Monday, August 29, 2005

Hooked on Teutonics: The End (I Hope) of Silence

Apologies for my abject silence for the last three weeks. Yipes.

Short story long: For those of you who don't know, I work in the ticket office at Seattle Opera, an internationally-renowned company hailed for its dazzling stagings of the works of legendary composer Richard Wagner. I love my job, and the company I work for, so please take it in the best possible light when I say that for all of August, I've been Richard Wagner's bitch.

Seattle Opera has staged the composer's complete Ring cycle thrice in the last three weeks; the final run-through of Wagner's 18-hour epic wound down last night, and patrons from 49 of 50 states, and over 15 different countries, attended. If you're unfamiliar with this mammoth work, think Lord of the Rings, only with all of the dwarves, maidens, dragons, warriors, and deities singing, and with all of the special effects being created live, onstage. Yes, it's that big. And as you can imagine, working in any capacity in service to such an epic presentation is almost as epic as the operas themselves.

Long story short: I've been busy, Bucky. But during my rare moments of time-wasting reverie this month, the following indulgences have provided much joy in this quarter.


Gunga Din (1939): George Stevens' classic adventure rivals Gone with the Wind in its political incorrectness, but there's a rip-snorting adventure awaiting you if you can overlook that particular 800-pound gorilla. The trump card here is the effortless, worth-its-weight-in-gold chemistry between the three heroes. Victor McLaglen's loveable rhino of a Sgt. MacChesney, Douglas Fairbanks Jr's dapper yet pugnacious Balantine, and Cary Grant's hilarious cockney rounder Archie Cutter are the stuff of pulp-action gold, believe you me.


Gimme Fiction by Spoon: I shouldn't like this. Really. It's largely piano-and-keyboard-based pop, a genre that always leaves me cold (Elton John, I blame you, you treacly old geezer). But Gimme Fiction plays more like Wilco channelling Ziggy Stardust, with catchy glam piano hooks wedded to lead singer Brit Daniel's urgent but tuneful singing. Constant repeat track: the closer, "Merchants of Soul", which sounds like a staredown between David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust and Thin White Duke personas, while someone falls down the stairs in the background. Great stuff.

Twin Cinema by the New Pornographers: These Vancouver kids get my vote for the best pure pop group in the world right now, and Kurt Newman, their Ringmaster and frontman, is a genius--point frickin' blank. No other band out there combines twisty complexity and ear-yanking hooks so effortlessly. Fans of the first two Pornographers' records will relish the muscular and catchy uptempo numbers like the title track, but a bracing sophistication emerges, too. Maybe it's just the mood I'm in as I listen for the umpteenth time, but "Stacked Crooked" in its surging, quirky way, is the most soaringly, luminously romantic song I've heard all year. Jaw-droppingly brilliant, the track carries the grand baroque pop tradition of The Zombies and Love straight into the futuristic stratosphere--and that's not just the mood I'm in.

Television on DVD:

Adam-12: The Complete First Season : A few random observations. One, Adam-12, one of the longest-running TV brainchildren of Dragnet icon Jack Webb, is a solid straight procedural cop show that still works well. Two, the show's also genuinely, intentionally funny--the workaday banter between earnest rookie cop Jim Reed (Kent McCord) and his cranky partner Pete Malloy (Martin Milner) mines a surprising vein of situational humor.

Three, I've been convinced for years that Pete Malloy is gay.

This has been a good-natured but lively debate between my wife and I for a long time now. Rest assured, neither of us has any problem whatsoever with such a lifestyle choice, but Rita, who crushed on Milner big-time as a kid, asserts that Malloy's just a gruff straight guy who's uncomfortable around girls. The veteran cop's protective and attentive demeanor around his young and handsome partner is just paternal, she argues. And his abject indifference to women in most episodes, just a side-effect of his awkwardness. Then again...

Rita randomly picked the episode, "Log 152", to watch first. In it, Malloy (a bachelor) gives a ditzy-but-charming oil heiress (played by Enter the Dragon's Ahna Capri) a speeding ticket. The girl flirts with him, attempting to ask him out, but he insists (with unprovoked nastiness)that she's "not [his] type, and never WILL be!" He rebuffs the girl's escalating advances with increased hostility, and at one point passes up an evening with her to go on a sailing expedition with 'the guys'. Finally, he goes on a date with her. We don't see said date, but in his terse description of the evening's events to his partner the next day, Malloy insists with an enigmatic smirk, "That's the last time we'll get any trouble from HER again!"

