Sunday, March 27, 2011

A Chat with Douglass K. Daniel, Author of New Richard Brooks Biography

Earlier this month, I posted a review of the Richard Brooks’ film “The Happy Ending.” Much to my surprise and delight, I had a comment from Douglass K. Daniel, author of the new book “Tough as Nails: The Life and Films of Richard Brooks.”

This is Douglass’ third book, following a comprehensive look at the TV series “Lou Grant” and a biography of Harry Reasoner.

After a few e-mail exchanges, Douglass agreed to answer a few questions for me regarding Richard Brooks (above). Below is our conversation.

CFB: What first interested you in Richard Brooks?

DD: When I hit on the idea of a Richard Brooks biography, I revisited his filmography. I knew about “In Cold Blood,” of course, and “Elmer Gantry.” And I remember seeing “Bite the Bullet” in the theater. What surprised me were his connections to other movies I have liked: “Key Largo,” “Blackboard Jungle,” “Deadline-U.S.A.,” “The Professionals,” and “Lord Jim.” I was also intrigued with the movies I’d never heard of, such as “Crisis” and “The Last Hunt.”

Writing a book means living with the subject of it for two or three years. Based on those movies and the little bit I’d read about Richard Brooks as a person, I thought he would make a compelling subject to explore and to tell about to others. And I was right, I think.

From your point of view, what about Brooks and his work do you think attracts people all these years later?

CFB: The strong material. He didn’t shy away from hard-hitting themes, yet he found a way to present them intelligently and cinematically. The fact that he was able to successfully translate material from another medium to film demonstrates his ability to understand the main themes and character traits of material and how to preserve them yet tell a good story at the same time on film.

How would you rank Brooks among Hollywood's great writers/directors?

DD: To my mind, Richard Brooks is indeed in the top tier of the writer-directors. I think his best work rivals that of contemporaries like Billy Wilder, Joseph L. Mankiewicz and John Huston, filmmakers who were writers first and directors second. Brooks worked alone and thus was not as prolific as many directors and some writer-directors, yet he built a significant body of work while writing scripts and directing movies about subjects he cared about and ideas he wanted to share with audiences.

He had some real misfires, to be sure. “Wrong Is Right” is off-key, and “Fever Pitch” is almost unwatchable. He is an imperfect artist. But aren’t they all? There are several movies by those named above that are just lousy. Some have a better “batting average” than others. I think that Brooks operated at a pretty high level.

Tell me, how do you assess his body of work in relation to that of his peers?

CFB: I agree with you. I’ve always admired writer-directors, because in my mind a good movie starts with strong material. The best writers-directors understand this and realized that their directing skills are to enhance the story, not take precedence over it. Brooks definitely falls into this category.

What's one thing people will be surprised to know about Brooks?

DD: I think people may be surprised at his passion for his work. I know I was.

Not all filmmakers are that driven. I’ve never had the impression that John Huston was all that devoted to filmmaking; he enjoyed life in all its glory and, to me, saw filmmaking as a means to an end as well as a way to express himself. (And he made some great movies.) Brooks shared that sense of obsession that appears to have driven Kubrick, if to a lower degree.

Brooks loved the movies, loved working, and believed film was just the right medium for expressing himself. And he had tried other media – short stories and novels, for example, even a few plays. He put writing and directing above everything else in his life. Work is what he enjoyed, what drove him to begin the day. And, in the end, when his creative life was over, because of age an infirmity, I think he may have found it hard to go on, perhaps even pointless.

I’m curious to know your opinion – do you think biography is an effective way to look at a director’s work, or do you prefer the “films of” approach that bypasses narrative to focus on the movies rather than the moviemaker?

CFB: Honestly, I like the mixture of both. It’s important to learn where a person came from, because that influences his or her work. The “backstory,” so to speak, is important to me. But then I want to know about the films themselves – why that material was selected, what challenges were being faced, etc. Often you can see what formed the filmmaker show up in his work and decisions, which enriches the in-depth narratives of the movies themselves.

Which of Brooks' films do you like the most and why?

DD: I think his three best movies – those that offer compelling narratives, good dialogue, strong performances, and an interesting visual style – are “In Cold Blood,” “Elmer Gantry” and “The Professionals.” To me, his efforts in all those areas – editing, too – really clicked. (And that’s also because he had fine collaborators.) These movies form a high point in his career, kind of the top of the bell curve.

