Thursday, August 30, 2012

Go With The Tie

Earlier this summer I had a birthday, just as I do around the time of the Summer Solstice every year, giving me yet another chance to take a long walk of the soul and ponder all those things I haven’t done yet in life. At the opening of AUTHOR! AUTHOR! playwright Ivan Travaliyan played by Al Pacino arrives home to find his family greeting him with a surprise for his 42nd (or maybe 43rd) birthday leading to various wacky hijinks. I haven’t gotten to this age yet but I’m pretty close and when I was a kid this kind of birthday probably seemed really old, the sort that only a full-fledged adult had. Alas, I don’t have a townhouse in Greenwich Village and I’m not in rehearsals of a play that I’ve written about to open on Broadway but considering I haven’t lived in New York for nearly two decades now anyway maybe I’m just looking for things to complain about. Plus I don’t have a roomful of kids yelling at me but there are friends whose houses I can always go over to for that.
Celebrating its thirtieth anniversary this year (released June 18, 1982) AUTHOR! AUTHOR! is pretty much forgotten by now except for (I suspect) anyone with memories of countless HBO viewings way back in the day. It’s an odd duck of a film considering the ‘Al Pacino family comedy’ subgenre doesn’t have very many entries in it and for the actor the film sort of falls in between the wirey, high-pitched first part of his career and the later, raspier Al starting with his comeback in SEA OF LOVE. The iconic nature of Tony Montana in SCARFACE always seems to fall outside of these periods but AUTHOR! AUTHOR! feels linked to some of his other films from both periods if only for its New York setting. Truth be told, there is a certain pleasant flashback vibe I get from it, down to how when at one point he walks through some slush on a winter New York street I can almost feel the sensation of how cold and wet it must be. Those New York winters stay with you. Idea for double bill: pair this thing with CRUISING just to weird people out. AUTHOR! AUTHOR! is the sort of film that I could never really be too harsh on because, really, there wouldn’t be any point but it never becomes all that great either. Buried within the material is maybe something that could have been more than just a genial family comedy if it had made an attempt to really address the pain and anguish that comes from trying to combine all sorts of things in life just to make it through the day. But it’s really just a pleasant movie. With some good actors. And kids. One that’s set in early 80s New York. A New York where seemingly everyone makes wisecracks from Pacino to Alan King (naturally) to the kids to waitresses in restaurants as they serve the food. I can think of worse ways to spend a few hours even if I’m not going to make a great case for it.
New York playwright Ivan Travalian (Al Pacino) is mounting his latest production “English with Tears” on Broadway dealing with the usual issues of finding directors and moneymen when the frenetic-but-normal world of his homelife comes to a halt when wife Gloria (Tuesday Weld) chooses to walk out on him leaving their five children, one his and the rest hers from various previous marriages, in the lurch. Ivan sends a few of the kids off to live with other parents and rehearsals for the play begin complete with inclusion of film star Alice Detroit (Dyan Cannon). But even when a romance between Ivan and Alice begins to brew and she moves in he can’t help but admit that not only are the kids the ones he really cares about he’s still in love with Gloria. And, with opening night of the play fast approaching, there’s still the pesky issue of the second act to worry about.
I spent enough time in a few certain places down in Greenwich Village back during the 80s that there’s a certain familiarity I get from some of AUTHOR! AUTHOR! which has to say something. Even if Al Pacino was trying to broaden his appeal by taking on a KRAMER VS. KRAMER family-type project (or maybe just trying to do something diametrically opposed from CRUISING) it still seems like a strange marriage with his particular kind of screen energy. While the film certainly goes down easy enough the conflict in the screenplay by Israel Horovitz (of course, a playwright himself as well as the father of Adam Horovitz—apparently the script is, no surprise, somewhat autobiographical) is too minor, the emotions never feel all that tapped in as if there wasn’t a real attempt to dig into any of the complexities and considering that the director was Arthur Hiller who I always imagine as being a genial sort with nice hair who never wants to upset anyone too much (still, any filmography that contains THE AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY, THE HOSPITAL, SILVER STREAK and THE IN-LAWS is in no way a washout), that could very well have been the case. In its own sort of less-jokey Neil Simon vein the whole thing is likable enough, fortunately never becoming overly cloying, but just a little too nice and polite.
