple threat. Her singing isn’t perfect but she controls her voice in such a way that it fits the character and film beautifully.

Chemistry is something that is either there or it’s not. You can act it up to a point but the chemistry between Pfeiffer and Jeff Bridges is so palpable and disarming that it elevates the simple story and turns the film into magic. Even when they are putting each other off and trying not to show their feelings in front of Beau Bridges’ character – it’s there. Gangbusters there. Like a piercing laser-beam, the chemistry in this film is like that of Hollywood's golden age. Whether it’s in a look, a quick glance, or on top of a piano. I loved her as ‘Catwoman’ in BATMAN RETURNS and in DANGEROUS LIAISONS but this is was the one that made her legendary.

Thursday, April 14, 2011


Charlize Theron 

It's not an awards seeking ‘transformation’ stunt. 

I had many reservations going into MONSTER. Well, one main one. I sensed the intentions of Charlize and the filmmakers were to win awards for it’s leading lady. It just screamed – ‘look at what I’ve done to myself’ – ‘look at my transformation’. I always had that vibe with RAGING BULL as well – it just felt like its origins of taking the real life personal story to screen were more for the actor rather than the story. The inceptions weren’t pure. Maybe everyone’s Oscar crazed from the beginning but the story has to be there.

When I first saw MONSTER in the movie theater I can recall thinking, 'I really don’t mind if it’s not 100 percent autobiographical / accurate – it’s a great fucking film. The story is here'.  Patty Jenkins (THE SAVAGES) deserves just as much credit as Charlize. The journey of past to present to tell this story is well crafted. A great script, beautifully directed and one hell of a DETAILED performance by Charlize Theron. She is truly possessed. Engulfed in the horrors of an abused childhood to a living killer. This is what happens when you don’t love your child. The bottom line of the story is love. The movie and performance was devastating and the actors and filmmakers felt like they had a mission far beyond the red carpets. Charlize made me a true believer.

Charlize Theron gives an extraordinarily powerful performance as the serial killer. And it was amazing how she was able to literally transform herself into the woman, Aileen Wuornos, mannerisms and all. This ‘transformation’ is not just make-up. It’s more than that – it’s a performance that is speaking directly at you. Yes, she speaks like Wuornos, walks like her, with a masculine swagger, flips her hair back, holds her mouth, captures her intensity, and her black eyes had always show a glint of madness as well as a yearning for love and a new beginning. More than an impersonation – it travels into the darkness and finds something we all have in common. The need to be heard, healed, and loved.

I remember Charlize talking about finding a real pair of Aileen’s ‘Capri Jeans’ from the time period of the killings - and that’s how she knew how big she needed to be and how she needed to stand and walk. How the knees buckled back a bit, it was all in the jeans. Charlize excavates Wournos physical and as well has her damaged psyche.  

My favorite scene that shows her strength and complex depth is when she is determined to give up prostitution and get a respectable job. Her attempts to rebound herself after feeling love for the first time, Wuornos, pumped full of unrealistic expectations but lacking a marketable skill, endures a series of humiliating job interviews that are made all the worse by her own grating refusal to accept rejection. When she tells off the final employer – you feel all the pain and abuse from her past, as if her life were riding on that moment. As she lets him ‘have it’ in this scene, she illustrates perfectly the chasm between the smug workaday world and the demimonde of unsocialized outsiders who are clueless about the job market. Here she is both frightening and fascinating as well as inviting your comfort, hope and console. You pray this jerk is going to give her a break, but of course, like the rest of the world – he doesn’t. "Fuck you Leslie!"

This is truly a damaged child beyond redemption and reckoning. Charlize somehow manages to play both killer and victim without judging or leaning in one direction or another. She just puts it all out there - the anger, the ugly perspective and lack of any solid moral standing, the impulsive / immediate needs, the violence, the sharp tongue, and most importantly …the need to be loved.

Watch that last moment of the film where she looks back – right into the camera. Ah-mazing.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011


Laura Dern

I was probably one of the five people that saw and loved SMOOTH TALK. I watched it a lot as a teenager. I felt like if I had a twin sister – she’d look a lot like Laura Dern. Long limbs, tall, long face. I have to say I was resistant to CITIZEN RUTH when it first came out. It seemed so on the nose, too deliberate or something but it’s not at all... it’s so sublime and covert. It’s incredibly smart. Every time I watch it, I can’t believe how I once misjudged its brilliance  – maybe it was the poster or the way they tried to market it but it’s Alexander Payne / Jim Taylor at their most genius and irreverent. I feel Laura Dern is one of those actors – who probably has to fight like Tyson to get every role. Her look is so unusual, beautiful, as my twin sister would be, but not conventional at all. Laura Dern has the talent and skills to spare and no film shows off her ability and smarts like CITIZEN RUTH. I have to thank my friend Jon for making me keep CITIZEN RUTH in the rotation. I finally get it.

It takes a very smart actor to play someone this dumb.

