Saturday, January 30, 2010

RIP:Jenny and Jean

I’ve been dog sick (for real), and soul sick, thus the blog has laid moribund, gathering electronic dust and perhaps losing whatever miniscule (but committed) readership I have. A bug of sorts may have physically splayed me, and the political landscape around us has continually sickened me, yet I’ve vowed to keep politics out of it and stay within the pleasure confines of the culture zone. A place where one can opine with delicacy, an actual thought process, and with ready theorems and even actual supportive facts and examples.

I’ve also been kicking myself for not somehow finding the time to toss off a few words about the recent passing of Hollywood beauty Jennifer Jones, and now that the one and only Jean Simmons has joined her in the astral dressing rooms, I am compelled to make up for it. Jones and Simmons shouldn’t be consigned to one general mini-tribute, but, in fact, they did indeed share certain big screen qualities, and both had equally difficult times landing resonating roles and both had rather strange careers.

Jennifer Jones was born Phylis Isley in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1919, the daughter of a local showbiz type, and she eventually found her way to Hollywood as an ingĂ©nue in the late 30’s and married the troubled young actor Robert Walker. She soon came under the penetrative gaze of the all powerful David O. Selznick, and found herself contracted to him and eventually engaged in an affair which helped break up both of their marriages, leading to their own legal coupling. Renamed, she made her official debut, in 1943’s The Song of Bernadette, and won a thoroughly unexpected Oscar for best actress. After snatching the coveted crown so early into her career, it would be forever debated by both industry and critical mavens whether her undeniably big screen glow emanated from the pure magic of perfect casting or an acting sense that wasn’t quite formed or shaped. Jones continually conveyed a deep-seated earnestness in her work.

Selznick was obsessed with Jones and her burgeoning career, eventually causing both directors and production types to hope against her landing a role in their upcoming production, fearing the flurry of memos and continual suggestive interference that was sure to come from Selznick. Ironically enough, despite his purest desires, he also seemed devoid of good judgment when choosing her roles. She is so magnificently miscast in 1946’s Duel in the Sun, that her misplaced ferocity as a tempestuous bad girl, in a luridly technicolored western sudser, made it one of the greatest Hollywood camp pleasures of all time, and a pivotal film for such latter-day biggie directors as Pedro Almodovar and Marty Scorsese. She is memorable in Carrie (’52), Ruby Gentry (’52), Beat the Devil (’54), Love is a Many Splendored Thing (’55), A Farewell to Arms (57), and faded out in rather high ((and campy) style in The Towering inferno (’74). Ethereal, severely limited in range, she was, for a time, one of those unadorned 40’s screen goddesses, yet she always stood out as a slightly off-the-mark type, one whom emanated definite vibes of peculiarity.

Jean Simmons, born in London in 1929, was a successful and extremely popular actress before she entered her twenties. A porcelain vision throbbing with inner vibrancy she couldn’t be missed in Great Expectations (’46), Black Narcissus (’47), and Hamlet (’48), all exemplary British films. She wound up in Hollywood at the tender age of 22, signed to a contract with the notorious producer and skirt-chaser Howard Hughes, who seemed not to care that Simmons was newly betrothed to British matinee macho man Stewart Granger. Punished by a petulant Hughes after she (one of the few it seems) turned him away, he forced her into a role that seemed ill-suited for her, as the angelic psychopath opposite tough guy/ patsy Robert Mitchum in Otto Preminger’s 1952 Angel Face, in which she turned in perhaps one of the most hypnotic and memorable woman’s roles in all of film noir, and forever created her own little filmic undercurrent. She was strong in The Actress('53), good in The Robe ('53), stood up to a grandstanding Brando in Desiree('54), and absolutely hit the mark, both singing and partnering again with Brando as Sister Sarah in Guys and Dolls (’55).

