TCM Classic Film Festival (considering TCM stands for Turner Classic Movies, the Classic Film suffix seems repetitive) launched Thursday, with The Sound of Music and a Grease pool party screening and all sorts of other goodies. But my festival began with the first full day of programming on Friday, with movies kicking off at 9 AM and lasting until 2 AM the next day.
After packing a Washington Fuji apple, trail mix, baby carrots, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich (on honey wheat) and lots of water, I was ready to see some movies.
But what movies? How the hell am I supposed to choose? At any given time slot there are up to 6 different movies or events happening. I could watch Christopher Plummer stamping his hands in front of the Grauman’s Chinese Theatre permanently, see Lawrence of Arabia or Inherit the Wind. Instead, I went for a classic Western that I’d never seen. In fact, my goal was to ONLY see movies I had never seen, unless there was a really good reason not to (like Spike Lee showing up for Malcolm X). This was a rare opportunity to fill in some glaring holes in my filmography, and I was going to take it.
My Darling Clementine (1946, dir. John Ford)
Yes, there is a beautiful woman named Clementine (Cathy Downs) and the classic country kids song being strummed and hummed throughout, but really, this is a story of the events leading up to the battle at OK Corral, dominated by a badass-off between Henry Fonda and Victor Mature as Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, respectively.
Earp and his 3 brothers are herding cattle to California until they come to Tombstone. When a violent rain storm strikes, their youngest brother James (who basically looks like a nice version of Pete Campbell) gets mysteriously murdered. Of course, there’s no mystery whatsoever. We know it’s Old Man Clanton (Walter Brennan) and his band of drunk sons the second they show up (and they show up in the opening scene), but we have a smoldering, two hour Western epic from John Ford to enjoy before that realization can come.
Henry Fonda’s one of America’s greatest actors ever, and he’s wonderful here, but I came away fascinated by Victor Mature’s tortured Doc Holliday, a gambling drunk (and dying) degenerate struggling to hold onto his moral compass. Before he falls off the wagon, there’s a wonderful smoldering stand off when he orders champagne (because champagne doesn’t count as booze in the Old West guys/imagine the quality of champagne you can find in Tombstone Arizona in 1881) for himself and Earp.
We’re never given an explicit reason why Holliday can’t be with Clementine, and he seems like a moron for refusing her, but it’s clear: he doesn’t want to drag her into his downfall. He isn’t good enough for her. This not only opens up the love triangle angle with Earp knowing a good woman when he sees one, but makes Chihuahua, the woman Holliday settles for, an even more heartbreaking character. And yes there’s actually a love interest named Chihuahua played by Linda Darnell; guess what nationality she’s supposed to be? Oh, 1940’s Hollywood. It won’t be the last time I bemoan that.
Because it’s a Western, there’s an old-time, wise bartender named Mac. Toward the end of the film, Earp asks him, “You ever been in love?” Mac responds, somehow astounded and deadpan at the same time: “No, I’ve been a bartender my whole life.” That moment alone is why My Darling Clementine is one of the all-time great Westerns, and why old Hollywood is so wonderful, Chihuahua’s notwithstanding.
Afterwards, Keith Carradine (Fargo) and Peter Fonda (Easy Rider) chatted about acting family dynasties. To ensure a spot in my next screening, I had to leave early during what felt like a gush about your Daddy conversation. If there are any Dads that deserve gushing, it’s theirs. But, I had to be rude, because I was particularly excited for my next choice.
Of course, the decision was still a doozy. Do I watch actor-producer David Ladd, the son of star Alan Ladd talk about Michael Curtiz’s The Proud Rebel? Or see Norman Lloyd alongside a screening of Reign of Terror? Or see Woody Allen’s Purple Rose of Cairo? What became abundantly clear as the festival drew on is that there was never a wrong choice. TCM curated this festival expertly, jamming it with way too many great choices. It was the Comic-Con equivalent for movies.
Naturally, among those choices, I chose none of them. Instead I saw…
Lenny (1974, dir. Bob Fosse)
TCM made me feel plenty ashamed for my lack of knowledge of these films and historical moments innumerable times, but perhaps none moreso than my mostly blank slate when it came to Lenny Bruce.
Lenny Bruce was the first comic to improvise his whole set, who sought to tell the truth and point out the hypocrisy in society, a stance that ultimately tortured and killed him. He was one of the first funny men to succumb to addiction, dying at the age of 41 in 1966.
