Three Supporting Performances, Three Bad Movies, Zero Recognition

Like any good film fan, I’ve got a million opinions and I’ll be happy to share them with you whenever you’ve got the time.  I’ve also got a million pet peeves and I’ll share those with you whether you’ve got the time or not.  One of those pet peeves is the fact that far too many people, not just the Motion Picture Academy, but especially the Motion Picture Academy, focus far too much on good or great supporting performances in good or great films and not nearly enough on good or great supporting performances in not so great films.   Or just outright bad films. Either way, I’ve got a list a mile long of small, supporting performances I love whose chances for recognition were sunk by the movies they were in before they even finished their first run.  For the purpose of this post, I’ll focus on just three.

MBOscar

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Tall in the Saddle: Clint Walker in Fort Dobbs and Yellowstone Kelly

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In the late 1950s Warner Brothers was using their television properties to create stars on the cheap. One of them was Clint Walker, a former merchant marine and deputy sheriff whose freakish physique and down home sincerity carried the TV Western Cheyenne to high ratings. A March 1958 issue of Screenland checks off his measurements as if he were a prize heifer:  ”It’s safe to say he is the biggest man in cowboy movies. He stands six-feet-six, with an 18-inch neck, a 38-inch waist and hips so slim that he can hardly keep his gun belt up.” Signed to a seven year contract by WB in 1955 at $175 a week, Walker began chafing at his rock bottom salary, even when it was bumped to $500 (he walked off the show to protest  in ’59). To placate their brooding star, WB cast him in two big screen Westerns, both directed by Gordon Douglas and scripted by Burt Kennedy (and available on DVD through the Warner Archive): Fort Dobbs (1958) and Yellowstone Kelly (1959) (they would make a third in 1961, Gold of the Seven Saints). They are lonesome works, with Walker playing an outsider plying his trade at the edges of society. In Fort Dobbs he’s a wanted murderer, while in Yellowstone Kelly he’s an individualist scout and trapper mocked by the Army brass for his sympathy towards Native Americans.

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Is This Really the Same Actor?

actordouglasWhile researching a film from the 1930s costarring Melvyn Douglas, I was reminded of how suave and handsome he was when he was a young star of romantic comedies (at left). This was not the Melvyn Douglas that I knew when I became an avid movie goer in the 1960s. Bespectacled and white-haired, the elder Douglas was a respected character actor during the Film School Generation, often playing the difficult, hard-line patriarch. He won an Academy Award as the stern, honorable father of Paul Newman’s Hud, the ultimate cad. It is hard for me to reconcile the two ends of Douglas’s career. The handsome charmer who could make even Garbo laugh in Ninotchka is miles removed from the stubborn, scowling old men in I Never Sang for My Father and The Candidate. For me, it’s as though Melvyn Douglas is really two separate actors, equally as talented but with little in common. I have dubbed this incongruity the Melvyn Douglas Syndrome. [...MORE]

Playing Against Type: Deciphering the Actor’s Personality

A few weeks ago I wrote a piece here on actors belonging to a certain place and time.  I mentioned how Lloyd Bridges and Beau Bridges seemed out of place in pre-revolutionary France in The Fifth Musketeer but both would work fine in a movie taking place in the west in the 19th century.  It’s not that they couldn’t play period but that they had a specific period.  It’s a kind of gentler side to typecasting, perhaps something called time-casting.   As soon as I was done, I started thinking about typecasting and how most of us think of it as being cast again and again in a particular type of role, like a villain.  But practically every successful actor is typecast because every successful actor has a range with which they’re comfortable and the audience is, too.  Most actors we think of as being typecast are supporting players or, as they’re more commonly referred to, character actors.  But what about the leads?  They all have types to, they just don’t necessarily fit into specific roles.

