Friday, January 27, 2023

Tár: Existentialist Chaos, Karl Jaspers

“If you really want to talk about power and the long reach of history — the abuse and complicity of power, how it corrupts, all these clichés we’ve grown up with — you have to reckon with the idea that there is no black or white. To find the truth of something requires a little more rigor.” —Todd Field on the corruption of power in ''Tár"

Lydia Tár seems to acknowledge the risk of voiding her accolades if someone were to reveal her performative artistry—but she proceeds to manipulate her environment because she can’t help herself. In fact, it may even result in the ballooning of excessive narcissism and self-sabotage. Is this a feature of her real identity or does she miscalculate with her response to a crumbling empire to save her legacy? Where does her work as an artist stand in all this? The implications laid by the filmmakers for exploring this narrative are not to cast blame on any one individual, but rather to explore the shifting nature of power and those who wield it. Tár struggles to sleep at night and when she can finally shut her eyes, she’s susceptible to be swallowed whole by the ghosts of her past. In that regard, Tár reads like a chilling ghost story. When her mistakes inevitably halt her forward trajectory of power and fame, she begins a journey of self-discovery. This leads to her family on Staten Island, finally, where we might get an answer to who she was. As she enters her childhood home, the space starkly contrasts her modern aesthetic. She steps forward to a piano, only to learn that this pristine instrument is severely detuned. When her brother returns home, they share a brief moment where we learn that her real name is Linda Tarr. 

Deciding that she can’t really ever recover from the accusations levied against her, she heads out of the country where she may be able to reconstruct the artist and person she desperately wished to portray. And the final scene, shrouded in the mystery of the spotlight, reveals that everything she built is gone by a beautiful track shot. It’s an ending that feels so devastating, regardless of your feelings about the character. Tár is a kind of ghost story, in which we’re so deeply embedded in Lydia Tár’s psyche that nearly everything that appears onscreen is up for debate. The ghost is that of Krista Taylor, Lydia’s former protégée, with whom Lydia is accused of sleeping and who was blackballed from conducting jobs through the emails Lydia deletes. 

Even before Krista’s death by suicide, she haunts Lydia: We see her long red hair in the audience for Lydia’s conversation with Adam Gopnik. It’s also about the time Lydia starts hearing mysterious noises, some explicable (a medical device in a nearby apartment), some not. Who set her metronome a-ticking? And then comes the visit to the young cellist Olga’s grotty Berlin apartment building, where, she says, she’s staying with friends. Observed now by a gently drifting handheld camera, Lydia walks through the passageway and into a courtyard full of trash, where she hears, far away, a woman singing. We follow Lydia on her descent down the stairs, into a dripping, poorly lit underworld of unoccupied rooms. Where has Olga gone? What is this infernal place? Lydia flees, and face-plants at the top of the stairs. After her partner, Sharon, cleans up her face, Lydia gets up to comfort her daughter, Petra, in the middle of the night. And if you look closely, you’ll see, motionless in the dark corner of Lydia’s bedroom, nearly unnoticeable at the back of the frame, a red-haired woman: Krista. We are no longer watching a movie whose style is that of, as Slate’s Dana Stevens put it, “cool, keenly observed detachment.” The movie has swerved, in these scenes, into the uncanny. Are we seeing Lydia’s dreams? Her greatest fears? Her nerve disorder notalgia paraesthetica presents as a phantom itch, an “unreachable itch,” not unlike the memory of one’s own guilt, or a sound you can’t unhear.

It’s that right arm, Lydia tells Adam Gopnik at the film’s beginning, that marks time. “Right from the first moment, I know exactly what time it is,” she says, with supreme confidence, “and the exact moment that you and I will arrive at our destination together.” In the film’s final act, Lydia loses her confident control over time, and a film that was up till now conducted at adagietto, like the slow movement of Mahler’s Fifth, picks up. A video of a charged encounter at Juilliard goes viral, oddly edited from multiple perspectives, even though no one in that rehearsal room seemed to have a phone out. A story in the New York Post accuses her of grooming multiple young women. Her performance score for Mahler’s Fifth disappears without explanation. She loses the support of her foundation, and her access to a private jet. 