Laura Dern as Ruth Stoops in Payne’s nasty little black comedy about abortion only cements her status as the go-to girl for playing women who live in the crusty underbellies of society. Here, as the clueless, glue-sniffing mother of four who finds out she is unexpectedly pregnant, Dern must begin as a complete degenerate who by the end of the film remains a degenerate, just one that is more informed than most. Her performance is physical comedy and bravery to the ninth degree. Dern twists her features, her lanky limbs and mugs exaggeratedly for the camera; everything is big. Her gestures, her voice and gruff language, and in a few scenes, her hair, all take on a larger than life quality and rather than becoming a cartoonishly-drawn version of poor white trash, Dern expertly gives Ruth a palpable sense of hopelessness and scared confusion. When all is said and done, she is able to humanize a pure wretch of a character, and even make her funny, but the most impeccable thing about this performance is the way she does it in such an expressively unsympathetic way. We shouldn’t love Ruth Stoops, but we do. That is all thanks to the skill of Dern. As much as I love a lot of actors today: Adams, Naomi Watts, Kidman…etc – No one I could think of could pull off what Laura Dern in this film. The tone of the film is completely in Laura Dern’s hands – and she nails it.

CITIZEN RUTH is the first and probably least widely seen film from the team of Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, who went on to make Election, About Schmidt, and Sideways. As played by Laura Dern, who embraces the role with a ferocity that deserves a medal of valor rather than an award, Ruth Stoops ranks among the most deliciously venal protagonists since Billy Wilder’s heyday—indeed, the movie features nobody with whom any sane audience member could possibly identify for a moment. CITIZEN RUTH satirizes both sides of the abortion debate, RUTH STOOPS is a drug addict who’s already had several children removed from her care, Ruth has just been charged with reckless endangerment of her current fetus, and may do felony prison time if she has the child; here, a “Babysaver” volunteer has dragged her to see some medicos with an agenda.

The scene where the “Babysavers” first announce that they’ll give her money to come back to them and she screams with savage glee. It’s the scene where you really put all the pieces together and acknowledge that Ruth truly lives in her own selfish universe…and is never going to change.

Ruth, in this clip’s final seconds, turns and looks directly into the camera lens—the only time she does so in the entire film. I’ve never been able to settle on whether her look says, “Help!” or “Can you believe this shit?”—But, then, that’s precisely the line that CITIZEN RUTH straddles so expertly, in large part because of its willingness to eschew social realism. Ruth Stoops is a fantastic character, but place her at the center of a movie set in the real, recognizable world, and she’d be ghastly, not funny. Dern is able to make her ghastly and know deep down – the audience is laughing their asses off.

Dern is nothing short of brilliant. She manages to play dumb without lowering herself. Ruth is an uneducated waste of a life blob-force. Her Ruth is as crafty as an addict would have to be, and she hasn't an ounce of compassion for anyone but herself, but she is plucky and indomitable, and you can't help but admire her loutish essence. She is the last character on Earth anyone would claim as a heroine, but she bests all her supposedly smarter and more dedicated opponents by being sneakier and more underhanded than any of them. As Payne cunningly plans it, we root for her - bad and stupid as she is. This is a wonderful movie about rough justice.
It’s a genius dark comedy satire. Laura Dern understands the genre Payne is attempting and throws herself into the greedy simplistic mind of a total loser who doesn’t really want to change – she just wants to get by to her next glue fix



Lady Sings the Blues is an old-fashioned Hollywood biopic about a famous doomed singer. Except this film is about the black chanteuse Billie Holliday, and she would be played by the star thrush of the Supremes — Diana Ross. Barry Gordy believed that audiences of all races were ready for a female star in the old-fashioned mold — suffering like Bette Davis on screen, or Judy Garland off — and that the svelte, kittenish Ross could bring a burnished sexiness to the job. He got that right. LADY SINGS THE BLUES, directed by Sidney J. Furie, was a hit, and earned five Oscar nominations, including one for Ross as Best Actress.

This was one of those years like 1982 where two monumental lifetime achievements on film were going up against one another. Liza Minnelli for CABARET and Diana Ross for LADY SINGS THE BLUES. Both incredible performances – both singing. Any other year and Ross would won have been the first black actress to win the Oscar in a leading role.

In her first feature film Diana Ross delivers a tour de force performance as Billie Holiday not only capturing the Holiday persona but also delivering on the Billie Holiday sound. The soundtrack did shoot straight to #1. From a child in pig tails playing hopscotch to her satin-gowned debut at Carnegie Hall Ross delivers a flawless performance worthy of an Oscar or two. The chemistry between Ross and Billy Dee Williams (Lando of the Star wars saga ) smolders on screen, the way they play off each other is touching and tangible. Ross`s reaction upon first seeing Billy Dee Williams is shear brilliance. Richard Pryor as Piano Man adds a spark of humor as only he can. Other notable performances include Isabell Sanford (of the Jeffersons) as the Madam and Scatman Crothers (One Flew Over the Cuckoo`s Nest, The Shining) as Big Ben. The exchange between these two in a brothel is classic, the sense of delivery, the timing, its hard not to think of Ross as a seasoned pro. She holds her own and delivers a touching portrayal, she makes you believe she is Billie Holiday. And then there is the singing. Ross takes on the Holiday catalog with a hunger unsurpassed, her renditions of Good Morning Heartache, God Bless The Child, Strange Fruit and others rival that of Holiday herself. To think that a singer with no acting experience, sans a few television spots from the Motown stable had it in her to tackle the heavy handed material in this movie makes this film even more of a must see. I watched it the other night for the first time in about 15 years and thought – this isn’t acting – this is pure guts and glory.

