Tony Curtis – RIP

Tony Curtis talked like he looked: oily, with remnants of Bernard Schwartz of the Bronx never far off. I don’t want to know what went on in the Hollywood Babylon days; a man married six times certainly has more anecdotes than one has lives to listen to them. Although I haven’t seen even half of his (vast) filmography, his most famous roles projected intelligence and the instinct to live, as The Sweet Smell of Success‘  Sydney Falco puts it, “avidly, avidly.” Watch the posted clip and notice, at the 1: 04 mark, a very rare instance of a Hollywood film from the fifties having the patience to show an actor thinking in character.

After a dozen viewings I still can’t find another performance like Curtis’ in Success — only Tom Cruise in Magnolia proved he had the shrewdness to understand how one can fuse good looks, ambition, and a monstrous ego into the kind of villainy that’s intensely sympathetic. Both performances have this in common too: their respective movies disappoint them with cornball reconciliations. If Curtis never topped it, what other Hollywood actor with an ice cream face could have? So give him credit for accepting another role which exploited audience perceptions. Curtis exuded sexual ambivalence.  His Dorothy in Some Like It Hot is femme-y, curvy, and sensuous in ways that Lemmon, who’s obviously having a great time, can’t match.  On the other side, the somberness of expression lets us know that his otherwise ridiculous slave boy Antoninus in Spartacus understands the differences between snails and oysters. I’ve read rumors about his sexuality for years; to his immense credit, he seems to have recognized it and gotten downright campy in the last twenty years: eyeliner, powder, great scarves.

An enterprising director might have given Curtis the great late career roles in which co-star Burt Lancaster basked. They weren’t equals: Lancaster’s roles read like a career in self-education, a way of testing his limits and ways to integrate his intense physicality and intelligence. Whether we should blame Curtis’ publicized drug problems  or simple disinterest, it shows how much of his career was comprised of missed chances.

A warning

Timothy Blee is correct:

If you’re not worried about the actual jack-booted thugs staging actual midnight raids in America today, you can’t expect to be taken seriously seriously when you warn that some policy you oppose could lead to jack-booted thugs staging midnight raids at some point in the future. And the party that has pushed relentlessly for warrantless surveillance, imprisonment without trial, and the normalization of torture has no business lecturing us about how the other party’s policies will, eventually, lead us to a police state.

(h/t Andrew Sullivan)

The Runaways

No biopic of the New York Dolls exists, but if a writer-director needed casting suggestions, let me point him or her in the direction of Michael Shannon. As producer/svengali Kim Fowley in The Runaways, he hisses orders through clenched teeth and allows himself the faintest of chuckles, as if delighted by what he’s getting away with. He’s also a dead ringer for David Johansen, the Dolls’ long-faced and polymorphous lead singer. The way he orders Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning) and Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart) around, actually, reminds me of certain poses Johansen struck performing “Trash,” “Bad Girl,” or some other Dolls classic: there’s wit and swagger to the strutting.

The Runaways needs him more than it’s got time for. This lugubrious thing has more affinities with an Afterschool Special than a teen pic. Too timid to realize it’s really the story of Jett, a young woman accepting (deliciously) her sexuality and affinity for rock and roll, the movie aligns itself, however unwittingly, with the Fowley character, whose real talent was for sucking every dollar from his girls. That the Runaways weren’t all that good is a fact the movie doesn’t even contend with; as it rushes towards its pre-determined conclusion, it will not pause to consider how Currie and Jett eked out a temporary space in a situation they never accepted.

On a final note, dig around for Light of Day, Paul Schrader’s stilted 1987 psychodrama starring Michael J. Fox (with a mullet and earring) and Jett as siblings who can’t wait for Mom (Gena Rowlands) to just die already so that they can earn a living as Huey Lewis wannabes. Here is proof of Jett’s ability to hold the screen. The Springteen-penned title number is one of her best anthems.

No $leep

Only one scene in Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps, which is not named after a Rick Ross album, generates suspense: the moment when Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) dons a pinstriped shirt with perfect cuffs and slicks his hair back like the Gekko of yore. It’s like the helmet attaching itself like a lamprey to the maimed Anakin Skywalker’s face in Revenge of the Sith: it lent gravitas to an irrelevant sequel by exploiting our collective memories. The theater audience chuckled at the close-ups of falling dominoes and flashbacks to the suicide of Shia TheBeef’s mentor (an overwrought Frank Langella). I got the same enthusiasm for a scene in which the Federal Reserve and Treasury Secretary, a dead ringer for Hank Paulson, huddle beneath Rodrigo Prieto’s clammy half light and squirm in leather chairs as they realize that to save the world they have to save plutocracy. The audience knew it were watching an Oliver Stone movie, maybe the first one they’ve seen since Natural Born Killers; they know he has a fetish for men in shirttails plotting dastardly things across a conference table (Eli Wallach’s bird impersonations were no match for Tommy Lee Jones’ faggot mince in JFK though). I even felt a discernible lift whenever Stone used one of the tunes from David Byrne-Brian Eno’s Everything That Happens Will Happen Today.

No one however was fooled by the offensive ending. As much as Americans pretend Wall Street is all that stands between socialism and death, they’re prepared to accept any fantasy except one in which greed poisons the heterosexual family unit — no, that sin is worth flinging yourself into a moving train for.

Singles 9/24

The strangled sincerity of “Back For Good” sounded interesting in 1995, but otherwise I don’t care for the travails of Take That, and I’ve had less time for the well-meaning career of Robbie Williams. A great taste in chums and collaborators (e.g. Neil Tennant) has not resulted in ticker tape parades down the Avenue of the Americas. But I’m a total sucker for “Shame,” their first song since Oasis stole their Yank mojo. My first thought was The Libertines’ “Can’t Stand Me Now,” a pained mess of a song in which two men realize how much their bad habits have sullied their deep love for each other. How can Nelly and Ne-Yo match’em?

