Friday, August 23, 2013


My straight-to-the-point review of An American in Paris is that it felt like a drag to sit through. I know that sounds like such a whiney comment to make about an entire film. But if one can’t be honest on the pages of their own blog, then where can one deposit an unvarnished opinion every now and then? It’s not that I entirely disliked An American in Paris, not at all. There were nuggets of entertainment here and there to enjoy. And it’s not that I don’t enjoy or appreciate movie musicals. Au contraire haters, it’s a genre that I relish more than all of the cheap relish in all the ball parks in America. OK, I don’t relish them that much, but there’s relish, baby. 

Directed by Vincente Minnelli, yes that would be Liza’s dad, An American in Paris penciled eight Academy Award nominations on its dance card, waltzing off with six wins, including Best Picture for 1951. It is the second musical to win Oscar’s top offering, after The Broadway Melody, as well as the second color motion picture to win, after Gone with the Wind. Produced by MGM music man Arthur Freed, An American in Paris is considered part of a new chapter of Hollywood musicals. Several pages of this chapter were written by Freed and his colleagues at MGM, but throughout the 1950s and 1960s, other studios produced melodic motion pictures that sang the right tunes on Oscar night, making it the Golden Age for the movie musical, both literally and figuratively.

An American in Paris is a candy-coated jukebox musical comedy centering on the romantic adventures of Jerry Mulligan, a WWII veteran transplanted to Paris to follow his dreams of becoming the next Van Gogh. Although Jerry’s artistic endeavors fail to attract public attention, his charm and charisma do come to the attention of Milo Roberts, a bored and lonely socialite who decides to finance Jerry’s career in hopes of inspiring a romantic pursuit. Unfortunately for Milo, The Beatles had not yet made the scene, preventing her from becoming the beneficiary of their musical wisdom that individuals cannot purchase the affections of another. And despite her best efforts, Milo is left to harvest the fruits of frustration as Jerry’s heart palpitates for Lise Bouvier, a sweet perfume shop girl. Unbeknownst to the love struck Jerry, however, is the fact that Lise is already involved with a Henri, a successful stage performer, setting Lise on a path toward making the most difficult decision of her life. 

Perhaps the biggest problem with An American in Paris is that it rests on such a paper-thin, underdeveloped plot that it isn’t able to perform any emotional or dramatic heavy lifting. Instead of prospering to the point of fostering a level of tension or dramatic dilemma worth investing in, the film’s central relationships all provoke about as much zest as a container of plain yogurt. Amazingly, the film took home the Oscar for Best Screenplay, which is nothing short of shocking given that all of the musical numbers were already existing Ira Gershwin compositions set to dance numbers that were choreographed by Kelly. This begs the question: How much of what actually appeared on screen in the end originated from the script? It seems like Gershwin and Kelly should have also received at least a share of that Oscar for their contributions to the screenplay’s success.

Apart from the lackluster screenplay, several other reasons account for the bland trenches which An American in Paris finds itself wading through. Perhaps the deepest one is the lack of any stellar or standout performances from the principles players. Not that I’m familiar with Gene Kelly’s entire cinematic oeuvre, but of all of his films that I have seen, he rarely strays from the tried-and-true elements that made him an All-American star, much like Bing Crosby. There is no denying that what Kelly does, he does it well. But unfortunately, being an exceptional dancer does not translate into strong acting. This fact is on full display in An American in Paris, as he dances his way through a flat, forgettable performance that is borderline annoying for its over indulgence in optimism and aww-shucksness.   

On equal footing with Kelly on this account is Leslie Caron. An American in Paris marked her film debut, so one can dole out a measure of forgiveness for any lack of acting experience that appears in her performance, particularly as she proved a more capable actress in subsequent films. However, in delivering her dialogue opposite Kelly, she does seem somewhat lost in her navigations. In some scenes it felt as though she was just awkwardly repeating lines, hoping they sound right, instead of saying them with ownership and understanding. She appears to take refuge in one or two notes of her character, leading her to play them over and over, putting her on a collision course to becoming just another garden-variety love interest. It’s only when Caron is dancing with Kelly that she appears confident and comfortable onscreen, making it obvious that these two excel much more at communicating through dance than through speech.