Your honor, I rest my case.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Two Nights of the Iguana

Even amongst abject theater rubes like me, the name of Tennessee Williams looms large in reputation and influence.

The late playwright's distinctive southern-fried meditations on spirituality, sex, and dysfunctionality spawned scores of imitators on stage, on screen, and in print. But Williams' works still provoke, inspire, and draw new generations.

ACT theater in Seattle is currently mounting a new staging of the southern bard's Night of the Iguana (it runs until August 28), and to paraphrase one of its characters, the production is pretty fantastic--to these unjaded eyes, at least.

It's a character study involving T. Lawrence Shannon, a disgraced minister now working as a tour operator. He squires a ladies' school tour group through Mexico, when, besieged by his own neuroses, he swipes the tour bus key and hides in a Mexican hotel run by an old friend, Maxine. Along the way other colorful characters drift to Maxine's hacienda while Shannon gradually unravels.

Williams' well-established issues with sex and spirituality get clear airing here. Shannon openly questions the notion of a rigid Christian doctrine and the petulant, jealous God serving as its figurehead. And sins of the flesh (embodied by Charlotte Goodall, a vivacious underage member of the tour group) attach to the would-be Holy Man like iron shavings to a magnet.

Jon Jory, director of the ACT production, strikes a good balance with the tone here, mining humor without descending to camp theatrics (a real pitfall when interpreting the author's ornate prose) or dampening the philosophical pretzels in the bag. The cast is rock-solid, and the single set evocative and lovely without drawing attention to itself.

Yeah, the symbolism in the text is heavy-handed as hell. In one scene, Shannon gets to play God himself when he saves the title reptile from certain death in a cooking pot, and he spells it out in bald-faced fashion to the audience. But Tennessee Williams' dialogue remains as singular as ever; poetically florid yet brutally honest, mining heightened realism and tarnished romance from some of life's most tedious, inevitable, and sad aspects. That's what great art is all about.

The play proved so satisfying that Rita and I sat down the next night to re-watch John Huston's 1964 filmed adaptation of Night of the Iguana to contrast. And a fascinating comparison it was.

Structurally, the Huston film adds considerable backstory. The first twenty minutes of the movie explicitly depict the establishing events--Shannon's breakdown at the pulpit, his dalliance with Lolita-in-waiting Charlotte, the escalating tension between Shannon and Charlotte's 'den mother' Miss Fellowes--merely implied in the play's opening moments.

The cinematic version also downplays Shannon's very pointed questioning of christian doctrine, grounding his search for God in an almost pro-ecology (as opposed to anti-religious) foundation. The 1941 time period is essentially nullified in the screen translation, and most regrettably, Huston and co-adaptor Anthony Veiller tack on a rather pat happy-ish ending that pales in comparison to the original stage version's powerful finale. But the veteran director of classics like The Maltese Falcon and The Asphalt Jungle maintains the backbone of Williams' work while still making an absorbing movie out of the source material. The movie's shot and helmed in a spare yet evocative style that shouldn't work with the lush and flowery prose, yet does.

Both the film and the ACT production demonstrate the effectiveness of vastly different interpretations of many of the principal roles. Richard Burton's Reverend Shannon radiates more overt masculine smoulder (just ask my wife); he and his sexual desires duke it out in sado-masochistic fashion. John Procaccino, the fine local actor who plays Shannon for ACT, portrays the priest as an unsure little boy with literally no control over--or self-awareness of --his lust. Both of them work splendidly.

Ditto the duelling Mrs. Felloweses. Laura Kenney's onstage Judith Fellowes is an obstinant-yet-somehow-endearing, plump pigeon of a woman, while Burton's nemesis in the film, character actress Grayson Hall, cuts a much more menacing swath with her angular, vulture-like features and barely-suppressed erotic interest in Charlotte (the latter element, ironically enough, is a lot more overt in the film than in the play).