ScottChangeling

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July 5, 2014
David Kalat
Posted by:

All kids love Alien

It was 1979; I was nine years old.  It was a Sunday morning and my parents were leisurely enjoying the Sunday paper.  I could see there was a front page story, illustrated with a massive photograph of what appeared to be the wreckage of a crashed spaceship on the moon or something.  I don’t remember the headline exactly—something to effect that a person (Scott-something, or something-Scott) had discovered alien life.

My heart quickened a bit—somebody’s actually discovered evidence of other life in the universe?  But also complete bafflement—this was huge news, and why weren’t my folks showing any interest in it?  As far as I could tell, they weren’t even reading this story.

My dad explained that this wasn’t the front page of the newspaper, it was the front page of the Arts section of the newspaper.  Ridley Scott hadn’t found alien life, he’d made a movie about an alien.  This was just an article about the movie, to get people to go see it.

My bubble burst, but I didn’t feel any disappointment.  My excitement just shifted.  I went from being excited about the prospect that we were not alone in the universe to being excited at the prospect of seeing this movie.  Because, oh man, did it look awesome.

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KEYWORDS: action figures, Alien, Kenner, Ridley Scott
COMMENTS: 16
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Survival is no way to live (Part 1)

Rituals

Next to horror movies I’m a big fan of movies about survival, about people lost in some kind of hostile environment, who must rely on their native cunning and whatever tools are handy in order to make it out alive. These two very different types of movies have a lot in common: both are about protagonists who are tested, pushed beyond the limits of their abilities and, often, their understanding, who must adapt to present circumstances or die. Back before the downbeat ending became factory standard for the horror genre, fright films often resolved in problem-solving for the heroes. Just off the top of my head, movies like THE KILLER SHREWS (1959) and ISLAND OF TERROR (1965) become in their last acts siege scenarios, with the protagonists bugging in, barricading, and beating off, as best they can, the assaulting force. Survival movies and horror movies have a shared bloodline that can result in some glorious bastardy, such as RITUALS (1977), which marries the backwoods vibe of DELIVERANCE (1972) with the see-how-they-die enumeration of the nascent slasher subgenre (born the following year, for all intents and purposes, with HALLOWEEN.) Even after John Carpenter transplanted Gothic horror to suburbia, genre practitioners continued to set slashers in the woods – FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980), HUMONGOUS (1981), JUST BEFORE DAWN (1981), THE FINAL TERROR (1983), to name only a few examples. But where survival and horror part company, for me, is the intention of the filmmaker. I like movies about characters who have a chance, who have a shot. Most slasher films reserve that privilege for the Final Girl, which means you have to sit through 80-odd minutes devoted to the deaths of people who don’t even know they’re in danger until a machete finds its way into their faces. And that’s no fun for me. I’m a big fan of process, of characters riding the learning curve, or falling off of it, and of the question these films ask us: how far could we go?  [...MORE]

If I Were Offering a Movie-Location Tour

tourbus* Thursday is generally Morlock Kimberly’s territory, but she is taking a brief break. I know her fans will miss her, but I will do my best to fill her blogging shoes.

When I was a college student working the graveyard shift at a truck stop, a movie crew stopped by one morning to have breakfast. The crew was on their way to dress the set for Harvest Home, a TV mini-series starring Bette Davis. Being one of those flirtatious truck-stop girls, I was invited to come onto the set to watch the filming. I am sure the crew member thought it was his idea all along! It was exciting to watch as the town square in tiny Kingsville, Ohio, morphed into a thriving New England farming village. The experience gave me a life-long fascination with visiting movie locations, a pastime that I parlayed into a book a few years ago titled Florida on Film: The Essential Guide to Sunshine State Cinema.

