Posted in Television

Line of Duty Revisited

The Backbone of AC-12: Superintendent Ted Hastings (Adrian Dunbar), DS Steve Arnott (Martin Compson) and DS Kate Fleming (Vicky McClure)

In answer to the question, “What’s the best cop show on TV today?” the only possible response for me is the British series “Line of Duty.” If you haven’t done so already, head over to Acorn TV, where you can stream the first two seasons; the third is available on DVD and the fourth just started airing in the U.K. (And if you come here to spoil, I will rain curses upon your head).

The primary focus of “Line of Duty” is the work of a police anti-corruption unit. Each season features a different investigatory target, a so-called “bent cop.” While I’ve previously written about Keeley Hawes’ tremendous performance as Lindsay Denton in the show’s second season, it was only recently that I had the opportunity to binge on what I had missed. Watching Seasons One and Three back to back, I was amazed yet again at the quality of what I was viewing.

Jed Mercurio, the creator and author of the show, is a master of both plot and character development. As an example, take the introduction of Steve Arnott (Martin Compson), soon to become a key player in AC-12. At our first encounter he’s the head of a counter-terrorist squad, about to lead a raid on a suspected nest. To his shock he finds the wrong house invaded and an innocent man shot dead with his baby in his arms. Though his superior literally dictates to all officers involved the cover story they must follow, Arnott refuses to toe the party line and is cut from the squad. Impressed by his resolve in the face of pending career suicide, Superintendent Ted Hastings (Adrian Dunbar) recruits him for AC-12, where he joins undercover specialist Kate Fleming (Vicky McClure).

Mr. Mercutio not only writes well, he writes smart. Not one of his characters is without ambiguity, not the least of whom are the suspected bent cops. Season One’s DCI Tony Gates (Lennie James) seems at first blush to be a perfect role model with a phenomenally high clearance rate; he’s the recipient of an Officer of the Year award. (The fact that two other awarded cops later come to less than desirable ends makes you wonder about the future of Kate Fleming, who will similarly be honored at the end of Season 3). We soon learn that this great leader and the epitome of professionalism is sinking into a pit of moral quicksand not entirely of his own making.

Conversely, your first encounter in Season 3 with Sgt. Daniel Waldron (Daniel Mays), an Authorised Firearms Officer, is certain to raise your hackles from the start. Our introduction consists of seeing him cold-bloodedly kill a suspect who’s already surrendered, and pressure his squad to fabricate evidence to corroborate his cover story. His arrogance and self-righteousness during a subsequent interview with AC-12 are difficult to take, and this is only a warm-up for what’s to come. While it may be hard to believe, you’ll later come to have a certain measure of sympathy for this man, despite the despicable acts he commits. The same level of detail features in the depiction of the show’s regulars. Our upstanding men and women of AC-12 are not without flaw. Steve’s behavior toward Lindsay in Season Two, playing on her loneliness and insecurity in an effort to discover whether she’s crooked or not, makes for uncomfortable viewing (and indeed blows up in his face in Season Three). And Kate’s relationship with DS “Dot” Cotton? Is her flirting with him part of the job (and if so–yikes!)? If not, where are your brains, girl?

“Line of Duty” is unique in its lengthy interrogation scenes as AC-12 confronts a suspect. This is not just a plot “gotcha”—it’s a superb showcase for the actors, especially Adrian Dunbar, who as Hastings leads the interrogations. He’s the master of minimalism: a slightly lifted eyebrow or that small quirk at the corner of his mouth is all it takes to signal that he’s just not buying what the suspect is attempting to sell. Equally impressive are the plot twists and turns, which for some reason you can’t always see coming yet never seem far-fetched. Everything seems to grow organically out of the action we see in the first episode of each season.

To be sure “Line of Duty” has some lapses. I doubt an AC unit would be permitted to interrogate a member of its own squad. And you’d think by now the police grapevine would be buzzing about Kate’s undercover activity. But who cares when a show is this good?

Posted in Broadway Musicals, Theater

Still Rolling Along

Then and Now: Lonny Price (Charley), Ann Morrison (Mary) and Jim Walton (Frank)

What do you do after you’ve achieved your life’s dream at age 20?

“Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened,” a wonderful documentary available on Netflix, asks and answers this question, among many other classic queries. Although the ostensible subject of the film is the legendary Stephen Sondheim-Hal Prince musical, “Merrily We Roll Along,” equally known for being a legendary flop at its 1981 premiere, it rewards us as much by its insights into life’s paths as it does by its examination of the creative process.

Based on a George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart play of the same title, “Merrily” famously mirrors its source material by telling its story in reverse. Each succeeding scene takes place earlier in time so that we can see where and how Franklin Shepard, a successful songwriter turned movie producer, hashed up his life—more precisely, how he left the path of personal fulfillment and promise and lost the love and goodwill of his wife and two closest friends along the way. It should come as no surprise that adultery, divorce, cynicism and chasing the almighty dollar, not to mention the sacrifice of youthful ideals, factor heavily into the equation. By now this plot may seem old hat, but Sondheim blessed it with one of his finest scores, which includes “Good Thing Going,” “Not a Day Goes By” and “Old Friends.” Although the original production lasted only 16 performances, the show has grown enormously in reputation through numerous revisions and revivals. If you haven’t guessed by now, I’m a “Merrily” junkie—I own three different cast albums of the show, and wouldn’t part with any of them.

How could a Sondheim-Prince musical flop after a string of shows like “Company,” “Follies,” “A Little Night Music,” “Pacific Overtures,” and “Sweeney Todd”?”Best Worst Thing” tells us why through footage shot during the rehearsal process by ABC, which began but later abandoned its documentary of the creation of this Broadway show. Ultimately two directorial choices proved problematic. Hal Prince opted to present “Merrily” on a more or less bare stage with costuming consisting of t-shirts and sweatshirts bearing character names and designations (“Mary,” “Best Friend,” “Unemployed Actor”). The effect was to make the setting of the show look like a high school gymnasium, which amplified Prince’s even worse decision: casting very young actors (late teens into early 20’s) to play the characters throughout the piece, even as their middle-aged selves (Remember, we’re going backwards). With very few exceptions, they just didn’t have the acting chops to bring it off, which “Best Worst Thing” makes painfully obvious. At one point in the film we see Sondheim telling Prince he needs more time to write and revise a number of songs, that because kids are telling the story, he needs to “write simpler.” Yet he never completely succeeded in “writing backwards” by toning down the sophistication of his lyrics or modifying the very adult point of view of his work. This is totally evident when we see the original leads, now in their 40’s, playing these roles in footage from a 2002 reunion concert. What appears as a tremendous disconnect in 1981, to hear Sondheim’s razor-sharp, adult-insightful lyrics coming out of kids’ mouths, seems tailor-made as sung by the same people 20 years later. Life’s mileage will do that.

Being cast in a Sondheim-Prince musical in 1981 was a dream come true for all of the young actors in the “Merrily” company. All of those interviewed in the documentary had grown up on original cast albums, and for years had harbored visions of appearing on Broadway. It’s obvious that to a certain degree these people still feel the devastation that ensued when the show took a critical beating and abruptly closed.

We see to what extent their lives came to deviate from their youthful plans. Lonny Price, the original Charley, eventually turned to theatrical directing, and in fact directed “Best Worst Thing.” Others stayed in the business, though several supporting players, like Tonya Pinkens, Liz Callaway and, most prominently, Jason Alexander, eventually enjoyed the greatest post-“Merrily” success. Several, like Abby Pogrebin, later a “60 Minutes” producer and author, went on to entirely different careers. Suffering a monumental setback at age 20 was horrendous, but at least they all had youth and resilience on their side.

“Poignant” is the word most frequently encountered in reviews of “The Best Worst Thing,” and there’s no better reason for the usage of that word than the sight of Lonny Price watching the ABC documentary footage of his 22 year-old self. Referring to his imminent Broadway debut, young Lonny says “Even if I never do anything else, I will have had this,” which reduces older Lonny to tears. It’s not hard to read the adult’s thoughts: how little the young man knew, how much more Price went on to accomplish, what more there is in store in life and career.