Despite her deficiencies as an actress, Caron still emerges to be a delight to watch onscreen. Her angelic features, pixie cut and chic French style add a touch of mink to every scene she appears in. Her features seem like a fashion designer’s heaven-sent inspiration or an advertising executive’s dream. And her beauty has a gravitational pull that injects the screen with a certain je ne sais quoi quality that does pique one’s curiosity.

The one actor in the entire film that proved remotely interesting was Nina Foch, who played the cool and nonchalant Milo Roberts. Her sultry voice and sexy flirtations powered up the party, making Kelly and Caron’s budding romance that much more boring to witness. Foch possesses the potential at giving Milo more dimensions beyond just being another pretty face, even hinting at her having a more complicated nature. However, the film commits the blunder of setting up an interesting storyline between Kelly and Foch, only to reveal it as being nothing more than a tease, as the film sidelines the latter in favor of Kelly’s other romantic desires. Ultimately, the audience does not get the satisfaction of seeing the arch of Koch’s character play out to any appealing degree, which contributes to the overall sense of this film fumbling in its quest for greatness.

The last detrimental point I’ll mention is the film’s music and dance numbers. As I mentioned, the film employs the musical compositions of the great Ira Gershwin, whose works always remain pleasing. Similarly, Kelly choreographed all of the dance numbers, which are inventive, colorful, and, in the case of the finale, downright epic. Taken in isolation, these artistic moments are enjoyably entertaining to watch, particularly the opulent finale. But in the context of the film, many of these numbers feel more wedged into the story, as opposed to pieces of a puzzle that glide nicely into place to aid in the construction of a larger picture. The effect is that the plot is never able to gather or sustain any level of momentum, due to the narrative disturbances caused by the high frequency of song-and-dance numbers. In a musical, the music should feel effortless and in sync with the plot, serving to move it along. But for me, the music felt more like a series of interruptions from the story at hand, causing the whole narrative to taste diluted.

If all Americans in Paris were as lame as the American in An American in Paris, then no wonder the French have a reputation of not caring for Americans. For my money, anyone interested to become acquainted with a Gene Kelly musical should skip this overrated entry into the canon of movie musicals and just pick up a copy of Singin’ in the Rain. In that classic, Kelly’s feet deliver an impressive performance, and his lack of acting skills ironically suits the character, allowing the Gene Kelly charm and charisma to stick, which is more than can be said of An American in Paris. 

Favorite Line: In a conversation between Gene Kelly’s struggling artist Jerry Mulligan and his pal Adam Cook, an unnoticed concert pianist, the latter is razzing the former over his seductive socialite sponsor, Milo Roberts. Cook delivers a good zinger when he jokingly asks Jerry, “Tell me, when you get married will you keep your maiden name?”

Sunday, August 11, 2013


There hasn’t been another Best Picture champ quite like “All About Eve,” before or since its release. Like a good wine, it has only improved with age, feeling modern, stylish and fresh, despite being produced over 60 years ago. In large part, the film’s ability to shackle the calendar’s march is implanted in its terrific script. Quips, wit and banter rain down on every scene like confetti, charging the entire film with a conversational energy, not only rarely found in films today, but in films period. To watch “All About Eve” is to be a spectator at the cinematic equivalent of Wimbledon, watching the characters lobby snarky barbs and comebacks at one another with such amusing expression that there is hardly time to pause and savor them all. But the film manages to steer clear of just becoming the most sophisticated catfight of all time by delivering flesh-and-blood creations wading through their flaws and vulnerabilities, allowing “All About Eve” to wind up and serve an absolute ace. 

Adapted for the screen and helmed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, “All About Eve” boasts an enviable amount of marquee talent, including Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, Celeste Holm, Thelma Ritter and George Sanders. In 1950, the Academy was evidently all about Eve, as it showered the film with a record-setting 14 nominations, a feat that would not be matched until 1997’s “Titanic.” It’s incredible that a film like “All About Eve” could generate so many nominations, given that it was not competing in categories related to special effects or original song; areas where “Titanic” was obviously able to rack up several nominations. As the curtain came down on Oscar night, “All About Eve” collected six statues, including Best Picture. Ironically, despite its four female stars all receiving nominations, the lone acting triumph went to Sanders for Best Supporting Actor, which I suppose is fitting, given that his character out maneuvered them all in the film.