By now she had turned into an absolutely versatile leading lady, the aging process melting her otherworldly air of perfection by maturing into an unexpected vivacious, even salacious side. She did noteworthy work in The Big Country ('58),Elmer Gantry ('60), and The Grass is Greener('61) and then never again regained her spot at the top as the tumultuous (for the movie industry also) decade tumbled on. Simmons was indeed a radiant beauty but onscreen she learned to convey a decidedly feminine luminosity and sharpened sense of inner being, with nary a drop of sweat ever showing.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Clooney Factor

The following column is reprinted from the January issue of Providence Monthly (including the stuff my youthful editors somehow deem neccessary to leave out):

Eyes Wide Open
by Scott Duhamel

It’s an age-old parlor game, known to certifiable cinephiles and those who kinda dip their toes in. What contempo actor or actress best represents, substitutes, replicates, approximates, conjures up, pays homage to, works within the shadow of, or maybe even directly connects to which iconic screen star of the past? Are Jack Nicholson or Robert DeNiro or Sean Penn legit Sons Of Brando? Is there a thin line that connects Veronica Lake to Angie Dickinson to Ellen Barkin to Sharon Stone to Vera Farmiga? Did James Dean begat Paul Newman who begat Brad Pitt? Is there really a logical connection between Jimmy Stewart and Tom Hanks? Is Cate Blanchett the new Katherine Hepburn, Johhny Depp what Monty Clift could have become, Liam Neeson hovering between becoming the second coming of Richard Burton, Albert Finney or Richard Harris? And, of course, is George Clooney the new version of Cary Grant?

Clooney, who by the way, is enjoying one hell of year-end showcase with the recent roll out of The Men Who Stare at Goats, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and the just released Up in the Air, seems to me, to be very worthy of comparison to the consummate Grant. Both exhibited a unique blend of pure good looks, gentlemanly sophistication, and an overriding mix of worldly irony, inner charm, and a genuine sense of remarkable self-depreciation. Grant, like Georgie Boy, made himself equally at home in screwball comedies, romantic sudsers, suspenseful pieces, and out and out actioneers. Both actors seem consummately masculine; yet exhibit a heightened sense of sartorial style, the smart comic tendency to lean into a clueless subterfuge of overconfidence, and (when playing it tough, haggard, or cool) an alchemic air of brilliant nonchalance.

Grant, long overlooked by critics yet embraced by audiences, marked his greatest achievements under the steadfast tutelage of Howard Hawks (Only Angels Have Wings, Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday) and Alfred Hitchcock (Notorious, To Catch a Thief. North by Northwest), Clooney, who seems to bring forth a nitcrit-penned essay following him every few films with a title like “The Last of the Movie Stars?” has been best utilized by smart-aleck filmmakers Steven Soderbergh and The Coen Brothers. Both men sport pasts that to some diminish their later achievements; with Grant (born Archibald Leach) beginning his showbiz career as an acrobat in a traveling troupe, and Clooney starting out as infamously unlucky TV participant in a multitude of failed television pilots. Both also engage their big screens roles with a seeming modicum of effort, and their respective sweat less role-playing does not bring forth the typical critical hosannas.

A recent Time magazine piece by Richard Corliss divvied up Clooney’s performances into three simple categories: Serious George (The Perfect Storm, Solaris, Syriana), Glorious George (Out of Sight, Ocean’s Eleven, Fantastic Mr. Fox) and Spurious George (O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Burn After Reading, The Men Who Stare At Goats). Corliss also claimed that Clooney’s turn as Ryan Bingham, the seemibly smooth operator who blissfully flies the friendly skies in Jason Reitman’s adaptation of Walter Kirn’s 2001 novel Up in the Air, before touching ground to execute the vagaries of his one-of-a-kind-job---firing unsuspecting corporate day workers—is among the first roles that the actor can be seen as Total George, utilizing aspects of all three of his well known big screen personas. (Anthony Lane, in the New Yorker, made much the same point, while labeling Clooney’s division of roles as “cranky stiffs, troubled defenders of honor, and gossamer smoothies.”)

Up in the Air may indeed be Clooney’s best performance to date, it can certainly lay claim to be among his most affecting. Neither Clooney’s central figure or the film ever seeps into the redemptive mode, and both movie and performance benefit for their bold fence straddling, and refusal to wrap up near anything neatly. Vera Farmiga, as the fellow traveler and soul sister with whom Clooney’s fixer gets entangled with, is for once, an on screen feminine counterpart who seems truly adult and intoxicatingly equal. Up in the Air is a woefully sad sack economic fable for our times, but Total George ups the ante, making it a personal tale that belies its basic structure as a very dark social comedy. Director Reitman traffics in a shimmering and resonant ambiguity, and Clooney proves well more than able in delivering an incisive central performance that is exquisitely poised between acerbic disdain and lost boy soul searching. George Clooney is indeed a big screen rarity—the matinee idol that can act with the best of them.