Age will do that.

Posted in Television

Black Mirror

Probably the last light moment in
Probably the last light moment in “Playtest”

One of the most difficult television shows to describe is “Black Mirror,” a British import that’s become a Netflix favorite. It’s not because of twist endings—not every episode takes an O. Henry turn. It’s the total experience: the almost sterile look of the show, its stark imagery and its take-no-prisoners attitude. “Black Mirror” is unlike anything else I’ve ever seen.

This show is the brainchild of Charlie Brooker who cites “The Twilight Zone” as his primary inspiration. Yes, both are anthology series—there’s a different cast and director for each episode, though Brooker has written nearly all 13 episodes made available to date. Several of these reiterate some familiar TZ themes, such as replication of the dearly departed (“Be Right Back”) and humanization of the enemy in wartime (“Men Against Fire”). But “Black Mirror” twists the knife. The replica becomes too attentive. A soldier wants to remove the implanted technology that makes him see monsters, not people. One of the series’ best, “White Bear,” is also classic TZ in its story of a woman hunted in some dystopian future, though it’s far more brutal in both depiction and resolution than the earlier series ever could be.

It’s not just that television is no longer bound by the censorship of networks. Our mindset has been hardened by technology, and Brooker plays with this brilliantly. That infamous first episode, “The National Anthem,” with all of England glued to its televisions (Yes, the one with the prime minister and the pig which unfortunately you will never be able to un-see). The poor souls who cycle for a living in “15 Million Merits,” fighting boredom by fixating on the most idiotic video drivel (Brooker’s little nose thumb at us?). A corporation that lets you turn a mini-clone of yourself into a virtual house servant (“White Christmas”). And most strikingly, the married couple of “The Entire History of You,” who make love while reliving their hottest sexual encounters, courtesy of implanted “grains,” or chips. Those greyed-over eyes, enraptured by internally viewed video, will haunt you for days. Rod Serling made the “Twilight Zone” stories seem like they could happen in anyone’s home town. You pray “Black Mirror” never pays a visit to yours.

Not every episode will land for you, and a few, especially “Hated in the Nation,” are too long. However, the acting is uniformly excellent. It’s fun seeing familiar actors playing against type. Jerome Flynn, the wise-cracking Bronn on “Game of Thrones,” makes a terrific at-his-wit’s-end victim in “Shut Up and Dance.” Faye Marsay, the same series’ murderous Waif and enemy of Arya Stark, is a shrewd, tech-savvy detective in “Hated in the Nation,” and her cynical superior officer is none other than Kelly Macdonald, lately Margaret, Nucky Johnson’s discarded wife, on “Boardwalk Empire.” But some actors play variations on what they’re best known for, and it’s a welcome experience: Jon Hamm is an even darker version of “Mad Men’s” Don Draper in “White Christmas,” and Michael Kelly is only slightly less sinister as a psychiatrist in “Men of Fire” than he is as a political operative in “House of Cards.”

“San Junipero”

Ranking “Black Mirror” episodes seems to be a favorite online sport. Everyone’s mileage varies greatly, but here are my picks for the best:

“White Bear.” Difficult to discuss without giving it away. It’s freaky, it’s brutal, it’s brilliant, and it can spark conversation for days.

“Playtest.” Hoping to earn the money needed to return home, an American stranded in London picks up a gig as a test subject for a leading, though mysterious, game creator. But to participate he must consent to the implantation of a chip in his head that will discern his worst fears. To his surprise he has more than he thought.

“San Junipero.” This has consistently shown up on “Best Episodes of 2016” lists for good reason, yet it’s surprisingly controversial. Of all things, the bickering is over whether there’s a happy ending or not. This episode is the most un-“Black Mirror” in terms of energy and tone, and it’s definitely the sweetest. “Heaven is a place on earth” indeed.

“Nosedive,” an absolute gem of an episode that unlike the rest has a number of laugh-out-loud moments (Charlie Brooker wrote the story, but the script is by Rashida Jones and Mike Schur). In a world where everyone electronically rates every individual they encounter, a young woman struggles to raise her status in order to enjoy the things in life open to only the most pleasing. Bryce Dallas Howard delivers an incredible performance, and the episode’s end is sheer perfection.

