Sunday, May 20, 2018

Praise Be

Of all the MGM musicals ever made, spanning over half-a-century, only 2 have been memorialized on a US postage stamp.  One is, unsurprisingly, The Wizard of Oz, which I have discussed on this blog before.  The other?  Not any of the usual suspects, like Singin’ in the Rain or The Band Wagon or Meet Me in St. Louis.  The only other film is King Vidor’s Hallelujah (1929).

That was part of a 5-item postal issue on early Black Cinema (also discussed in an earlier post) and Hallelujah is easily the most famous of the 5, and a seminal work in the genre because even with sound in the movies less than 2 years old, you can see Vidor pushing the aesthetic envelope.  There’s certainly a lot to dissect about the film, from its ground-breaking origins (it was one of the first Hollywood studio films with an all-black cast) to its troubled legacy because of the narrative it helped fuel about African-American stereotypes.

But something that makes this film stand out among musicals is also something it has in common with another all-black MGM musical 14 years later, Vincente Minnelli’s Cabin in the Sky (1943).  And that’s the unique role that religion plays in both films.  For integral to both films’ messages is the ways church and God, music and ritual are hard-wired into black culture.

Hallelujah is about a sharecropping family whose eldest son Ezekiel (Daniel L. Haynes) gets lured into assorted temptations (gambling, women) and it’s his religious rise as a rabble-rousing pastor and eventual fall from grace, a victim of his vices, that comprise the backbone of the film.  Throughout, we see that singing—in the cotton fields, with neighbors, in church and nightclubs—is an important part of the family’s life.  Musicals have often been criticized for being “unrealistic” in having their characters spontaneously burst out in song, but in Hallelujah, it feels completely normal because song and community are intimately entwined.  Music brings people together, providing inspiration and comfort in a hard-scrabble life and so all the music numbers have an almost naturalistic feel—both the traditional spirituals but also the ones written for the film (most notably “Waiting at the End of the Road”, by Irving Berlin).

Cabin in the Sky is actually pretty similar in that Joe (Eddie “Rochester” Anderson) has his soul fought over by competing angels and demons as he is also tempted by gambling and women and faces a troubled path toward redemption that isn’t without its own pitfalls and distractions.  While Hallelujah is presented as melodrama and cautionary tale, Cabin is played for laughs and uplift, but it also has musical numbers that take place in the wide array of African-American centers of community: church, juke joints, backyards and work gangs.  Here, the musical heavy lifting is done by the marvelous Ethel Waters, who sings the title tune as well as the Oscar-nominated “Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe” (by Harold Arlen and E.Y. “Yip” Harburg).  But she gets tons of great support by Lena Horne and cameos from Louis Armstrong (as a demon) and Duke Ellington.

But it’s interesting that when you look at the films, the churches act as spiritual centers and this is in sharp contrast to decades of mainstream Hollywood musicals that rarely use churches as much more than narrative devices.  Ezekiel whips his camp meeting congregation into a religious fervor, and while his personal story is one of backsliding and hypocrisy, the message of love and confession is one that touches a nerve in his flock (and which is upheld without irony by the rest of his revivalist family).  Joe’s afterlife in eternity is genuinely at stake and fidelity and responsibility are depicted as paths toward a better marriage and better living.  The square Rev. Green (Kenneth Spencer) may not be nearly as fun as Rex Ingram’s hilarious Lucifer, Jr., but he has Joe’s best interests at heart—not just to follow a set of prescribed rules but to improve Joe’s relationship with the devoted Petunia (Waters).

I’m hard pressed to think of many examples of the great canon of American musicals pre-1970 that touch on central religious themes that way.  Sure, churches are abundant for social gatherings or weddings (“What a Lovely Day for a Wedding” from Royal Wedding or “Get Me to the Church on Time” from My Fair Lady).  Bible stories are alluded to in song lyrics, from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers’ “Sobbin’ Women” to Elvis singing “Hard Headed Woman” in King Creole.  But they’re little more than plot points, without any larger thematic resonance.  Heck, even Bing Crosby as a priest in Going My Way is rarely a fount of theological insight but rather a source of warm, friendly, homespun advice.  Ditto the nuns in The Sound of Music.

