Saturday, December 25, 2010

Day 64: 1968(Part 3)

I was somehow under the impression that I was more familiar with The Odd Couple than I am. Though as I think about it I’ve never seen the film or any productions of the play. I’ve seen clips and I may have seen scenework, but, having watched the film, I’m much less familiar with it than I thought. I’m not sure if I’ve ever even read it. Perhaps my assumed familiarity is because so much of the basic outline and character conflict has been done, overdone, and done again. The film, based on Neil Simon’s play, is about two male friends of very different temperaments, trying to live together in a New York apartment. I specify that they’re friends because that seems to be a quality missing in a lot of the reappropriations of this formula. Put two opposites together and have them insult and mock each other mercilessly. Then cue the laugh track. I think I’ve just described every episode of Two and a Half Men, to name one example. To be fair, I’ve never actually made it through an entire of Two and a Half Men, but from what little I’ve managed, it certainly feels true. To be fair, I’m sure Neil Simon didn’t invent this formula, but the key elements that make it work are absent in many of its imitators. I think I need to unpack a little baggage here. I’m an actor. I came of age in the mid to late ‘80’s. Most of my peers did Neil Simon in high school and immediately developed a disdain for him when we went to college or acting school and discovered Sam Shepard and David Mamet and any number of gritty, raw, and naturalistic playwrights. I grew out of that phase to some degree, but I still approach most Simon with a bit of bias and skepticism. This is partly because the years have not been kind to him. Arguably, he hasn’t written much of note in decades and revivals are rarely well received, one high profile example being the recent Odd Couple Broadway revival with Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick. So it was a breath of fresh air to see this wonderful example of why he was once so popular. First of all, Oscar and Felix(Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon, respectively) genuinely like each other. They’re good friends. They’re even somewhat self-aware of the worst of their individual faults. The approach is not each of them trying to one up each other with gag lines, but rather two people trying to get along. They really want to and they want each other to be happy. Oscar even acknowledges that Felix’s influence has made him a better person. What one would call the “break up” scene involves them not merely railing against each other, but expressing despair and frustration, albeit in an amusing way. One of my favorite moments involves Matthau practically crying as he explains to Lemmon why they can’t possibly share the same space. Oh, yeah, there’s a lot of good NYC location shooting here as well. I also noticed something curious here that I can’t help but note. It dawned on me that the basic plot structure bears more than a passing similarity to Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. Absurd? Hear me out. In this scenario, Felix is Blanche and Oscar is Stanley. A fussy idiosyncratic person invades the space of an alpha male until it builds to a crescendo of violence, resulting in the former being thrown out and having to rely on the kindness of strangers. And the entire proceedings are bookended with poker games. Admittedly, Felix seems much better off with the Pigeon sisters than Blanche does being hauled off to a sanitarium, but that’s what makes this version a comedy. And to top it all off, Oscar’s ex-wife’s name is Blanche? Coincidence? You be the judge.

I came totally unprepared with any baggage to The Thomas Crown Affair. I’d never seen it or the 1999 remake. I don’t know that I’d ever seen a Steve McQueen film in its entirety. Funny how these unexpected blind spots turn up. It starts out promisingly as a bank heist is set in place. Thomas Crown(McQueen) is one of those movie geniuses who thinks of everything and it goes off without a hitch. Except once insurance investigator Vicki Anderson(Faye Dunaway) sees his picture and his profile, she knows in her gut that he’s the culprit. She confronts him, he doesn’t admit to anything solid, but doesn’t really deny anything. And they fall in love while refusing to change or give ground to each other. There are some interesting moments here. Some fascinating work is done here with split screen, the influence of the French New Wave is evident(and apparently stated as an influence by director Norman Jewison), and McQueen’s and Dunaway’s chemistry is palpable and undeniable. Yet it never really came together for me. Some of the scenes seemed not inspired but lifted directly from other films. Where is the line between homage and stealing? When the gang exited the bank with the loot, the camera zooms in on a parking meter displaying the word “Violation.” Just like the opening scene in Cool Hand Luke. When McQueen is unwinding he likes to drive his sportscar along the beach. Just like in A Man and a Woman. And like so many films in this era, it shoehorns a pop song that may or may not actually fit. Here, the use of The Windmills of Your Mind seems to be there primarily to create the illusion of depth. Obviously, I was a little disappointed in this one. I did like that Dunaway’s character was not so much after justice but after getting her client’s money back, to the point that she was as unscrupulous as any thief, in one scene resorting to kidnapping a child to get her prey. I also wonder if Clooney was influenced at all by this when he chose to make the Steven Soderbergh film Out of Sight, as his thief character and Jennifer Lopez’ law enforcement character have a similar dynamic. Both characters are inexplicably drawn to each other and each has a strong identity that neither is willing to cede. If Out of Sight owes a debt to The Thomas Crown Affair, then I’m grateful, at the very least, that it exists for that reason.

The final title from 1968 is The Lion in Winter. My first encounter with this film was probably when I was a teenager or slightly before. I grew up in Dayton, OH, and there was a beautiful old theatre(since then painstakingly and beautifully restored) known as the Victory Theatre. It was primarily used for travelling road shows of plays, the local ballet, etc. During the summer it would host a screening series of classic films. So, though this film was released in the year of my birth, my first encounter with it was on the big screen. Since then, I’ve seen several stage productions(the film was based on a popular play) that met with varying degrees of success. So, much like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, I was pretty familiar with this one without having seen this version in more than two decades. Though the production never feels stagey, it’s a joy simply to watch great actors speaking great dialogue. Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn lead a great ensemble cast as King Henry II and Eleanor of Acquitaine, his estranged wife. This is the 12th century and he is the king of England, so estranged in this case means in prison. It’s a complete coincidence that this, in a sense, a Christmas film, got its turn in my series on December 17. A Christmas film in the sense that Henry has given Eleanor a brief reprieve from imprisonment to spend Christmas with him and their three adult children, each of who is jockeying to be the next king. The screenplay, adapted by James Goldman from his play is essentially a series of these five jockeying for power in a series of mind games, trickery, etc. It’s ostensibly all about who’s going to be the next king, who gets various disputed lands, etc. I’m deliberately vague about these details, because, to be honest, a week later, I’m not really sure how any of this is resolved, if indeed anything is at all. I can say, however, that I was constantly delighted by the serpentine maneuvers of the characters and of the script. All performances are good, and its interesting to note that of the others, the ones Roger Ebert chose to single out in his 1968 review are the two actors best known to us in 2010, Anthony Hopkins(as Richard the Lionhearted) and Timothy Dalton(as the King of France). I have to admit though, while giving no short shrift to the other actors, especially in a wonderful scene where the King of France sets up a scene where all the characters are made to realize that they’re all scheming to betray each other, the highlight is watching the interplay between O’Toole and Hepburn. I was also surprised to see that O’Toole was only 36 at the time this was filmed, 25 years younger than Hepburn, but plays completely believably as Hepburn’s contemporary. Which is even more curious thinking he’s only five years older than Dustin Hoffman, who a year before convincingly played a 20 year old having an affair with a woman supposed to be at least 20 years his senior who was in reality only six years older. I don’t know how relevant any of this is, aside from the fact that great acting and “movie magic” can transcend a great deal. I think that’s all I have to say about 1968. See you in ’69.

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