There are six more “Black Mirror” episodes waiting in the wings for 2017. Let’s hope Netflix commissions even more so we can continue to savor the products of Charlie Brooker’s imagination. There should be an endless stream of stories he can tell. As he himself has said: “[“Black Mirror” is] all about the way we live now – and the way we might be living in 10 minutes’ time if we’re clumsy. And if there’s one thing we know about mankind, it’s this: we’re usually clumsy.”

Posted in Movie Reviews, Observations

Stranger Than

oj-made-in-america-30-for-30

It’s that time of year.

“10 Best” lists are proliferating, movies are hashed and rehashed and opinions are flown with abandon (“You moron!” How could you not mention X!”). One of the more interesting inclusions in this year’s set isn’t a movie in the traditional sense, but a five-part, eight-hour documentary—director Ezra Edelman’s marathon, “O.J.: Made in America” (not to be confused with the FX docudrama, “The People vs. O.J. Simpson,” starring Sarah Paulson, Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Courtney B. Vance). The plaudits are well-earned.

What makes “O.J.: Made in America” a singular experience is the context in which Edelman has us view not just the details of Simpson’s trial for the murders of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown, and Ron Goldman, but the nature of his life and celebrity. What gives the documentary its depth is Edelman’s juxtaposition of Simpson’s privileged existence with the long history of police abuse suffered by the African-American community of Los Angeles. “O.J.: Made in America” examines every thread that still exists in the social and political tapestry of America—Race. Celebrity worship, but more accurately, jock worship. The entitlement granted to athletes. Domestic violence. Media irresponsibility. The advantages the rich possess in dealing with the justice system. Jury bias.

Race is the primary theme of the documentary and rightly so, given the subject and the setting. Perhaps the most ironic aspect of Simpson’s story is that a man who seemingly moved heaven and earth to present himself as devoid of color (his watchword was “I’m not black, I’m O.J.”) became a symbol of black oppression to the African-American community. We see how carefully Simpson constructed his image, and the lengths to which corporate America further encouraged that image (As several interview subjects note, O.J. was always surrounded and cheered on by whites, not blacks, in the commercials he did for Hertz and other products). We also see how Simpson cultivated a social and professional circle that was predominantly white at a time when the African-American community of Los Angeles suffered one outrage after another at the hands of the LAPD. The contrast couldn’t be greater.

Edelman doesn’t flinch when presenting Simpson’s abuse of Nicole Brown, his second wife (his first marriage, to a black woman, remains largely unexamined). The number of interviewees who admit they knew what was going on will make your blood boil; if it doesn’t, Simpson’s sports show interview subsequent to his arrest for domestic violence certainly will. Simpson is so full of “It was New Year’s Eve—we both had too much to drink and things got out of hand. The press is making a mountain out of molehill,” while Roy Firestone, his interviewer, drips sympathy. Then you see the photos of Nicole’s damaged face, and hear a cop describe yet another occasion when a beaten Nicole summoned help. This officer actually arrested Simpson, but his superiors swept the entire incident under the rug because “Hey man, it’s O.J.!” You wonder how many free passes he actually received—and whether those who knew but excused Simpson’s behavior were able to sleep at night after Nicole’s murder.

There’s no doubt that the manner in which these victims died reflects how personal these crimes were to the killer. The savagery of the wounds inflicted and their number speak volumes (Warning: Photos of the victims and the murder scene are displayed at length in Episode 4 as Assistant Prosecutor Bill Hodgson describes the probable sequence of events in graphic detail). Contrary to the defense’s theory, it’s inconceivable that this was the work of a gang or a hired killer, both of whom kill far more efficiently—and quickly. No stranger would have created a blood trail that led directly from the murder scene to Simpson’s Ford Bronco to his front door and then to his bedroom. If you weren’t convinced before, “O.J.: Made in America” leaves you with little doubt that Simpson committed these crimes.