The movie's Charlotte (in the kittenishly hostile form of Sue Lyon) bristles with much more active malevolence than Lada Vishtak's spoiled-but-essentially harmless infatuated schoolgirl. But both film and ACT adaptation keep consistent with the character of Hannah Jelkes, the prim yet non-judgmental spinster who catches Shannon's roving eye and libido. Deborah Kerr (film) and Suzanne Bouchard (stage) both do justice to this repressed-yet-compassionate character, the most enigmatic of the ensemble.

ACT's play gets trumped slightly in the Maxine department by the movie. Patricia Hodges does a solid job in Jory's staging, but her wiry energy obscures the alternately world-weary and playful aspects of the character. Ava Gardner just feels like a smart, no-nonsense dame whose rough edges have been smoothed away by years of life in sunny, sleepy Mexico. She effortlessly (and sexily; just ask my wife's husband) wears the role like a favorite old shirt softened by years of comfortable wear.

My favorite moment in both versions comes when Jonathan Coffin--Hannah Jelkes' 97-year old poet grandfather--completes his final poem, reciting it while Hannah dutifully transcribes. It's a scene of unabashed, luscious old-school theatricality, and it requires a weathered and ready force of nature to sell it.

Venerable old character actor Cyril Delevanti does a bang-up job in the service of John Huston's screen adaptation. But there's something about hearing longtime stage stalwart and Tony nominee Clayton Corzatte deliver Tennessee Williams' monologue in the flesh that tinctures the scene with true magic. I've always loved John Huston's Night of the Iguana, but after seeing this scene played on a stage as God and Tennessee Williams intended, in the end I've got to admit: the play's the thing.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Character Actor Heaven: Hollywood Collectors Show, Feb 2005

Hollywood Collectors' Show, February 18/19, 2005

Character actors are the building blocks of cinematic life. And like a lot of important foundations (architectural or otherwise), they get little credit from the outside world for their contributions. Fortunately, there's the bi-monthly Hollywood Collectors' Show, where fans of all stripes can show these hard-working but underappreciated fixtures of film and TV some serious love, and even get some love back.

Expect to make a bit of an investment for that love. Daily admission is $15 ($25 for a two-day pass), and all of the celebrities in attendance charge for their autographs (more on that later). But for a real film (or TV) nut, a Hollywood Collector's Show is absolute manna from heaven, and totally worth the extra change. Imagine a Star Trek convention stripped to its absolute essentials--ample celebrity guests and heaps of cool merchandise--and you get the idea.

My wife and I saved our pennies for several months and took the Collectors' Show plunge for the second time in our lives in February. Our first HCS in October 2003 yielded much joy, but the February 18/19 Collectors' Show at the Hilton Burbank Convention Center truly delivered the goods. Nearly 100 guest celebrities attended the shindig, and contrary to conventional Fan Convention wisdom, not everyone who appeared at the show was old, out-of-work, or past their prime. The celebs in attendance ranged from up-and-comers (Efran Ramirez from Napoleon Dynamite), to still-busy veterans (Karen Black and Clint Howard), to Hollywood legends (Jane Russell), to TV icons (Robert Culp and Catherine 'Daisy Duke' Bach), to erstwhile pop stars (Tiffany), to every strata in between.

One of the holy grails of our trek to Burbank was the prospect of meeting Reb Brown. Blond and muscular, Reb appeared in several memorable roles throughout the '70's and 80's, usually showcasing his beefy good looks and physicality in hero roles. He was Captain America in two TV flicks in the late '70's, appeared in John Milius' surf epic Big Wednesday, and more than held his own opposite Gene Hackman and Fred Ward in the underrated Vietnam-revisited action drama Uncommon Valor. But the principal source of Rita's and my Reb worship was the 1983 sci-fi classic Yor, the Hunter from the Future. Yor takes the crown as the most delirious, insane, action-packed, and fun sword-and-sandal epic to follow in the wake of 1982's Conan the Barbarian (in a future Petri Dish entry, Yor's abundant dinosaurs, apemen, lepers, spaceships, lasers, Darth Vader clones, and insidious Eurotrash theme song shall all receive due homage).

In recent years, the former action star had maintained a very low profile, working at a movie production company in an administrative capacity and seemingly vanishing from the spotlight. We wondered what he'd be like today.

In person, the action icon possessed the same massive and muscled physique that won him steady work in the '80's. Even sitting down he loomed, large and imposing. And maybe he even scared me some.

