I never fail to draw looks of shock and defiance when I claim that Nicolas Cage is not only my favorite actor but also the best working today. Though I have no desire to convince anyone of this, I’m often asked to defend my statement in which case I discover that the doubters have not seen most of Cage’s best performances.
Since I hear his brilliant twin role in Adaptation used as an exception to his “crappy” roles and Leaving Las Vegas is an obvious choice, one of the best performances by an actor in cinema, I will leave these two films out. I will also disregard good acting he’s done in films such as Raising Arizona, Wild at Heart, Red Rock West, The Rock, Matchstick Men, and The Weather Man. I will focus on the roles and films which define his work most.
In a career of over thirty films, these are the best performances by the most original, daring performer of our time:
This little-known drama about a normal teenager (Cage) who befriends bird-obsessed weirdo (Matthew Modine) is an underrated film with great forgotten performances by both leads. Working through flashbacks as a disfigured Cage tries to bring Modine out of a “bird” coma in a mental asylum, their friendship is pieced together in funny/disturbing glimpses leading up to their time in Vietnam.
Cage is perfect as the worn torn “sane” partner of the duo, trying helplessly to communicate with his friend who stares at the window of his cell naked and speechless. This is incredible work of frustration, passion and madness.
And by the way, the ending is unforgettable.
This is one of Cage’s extreme performances (along with similar whack-job roles in The Wicker Man and his ultimate whack-o character in Deadfall). But this is more than an actor going crazy on screen. I will admit that Cage’s antics can be misplaced or forced at times, but here he’s really trying to capture a bizarre descent into madness. The film, a quirky tale of a man who believes he’s becoming a vampire, is hardly perfect. It’s these moments of Cage eating the cockroach and running down the street with fake teeth screaming “I’m a vampire!” that speak of utter devotion to performance: submersion and the willingness to go to laughable places. I see the same trait in Brando in The Missouri Breaks, where true moments of odd behavior are found in an otherwise boring film.
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
I recently read an interview with Werner Herzog where he spoke of Cage’s performance in his own movie: For a decade, we haven’t seen a performance of that caliber (Colin Firth in The King’s Speech), with the exception of Nicolas Cage in “Bad Lieutenant.”
I couldn’t agree more. Cage trumps Keitel’s performance in the original. Both film and star are superior to the first Lieutenant, an Abel Ferrera film seeped in Catholicism. Herzog does the opposite: his cinema goes against the guilt that has overshadowed the Film Noir genre since its creation. In fact, I believe that this film is the true birth of Modern Noir.
Back to Nick’s performance, it’s an amazing feat of film acting. He’s frantic, manic, energetic, subdued, unpredictable and original. This is the most courageous acting I have seen in years.
Years ago, Sean Penn dismissed Cage (they were once friends), saying he was “no longer an actor, just a performer”. Compared to Penn (who for me) continues to become more and more boring as his career evolves, Cage is not only “a performer” but THE PERFORMER. He is the most interesting person to watch on film.
Though I regret the times that he sleepwalks through films, I know there is another great Cage role right around the corner.
Marlon Brando (1924-2004)
To me the perversity of Marlon Brando’s career is unparalleled in the history of cinema. His first appearance in movies during the early 1950s sent a shock wave of seismic proportions throughout the world of motion pictures. He was young, handsome, inarticulate, sometimes brutish and even crude. But somewhere in the middle of all that was a sensitive poetic soul trying to break through and often did in flashes and glimpses. And frequently, as in the case of his performance as Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront (1954), for the duration of the entire film.