Edelman presents a straightforward account of Simpson’s trial for murder, and doesn’t hesitate to point fingers at Judge Lance Ito’s weakness in controlling the proceedings or the mistakes of the prosecution and law enforcement, of which there were many: District Attorney Gil Garcetti’s politically correct decision to try the case in Central Los Angeles, which virtually guaranteed a jury pool unsympathetic to the police and the prosecution; the late addition of Chris Darden to the prosecution team and his role in the trial, which made him Uncle Tom incarnate in the eyes of a predominantly black jury; Marcia Clark’s unshakeable belief that she had exceptional communication skills with female African-American jury members, despite a consultant’s findings to the contrary (The consensus of test panels? “Marcia Clark = bitch”); the infamous request to have Simpson try on those gloves, leading to Johnnie Cochran’s refrain to the jury: “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”

However, Edelman also notes that the jury was not exactly free of bias. The prosecution’s jury consultant cites a high percentage of African-American women on his test panels who hated Nicole Brown and viewed her as a homewrecker, despite the fact that Simpson never for a moment remained faithful during his first marriage. Two of the Simpson jurors, both African-American women, are also interviewed; one firmly states: “Let me tell you something, I lose respect for a woman who takes an ass-whuppin’ when she doesn’t have to…Don’t stay in the water if it’s over your head. You’ll drown.” Add Mark Fuhrman’s racist remarks, errors in evidence-gathering at the crime scene, the long history between the LAPD and the black community, and the ungodly length of the trial for this sequestered jury, and the final result should not have been surprising.

The participants in “O.J.: Made in America” include some well-known faces: Gil Garcetti, Marcia Clark, F. Lee Bailey, Mark Fuhrman and friends and members of the Brown and Goldman families. However, far more interesting observations come from others. One stand-out is a childhood friend of Simpson who to this day believes in O.J.’s innocence, though every anecdote he relates only attests to how self-centered and slippery the man was, even as a young teenager. We also hear from Ron Shipp, a former football player turned cop and O.J.’s friend for many years, who, being thoroughly familiar with the extent of abuse inflicted on Nicole, ends up testifying for the prosecution. While the prosecution team more or less owns up to its mistakes, Edelman shrewdly lets the members of Simpson’s Dream Team of attorneys run on, thus allowing them to reveal themselves, and not always for the better. Carl E. Douglas boasts of more than one act of ethical flim-flammery, F. Lee Bailey (later disbarred, though Edelman doesn’t tell us that) unfurls his ego yet again, and Barry Scheck dodges and squirms when questioned about his trial conduct. And finally, Edelman pulls no punches when it comes to the press—there’s no doubt that their coverage, from the Ford Bronco chase to the acquittal, clearly shows the news establishment squandering whatever journalistic credibility it had only to end up as merely yet another vehicle for mass entertainment.

Simpson’s acquittal and the vociferous enthusiasm this met in the African-American community shocked white America. In retrospect neither is surprising given the racial history of this country. Those in the community who thought otherwise seem to have been pressured to keep silent. We hear from a black minister in Los Angeles who thought from the beginning that Simpson was guilty; his response when the verdict was announced? “I saw a rich guy get off.” Color trumped wealth in the eyes of many (“Now you know what it feels like,” says a community activist, even today), yet time has made some of the outspoken more thoughtful. The female juror quoted above, when asked how she feels about the verdict today, hesitates and her conflict is visible. She bails with “It was what it was,” but there’s no escaping that justice was denied for these victims.

Yet an acquittal does not an innocent person make, at least in the eyes of the public. It’s clear that Simpson evidently thought the verdict would reset the clock and he could return to his pre-trial life. Not so, and I’m not sure this was entirely due to race; one of F. Lee Bailey’s previous clients, Dr. Sam Sheppard, endured a similar professional and social decline following his ultimate acquittal. Having covered Simpson’s ascent, the documentary proceeds to cover his descent, culminating in his conviction and lengthy sentence for armed robbery and kidnapping stemming from a confrontation over stolen O.J. memorabilia.

Made in America indeed.