We are in Lydia Tár’s point of view now, in her subjective space, and all is unraveling with shocking speed, including possibly her mind. Protesters picket her poorly attended reading in New York. Olga abandons her at her hotel for someone more fun. Sharon kicks her out and withholds their daughter. She loses her position, loses her chance at the Fifth. Vivace. Tár isn’t a puzzle box, where the answer clicks into place at the end and we understand, at last, who Keyser Söze was. Think of this film, instead, as a journey through a haunted forest, like the ones the Grimms wrote about—like the one where Lydia hears that scream. We wend our way down ever-darker paths, becoming less and less certain what is real and what is not. By presenting the reality of Tár as increasingly subjective, Field is demanding that we question everything we see on that big screen, and receive the film as a mix of plot and psychology, incident and nightmare—all coming back around to the life, the dreams, and the fears of the incomparable Lydia Tár. Source:

Human mental life is constituted by a division between the subject and the object, and our other antinomical worldviews spring from this original antinomy. Often, the psychological analyses are punctuated by discussions of Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche – in particular, Kierkegaard’s stress on the choice that each individual must make and commit to. Karl Jaspers introduces one of his most influential ideas – that of boundary or limit situations (‘Grenzsituationen’). These are situations in which the subject experiences dread, guilt and anxiety, where we experience a lack of unity and stability: ‘everything is fluid, is in the restless movement of being in question, everything is relative, finite, split into opposites, never whole, absolute, essential,’ as Jaspers put it. Although a negative experience, these situations allow the human consciousness to confront its limits and restrictions.

Yet while his colleague Max Weber predicted an ideologically fractured and disenchanted world, Jaspers translated this pessimism into a sense of tragedy that affirms the force of reason and justice in history. ‘Truth is what really unites us,’ he wrote. Philosophically, Jaspers is most renowned for his philosophy of existence, or ‘Existenzphilosophie’, which is laid out in his three-volume work Philosophie (1932). We may feel we are subjects who have an infinite capacity, who feel boundless but, when hemmed in by guilt, suffering and death, we come up decisively against the finite reality of our existence. In these situations, we have to act. We either transcend these situations or not. We can cement ourselves further in ‘Dasein’ (mere existence) or transcend into ‘Existenz’. After all, we cannot escape the world nor should be want to and, Jaspers wrote: ‘I really love transcendence only as my love transfigures the world.’ For Jaspers, that focus beyond the world is what is of value – remaining in the world, and reaching only towards the world, broken and imperfect as it and we are, perhaps does more frequently lead to failure and shipwreck. Source:

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Surprises and Snubs in Oscars 2023 nominations

To Leslie is played to riveting perfection by Andrea Riseborough, who delivers a performance that’s extraordinary in its sparks of hope and slow-dawning self-awareness amid the despair, dissembling and self-delusion. To Leslie is a movie about hitting bottom but also a story steeped in grace — and even, within its understated, lived-in aesthetic, tinged with a bit of fairy tale, Prince Charming arriving in the form of a low-key and affecting Marc Maron's Sweeny. Maron is a guileless but wise guardian angel, watching Leslie flail and lie and struggle, and keeping close while she suffers through cold-turkey withdrawal from alcohol. It’s a role full of opportunities to chew scenery and crumble melodramatically, but she never sounds a false note. Morris gives us a long, unbroken scene of Leslie just sitting at a bar and listening to a sad country song, and you can’t take your eyes off her. There are not many actors who can hold your attention, much less interest, doing that. Riseborough digs deep and takes no shortcuts in tracing a hard-won path to redemption, the rage that holds Leslie back transformed into the energy that fuels her survival.

In one of the strangest developments of the season, the Oscar voting period saw almost every A-lister in Hollywood log onto Twitter to heap praise on Andrea Riseborough’s performance in To Leslie, “a small film with a giant heart.” The movie, a low-budget sobriety drama that debuted at SXSW, hadn’t technically come out of nowhere: Riseborough did get an Independent Spirit Award nom, and the film was on the National Board of Review’s list of best independent movies of the year. Still, To Leslie made barely a peep when it was released in October and had been ignored by all the major precursors, leading most pundits to believe the Twitter blitz would be too little, too late. It turns out professional actors had a better sense of awards-worthy acting than those of us who sit behind a laptop. Riseborough’s rise brought the best-actress hopes of two other contenders to an abrupt end: “The Woman King” star Viola Davis and “Till” actress Danielle Deadwyler were both shut out of a best actress category that many pundits assumed would be mostly made up of women of color. Davis had cruised through the season so far, earning nominations from the Globes, Screen Actors Guild, Critics Choice Awards and BAFTA. Only Tuesday did the Oscar-winning actress fall short. The Whale is a ghastly, quite cynical film. The Whale missing out in Adapted Screenplay is a sign that many in the Academy felt the same way. It’s also a sign that Brendan Fraser’s hold on the trophy is far from secure.

