Modern but Relevant to Fans of Classics

Feud: Bette and Joan (2017)

Feud: Bette and Joan

For months, the classic film community has been abuzz about FX’s mini-series Feud: Bette and Joan. From the day it was announced to the season finale, it seems like just about every classic film fan has had something to say about it. One thing that can be safely be said for sure is that among classic film fans, there isn’t one overwhelming opinion of the series. Some have loved it, others have loathed it, and I fall somewhere in the middle.

After having spent several years of watching other Ryan Murphy-produced projects like American Horror Story and American Crime Story, one thing I’ve learned is that you can’t gauge the quality of a series (or a season, given that his shows often change themes season-to-season) based on any one single episode, which is why I waited until I’d seen the entire series before giving a review of it. Unlike some other projects Ryan Murphy has done, which started out strongly and turned into a trainwreck by the end, Feud is at least pretty consistent in overall quality. There weren’t any episodes that truly wowed me, but there weren’t any episodes that completely bored me, either. While it had its flaws, Feud is a far cry from the disaster that was Lifetime’s Liz and Dick.

Although Feud was mostly promoted as being about the production of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, it wasn’t the sole focus of the show. It goes beyond the completion of Baby Jane and the 1963 Academy Awards and goes into the production of Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte and what both Davis and Crawford’s careers were like after working together, going all the way through to Joan Crawford working on Trog and her final days in her New York apartment.

You can’t talk about Feud without commenting on Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon’s respective performances as Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. One of the biggest criticisms I’ve heard about their performances is that neither of them tried to sound very much like their real-life counterparts. Personally, this didn’t bother me too much. I can see that they were clearly trying to avoid having their performances being called drag queen-ish or being compared to Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest. I actually liked both of their performances. It took me a little while to warm up to Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis, though. For the first few episodes, I felt like she was phoning it in, but I started to like her more as the series went on. Jessica Lange did a great job of capturing the more human and vulnerable side of Joan, but certainly didn’t shy away from the competitive side, either.

Feud‘s supporting cast was pretty terrific. I loved Dominic Burgess as Victor Buono, Judy Davis as Hedda Hopper, and Stanley Tucci as Jack Warner. Jackie Hoffman as Mamacita, Joan’s housekeeper, was also a real scene stealer.

I’m not going to get into just how historically accurate or inaccurate Feud is. I’m not particularly knowledgeable about this era of either Davis or Crawford’s careers and there’s been so much gossip and speculation around the production of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane that I’ve never been 100% clear on what’s real and what’s fiction. However, I will say that Feud seemed pretty accurate to the things that I do know to be true. There isn’t much in here that I didn’t already know or haven’t at least heard before. As with any biopic or film based on true events, there will always be some level of dramatization involved. Feud is no exception and those who have worked on the show have gone on the record to confirm this.

Throughout the run of the series, much was said in the media about how much attention to detail went into recreating things like the 1963 Academy Awards ceremony, right down to the color of the nail polish worn by Joan Crawford that night, and Joan Crawford’s home in Brentwood. The level of attention that went into creating these settings certainly didn’t go to waste; the sets were truly fantastic and were one of the best things about the series.

While so much research went into recreating locations, shockingly little attention was paid to some of the smaller details. For example, in the second episode of the series, B.D. gets into an argument with Bette and B.D. yells about how she grew up listening to Bette say things like, “When’s that old hag Norma Shearer going to give it up? When’s Claudette Colbert going to put herself out to pasture?” This probably wouldn’t stick out to someone who has no knowledge of Hollywood history, but as a fan of Norma Shearer, I thought this was a terrible line. It’s extremely unlikely B.D. would have ever heard Bette say anything like that about Norma Shearer. B.D. Hyman was born in 1947, 5 years after Norma Shearer made her final film. So by the time B.D. would have been old enough to remember her mother saying anything, it certainly wouldn’t have been tirades about how Norma Shearer needed to hang it up already. And although Claudette Colbert did stick around longer than many other contemporaries of Crawford and Davis, she was slowing down by the early 50s.

