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Frank Sinatra Dined Here

August 30, 2011
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Frank Sinatra Dined Here

 

In spite of the title this essay really has nothing to do with Frank Sinatra. He’s really a minor player in the proceedings. This article is really more about human perversity as I perceive it.

 

Many, many years ago I was working as a waiter in a rather upscale restaurant on the east side of Manhattan. One night this guy came in and was seated at a table and was given a menu from which he ordered a drink and then dinner complete with appetizer and dessert. When it came time to pay the bill he told us that he was down on his luck and didn’t have any money. Upon closer inspection he did look a bit ragged and somewhat worse for the wear.  The question was; why was he seated in the first place?  But that didn’t matter anymore. He had been and now he couldn’t pay the bill.

 

We took the situation to Jamie, the ex-football player who owned the place. He went over to the guy who by this time was out of the dining room and standing by the coat check counter close to the door, and asked what was his story? The guy told him what he told us. That he was sorry but that he had no money. “Who put you up to this?” Jamie asked and the guy said no one. “So why’d you do it? Why did you come into my place and eat when you know you had no money?”… “I was hungry.” the guy said and for some reason that answer and the amount the guy ate seemed to infuriate Jamie so much that he grabbed the guy by the lapels and started shaking him. And probably would’ve punched him if we hadn’t intervened and restrained him…The guy was thrown out with the warning to never come anywhere near the premises again.

 

Some four months later Jamie got word that Frank Sinatra  and his then new wife Mia were in town and for one reason or another planning to come to his place for dinner the following Tuesday night. It had been arranged by some publicist Jamie had hired. And Jamie who was a huge Sinatra fan was beside himself with excitement.  The night before Sinatra was due in I heard him say that he was closing the place to other customers. When we asked him why he said: “I don’t want any Yo-yo’s bothering Frank and Mia when they’re having dinner.” We also watched him select the right cut of meat for Frank and his bride. Prime rib was our house specialty.

 

I didn’t work that night. But from what I heard everything went as it was supposed to. Sinatra and Mia showed up, Jamie and his girlfriend joined them, the food was cooked to perfection and Mr. Sinatra was pleased.  When he reached into his pocket to pay for the dinner Jamie stopped him and said: “You can’t pay for anything in my place, Frank. Please allow me this courtesy.”… And Frank did.

 

When I was told this story the next day by the waiter who served them I remember thinking: “Isn’t that interesting? Jamie wanted to beat up that poor guy who came in and ate without money because he was hungry. But Frank Sinatra who could afford to buy the place ten times over he let eat for free. In fact even begged him..”

 

I think I learned something that day about life, people and the magic of being a celebrity. I also learned something about the perversity of society’s values too.

– GE.

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Bob Fosse

August 9, 2011
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Bob Fosse: Movies Mr. Razzle –Dazzle

Bob Fosse (1927-1987) was a curious anomaly in films because he gained a large reputation as a filmmaker and won many awards based on such a miniscule body of work . He was a dancer/ choreographer who directed. Others had done that before. Most notably Gene Kelly who not only acted and danced but choreographed and directed too. But Kelly became a star in front of the camera first. Fosse didn’t although he did work as dancer/actor during the era of The Studio System. But when the film musical faded as a popular genre Fosse moved to New York and started working on Broadway first as a choreographer then as a director. His first big show as a choreographer was The Pajama Game (1954). He followed that up with Damn Yankees (1955) where he first worked with Gwen Verdon a superior dancer and sexy woman who became the inspiration for his work and whom he married in 1960. With Redhead (1959) he became both director and choreographer.

After that he became Broadway’s “go-to” guy for top notch choreography and direction. He racked up a series of hits including Little Me (1962), Sweet Charity (1966) and How t Succeed in Business without Really Trying- 1969 (Choreography only). That same year he got to direct his first film Sweet Charity. It was a financial failure and Fosse did not get a chance to direct another film until 1972 with Cabaret. And although he didn’t direct or choreograph the stage version (Hal Prince and Ron Field did), Fosse made the most of this opportunity by restructuring the story, getting rid of several songs and refocusing the plot with the help of screenwriter Ms.Jay Presson Allen. The film won 8 Academy Awards. Interestingly enough the play had won 8 Tony awards.

 

1972 turned out to be a watershed year for Fosse. Besides the Academy Award he also won TV’s Emmy Award for the special Liza with a Z starring Liza Minnelli and a Tony Award for directing the play Pippin. This is a feat that has not been matched by anyone before or since… His next film was the highly anticipated biography of controversial stand-up comic Lenny Bruce with Dustin Hoffman in the title role. The film was called Lenny (1974) and it was met with a mixed but not indifferent response from both the critics and the audiences. That is to say some people loved it and an equal number hated it. He followed that film five years later with his very autobiographical film All That Jazz (1979) starring Roy Scheider as Joe Gideon a self destructive, womanizing stage and film director. So close was this character to him that Fosse for a brief moment thought about playing the role himself. He decided against it and cast Richard Dreyfus in the role. Dreyfus left before shooting began and Scheider assumed the role. The film was both an artistic and financial success and was nominated for 4 Academy Awards including one for Scheider as Best Actor.

With the success of his musicals Chicago (1975) and Dancin’ (1978) Fosse was now a star. His name on a project made it instantly recognizable and could generally guarantee its success. But not always. For as it turned out his next film Star ’80 (1983), starring Mariel Hemingway and Eric Roberts did not achieve the critical or commercial success that everyone expected of a Fosse work and it was deemed a failure. But it did have its champions. This was followed by his stage musical of the Italian film Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958) called Big Deal (1983.) It ran for only 69 performances and was considered a failure too. He was working on several projects in 1987 when he died of a heart attack in Washington DC.

 

The curious thing about Fosse’s film career is the impact he made with such a small body of work. A total of five titles. Yet the name “Fosse” brings the instant recognition of a style of dancing (his choreography) and filmmaking too. A style that in spite of its sometimes downbeat subject material offers a somewhat flashy type of camera work and quicksilver editing techniques. The phrase “razzle-dazzle” has been used to describe his style and persona and it could be applied to his films as well.

For me his directorial reputation stands on only one film and it isn’t Cabaret. While I respect its accomplishments and understand why it was/ is so celebrated I have never been a fan. I always liked the stage musical better. I know that I’m in the minority in this but that’s just how I feel…All That Jazz is the Fosse film that resonates with me. I don’t think that it is anywhere close to being a great film. The writing is heavy handed, the symbolism is obvious, the style is over emphatic and there’s an undercurrent of self-congratulating that strikes me as a bit smug. Yet in spite of these critical misgivings I still like the film.  Why?… I like it because it is passionate and deeply felt. And also because it is personal.  Few American films are and All That Jazz might be the most personal film ever financed or made by a major studio and offered in general release. In the case of this film it was actually financed by two major studios, Columbia Pictures and 20th Century Fox. I also like the performances in it particularly Roy Scheider in the lead.

Bob Fosse is gone but his creativity and personality still casts a large shadow on stage and on screen. Re-creations of his stage work are constantly being done. And the films he did are constantly being shown and talked, argued and written about. All this with such a small body of work. That is impressive and amazing too.

-GE.


Marlon Brando (1924-2004)

August 2, 2011
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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.

-GE.