Diana Ross tackled this role like a hungry rabid dog might attack a huge piece of raw sirloin. She is astonishing both in her performance, singing and her timeless beauty. She show's you Billie Holiday, (as well as herself), from the inside out. She was able to throw any sense of personal vanity out the window, something actors today never fully do. I literally gasped watching her during the heroin withdrawal scenes it is so real, ('girl I feel ya'!), and her ability to mood swing from convincingly sweet, to wild eyed hellion is nothing short of miraculous. 

Friday, April 8, 2011



It’s difficult comparing Allen films, there are so many good ones, but if I were forced at gunpoint I would say HANNAH AND HER SISTERS is his best. Then if they took the safety off, I might even say this is the best film of all time. This is the one he’s been working towards ever since ANNIE HALL and INTERIORS. Brilliantly structured Dickens meets Chekhov ‘three sisters’ we meet these women in ‘chapters’. Smart, rich characters like a classic Chekhov play, as well as being silly, like another one of Allen’s heroes – The Marx Brothers. Opening and ending at a Thanksgiving over a two-year period. Each chapter is dedicated to one of the very complex – very different sisters. The most compelling is Holly – played by the transformative, fabulous  Dianne Wiest.

He met Dianne Wiest a few years earlier before doing THE PURPLE ROSE OF CARIO and gave her a small part as the good whore ‘Emma’ in the local brothel. Dianne Wiest – whore - whodda thunk? It was the beginning of Allen building a troupe of actors that he constantly pulled from. And Dianne was at the top of his list. He said “she walked in and she just lit up the room”, she changed the molecules in the air and he just knew he wanted to work with her. Dianne left the 90 second audition in his cutting room thinking, “Well, I definitely didn’t get that”. A line which he later re-worded and used for Holly in HANNAH. Woody says in 'Allen on Allen' “She is truly a great actress, in comedy and drama. She is one of the greatest actresses we have, stage or screen.” I met Dianne Wiest in the early 90’s and asked her about how she builds a character. After she’s read the script... what then? She was very sweet, “Oh Michael, you know in acting classes where teachers talk about the list of questions and the objective and super objective of a scene?”  Yes... “Well, to be honest sweetheart, I kinda blanked out when teachers went on and on about that stuff. I just kinda nodded my head and pretended I understood. I really wouldn’t know my objective or super-objective in any of my scenes. Even if they were painted on the broadside of a barn, I’m not sure I would agree. I don’t think you can break down a persons’ single objective, do you? I just do it and pray it’s gonna be there.” I was in heaven. To have Dianne Wiest tell me she wasn’t sure what her objectives were – I was dying. I remember leaving the theatre that day after talking to Ms. Wiest thinking – it’s just innate. She reads it and she knows and it’s there for good. It's in her. She doesn’t have to remind herself or go to a technique. She’s not so caught up in her own acting that she forgets all 'the givens' – it’s just there. She’s playing the script and available totally for her partner. Wow.

Her character HOLLY makes the biggest changes. She goes from insecure, desperate, longing, druggie, needy wanna-be actress, wanna-be-caterer, wanna be settled to being very much settled, embraced, acknowledged and pregnant. When I asked my brother, (the person that knows me better than anyone) years ago which character in all the movies we’ve seen, and he’s seen em all, reminds you of me? Which character is most like your brother. I was hoping for someone a little more emotionally stable but within seconds he said – “Easy: Holly in HANNAH AND HER SISTERS”. Great. So, I’m a mess. Thanks. I’ll take it.

I love that Holly is constantly morphing and searching. The only thing getting in her way is her-self. Yeah, that’s me. Dianne Wiest plays restless Holly with an excitement and sweet warmth. Even when she’s making huge mistakes or needing some tiny acknowledgement for making the ‘shrimp puffs’. Her brilliance as a comedian and strength as a serious actress is displayed in the pivotal scene when Woody's character bumps into Holly in a record store. Like great jazz, the scene is pure magic and genius subtle acting from Wiest. The way she bounces off him, gets in her little playful jabs and holds her ground. It’s a combination of everything you want for this film – It’s the new Holly, solid Holly, but she’s also seducing, caring and moving forward and doing it all with such ease. Making it look easy anyway – that scene and her last line in the film is movie magic. I always cringe a little bit when anyone has to kiss Woody Allen, but in this film, I didn’t mind it so much.  
Brilliant Movie – glorious Dianne Wiest.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011