He was a powerful presence on screen. There is no doubt about it. So powerful in fact that even when the film wasn’t very good and lacking in many other areas (writing, direction etc) like The Wild One (1953), he could still tower over its ineptitudes and make the experience unforgettable for the audience…Critics of the day puzzled by his power and appeal tried to pigeonhole and parody what he did with phrases like; “The scratch and mumble school of acting”. But then just at the moment when they thought they had him categorized or more properly his acting style figured out, he would switch things around and confound them once more with something unexpected and excellent. Like the time when he decided to tackle the one thing they thought he could never handle namely Shakespeare, an author whose works were thought to be the exclusive province of British actors. Yet his performance as Mark Anthony in Joseph Mankiewicz’s Julius Caesar (1953) has redefined the way the role is thought about and performed everywhere. Then there are the other classic performances that everyone of a certain age talks about and praise. A Street Car Named Desire first on stage in 1948 and then on screen on 1951, Viva Zapata (1952),the previously mentioned The Wild One and On the Waterfront and later on just when everyone, critics and audiences alike, figured he was finished, The Godfather and the controversial Last Tango in Paris both in 1972. But between these films there were several great or near great performances that went unnoticed in films like Sayonara (1957), The Young Lions (1958), The Ugly American (1963), Gillo Pontecorvo’s curious yet compelling revolutionary drama Burn (aka: Quiemada- 1969). It is in this film that Brando says he gave his best performance. These along with his short but eye-catching turn in Euzhan Palcy’s apartheid drama A Dry White Season (1989) attests to the quality of work he was doing even when not many were paying attention. My favorite performance and I think it’s a great one is his role as the severely repressed homosexual Major Penderton in John Huston’s adaptation of Carson McCullers Reflections in the Golden Eye (1967).
He directed one film which critics at the time dismissed as “a method western”. But I thought it was terrific and still do. That film is One Eyed Jacks (1961). In recent years I’m happy to say, there has been some reassessment and appreciation of the film and its various virtues. Perhaps this will continue and maybe lead some company like Criterion into providing us with a completely restored version. All that’s available now are badly printed versions usually housed in cheap box sets of grade C westerns. For those of us who love this film, and there are many of us I suspect, such a restoration is long overdue.
His choices were eclectic and perverse to say the least. How else does one explain a career that includes such titles as Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), The Countess from Hong Kong (1967), Night of the Following Day (1968) and the execrable Candy (1968). Yet in-between were some respectable misses; like The Chase (1966) and The Nightcomers (1970).
Then somewhere along the way, during the late 60s it seems, Brando became disillusioned with both acting and the movies. He at one point even dropped out of films for eight years (1980 to 89), gained a lot of weight and started giving deliberately disinterested and oddball performances in films like The Missouri Breaks (1976), The Formula (1980 and Apocalypse Now (1979). In one of his rare TV interviews with his friend Larry King Brando said that he didn’t like acting. When King then asked why then did he do it his response was if they paid him the same amount of money to cut sausage then that’s what he would be doing. During this time any number of people both publicly and privately were criticizing him for “squandering his God given talent”. For by this time it was almost universally accepted that he had what some people, Elia Kazan included, referred to as a “genius” for acting. It was felt that with such a proven talent he should’ve been tackling the great parts instead of frittering his time away with things like Superman (1978), Christopher Columbus- The Discovery (1992), The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996) and Free Money (1998).I never went along with that opinion. My feeling was/is that it was his talent to squander if he felt so inclined. I was and am still grateful for the great performances he had already given and ambitions that they inspired. And during those years he again gave what to me is yet another great performance as Carmine Sabatini in The Freshman (1990).A film where he masterfully recreates yet parodies his own iconic performance in The Godfather.
I still wish that he had been able to realize the last dream of serious acting that he had been contemplating. It was to be in David Lean’s film adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo. An all star cast had been put together by Lean director of Lawrence of Arabia (1962) including Paul Schofield, Peter O’Toole, Anthony Quinn, Dennis Quaid, Isabella Rossellini, Christopher Lambert and Marlon Brando. It was said that Brando was very excited about the project and was looking forward to giving it his most serious effort in years. But Lean died six weeks before production was to begin and the film was never made. Shame.
Brando’s film career went its jokey way for another ten years ending in 2001 with The Score. And three years later in 2004 Brando was gone too…He might not have cared much for acting but he left an indelible mark with the great performances he gave. And as perverse as his career might have been he still left a legacy in acting that has not been matched by anyone thus far.
Kim Novak was an interesting and underappreciated presence in films. Right from the start she was viewed in the shadow of the 1950s reigning sex symbol Marilyn Monroe. In fact that’s why Columbia Pictures signed her in the first place. It was to be their version of Miss Monroe and to replace their ageing sex goddess Rita Hayworth. Her real name was in fact Marilyn. Marilyn Pauline Novak so the Studio quickly changed it to Kim. She was young, vulnerable and would do for their films the same things that the famous MM did for men in hers. But what they hadn’t counted on, what they never count on, is the real differences in each individual human being. An individuality that can never be replicated or reproduced. How many times have we heard about somebody being the “next Bogart” or the next Cary Grant or Clark Gable only to be annoyed and disappointed by the comparison? Still the moguls and the publicists at the studios never seemed to learn and every year we were being introduced to some new incarnation of an old or reigning star. And absurdly enough it still goes on today long after the old studio system has passed into oblivion. Old habits die hard I guess.