Which make Cabin and Hallelujah interesting to me, since they aren’t afraid to immerse themselves in the middle of a part of the American social fabric that most musicals are reluctant to touch.  Those other films may implicitly embrace what some might consider religious “values”, but Hallelujah explores the complex relationship between faith and character, and Cabin finds joy in spaces that can be both reverent and rambunctious.  Once the 70s kick in, we see stage adaptations like Fiddler on the Roof or Jesus Christ Superstar that more explicitly examine (and question) beliefs and traditions, but these early MGM musicals not only paved the way in bringing African-American casts and culture front-and-center to white audiences, but its worship sensibility, too.

Now, I did mention that only 2 MGM musicals have been depicted on a USPS stamp, but I should make a technical concession to Show Boat (1951, Sidney) for while the film itself is not on a stamp, the original Broadway musical is.

Hallelujah was released in time for the 2nd annual Academy Awards, and it was King Vidor’s second Best Director nomination.  He would earn five in his career—a record number in that category for someone who would never earn a competitive one.  He did receive an Honorary Oscar in 1978.  His nomination for Hallelujah is unusual in that the director nomination was the only one the film received.  This has only happened a handful of other times since: The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, Alice’s Restaurant, Blue Velvet, The Last Temptation of Christ, Short Cuts and Mulholland Dr.

Cabin was Minnelli's first feature film, and he would go on to helm two Best Picture winners that were MGM musicals: An American in Paris and Gigi, the latter earning him a Best Director statue, too.

For more entries in this weekend’s MGM musical blogathon, go here.


Friday, March 2, 2018

My Oscar Ballot

Picture: Get Out
Actor: Timothee Chalamet, Call Me By Your Name
Actress: Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird
Supporting Actor: Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project
Supporting Actress: Lesley Manville, Phantom Thread
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson, Phantom Thread
Original Screenplay: Get Out
Adapted Screenplay: Mudbound
Cinematography: Blade Runner 2049
Production Design: The Shape of Water
Editing: Dunkirk
Costume Design: Phantom Thread
Original Score: Phantom Thread
Song: "Mystery of Love", Call Me By Your Name
Sound Mixing: Baby Driver
Sound Editing: Blade Runner 2049
Visual Effects: War for the Planet of the Apes
MakeUp: Darkest Hour
Foreign Language Film: A Fantastic Woman (Chile)
Animated Feature: The Breadwinner
Animated Short: Negative Space
Live Action Short: DeKalb Elementary
Documentary Short: Heaven Is a Traffic Jam on the 405