I first heard about THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP, from my Aunt Linda who read a lot. She read it by our pool during the summer of 81 and I remember thinking – what a weird title, what’s this about? Is he a philosopher wandering the earth?  So when I saw ads for the film a year later I was intrigued even though my aunt thought the novel was ‘very bizarre’. I was curious to see Robin Williams. I knew it was a serious turn for him but I knew nothing about the story. The movie is one of my brother, mother and my favorites. It was one of those bonding films for us and a point of reference for years and years after - still is. I never thought of it as being unconventional or bizarre. Everything about it was completely real and characters in it felt like people I knew. The loved poured into the characters, from the entire cast, was so filled with passion it left my brother, mother and myself very moved by the end credits. Addition to the absorbing story it was great to see actors we had never heard of - be so incredible. This movie had a few: John Lithgow, Amanda Plummer, Mary Beth Hurt, and of course, the superlative, Glenn Close.
Like the novel, which I read later, the movie is one of those films that  either works or doesn’t. I think the plausibility, extreme characters and situations in one novel – in one lifetime - set people off. I think if I had only read the novel I might have not connected to Jenny Fields. The film character played by, than newcomer to film, Glenn Close is undeniable. It’s one of those knockout new arrival performances' that come once a decade if we are lucky. She performs miracles with the toughest of roles, Garp's mother, largely unbelievable caricature in the novel, becomes a full-blooded woman here without losing one bit of her firm convictions. 

Glenn Close understands Jenny Fields deeply felt positions and embraces her eccentricities rather than plays them.  It's acting from the inside out. She digs into the psychology of her character with a special stamp of simplicity, love and joyous acceptance. This one my favorite examples of playing age and playing eccentricities. She did her Jenny with very little aging make-up and wigs. A 29 / 30 year old actress today would mock - probably walk with a cane and hold her hip and shake violently. She captures Jenny’s strength and her dignity and her grit with fearless acceptance – never playing merely the externalizations. It’s all deep within, thoughtful nuances; a detailed construction. Her physicality comes from within - no tricks. And Glenn Close answers all the previous circumstances to her Jenny Fields, her moments before, at the same time giving all her scenes a feeling of - spontaneous levity. 

Glenn Close has talked about incorporating bits of Katherine Hepburn – Kate's sense of herself for Jenny. I believe it was on the original casting sheet - 'Looking for east-coast Kate Hepburn type'. Her original audition was really overboard but the casting director and director knew from the first moment in BARNUM - that she was their Jenny Fields. Glenn ended up capturing the essence of Katherine Hepburn's pride and her ability to hold strong against a male dominated surrounding. She talked about the way she held her chin and hit her consonants with an extra little kick. Even though it’s externalized technique talk – Glenn connects them with a breath of humanity that would have skipped most. One of my favorite scenes is with the prostitute, another great theatre actress, Swoozie Kurtz, asking her about her work life, personal life, men who pay for her body. The direct ways she asks her questions and stays utterly engaged and focused on them - that one person and takes in everything that they say. As if collecting evidence like an alien cop. As if the person she's talking to is only the person in the universe. It is a great character trait and perfect fit for Jenny Fields.

Glenn Close has always been a serious actress with a specialty with disorders and twisted passions. She’s not one to go searching for the lighter side or humor in her characters. Here, the humor comes from her utter commitment and that makes it funny in the dark places. She knows exactly what she’s doing. Glenn gives Jenny sarcastic, funny and playful edges - always with an inner smile. The looks she gives Garp – “With whom?” “Dadda’s dead” "... "or are you going to stay up and think your weird thoughts for awhile?" and extremely difficult lines later like “I did a good thing having you son”, so good. So moving, inspired, touching, and light. Lovely – simply lovely. Raw. Actors like poets and other artists, if they keep at it, have the possibility of breakthrough moment / role / inspired ‘lighting in a bottle’ moment w/ proper preparation accompanied by opportunity. Usually happens after a few films – after they’ve worked with a camera a few times. Glenn Close nailed it the first time out. A very rare occurrence. She was a skilled actress with ten years behind her of Broadway, Off Broadway and a dedicated student of acting. She makes all the right choices, not a moment doesn’t work. Glenn Close’s Jenny is luminous, tough, sharp yet ethereal. Not a year in her life doesn’t ring true. Her beliefs are grounded in a deep commitment – from her experiences and her own unique perspective. Everything is perfectly logical, rational and real.  Brilliant. It’s rare that a film can capture the absurdity of life and all it’s fullness (both the tragic and the humor)  – this one did and still does. I always love Glenn Close in everything she does – probably cause she got me off to a good start. I always had hunch that THE BIG CHILL and THE NATURAL nominations were fallout (Academy IOU nominations) from this performance being so stellar.

Jenny Fields is one of those characters that feels like family.  

