Posted in Television

Game of Thrones

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Brienne and Jamie before—well, you know

Have I mentioned I’m absolutely besotted with “Game of Thrones”?

Until this series came along, I was never a fan of the fantasy genre. But about a year and a half ago, a guy I worked with on a contract project beat the drum incessantly for this show. All I heard for four weeks was “Game of Thrones” and “Peter Dinklage.” When the project ended, I finally got the first season on DVD from Netflix, and—you guessed it—the show had me in the very first scene of the very first episode (Thank you, Josh!). Though to be fair, how could anyone not get hooked after seeing that?

Why am I crazy about “Game of Thrones”? In no particular order:

1) If the theme music and opening titles don’t grab you, you must be unconscious. Courtesy of composer Ramin Djawadi and designer Angus Wall, respectively, this is the most inventive, not to mention descriptive, beginning to a TV show I’ve seen in years. I thought the credits of “Six Feet Under” and “Carnivale” (not coincidentally another Angus Wall creation) could not be surpassed, but “Game of Thrones” goes that extra mile with ease.

2) It’s a never-ending saga. The story lines are so full of twists and turns that if you’re not interested in a particular set of characters, just hang on for a bit. For instance: ever since the Night Watch went off to search for Benjen Stark, I was incredibly bored with the Far North. That is, until Jon Snow, Ygritte and their companions scaled the Wall. I have a problem with heights (Season One’s Eyrie freaked me out), but nevertheless I was enthralled. And when Jon and Ygritte reached the top and could see that green valley on the other side, it was a perfect ending to that episode.

3) It’s delicious. I haven’t enjoyed machinations like this since “I, Claudius.” Last season, when Tyrion planted three different stories with Petyr Baelish, Varys and Maester Pycelle as a test to see who was spilling the beans to Cersei, it was hilarious when the plot paid off. And I particularly relished the scene last week at Tyrion and Sansa’s wedding when Lady Olenna Tyrell nimbly reeled off the potential familial relationships should the reluctant Ser Loras marry Queen Regent Cersei.

3) With the exception of King Joffrey, Mr. Twisted personified, the characters are far from black and white. Even Catelyn Stark, one of my favorites, is no saint. Listening to her confess her coldness toward Jon Snow and her inability to extend mothering, let alone kindness, toward him, even as an infant, was startling. And her former prisoner, Jamie Lannister? The incestuous Kingslayer saves Brienne of Tarth from gang rape and is punished with the loss of his right hand. Yet he returns to rescue her from a bear pit at the risk of his own safety and ends up swearing to bring the Stark girls back to their mother. I hated him when he shoved Bran Stark out that window, but now I love to watch him.

4) The female characters on this show are strong women. Exhibit A: Danerys Targaryan, khaleesi and Mother of Dragons. It’s not every day that you see a 14-year-old girl succeed her dead husband, lead an army and earn the loyalty of the multitudes. And, in addition to Brienne of Tarth, there’s Catelyn Stark, who’s a far better strategist than her son, Robb; her daughter Arya Stark, handy with sword and bow and arrow; Ygritte; and yes, Cersei, even though she’s a character you love to hate.

5) People act on an epic scale. “Game of Thrones” is very operatic, and you feel that Newton’s Law is always in play—for every action there will be an opposite and equal reaction. When Joffrey defies the very wise advice of Cersei and Varys by ordering the beheading of Ned Stark, you know we’re in for a very long war. When Robb Stark marries Talisa despite the deal his mother struck with Walder Frey, it’s a head-in-your-hands moment—you know the story will not end there. And when Tyrion Lannister tells his bride Sansa that he won’t sleep with her unless she wants him, it’s a cinch this will happen.  Maybe not this season or next, but you know that it will.

6) You see things no one else in his right mind would dream up. I don’t want this to be a “Game of Thrones’ Greatest Hits” post, but Viserys Targaryan’s “crowning”? Danerys’s emergence from her husband’s smoldering funeral pyre with three baby dragonlets perched on her shoulders? Not to mention the blue-eyed White Walkers and Melisandre’s giving birth to the whatever-it-is that murders Renly Baratheon. And oh my, cursing Stannis Baratheon’s rivals with those leeches of revenge, plus the very Wagnerian murder of the White Walker when Samwell Tarly wields the dragonglass dagger. You keep thinking “How can they top this?” but the showrunners, building on George R.R. Martin’s stories, do it every time.