The biggest thing I really didn’t like about Feud is how they used interviews with Olivia de Havilland and Joan Blondell to frame the main action of the series. First of all, I didn’t particularly care for the casting of Catherine Zeta Jones as Olivia de Havilland, but at least it made sense for Olivia to be there since she was the one who ultimately stepped in to finish Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte. There really wasn’t a reason to have Kathy Bates as Joan Blondell in this at all since these were supposedly interviews for a documentary about Joan Crawford and Blondell and Crawford never made a movie together; Crawford didn’t even work at Warner Brothers until after Blondell had left.

I know a lot of Joan Crawford fans were frustrated by Feud because it only focuses on her career when it was in decline and they feel that makes her look kind of pathetic. This probably wouldn’t be so much of a problem if it weren’t for the fact that so much of what a lot of people know about Joan comes from the movie Mommie Dearest. While I liked that Feud showed Joan’s more human and vulnerable side, which is something you don’t really get in Mommie Dearest, I do agree that it would be nice to see a film or mini-series which also covered the early days of her career and how she worked her way into becoming one of the greatest movie stars of all time.

If you go into Feud without any knowledge of Joan Crawford’s career, or Bette Davis’s career for that matter, it’s probably going to be a bit like watching Sunset Boulevard — you’re told Norma Desmond was once a major movie star and there are details to back that fact up, but you pretty much just take the movie’s word for it that she once was a huge star. Not actually seeing that history isn’t necessarily a detriment to the movie. However I will say that I thought the finale was the most powerful episode of the series because I went into it knowing exactly how big of a fall it was for Joan. And I can say the same about Bette Davis. You can certainly enjoy Feud even if you don’t go into it with any knowledge of either of their careers, but just remember, you’re only seeing one era of their lives and careers.

Advertisements

Bates Motel (2013)

Bates Motel

How has it taken me this long to get around to writing about Bates Motel? It’s one of my favorite shows on TV right now. Bates Motel is a prequel to the events of the movie Psycho, focusing on Norman Bates’ life as a teenager and his relationship with his mother.

The series begins shortly after the death of Norman’s father, an incident that is just one of many deeply difficult and traumatic events in the life of Norma Bates. Eager to start a new life, Norma buys a hotel in White Pine Bay, Oregon and moves there with Norman. However, their new life isn’t quite what Norma had hoped it would be. She’s assaulted by someone from the family who originally owned the house and hotel, she finds out the city is planning to build a bypass that will take away a lot of the road traffic away from the hotel, and she discovers her hotel has a history of being used for shady means.

In fact, the entire town of White Pine Bay is hardly the quaint small town she had been hoping to live in. The town is built around the drug industry and other criminal rackets, which Norma’s other son Dylan gets involved with when he comes to town. Dylan isn’t nearly as close to Norma as Norman is, which Dylan resents, but he ultimately cares about his brother.

Meanwhile, Norman tries to adjust to life at his new high school. Fitting in isn’t easy for him, but he makes friends with fellow student Emma, who is dealing with cystic fibrosis. Emma has a crush on Norman and develops a friendship with Norma. However, Norman has a misguided, unrequited crush on Bradley, a much more popular girl in school. In addition to his highly-sheltered upbringing, Norman is also experiencing unusual blackouts and Norma is struggling to understand what’s going on with him while trying to protect him from himself and from the outside world.

On the whole, if you’re a fan of PsychoBates Motel is well worth checking out on Netflix. When the series was announced, I felt like the series had the potential to be good and fortunately, I was not disappointed. Like most TV series, it has its stronger and its weaker seasons. Season 1 was great, I wasn’t as impressed by season 2, and season 3 was a little bit of a return to form. But even the weaker seasons are worth sticking with because it all builds up to season 4, which is currently airing on A&E. By season 4, it’s very clear that Norman is more deeply troubled than Norma can handle and every episode so far has been really, really good.