Posted in Television

Westworld

westworld-master768
Breaking the Pattern: Maeve and Escaton

For years–actually decades now— HBO has had a genius for filling that Sunday 9:00 p.m. time slot. “The Sopranos.” “The Wire.” “Sex and the City.” “Six Feet Under.” “Game of Thrones.” All with strong narratives, actors you love to watch, great production values and some of the smartest writing in the business. I’ve loved each of these shows.

I wish I could say the same for HBO’s latest Sunday evening resident, “Westworld.” But I view it the same way I do certain novels, movies and operas—I admire the artistry and craft that made it, but I’m not sure I like it.

There’s such a felicitous analogy that explains what ails “Westworld.” This show is like the Tin Man in “The Wizard of Oz”—it has no heart. To be sure it does have a pulse, which fortunately belongs to the host and saloon madam, Maeve, brilliantly played by Thandie Newton. Maeve wants out of Westworld in the worst way, but from what we can gather of the outside world via the behavior of the guests and the corporate types that run this fantasy land, she may be sorely disappointed.

Part of my frustration with this show lies in the genre’s very nature, which serves to severely circumscribe the plot possibilities. The hosts will either develop human memories and emotions or they won’t. They will either revolt or they won’t. Ditto whether they’ll escape or kill guests. A guest, in this case William, falls in love with a host (Dolores, who seems to be receding from the strength of her declaration, “I imagined a story where I didn’t have to be the damsel”). And it was so predictable that at least one member of the team running Westworld would turn out to be an android (I’m reminded of the terminology used in the “Alien” movies: “synthetic” or, as the android Bishop puts forward as his preference, “artificial person”). I didn’t find Theresa’s murder to be shocking at all; I suspect that either tonight’s episode will begin with the reveal that she’s also a host or, if she’s really human, that the host we saw being manufactured in Ford’s basement will be her android replacement.

Obviously this is a very cerebral show with its expected explorations of what it means to be human, what it’s like to play God, and related philosophical matters. I have to admit that when Ford told Bernard he had an idea for a new Westworld story line and the camera panned to a church steeple, I groaned. It’s been done so many times before (See “Twilight Zone, Episodes of”). But the show is not really much fun. “Game of Thrones” may occasionally be a gory mess and sadistically play with its audience’s affections for its characters, but damn! It gives us a good time. It’s pure id, as opposed to “Westworld”‘s superego.

I’ll still be watching, though, and not just to see how it turns out. “Westworld” does have its rewards, of course: Thandie Newton’s Maeve, with her fabricated memories of an Indian massacre. The visual razzle-dazzle, special effects and spectacular scenery. Escaton, played by Rodrigo Santoro, that sexy sex machine, and the shifty Lawrence (Clifton Collins, Jr., who looked so familiar but unplaceable until I realized he had played Perry Smith in the film “Capote”).

But the character who may save it all is the Man in Black (Ed Harris), whom I predict is going to be revealed as the good guy in this saga. We’ve already been tipped off that in the outside world, he’s a philanthropist—he was recognized by another guest as the man whose financial contributions saved the life of family member. In his conversation with Ford, he sounds like a knight on a quest as he searches for the entrance to the maze; he insists there’s a deeper meaning to Westworld than first appears, that it’s “something the person who created it wanted to express.” Perhaps William got it right when he said “Westworld doesn’t cater to your baser self—it reveals your true self.” And does it seem that the creation of hosts by a mysteriously vanished inventor of this artificial world  (Arnold, where art thou?) was an attempt to construct beings spiritually better than the human who made them?

We’ll see.

Posted in Observations

Museum of Jewish Heritage

This week I was all set to begin tackling HBO’s “Westworld” which seems to be THE latest water cooler television show. However, far weightier matters are on my mind.

Two days after the election I paid a return visit to New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage. This was something of a spontaneous trip: I’d been wanting to go for weeks to see its exhibit, “Seeking Justice: The Leo Frank Case yellow-starRevisited,” a subject which has interested me for a very long time. A gap in my work schedule appeared on one of those spectacular autumn days we’re lucky to get in the New York area, so I finally had the time and the opportunity.