There’s a cautionary line in the 1992 film “The Hand that Rocks the Cradle” that goes, “Never let an attractive woman take a power position in your home.” This line would have served as sound advice for the main players in “All About Eve,” saving them a lot of drama. Set in the cutthroat world of the theater, “All About Eve” is a backstage, divalicious spectacle blending together a cast of themes, including blind ambition, arrogance, envy, insecurity and betrayal. The eye of the storm is, of course, Eve Harrington, a mid-Western ingĂ©nue who takes to loitering about the theater in hopes of catching a break into that great, glamorous world of the theater. Her golden opportunity presents itself in the form of Karen Richards, a playwright’s wife, who takes pity on Eve, arranging an introduction between her and Karen’s best friend, the legendary stage siren Margo Channing.

After regaling Karen and Margo with a made up sob story, replete with a deceased husband, Margo’s protective instincts surface, as she immediately takes Eve under her wing. Initially, Eve proves invaluable to Margo, simultaneously serving as her secretary, friend and psychologist. But above all else, Eve eventually reveals herself to be the viper in Margo’s bosom, as she plots and schemes her way forward to a career under the lights. In a way, the whole damned thing is really just the classic “a star is born” scenario; born alien-style, that is, with Eve bursting through to stalk and cannibalize everyone around her one-by-one until she has reached her place in the theater firmament. And she succeeds in besting all of her rivals and colleagues, save for Addison DeWitt, the sardonic critic of the theater, who seizes upon Eve’s phony act, blackmailing her into his possession and leaving the viewer to contemplate whether the price of fame was indeed worth the cost.

The core theme radiating throughout “All About Eve” is one that focuses on the issues and struggles women face in the world of show business, particularly where the obsessions of age, beauty and their career intersect. Given that the ground beneath these standards has only continued to shrink over the decades, thus growing more extreme, “All About Eve” has continued to feel relevant because it remains part of a contemporary debate that has only continued to get louder. As this debate does not seem likely to abate anytime soon, despite Dove’s best efforts, I suspect that this film will preserve its significance for years to come.   

In a way, “All About Eve” serves as one large illustration of the different outposts that women encounter in the landscape of show business, and how the various stages of such a journey can lead to unhealthy misconceptions about truth and value in regards to one’s self. The spectrum of female characters in the film highlights these deceptions actresses are likely to encounter along the life cycle of their profession, bringing into question the importance of securing one’s true identity in order to stay grounded, not just in the field of make believe, but in life.

Of course there’s Eve, who represents youth, vitality and all of the gossamer qualities inherent therein. While she possesses true talent, the pressures of making it as an actress beguile Eve into thinking it necessary to sell off any shred of moral integrity in order to be successful; that talent and hard work alone are simply not enough. As such, she resorts to lies, blackmail and sexual prowess in order to take center stage. By the film’s end, we learn this isn’t the first time Eve has resorted to underhanded tricks in order to manipulate a situation in her favor, clearly showing that Eve has planted her identity on barren soil. In time, the bridges she burns and the debts she incurs do help her secure the career she has always dreamt of; but it’s a career that leaves her isolated and hollow, ultimately enslaving Eve to its will as she is now forced into the servitude of cultivating an identity that will allow her to retain her crown. However, Eve is person without principles, and in the absence of such things a person has no grasp on their identity, as they are tossed about by the winds of every approaching doctrine. 

On the other end of the spectrum is Margo Channing, who represents the aging star, which the film defines as being 40 years old. She is struggling to accept the reality that she can no longer pull off playing characters much younger than she. In this transitional phase of her career, Margo grows suspicious, paranoid and doubtful of her own talents, showcasing the hallucinogenic effects that the pressures of diminishing age and beauty can exact on an actress. For so long, Margo’s identity has been defined by the validation and beauty she has derived from the success of playing younger parts. This has been her career; her whole life, in fact. To suddenly let go raises several frightening prospects that unmoor her from reality, briefly threatening the things she really does cares about. Ironically, it isn’t until Eve snatches away Margo’s spotlight that Margo is able to reconcile her issues and sees clearly, realizing that the wisdom and strength begat by age and experience produce a more sustainable form of beauty and happiness. 