Now almost from her first important appearance in the film noir Pushover (1954) Novak’s presence was distinctly different from that of Miss Monroe. She was more quiet, less prone to assert herself, yet she was potently and seductively there. After that came Picnic (1955) the cinematic adaptation of William Inge’s 1953 Pulitzer Prize winning play directed by Joshua Logan the man who had directed it on stage. The report was that Logan didn’t want her in the film. He wanted Janice Rule, the actress who had played the role on stage but Harry Cohan the boss of Columbia Pictures insisted on her. Going so far as to tell Logan that if Novak was off the picture so was he. Or that’s how legend tells it. Looking at the film today we can see how right he was. Much of the others in the cast seemed off in some way. William Holden looks a bit long in the tooth to be playing the hunky drifter whose masculinity upsets many of the townswomen. Rosalind Russell and Susan Strasberg over act their roles while Cliff Robertson, Arthur O’Connell, Nick Adams, Betty Field and Felton come off okay. But the one who holds you to the screen every time she appears is Novak. Everything about her in the part of Madge, the town beauty whose latent sexual fires are stirred by the attractive drifter is right. From the sly glancing way she looks at everyone to the way she resists and objects to being called pretty or beautiful. In its quiet way it is an accurate (or seems to be) portrayal of both sexual repression and sexual awakening, one succeeding the other at just the right time. And either by accident or design Novak hits all the right notes in the part. The critics may have been lukewarm in their response to her performance in that film but the public recognized a star when they saw one. She followed this performance with another terrific one in Otto Preminger’s then controversial film The Man with the Golden Arm (1957). That same year she was cast with Frank Sinatra again in the tepid musical Pal Joey (1957) in which Rita Hayworth also appeared. It wasn’t much of a picture but the potency of Novak shined through again. Then in the following year came her greatest performance in Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). The power of both the film and Novak’s performance was not recognized or appreciated until many, many years later. But today it stands out as possibly the best film of Hitchcock’s distinguished career and a milestone for everyone else creatively involved with the film.
Another Novak performance that has gone unrecognized as far as I’m concerned is her portrayal of Mildred, the self centered maid/ waitress in the remake of W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage (1964). Bette Davis had done so well playing the part thirty years earlier in the original that the critics couldn’t see past it and slammed Kim because her interpretation was different. But looking at the film today we can see how right on the money her performance is.
As celebrated movie star Kim Novak always seemed uncomfortable and ill at ease. She dealt with it as best she could but didn’t appear to embrace it. It always seemed to be an intrusion that had to be endured. So that when after many films (some good, other not so)in a variety of genres she quietly slipped out of public view, I wasn’t surprised. She had given what she had to give and now it was time to say goodbye.
Today, from all accounts, she his happily retired from the screen and living a fruitful life as a painter/ sculptor who raises horses and llamas with her husband in Oregon and California. Some Kim Novak DVD box sets are being issued so her performances can be appreciated and reassessed. I also think that if anyone deserves a film series dedicated to showing the best of their screen work, Miss Novak is that individual. She might be retired but her films still manifests the incandesce of her on-screen persona.