Wednesday, March 30, 2011



This is a true blue Signature Role. It’s a violent assault to the senses. Who else could have played this over the edge, manic, out of her mind stalker-kidnapper? No one comes to mind. That’s really my main criteria, (Who else?) when it comes to defining – what it means to be ‘Signature’. Sandra is the real deal.

She is street. Her look, her vibe, her ballsy tongue, her big BIG mouth. Gritty New York street with genius timing. Razor sharp and fast. She is Scorsese with a Vag J-J,  let’s face it. She takes her comedic skills to the brink so many times, so hilariously, I thought for sure she was going to crack herself up, or Lewis or DeNiro.

Vincent Canby of the New York Times said that, “Miss Bernhard, who is new to films and may be one of the decade's comic finds” How right he was but he also assumes that this would be the jump-start to her film career. This was the beginning, middle and the end of her film career – really. One role but it’s a furious, take no prisoners, manic crazed, hysterical ride to the end.  Unsettling, and so unpredictable her performance. She is voice of reason in an insane way. Even though she too is off her rocker. She's the only one that can reach Rupert, in terms of how disturbed and deluded he’s behaving. Takes one to know one. The film is a true satire and with Sandra, Scorsese's found the perfect fit to this NETWORK esk slam. This was the first time I had ever heard of Sandra Bernhard. After this I became a huge fan; in College and during my summers at Williamstown I wore out her concert tape, WITHOUT YOU I’M NOTHING. In her cabaret/comedy one woman show she talked about working with Scorsese saying, “don’t be impressed – I had to suck his dick” Maybe that’s why she never worked again. You don’t mess with a film titan.

THE KING OF COMEDY slams the People magazine  / now TMZ culture that feeds on Americans' obsession with the rich and famous. One of the ways in which THE KING OF COMEDY works so effectively is in the viewer's uncertainty whether it's going to wind up as terrifyingly as is always possible. It's full of laughs, but under all of the comic situations is the awful suspicion that our laughter is going to be turned against us, like a gun.

Almost as if our laughs at the film or the characters indicate our own guilt. Celebrity has taken over, this film has no problem saying it’s ‘you that did this – you jerk’. Sandra’s seduction of Jerry Langford evokes huge belly laughs – She plays it so truthfully and committed, (watch the scene where she dresses him up in a homemade orange sweater while her other crazy comrade has to get to the studio), you root for this unusual looking creature in a sick way. It’s love, its just twisted love. Then later, the second he wants the tape free of his hands  – you know she’s not going to be held by her secret lover, the uber famous talk show host, Jerry, (Brilliantly played by Jerry Lewis). My only tiny criticism in this wild, wild ride is she anticipated the slap - no biggie. Scorsese doesn’t shy way from taking advantage of Sandra’s lanky weird body – that last shot of her running down the street in her underwear feels like a great, watch through your fingers, horror film. Sandra is haunting, hysterical and riveting as Masha. This is one is the neck and neck along with TAXI DRIVER as my favorite Scorsese film. I love it. No movie disturbed me more, made me feel more uncomfortable – in a good way. Showed me something I had never seen before. What can I say, I have a soft spot for those deluded crazies – love em’.

And I’m fine with Sandra never doing another quality film again. Do one and then leave em wanting more. I wish more actors would just do a few films and than go away – give someone else a chance. Do a Scorsese and then take it on the road – you’re done - you can retire. Sounds good.



"Dying is easy Comedy is hard" 
Maggie Smith as Diana Barrie in CALIFORNIA SUITE is serious comedic joy at its best.  Maggie Smith proves here she's a master of both drama and comedy. Maggie Smith relishes her sassy, sarcastic quips and she does them with great ease. Her banter with the genius Michael Caine, in a classic Hepburn and Tracy like style, is joyous viewing. There is a tremendous sense of love and togetherness behind every jolt and zap. They balance each other perfectly, giving to the other - never stealing. Watching her pursue, cajole and corner him into bed and to make love to 'her' is both hysterical and heartbreaking. Of course there's that Oscar she wanted, but beyond that little gold man, what she really wants is her husband - who happens to be more gay than straight. She plays a dramatic character prone to big emotional folly, yet with Maggie Smith she's able to make difficult lines like "let it be me tonight" so tender, loving and truthful. Perfect.

When I was eight I enjoyed the Bill Cosby/ Pryor – Walter Mattau/ prostitute / Elaine May segments the best. They were campy, with lots of big physical gags – very mass appealing.  Today watching those segments…I think they're cute but they don't have any real guts or depth. Today, I just watch the Jane Fonda / Alan Alda, Michael Cain / Maggie Smith segments and fast-forward over the others.

Maggie Smith, has her best screen role since THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE, (and Michael Caine equalling fantastic), playing a celebrated English actress and her bisexual-homosexual antique-dealer husband who come to Hollywood for the Oscar ceremony.
In the film's early scenes she is pricelessly funny, getting ready for her big night in a magnificent display of hope, panic, and despair, knowing that she doesn't have a snowball's chance of winning the Oscar, but listening eagerly to even the dimmest person who thinks she has. Most of all she just needs her man's approval and devotion. Without melodramatic effort, the tale becomes an examination of a marriage that has slipped into compromised intimacy, she and Mr. Caine create characters of unexpected depth and compassion. 