The exhibit, which was created by the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum of Atlanta, is a comprehensive examination of one of the most unbridled episodes of American anti-Semitism in our history. To say the Leo Frank case is a sobering example of what happens when a corrupt police force, an ambitious prosecutor with his eye on the governor’s office and a virulently prejudiced newspaper publisher combine is not saying enough.

But what really shook me was the sight of a huge Nazi flag in the Museum’s permanent exhibit: blood-red with a swastika front and center and an eagle in the left hand corner. We’re so used to the history of the Hitler years being told in black and white photos and newsreels that seeing an emblem of that time in color, as it was then, is not only shocking–it takes what is behind that emblem out of the history books and makes it contemporary and real.

As do the Museum’s videos of survivors of that era, especially those who were children in 1930’s Germany, whose lives were incrementally but ultimately and completely torn apart. They’re senior citizens on the tapes we view now, but you can still see the childhood bewilderment in their eyes as they relate how it felt to be forbidden to play with their non-Jewish friends, barred from attending their schools and witnessing the growing fear of their parents in the face of a government of hate.

Resonant, isn’t it?

Fortunately there is a bit of light, courtesy of the exhibit focusing on those now honored at Israel’s Yad Vashem as the “Righteous Among the Nations”: people who took tremendous risk to save the targets of Nazi oppression. I was particularly intrigued by the story of Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese vice-consul in Kaunas, Lithuana, who bucked the instructions of his government and hand wrote visa after visa, permitting 6000 Jews to escape in 1940. The testimony of several he saved is a reminder that even in the darkest of times, all may not be lost.

One can only hope.

Posted in Movie Reviews

Some Like It Hot

Osgood (Joe E. Brown) and Daphne (Jack Lemmon)
Osgood (Joe E. Brown) and Daphne (Jack Lemmon)

The other day Turner Classic Movies caught me by surprise with a daytime showing of the 1959 classic, “Some Like It Hot.” Usually the cable channel reserves this for Billy Wilder, Marilyn Monroe, Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis festivals, so it was a terrific excuse to drop the thousand and one things I needed to get done, and instead watch for the umpteenth time a film I’ve been touting for decades as the funniest movie ever. In fact, “Some Like It Hot” has been acknowledged as such by the American Film Institute.

If for some unfathomable reason you haven’t seen it, the plot is a simple one: Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon), two down-on-their-luck musicians in 1929 Chicago, have the misfortune to witness the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. They get out of town by disguising themselves as Josephine and Daphne, members of the all-girl band, Sweet Sue and Her Society Syncopaters, on its way to Florida for a three-week gig. Among the band’s musicians is singer-ukelele player Sugar Kane Kowalcyk (Marilyn Monroe), who has a history of falling for saxophone players, which Joe is. A millionaire with a yacht, gangsters and hysteria ensue.

What makes this movie? For starters, it hasn’t aged a day. The comedy is as fresh as ever, perhaps more so now given the sexual politics of our time. The screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond never stops, which makes writing about “Some Like It Hot” a bit difficult—there’s an enormous temptation to leave analysis behind and just quote those terrific lines from the film. Nevertheless, few movies are blessed with so many other gifts. Among these are:

Its shrewd and economical take on gender and sexual fluidity. Unlike 1982’s “Tootsie,” which I do like, “Some Like It Hot” maintains a light touch. “Tootsie” uncomfortably lets us down with Dustin Hoffman’s too-earnest speech that being a woman has made him a better man. We’ve already seen him developing some awareness as Dorothy Michaels; telling rather than showing feels like overkill in such a finely played film. In contrast, “Some Like It Hot” takes a more effective approach via the succinct observation. After Daphne is pinched in the hotel elevator, Joe/Josephine notes: “Now you know how the other half lives.” Daphne protests “I’m not even pretty!” to which Josephine retorts “All it matters is that you’re wearing a skirt.” And as Joe, he/she should know. Point made.