Ice Station Zebra (1968)
Ice Station Zebra is a movie I have watched a good number of times over the years really wanting to like it. My reasons for this were multiple. First off it boasts a creative team of considerable pedigree. Its director John Sturges had been responsible for a number of my favorite films. Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957), Last Train from Gun Hill (1959), and The Magnificent 7 (1960). The cast headed by the always reliable Rock Hudson, supported by Ernest Borgnine, Patrick McGoohan of the classic TV series The Prisoner (1967) and Escape from Alcatraz (1979), Jim Brown, football player turned movie actor (The Dirty Dozen (1967) and Tony Bill an actor (Come Blow Your Horn – 1963) whom I met briefly who later went on to become a successful producer (The Sting -1973) and director (Flyboys- 2006).It was adapted from a novel by Alistair MacLean whose previous novel Guns of Navarone (1964) had been made into an exciting film. It was Rock Hudson’s favorite film and a lot of friends whose opinion I respect love this movie. But most importantly I re-watch this film because it was a favorite of eccentric; some might say crazy, billionaire Howard Hughes. I’d read somewhere that he was always running it for his barber when he was getting a haircut. Telling him: “Watch this; you’ll learn something from it.” The poor man is supposed to have seen the film more than a dozen times and had no idea what he had learned in the process except that perhaps Hughes was a little batshit. Or maybe even more than a little. Anyway I saw the film when it first came out in 1968 on a big screen (which is the only way to see a film like this) in New York City and thought it intelligent but not at all thrilling. Then I started reading all these write-ups on it saying that it was underrated and underappreciated, so I looked at it again and again. Then after reading that thing about Hughes I went back and watched it one more time trying to glean what about it that he found so fascinating. I must confess, I’m totally baffled.
I find Hudson’s performance in the lead uninteresting and stolid, McGoohan, who I usually like, overemphatic to the point where he seems to be illustrating the part more than playing it, Borgnine cartoonish bordering on buffoonery, Tony Bill dull and Jim Brown stiff. Sturges direction flat and the screenplay by Douglas Heyes (Kitten with a Whip-1964) uninspired. Nothing in the story surprises me or ignites my curiosity in any way. I also didn’t believe a word of it. Even the settings looked like sound stages and sets to me. On the whole the film just seems to go on and on long after my tolerance has been exhausted. And clocking in at 148 minutes it seems to be at least 20 minutes too long.
This is a film I can’t get into the rhythm of at all. Still I keep thinking that somehow I’m wrong and that the fault is in me and not all the talented who put the film together or Mr. Howard Hughes who loved it so much. It just goes to show you the power eccentricity can wield even years after its originator has shuffled off this mortal coil.
Some brief notes on: Frank Sinatra, Sandra Bullock and Deborah Kerr
Frank Sinatra (1915 – 1998)
We of a certain age all grew up with Frank Sinatra. At least his music. He came after Bing Crosby and somehow somewhere in the late 1950s surpassed him as America’s most popular singer. By this time he had gone through several highs and lows that had not only deepened and matured him but left a residue of anger and bitterness as well. It was during this period that he recorded so many of his classic albums with Nelson Riddle, Billy May and Gordon Jenkins. Now he had been in movies for nearly a decade already but it wasn’t until his famous “comeback” in From Here to Eternity (1953) that anyone ever paid much attention to Sinatra the actor. But even earlier Frank was beginning to show his chops as an actor in films like Meet Danny Wilson (1952). And after his Oscar winning performance as Best Supporting Actor he quickly moved into playing dramatic leading roles with such distinction that Elia Kazan, arguably the best director of actors in America, selected him for the lead in On the Waterfront (1954) when Marlon Brando at first refused to play the role. Later when Brando changed his mind and accepted, the film’s producer Sam Spiegel had to financially settle with Sinatra out of court. My point being that Elia Kazan in selecting Sinatra was indicating how high in his esteem Frank was as an actor. Right up there next to Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift who were then thought of as America’s finest.
I feel that this estimation is correct. At the time Sinatra was among America’s finest dramatic actors in the movies. One only has to revisit films like Suddenly (1954), The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), The Joker is Wild (1957), Some Came Running (1958) and of course The Manchurian Candidate (1962) which he also produced. But his skill was not just relegated to dramas he was as good at comedy in films like The Tender Trap (1955) and one of my favorites Frank Capra’s A Hole in the Head (1959). Then came the “Rat Pack” when he seemed to be mostly playing host to his friends rather than acting a role that he started giving lazy uninteresting performances. Apparently, for some reason he became bored and decided not to try anymore. (Note: Marlon Brando seemed to have fallen victim of the same malaise as well.) But at his best very few could match him. Today he is legendary as a singer/ interpreter of songs but he was also an actor of rare power and range. I would say unequivocally the best singer turned actor in the history of motion pictures.
She won the Academy Award as Best Actress in 2009 for The Blind Side but I still contend that she is an underrated dramatic actress whose skills have still not been fully appreciated. I have felt this way since films like Murder by Numbers (2002. It wasn’t much of a picture but she was terrific in it. Also Crash (2004), Wrestling Ernest Hemingway (1993) and the Truman Capote film that nobody saw Infamous (2006). She plays in that one Harper Lee and does a very good job at it. Truthfully I liked this film a lot better than the more celebrated and critically acclaimed Capote that came out earlier the same year. And I sometimes wonder if the release dates on the films had been reversed would both the critical and box office response been the same.