7) It goes without saying that the acting is superb. Not just known quantities like Lena Headey (Cersei) and Charles Dance (Tywin Lannister), but actors less familiar to American viewers like Michelle Fairley (Catelyn) and Nicolaj Coster-Waldau (Jamie),  plus a fleet of younger performers: Emilia Clarke (Danerys), Kit Harrington (Jon Snow), Richard Madden (Robb Stark) and Maisie Williams (Arya). And if you’ve followed Peter Dinklage’s career like I have, his emergence as a leading man is no surprise—I saw “The Station Agent” when it was released several years ago, and knew that it was only a matter of time. Bravi!

Only two more episodes to go this season, which should bring us to the middle of “A Storm of Swords,” the third book in George R.R. Martin’s projected seven-volume series. Without spoiling, I can tell you these two episodes should be mind-boggling. Brace yourself. In the meantime, have fun while you can:

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When Dany met Jon….
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Posted in Books, Movie Reviews, Music

I Hereby Dub Thee…

marni-nixon-cover-webOne of the best half-hours in radio these days is “Operavore,” which precedes the Saturday afternoon opera broadcasts on New York’s WQXR. And without fail, the most interesting feature of the show is always Marilyn Horne’s interview with a singer or conductor of note. A few weeks ago the Fascination Meter hit an all-time high when she entertained an old friend, soprano Marni Nixon, best known as the “Ghostest With the Mostest.” As the singing voice of leading ladies in a number of classic Hollywood musicals, Ms. Nixon swapped some wonderful anecdotes with her old pal (Marilyn Horne is also a veteran ghost, having enjoyed her first professional success at age 20 by dubbing Dorothy Dandridge in “Carmen Jones”). If you missed it, never fear—you can catch up via Marni Nixon’s memoir, “I Could Have Sung All Night”, which chronicles her career as the voice of Deborah Kerr, Natalie Wood and Audrey Hepburn, not to mention the source of Marilyn Monroe’s high notes in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”

Ms. Nixon reminds us that when talkies arrived, so did dubbing. The Hollywood films of the 30’s and 40’s films frequently featured at least one scene set in a nightclub, with some chanteuse (make that “shan-toosy“) burning away in a torch song. In musicals the star dancers, such as Cyd Charisse, Vera-Ellen and Rita Hayworth, were always dubbed, as were six each, respectively, of the “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.”

But it didn’t stop there. Check out Ray Hagen’s “Movie Dubbers” site for an astonishing list of dubbers and dubbees. That’s not Joan Blondell pouring her heart out in “Remember My Forgotten Man.” On the other hand, it is Lauren Bacall, not the teen-age Andy Williams, singing “How Little We Know” in “To Have and Have Not.” While some of these substitutions were publicized at the time (Larry Parks’s performing to Al Jolson’s soundtracks in two films about the singer’s life, Eileen Farrell’s singing for Eleanor Parker in “Interrupted Melody”), most were hidden behind the walls of the studio system and the confidentiality provisions that kept contract performers quiet.

The roster of dubbers includes such singers as Benny’s Goodman’s Martha Tilton and Anita Ellis, a fabulous jazz singer in her own right (and Larry Kert’s big sister), whose “Put the Blame on Mame” comes out of Rita Hayworth’s mouth in “Gilda.” Not surprisingly, “White Christmas” has Rosemary Clooney dubbing Vera-Ellen in “Sisters,” resulting in her singing a duet with herself. But my all-time favorite has got to be Jean Hagen dubbing Debbie Reynolds dubbing Jean Hagen in the looping session featured in “Singin’ in the Rain,” because Hagen, a former stage and radio actress, had the cultured speaking voice needed for “The Dancing Cavalier.” Lina Lamont’s revenge!

Who's dubbing whom?
Who’s dubbing whom, anyway?

Marni Nixon, who began her career as a classical musician, has an incredible list of credits. Possessing that invaluable asset, perfect pitch, she had the good fortune to perform with a number of the so-called Hollywood exiles—composers and musicians who had fled Nazi Germany and settled in California in the 1940’s. She started her dubbing work while still in her teens, but her first big assignment was working with Deborah Kerr on “The King and I.” Nixon’s description of their intense rehearsal process is fascinating, and when it came time to shoot “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?” (unfortunately cut from the film), Nixon was able to imitate her perfectly.

My favorite Marni Nixon movie moment occurs during another ghosting job she did for Deborah Kerr, this time in “An Affair to Remember.” Her rendition of “Our Love Affair” in the nightclub scene is flawless. The way she plays the subtext of the song (don’t forget, this is the night before the appointment at the Empire State Building), her phrasing, and most amusingly, the way she can sing in Deborah Kerr’s accent, all add up to a stunning performance (And speaking of stunning, Ms. Kerr never looked more glamorous on film than she does in this scene).

