Monday, March 19, 2012

I don't want to go into all the side effects, but i didn't really have that many during treatment, but the side effects started to pop up last week by Monday, and by Wednesday (the day after the radiation therapy ended)... well, there they were! For example: i started to get a rash (from dry skin) on my right leg. I've been putting cream/lotion on it, and it's slowly going away, but it didn't show up during the actual treatment (my legs were exposed during the radiation) but it happened at the end. Oh, well....

So i took it easy. But one note: yesterday (March 18) would have been Damian Bona's birthday; instead, there was a memorial service for him. I couldn't go (i was afraid i wouldn't be able to sit for more than half an hour without rushing to the bathroom), but Damian's death (January 29, 2012) was particularly poignant, coming as it did just before the end of award season. Damian represented one of the great paradoxes involved with movie love: he and Mason Wiley had done such meticulous research for their book "Inside Oscar" (and Damian would update it after Mason's death), so he really didn't have any illusions about the way the Motion Picture Academy was set up. Yet Damian couldn't get over wanting the more deserving (in his view) nominee to win. He still felt that it was unfair that Grace Kelly had won for "The Country Girl" as opposed to Judy Garland for "A Star Is Born" in 1954. But that's the way the Oscars work (which is why i never bother with "Who Should Win" in those various Oscar polls; often, the best person isn't even nominated). And Damian would know it, but he couldn't help getting involved in the idea that the Oscars should represent some standard of excellence. (Should, but rarely do.) And Damian would always have very pointed comments about the insanity involved in the not-quite-campaigning that some stars go through.

Saturday (March 17) was St. Patrick's Day. For the occasion, TCM showed a bunch of "Irish" movies, and i watched "Shake Hands With the Devil", "The Rising of the Moon" and "Young Cassidy". "Shake Hands With the Devil" i had seen as a child, and i've been afraid of seeing it again, because i had memories of it as being particularly brutal. Well, it wasn't (really) but it was the fact that, by the end, the character played by James Cagney becomes so fanatical in his rebellion that he starts to execute people he feels have betrayed the cause. When he shoots Glynis Johns's character... that was one of those moments which really struck me when i was young. So i was glad i saw it again, it does hold up as an intriguing look at the Irish rebellion. (Michael Anderson was one of those directors who seemed relatively anonymous; he's credited with the elephantine "Around the World In 80 Days" but his better movies include "Chase a Crooked Shadow", "The Wreck of the Mary Deare", and this one.)

I didn't know if i'd actually seen "The Rising of the Moon" before; it's such a rare film, and it hasn't shown up in decades. But once the movie started, so many scenes were so familiar that i realized, yes, i must have seen this. (For example: the line-up of the protesters in front of the prison in the last segment.) I think it's one of the better John Ford movies from the 1950s, and i find it infinitely preferable to his other Irish idyll, "The Quiet Man". The film seems modest (it's in black-and-white, and it's less than 90 minutes long) but it's crowded with characters (and Ford allows the mostly Abbey Theater cast a lot of leeway) and each of the three segments doesn't really overstay its welcome. It's a lovely example of Ford's particular talents, and i think it should be better known. (I also feel that way about his London-set film, "Gideon of Scotland Yard".)  John Ford has become a rather ambivalent figure in cinema history; some of his worst traits (his sentimentality, the pictorialism that can slow down the pace, the traditionalism) have turned off a lot of people in the past few decades. Once, Ford was the most universally acclaimed American director, but that started to erode in the 1970s. There were a lot of reason for this, one of which was that, by then, Ford was often in ill health, but he would get contentious when people would come to interview him, and that didn't go over well. And there would be a lot of sniping: of his four Oscar wins as Best Director, it's now fashionable to say that Alfred Hitchcock was "robbed" in 1940 (when "Rebecca" won Best Picture, but Ford won Best Director for "The Grapes of Wrath") and Orson Welles was "robbed" in 1941 (when "How Green Was My Valley" won Best Picture, and Ford won his third Best Director Oscar for that film). Hitchcock (in fact) would always gripe about that. (I don't see why: even in 1941, when the New York Film Critics gave "Citizen Kane" the award for Best Picture, the award for Best Director went to Ford.) And no one seems to feel that Ford was robbed in 1939, when it was obvious he should have won for Best Director for "Stagecoach" (he won the New York Film Critics award, and was nominated) as opposed to Victor Fleming for "Gone With the Wind". Come on: it was known (at the time) that Victor Fleming didn't direct the whole thing, but that kind of block voting was so common for the Academy. Still, Ford may have been "overrated" (whatever that means) but now, he's often severely underrated. And "The Rising of the Moon" shows him in a modest but very pleasing mode, and its current obscurity doesn't seem warranted. And for sustained achievement, Ford's run from 1939 to 1941 ("Stagecoach", "Drums Along the Mohawk", "Young Mister Lincoln", "The Grapes of Wrath", "The Long Voyage Home", "How Green Was My Valley") really is spectacular, even given the one bummer in that period, "Tobacco Road". (And "Tobacco Road" has its defenders, though it is so severely compromised that it comes off as a precursor of the Ma and Pa Kettle movies.)