Sandra Bullock came to the public awareness as the spunky young woman who drives the bus in the hit film Speed (1994). Everyone was won over by her energy, quick wittedness and sense of humor in that role and she quickly became type cast as that kind of character. But via other roles that she played I could tell that behind the winning smile and tough girl vulnerability there was an intelligent, sophisticated woman who had been through some of the rough patches of life and was drawing on some of that in her acting. And no, I’m not referring to the tabloid stories about her recent breakup and divorce. This was before all that. There had always been a edginess to her performances that was dramatically surprising and sometimes bracing too. Even in things like the popular Miss Congeniality (2000) it can be spotted. But my favorite role and performance by her thus far is in the film 28 Days (2000). Again nobody saw it. At least nobody I knew and I can’t think of seeing any review that praised or even acknowledged it. Portraying alcoholism is a very difficult task. Nick Cage[O1] nailed it in Leaving Las Vegas (1995) and so did Ms. Bullock in 28 Days. Nailed it better than just about anyone in recent memory.
We have a tendency to mentally type cast actors in our minds and not support their efforts to change or expand their range. Hopefully this won’t happen with Ms. Bullock and she will get the opportunity to show us how much more she is capable of. I say this knowing that dramatic stories in movies are a rarity these days. Cable TV seems to be the outlet for these types of stories. But wherever Sandra Bullock has the chops let’s let her show them.
Deborah Kerr (1921- 2007)
Deborah Kerr was one of the great ladies of cinema. An actress of superior skills who also had poise, understated good looks and a quiet presence that complimented every male co star she appeared with. She was one of those women who didn’t have to compete with the male in order to be his equal. And co starred with just about every big male star of her time. Clark Gable (The Hucksters -1947), Robert Taylor ( Quo Vadis- 1951), Stewart Granger (King Solomon’s Mines-1950), Burt Lancaster ( From Here to Eternity – 1953), Robert Mitchum ( Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison – 1957), Cary Grant ( An Affair to Remember – 1957),Gregory Peck (Beloved Infidel – 1959), Frank Sinatra ( Marriage on the Rocks- 1965),Gary Cooper ( The Naked Edge – 1961), Kirk Douglas ( The Arrangement – 1969), David Niven (Separate Tables -1958), Van Johnson (End of the Affair – 1955), James Mason ( Julius Caesar – 1953)and with Yul Brynner in The King and I (1956.She became famous for two iconic roles. The troubled wife in From Here to Eternity (particularly for the beach scene) and as the school teacher Anna Leonowens in the musical The King and I although she didn’t sing. Marni Nixon dubbed the musical numbers. She was also an actress of nearly all genres as well, appearing in Costume epics (Quo Vadis),Mysteries ( The Naked Edge), Classics ( Julius Caesar), Historicals ( Young Bess- 1952), Horror ( The Innocents – 1961), War stories (The Journey), Melodramas (The Arrangement), Musicals ( King and I),Comedies ( The Grass is Greener- 1960) a near western ( The Sundowners – 1960), Adventure ( King Solomon’s Mines), Biographical ( Beloved Infidel ), and multiple play adaptations as well. In fact the only genre she seems to have missed completely was science fiction.
She was nominated for the Academy Award six times but never received a competitive award. She was given an honorary award in 1994 for the excellence of her career overall.
I met Ms. Kerr in 1954 in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands when she was filming The Proud and the Profane and remember her to be everything she seemed to be on screen. Gentle, thoughtful, considerate and very refined. I had met the entire cast of the film and interviewed most of the principals for the radio station I interned at. I was fifteen at the time and totally in awe of them all. I remember Ms. Kerr as being very approachable and easy to interview. But my most memorable encounter with her occurred a week later when I was going home from school. This was around two in the afternoon and they were filming at the central market place one block away from my school. A crowd had gathered to see what they were doing. So I joined the crowd behind the ropes to look at things too. I watched them do two takes and then break for another setup. As she was heading to her trailer dressing room Ms. Kerr looked over and saw me near the front. She quickly walked over, called my name and bid me to step under the rope and join her. I did and she invited me into her dressing room where we talked about the scene that had just been shot and how movies in general were made. When she was called for the next scene she invited me to sit on her chair so I could more closely see what was going on. I can’t tell you how special that made me feel. And to this day I still look back on it as one of the nicest days of my life. Years later I went to see her on Broadway in Edward Albee’s Pulitzer Prize winning play Seascape. After the show I sent a note back stage sort of reminding her of that day in St. Thomas and thanking her for her kindness. I gave it to the guy at the stage door exit for delivery. I never heard from her but I hope she got it.