In reaching this moment of clarity, Margo delivers an interesting speech, where she confides, “Funny business, a woman's career - the things you drop on your way up the ladder so you can move faster. You forget you'll need them again when you get back to being a woman. That's one career all females have in common, whether we like it or not: being a woman. Sooner or later, we've got to work at it, no matter how many other careers we've had or wanted. And in the last analysis, nothing's any good unless you can look up just before dinner or turn around in bed, and there he is. Without that, you're not a woman.”

This is a fascinating quote, especially coming from Margo, who has done everything but be humble and vulnerable up until this point in the film. What's more, I think it makes the point that a woman can neither shed her female characteristics or adopt a feminine version of herself based on what she perceives others to want, and expect to be content and fulfilled. Fortunately for Margo, she has grasped an understanding of the need to strike a better work-life balance, and pay more attention to the career she has neglected for too long: that of being a woman. While Margo has learned this lesson before it’s too late, the same doesn’t seem to be true for Eve, who has been short-sighted in shuttering her career as a woman in order to stake every aspect of her identity in becoming a ruthless career chaser. As the saying goes, what comes around, goes around, and in Eve’s case, maybe she will be fortunate to encounter a younger version of herself that will push her to confront all the truth about Eve.

Favorite line: The screenplay for “All About Eve” is a buffet of terrific lines and exchanges. So I decided to include several delicious samples that really need no introduction. 

 “Eve. Eve the Golden Girl, the Cover Girl, the Girl Next Door, the Girl on the Moon. Time has been good to Eve. Life goes where she goes. She's the profiled, covered, revealed, reported. What she eats and what she wears and whom she knows and where she was, and when and where she's going. Eve. You all know all about Eve. What can there be to know that you don't know?” 

“Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy night!”

“Nice speech, Eve. But I wouldn't worry too much about your heart. You can always put that award where your heart ought to be.”

Llyod Richards (Playwright): I shall never understand the weird process by which a body with a voice suddenly fancies itself as a mind. Just when exactly does an actress decide they're HER words she's speaking and HER thoughts she's expressing?
Margo Channing (Actress) replies: Usually at the point where she has to rewrite and rethink them, to keep the audience from leaving the theatre!

Tuesday, August 6, 2013


I recently read a story highlighting that Amazon sales of George Orwell’s dystopian classic “1984” are up a whopping 6000 percent. It seems that in the wake of the scandal parade that has been on the march through Washington, highlighted by the NSA surveillance float, people have suddenly found the cautionary tale of government power more relevant than ever. It retains a certain tragedy that a novel published in 1949 about government deception, manipulation and gross misuse of power has seemingly been used as an instruction manual, lending it increased significance in 2013.

On that note, I’m convinced that if more people were aware of “All the King’s Men,” I think it would also experience a spike in public interest, owing to its timeless relevancy as a fable illustrating the fallout in electing a false idol into public office. Interestingly, “All the King’s Men” was released the same year as “1984” was published, and like Orwell’s classic novel, the film should serve as a good reminder that the means do not always justify the end, that government officials are not above the law and of the inevitable dangers in succumbing to demagoguery.

Directed by Robert Rossen, “All the King’s Men” picked up seven Academy Award nominations, winning three, including Best Picture for 1949. Rossen also adapted the film from Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel of the same name, marking the last time a film with a Pulitzer Prize-winning pedigree took home the Academy’s top honor. The film stars Broderick Crawford, John Ireland, Mercedes McCambridge and other names not likely familiar to modern audiences. But several of the lead performances are unforgettable and still feel surprisingly contemporary, particularly Crawford, who deservedly took home the Oscar statuette for Best Actor.

A roman-a-clef of the political career of former 1930s Louisiana Governor Huey Long, “All the King’s Men” chronicles the rise and fall of the fictional Willie Stark. A back-country hick inspired to take a stand against the political slag polluting his town and county, Stark throws his hat into the political ring of local government on a platform of truth and decency. However, his message falls on the public’s deaf ears, mainly due to the fact that the corrupt political machine has stuffed them full false promises and deceit, preventing any alternative messages from ever registering on their political consciousness.