Although the movie Psycho was released in 1960, Bates Motel is set in the modern day. However, there is a lot of very retro flair to the series that almost makes it seem like it’s only this quasi-modern day setting. The characters in the show use smartphones and the internet, but then there’s Norman’s teacher who has a very vintage-looking style and Norma doesn’t drive a particularly ultra-modern car. The time it takes place in is just one of the differences between the movie and the show. The Bates Motel was located in Arizona in the movie, but it’s in Oregon in the TV show. Those differences don’t really detract from the show, though.

Vera Farmiga and Freddie Highmore are both fantastic as Norma and Norman. Farmiga is particularly amazing and it amazes me that she doesn’t get more recognition at awards. She makes you want to root for Norma, she simultaneously makes you very frustrated by her, but she also has some great comedy moments in there, too. And Highmore is definitely up for the challenge of taking a very well-known character portrayed by a very iconic actor and making it his own. He channels just the right amount of Anthony Perkins’ performance, but he does a great job of making it a sort of less-evolved version of the character. As the series progresses, his performance has only gotten stronger.

In addition to being a prequel to the events of PsychoBates Motel is very frequently compared to Twin Peaks. I’m a huge Twin Peaks fan and there is a very distinct influence there, but Bates Motel stands up very well on its own. They’re both set in small towns where nothing is what it seems, but it’s not like Norman is having dreams about being a room with red curtains and a black and white floor. Twin Peaks has a lot of supernatural and paranormal themes, but Bates Motel deals more with psychological issues and crime stories.

The hardest thing about watching Bates Motel is that it has many great characters and the show really makes you like them and sympathize with them. But since we know what happens in Psycho, we know that inevitably, none of these characters are going to have a happy ending.

Hail, Caesar! (2016)

Hail Caesar

During the golden age of the studio system, Hollywood studios were very protective of their stars’ images. The last thing any studio wanted to happen was to have one of their prized stars’ images tarnished by a scandal. To keep bad publicity at bay, studios would hire people to put the kibosh on stories before they made their way into the gossip columns. Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is one of these “fixers” for Capitol Pictures and the time and energy he has to invest into protecting the studio’s stars takes a toll on his personal life.

First of all, Capitol Pictures is in the middle of production on their latest prestige picture, Hail, Caesar!, when its star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) suddenly disappears. Baird has a reputation for womanizing and going off on benders for days at a time, but this time, he’s been drugged and kidnapped by a couple of extras who are working as part of a group of Communist sympathizers. The group sends a ransom note to Capitol Pictures, demanding $100,000 for his return. When Baird wakes up in the home of a Hollywood big shot, he actually begins to side with the Communists, not realizing his fellow Capitol Pictures star Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum) also has ties to the organization.

Then there’s DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), the musical star with a wholesome image who is expecting a child out of wedlock. Not willing to go along with a studio-arranged marriage, she is willing to go along with Mannix’s other idea of putting her child up for adoption, then adopting it back.

Not quite as scandalous is the matter of Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), the singing cowboy star whose career is being forced in a new direction. While Hobie was right at home with a lasso and a horse, he’s hopelessly struggling with his latest role in a more sophisticated period film. He desperately wants to be out of the picture, but Mannix insists he finish the movie and insists he start being seen with starlet Carlotta Valdez (Veronica Osorio) to continue building his new image.

In the midst of all this, Mannix is struggling to decide whether or not he ought to accept a job offer from Lockheed Martin.

When the trailer for Hail, Caesar! hit the internet back in October 2015, I, like many people, was really excited about it. Unfortunately, I liked the trailer more than I liked the movie. Hail, Caesar! wasn’t a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination; I got some good laughs out of it, liked many of the performances, and thought the sets were fantastic. And any fan of classic Hollywood is bound to have fun picking up on all the references to real stars and incidents that inspired its various storylines.

