I refuse to complain after a day in which I saw five movies back to back, many of which are new favorites, and all garnering appreciation and insight into Hollywood history. But waking up Saturday morning, I was a tired man. Thankfully, the power of cinema proved a great elixir.
Again armed with a bunch of peanut-based snacks, I waltzed into my first screening of the day. For once, this was an easy decision. The idea of starting off the day with the 3 hour plus Doctor Zhivago didn’t appeal to me (and I had seen the classic). That meant…
The Man Who Would Be King (1975, dir. John Huston)
Um, this movie wins. Is there a more manly movie in existence than one directed by Jack Huston (The Treasure of Sierra Madre) and starring Sean Connery, Michael Caine and Christopher Plummer, all in their prime. Connery’s balding and gray and sexy as hell, Caine has lustful curly blonde locks and Plummer rocks a caterpillar mustache as Rudyard Kipling, the embodiment of the source material. I get dizzy just thinking about it, and again, this film hadn’t ever been on my radar until discovering it in the schedule. Thank you TCM.
Before the film, THE Leonard Maltin interviewed THE Christopher Plummer. The highlights:
- Before discovering acting, Plummer had studied to become a concert pianist. But he thought it’d be a lonely life and a lot of hard work. Even in solo shows, he’s partners with the audience, and is never alone.
- When filming or acting in a love scene, your audience comes first, not the girl. Maltin made sure that this only applied to his love scenes and not his love life.
- Richard Burton was Jack Huston’s original choice to play Rudyard Kipling, because Burton was the kind of manly man Huston wanted to drink with after filming.
- Plummer paid a kid $150 to research Kipling, and when he arrived in Morocco to film, Plummer came with a reddish wig. Huston was not enthused: he needed a jet black wig or he was out of the movie. Isn’t old-time Hollywood the best?
- In one scene where Plummer had a lot of dialogue, Huston placed a camel in the scene with him. The camel continually pushed Plummer out of the frame take after take. Plummer asked if they could move the camel back a few feet. Huston responded: “That camel has every right to be in the scene.” Oh Jack Huston. Don’t bastards sound so much funnier/awesome forty years after the fact?
- Speaking of awesome: The studio, after seeing the film at the 3/4 mark, wanted to remove Kipling from the picture. Huston was against it, but professed to Plummer that he didn’t have the same clout he used to and would have to give the studio what they wanted. When the execs flew in to Morocco early in the morning, who but Sean Connery was there to greet them. Once they got in the elevator, he grabbed one of the execs by the collar, pushing them to the wall, and said: “If you take Kipling out of this movie, I’ll be in London tomorrow and you’ll never see me again.” Needless to say, they kept Kipling in the movie, and Connery is the greatest example of Man. Also: Plummer does a great Connery.
- Plummer’s not particularly okay with seeing himself perform, which is one of the reasons why he loves theater. Also, because he looks better when he’s 15 feet from the audience.
- For the premiere of this film, all he remembers doing is going to the bars with Michael Caine and Sean Connery. That bar made all the others bars so jealous that night.
- Plummer attributes his healthy visage to his wife’s cooking and living in the country.
And on to the movie, where Connery and Caine play Danny and Peachy, two former soldiers (and forever Masons) and current scoundrels, who hatch a plan to civilize a fictional Afghan nation, win their wars for them and take over the country and their riches.
As you can tell from that brief capsule of the premise, it certainly treads an uneasy line. But Huston’s film, to me, read as equal parts farce, satire and an attack on British imperialism rather than simply a sprawling romp about men taking advantage of “savages.” The movie’s actually hilarious (it puts the fun in imperialism!), and most importantly, at one point features Connery posing as a wacky priest with DREADS. Connery sings multiple times in this movie, and it’s glorious.
After signing themselves into a contract (that Kupling witnesses) that makes the pair give up women and booze, Caine and Connery con and luck their way into leading an army and a country. The message is clear: When men give up women and booze, they can not only become Kings, they can become Gods. In fact, when they first meet the indigenous people, they ask if they’re Gods (translated by the great Saeed Jaffrey as Billy Fish). Caine cracks, “Not gods – Englishmen. The next best thing.”
This is a movie of manly friendship, where there’s nothing more glorious than war and riches. When Caine nearly breaks their pact, and Connery interrupts, Caine quickly snaps, “Let’s go seek safety in battle.” There are a never-ending supply of quips just like this. Caine and Connery are as charming as you’d imagine, finding themselves King and God of a new country, with riches beyond compare, but of course, it gets to their heads, they go too far, get their comeuppance.