Actually, considering the New York setting and various members of the cast I can’t help but imagine a version of this material directed by Sidney Lumet who wasn’t exactly known for family films either but he did know what to do with emotions and if his version wouldn’t have been quite so cuddly for the kids it might have had more resonance. Because as much as this world is familiar to me and as much as there are some stabs at a feel of an actual lived-in world it still occasionally feels a little too cute with behavior that has more to do with the movies than real life, like hitting someone in the face with their own birthday cake or hailing a cab on impulse to go from Manhattan to Massachusetts and back (kind of like what Tom Hanks did two years later in SPLASH). Truth be told, there is more of a feel of reality to it than there probably would be in such a film now and I keep going back and forth in my own mind about how good or not-good it really is, maybe just not wanting to be too harsh about it all--Tuesday Weld has a near-impossible part to play considering how awful her character has to behave but some distant memories of events I had a vague awareness of involving distant relatives make me think that some of it is sadly believable in terms of something that may actually happen between a divorcing couple and the kids affected by those actions. When the character finally has to explain herself the actress makes the words seem about as genuine as they could under the circumstances but even this beat is undercut by how when Pacino finally (and justifiably) chooses to dismiss her the way the beat is cut doesn’t even allow us to see her own reaction robbing the moment of its own emotional complexity so it all feels a little incomplete.
The film vacillates between emotional complexity (like how the chemistry between Pacino and Cannon’s characters doesn’t last beyond their initial tryst) and making things a little too neat (their inevitable break-up). It’s sort of nice to have the runner of characters bickering about the second act, comedy legends Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding lurking on the outskirts of scenes as the concerned producers dropping sly dialogue and various other pieces of business even if there’s the feeling that Pacino isn’t entirely comfortable with some of this rat-a-tat dialogue—just about his best moment in the film is when during a fit of writers block he accidentally crumples up a piece of paper before even putting it into the typewriter. The title is explained late in the film by a reference to a play where people screamed “Author! Author!” on opening night but it immediately closed anyway. The pleasures and rewards aren’t going to be trumpeted by the world but you still need to get through it anyway and maybe you can find your own rewards by doing that. The overall message of AUTHOR! AUTHOR! is a little pat but it never feels as cloying as it would in a Chris Columbus-type movie which is something that, looking at it now, is kind of refreshing. The kids all get along except for friendly bickering but it still treats them with respect and not just as joke machines—when one of them describes in detail the extent of their extended family it sounds outlandish but strangely, sadly, plausible as well. Of course, I doubt that it would be appropriate for any other Al Pacino movie to contain a main theme that features the lyric, “Coming home to you is like coming home to milk and cookies…” and in some ways that odd combination sums up the film—kinda nice and it honestly does provide me with more than a few smiles whether they have to do with nostalgia or just the pleasure of watching it now, but with Al Pacino at the center of everything a little more digging into all these emotions wouldn’t be so bad. It might even make the cheerful stuff mean that much more.
In the book “Al Pacino: In Conversation with Lawrence Grobel” the star doesn’t have much to say about the film beyond saying he liked working with the kids. But aside from seeming particularly engaged with them during many of these scenes his energy doesn’t feels totally there as if he’s realizing during production that there’s not as much for him as an actor to explore in this environment as he thought there would be. As a result it’s as if he puts himself into kind of a zen state with some genuine laughs poking through like when he mutters “Who is it?” after a phone rings at a moment of tension. The issue of the women feels unclear--maybe because the screenplay never fully connects with them, maybe because the character who is clearly the surrogate for the screenwriter never does. The movie star played by Dyan Cannon (who also appeared in DEATHTRAP which of course was the 1982 film about a playwright Sidney Lumet actually did direct), defined by taking aspirin when she drinks champagne more than anything, seems incomplete which is maybe to represent how the two of them don’t fully connect after she moves in and she’s nice enough to have around for a little while—the movie avoids easy jokes about her character being a stuck-up Hollywood actress—but can’t do much with the underwritten role. Weld’s character is also underwritten up until the edge of her final scene but even then it still feels like there needs to be more. I’m sure it’s totally unintended but the enigma that is Tuesday Weld’s career actually adds to the enigma of her character’s behavior here. The always enjoyable Alan King and Bob Dishy are fun to watch bounce off Pacino and Eric Gurry as his son (one of the kids who reprised the role in the later pilot of a TV version that didn’t go to series entitled FULL HOUSE, also written by Horovitz and which starred Dennis Dugan as Travalian) does a particularly nice job in scenes with his onscreen father. All of the kids (including Ari Meyers, later of the sitcom KATE & ALLIE) do at least seem somewhat real in various ways, I’ll give the film that much.