Marni Nixon’s Hollywood career also included “West Side Story” in which she sang for Natalie Wood in addition to dubbing a few of Rita Moreno’s phrases in the “Quintet” (“We’re gonna mix it tonight”). Of course, the job that brought her the most notoriety was dubbing Audrey Hepburn in the film version of “My Fair Lady,” in a role that every one in the world with the exception of Jack Warner thought should have gone to the woman who originated it on stage, Julie Andrews. Nixon relates all this with a refreshingly objective eye, and it’s wonderful to learn that she later “came out” by playing Eliza Doolittle, as well as Anna Leonowens and “The Most Happy Fella”‘s Rosabella, among other roles, on stage.

As a change of pace, here’s a chance to experience Marni Nixon’s artistry as a classical musician. Her appearance with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic at a time when his “Young People’s  Concerts” was teaching a generation (namely mine!) about music is wonderfully exuberant and a pure pleasure. Enjoy!

Posted in Television

Downton Abbey: The End or the Beginning?

Downton Abbey Christmas Special

All cried out? Me, too. Now let’s take a deep breath and talk about what’s happened.

The last minute of “Downton Abbey”‘s season finale was devastating. But with Dan Stevens leaving the show, I think Julian Fellowes, the creator of “Downton Abbey,” did the right thing by killing off Matthew Crawley. There was no war to send the character off to, no plausible secret mission or business proposition that would detain him overseas, and with the history that he and Mary shared, there was no logical way to have their marriage fall apart, especially with her being pregnant. And with the actor’s intention to depart, Mr. Fellowes took a better course than recasting the role. It would be very difficult to duplicate what Dan Stevens brought to the character—the charm and intelligence (not to mention the most amazing eyes on TV)—and the comparisons between Matthews v.1 and v.2 would be endless and distracting.

So for better or worse, our hero is gone. Aside from his role in modernizing Downton’s methods, Matthew seemed to be the glue of the show this season, serving as Tom’s ally, striking up a friendship with Edith and in general, being the “go-to” character in the story lines involving Rose and Michael Gregson. So his loss will be felt by all, but the impact will be greatest on the two women closest to him—Mary, course, but also Isobel, who will have to cope with the death of her only child. Speaking of Isobel, I loved her scenes in the finale with Dr. Clarkson, and how oblivious she was as to why he would raise the issue of remarriage. Somehow I think this subject will be revisited when “Downton Abbey” returns.

What about Mary? What does the future hold for her? Others may disagree, but I liked seeing Executive Producer Gareth Neame refer to her “the heart of the show”. I’m looking forward to seeing the direction she takes following Matthew’s death. Will she assume an active role in managing the estate to carry out his grand plan? Money won’t be a problem for her, so there’s no need to rush into another marriage, though I expect she won’t be idle in that department for too long. And Edith? I really hope she doesn’t get stuck in a Back Street life, waiting for the mad Mrs. Gregson to die. I’d like to see more of her in the working world, tweaking the upper class with her pen.

Tom Branson and Rose will obviously be major players next season, though I’m praying that Mr. Fellowes and Co. don’t put these two together. She’s an irritating twit, though I really enjoyed the scenes she shared with Anna in the season finale, teaching her how to dance the reel. And Tom’s status in the household, as an outsider to both upstairs and downstairs, was beautifully portrayed. Mrs. Hughes’s heart-to-heart with him near the end of the episode couldn’t have been better written or acted.

And what about the servants? I thought the Thomas storyline was a waste of time from start to finish, though it served its purpose if only to end in O’Brien getting hers with “Milady’s soap.” Having encountered an uber-O’Brien in the form of Wilkens, maid to Lady Flintshire, perhaps the original has started down the road of character rehab (don’t hold your breath). Mrs. Hughes has earned a larger role in Season 4, and deserves a far better storyline than the trite “suspected cancer” bit she was recently saddled with. Carson will no doubt remain the rock of the household, and the younger servants will go on as they have, though I’d enjoy seeing Daisy run the farm that was promised to her. And we need to keep an eye on Bates—no matter what exculpatory evidence was produced, I still think he murdered his wife. I really believe there’s something very shady about this man that has yet to surface.