Lenny is a powerful and heartbreaking film, one I was astounded I had never really heard of before this festival. It features one of the best performances I’ve ever seen from Dustin Hoffman, along with Valerie Perrine’s stunning portrayal of Honey Bruce, Lenny’s stripper turned wife and one-half of a destructive relationship. The entire film is accompanied by a Miles Davis jazz score, his mournful trumpet the perfect accompaniment for a gut punch of a movie, one that feels more poignant and important every day, with addiction still plaguing the world’s greatest comedians.
What makes Lenny frustrating and ire starting, is that it all could’ve been avoided. It should’ve been avoided. Bruce was censored, his first amendment right excoriated by cops and judges. He got sentenced to jail for saying the words “cock sucker.” Sure, it’s not a pretty word, but it’s mind boggling to consider that he got arrested just for saying swear words, his obscenities getting him in trouble well before George Carlin’s 7 Words You Can’t Say on TV. Bruce wasn’t even using them in a demeaning fashion; he was pointing out how society was giving these words (and others that still haven’t lost their impact) power, and by attacking society for its hypocrisy, fell victim to it, continually hounded by the police, tormenting and bankrupting him until the end. It’s crazy to think about now, because it all almost seems tame by today’s standards. But in the 50’s and 60’s, it’s what killed him, as he paved the way for what comedians do today.
After the film, Alec Baldwin talked with star Dustin Hoffman, possibly the highlight of the festival. Baldwin admits that he’s always speechless after seeing this movie, but not for too long, as he cracked a joke about the 11:30 AM screening time for such a dark movie. How do you go on from here?
- The film is based on a stage play of the same name, and Dustin Hoffman, having seen it, told Fosse to nab the actor in that, Cliff Gorman. Fosse had already tried: the studio wouldn’t make the film with Gorman as the lead.
- Hoffman wasn’t anxious to shoot the film based on the script. On the Friday before shooting started on Monday, they knew the script had problems. When they reconvened on Monday, Fosse had solved it: he added interviews with Honey, Sally Marr (Jan Miner) and his manager, to give the film a connective tissue. Bob Fosse is actually the voice of the man interviewing them in the film.
- Dustin doesn’t want to know about the camera when he’s filming.
- Bruce was the first comic to improvise his whole set. According to Hoffman, only two comedians have done it since. Billy Connolly….and Robin Williams. Dustin broke down completely when he said Robin’s name. It was heartbreaking and why this film remains so important.
- Dustin wanted to shoot the stand up scenes live, with a real audience and not a bunch of extras, but they couldn’t afford it or make that happen.
- “Jazz never dates.”
- For Lenny’s last drunken/high routine in the movie, it was 8 minutes and 1 shot, which Hoffman mirrored exactly from a cassette he was sent, in terms of dialogue and even the pauses.
- Baldwin was having trouble describing what Hoffman is. “You’re so…” “Jewish,” Hoffman finishes for him. If that explains his success, “I’ll convert tomorrow,” Baldwin countered.
Why does Hoffman keep going, why is he fearless, in role after role, when some people might pack it in? Hoffman, the LA transplant, references Kobe Bryant, who was asked the same question and responded: “For the challenge of every day.”
- Apparently, producer Marvin Worth wanted Baldwin for the role of Bruce in a Broadway revival. There was one problem in Baldwin’s mind: “I’m not Jewish.”
- When Catherine Ross and Dustin Hoffman did a screen test for The Graduate, no one was impressed. But considering the time crunch, according to Hoffman they said: “Well, we do it with them or we don’t do the movie.”
- Hoffman kept telling the studio about Meryl Streep for Kramer vs. Kramer. He also lobbied for Jon Voigt in Midnight Cowboy, so while he claims he doesn’t get involved with casting…he’s pretty good at it when he does.
- After every movie, Baldwin and Hoffman both think: “You’ll never work again.”
- Both of them hilariously swapped Buddy Hackett routines and jokes and accents.
- When Hoffman first learned about the role of Benjamin Braddock, he’s described as blonde haired and 5’11. “This is Robert Redford. He isn’t Jewish.” Director Mike Nichols, in response: “Maybe he’s Jewish inside.”
- Now a common story, Hoffman again mentions how everyone thought he was miscast in The Graduate, that initially people thought his inclusion was what kept it from being a classic. History is weird, dudes.
- How do you come up with this stuff (his tics/characters), Baldwin asks: “You get desperate.”