Amidst all the early 80s pleasantness one thing that also warrants mention is the Dave Grusin music heard throughout which gives me the vibe of his score for TOOTSIE, a film that didn’t open until six months later but the basic sound is similar enough that you could almost imagine characters from one film turning up in the other since they’re both set in New York, after all. When revisiting AUTHOR! AUTHOR! not too long ago I was surprised by how abruptly the movie goes to the credits at the very end, barely even giving a chance to see Pacino’s reaction to the all-important New York Times review for his play. I think my memory had the characters all walking off into the Times Square night in full celebratory mode but that’s me probably just confusing it in my mind with NIGHT SHIFT, also ’82, and a film that really does end in such a way with its own infectious pop melody. The film’s imdb page indicates that there may actually be a few different cuts out there (the version aired on FMC that I watched actually credits Johnny Mandel, whose score was rejected, with the music so there may be something to this) but whatever the truth is all this goes perfectly with my long-standing theory that every movie is just one big movie, moments from each of them swirling around in our collective memories until it becomes almost impossible to tell any of them apart. That may sound a little nuts but it’s not as crazy as the fact that I just wrote a piece on AUTHOR! AUTHOR!

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Easier Said Than Done

I’m still here. I swear that I am. One thing I never got to do was interview Blake Edwards. Sure, I shook his hand once or twice and got to see the man in person at screenings on a few occasions but that was really it. I wish I’d gotten the chance. Although, to be honest, if given the choice I probably would have preferred the opportunity to simply sit down for a meal with him--Julie Andrews would have been more than welcome to join us, of course. Maybe that way I would have learned even more about the man than simply asking him boilerplate questions, find out his feelings about the finer things in life and in the end possibly would have gleaned more about why his movies are the way they are. I’ve written about my fondness for some of them here before and recently when I posted some photos of him on my Facebook page during what would have been his 90th birthday, I was surprised when his daughter Jennifer (who I’m FB friends with but don’t actually know in real life) left a comment under one of them saying how it wasn’t an easy day. I certainly wasn’t going to click ‘like’ on that so I wrote her a brief note, she wrote back a thank you and that was really it, nothing much at all. But it was something.
Such a connection, however minor, compelled me to watch a film of his that night and for whatever reason I pulled out a VHS (purchased at the Rocket Video closing sale) of one that Jennifer Edwards is actually in, namely THAT’S LIFE! It’s a particularly personal comedy-drama made by the director under unusual circumstances during a period of heavy activity (released in 1986 two months after A FINE MESS, five months before BLIND DATE) but it seems to have disappeared in recent years—even the one DVD release it ever got, now out of print, was full-frame which as anyone familiar with Edwards Scope compositions would know is particularly unfortunate. It had been a while since I’d seen the film—spring of ’94, actually, at a LACMA event that paired it with THE GREAT RACE and featuring a Q&A with none other than Jack Lemmon beforehand. I guess that was a long time ago now, an appropriate thought to have about a movie in which one of the main characters comments at one point on how it all goes by so fast. Looking at the film again with quite a few more years behind me—the fear of mortality that the lead character dotes on actually feels a little tangible to me now, for one thing—I feel all the more aware how this film wasn’t just personal or even autobiographical for Blake Edwards but almost surprisingly private, laying bear his greatest fears and insecurities for anyone to see more than all the pratfalls Dudley Moore took in “10” ever revealed. I’m not sure it ever gets under the skin as some of his more bitingly comical films do maybe because he’s intentionally holding back on certain elements that he does best but, if anything, it feels honest and sincere.
As successful architect Harvey Fairchild (Jack Lemmon) begins the weekend that is to be spent celebrating his 60th birthday longtime wife, famous singer Gillian Fairchild (Julie Andrews), is undergoing her own crisis as she waits for the results of a biopsy in her throat that she has chosen to keep secret from Harvey for the time being. As the countdown to his birthday party progresses he can’t stop acting feverish about his fear of death, fear that he’s a failure and even fear of intimacy but as family and friends converge all around at their Malibu home, some with their own personal romantic issues going on, he’s not sure how he’ll even make it to the end of the weekend while Gillian silently awaits word of her own crisis even as the party begins.
