Highlights from TCM fest’s opening night
Four days of devouring big-screen classics has left me deliciously sated! At least until my next film fest.
About 25,000 people attended this year’s sold-out TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood, which featured more than 70 films and special events. Stars who made appearances included Julie Andrews, Alec Baldwin, Drew Barrymore, Warren Beatty, Leslie Caron, Kirk Douglas, Angela Lansbury, Hayley Mills, Peter O’Toole, Jane Powell, Debbie Reynolds and Mickey Rooney.
Before the screening of 1940’s “Fantasia,” in Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on Sunday night, TCM’s Bob Osborne announced that there will be a third fest in 2012. He also announced a new event: the TCM Classic Cruise, Dec. 8-12, 2011, a five-day/four-night event aboard Celebrity Millennium. The cruise will sail from Miami to Key West and Cozumel.
Most important for me was getting my noir fix and, happily, dark delights abounded. For example, there was the chance to see Nicholas Ray’s “Bigger Than Life” with James Mason as a teacher struggling with an addiction to prescription cortisone. As co-star Barbara Rush told Osborne before the screening, this 1956 psychological drama has been programmed in several film noir festivals “because it’s so dark and so scary.”
As you’d expect from Ray, it’s very well done and the performances are excellent. Despite telling the audience that she was “very old,” Rush is very lively. When Osborne asked her to talk about her leading men, she replied, “I had them all!”
Another noir high point was meeting the charming Marya of Cinema_Fanatic and chatting with renowned author Foster Hirsch at the screening of 1953’s “Niagara,” directed by Henry Hathaway and starring Marilyn Monroe (as a murderous wife), Joseph Cotten (as her off-kilter husband) and Jean Peters (as a plucky, pretty brunette). Hirsch told the audience that film noir can absolutely be in color, describing “Niagara” both as a “minor masterpiece” and a “pulp-fiction paperback come to life.”
He pointed out the contrast in lighting between the bright exteriors and dark interiors, ending with the comment: “If you’ve come for laughs and joyous uplift, you’ve come to the wrong place.”
Also a treat was seeing “The Man with the Golden Arm” from 1955. Adapted from a Nelson Algren novel, it’s a story about drug addiction in a gritty urban setting, by master noir director Otto Preminger. I’d seen it before but, as with “Niagara,” the big screen really intensifies the storytelling. It is definitely Frank Sinatra’s best performance and one of Kim Novak’s finest as well. In attendance were Preminger’s daughter Vicki Preminger and Sinatra’s daughters Nancy Sinatra and Tina Sinatra. Rounding out the noir programming were “The Third Man” (Carol Reed, 1950), “Gaslight” (George Cukor, 1944) and “Taxi Driver” (Martin Scorsese, 1976).
Other films with noir elements included Orson Welles’ masterpiece “Citizen Kane” (1941), “The Tingler” (1959), “The Mummy” (1932), “Went the Day Well (1942) and “Whistle Down the Wind (1961). (I saw all but “Kane,” which I’ve seen several times before.)
The festival also honored master composer Bernard Herrmann, who scored “Citizen Kane” and “Taxi Driver” as well as “Psycho,” “Vertigo,” “Cape Fear” and many others.
On the neo-noir front, I’ll be excited to see Cinemax’s upcoming “Femme Fatales” anthology series “about powerful, sexy and dangerous women” starring Ana Alexander and Anya Monzikova, both of whom walked the fest’s red carpet to promote show.
The first of 13 stand-alone episode starts May 13 and I hope to catch up with the actresses sometime soon.
Earlier today at a round-table interview, I caught up with TCM’s Robert Osborne, a veteran film historian and author, as the Classic Film Festival was setting up at the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood. Osborne said one of the festival’s strengths is its great mix in terms of programming, which sets it apart from today’s moviegoing where “you have a choice of the same movie 15 different ways.”
I’ve always wanted to talk noir with him, so I asked him why these films have such enduring appeal. “We’ve always had murder mysteries and who doesn’t love that? They have an endless appeal. It’s the shadows and lights and tough people like Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan and Ida Lupino.
“To call ‘Leave Her to Heaven’ [a 1945 movie that played at last year’s fest and stars Gene Tierney] a noir is stretching it – ‘Leave Her to Heaven’ is a lush Technicolor movie about rich people.
“My idea of film noir is people in the gutter – tough dames and guys in trench coats up to no good. And nobody did it better than Hollywood in the ’40s.”
As for his favorite femmes fatales, he names Veronica Lake, Lauren Bacall (in the Bogart films), Marie Windsor and Jane Greer, describing them “as very feminine women that were also dames who could give it as well as they took it.”
And what did he think of remakes such as HBO’s version of “Mildred Pierce” by director Todd Haynes, starring Kate Winslet? Osborne praised Winslet’s performance but said he was disappointed. “They told the whole story too closely; it was too long and drawn out and too ponderous. In the original [Michael Curtiz‘s 1945 movie starring Joan Crawford], writer Ranald MacDougall’s addition of the murder really made the whole thing crackle. [The remake] should’ve been three hours at the most. I’m not fond of remakes generally.”