I remember going to see "Young Cassidy" when it first came out; it's one of the better examples of the Hollywood biopic, though i never understood why Sean O'Casey wound up being renamed Johnny Cassidy.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Cancer is insidious: it can attack anywhere. That said, from the last time i blogged, i've been involved in a month and a half of radiation therapy, which ended yesterday. I tried to maintain a regular routine: wake up, go in for my radiation therapy before 9 AM, and then resume my daily life. But it didn't work out that way. I was warned that, by the last week, i might feel very tired. And that happened! I tried to go to the first press screening for New Directors/New Films, and i was exhausted immediately after: i almost fell asleep on the subway home! So i decided i couldn't risk that again....

But before that, i did go to screenings, i have watched television... award season came and went, and i didn't do too badly in the IndieWire CriticWire poll. What i found interesting was that there were some surprises: usually, by the time the Academy Awards happen, the various guilds (SAG, PGA, DGA, et al) have given out their accolades, and the Academy Awards usually follow suit. This time, it didn't go according to the pre-plan (the biggest surprise: Viola Davis had won the SAG Best Actress for "The Help" but the Oscar went to Meryl Streep for "The Iron Lady") so, if this had been known, there might have been more suspense going in. Not that it matters. I've given up watching award shows: even the Independent Spirit Awards tend to be a drag (in the case of the Spirits: the enforced sense of comic relief has long since become strained, and when it's not embarrassing, it's strenuous). And now, with the instantaneous feedback, you can always find out the winners without having to go to the trouble of watching the inanities.

I haven't had that many side-effects, but i've let my hair grow. I know that it's chemo that causes hair loss, but i'm keeping my hair just in case.

I've been seeing a lot of movies i missed on TV: "The Tempest" (i had missed the screenings and never felt the urge to see it, because i'd heard so many negative comments, but it wasn't as bad as i'd been led to believe); "Hanna" (i remember how excited a number of women critics were because of the premise, it was rather like a pubescent replay of the critical excitement that a number of women claimed to feel because of Jodie Foster's performance in "The Silence of the Lambs"), "Charlie St. Cloud" (another case of it-wasn't-as-bad-as-i'd-heard; why this film should be given the credit for wrecking Zac Efron's career i don't know).

But i should be back in action in a few days, and there's a lot to look forward to; however, one thing was that during February, there were several events which i really couldn't get to. Several friends premiered movies as part of MoMA's Documentary Fortnight, Jim Hubbard with "United In Anger" and Roddy Bogawa with "Taken By Storm", but both were showing at 8 PM, and by 9 PM every evening, i was definitely starting to fade (in many cases, i'd be asleep by then). This also meant that i missed a lot of things on TV: i just couldn't stay awake for "Revenge" (what did happen? how did the season end? i heard about the kiss between Gabriel Mann's character and Ashton Holmes's character, but i didn't see it) or "White Collar" or "Psych"....