Three others that are strong entries in the Brooks filmography are “Blackboard Jungle,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and “Sweet Bird of Youth.”

I don’t know if you’ve seen all of his movies, but I’d be interested to know what you think is a Brooks film that could have been great but fell short. Not woefully short, but just didn’t seem to work as well as it should have.

CFB: Honestly, it’s the movie that first brought you to my blog – “The Happy Ending.” I didn’t think it worked, but I saw numerous great moments, and I think he hit upon a general idea of this disillusioned housewife with some incredible insight at a time leading up to the women’s movement, plus he was trying to help his wife, Jean Simmons. But he couldn’t convey the problem or the symptoms properly. The movie stuck with me -- not for what it did but what it could have done (although Simmons was heartbreakingly terrific).

DD: Here’s my “if only” movie: “Lord Jim.” It has so much going for it, not least of all Peter O’Toole and a grand cast as well as Freddie Young’s beautiful cinematography. It’s Brooks’s shot at delivering a David Lean film. But there is something that doesn’t quite connect, that makes this a wannabe epic and not a fully realized one. I enjoy watching it, but I always feel a little empty at the end.

CFB: If you could meet Brooks, what would you ask him about first?

DD: The biographer in me would want to ask him about his parents; I suspect their influence is something I can’t really appreciate without his help. I’d also ask about his wives; he was married at least four times, but I know nothing about Wife No. 1, and little about Wife No. 3.

But, to the point of film rather than personal history, I think I’d ask Brooks whether, looking back, he wished he’d spent less time developing scripts and more time directing good scripts by other writers. He could have done at least a half-dozen more films than he did after “In Cold Blood” had he not insisted on writing everything himself. I’d say the same thing about Kubrick and the way he worked so methodically – don’t take 10 years to do a movie, Stanley, we want to see your genius more often.

I know, I know -- that’s what makes their movies their movies. But, still … I’m a selfish movie-lover in this respect: I want more – like gangster Johnny Rocco says in “Key Largo”: “That's it! More. That's right, I want more!”

And, like Johnny Rocco, I guess I’ll never get enough.


I’d like to thank Douglass for initially stopping by my blog and then in joining me for this conversation. Brooks has been on my mind this week in regards to the passing of Elizabeth Taylor, who was superb in the equally superb “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”

Feel free to check out “Tough as Nails” on Amazon. If any of you have a question for Douglass, feel free to leave it in the comments. I’m sure he’d be happy to respond!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Elizabeth Taylor: 1932-2011

A great beauty and a great talent. A woman I will always remember with admiration, respect and fondness.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Audrey of the Month

Don't we all need a little Audrey in our lives each month? She just classes everything up and puts a smile on my face.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

'Luck of the Irish' A Bit O' Blarney

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! In honor of all things Irish, here’s an odd film that 20th Century Fox released in 1948.

It’s called “The Luck of the Irish,” and I wonder if this movie – about a leprechaun – was made because of the enormous success of Fox’s 1947 hit “Miracle on 34th Street,” a film about Santa Claus. The problem is that “Irish” isn’t really about the leprechaun or luck. It’s about a man facing a post-war crisis. And a love story. And a political story.

In fact, “Luck” is many movies squished into one. Unfortunately, no matter how hard the filmmakers try to recreate the “Miracle” magic, “Luck” just doesn’t come together.

Tyrone Power plays Stephen Fitzgerald, a World War II correspondent who must choose his next move now that the war’s over. He’s planning to go to New York and meet with Senator David Augur (Lee J. Cobb) for a possible job, but his own views are the opposite of Augur’s, and he worries that he’s selling his soul to advance his career aspirations, which is to be an author.

While in Ireland awaiting transport to New York, Stephen stays at a charming Irish inn and meets Nora (Anne Baxter), a lovely lass. One night, from his window, he spies a leprechaun (Cecil Kellaway) and follows him. Stephen manages to capture the leprechaun and asks for his pot of gold (below). But he then lets the leprechaun and his gold go free, for which the leprechaun bestows undying devotion and luck.
Once in New York, Stephen wrestles with his conscience as the Senator hires him and sets him up in a posh NYC apartment while the Senator’s daughter, Frances (Jayne Meadows), worms her way into Stephen’s life.

Meanwhile, Stephen can’t figure out why Horace, the new manservant Augur hired for him, has a familiar look. That’s because it’s the leprechaun, although Stephen’s memory of the leprechaun seems to have disappeared. Also in town is Nora, whom Stephen does remember and runs into by accident, and she reminds him of his former life, one that he misses.