All this is to say that, from my point of view, Deborah Kerr was not just a great actress on stage and on screen. She was also a very lovely person as well.
A Brief Note on Rock Hudson
Rock Hudson’s great fear at the end of his life was that he would be more remembered as the man who brought AIDS out of the closet, so far as the larger public was concerned, than for his career as a top movie and TV star. Unfortunately he was right. When he is remembered it is mostly for the former rather than the latter. And of course his revelation about contracting AIDS did and still has some positive effects on both the public’s awareness of the disease and the financial support that has gone into trying to find a cure for it… But it shouldn’t be forgotten that for almost two decades (the 1950s and 60s) Rock Hudson was one of Hollywood’s most proficient and reliable leading men. For me it began with the western The Lawless Breed (1953), Raoul Walsh’s bio of the outlaw John Wesley Hardin. Then of course there was George Stevens’ Giant (1956) the film that moved Hudson into the upper echelons of major screen stardom. Before that there was Douglas Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession (1954) and one of my favorite trash movies of all time Written on the Wind (1956) also directed by Douglas Sirk. In all of those films and others Hudson provided a rock solid center for the plot and all the other characters to revolve around. He might not have been a great actor but he was never a weak or poor one and was always a reassuring presence in all his films including the comedies with Doris Day like Pillow Talk (1959) and the others that followed…Take Giant for example. It is always being talked about because of James Dean’s eccentric performance. And the performance is unique as well as eye catching. But to me it seems to belong to another picture. The true anchors of the film are Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson. I think that they both carry the story so well that without them the film would be almost negligible in spite of Stevens’ direction or Dean’s performance. That’s how good they are and how necessary their performances and personas were to the film.
Beyond that Hudson provided some other strong performances in films like; Something of Value (1957), A Farewell to Arms (1957),A Gathering of Eagles (1963), Seconds (1966), Billionaire Howard Hughes’ favorite film Ice Station Zebra (1968) and my personal favorite The Tarnished Angels (1958) in which Hudson gives his most subdued and subtle performance.
The term “leading man” doesn’t carry much weight these days. But in the days of the Studio System it referred to an actor who was able to sustain the viewer’s interest for the duration of the running time of a picture. Many tried but few would succeed over an extended amount of time. The ones who did became “over- the- title” stars, the others became supporting players and character actors. Rock Hudson, born Roy Harold Scherer Jr. who then became Roy Fitzgerald before acquiring his screen name from agent Henry Wilson, was one of the ones who rose to the top. He remained a leading man right to the end of his career and provided American movies with one of its best all-purpose leads for men to identify with and woman to sigh about. His contributions shouldn’t be forgotten or undervalued. From genre to genre, westerns to comedies, musicals to melodramas, war pictures to mysteries along with science fiction and social problem dramas he was a leading man for all seasons.
Debbie Reynolds and the Motion Pictures Archives
I was saddened at the news of Debbie Reynolds selling off her Hollywood Studios memorabilia collection of some 5000 pieces, but I quite understand. For years, going all the way back to the 70s I think, she has been collecting artifacts from what we now call “The Golden Age of Hollywood” hoping that she would be able to someday create a Museum that could house it all. The idea being that others would step up to the plate and aid her in this endeavor. But alas no one did. Or at least no one with enough money, power or clout. Nevertheless she heroically kept the faith…At one point she did have a place in her hotel in Las Vegas where several items in her collection were on display. I visited the place whenever I was in Las Vegas and found what she had interesting, fascinating and worthy of further study. My only wish was that there might be more.