Friday, February 23, 2018

Drag Race

The 1982 Oscar race is the first one I can remember.  Not only were 3 of the Best Picture nominees films that I’d seen (a first for my then 12-year-old self), but other films I’d been allowed to see—Annie, TRON, Poltergeist—were in the running in some of the smaller categories, too.  Only years later would I catch some of the other highly-acclaimed nominees like Missing, The Verdict, Sophie's Choice or Das Boot
But that year, it was all about Gandhi and Tootsie and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, a poster of which hung on my bedroom wall, another first (previously it had all been sports legends and super heroes but never movies).  These were the 3 top nominated films—with 11, 10, and 9 nods respectively—and the anticipation was high to see who would emerge the winner in the end.
But what I do remember about the race in the build-up to the nominations—and eventually the ceremony itself—was the talk about the gender-bending that year, for not only was Dustin Hoffman’s masquerade as a woman in the mix, but so was Julie Andrews (whom I only knew as Mary Poppins and Maria Von Trapp) as a woman playing a man playing a woman in Victor Victoria and John Lithgow (a supporting actor nominee) as a transsexual in The World According to Garp.  In the end, none of them would win, but it was the first time I remember the Academy Awards acting as a springboard for conversation that intersected with the cultural zeitgeist.
Looking back, it seems almost a miracle that a movie almost exclusively about Muslims, Hindus and the tyranny of white imperialism was even made, let alone go on to sweep with 8 wins.  But few people talk about Gandhi now, except for the role it played in catapulting Ben Kingsley (the Best Actor winner) into our consciousness.  E.T. is still adored, though Spielberg’s career has expanded well beyond the summer blockbuster wunderkind which was his reputation (not without a bit of condescension) 35 years ago.
But Tootsie has taken on a new, burnished reputation as one of the Great American Comedies, even elevated to #2 of all-time by the American Film Institute in 2002 (behind only Some Like It Hot, another guys-in-gals-clothing romp).  But to these eyes, time has not been kind to Sydney Pollack’s film and while it still has some very funny moments, it’s not without the acrid aftertaste of its regressive, even toxic, views on sex and gender.  This is especially true when compared to Blake Edwards’s Victor Victoria, which is just as funny but also far more compassionate, generous, and forward-thinking.
Tootsie is about Michael Dorsey, a New York actor who’s earned a well-deserved reputation as a prima donna, but whose vanity is rooted in his adherence to the “craft” of acting, which he uses as an excuse to be insulting, unyielding, and a royal pain-in-the-ass.  This renders him unemployable and the only way he can get a job is to impersonate a woman at an audition, which lands him a gig on a daytime soap opera, Southwest General.
Victoria Grant is also hard on her luck.  A classically-trained singer in 1930s Paris, she is destitute and desperate and can only find work by taking on the guise of Count Victor Grazinski, a gay Polish aristocrat and female impersonator.  In both films, the only other people complicit in these actors’ secrets are their roommates (Bill Murray and Oscar-nominee Robert Preston, respectively).  And both find their love lives and worldviews altered from the experience.
Tootsie is on the surface an exercise in empathy.  Michael has to experience firsthand the indignities of harassment at work, the condescension of the piggish male director (Dabney Coleman), the misogyny of playing roles that only perpetuate stereotypes, and the countless everyday challenges (hailing a cab, buying endless accessories) that women face.  In this sense, the film actually works fairly well.  The problem is the film isn’t satisfied with him as a low-level actress who gets to walk a mile in another’s high heels.  For the movie’s purposes, “Dorothy Michaels” has to become a feminist icon.  She talks back to the director, changes her lines on the show without permission, and is never really reprimanded or punished like any woman would be in such a sexist environment.  Instead, she’s indulged and rewarded, with a fervid fan base and photo shoots for the covers of Woman’s Day and Ms.  It’s a fantasy of male privilege—a world where the women are brow-beaten or complacent and where it takes a guy to come to the rescue and role model real feminism, even if he has to dress up as a gal to do it.
What’s worse is that there’s no evidence that Michael has learned anything from his parallel life to inform his “real” one.  His treatment of his friend and pseudo-lover Sandy (a delightful, Oscar-nominated Teri Garr) is atrocious, he makes sexual advances to his co-worker Julie (Supporting Actress winner Jessica Lange) as both a man and a woman, and when he finally “outs” himself as a dude, he still feels entitled to approach Julie on the pretense that they were “good friends” the entire time she was confiding in him while he was lying to her.  And she falls for it!  Another male privilege fantasy.  While perhaps slightly more enlightened when wearing a girdle, Michael hasn’t really changed.  He still gets his way through coercion and egoism but we’re supposed to believe that he’ll somehow be different than Julie’s malignant previous boyfriend.  Lange’s portrayal only scratches the surface of how damaged Julie is, but she’s clearly co-dependent and he’s a narcissist who, lip service aside, is still lacking in any real self-awareness. 
Victor Victoria, on the other hand, is about real female empowerment, as Victoria becomes aware of the choices and privileges she gets as a “man” that she wasn’t even aware of previously.  But more than that, the film embraces sexual identity and the variety of ways it expresses itself.  Sex (the act) is only seen in relationship to power in Tootsie.  But the complexity of desire and the fluidity of attraction is explored in smart, sophisticated ways in VV.  This is particularly true with the character of King Marchand (James Garner).  He’s initially attracted to Victoria before he discovers that “she” is a drag act.  But even then, his curiosity is piqued—as well as his suspicions—and they are all tied to what he as a man is traditionally drawn to.  After Victor's debut, King confronts "him" backstage.
King: I find it hard to believe that you’re a man.
Victor: Because you find me attractive as a woman?
K: Yes, as a matter of fact.
V: It happens frequently.
K: Not to me.
V: It proves the old adage, “There's a first time for everything.”
K: I don’t think so.
V: But you’re not 100% sure.
K: Practically.
V: But to a man like you, someone who believes he could never under any circumstances find another man attractive, the margin between “practically” and “for sure” is as wide as the Grand Canyon.
K: If you were a man, I’d knock your block off.
V: Then prove that you’re a man.
K: That’s a woman’s argument.
V: Your problem, Mr. Marchand, is that you’re preoccupied with stereotypes.  I think it’s as simple as you’re one kind of man.  I’m another.
K: And what kind are you?
V: One that doesn’t have to prove it—to myself or anyone.