However, the direction felt unfocused and the movie felt longer than its 100 minute runtime. With so many different characters involved and so many storylines going on in such a short amount of time, there just wasn’t a whole lot of time to develop any of them into anything I was genuinely interested in. For example, the DeeAnna Moran story was clearly inspired by the ordeal Loretta Young went through to cover up the fact that her daughter Judy Lewis was fathered by Clark Gable. The real story of that is one of Hollywood’s most notorious scandals and could certainly be a movie unto itself, but it’s actually one of the least interesting storlyines of Hail, Caesar!

All in all, there are worse ways to spend 100 minutes, but it’s ultimately a lot of missed potential. If you haven’t seen it yet, it’d be worth checking out if you can catch it at a cheap show.

Ed Wood (1994)

Ed Wood 1994

30-year-old Ed Wood (Johnny Depp) wants nothing more than to make movies and be a major Hollywood director just like his idol Orson Welles. While trying to get his big break in the film industry, he tries his hand doing stage plays starring his girlfriend Dolores (Sarah Jessica Parker) and friend Bunny Breckinridge (Bill Murray), but audiences stay away and critics aren’t impressed. But when Ed finds out a producer is planning to make a movie based on the life of Christine Jorgensen, a famous trans woman, he knows that he’s the perfect director for the project because he secretly loves dressing in women’s clothing. The producer is looking for a director with experience, but Ed gets the job when he tells the producer that he could get Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau), whom he had recently befriended, to appear in it.

During the production of the movie, which ended up being known as Glen or Glenda, Ed battles with the producer because Ed wants to go for honesty and realism, but the producer wants exploitation. Dolores is also shocked when she finds out how much the movie reflects their lives. When the movie fails and he can’t get more work, Dolores suggests he try finding funding elsewhere so he can make the movies he wants to make without having to answer to anyone.

Although Ed is, eventually, able to get enough funding to make movies like Bride of the Monster, Hollywood success and critical acclaim continue to elude him. Along the way, his relationship with Dolores becomes strained and ends, plus he has to cope with his good friend Bela Lugosi’s battle with drug addiction and eventual death. But things start looking up when he meets Kathy O’Hara (Patricia Arquette) and he talks a church into funding a project he really wants to make — Plan 9 From Outer Space, starring his friends Vampira (Lisa Marie) and Tor Johnson (George Steele). The movie also gave him the chance to use some footage of Bela that had been filmed shortly before his death.

But Ed soon finds out that having financial backers doesn’t provide as much freedom as he’d hoped for and he gets tired of the church’s concerns over the direction of the movie. Frustrated, he goes to a bar where he has a chance encounter with his idol, Orson Welles (Vincent D’Onofrio), who inspires him to go back and fight to make the movie he always dreamed of.

Like most Hollywood biopics, Ed Wood isn’t a completely accurate portrayal of his life or the lives of some of his friends. The portrayal of Dolores seems to get the most criticism since she actually had a very active acting career during the time she spent with Ed, which isn’t mentioned at all in the movie. Dolores herself has said that she wished the movie had shown more of the love story between her and Ed and said that the movie didn’t depict Ed’s alcoholism during this time in his life. Bela Lugosi also wasn’t known to curse the way he did in Ed Wood and the movie makes no reference to Lugosi’s son or the woman he was married to at the time of his death.

But despite its inaccuracies, Ed Wood is an extremely entertaining movie. It’s the kind of movie I could easily watch over and over again. I loved Johnny Depp’s unrelentingly optimistic performance as Ed Wood. Depp said he got into character by studying Ronald Reagan speeches, Mickey Rooney movies, Casey Kasem, and Jack Haley in The Wizard of Oz and if you can imagine all of those things combined, you’ve got a pretty spot-on idea of what his performance is like. Martin Landau was also fantastic as Bela Lugosi and he really deserved the Oscar he won for his performance.