So now we’ve got a long wait until “Downton Abbey” returns. Hopefully next season will be televised on PBS in concert with its airing in the U.K., as has been proposed—some people actually think it might make it easier to avoid spoilers. Wanna bet? The ‘net became infested with rumors about actors being cast as Lady Mary’s new love interest before the image of dead Matthew even left the screen.

Frankly I think we all need to chill out, give “Downton Abbey” a rest, enjoy the coming warm weather, and reconvene for discussion in the fall. Don’t you?

Posted in Books, Movie Reviews

Rosemary’s Baby

Rosemarys Baby

He has His Father’s eyes.

—Roman Castevet

Has there ever been a better plotted thriller than Ira Levin’s “Rosemary’s Baby”? Or a better adaptation than Roman Polanski’s 1968 film? Everybody’s favorite satanic offspring recently received the Criterion Collection treatment, and the result proves this movie still retains its punch, 45 years later.

I remember reading the novel in practically one sitting. Levin’s pacing is phenomenal—he knows exactly when, where and how to drop just enough information to enable you to keep pace with Rosemary as the plot unfolds, yet never for one instant let you get ahead of her. Only when she becomes suspicious do you become suspicious, but not before. It’s a delight to re-read it the moment you finish just to enjoy how easily you were fooled. Although the novel falls into the horror genre, it’s not the idea of Satan’s spawn that really puts it there. Levin is more subtle—it’s poor Rosemary’s painful pregnancy and her husband’s trading her well-being for fame that create the nightmare. The suspense is marvelous, yet the book is also incredibly funny and sly, and of course irreverent. Just a terrific read.

Levin’s image of Rosemary–Piper Laurie

Roman Polanski’s screenplay is as close to a word for word adaptation as possible (According to the extras in the Criterion package, Levin thought the director was under the impression he was barred from making any changes. How fortunate for us). In its movie form, “Rosemary’s Baby” not only brings the printed word to life, it enhances the experience in ways that only film can. Sometimes it’s the little things, such as the coven’s flat chant, almost a group moan, with its accompanying whistle that Rosemary and Guy hear through their bedroom wall. I don’t know about you, but it makes my skin crawl every time I see the movie. And though this is a key scene in the book, it’s Polanski who creates the hair-on-end atmosphere of Rosemary’s attempt to solve the riddle of Hutch’s anagram reference. When she finally forms the name “Roman Castevet” out of “Steven Marcato” with those Scrabble tiles, it’s impossible not to gasp.

I wouldn’t have thought to cast Mia Farrow as Rosemary, given that another character in the novel says she looks like Piper Laurie, but she makes it work. Yes, Farrow was the eternal waif at that stage of her career, but her newly-created Vidal Sassoon hair cut beautifully sets off those hollow cheeks during Rosemary’s first trimester from (literal) hell. And I love that enigmatic smile at the end of the film. The ambiguity is perfect.

Where I think the film disappoints somewhat is in the casting and depiction of Guy Woodhouse. The Criterion materials state that both Robert Redford and Jack Nicholson tested for the part, and either would have been so much better than John Cassavetes. He’s too ethnic, he’s too old and he’s too saturnine.  He’s as obvious as Jack Nicholson would be in “The Shining” a few years later. In fairness, though, Cassavetes is not really helped by either the script or the direction. In the book it’s clear Guy is shocked when the coven’s spell blinds his rival actor, Donald Baumgart. But you don’t feel that watching the movie. And Levin makes it obvious that Guy is initially troubled by the proposition that he in essence trade his wife for success. There’s no such scene in the film, let alone a hint that Guy ever has a second thought—he’s all in from the get-go.

On the other hand, Polanski seems to delight in the turning points of the plot–those stages in the narrative where things could have gone so differently had the characters chosen another path. Rosemary’s quiet insistence that she and Guy have dinner with the Castevets, though he clearly doesn’t want to go. Her concern over Dr. Hill’s request for an additional blood draw, which ultimately steers her straight to Dr. Sapirstein. Her forgetting to show Sapirstein’s pills (no doubt 100% tannis root) to Hill when she tells him about the coven, only to have Sapirstein immediately pocket the vial before Hill has a chance to notice. Of such small moments are absorbing stories made.

While Ira Levin sustained his success with “The Stepford Wives” and the play “Deathtrap” in the years after “Rosemary,” his sequel “Son of Rosemary,” published in 1997, was a huge mistake. After the first chapter, it’s all downhill, and the ending is absurd. Do yourself a favor and avoid it at all cost. Instead, why don’t you just take “Rosemary’s Baby” off the shelf or pop in the Blu-ray? Nothing but nothing can beat the original.