Although the main duel will probably be between Cate Blanchett and Michelle Yeoh, it's Andrea Riseborough and Ana de Armas who offer the closer to a gritty naturalistic performance and, in the case of De Armas, stylish glamour. Riseborough is most known for her role in Brandon Cronenberg's chilly sci-fi Possessor and David O' Russell's overlooked Amsterdam. In his review for The New Yorker, Richard Brody considered Amsterdam one of the best films of 2022: 

is a historical fantasy that is written and acted like a comedic tall tale, but it’s all the more remarkable for its solid basis in reality. It also takes its place in a recent, odd but significant subgenre of movies that has cropped up in response to the authoritarian and hate-filled deeds and rhetoric of the Trump era: resistance cinema. It would be easy to mock the very notion as a form of highly selective crowd-pleasing, were many of these movies, including “Amsterdam,” not among the most emotionally committed and aesthetically distinctive films of our times. The movie is full of felicities that manage to be, at the same time, poignantly earnest and giddily inventive, as when Burt (Christian Bale), heading off to perform the autopsy while bearing a bouquet for the estranged Beatrice (Andrea Riseborough) flees the police and reaches a safe hiding place while still grasping the flowers; or when Burt, resetting Irma’s broken wrist, gives rise to the film’s most breathtakingly rapturous moment. 

The frequent literary archness of the dialogue yields an incantatory set of smart poetic refrains. Margot
 Robbie delivers her best performance to date, incarnating Valerie with a lighthearted lilt and a distinctively dancelike element of deft physical comedy that belies the sacrifices demanded by her creative fervor, romantic passion, and drive for independence. Bale delivers a strange, recklessly great performance—with a hectic intensity it’s a comedic performance by a non-comedian that centers and suffuses the film with his wildly charismatic presence. “Amsterdam” is a drama of a country and a world shaken to their very foundations by the incurable traumas of war. 

O' Russell sees a link between white supremacy and misogyny, and indicts the arrogant avarice of American business leaders as cavalierly indifferent to democracy, wantonly selling out the country's institutions and freedoms to the interests of foreign tyrants, whose practices and policies they seek to install here. He shows the untroubled ease with which willful, corrupt, and self-interested media ideologues intentionally and uninhibitedly pollute the civic environment at large and bend the minds of the vulnerable masses, whose social burdens and political frustrations are the results of policies and leaders promoted by the selfsame media. He recognizes the contempt for art, the hostility to culture, as a fundamental marker of this nexus of hatred and oppression. Above all, he sees a country sickened by its own cruelty, feeding on itself, proving its own monstrosity by imposing on private lives and obliterating the fundamental virtue and value of romantic love. May Amsterdam’s melodramatic sentimentality be forgiven; not many films of such exuberance, since the time of Chaplin, have been fuelled by such rage. Source:

Friday, January 13, 2023

76th Anniversary of Elizabeth Short's death

Remembering the Black Dahlia: This 15th January, 2023 will mark the 76th Anniversary of Elizabeth Short's death.

"I kept everything pertaining to them away from him out of a desire to keep Madeleine's lesbian bar doings under wraps. I continued skimming the file, sweating in the hot, airless room. No Webster prefixes appeared, and I started getting nightmare flashes: Betty sitting on the westbound Wilshire bus stop, 7:30 P.M., 1/12/47, waving bye-bye Bucky, about to jump into eternity. I thought about querying the bus company, a general rousting of drivers on that route--then realized it was too cold, that any driver who remembered picking up Betty would have come forward during all the '47 publicity. I thought of calling the other numbers I'd gotten from Pacific Coast Bell --then jacked that chronologically they were off-- they didn't jibe with my new knowledge of where Betty was at what time. I called Russ at the Bureau and learned that he was still in Tucson, while Harry was working crowd control up by the Hollywoodland sign. I finished my paper prowl, with a total of zero Webster prefixes. I thought of yanking Roach's P.C.B file, fixing the notion immediately. Downtown LA, Madison prefix to Webster, was not a toll call--there would be no record, ditto on the Biltmore listings. It came on then: bye-bye Bleichert at the bus stop, adios has-been, never-was, stool pigeon niggertown harness bull. Bye-bye Betty, Beth, Betsy, Liz, we were a couple of tramps, too bad we didn't meet before 39th and Norton, it just might have worked, maybe us would've been the one thing we wouldn't have fucked up past redemption" -"The Black Dahlia" (1987) by James Ellroy