This is a film that almost benefits from distance thanks to these actors personas and legacies. Caine, Connery and Plummer are acting deities, and this is a movie where Sean Connery quite literally gets worshiped like a God. Is there a more fitting role for Bond? How did I not know about a movie that has Connery BECOME a God?
After this two hour plus movie, it certainly didn’t feel like I had slept the night before or had even taken a break from the movies. While I’ll probably never forgive myself for missing it, I decided to recharge and jot down my observations (before they became a kaleidoscopic blur of celluloid) instead of seeing Malcolm X with Spike Lee in attendance. Yeah I know; I suck.
While there were of course other worthy options, the first evening film was a no-brainer for me: The Apartment with star Shirley MacLaine there for a discussion before the screening. And no, I hadn’t seen The Apartment, largely considered one of the greatest films of all-time (and on AFI’s top 100 movies list).
The Apartment (1960, dir. Billy Wilder)
As Leonard Maltin and Shirley MacLaine settled into their seats, it’s clear that Shirley still has her trademark sass. In response to wonky mics, she flat out told the techies to “fix it.”
- MacLaine describes director Billy Wilder as “the most scientific of directors, a scientist of comedy.” He’d often tell them to do a scene but take out 12.5 seconds, and because they respected him so much, they’d do it. Wilder was a stickler to the script; there was no improv.
- MacLaine was originally a dancer. How did she learn to act? She never took one acting lesson, preferring to learn from life.
- Her father was an alcoholic and her mother was Canadian, so she quickly became outspoken. To be an actor, you “need a fearless quality of expressing yourself.”
- For The Apartment, Wilder only gave them the first 25 pages. They didn’t know how it would end. Wilder wanted to observe MacLaine and Jack Lemmon in their life and with each other. Wilder was fascinated by MacLaine’s social life, as she was hanging around the Brat pack and learning how to cheat at gin rummy (HOW COOL IS HER LIFE?). This was why gin rummy was put in the film.
- Fred MacMurray never picked up a check for lunch.
- Apparently, “Jack needed to be wrangled,” before he got married.
- To MacLaine, there wasn’t a better actor of comedy and drama than Jack Lemmon. Wilder would continually see how far and long he could go, forcing him to do take after take.
- Right before camera rolls, Lemmon would always say “Magic time.”
- MacLaine, had a really hard time with the first Chinese restaurant scene, because she kept pronouncing “out” like a Canadian. After looking at the dailies, Wilder commented: “Well, I tried.” The next day, Wilder rolled the cameras and left the set, returning afterwards. This was the cut that went into the film.
I was blown away by how dark and complicated this love story was, yet how clever and funny it is at the same time. This is a movie so fearless, with such perfectly honed intentions and balance, that it somehow fits in jokes alongside attempted suicides. Shirley is particularly incredible; I came away with a massive crush on her and a need to catch up on her impressive filmography.
Each scene and every moment is classic, whether it’s a famous line or a visual tic or gag. Every moment is perfectly staged and curated by Wilder, Lemmon and MacLaine. It’s so clearly one of the primary influences of Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men, and I had no qualms with its position as one of the greatest films ever.
Sure, Fran Kubelik’s obsession with finding a man, and needing a man hurts to watch today, but it’s a reflection of the times in which it was made. When TCM chose “History at the Movies” as their theme, it felt unintentionally funny and ironic, since Hollywood doesn’t exactly have a strong track record at depicting historically accurate tales. But what we do learn is the history of the movies, of filmmaking, of Hollywood, and most importantly, of the times in which these films were made, and The Apartment is a startling account of 1960 economics, capitalism and rampant adultery, a reflection of a society that never stops being so screwed up. It’s uncomfortable but like Lenny, hasn’t become any less important.
How do you follow that? Robert Morse (speaking of Mad Men) in The Loved One? Greg Proops of Whose Line fame recording an episode of his podcast before Adam’s Rib? Or…
The French Connection (1971, dir. William Friedkin)
Yeah I know. How have I never seen this movie?! I’m embarrassed.
As with many of these classic movies, it lives up to the hype. The chase scene is rightfully hailed as one of the best ever, if not the best, but the tailing scene through the streets and subways of New York between Gene Hackman and Fernando Rey’s Alain Charnier is just as fantastic, with that wave from Rey right after he outwits Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle.