"Why the hell didn't I wear my black pant pants suit". The way she bites into 'hell' is magic. Gritty and pissed - but also very funny and desperate to connect to her mate. She's always aware of her characters true desires. Not just to please a national audience and look pretty but to get her man. "Because I am wearing it". Watch the way they look at each other. They are as close as two people can be being opposing sexualities. He loves her and she adores him, she steals glances whenever she can, always trying, always trying to entertain him. And when she falls - she falls hard and attacks him but she ultimately doesn't want him to leave her so she retreats. Gives him his space. Losing the Oscar was one thing but seeing him with a young actor - that's the devastating blow. She finally gets him back. They have something. Sex isn't everything - but she keeps trying. God bless her.

There is no question why Maggie Smith won and Oscar for her portrayal of, ironically, a movie star who is nominated for an Oscar. This segment is side-splitting funny, sad, witty, and tender. The chemistry between Smith and Caine is remarkable and one of the best examples of showcasing an entire history - an agreed back story. They are not playing two different pasts but the same. This type of clever writing and superb acting is what is missing from the garbage that passes off as comedies today.

Monday, March 28, 2011



I have to say when I went into this film in 1995, I went in with great trepidation. Looking at the ads and poster before going in, I thought, ELIZABETH SHUE… MISCAST. There’s just no way. Another hooker with a heart of gold – seen it. Wait a second here, not so fast. This is something new, something real.
I knew I was in for something tremendous with Nicolas Cage. Everyone was talking about his performance but her performance was just as shattering as his. Even more so, because I wasn’t expecting that level of rawness and depth from her, Happy-go-lucky, sweet ADVENTURES IN BABYSITTING / SOAPDISH, lovely little Shue to deliver such an exhilarating / affecting / moving performance. It one of those films I love and love talking about… the specific scenes and her especially, but I can’t watch again and again. It’s too devastating, too bleak. Maybe it hits too close to home – whatever it is – I can’t watch it again. SOPHIES CHOICE and FRANCES I can play on a loop, but not LEAVING LAS VEGAS – it’s too tough.

Hookers have always been a lucky place for actresses to get noticed. THE APARTMENT, BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S and PRETTY WOMAN made the actresses that played them legends. They all were engaging and showed their smarts but went just surface deep in the world of prostitution. This one cuts in deep all the way - it amputates. It takes you into the world of being paid for sex and into the psychology of those that do it. Those therapy scenes are amazing. I always thought Elizabeth Shue needed a few more voice classes and needed more depth to her characters. But not here. I thought her sweet voice was perfect for Sera and she reached great depths – depths to spare. It’s a shame we’ve lost her over the years – she really proved herself to have the talent. The combination of director, right script and co-star makes all the difference I guess. I have a theory about Elizabeth Shue - I don’t think Hollywood knew what to do with her after this film. What she is? Is she a good girl or a bad girl? Her entire career before LEAVING LAS VEGAS she had established herself as the good girl, the good friend, and the trusting best friend. Whatever happened she bared all and her true ability with Sera in LEAVING LAS VEGAS.

Sera, like Cage could have turned cliché, playing a hooker and a drunk, but with them it’s anything but Hollywood trope.
Sera is bruised and hardened with a deep need to take care of someone. Her face in and eye express her desire and longing to save this fellow down an outer. Cage got all the heat and deservedly so, but Shue is right there with him. When an actor takes on something like alcoholism it can be like acting wearing a mask – it frees you. Shue doesn’t have anything to hide behind, any tics or mannerisms to use, she has to play it straight, alert, together, the responsible one of the two. She grounds the film and his performance. When I think about this film, I see her face and the tragic reflections of where Cage is heading, his pain and how she feels nothing but love and hope for him. It’s a remarkable achievement – her reactions. Her hope to rescue him is her  own redemption and how she punishes herself, (walking into a motel room with a group of frat boys) when she betrays him is the climax of the film and then her finally returning to "be" with her new love as his body LEAVES Las Vegas. A haunting, gorgeous image in the motel room at the films close, sweet yet brutal.

Her performance had more raw emotional impact than any other of the decade, (the 90’s). Her warmth and dedication to this new friend is overwhelming. It’s all in her eyes and in the silences. Watch her closely every time he takes a drink. It hurts. And then as she watches him push his food around his plate - trying to will him to eat. Heartbreaking. No other actress conveyed her needs and characters mission so strongly using no dialogue. Then she has to play this other character as well, the hooker persona. The callus, be whatever you want me to be call girl seductress, as well as the young lady trying to find herself in therapy, the friend, the lover and then to watch her turn on a dime with her apartment managers - (Laurie Metcalfe is genius as the apartment manger – her best screen performance in those tiny little moments.). As much as I wanted Susan Sarandon to finally win her OSCAR, which she did, I was secretly rooting for ELIZABETH SHUE.