Later, after he learns her secret and they spend the night together, King wants her to quit the show and revert back to being Victoria.  But she refuses, noting the hypocrisy of asking her to do something he would never consider doing himself.  She recognizes the power, and freedom, that has come with her new standing and is loathe to lose it.  The two then begin to see each other romantically, but since “Victor” must continue to maintain his public identity, King is put in the position of being perceived as gay, even though he knows he’s not.  In Tootsie, there are several scenes that are played for comic effect about characters being mistaken for being gay, but it never extends beyond a joke.  But VV mines this landscape for larger truths about homosexuality and society’s scrutiny, personal worth vs public perception, and ultimately accepting yourself with or without others’ validation. 
So many of the supporting characters feed and reflect this theme in different ways.  King’s moll Norma (hilarious, Oscar-nominated Lesley Ann Warren) can’t decide whether to be jealous or not as Victor slowly insinuates himself into King’s orbit.  King’s bodyguard Squash (Alex Karras) comes out to his boss as gay after he mistakes his boss for also swinging that way—a genuinely touching moment layered under a light comic affect.  And then there’s Robert Preston’s Toddy.  I certainly can’t begrudge Louis Gossett Jr.’s Supporting Actor victory that year for An Officer and a Gentleman (the first person of color to win that award).  But Preston’s performance is one of the finest in any musical ever—a queen who’s funny, catty, nosy, flirtatious, but also has the biggest heart in the film.  He’s sublime.  Of course up to this point, nobody had ever won an Oscar for playing a gay character (the first would be William Hurt in Kiss of the Spider Woman three years later) and it’s impossible to say if Hollywood’s old-school homophobia played a part in Preston losing, but it certainly wouldn’t surprise me.  This was his only nomination (incredibly, he was overlooked for The Music Man 20 years earlier), and he’s perfect.
Then again, it’s hard to think of a mainstream film from the 80s that’s as gay-friendly as Victor Victoria.  Maybe having it set as a European period piece, and a musical no less, helped.  But it features a wide variety of queer characters as part of the natural fabric of the cabaret scene (and beyond) and even has a remarkable musical number that explicitly references the duality of masculine and feminine in everyone.  The fact that the central romance is hetero doesn’t relegate the LGBT themes to the margins.  They’re still unquestionably front and center and make the movie feel, even a third of a century later, very modern.  By contrast, there isn’t a single gay character in Tootsie’s NY acting community that we see.  The closest concession we get is a brief cameo by Andy Warhol.
Victor Victoria plays broader and indulges in familiar tropes of farce (especially with Edwards’s impeccable ballet of characters hiding in closets and on balconies), but it’s also far more real and human in the long run.  Tootsie has some undeniably funny moments, but it’s all in the service of reinforcing narrow sexual roles and having things revert back to comfortable normalcy.  Whatever happens to Sandy, who gets such short shrift?  That the movie forgets her (the most complex and believable woman in the film) says everything about the narrative’s priorities.  Lange may have won the Oscar, but Garr’s Sandy is the conscience of the film and gets steamrolled for her efforts.  In fact, all of the Grrl Power moments are via Hoffman and the film seems to delight In how fickle or hypocritical its female characters are.  It’s at its core a surprisingly mean movie, while VV is an open-hearted, nonjudgmental one.