Larry Harnisch: "James Ellroy’s various endorsements (he has since discounted Steve Hodel’s “solution”) have more to do with Ellroy’s well-established hunger for publicity rather than genuine support of any particular theory. Ellroy isn’t a historian, nor does he pretend to be one. Like many authors, he treats the facts as a malleable first draft, discarding much of the truth but keeping a few vivid details as he sees fit to give the flavor of authenticity. Dr. George Hodel was indeed a suspect in the Black Dahlia case — for about five weeks. But so were many other individuals. In fact, the case was so complicated that the original investigators treated anyone who ever knew Elizabeth Short as a potential killer who had to be eliminated. Detective Finis Brown, one of the lead detectives in the case, said that they interviewed thousands of people. The scenario recounted in Steve Hodel’s “Black Dahlia Avenger” and turned into a serial killer franchise with “Most Evil” is based on a foundation of speculation and distortion, embellished with layers of supposition, wishful thinking and vigorous suppression of anything that doesn’t fit. Indeed, “Avenger” is a classic example of reverse engineering that starts with the preselected killer and works backward through a torturous, convoluted route to the victim. The photographs Hodel found in his father’s belongs — which he claimed to be Elizabeth Short — are now firmly established as being other women, according to Short’s family and a woman who recognized herself in one of the photographs. In the same way, Dr. Hodel was never a surgeon, despite ardent attempts, based on wishful thinking, to prove otherwise. Finally, there is nothing to show that Dr. Hodel and Elizabeth Short ever met. Again, everything is speculation, distortion and suppression of conflicting facts. About Elizabeth Short and Walter Bayley, we have physical proof — in photos and official documents — showing that the families knew one another (Bayley’s daughter was friends with Short’s oldest sister), that the Bayley family lived within a block of the crime scene and that Dr. Bayley was a distinguished surgeon whose mind was unraveling. No one else has ever come close to that."

One of the first films to even loosely approach the Black Dahlia murder as a subject was the 1953 film noir The Blue Gardenia. Directed by Fritz Lang from a story by crime writer Vera Caspary, The Blue Gardenia concerns a young switchboard operator (played by Anne Baxter) who is engaged to a serviceman stationed in Japan. On the night of her birthday, she sets two places at the dinner table, one for her and one for the photo of her fiancee. She then sits down to read a letter from him, which she has saved for the occasion, only to discover that he has fallen in love with a nurse and has written to say goodbye. Depressed, she decides to throw caution to the wind and go on a date with the caddish Harry Prebble, a man who hangs around her office trying to pick up vulnerable women. He takes her to the nightclub The Blue Gardenia where she starts to drink too much and is quickly intoxicated. She finds herself back at his apartment, but when he comes on to her too strong, she defends herself from his unwelcome advances with a poker before falling into a drunken unconsciousness. She awakes the next day in her apartment only to discover in the newspaper that Prebble is dead and the police are looking for the woman he was seen with in the nightclub, who is now the prime suspect. An ambitious journalist labels the missing woman as ‘The Blue Gardenia’ and the case quickly becomes a press sensation. Some critics believe that the influence of the Dahlia case does not extend beyond the title. Although the Dahlia influence may be only minor and allusive, it is interesting nonetheless: there is the near-fantasy relationship with a serviceman, a possible sex crime which escalates into a murder and an intense public interest in the case which develops after a journalist gives the murderess an intriguing nickname. As the story is told mostly from Baxter’s point of view and portrays her sympathetically, the viewer sees the ‘Gardenia’ woman as both victim and murderess, although the final twist deconstructs this merging of identities. Source:

"The myth of Elizabeth Short is this is what happens to star-struck girls from... little towns back East... who come out to big bad Hollywood with ideas of getting into movies," Larry Harnisch said. Elizabeth Short was not an aspiring starlet seeking screen time, according to Harnisch. Rather, she was the product of a broken home during the Great Depression who lost her fiancé during World War II. She was only in Los Angeles for about six months, couch-surfing in various abodes, before she met her unimaginably awful end in January 1947: her naked remains were discovered in the city’s then largely undeveloped Leimert Park neighborhood. Harnisch’s guess is that Short’s goal was to find stability with a husband and a family. Harnisch considers Steve Hodel's theory to be hogwash: Steve Hodel’s case “kind of fits in with the film noir attitude of this evil puppet master doctor who lives in this crazy house in Hollywood and has all these weird parties.” Historian Kim Cooper, who runs a Black Dahlia-themed bus ride, argues there is something “timeless” about Elizabeth Short. “Somehow, she does not look like a woman of her time,” Cooper says. “The way she wears her makeup; the way she carries herself: She’s such an other, she’s such an oddball. And that’s, perhaps, what drew her killer to her.” Source:

Wednesday, January 11, 2023

Golden Globes 2023 (Winners)

Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy: Colin Farrell for The Banshees of Inisherin. Inisherin is a fictional island and literally means "Ireland island." Pádraic (Colin Farrell) is a simple Irishman living with his sister, Siobhan (Kerry Condon), spending his days waiting for his time to hit the local pub and drink with his dear friend, Colm (Brendan Gleeson). The pair have partnered for years, but now it’s come to an end, with Colm rejecting Padraic’s company, telling the confused man their friendship over. Padraic doesn’t take the news easily, trying to reconnect with Colm, also spending time with Dominic (Barry Keoghan), a younger man with intellectual disabilities. Hurt and baffled, Padraic tries to make sense of a situation he’s been removed from, also dealing with Siobhan, who’s fed up with male behavior in the village. 

The Banshees of Inisherin brings viewers to a remote part of the world, with a small community going about their daily business while the Irish Civil War rages nearby, with battles raging on in the distance. Padraic is a decent brother to Siobhan and a loving owner of a pet donkey, but he thrives with Colm, depending on this connection to get by. McDonagh sets up a sense of history that’s shut down by the fiddle player, who, without much warning, doesn’t want anything to do with Padraic, which launches both the dramatic elements of the screenplay, especially when it comes to motivation for such coldness. The Irish Civil War was between those who accepted the treaty with England, establishing the Republic of Ireland and those who rejected the treaty. This was not Northern Ireland vs the Republic. Colm might represent the IRA. If Colm really did represent the Republic of Ireland, breaking off his relationship with Pádraic, Northern Ireland, then a stronger allegory would have some kind of third party that Pádraic was beholden to that caused the decline of the friendship (England). You can't tell Ireland's story without reference to England's colonial involvement. Source:

Best Screenplay - Motion Picture: The Banshees of Inisherin.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture - Drama: Austin Butler for Elvis.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy: Michelle Yeoh for Everything Everywhere All at Once.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture - Drama: Cate Blanchett for Tár.

Best Performance by an Actor in Any Television Series: Kevin Costner in Yellowstone.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in Any Motion Picture: Ke Huy Quan in Everything Everywhere All at Once.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in Any Motion Picture: Angela Bassett in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in a Musical-Comedy or Drama Television Series: Julia Garner for Ozark.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Television Series - Drama: Zendaya for Euphoria.

Best Director - Motion Picture: Steven Spielberg for The Fabelmans.

Best Motion Picture - Drama: The Fabelmans.

Best Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy: Babylon.

Best Original Score - Motion Picture: Babylon.

Best Motion Picture - Animated: Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio

Friday, January 06, 2023

"Babylon" (2022): the Mystery of It All

Babylon (2022): “Boogie Nights” meets “Singin’ in the Rain.” Or to wonder how a filmmaker can simultaneously celebrate the remarkable power of movies while indicting much about the industry, exploring the ability to create and destroy, prop up and tear down, in all its swirling glory. Deliberate and wise in all the ways a maximalist like Baz Luhrmann is not, writer-director Damien Chazelle’s (“Whiplash,” “La La Land”) “Babylon” is “Singin’ in the Rain” as a tragedy, albeit one that’s also filled with satirical comedy. Like “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Babylon” reaches from the past into the cinematic present, with another fact-based fantasy—a wild montage of subliminally brief clips that build the arc of movie history from Muybridge and the Lumière brothers to nineteen-sixties modernists and onward to recent cinematic times. 