As part of their agenda to entertain and educate the public about classic cinema, Turner Classic Movies has put their own spin on movie tourism by offering the TCM Movie Location Tour in Los Angeles and the TCM Classic Film Tour in New York City. While no one at Turner has asked my opinion on these matters, I whole-heartedly suggest Chicago for their next movie-location tour. From the pioneering efforts of Colonel William Selig to the slapstick antics of Charlie Chaplin to the overblown atrocities of Michael Bay, Chicago has been an active center for movie-making. Few people realize Chicago’s importance, because writers and documentarians too ingrained in the canon of film history regularly leave out the city’s contributions. (Film historians Michael Smith and Adam Selzer hope to compensate for this oversight with their upcoming book Flickering Empire: How Chicago Invented the U.S. Film Industry, soon to be published by Wallflower Press).

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When You See the Remake First

Paul Mazursky, the actor/writer/director whose movies I grew up with, died yesterday and, as with the death of any famed director/writer/actor, I immediately began to think of his movies.  One of the first to spring to mind was Willie and Phil, from 1980, with Margot Kidder, Michael Ontkean, and Ray Sharkey.  It was a loose remake of Jules and Jim (and even shows the characters exiting a theater playing Jules and Jim).  The thing is, I saw it before I saw Jules and Jim and thus ending up comparing the original to the latter, rather than the other way around, when I saw it (the original won… sorry, Paul, although I remain a fan of Willie and Phil, nonetheless).  The second to spring to mind was another remake, Down and Out in Beverly Hills, a remake of the great Jean Renoir’s Boudu Saved from Drowning.  And again, I saw the remake first (and again, the original won out when I finally saw it for a film club discussion some years ago).  Turns out, I’ve seen quite a few remakes before seeing the original and sometimes I even think it’s a pretty good idea.

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Father and Son: The Watchmaker of St. Paul (1974)

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The last outpost of the retail cinephile shrine Kim’s Video is shutting down this year. I made one last pilgrimage to its lower east side redoubt in NYC to experience the disappearing pleasure of browsing. The simpleminded algorithms at Amazon and Netflix want to give you more of the same, regurgitating films from the same genre, actor or director. What they miss is the pleasure of turning down an aisle and entering a different world. I had no title in mind when walking in, only knowing I needed to make one last purchase before Kim’s was replaced by an upscale frogurt shop or whatever. At first I pawed the BFI DVD of E.A. Dupont’s Piccadilly (1929), the raucous silent starring Anna May Wong. Netflix’s “More like Piccadilly” section offered random unrelated silents, from Chaplin to Pickford, while Amazon’s slightly more helpful recommendations were a Wong biography and a few of her films on public domain DVD. At Kim’s, in the Region 2 DVD section, I stumbled upon Bertrand Tavernier’s debut feature The Watchmaker of St. Paul (1974, aka The Clockmaker). I have had Tavernier idly on the mind for a few years, as I have much admired his last two features (The Princess of Montpensier and The French Minister) while being mostly unacquainted with his earlier work. Thus I gently placed Piccadilly on the shelf, and brought The Watchmaker of St. Paul to the knowledgeable cashier, who had seen a screening of the film at Anthology Film Archives, though seemed underwhelmed. The clerks at Kim’s had a reputation for being snotty, but I’ve always found them to be remarkably informed and helpful – though perhaps they could spot that I was one of their own grubby tribe.

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Happy Birthday, Torchy Blane

glendaopenerToday, June 30, marks the birthday of one of Warner Bros.’s brassiest blondes, Glenda Farrell. Farrell was a working actress from the age of 7 until she died in 1971 at age 66. She began her career in the theater, playing Little Eva in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and she ended it there, starring as the lead in 40 Carats on Broadway. However, Farrell made her greatest contribution to popular culture during the 1930s, when she was one of several tough-talking blondes under contract to Warner Bros.

The studio that used Depression-era headlines as a source for scripts catered to a traumatized working class, specializing in tales of gangsters, kept women, working stiffs, and tough-talking dames—especially blondes. Ginger Rogers, Joan Blondell, Una Merkel, and Glenda Farrell all played characters described as wise-cracking dames, with each star putting their own spin on this archetype. Farrell was perhaps the brassiest—a fast-talking, bleached blonde who could never be accused of naiveté.

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