What is he most looking forward to in this year’s fest? “Night Flight” by Clarence Brown, “The Constant Nymph” by Edmund Goulding, opening night’s “An American in Paris” by Vincent Minnelli, Leslie Caron’s special appearance, and meeting Peter O’Toole.
I also asked Osborne, who got his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2006, if he had any advice for O’Toole who will be honored at a hand and footprint ceremony at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre this Saturday. “Behave!”
Taxi Driver/1976/Columbia Pictures/113 min.
One of the many highlights of the TCM Classic Film Festival is Sunday’s showing of “Taxi Driver” by Martin Scorsese, which this year turns 35. One of the most sordid urban nightmares ever, “Taxi Driver” stands as the ultimate big-city bad dream.
And where else could it be set but New York City? In the mid-1970s, the mighty metropolis seemed to be falling apart: the economy had stalled, people were deserting the troubled island in droves, and crime was rampant. (Other cinematic portraits of the dismal period are “The French Connection” 1971 by William Friedkin and John Schlesinger’s “Midnight Cowboy” 1969.)
In the middle of this urban mess is anti-hero Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro) – a Vietnam vet and taxi driver, whose desperate loneliness and disgust with NYC’s squalor and decay slowly pushes him over the edge of sanity. Long hours of driving jerks and freaks around isn’t good for anyone’s mental health, let alone an introverted downer like Travis.
Early on, there seems to be a shimmer of hope when Travis encounters a woman named Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), lovely and stylish, ambitious and free-spirited (kudos to costume designer Ruth Morley). Betsy is a campaign worker for Senator Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris), who is making a bid for the presidential nomination. Rather surprisingly, Betsy agrees to meet Travis for coffee. Rather astonishingly, Betsy agrees to go on a date with him, which thoroughly annoys her co-worker Tom (Albert Brooks).
Instead of candlelight and roses, or even strip lighting and sandwiches, Travis takes Betsy to a porn movie. She storms out, quashing any hope of romance, though Travis keeps angling for another chance by sending her flowers and showing up at Palantine’s campaign HQ.
After that, Travis tries to keep busy – you know, the usual breakup stuff – writing in his journal, shaving his head, talking to himself in the mirror, buying guns and pointing them at Palatine. When Travis spies a child prostitute as she walks the streets (Jodie Foster), he makes it his mission to rescue her from the degradation of working for sicko pimp ‘Sport’ Harvey Keitel. His quest, fueled by his worsening mental illness, culminates in out-of-control violence.
Once you see “Taxi Driver,” you’ll never forget it. Coming on the heels of Vietnam and Watergate, the film tapped the overall dark mood of the nation and did well at the box-office. Additionally, it catapulted Scorsese and writer Paul Schrader into the big league, making its mark with the Hollywood tastemakers and earning four Oscar noms: best picture (it lost to “Rocky”); best actor (De Niro); best supporting actress (Foster); best original score (Herrmann). It also won the Palme d’Or at Cannes.
Though he didn’t win the Oscar, DeNiro turned in one of the best and most iconic performances of his career, spanning the emotional gamut from hardened cynicism to earnest and utter sadness. The most moving scene for me is when he sends a corny anniversary card to his parents and jots down some details of a life he pretends to live. Foster’s performance is raw and gutsy. Keitel’s brief but searing scenes are repulsive, disturbing, stomach churning; even for crime-movie aficionados, they are hard to watch.
Scorsese’s virtuoso filmmaking taps the sensibilities of the finest American and European filmmakers. He draws thematic inspiration from classic Western director John Ford (specifically 1956’s “The Searchers”) and from his beloved ’30s and ’40s crime movies as well as the visual aesthetic of French New Wave auteurs. More
One week from tonight is the TCM Classic Film Festival, which runs from April 28 to May 1 in Hollywood. There will be more than 70 screenings, as well as special introductions, guest appearances, panel discussions and other events. The red-carpet gala screening on Thursday is “An American in Paris.”
But naturally I’m more excited to see the 10:15 p.m. screening of Josef von Sternberg’s “The Devil is a Woman” from 1935 with Marlene Dietrich. Katie Trainor, film collection manager for the Museum of Modern Art, will introduce the film.
TCM host and film historian Robert Osborne is the official host of the festival. Peter O’Toole, Kirk Douglas, Leslie Caron, Mickey Rooney, Debbie Reynolds, Jane Powell, Warren Beatty, Alec Baldwin, Angela Lansbury, Hayley Mills, Richard Roundtree and Roger Corman are just a few of the notables slated to appear. Can’t wait!
Big cats: The nature doc “African Cats” opens Friday (Earth Day). For the first week, a portion of every ticket sold will go to the African Wildlife Foundation. Disney and Jordin Sparks, who did the movie’s end-title song “The World I Knew,” are also donating to the foundation.
Score hard: The “L.A. Noire” video game, featuring “Mad Men” star Aaron Staton’s voice and vibe, launches May 17. “L.A. Noire” will screen Monday at the Tribeca Film Festival, the first video game to snag that honor. Brendan McNamara is the writer/director.