A “job” well done. I hope she finds another role someday to suites her ability. She's fantastic. Come back Shue, come back.

Thursday, March 24, 2011



HUSBANDS & WIVES goes beneath the surface of marital woes in a way few movies ever do. It examines marriage, from the insides, of what keeps people together and what rips them apart. It makes you laugh, deeply, and it makes you squirm. Part of the discomfort is intentional, for the movie is designed to cut close to the bone. At the time, we were all going to find some juicy psychological nuggets regarding Woody and Mia’s split – boy were we in for more than we bargained for –it’s all right here in HUSBANDS & WIVES, plus a powerhouse performance from Judy Davis.

The strongest, most self-reliant, independent character Sally (Just Davis) is actually the one needs a relationship the most. Like Taylors’ Martha – Davis’ Sally is a hurricane of emotions with all the brains and language at her disposal – but is defenseless to control what’s really going on inside of her.

(I once let a friend borrow my VHS copy of HUSBANDS & WIVES years ago. When he gave it back to me – he told me he was leaving his girlfriend. “Gee I’m sorry, I probably should have let you borrow ‘Babe’ instead”.  I can’t believe I haven’t written about this Signature Role sooner. It’s one of my all time favorites. If you’re a good friend of mine you know that I can do Judy’s Sally lines almost verbatim – with the same inflection – everything – cigarette included. I’ve seen it at least a 200 times.)

Sally is a familiar Woody Allen construct: a woman who has it all -- looks, brains, talent, wit -- who is deeply, desolately unhappy. This Woody Allen "stock female character" is defined both by her desperate loneliness and by her private gnawing certainty that she has been cheated of some undefined something that is her due. Sally is always bitter, sad and possessed of a vicious tongue. 

When Davis's Sally announces that she and her husband (Sydney Pollack – also the best performance of his acting career) of nearly 25 years will be separating, she does so with the obliquely self-satisfied verve of a novelist announcing the sale of movie rights, or a parent proclaiming their offspring's acceptance to Harvard. (Of course, we later learn that Sally thought herself to be the one who had settled in her marriage, that something better surely awaited her.)

‘The feast at lele resistance scene’ is Sally going back and forth on the phone with Pollack when she agrees to go on a date with an unsuspecting suitor (Timothy Jerome) caught in the revolving door of her anger. It is a classic date from hell with Davis going from being unhinged to trying to be somewhat interested. “A Don Juan story, (in one of her many brilliant asides to herself), fucking Don Juan’s… they should of cut his fucking dick off.” (Laughs, lights – inhales – puff) Yet, as Allen and Davis are both careful to communicate, Sally's obnoxiousness as is part of her powerful appeal, as men fall this way and that over themselves in pursuit of Davis's Sally. Some men retreat (like this unknowing co-worker Paul who stands helplessly as Davis rants and rages on the phone).

Twitching with brainy, neurotic rage, Davis is explosively funny as the hypercritical Sally, a woman whose overactive mind won't give her-or anyone else--any rest. What I also love about this scene and her overall Sally is her classical blue-blood poise – at the same time making the most ugly faces one mask can allow. She throws her vanity completely out the window in pursuit of her needs.

Davis's Sally is perhaps most remarkable among Allen's "difficult women" for her utter lack of apology. Davis permits the character's self-absorption to be total, self-ratifying, an end unto itself. She does not flutter with self-consciousness, or implode from the weight of her own angst. When, however, she realizes that her marriage had been the only thing keeping her devastating loneliness at bay, and that her husband has apparently found happiness with another while she remains alone, Davis's Sally soldiers on, guns-ablazing -- unconcerned with casualties left behind in her scorched earth strategy of complete vengeance.

Rather, Davis's Sally is solely concerned with maintaining the formidable edifice of her own ego (and blithely oblivious to whatever collateral damage she might cause). I love that Davis's full-throated delivery transforms what might have been throwaway barbs into ballistic missiles. For Davis's Sally, the act of judging others comes as naturally as the act of breathing and -- in some ways -- is more essential than eating. As a result, Sally's sideways insults amplify both the character's grandiosity (as when she rants about Mahler not knowing when to stop) and her interpersonal tone-deafness (her articulate disdain for pretty much anything her date professes to admire). As a result, Davis's Sally is not nearly as pathetic as other iterations for this Woody Allen stock character. (She is, however, a lot more obnoxious -- emphasis on the noxious.)

Others unwittingly pursue (like the lovestruck Michael [played here by an ideally hunky Liam Neeson] who has no idea how outmatched he -- a hedgehog -- is by Sally, a fox.). But these unsuspecting men prove to be merely obstacles in Sally's path as she pursues her single-minded goal: to prove her husband wrong for wanting anyone but her.