So the whole of February... it's not so much a blur as it was a slow month. But a few notes: of course, TCM did its usual 31 Days of Oscar, usually a month to miss, but there were a few highlights, one of which was the showing of "Holy Matrimony", a charming pseudo-English comedy directed by John Stahl, with an Oscar-nominated screenplay by Nunnally Johnson based on Arnold Bennett's story (which had been filmed before in 1933 as "His Double Life" with Lillian Gish and Roland Young). The 1943 cast had Gracie Field (in the best of her American movies) and Monty Woolley (at the peak of his star status; he had been nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actor for "The Pied Piper" the year before, the same year that he starred as "The Man Who Came to Dinner"). Monty Woolley's career wouldn't really decline so much as Woolley would be eclipsed the following year: in 1944, Clifton Webb would create a sensation in "Laura" and would become the specialty star that Woolley threatened to be. (After all, how many acerbic, superior, gentlemen-of-a-certain-age bachelor stars can there be at any one time?) Webb would become one of the biggest stars at 20th Century Fox from the late 1940s through the 1950s; though initially a co-star (in "Laura" and in "The Razor's Edge", both of which he would be Oscar-nominated for), by the time of "Sitting Pretty" (1948) he would be toplined as one of Fox's biggest male stars. (It's Webb who is top-billed in the 1953 "Titanic" as well as the 1954 "Three Coins In the Fountain".) Plus he starred in a series of comedies where he played professors or various types of "experts", starting with "Sitting Pretty" (for which he got his third Academy Award nomination, only this time as Best Actor and not Best Supporting Actor): "Elopement", "Dreamboat", "Cheaper By the Dozen", "Mister Scoutmaster", "Mr. Belvedere Goes to College", "Mr. Belvedere Rings the Bell", "Holiday For Lovers"... one curiosity about most of these movies is that Webb was often seen as family man, or someone who had to deal with children ("Sitting Pretty", "Mister Scoutmaster").

On Saturday, TCM devoted their evening programming to Clifton Webb, starting with "The Razor's Edge" and going onto "For Heaven's Sake" (playing a guardian angel of a child!), "Mister Scoutmaster" (which i hadn't seen in decades... it didn't improve with age), "Sitting Pretty" and "Boy On a Dolphin". His reputation within the industry was enormous: he had been a huge star on Broadway as the greatest dancing star (and yes, reviews at the time showed that he was regarded as the greatest, outclassing Fred Astaire, who was regarded as the lesser half of the Astaires, his sister Adele being considered the true star of their act) and by the 1940s Webb had made the transition away from musical comedy. He had triumphed in the Broadway production of Noel Coward's "Blithe Spirits" and was on tour when Otto Preminger (as the producer) decided to cast Webb in "Laura". After the contretemps (the original director, Rouben Mamoulian, was fired and Preminger was then called upon to direct), "Laura" would be one of the big hits of the year, and Clifton Webb would be established as a star in the movies. Vincent Price (in numerous interviews over the years) has stated that the entire cast had been getting along very well under Mamoulian, but once Preminger came in, the cast started to feel uneasy. The congeniality that the cast enjoyed under Mamoulian was gone, replaced by an often tyrannical regime. The only person who seemed to thrive was Webb, because he was grateful that Preminger (as producer) had gone to bat for him with Darryl F. Zanuck (Zanuck had wanted Laird Cregar in the role); but Price always credited the hostility on the set with enhancing the movie, as he said, the fact that everyone was on edge and uneasy added to the atmosphere of suspicion and apprehension  which distinguished "Laura". One interesting note: Robert Osborne mentioned that Webb had been offered the part of the director in "The Band Wagon" (the part eventually played by Jack Buchanan), but by that point, Webb hadn't danced in over 15 years, and he was loathe to show up when he wouldn't be at his best. He had his reputation as a great dancer to consider, and to get back into shape would have required a lot of rehearsal time, months of hard work, and Webb just didn't feel he could get back to where he could keep up with Astaire. But it's unfortunate, because there's no record of the talent which made Webb one of the big Broadway stars of the 1920s and 1930s. But Clifton Webb did become a movie star, and one of the most unusual stars of the 1950s.