THAT’S LIFE is an unusual film not only because it was shot almost entirely in the actual Malibu residence of its director with various offspring playing onscreen family members but in how it wasn't made with a typical screenplay (Edwards and Milton Wexler, his own psychoanalyst, are credited). “Returning to the Scene: Blake Edwards Volume 2” by William Luhr and Peter Lehman reports that the closest it had to a shooting script was a thirteen page outline followed by thirty-six pages of character analysis and expanded upon through improvisation during rehearsal—the unorthodox production setup of the non-union shoot resulted in problems with the teamsters but the independently financed film still only wound up costing $1.5 million. The approach almost feels all the more out of the ordinary considering how the final film plays--although a few moments seem to linger on what’s being said between the characters a beat or two longer than you might expect there isn’t really anything about it that comes off in a loose, improv style. Except for how it’s clearly made on a small scale with over half the running time taking place in one location the basic look still has the same sort of glossy feel similar to other Edwards films made right around this period.
Using the actual residence of the family in the plush environs of Malibu far away from many of the real troubles of the world and even making Andrews’ character a singer it’s hard not to think that this film looking at mortality is set in a world totally alien to about 99% of the people who would ever see it and it’s hard not to wonder that there is some validity to the criticism that it’s just about rich people’s problems even if this is the reality that Blake Edwards clearly knew. Maybe the one real concession towards trying to make it somewhat relatable is in not only casting one of the most beloved movie stars of all time in a lead role that pushes the boundaries of likability but also how Harvey Fairchild is not a film director but an architect, at least a somewhat down to earth profession. Edwards certainly had set his films within the film industry a few times in the past—if Judd Apatow ever remade this I doubt he would hesitate—so maybe he just wanted to avoid that angle this time out. Still, anything Harvey says in his “Success Breeds Failure” theory could apply to trying to make films in Hollywood as well and when he’s going on endlessly to his wife in all his desperation about how he could have been another Frank Lloyd Wright it’s easy to imagine Edwards himself at a similar low point saying the same things to the very same woman playing this man’s wife about how he never became the next Lubitsch, Sturges, Wilder, take your pick.
THAT’S LIFE! is very obviously wrenchingly personal in terms of what he wants to get across about himself, his wife, his family, his fears, his life done with maybe a tone that comes off as a little scattershot in how it observes everyone. Some of it is completely earnest, some of it makes stabs at being more comedic but as it goes on the best moments are those that feel surprisingly human in an offhand way that I would imagine grew out of the improv approach--Harvey insisting on the correct way a lobster should be cooked, the talkative neighbor played by Sally Kellerman going on about her own kind of sixth sense or when Gillian finally lays into her husband at the party with everything that’s been building up insider her for the entire film in a way that pierces him right at his core. And even in this decidedly loose structure are touches that feel truly like Blake Edwards in how they’re allowed to build—a minor runner about Harvey not shaving results in a joke turns out to be not only funny but also thematically pertinent. If anything, the emotion holds even if much of the film feels ‘nice’ as opposed to particularly funny but while it’s tempting to wish that the film had been made using just a little more of the acidic nature found in the director’s best darkly comic moments it turns out that the weakest section occurs when it does try to broaden things—an extended stretch dealing with Harvey’s, um, virility problem as he visits a Malibu psychic played by Felicia Farr (Lemmon’s own wife, also in films like Wilder’s KISS ME STUPID) followed by a prolonged sequence where he attends Sunday mass presided over by a priest who turns out to be Harvey’s college roommate played by Robert Loggia feels a little too separate from the rest of the film (that said, I like the way the old tensions between the two of them are shown to build up again without making a big deal about it). All this connected to the ambivalent take on (possible) adultery diminishes the more serious stretches as well as the inevitable happy ending.