And unlike most of these particular Allen women, Davis's Sally is victorious in her pursuit. Her estranged husband returns and, for Sally, this is a victory to savor. Moreover, Judy Davis shows us this emotional foundation for Sally's generally awful behavior without ever excusing it. Davis's Sally is at first distance and resolved in her choice, then flails into rapid uncertainty like a pit-bull sent back to the cement rivers to fight her way back to the possible 'unresolved flare ups' of domestic doom.  He passions and lusts were never her strong point. She's an academic. All told, Davis is consistently spellbinding in the role. Woody Allen said in his book 'Woody on Woody' that "Geraldine Page is the best American actress, but that Judy Davis is the best film actress of all time". The movie becomes most alive when she's onscreen. And she somehow makes the most overtly obnoxious character on the screen also the most likable. Judy Davis's performance as Sally proves to be a provocative, memorable and perhaps the most hilarious of all of Allen's signature "difficult" women.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Elizabeth Taylor as Martha in WHO's AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?

Elizabeth Taylor

How many 33 year old actresses today would take on a mid-forties ball-chopping drunk? Not many. Even in a Pulitzer Prize winning play. No, no, no, they'd be to concerned how it would affect future roles. Female Actors today the first thing they look for is age. 'Can't we make her a little younger?' They all wanna go younger. Can't really blame them, right? Vicious business... kept your children out. The business has changed a lot since Liz Taylor's stunning, Oscar winning role Edward Albee's / Mike Nichols film version of WHO's AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF.  I said in the beginning of writing my lil SIGNATURE ROLES Blog that I'd only write about Female Actors since 1970, but I'm making a special amendment to my rule the day of Elizabeth Taylor's death. Her performance was and is still one of the best pieces of film acting ever. Her Martha is a ruthless, fierce, a thunderbolt of rage and unacknowledged grief. She enters hard, like a wheel barrel of bricks being dumped on your front porch, and never let's up - until the last moment. Her hard thrust and power is an equal match to the amazing film-making.

Back in the day, studio boss Jack Warner was insistent on keeping the integrity of the play, (Juan val Juan - what's this ? a studio head protecting the writer - those days are long, long gone.) and the teaming of real-life husband and wife mega-stars Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, the film was guaranteed success. The two portrayed an on-screen couple: a sharp-tongued but ineffectual professor (Burton) and his complaining wife (Taylor), in the company of a new professor (Segal) and his mousy wife (Dennis). (*The couple had originally been teamed in the mega-flop Cleopatra (1963). Robert Redford rejected the role played by George Segal.) It turned out to be roles of a lifetime for everyone involved.
The black-and-white film, masterfully directed by Mike Nichols (in his directorial screen debut), captured the greatest performance ever of Elizabeth Taylor's career (she won her second Academy Award as well as Best Actress praises from the New York Film Critics, the Nat'l Board of Review and the British Film Academy).

God, where do I start. You take every choice Elizabeth made, with the help of Mike Nichols, and write volumes on / for young actors - this performance is how it's done right. Playing a drunk, the husky-tragic voice, her laugh (howl), the physicality, her mannerisms (the way she pointed her finger / gestures with her hands - genius). She makes all the right choices and puts more choices on-top of those, it's layer after layer of brilliance. This performance is in the gut. That's where it hits you and that's where she centers her performance. Daring stuff. (Did I mention she was 33. 33 years old.) When she laughs, her whole body buckles and shakes - the head goes flying back. Scary and dangerous. Taylor is the driving force of the film  - her heartbeat is the pace of the film. From the first scene - the camera is kept close on her, prying; giving us a sense of her insides - her very breath, bad breath, held breath; tracking her face - her rhythm - her sudden withdrawals and then plugging us close again for lots of pores and bile. 

Elizabeth Taylor always talked about how instrumental Mike Nichols was for her during the preparation process - developing Martha. They had long talks about Martha's hair, her voice, her clothes, the way she moved...God, would I have loved to have heard those conversations. 

Martha is a restless spirit, perhaps a former beauty with nothing left but her wits and the only thing that will entertain  her is the dark repartee she has with the only person on the planet that understands  her - her husband. Whom she lovingly brutalizes, (sounds like most marriages I know), and treats horribly. George and Martha are platonic soul-mates, perfectly suited to one another. Emblematic of the death cult of modern society, they have descended into a folie a deux, locked in a sadomasochistic love-hate relationship, which neither of them can live without. Too, George and Martha (like the Father and Mother of Our Country) have spawned dreams which have only been dashed.

 The film is a classic largely due to Elizabeth Taylor's risky no-holds-barred relentless achievement. Those sweet, soft edges that we came to know and love were wiped away completely in her Martha. She destroyed everything is her path. Give me that second Oscar baby! Is this what Liz is really like in person? The performance was so real and so jarring for people at the time - people started to question Hollywood persona's - what the heck is going on here? We've never seen this side of you Liz... Unfortunately, we never will again. Movie Star, Life Saver ( and I mean that sincerely: Life Saver), Actress. You will be missed. There have been many Signature Roles in her lifetime but none greater than her Martha. Thank you Elizabeth Taylor - your time on earth was well spent. You kicked some serious ass.

As mother would often say when a legend past away, "They don't make em like that anyone."