French Connection is taut and thrilling throughout, with a gritty realism that actually idealizes the dirty streets of New York. The movie is what invented the tropes of a cop drama, and it emphasizes the waiting game, with Doyle and Roy Scheider’s Buddy Russo on innumerable stakeouts, eating donuts or otherwise (is there a more important donut in history than the one that Doyle chews voraciously and tosses away, half-eaten?). Friedkin talked about how the movie was about, to him, the relationship between Buddy and Doyle, but if anything was lost in translation for me, it was that. I almost felt like Scheider’s character was lost in the shuffle, veering close to sidekick levels, overwhelmed and overpowered by the The Power of Hackman. This was his movie, and his ultimately fruitless cat and mouse game with Charnier is what the movie was about, to me.
It ends abruptly and purposefully, with a ton of information coming in the form of subtitles, which I never like, but it emphasized the bleak and tragic ending that I appreciated. The 70’s were the best.
After the film, Alec Baldwin came to the stage to talk with director William Friedkin, who preferred to stand, and not sit down like a bunch of wusses.
Maybe because it was midnight and I was exhausted, but I was frustrated by the overly pompous and wordy Friedkin, who came off disingenuous and a master at the art of the humblebrag. I appreciated that he wanted no credit for the hiring of Gene Hackman in The French Connection or of Roy Scheider in Sorcerer or countless others, because he lucked out and the movie Gods smiled on him, but I got the sense that while impressed with their performances, he might still have done differently if given another chance to shoot them. Which seems sacrilegious when you see Hackman in this movie. Gene Hackman is boss.
But still: it’s amazing what he did on The French Connection. There were no sets, and it was all locations, and it was all natural lighting. He hired a DP who had never worked on a feature. He didn’t get permits for ANY of his scenes with the exception of the infamous chase scene involving the train car, which doesn’t even sound possible, let alone how he pulled it off with such aplomb and intensity. For the train scene, he got permission only by paying off one of the heads of the metro, who knew he’d get fired for it. The man got $40,000 and lived happily ever after in Jamaica, if Friedkin is to be believed.
- The film was turned down by every studio. Friedkin was going to do Dirty Harry with Frank Sinatra (!), then was pulled onto French Connection, when Zanuck of FOX had a hunch on the movie, giving Friedkin the scant sum of 1.5 million to make the movie. He went over: making it for 1.8 mill.
- Friedkin liked the dirty streets of NY; he thought they were very cinematic. They were the kind of streets he grew up on, having been born in Chicago.
- Then Friedkin moved to California, learned to play tennis and it ruined his career. He urged young filmmakers: “Never learn to play tennis.”
- Friedkin originally wanted Jackie Gleason in the Popeye role but Zanuck refused. Hackman was never the choice. Friedkin had the “dullest meeting” with Gene.
- The film is over 90% accurate to the case on which the movie is based.
- Friedkin hired Scheider immediately for the role.
- He never auditions; never have and never will. He makes decisions purley on instinct after meeting people.
- For the part of Charnier he wanted Jean Sorel from Belle de Jour, but instead was brought Fernando Rey. He “got stuck” with him. He admits that Rey and Hackman both did fantastic in the films, thankfully.
- Friedkin doesn’t rehearse; he wants spontaneity. He looks for intelligence with his actors.
- He wanted Audrey Hepburn and then Jane Fonda for The Exorcist. Hepburn wouldn’t leave Italy and wanted them to move filming there, and Fonda responded, “Why would I want to be in this capitalistic garbage?” So that’s how they ended up on Ellen Burstyn.
- After watching the play That Championship Season, Friedkin reached out to Jason Miller. They had what he said was an awful meeting (Friedkin had a lot of those apparently). Afterwards, Miller read the Exorcist book and told him he WAS Father Karras. He had never acted before, but took a train all the way to California to do a screen test with Burstyn.
- Friedkin never studied film technique or the camera. He started in the mail room on WGN. His recommendations to film students or those who want a career in film: “do not escalate expectations” and watch as many of the films by the filmmakers you admire as you can.
- Sorcerer was the film that was the closest to his vision, but even then he wanted Steve McQueen for Scheider’s role. I love Friedkin’s films, but it all felt dangerously insincere.
- Boyz N The Hood director John Singleton was one of the many Friedkin fans in attendance who asked a question.
The interview droned on, but I had to get back, to prepare myself for the last day of TCM. Three more movies were yet to come!