- Before The Graduate, Hoffman was playing a hunchbacked, gay German with a limp on an off-Broadway play. Hoffman said that back then, if he had been offered continuous work off-Broadway for the rest of life, he would’ve taken that in a heartbeat. He intimated that Baldwin would’ve done the same, but Alec didn’t seem as sure.
- Hoffman arrived at an automat in character to meet with director John Schlesinger for Midnight Cowboy.
Instead of finally seeing An Affair to Remember, or Limelight (a Charlie Chaplin film with Norman Lloyd, who’d also be in attendance), or break my rule and rewatch Cincinnati Kid (with Ann-Margret there for the screening), I saw…
Chimes at Midnight (1965, dir. Orson Welles)
This was the choice I was least sure of throughout the entire festival, but I was quickly assuaged when ubiquitous film critic Leonard Maltin walked to the stage to introduce the film, and quickly told us all that “we made the right choice.” When Maltin says that, you believe him.
Apparently, many Welles scholars believe Chimes at Midnight is his best film, and Orson had the same opinion. I respectfully disagree.
Like a lot of his films, it was cursed, but only after the fact. Working from a script that he had been working on in some fashion since 1939, this one Welles finished. It just didn’t get the audience or treatment after that it deserved. Now, for its 50th anniversary, Maltin hopes it starts getting the audience it deserves.
As the lights goes down, I get giggly about the fact that I’m seeing a movie with Leonard Maltin a row away.
That wore off quickly, unfortunately, because I don’t think I’ve ever followed Shakespeare less than my third movie (of five) of the day taking place in that dangerous afternoon nap zone. It may as well have been a foreign language for a ten to fifteen minute period in the first half, my concentration lagging. I managed to shake it off, but I admittedly never was enthralled with the narrative.
That said, this was a fascinating film, since it took place in the peak of Welles’ non-peak, when he had basically turned into a real-life Yukon Cornelius, a massive Santa-like figure. Which is perfect for Falstaff, the fat, vain, drunk coward from Henry V and The Merry Wives of Windsor. And Welles is fantastic; each line is delivered with a wink, almost as he’s doing asides to the audience or for his own benefit. Like every line.
There’s an almost painful self-awareness that seeps through Falstaff: Welles is well aware of his weight, his beard, what’s become of his looks as he’s aged, and his many odes to wine as the culprit. At one point, Falstaff cracks a double (or triple) entendre, that “desire for so many years outstrip performance,” a sexual jab but a keen observation of how tragic Welles’ moviemaking efforts were later in the life.
Falstaff’s biggest fear is that he’s forgotten when he dies, a fear that clearly haunted Welles, but needlessly so. One doesn’t forget Orson Welles.
NEXT: Do I finally see Norma Rae? Buster Keaton silent film Steamboat Bill Jr. with an accompanied orchestra? Best Picture winner A Man For All Seasons, which also stars Orson Welles? Or do I see a French language American film that I had never heard of?
Yes, that. Definitely that.
Rififi (1955, dir. Jules Dassin)
Eddie Muller, curator of the Noir City Film Festival, introduced the film and promptly pumped up expectations to an unreal level. He flat out called Rififi the “best in show.” Not many in the audience had seen it, and I’ve never seen someone create so much hype in so short a time (poor volunteers were trying to get him to stop talking for 5-10 minutes).
Jules Dassin was a great American noir director who was blacklisted during that ugly period in Hollywood, and it almost killed his career forever. Until Rififi a movie based on a novel that Dassin hated.
I entered the theatre excited to see a movie I knew nothing about, but by the time the credits rolled, I was buoyed by extremely high expectations…
And Rififi met them.
Rififi (a made up French word that roughly translates to rumpus, or perhaps something more sexual) quite clearly CREATED the heist movie. This is Ocean’s Eleven and Italian Job (whether you want to consider the originals or remakes) but better, with a forceful, tragic ending.
It’s absolutely thrilling, pulse-pounding, a noir heist movie filled with awful people that you can’t help but root for as they plan and commit a jewel heist before that sentence didn’t sound like 167 other movies. The high point is this intense, you can hear a pin drop 28 minute heist scene, which Dassin opted to keep silent. By taking away the score, he elevated the stakes and the drama. It was staggering how absorbed I was by this movie.
The decisions keep coming. Do I see Roman Holiday? Rebecca? Apollo 13 featuring a discussion between Alex Trebek and Apollo 13 astronaut James Lovell? Yeah, that would’ve been awesome, especially since Bill Paxton made a surprise appearance. But…I was drawn in by…
Bond. James Bond.
At least one of them.