Robbie Williams and Gary Barlow – Shame (7)

Nelly – Just a Dream (7)

Ne-Yo – Champagne Life (6)

Nas and Damian Marley – My Generation (6)

Mark Ronson & The Business Int’l ft. Kyle Falconer and Spank Rock – The Bike Song (5)

Justin Bieber – U Smile (3)

Soulja Boy – Pretty Boy Swag (2)

McFly – Party Girl (2)

No action: Bret Easton Ellis

Bret Easton Ellis – Imperial Bedrooms. A quasi-sequel to Less Than Zero (the “quasi” is part of the not very funny joke with which the novel begins), Ellis shovels more of the same: well-dressed anomie, with intimations of dread to burnish his literary credentials. Pulling the strings is LTZ villain Rip, the victim of terrible plastic surgery but still squeezing terse remarks through a sneer. Actually, when I found out how integral Rip is to the plot, I lost all interest in the story; for a while, Ellis’ sharper narrative drive evokes the first half of Lost Highway, David Lynch’s 1996 movie in which Bill Pullman also endures mysterious phone calls and Can’t Connect With Anyone.

Ellis’ books for some reason get serious reviews, despite offering none of the pleasures one wants from novels: characters are victims waiting to get carved, literally; he has no talent for comedy, desire, or even the sensuously delineated aside that signals to his readers his interest in other things besides the matter at hand; pain exists as a condition needing treatment, like a migraine or diabetes. Most of his sentences run like this: “I’m walking through the Grove to  have lunch with Julian, who texts me that he’s at a table next in the Pinkberry in the Farmers Market.” Or, demotic Chandler with a pop culture tag at the end.

Why I’m reviewing this is anyone’s guess; like Clay, I’m bored, except it’s just tonight not, like, all the time.

OK, fine….

At Thomas’ suggestion, fifteen desert island films off the top of my head:

Trouble in Paradise (1932) dir. Ernst Lubitsch

Holiday (1938) dir. George Cukor

The Rules of the Game (1939) dir. Jean Renoir

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) dir. Orson Welles

Orpheus (1950) dir. Jean Cocteau

Anatomy of a Murder (1958) dir. Otto Preminger

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) dir. Luis Bunuel

Thieves Like Us (1974) dir. Robert Altman

Tootsie (1982) dir. Sydney Pollack

Something Wild (1986) dir. Jonathan Demme

My Own Private Idaho (1991) dir. Gus Van Sant

Husbands and Wives (1992) dir. Woody Allen

Mulholland Drive (2001) dir. David Lynch

The Best of Youth (2004) dir. Marco Tullio Giordana

Summer Hours (2008) dir. Olivier Assayas

Of witches and women

Naturally the political class has gotten lots of yuks out of Delaware Republican Senate Nominee Christine O’Donnell’s admission that she dressed like Witch Hazel as a girl. These people apparently never paid attention while their  daughters checked Wicca handbooks out of the library. Nor did they ever buy Stevie Nicks albums. Given the chance to explore a story whose impact is national and actually affects people’s lives versus mentioning an anecdote worth chuckling over at Cokie Roberts’ Sunday BBQ, the Beltway classes will choose the former. Remember this one from 2003? Florida governor and senator Bob Graham was disqualified from running for president because he kept meticulous journals.

The real story about Ms. O’Donnell is what’s she said about homosexuals over the years. Nasty stuff:

O’Donnell first came into the public eye in the 1990s as a foot soldier of the religious right, becoming a press secretary for the anti-abortion group Concerned Women for America, which aims “to bring Biblical principles into all levels of public policy.” A devout (and still unmarried) Catholic, she founded the Savior’s Alliance for Lifting the Truth, which promoted abstinence and Christian sexual values among college students—an effort that resulted in her now-infamous crusade against masturbation. In 1997, she denounced the government for devoting too much money to AIDS treatment and prevention, criticizing a drag queen ball for celebrating “the type of lifestyle which leads to the disease.” From the gays and abortion to evolution—which she’s called “a theory” that “too many people are blindly accepting…as fact”—O’Donnell has been a Christian right champion.


Happy Sunday

Even Hall & Oates needed imitators. Dan Hartman’s 1984 top ten is the best, and surpasses some of their hits too. The author of “Instant Replay” and (really) the Edgar Winter Group’s “Free Ride” combines H&O’s sonic signifiers into a surefire package: the “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)” synthesized drum pattern at the intro, the “Maneater” keyboard fills, Hartman’s lingering over a lyric in the verses a la Daryl Hall (his blond pompadour and Armani jackets give the game away too), and, best of all, the stacked harmonies in the chorus, which really put this thing over. As difficult as it is in this case to weigh nostalgia against judgment, I have no problem citing this as one of the best songs of 1984. I am not, however, sure how I feel about the video, in which a Temptations-style quartet substitutes for the very white Hartman. I know, I know: a video within a video. Very post-modern in 1984.

Singles 9/17

The only people surprised by “Fuck You” reside in the blogosphere. I’ve heard it exactly three times, two of which for the purposes of my review. I don’t want to hear it again — gimmicks fade fast. No pox on Cee Lo Green’s ebullient vocal though.

A shame I can’t say the same about Robyn.

Scores are on a ten-point scale, with ten the highest. Click on links for reviews.

Cee-Lo – Fuck You (6)
Estelle ft. Nas – Fall In Love (5 )
Robyn – Hang With Me (5)
Olly Murs – Please Don’t Let Me Go (3)
Loick Essien – Love Drunk (2)
Labrinth – Let The Sun Shine (1)