Blake Edwards holds two unique records in Oscar history.  No director has had his films earn as many nominations (33 total) without ever earning a Best Director nod himself.  His only career nomination was for VV’s screenplay, and while he did lose (to Missing), he would earn an Honorary Oscar from the Academy before passing away in 2010.  The other Oscar record is that no director’s films earned more nominations for Best Song than his: 8 total, all with the assistance of Henry Mancini, his longtime collaborator.  Mancini won 4 Oscars, all for Edwards movies—2 for Best Score (Breakfast at Tiffany’s and VV) and 2 for Best Song (“Moon River” from Breakfast and the title tune from The Days of Wine and Roses).
Sydney Pollack lost Best Director that year to Richard Attenborough, but would go on to win it three years later for Out of Africa.  Still, the best thing about Tootsie is his acting, as Michael’s long-suffering agent, George.  He’s amazing and incredibly funny and if I had to choose Pollack’s filmography as director or as actor (which includes fantastic turns in Michael Clayton, Eyes Wide Shut, and Husbands and Wives), I would pick the latter.  His one scene in Death Becomes Her is a masterclass in comedy and funnier than the rest of the movie combined.  He died in 2008.
Some other trivia odds & ends about the 1982 Oscars:
·       Jessica Lange became the second person in history to receive a Lead and Supporting nomination in the same year for different films (the first being Fay Bainter over 40 years earlier).  She was up for the lead in Frances and this double-whammy no doubt had some bearing on her winning for Tootsie, the only Oscar that film would get.
·       Charles Durning, who played Jessica Lange’s dad (and Dorothy Michaels’s suitor) in Tootsie was also nominated for Best Supporting Actor that year, but for The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, a title which included a word that went over my head in 6th grade.
·       This year’s sequel to Blade Runner reminds us that Ridley Scott's original quite famously lost both of its nominations back in 1982, most notoriously for Visual Effects to E.T. (for more thoughts on the Spielberg film, check out my blog post here).
·       In 1982, Das Boot became the first foreign language film to earn six Oscar nominations, and its director Wolfgang Petersen still holds an Academy record himself: Director whose films have earned the most nominations (15 total) without winning anything at all.
·       Mickey Rooney received an Honorary Oscar at that year’s ceremony, making him the only person in Academy history to win both a Juvenile Oscar (a miniature statuette they gave to young performers for a short time) and a full-size one.

Since this blog also covers postage stamps in the movies, both Tootsie and Victor Victoria have items worth mentioning.  Southwest General’s producer (Doris Belack) says that the show is getting 2000 letters a week thanks to Dorothy (whose character's name is Emily Kimberly), and we see a shot of some of these letters, which feature real-life stamps including the floral Love stamp (Scott #1951) and the fire pumper stamp (#1908), both issued in 1981.  As for VV, there are no stamps visible, but the Parisian set was built on a soundstage, including this storefront for “Timbres Poste” (French for postage stamps).
As for the cards from my collection, the Henry Manicini stamp (which includes Victor Victoria in the titles listed, if you look close enough) is Scott #3839.  Audrey Hepburn is #3786 while the two Tiffany stamps are #3757 and #4165.  The Han Solo stamp is #4143l and while Tootsie wasn’t nominated for Best Makeup (only the second year of that category’s existence), I did include a Makeup stamp (#3772e) from the American Filmmaking series.  The "Things to Come" stamp is from the UK, released as part of a science fiction set in 1995.