The music. “Some Like It Hot” features a great tune selection from the 1920’s: “Running Wild” (“…lost control/Running wild/mighty bold”), “I’m Through With Love” and “I Wanna Be Loved By You” which interestingly is the only song with a 20’s style arrangement, notwithstanding Sugar’s ukelele—lots of staccato trumpets and cymbal chokes. “Stairway to the Stars,” used on the soundtrack during the Junior/Sugar scenes dates from 1934 (close enough), but this is memorably compensated for by “La Cumparsita,” (1916), as Osgood and Daphne tango the night away. Extra bonus: Sweet Sue and Her Society Syncopaters actually look like a real orchestra—the violinists are properly bowing and fingering the strings with nary a moment of fake-looking “playing” in sight.

San Diego’s Victorian marvel, the Hotel Del Coronado, standing in for Miami’s Seminole Ritz (love the name). The atmosphere and palm trees couldn’t be better.

Joan Shawlee as Sweet Sue. She was one of the best character actors ever (among her other roles, she was tall Sandra in “From Here to Eternity,” towering over Frank Sinatra, and would later show up as the inimitable Sylvia in Wilder’s “The Apartment”). It’s hard to pick out her best moment (“Each and every one of my girls is a virtuoso—and I intend to keep it that way”), but my favorite is probably her expression of exquisite pain—and disbelief—at Josephine’s Lawrence Welk-style warbling on sax. She can’t yell for her manager enough—“Bienstock!”

For that matter, all the other actors in “Some Like It Hot,” from George Raft (Spats Columbo, with his bone breakers “lawyers”—“All Harvard men”), George E. Stone (Toothpick Charlie), Pat O’Brien (Detective Mulligan) and Nehemiah Persoff (Little Bonaparte) to Dave Barry (Bienstock) and Beverly Wills (Dolores, she of one-legged jockey joke fame). While I’m not a big fan, Marilyn Monroe manages to bring just the right amount of bruised innocence to Sugar, and Tony Curtis is best as Shell-Oil Junior. Pride of place, though, goes to Joe E. Brown as Osgood Fielding III, millionaire on the make, who loves a shapely ankle. He’s so wonderfully besotted with Daphne that he turns farce into a Cinderella tale. And who can forget the one and only Sig Poliakoff, played by Billy Gray? No, this isn’t the young actor from “Father Knows Best.” This Billy Gray (real name: William Victor Giventer) was a sometime actor, comic and owner of The Band Box, a comedy club in Los Angeles. In one of my favorite scenes from “Some Like It Hot,” Sig and Sweet Sue try to come up with replacements for the band’s saxophone and bass players, subtracted by elopement and pregnancy, respectively:

"Bessie let her hair grow, now she's playing with Stokowski." "Black Bottom Bessie?!?" "Spiels auch mit die Philharmonic!"
“Bessie let her hair grow, now she’s playing with Stokowski.” “Black Bottom Bessie?!?” “Spiels auch mit die Philharmonic!”

Jack Lemmon, who brings down the house as Daphne, intoxicated with his engagement to Osgood (“I’m engaged.” “Who’s the lucky girl?” “I am.”) Billy Wilder shrewdly anticipated how movie audiences would react—he supplied Lemmon with a pair of maracas so the responsive laughter would sound over their shaking instead of drowning out the actors’ lines. Lemmon seems to be having a ball in drag, unlike Tony Curtis, who is rather dour, though he is after all stuck with being Daphne’s straight man (later he has a lot more fun imitating Cary Grant). In the Chicago scenes we see Jerry continually put-upon by Joe; there’s a sense that creating and being Daphne has liberated his spirit, and he takes the audience right along with him. Watch his expression during Daphne’s first conversation with Osgood, at the hotel elevators. Osgood’s talking about his last wife, an acrobatic dancer who could smoke a cigarette held between her toes, though his mother ended the marriage. Why? “She doesn’t approve of girls who smoke.” Daphne, narrowing her eyes and pursing her lips, mulls this over for a beat, then shows us her only thought without a word: “Is this guy for real?” It’s fleeting, but one of the funniest moments in the film.

"Well...nobody's perfect."
“Well…nobody’s perfect.”

No final line in any film has been so celebrated, and rightly so. Daphne may not be perfect, but “Some Like It Hot” comes awfully close. What a delight.