On Her Majesty’s Service (1969, dir. Peter Hunt)
Ben Mankiewicz, one of TCM’s treasured hosts, introduces this film as his favorite Bond movie, one that’s textured, layered and actually featuring a story. Because of its unfair placement in Bond canon (a one film break from Sean Connery before he returned for Diamonds are Forever), On Her Majesty’s Secret Service gets a bad rap, and so does star George Lazenby.
I honestly had never seen the film and thought it was crap for that reason. Oh how wrong I was.
Plus, it helped to kick the evening off with an interview with the Aussie Bond himself. It quickly became clear: George Lazenby is insane. He’s an unfiltered Joe Namath-like guy with his wits still about him. He’s the Grandpa you’re embarrassed to introduce to people but love anyways.
When he got Bond, he had NEVER ACTED before. He was chosen because he had an “arrogance” about him, one that still pours out of Lazenby 45+ years later. When he arrived at the studio offices, he showed up in a suit and posed and said, “I heard you’re looking for James Bond.”
He lied his way into the part, by telling producers that he’s acted in a bunch of foreign pictures and such and claimed that he had to be in France the next morning for a 500 pound a week picture, bluffing his way through meetings. He thought for sure they’d let him walk then. Instead, they gave him 500 pounds to stay and meet with director Hunt the next afternoon. Lazenby got paid 500 pounds for a call back. Oh, 1960’s Hollywood.
When he first met director Peter Hunt, he came clean: “I’ve never acted before.” He was a car salesman, not an actor. But Hunt, knowing that he fooled two of the biggest execs in town, responded: “You’re an actor.”
It gets crazier. Lazenby claims that Diana Rigg (Emma Peel of Avengers and of course, the Queen of Thorns) intimated that they’d have an affair if he didn’t get it on with any other woman on set. But she walked in on him with the receptionist, “so that was off.” After this nugget, Mankiewicz, hardly able to contain himself, commented: “You are James Bond.”
After their first initial meeting on set, when Lazenby was forced to shoo away Hunt’s “gay friends” (oof), Hunt never spoke to Lazenby for the next 9 months. He thought that was normal; he didn’t know how things worked on a movie set.
Because Lazenby, he still blames hippies for the film not making as much money as it should’ve. They wanted love, not killing people. After the film, Lazenby was told, “James Bond is over.”
After the film, Lazenby went sailing for 15 months with a woman who told him his tubes were tied (“Well get over here” Lazenby pretty much said). But… she got pregnant. Lazenby would’ve said it was someone else’s but she was the only person on the boat with him. When this was going on, I was looking all around me, my mind exploding, WHAT IS HAPPENING?!
Lazenby apparently met Bruce Lee three days before he died, and wormed his way into a 10K movie deal. Afterward, Lee’s producer held him to it, because they paid him, and sent people over to teach him kung fu.
After On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, however, Lazenby never really got another chance. He was labeled “difficult,” the worst thing someone can say about someone, Lazenby explains. As he says, if someone tells me a girl is “difficult, I stay way.”
Lazenby thought it was Connery’s role but believed it was so good because it was the closest film to Ian Fleming’s books.
He’s right on both accounts, but I was delighted by On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, where we get the introduction to Spectre, Blofeld and his brain washing allergy cures for beautiful women, and Diana Rigg, who quickly became one of my favorite Bond girls as Tracy. Rigg IS a babe, man. And a badass, as she actually got to do some fight scenes. Her character had some depth and layers, and heartbreak to her: it begins with Bond saving her from an Awakening like SUICIDE. It starts with that and ends with like an hour of ski chases.
It certainly had uncomfortable moments, mostly with Tracy’s Dad Draco, who routinely hits Tracy, and claims, “she needs a man to overpower her!” Ugh.
At one point, Rigg says, “I pay my debts.” Did Lady Olenna reveal her turncoat nature in a 1969 film forty four years before appearing on Game of Thrones?!
The movie felt overly long, but that might have been because it was my 5th of the day. I was struck by Lazenby’s physical presence, and perhaps because of that the violence pops, almost shockingly so, with many hard and fast cuts. It helps after seeing him in person, but I totally bought that he’d have charm over women (in 1969). He wasn’t a great actor in the film, in particular the delivery of his one liners were awful, but in a great way that was nearly Schwarzeneggarian, many confusingly coming stilted and off-screen. But I came away thinking he was a good albeit different Bond, with attitude to spare, in an impressive Bond film, one of many lessons learned in a jam-packed first day at the festival.
NEXT DAY: A trio of films beyond compare.