Margot Robbie, in another starring performance that feels like a new discovery, plays Nellie, an aspiring actress in the mid-1920s who’s sure that she’s a star–it’s something you can’t become but simply something you are or aren’t, she says. She sneaks into a big-time Hollywood party thanks to Manny (Diego Calva of “Narcos: Mexico,” excellent), who has about as little clout as someone at this high-profile carnival of debauchery can have. (Manny helped secure the elephant, which is somehow one of the more restrained methods of entertainment on hand.) This event, which Chazelle gives dizzying life with the same astonishing flair he brought to the opening sequence of “La La Land,” will launch each character’s trajectory into moving pictures, and the results range from screamingly funny to surprisingly moving to immensely complex in its look at a world that replicates humanity but doesn’t always practice it.

This isn’t to suggest Chazelle is the first person to acknowledge the high stakes and cold realities of this industry. But few have brought such exhilarating contradictions to a portrait of people drawn to the development of an escape and yet inevitably victimized by the implicitly ticking clock of fantasy. Also featuring typically excellent, mature work by Brad Pitt as aging star Jack Conrad, “Babylon” considers the constantly expanding potential of movies as well as their limits as influenced by both the values and instincts of the people both making and watching. Also recalling Chazelle’s “La La Land,” the Coen brothers’ “Hail, Caesar” and the classic "A Star is Born." But Chazelle brings both empathy and strange truths to the idea that human flaws are forgotten any time a great love or a great movie emerges out of nothing–while wondering what we gain when looking to art as an artificial instead of a real source. “Babylon” is about how we delight in the ways movies lie to us, that something filmed is immortal. New ways push against old institutions. Multiple revolving doors determine the life cycle of creativity, and the timeframe of a legacy.

Most filmmakers can’t even fathom this many big ideas in a project so gutsy in its technical and historical scope. As with much of his previous work, Chazelle is an essential chronicler of fierce dreams and heartbreaking compromises. In “Babylon,” subjective taste and objective identity collide, with movies never seeming more human than when they pursue euphoria and make it seem like time can stop, only to, no matter how high the peaks, eventually reach a point when the lights turn on, and you go and determine how to engage with what else is out there.  Like most American institutions — in politics, in religion, in family-focused suburbs and packed-together urban spaces — the institution of Hollywood has a seedy underbelly. It’s just that in Hollywood, the scandals feel juicier, like continuations of the stories we’ve seen onscreen. “The dream,” Joan Didion once wrote of Hollywood, “was teaching the dreamers how to live.”

Chazelle accomplishes this by continually and, seemingly, anachronistically referencing the future throughout the film. Visual and narrative references to other movies made later appear throughout (like Singing in the Rain, My Fair Lady, and Phantom Thread); by the end, the continuum is made explicit. This is a movie about how Hollywood casts a spell on all of us, while also churning through talented yet damaged performers. Much of that churn is predicated on technological changes, as well as the shifting tastes of the country. Most of it is just about money: who brings it in, who doesn’t, and who executives guess will maximize profits while causing as few headaches as possible. That’s the sense in which Babylon is a profoundly humanist film, mourning the tragedies that litter Hollywood histories. But it’s also a worshipful film, one that gladly buys into the Tinseltown dream, the spell, the mystery of it all. 

And so to the grand finale. Suffice to say that it includes a generous splash of “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952)—which triggers an instant desire for more Gene Kelly. Undaunted, Chazelle then offers a frenzied scrapbook of the medium’s greatest hits, with bits of Kubrick, Godard, Bergman, Stanley Donen, Paul Thomas Anderson and God knows what all pasted together. The implication is that Jack, Nellie, Fay, and the gang, delirious and doomed as they were, did not strive in vain, and that from their efforts bloomed the glory of cinema, to which “Babylon” is a crowning valediction. In the brave words of Jack Conrad, “What I do means something.” Source:

Tuesday, January 03, 2023

Weird Rivalry: Steve McQueen and Paul Newman

Steve McQueen's chronicler Marshall Terrill evenhandedly dishes on the King of Cool’s collisions with fellow superstars Paul Newman, Elvis Presley, and John Wayne. As cerebral San Francisco Police Lieutenant Frank Bullitt, McQueen, stuck with his Colt Diamondback in Peter Yates’ “Bullitt,” won critical acclaim and strong box office receipts on October 17, 1968. Guilty as charged for penning authoritative tomes about Steve McQueen going back to 1993’s Portrait of an American Rebel, Marshall Terrill doesn’t sugarcoat the actor’s ceaselessly fascinating, complex life as was evidenced by a “Biographer of the Year” accolade bestowed by The Arizona Republic. Terrill also served as executive producer of the documentary Steve McQueen: The Salvation of an American Icon, which offers an interview probing McQueen’s lifelong rivalry with Paul Newman, the Boys Republic alum’s competitive romantic streak with Elvis Presley over stunning fashion model-actress Barbara Leigh, and an evening when the King of Cool stumbled upon John Wayne backstage at an awards ceremony.

Broadway had a new lead in Hatful of Rain. At this point, however, one might recycle that old folklore axiom, “Be careful what you wish for, because you might get it.” The part often seemed to overwhelm Steve McQueen, especially as he later confessed, in terms of a basic technical capacity, such as voice projection and effectively handling lengthy dialogue passages. He further revealed, “I had this one big scene where the character, who’s a dope addict, gets delirious—and it really spooked me. I mean, each night, doing that scene I got more and more depressed. Got so I couldn’t eat, and I began losing weight. I felt lousy. There was so much about acting I still didn’t know.” Among the major publications covering his Broadway debut, only Variety found him “mildly effective” as Johnny Pope. Not surprisingly, McQueen was dropped from the part after six weeks, with the play closing a month later (October 13, 1956). Paradoxically, even the great achievement of getting into the Actors Studio had been followed by a letdown. The central Method guru at the Studio, Lee Strasberg, was brilliant but also bullish. McQueen’s first wife Neile Adams wrote, “Strasberg had a way of dissecting and criticizing an actor’s work that Steve found intimidating and frightening at the same time. Steve would say ‘I would rather take my chances outside the Studio.’” 

McQueen still learned a great deal at the Studio, but more and more it was about watching others present special scenes. Fittingly, both this perspective and a fear of Strasberg’s merciless criticism, was something McQueen shared with fellow Studio actor (and McQueen's idol) James Dean. People whose association with the Studio put them in the audience for a scene presentation by either Dean or McQueen would include: Marilyn Monroe, Shelley Winters, Eli Wallach and Carroll Baker. James Dean was so hurt by Strasberg’s criticism he threatened to leave the Studio. His vulnerability was later revealed when he confessed, “I don’t know what happens when I act—inside. But if I let them dissect me, like a rabbit in a clinical research laboratory, I might not be able to act again. They might as well sterilize me.” 

Also Marilyn Monroe felt anxious in this environment. It's said James Dean and Steve McQueen, who tried to woo her, only annoyed the iconic blonde star; in the case of Dean probably due to his neuroticism; in the case of McQueen, due to his naked ambition. It seems the only male sex-symbol that attracted her was Paul Newman, and Newman was in love with Joanne Woodward. Somebody Up There Likes Me was undoubtedly the source for McQueen’s beginning of his one-sided rivalry with Paul Newman. New York’s new golden boy after the death of James Dean, Newman now represented the antihero bar for young actors. Being an unbilled player to Newman’s star turn made McQueen set his goal on eclipsing this other blue-eyed, soon-to-be superstar. McQueen later accomplished this goal, for a time, during the 1960s. Yet, McQueen’s fierce pride paid a price, too. For example, he later had an opportunity to costar with Newman in the now celebrated Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), but only if he received top billing. Being naturally generous, Paul Newman, responsible for offering the part to McQueen in the first place, was willing to go the standard compromise route of cobilling, but negotiations broke down when McQueen was adamant that he would have to be number one. 

McQueen never forgot a slight, whether real or imagined. And Newman was always the actor he had to beat, including McQueen’s request for more lines than Newman when they both appeared with an all-star cast in The Towering Inferno (1974), a film in which McQueen received top billing. The bottom line is that McQueen was a kid from the streets who brought that same take-no-prisoners mentality to acting. One might best demonstrate that philosophy by his cutting comments upon the death of Dean, a performer whom he both admired and aped in some of his early roles: "I guess now there will be more roles for me." With James Dean’s death, Paul Newman had become a new McQueen role model, too. Biographer Penina Spiegel drew the following analogy: “Paul Newman was everything Steve McQueen wanted to be: Newman acted, raced, he was sort of an intellectual, he conducted a private life and a private love affair with the same woman. Newman had a reputation for sensitivity and good breeding, yet he was indisputably masculine. Newman was verbal, he was bright, and he was seemingly comfortable in his own skin—all the things McQueen felt he wasn’t.”