A lot of Tim Burton’s most recent work hasn’t gotten the best reviews, but Ed Wood is a great reminder of how good of a director Tim Burton can be when he’s at his best. He’s the only major director working right now I can think of who could make a movie that makes you want to root for the guy who made Plan 9 From Outer Space, a movie that’s often called the worst movie ever made. Plus I kind of respect the fact that Burton said he didn’t want to delve too much into the darker aspects of Ed’s life, or the lives of his friends, because he felt these people had already been ridiculed enough. Too bad Dolores got a bad shake in the movie, though.

The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe (2015)

The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe

Not long before her death in 1962, a new psychiatrist arrives at the home of Marilyn Monroe (Kelli Garner). Even though she’s no stranger to psychotherapy, the thought of meeting a new therapist is enough to make her an insecure mess. She keeps her therapist waiting for over an hour, but when she finally does arrive, she’s ready to tell him all about her troubled childhood, her relationship with her mentally unstable mother Gladys (Susan Sarandon), her career, and her relationships with her various husbands and her aunt who cared for her.

The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe is one of those times where I have to admit that I completely misjudged the entire project from the get-go. Although I am a big Marilyn fan, the idea of yet another Marilyn biopic was enough to make me roll my eyes a little. Not only was it yet another Marilyn biopic, it was being produced by Lifetime and their Liz & Dick fiasco from 2012 is still the punchline to many jokes in the classic film community. Plus I really didn’t know what to make of Kelli Garner being cast as Marilyn since I’d only seen her on the show Pan-Am, and that was a few years ago, so I just didn’t remember her well enough to have a strong opinion either way. Basically, the only thing that made me think this might have some modicum of potential was Susan Sarandon being cast as Gladys Mortenson, Marilyn’s mother.

Although Pan-Am may not have been enough of me to have a strong opinion of Kelli Garner, The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe changed that. I was very impressed by her performance as Marilyn; she did a fantastic job of getting the voice, the mannerisms, and the body language down. In fact, I’ll go as far as to say that this was my personal favorite portrayal of Marilyn in a film or mini-series. (Even though I liked Michelle Williams in My Week With Marilyn, I hesitate to call that a Marilyn Monroe biopic because it’s not specifically about Marilyn, it’s the story of a kid who happened to encounter Marilyn.) I’ve read some reviews by people who have called Garner’s voice as Marilyn a caricature. But Michelle Williams also got a good amount of criticism for her take on Marilyn’s voice, which was really toned down from the voice we all know from Marilyn’s films. So it seems like actresses who play Marilyn just can’t win either way with getting Marilyn’s voice right. They try to make it more natural when portraying Marilyn in her day-to-day life and get criticized, but if they try to do the more signature Marilyn voice, they get criticized for that, too.

On the whole, The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe had surprisingly high production values. It didn’t look cheap and low-rent. The costumes, hair, and make-up all looked great and showed a great deal of attention to detail. For example, I loved that at one point, Marilyn was seen wearing a pair of shoes very similar to these, because I remembered seeing several pictures of her wearing shoes just like them.

One thing I really liked about it is that it ultimately portrayed Marilyn to be a fighter. She had a hard childhood and with her family history of mental illness, there were somethings she simply couldn’t escape. But it never showed her to be resigned to that fact. We see her fighting for her sanity, for her career, for her respectability, and for her mother’s love. She fought for a lot and that’s something I don’t think she gets nearly enough credit for.

In short, The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe was everything Liz & Dick wasn’t — well acted with a thoughtful script, high production values, and good costumes, hair, and make-up. Lifetime proved that yes, they are capable of producing quality movies and mini-series.  Even though I make a lot of jokes about bad Lifetime movies, but I can’t knock this one too much.

The writing isn’t perfect; it has its fair share of historical inaccuracies, but I’ve come to accept that virtually any biopic will have those. And there were a few moments where it tried too hard to shoehorn in a “Marilyn-ism” like, “I just want to be wonderful.” For some reason, that kind of annoyed me. And the title seems to be very out of place since there’s nothing about it that was a secret; it was all things the general public has known about Marilyn for decades.