Of its many stories, “Irish” works best as a study of post-war America, as a man grapples to find his place. Power brings a steady confidence to his work, well-playing Stephen’s inner turmoil. A glimpse at a late’40s political machine shows that not much has changed, and the backroom politics are on display.

The problem is that this serious plot thread completely clashes with the whimsical doings of the leprechaun. It doesn’t help that the script doles out a generous and stereotypical dose of Irish malarkey.

Frankly, it’s more fun to watch Meadows, who is a vivacious presence in this movie. It’s also ironic that in “Miracle on 34th Street,” released just one year earlier, Maureen O’Hara plays a single mom and a career woman who has a supervisory job at Macy’s department store. In “Irish,” there’s a line uttered about Frances that she has a man’s courage and a man’s brain – and it’s considered a liability! It’s just ridiculous, considering that the character of Frances at least has some dimension to her.

Nora, on the other hand, remains sweet throughout – and blandly so. The lovely Baxter (above) conveys that sweetness convincingly, but there’s not much to Nora. In fact, so little happens between Stephen and Nora in Ireland that you wonder why both are so attracted to each other. Meanwhile, Meadows is a marvel, and her character is always interesting. You wonder what Frances will do next rather than Nora, and that’s a real problem.

Kellaway earned an Oscar nomination as best supporting actor for his role, and you have to wonder if 20th Century was pushing for this after Edmund Gwenn’s brilliant work as Santa in “Miracle.” Unfortunately, while Kellaway does his best, there’s not much he can do as the character is nothing more than you would expect.

It’s interesting that director Henry Koster made the Christmas classic “The Bishop’s Wife” the year before, which dealt with an angel. He managed to mix the drama and fantasy together well in that movie, but the material seems to fight him here.

“The Luck of the Irish” should be split into two films. One could be a comedy about luck, whimsy and romance set in Ireland. The other could be a drama about a journalist questioning his role in life while set in NYC. Each could star Power; just divide up the cast. As it stands, the current story is pleasant enough but runs out of luck.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

'Happy Ending' a Sad State of Marriage

When I first began devouring all things movies, including the Oscars, I would always run across films that I never heard of before.

Over the years, I’d keep an eye out for them, but there are still quite a few that I’ve never seen broadcast on television. Now thanks to Tivo, I have a large wish list that helps me find some of these films.

One is “The Happy Ending,” which brought Jean Simmons a surprise best actress nomination in 1969. It was written and directed by her then husband, Richard Brooks, who made such searing dramas as “Blackboard Jungle,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “Elmer Gantry” (which co-starred Simmons) and “In Cold Blood.”

He apparently wrote “The Happy Ending” and the part of Mary Wilson specifically for his wife as a way to tell her she had a drinking problem that needed to be addressed. While most of us would suggest a heart-to-heart talk, I guess Brooks felt the role would be cathartic for Simmons.

But in trying to craft this story of a woman who didn’t live happily ever after once she married, who confronts her loneliness and boredom with drink, Brooks seems as confused as his main character. He grasps the situation but gets lost effectively conveying it, which is pretty surprising when you consider how focused and emotionally complex his other films are.

Instead, “The Happy Ending” contains some sharply observed truths presented as glossy melodrama, and its frankness can come across as trashy exploitation. In the end, no one has an answer, which isn’t bad except the film too often seems to meander.

The best part is Simmons, who creates this lost character so beautifully that I both ached for her character and for an actress caught up in this well-intentioned mess.

The set-up for the film is simple and smoothly presented. The beginning montage goes through the romance of Mary and Fred (John Forsythe) in the early 1950s. They are at a drive-in, with Mary crying at the film’s end and Fred comforting her by saying, “Honey, it has a happy ending.” Everything after this shows the couple merrily together, whether it’s frolicking in the snow or driving past a billboard that contains the image of a bride with the message “Diamonds Are Forever.”

Fred and Mary do marry, and the words “The End” flash across the screen. But clearly this movie is to expose as myth the fairy-tale, Hollywood notion of “happily ever after” and what really happens.

The movie flashes forward to 1969 and the suburbs. Mary makes Fred’s breakfast and fetches his paper, while the television set in the kitchen shows Jack Lalanne promoting exercises for housewives.