It’s a shame that through no fault of hers, she couldn’t realize her dream. Because it wasn’t just hers alone it was for all of us who love movies and revere it as the definitive art of the 20th Century, the definitive American Art where roughly between 1920 and the 1960s Hollywood with all its faults and scandal and absurdities was a magical place like none other in our history. A real place where real people worked that took on the aura and legendary status of that mythical place Mount Olympus in ancient Greece.
The Hollywood Studios created what was called “The Great American Dream Machine” or “Dream Factory” and their product (for better or worse) defined our history, our character, our values and our spirit for the rest of the world. This legacy and how it was brought about deserved to be treasured and made available for all to look at and meditate upon in a protected environment such as a museum. The kind that Debbie Reynolds dreamed about and worked so hard to accomplish.
The same way that jazz defines New Orleans and America so does The Hollywood Film Industry, especially the old “Studio System” define both California and the USA. Shame on us for not realizing and appreciating that. Shame on us for not supporting Ms. Reynolds in her endeavor. I believe our culture will be poorer for it.
Elvis Presley: The Actor
It was and has been my contention for a long time that Elvis Presley was an underrated actor whose thespic abilities had they been allowed to develop via interesting and challenging parts might’ve turned him into a film actor of considerable talent. But he was essentially victimized by his success as a singer. So as a result he was never given the chance either by the people who managed his career, Col. Tom Parker especially or the studios that produced his films. Or for that matter by the film critics of the day. Right from the start with his first film Love Me Tender (1956) they went after him with knives and arrows. And after that every time one of his films was released it afforded them the opportunity to show how caustic and witty they could be at his expense. What did they expect? That this young rockabilly singer would reveal himself to be as skilled as Olivier or naturally gifted as Marlon Brando? I suspect not. I think they were just trying to punish him for being so damned successful as a singer/performer. There is a kind of snobbery among critics that unattractively manifests itself whenever a phenom like Presley comes along.
I mean here was a young man with no dramatic training making a genuinely honest effort in his first outing and I might add achieving some very affecting moments in the process. But it was very clear that he was new and unsure of himself. But with his next film Loving You (1956) he became more relaxed and more sure of himself. That film was followed by Jail House Rock (1957) where a lot of his pent up energy and rage found an outlet that was entertaining as well as dramatically compelling. Then came King Creole (1958), directed by Michael Curtiz, for which I think he gave the best performance of his career. Then Military service intervened. G.I. Blues (1960) was his next film and for me the turning point. After that most of his films were tailor made comedic inanities designed to showcase his musical abilities in undemanding and not very imaginative ways. All that seemed to be required were some pretty girls, a lifeless script, a few musical numbers and Mr. Presley. Yes there were a few exceptions like Flaming Star and Wild in the Country, ( both released in 1960) but the majority were what I call travelogue films with titles like It Happened at the World’s Fair, Fun in Acapulco, Blue Hawaii and Paradise Hawaiian Style where even he seemed to be bored by the lack of challenge in the roles he was given. The one exception was Viva Las Vegas (1964) the film he made with the young and vivacious Ann-Margret. They apparently sparked something in each other that brought the film to life despite the stupidity of the story. But after that it was business as usual until both Presley and the public grew weary and he stopped making fiction films.
But while all this was taking place I quietly kept hoping that somewhere along the way someone would take the chance and offer him a dramatic role that had some teeth in it. The two I thought of at the time were Sidney Lumet’s adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ play Orpheus Descending retitled The Fugitive Kind (1960). Marlon Brando played the role and was good in the film but I still feel that Presley was more naturally suited to the character and would’ve surprised everyone by acquitting himself well in the part. Another was Baby the Rain Must Fall (1965), Horton Foote’s adaptation of his play Travelling Lady. The role went to Steve McQueen but again I thought it should’ve gone to Presley. Or at least offered to him for the same reasons stated before.
Now all this was wishful thinking on my part because I don’t know if Presley or his management people would’ve considered the parts even if they were offered. And I also appreciate the fact that Presley’s reputation was such that an announcement in any of those projects would’ve been met with derision and laughter that would’ve undercut the seriousness of their creators’ intent.
I know that we can’t undo the past but I always find it interesting to speculate on “what might have been”. In the case of Presley and the two films mentioned I still think that his future and his reputation would’ve been considerably altered had he been given the chance to prove that his acting abilities went way beyond the roles he was given. But we’ll never know. So all this is just idle dreaming on my part. But still it’s fun to think about.