Although realizing he has the charisma and determination to win public office, Stark recognizes his lack of intellectual credibility, spurning him to become a lawyer. After building up an account of public goodwill through his legal practice, a political opportunity presents itself to Stark after the local government’s corrupt practices finally bottom out, resulting in the deaths of several school children. Angry and frustrated by this tragedy, the general public urges Stark to run for political office, marking his first step on a journey that would ultimately usher him into the governor’s mansion. Stark’s journey ultimately recalls that quote from The Dark Knight when Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent presciently declares, “You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

Along the way, Stark becomes an almost Messianic figure to the common, less-educated voter, capitalizing on their ignorant follow-the-leader disposition by pied-piping a tune of hope and change. In the process, Stark quickly charters the same crooked course of the very politicians he railed against as an undereducated country bumpkin, emerging as a bruising political architect whose chief tools are intimidation, dishonest dealings and fear-mongering rhetoric. Arrogant and brash, Stark continually justifies his means by the ends he claims they produce, leading him to become sloppy, impudent and alienating toward those around him. Even when reality threatens to blow the lid off of his “accomplishments,” Stark only doubles down on his mistakes with a clenched fist, continuing to do everything he deems necessary in order to maintain his chokehold on the power he has amassed.

If “All the King’s Men” had a subtitle, I think a leading contender for the spot should be “The Broderick Crawford Show.” He grabs the part of Willie Stark with both hands, lowers the gas pedal to the floor and doesn’t relent until the closing credits. It’s astonishing how Crawford is able to subtly travel Stark’s trajectory, initially creating a portrait of a sympathetic punching bag that you are rooting for to succeed. However, these sympathies soon become distant memories once Stark yields to the trappings of power and fame: carrying on with a merry-go-round of women; using and disposing of people like snotty tissue; and even inflating his vanity with such indulgences as wearing monogrammed house robes like some godfather figure. And what began as a dream soon ends as nightmare, and by the film’s end you are rooting for this erstwhile underdog to fail; as he is utterly remorseless in a way that leaves you feeling used for ever having felt compassionate for him in the first place. Crawford expertly guides Willie to this stage of his maniacal journey, mixing up a cocktail of emotion that is tragic, frustrating and infuriating. It’s Crawford’s talent at portraying struggle in paving the beginning of his own journey with such noble intentions that allows his latter downfall to be received with such complicated emotions. When Willie attains power to control the political infrastructure and impose his will, Crawford’s performance generates a genuine lament over the fact that he takes a jack hammer to the decent brick and mortar that once surfaced his course. Ultimately, Crawford’s performance becomes a great illustration of how absolute power corrupts absolutely, as they say. 

Of all the parallels this film draws with contemporary Washington, perhaps the one that resonated with me the most is the correlation between Willie Stark and our current political leadership’s refusal to ever own up to a charge of real wrongdoing, a constitutional transgression or a grievous error. Instead, the response is for D.C. to double down with heels dug in ready to refute every accusation and deflect any consequence. I find the lack of humility amongst today’s political elite to be truly stunning, particularly when they are called in to answer for their crimes. It reminds me of the oft-paraphrased scripture in Proverbs that says, “Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before the fall.” 

Pride portending the fall is perhaps the core cautionary theme coursing throughout “All the King’s Men,” which is perhaps what will ultimately continue to make this film relevant for another fifty years. Unless the voting classes wise up, the public sector will always be rented out to vain hotshots who cocoon themselves within their own swollen doctrines. In that climate, the Willie Starks of the world will continue to be elected with the rest of regular society paying the price. 

Favorite Line: At one point during his gubernatorial campaign, Willie Stark is meeting with a small gathering of elite society. Among them is a man by the name of Dr. Stanton, who good-naturedly challenges Stark on how he proposes to fulfill his campaign promises, which leads to the following exchange:

Stark: Do you know what good comes out of? Out of bad, that’s what good comes out of because you can’t make it out of anything else.

Dr. Stanton: You say there’s only bad to start with, and that the goodness comes from the bad. Who’s to determine what’s good and what’s bad? You?

Stark: Why not?

Dr. Stanton: How?

Stark: It’s easy; just make it up as you go along.