To our great delight, however, Brown proved to be a boisterous, friendly bear of a guy. He laughed gleefully, instead of getting frightened, when we pulled out the Yor mini-poster...and out-of-print soundtrack LP...and presskit...and lobby card set...and stills... TV's Captain America regaled us with lots of great stories about the rigors of filming Yor, and about working with a lot of cinema greats and near-greats. Whenever we passed his table, he was always quick to say hi and ask how Rita and I were. No airs, no attempts to get us to buy more merch; he was just being friendly.

Likewise, the magnificent Clint Howard was quick with some great anecdotes. The prolific brother of director Ron Howard may work most frequently in his older sibling's directorial efforts, but it's in his full-throttle roles as put-upon nerds on the brink (take a look at his intense work in the trash-horror classic Evilspeak) and outright psychos (like The Ice Cream Man) that he shines most brightly. He spoke with good-natured candor about working with Russell Crowe on Cinderella Man, and on becoming a figure of high-school cool as Eaglebauer in Rock and Roll High School. In 1998, Clint won the MTV Movie Awards Life Achievement Award, and his acceptance speech that night warmed this jaded movie geek's heart; what started out as an amusing goof became an honestly moving paean to all of the great character actors toiling in the trenches. And Rita and I got to pose for a picture of Clint with his MTV Movie Award. Lifetime highlight central.

Robert Quarry worked in Hollywood since the '50's, but saw his greatest fame in the 1970's as a major horror star in Count Yorga, Vampire, The Return of Count Yorga, Madhouse, and Dr. Phibes Rises Again. Like a lot of horror movie geeks, Rita and I'd always admired Quarry, whose dapper charisma and piercing eyes seemed to portend a big career that never quite blossomed. Meeting the one-time Count Yorga was a major eye-opener--his direct, no-bull, loveably cranky demeanor couldn't be further removed from his onscreen persona, and his humorously curmudgeony repartee with my dear wife was so natural that watching the two of them interact was like viewing some subtle, sharply-observed movie comedy. Quarry also shared thoughtful, candid, and sometimes caustic reminiscinces about his friendship with James Dean, working with Vincent Price, and his on-set travails with Robert Fuest, the Briton who directed Dr. Phibes Rises Again.

Fans of the Planet of the Apes films remember the first Apes sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, and its tribe of telekinetic, bomb-worshiping mutants living in the subterranean ruins of what was once New York. One scene in particular reverberated in my head from childhood on: the heroic astronauts overpower one of their captors--a tall, formidable-looking black man--and kill him. Before he dies, the African man pulls off his 'normal' face (a mask) revealing a hideously scarred visage underneath, and an array of emotions--pain, horror, anguish, and ultimately relief and comfort in revealing his true face to the world--flit across his countenance before he expires. It's one of those memorable film moments that etches itself in your cortex forever, and the man who created it--character actor Don Pedro Colley--was a joy to talk to. In addition to reminiscing about his contributions to the Apes sequel, he also related his adventures working with George Lucas on THX-1138 (big surprise; Lucas was all thumbs with actors back then, too), on the low-budget blaxploitation opus Sugar Hill, and as a deputy on The Dukes of Hazzard.

Most of Maxwell Caulfield's notoriety came as the blown-dry lead of Grease 2, but he excelled in against-type turns as an emotionally numb killer and a conceited rock star in The Boys Next Door and Empire Records, respectively. He was delighted to talk at length about both, and gave Rita and I a witty account of the dog-and-pony show that is TV pilot season in Hollywood.

Jovial film and TV vet Hank Garrett (late of the original Car 54, Where Are You?) has one of those amiable mugs that invariably lead to him being cast as someone's nice-guy next door neighbor. Director Sydney Pollack cannily subverted Garrett's working class nice guy exterior in the excellent paranoid thriller Three Days of the Condor. Hank regaled us with memories of Pollack, and of working with John Carradine on the '77 horror flick, The Sentinel. (Carradine would recite Shakespeare at random on-set, much to Hank's delight).