Instead of a pungent cocktail with the sort of kick that his best films have THAT’S LIFE! winds up feeling more like a pleasant cup of tea. Not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with a cup of tea, of course, it just needs to be said. Instead of the undeniable anger at all the madness around him conveyed in something like S.O.B. this film has a feeling of genuine desperation as it searches for some kind of acceptance of the way things really are. Maybe it’s appropriate to call it an old man’s movie even if that does sound pretty condescending and it goes down easy enough but the full result never feels as memorable as its best individual moments. Some of these display the razor thin line between comedy and drama that occurs when the Lemmon is portraying his character in near-hysterics over whatever pain he’s in, done in such a way where you could almost imagine an audience not sure how to respond and this isn’t even the only one of Edwards’ films where that happens either (Burt Reynolds plays a very similar scene in THE MAN WHO LOVED WOMEN) but in this case maybe it needed a little more punch. Once Gillian has her blow up at Harvey and things get resolved the final moments seem to drift away providing final glimpses of the various characters as if Edwards is somehow striving to lend just a shade more meaning to all this but it almost feels like the film’s own attention is wandering when suddenly the credits begin to roll. There is emotion felt, but it’s all maybe a little too neat and tidy since it’s hard not to wonder if Harvey really will be totally changed for the better on Monday morning. After all, that sort of anger and desperation never entirely goes away, at least not that quickly so it feels like something is missing in how the film doesn’t take a moment to acknowledge this. THAT’S LIFE is a nice movie which considering how personal it clearly was for Blake Edwards that may be the cruelest thing to say about it but looking at it again now I feel exposed to the depths of his own psyche in a way that doesn’t happen with his other films. I just wish there was a little more to it than the feel of a pleasant home movie, as valuable as it may be to understanding him both as an artist and a person even a little better. After all, watching it is probably the closest I’ll ever get to sitting down for a meal with him. As a film, it’s far from perfect. But it does remind me that he was human.
As for his onscreen surrogate, there’s not a moment Jack Lemmon has here that isn’t real in some way (“I just sat back and let Jack be me, to some extent,” the director once said) and there’s something brave in how unflinching it is. But as much as the actor’s usual tics feel more grounded than they sometimes do in depicting a character which is essentially the film’s director showing himself as being self-obsessed in the most aggravating way possible it’s a problem that almost every single one of those moments has to be drenched in such flop sweat that it winds up enveloping the whole film a little too much. As a result his strongest moments are when he’s doing something else—I find the climactic close-up of him after Andrews’ big speech almost unbearably moving but there’s also the various lighter moments sprinkled throughout where the character is suddenly finding a way to come to life and forget about all the pain briefly. Presumably playing herself at least to a certain extent Julie Andrews has to spend much of her performance simply listening, gazing at him with all the love in the world, while we know inside she’s agonizing over what she’s keeping secret and she’s wonderful, able to come right to the point when necessary. She’s the heart of the film and clearly a display of how for Edwards she was the heart of his own life as well. Using actual family members of those involved (including Jennifer Edwards, Andrews’ daughter Emma Walton and Chris Lemmon as the Fairchild’s three children) certainly adds to the intimate feel so there’s an undeniable feel of intimacy always present but the entire supporting cast, also including Sally Kellerman, Robert Loggia, Theodore Wilson, Cynthia Sikes and Dana Sparks all do excellent work.
To this day I associate Blake Edwards films and the mood they often capture with summertime. But here I am looking at THAT’S LIFE! which is decidedly autumnal, if not approaching winter, and I think about how this hasn’t been much of a summer at all. Am I more depressed these days when I wake up or when I go to sleep? Am I complaining as much as Harvey Fairchild does? I also think about the film’s plea to cherish the time that is left, how it all goes by so fast and I recall that at the Academy tribute to Blake Edwards just a few months before his death in 2010 he told the crowd how he wasn’t much in the mood for celebrating since his old friend Tony Curtis had just died the day before. That’s life, I suppose, forever trying to celebrate the good while reminders of mortality are always there, even if you are fortunate enough to live in a place like Malibu where the waves crash up to your doorstep all day long. It’s a film that is about insisting on literally stopping and smelling the roses, even giving us a shot where Julie Andrews does just that. “It all goes by so fast,” she tells her daughter (both onscreen and real-life) at one point in THAT’S LIFE! which not only reminds me how both Edwards and Lemmon have now left us but also how the depiction of Gillian’s health crisis in this film managed to predict Andrews’ own later real-life problems as well. It makes me wonder about what I’ve done, why I haven’t accomplished some of the things I wanted to in life. There’s no good reason why I haven’t updated this blog lately. Maybe I’ve just been looking for a reason to keep doing it. Looking for a life. Looking for the inspiration to write something on one of those long and lonely nights in the middle of summer. Sometimes I think that I’ve found it, but it’s easier said than done.