Ironically, for all this arbitrary competition and envy toward Newman as a paper lion, McQueen’s attraction to no-account screen characters often seems Newman-like. For example, McQueen’s part in Love with the Proper Stranger was originally earmarked for Newman. And The Cincinnati Kid is very much like The Hustler, in which another young hotshot is pitted against a wily veteran—only the game has changed, from pool to poker. Paradoxically, by the time Le Mans (1971) finally appeared, even McQueen’s self-appointed rival, Newman, had released a well-received racing film, Winning (1969). In The Towering Inferno, Newman is saddled often with the most stilted dialogue. Toward the movie’s conclusion, after the fire has finally been extinguished, Newman and his lover (Faye Dunaway) are safely at the tower base, and he says of the burned out skyscraper, “Maybe we should leave it this way as a kind of shrine to all the bullshit in the world.” 

For critics of the movie, which received decidedly mixed reviews, this quote was a popular target. To illustrate, New York Magazine’s Judith Crist responded directly to the actor in her critique, “Not all the bullshit in the world, Paul—just in movies co-produced by Twentieth Century-Fox and Warner Bros.” A suite at the Wilshire hotel was where McQueen met his third wife, fashion model Barbara Minty, twenty-four years his junior. He had seen her in a Club Med advertisement, and he set up a movie audition for a female part in Tom Horn (1980). Ironically, given McQueen’s long one-sided rivalry with Newman, Minty initially thought the audition would be with Newman. How was Steve McQueen intertwined with Elvis Presley? Sonny West told a story of how the two met one day on the way to the studio in the mid-’60s. Elvis was in a limousine when McQueen pulled up on a motorcycle. They were pleasant to each other but the exchange was brief. The two legends really collided when they were competing for the affections of actress Barbara Leigh, who Marshall Terrill also wrote a book with: The King, McQueen and the Love Machine [2002]. Barbara Leigh was Steve’s co-star in his 1972 rodeo western, Junior Bonner.

Before she met Steve, Barbara Leigh was dating Elvis and Metro Goldwyn Mayer studio executive Jim Aubrey in August 1970. She then got the role of “Charmagne”, and she and Steve started seeing each other on the set of Junior Bonner, and even after the movie was completed. Barbara, Steve, and Elvis had a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding the people they were dating. Steve knew she was still seeing Elvis and that Elvis knew she was seeing Steve. So when Elvis would call, he’d ask, “How’s that motorcycle hick”? And Steve would ask, “Was that the guitar hick?” It wasn’t often that McQueen or Elvis had to compete for a woman, but Barbara Leigh, who was a stunner, was worth the chase. When you got down to it, Barbara was really in love with James Aubrey. She knew Elvis would never give up other women and realized she and Steve weren’t a great match. The film that Terrill regretted seeing McQueen turn down the most was William Friedkin’s The Sorcerer. That’s a very good film with Roy Scheider in the lead role, but McQueen would have given it another dimension and made it a classic. Friedkin [The French Connection, The Exorcist] would have pushed McQueen to greatness on that film. It’s a shame that he didn’t make that movie, because right around the time he did An Enemy of the People in 1977, he could have used a box-office hit.

Psychologist Peter O. Whitmer believes that Steve McQueen had what he called a “weird professional sibling rivalry” with Paul Newman. In retrospect, did Newman speak about McQueen on-the-record? That’s a very interesting question because I’ve never come across an article or interview where Newman commented on the record about McQueen either during his lifetime or after his death. I find this very telling given that Newman lived almost 30 years after McQueen passed away. Newman’s lifelong friend, A.E. Hotchner, writes about visiting Newman on the set of The Towering Inferno. Hotchner said that Newman was very unhappy with himself and McQueen, going so far as to call McQueen "chicken shit" for counting up the lines in the screenplay and demanding parity. — Steve McQueen: The Great Escape (2009) by Wes D. Gehring 

Sunday, January 01, 2023

Happy New Year 2023!

Gloria DeHaven.

Dorothy Lamour.

Joan Crawford.

Rhonda Fleming.