Mary and Fred are celebrating their anniversary that evening with their annual party. Fred knows that Mary is an alcoholic and a pill-popper; in fact, Mary chirps sarcastically that pills make people young, slender and satisfied. She asks Fred to forget the party and begs him to take her to a sleazy hotel, check in under false names and just have some fun.

Fred ignores her and says, “Tonight we’ll show them why an anniversary is called happy.” He tells her that if she feels like drinking, just call him or go see a movie –think happy thoughts.

As he’s pulling out of his driveway, Fred encounters housekeeper Agnes (Nanette Fabray) as she arrives at the house. He asks to keep tabs on Mary and her problem, something it’s clear he’s done before. “The FBI never sleeps,” she replies.

However, unbeknown to Fred, Agnes fully understands how Mary feels and allows her to drink. Mary then visits the beauty parlor to prepare for the party, and the scene is brutal and telling as women are sent jumping through hoops to be attractive, from unsightly hair removal to exercise routines to perfect makeup application.

Desperately wanting to avoid the party, Mary decides to fly to the Bahamas. She takes her jewelry to a pawn shop to get the money for the airfare and plots with a sympathetic Agnes. Still, it’s clear everyone’s aware of Fred’s “problem” wife – his secretary, Mary’s mother, and the bartender at Mary’s favorite bar. While everyone feels sorry for the ever-patient Fred, whose wife has gone missing, at least the bartender feels for Mary, who slips in for a quick one before the trip.

Interspersed throughout “The Happy Ending” are flashbacks to various points in Fred and Mary’s relationship. Yet the first half hour or so of the film addresses – with numbing repetitiveness – the “happily ever after” motif. There’s even a shot of Mary in flashback reading “Snow White” to her young daughter (a pre-“Happy Days” Erin Moran) who says something about everyone living happily ever after.

Meanwhile, Fred’s business partner is a womanizer, while his beautiful wife Helen (Tina Louise of “Gilligan’s Island” fame) is cynical and lonely, trying to remain attractive for her husband while he confesses that her beauty may be classic but she’s not classy. “Love is professed by poets but sex is what we do,” he says about his behavior.

Sadly, when Mary goes to Nassau, we’re treated to perhaps the worst dialogue of the movie. On the plane she runs into Flo (Shirley Jones, above right), who initially comes across as a breath of fresh air. She’s smart, confident and immediately gets what Mary is experiencing. Then Flo announces she’s on her way to meet a married man (Lloyd Bridges, who doesn’t have much to do) – her fourth affair with a married man, she says with a mixture of pride and resignation. Flo says “baby” a lot and is stuck with dialogue like “I graduated with a master’s degree – in men.”

Cue the groans.

While in the Bahamas, Mary is wooed by a mustachioed Franco (Bobby Darin, billed as “Robert Darin”). I wanted to laugh but was mortified that Mary would actually be attracted to this buffoon.

“The Happy Ending” is depressing because no one has answers – the characters or the filmmakers. The only reality is the obsession with youth and beauty. Otherwise, the message is rather bleak for women: you get married, you have children, you age, you try to retain your youthful appeal but it’s a losing battle, and you die.

It’s a futility that does ring true for women of that era. My mother was one of them, and I’ve often said that if she had been born 20 years later, she would have attended college and started a career rather than marry and have children right out of high school.

In the film, I like one scene in which Mary suggests a marriage counselor to Fred. In response, he urges Mary to find a hobby! Considering the rise in both marriage counseling and divorce rates during the 1970s, it’s a telling scene. One interesting twist is that Fred doesn’t appear to be a philanderer. In a flashback to a previous anniversary party, all of the other married couples carry on like it’s a swinging singles get-together except for Fred and Mary. Yet Fred’s love for his wife is stifling; he sees that she’s not happy and yet seems oblivious to her emotion state. He’s as trapped by the “happily ever after” as she is.

I give Brooks credit for creating a number of effective scenes like this. One of the most powerful comes toward the end when Mary is arrested for an accident and the police administer a sobriety test, which is filmed for possible use in court. While Fred watches disapprovingly, Mary breaks down in humiliation. Why it works is because there’s no dialogue and no preaching. The emotions come through without anyone opening their mouths, and Simmons is heartbreaking.

I also like one fight in which Fred is upset by Mary’s insistence to watch “Casablanca” yet again on TV.

“Before we were married, you never stopped talking,” she cries out. “Now you only talk to clients. The only people who ever talk to me are the television and Agnes. They (the movies) are more alive than we are!”