Of all of the attendees, Karen Black probably sported the most impressive resume, with starring gigs in some of the greatest (Five Easy Pieces, Nashville) and splashiest (Airport '75, Burnt Offerings) films of the '70's and '80's. She's worked with everyone from Alfred Hitchcock to Tobe Hooper to Robert Altman, and garnered an Oscar nod for her work in Five Easy Pieces. In person she was classy, intelligent, and earthy. She painted a vivid picture of suspense maestro Hitchcock (on the set of his final film, Family Plot)as a sardonic little boy at play, and discussed her work in Five Easy Pieces and the Rob Zombie horror flick House of 1000 Corpses (one of that spotty thriller's unquestionable highlights) with an artisan's attention to detail.

Seinfeld fans were in hog heaven, as some of that show's most memorable guest stars attended. Ian Abercrombie, the series' sophisticated-but-spoiled Mr. Pitt, was a perfect British gentleman, humbly praising the show's writers for tailoring such great material specifically for him. Phil Morris (left) likewise chatted amiably about crafting one of the show's most hilarious recurring characters, cutthroat attorney Jackie Chiles. We missed talking to Danny Woodburn (Kramer's golf pal Mickey) and Brian George (Babu), but they seemed ill-at-ease and were packing attitudes anyway, so no great loss.

At the opposite end of the pretentiousness spectrum was the refreshingly down-to-earth Mako (right), whose intense charisma enriched scores of action and martial arts flicks over the last 40 years. He arrived late (his car broke down on the way to the Show), but he was jovial, good-natured, and appreciative of his fans. When I asked him what his next project would be, he replied with a chuckle, "Getting my car fixed!".

Despite the fun Rita and I had, a sense of the bittersweet occasionally suffused things. Many of the guests in attendance had committed the unpardonable sin of getting older in an industry (and town) where youth is an all-consuming dictatorial Monarch, and many of these actors spoke (some humorously) about the dearth of work in recent years. None of the vets we talked to displayed any self-pity. Some have gracefully and comfortably retired; Octegenarian House Peters Jr. (TV's first Mr. Clean, and a veteran of numerous Republic serials and B westerns, right) reflected on his glory years with nary a hint of regret, and told stories with the humor and clarity of someone half his age. Some, like Mako and the great character actor James Hong (of Blade Runner and Big Trouble in Little China fame), have really never stopped working. Others, like Caulfield, continue to charge onto the breach time and again through career highs and lows, not for fame and glory, but to make a living.

Yeah, everyone charges for their signature, usually between $10 and $20, though some top out at more. And Rita and I drew the line at paying 20 to 25 smackers just to get our picture taken with Jane Russell or Catherine "Daisy Duke" Bach. But few of the celebs in attendance see any of the financial windfall from VHS, DVD, syndication royalties, or residuals; as such, these Collectors' Shows provide a steady (sometimes their only) income between gigs.

One encounter in particular cemented the worth of these conventions. William Smith, one of my favorite overlooked tough guys of film and TV, starred in the western series Laredo, and played the evil Falconetti in the blockbuster miniseries Rich Man Poor Man. He also logged in numerous leads in biker and B horror flicks like Angels Die Hard, Invasion of the Bee Girls, and The Losers, and lent his presence to supporting roles in everything from Red Dawn to The Frisco Kid. In addition to his film and television work, Smith was awarded the Purple Heart as a soldier in the Korean War, boxed, skied, and motocrossed semi-professionally, set a Guinness World Record for weightlifting, graduated Cum Laude from UCLA, speaks five languages fluently, and taught Russian language at his alma mater in the fifties. Talk about a life well-lived. Smith still sports his rock-solid physique despite recent health problems; in classic old-school macho-man style, he exhorted Rita and I to feel his bicep for proof, and for the record, the damn thing felt like a cannonball. Smith is one of the last of a dying breed; a real, honest-to-God, no-bull, square-jawed tough guy. No method acting, no pretentious searching for motivation or meaning; being an actor in his heyday meant doing whatever had to be done--emoting on-camera, riding a Harley, hurling yourself through a plate-glass window--then clocking off and living as hard as you worked.

He shared stories gladly and even gave me an impromptu lesson in getting beat up onscreen. And when Rita and I told him how much his work onscreen meant to us, this mountain of a man got as verklempt as a little kid. Getting a cool autographed photo for twenty bucks was one thing; listening to Big Bill Smith talk about his life and work in a now-bygone era of Hollywood was, to paraphrase that blasted Mastercard commercial, priceless.