It might not be perfect, but as far as Marilyn Monroe biopics go, I prefer it to the others.

Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982)

Come Back to the Five and Dime Jimmy Dean Jimmy DeanWhen James Dean, Elizabeth Taylor, and Rock Hudson come to Marfa, Texas to film the movie Giant in 1955, it’s the chance of a lifetime for teenaged James Dean fan Mona (Sandy Dennis).  Mona lives in McCarthy, Texas, not too far from Marfa, and is the head of the Disciples of James Dean, the local James Dean fan club.  Mona and her friend Joe (Mark Patton), also a fan club member, drive out to Marfa to see about being cast as extras in Giant.

Mona returns to McCarthy with the wildest story possible — not only was she an extra in Giant, she also had an affair with James Dean and is pregnant with his child.  Instead of going off to school, she stays in McCarthy and continues working at the local Five and Dime with Juanita (Sudie Bond).  When the baby is born, Mona names him Jimmy Dean and the two of them become local celebrities.  Signs are placed along the highway encouraging people to stop at the Five and Dime to see the son of James Dean.

Twenty five years after the death of James Dean, the Disciples of James Dean have a reunion at the Five and Dime in McCarthy.  The signs on the highway have faded, the town has been going downhill for years, and not too many people come to the old Five and Dime anymore.  But despite the world changing around them, Mona and Juanita haven’t changed much over the years.  Mona’s still at the Five and Dime with Juanita and still makes trips out to Marfa to collect pieces of the facade of Reata, which has started crumbling into dust.

Fellow fan club member Sissy (Cher) has moved back to McCarthy and is trying to recapture some of her youth.  Stella Mae (Kathy Bates) and Edna Louise (Marta Heflin) travel in for the reunion and they’re joined by a mysterious, yet familiar, woman named Joanne (Karen Black).  During the reunion, the women are confronted with the truth about secrets from the past and are forced to take a good hard look at the women they have become.

Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean is one of those great dramas that is unfortunately very overlooked.  I recently saw a stage version of Come Back to the Five and Dime…, which I really enjoyed, so naturally I wanted to see how the movie compared.  Although I thought it worked better overall as a play, the film version is really deserving of a second look.  Director Robert Altman truly seemed to revel in the environment of that dusty, run-down Five and Dime store. Everything about Come Back to the Five and Dime… felt so raw, I loved it.  There is nothing glossed-up about the world these characters inhabit; there’s no ultra-flattering lighting or soft focus to be seen here.  None of the characters look glamorous.  It’s not like the Five and Dime just needs a fresh coat of paint, you can imagine the tumbleweeds blowing on down the road outside.

Much of the movie is told in flashback and Altman had the very clever idea of using a mirror on the wall of the Five and Dime to convey the flashbacks.  To do this, a second set was built, a mirror image of the main Five and Dime set, and had a two-way mirror dividing the sets.  To film the flashback scenes, the lights were turned on for the second set and the actors stood on the other side of the mirror, creating a flawless reflection effect.

Come Back to the Five and Dime… also features a stellar cast.  There isn’t a single role in it that I wish I could have recast.  Sandy Dennis was perfect as the neurotic and delusional Mona.  Mona is a Norma Desmond type character in the sense that she also built a life around her delusions and clings to them the best she can. But unlike Norma, Mona hasn’t completely and totally lost her grip on her sanity and Sandy Dennis excelled at bringing a very human quality to Mona.  Karen Black and Kathy Bates were both excellent in their parts, but my favorite performance in the movie was Cher’s.  Cher was wonderfully bold and self-assured, but in the scene where Sissy is telling a heartbreaking story, she really made me feel Sissy’s pain without resorting to over-the-top theatrics.

Liz & Dick (2012)

Liz & Dick opens with the title appearing over this picture, the movie’s one and only decent publicity photo. It’s all downhill from there.

If you’re pressed for time, I can sum up my thoughts on Liz & Dick in five seconds:

Now, on to my real review.

(more…)