Still, these scenes are interspersed with too many others that either generalize or sink with clichés. “All of us girls over 35 have the same trouble,” Agnes says in all seriousness that demonstrates Brooks’ own failure to fully grasp this situation.

You also get such clichéd dialogue from Mary like “I can’t live with him but can’t live without him. What’s the matter with me?” “All I ever wanted was to love and be loved.”

So what’s to recommend? Simmons is impressive playing a woman who’s crying out for help in so many different ways. It’s a pitch-perfect performance that never wavers or wildly swings from emotion to emotion.

In a way, Simmons reminded me of Elizabeth Taylor in “Butterfield 8.” Although their characters by definition are different, both are searching for something that’s missing in their lives. And both actresses are giving strong performances in mediocre movies that are glossy and melodramatic. The films bookend a decade filled with dramatic changes in society and filmmaking, yet neither one is able to effectively deal with women’s issues.

As for the rest of the cast, I really liked Fabray as the one true friend Mary has. Jones is terrific but is saddled with the film’s worst dialogue. And while it’s always wonderful to see the lovely Teresa Wright, who plays Mary’s mother, her character doesn’t do much, and her one big confrontation scene needed to be fleshed out to have maximum impact.

The ending also works and is thought-provoking for intended and unintended reasons. Without spoiling it, Mary is outside standing on some steps, as if on the edge of something bigger. At that point, no one would know how the women’s movement would play out during the next few years, and in reality there was no answer to Mary’s disillusionment.

I only wish Brooks had ironed out the melodrama. Too bad he couldn’t take a cue from the deserving Oscar-nominated theme song, “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?” by Michel Legrand, Alan and Marilyn Bergman. In two minutes the haunting song captures the struggles of its characters more effectively than the two-hour film.

“The Happy Ending” isn’t a terrible movie by any means, and it certainly showcases Simmons. She and Brooks remained married well into the 1970s before divorcing, and she worked for most of the rest of her life, passing away in 2010. If there’s anything happy to take away from the film, it’s the knowledge that this performance is a tribute to her talent.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Post-Oscar Diatribe

ClassicBecky wrote a post-Oscar critique of the ceremony that has sparked a great discussion. I'm sure many other bloggers are doing the same thing, and I just can't help myself but follow-up my comment on ClassicBecky (it was getting too long as a comment on her excellent blog).

Yes, this is perhaps the worst Oscars show I've ever seen ... and I haven't missed a full telecast since 1978. But in retrospect, is anyone surprised by this year's bland, poorly conceived and direction-less telecast?

Because it's the perfect reflection of today's Hollywood, in which movies are based on action figures, comic books, past films or movie poster taglines rather than well-thought-out stories and characters.

It's the equivalent to painting by numbers on black velvet.

Think about it: The producers of the show (or whoever was in charge) hire two "young" hosts without developing any young or hip themes for the telecast or giving them any material to work with.

As Kevin from Kevin's Movie Corner stated, they pay tribute without putting any meaningful thought into it. The best song/score montages that felt like someone spent five minutes on them and decided that in order to be "hip," most selections could not be older than 20 years. The "tribute" to past Oscar-winners was bizarrely presented (the burning of Atlanta projected on a disjointed backdrop -- what was that about?). Don't get me started on the cookie-cutter dead celebs montage with the celebrity singer and the laughable "tribute" to the special award winners whose years of great work is reduced to a televised afterthought, with no emotional weight given to either.

And they have a competition for school kids to sing at the end of the show without connecting it thematically to anything, as if this was either "young and hip" or some nod to reality TV (Let's put on a contest! We'll get kids so this can reach the under 12 demographic and then show them at 10:45... which is past their bedtime!).

No other Oscar telecast in recent memory has implemented more "concepts" with such dullness.

As a classic movie blogger, a life-long movie fan and a perennial Oscar watcher (I've watched 33 consecutive Oscar telecasts), I deserve more and I demand more respect from an Academy that clearly underestimates my intelligence and capability to enjoy a well-thought-out awards show. Everyone will argue the merits of what winners were deserving and who was overlooked, what speeches were great and who put you to sleep, what fashions were eye-popping and who laid and egg. But putting together a high-quality Oscars telecast cannot be that difficult.

But this is Hollywood today folks -- not only are the people botoxed and face-lifted to a plastic state that barely registers emotion but so are the movies. And now the Oscars telecast.

Here's a story about the state of Hollywood by Mark Harris, former editor of Entertainment Weekly. Read it now!