Month: August 2012
It was back in New York City — in the year 1991, as I remembered it — at the office of the stock exchange where I once worked, that I found myself chatting with Mike Boyd, an African-American coworker of mine. We were discussing, among other topics, the relative popularity of Brazilian music with American lovers of jazz, and the fact of his having been a big fan of both genres.
“But Joe,” as Mike pointed out, “Brazilian artists and musicians have been playing on pop and jazz recordings for over 20 years.”
He offered as evidence three percussionists whose respective careers, in some cases, went as far back as the late sixties and early seventies: Airto Moreira, for Chick Corea’s band Return to Forever; Paulinho da Costa, in the Quincy Jones-produced Michael Jackson album Thriller; and Naná Vasconcelos, with Pat Metheny’s ECM works.
“You’re kidding,” I scoffed, unconvinced by this ridiculous assertion. But after our conversation had ended and the day wore on, my curiosity started to get the better of me.
I rushed home that night to thoroughly ransack my living room in a mad attempt to read the credits and album covers on every one of my CDs, cassettes, and long-playing records — the sole purpose of which was to disprove my music-loving friend’s offhanded remark.
To my amazement, I discovered that Mike was right. Gracing the liner notes of my precious music collection, and buried deep within the print type of that microscopic two-and-a-half-point font, were the unmistakable, tongue-tripping Brazilian names of Gilson Peranzzetta, Nico Assumpção, Waltinho Anastácio, Duduka da Fonseca, Claudio Roditi, Cyro Baptista, Leila Pinheiro, Paulo Braga, and so on.
I needed no further convincing.
To state the obvious, no jazz or popular recording artist from the past, or of the present, has been able to completely resist the incredibly sultry sounds of Brazilian samba and her twin sister, bossa nova.
For decades, the recordings and live appearances of bandleaders, soloists, and performers — as varied and talented as singers Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat “King” Cole, Sarah Vaughan, Billy Eckstine, Eydie Gormé, and Dionne Warwick; instrumentalists Charlie Byrd, Stan Getz, Vince Guaraldi, Joe Henderson, Cliff Korman, Pat Metheny, and Emily Remler; pop vocalists Paul Simon, David Byrne, Al Jarreau, Suzanne Vega, Sting, Eric Clapton, and Sade; down to the slightly less than mainstream outpourings of smooth-jazz artists David Benoit, Bob James, Don and Dave Grusin, Larry Coryell, George Duke, Lee Ritenour, Michael Franks, Basia, Spyro Gyra, The Rippingtons, The Manhattan Transfer, and countless others — have featured Brazilian sidemen and session players, or been influenced by Brazil’s most sublime and precious commodity: her music.
Looking back on my own initial shock at this revelation, I should not have been so surprised. After all, my native-born wife Regina had introduced me to the gorgeous melodies of Brazilian jazz, samba, bossa nova, and MPB (Música Popular Brasileira, or “Brazilian Popular Music”) way back in the mid-1980s when we first got married.
She had opened my eyes to this bright new world of vivacious sounds, sophisticated harmonies, and loping rhythms, sung and played by a dazzling array of original and, in many cases, completely self-taught vocalists and musicians from our mother country, Brazil.
She had also been a regular listener to a now defunct New York-based radio station with the rather intriguing call letters of CD 101.9 (“Cool FM”), which played endless back-to-back smooth and light-jazz favorites, many of them flaunting the syncopated rhythms of bossa nova-tinged tunes.
How was it that American jazz and pop, and especially the soothing sonorities of cool jazz (which had originated on the West Coast in the 1950s), came to influence, and be so influenced by, the music of a country once considered a musical and cultural backwater?
In an online article entitled “Brazil’s Theme Song,” author Steven Byrd related the various influences of American popular music of the 1940s on the future bossa-nova sounds that were to emanate from Rio in the late fifties and early sixties. Byrd charted the gestation period of one of world music’s most famous and best-loved classic pop songs, “A Garota de Ipanema” (“The Girl from Ipanema”), with music by Tom Jobim and lyrics by Vinicius de Moraes, as a major example of this influence.
He also stressed the distinctive guitar-playing style of Bahian singer João Gilberto and the intriguing vocals of his then-wife, Astrud, as popularizing elements. To these must be added her plaintive, almost childlike performance of the lyrics, as well as the wonderfully honeyed tones of tenor saxophonist Stan Getz.
From these primeval beginnings, Brazilian artists and musicians came to lasting preeminence, and have long since returned the favor and repaid Brazil’s debt to American pop music, by permanently changing the landscape of jazz for future generations to thrill to.
The presence of so many Brazilian musicians in recording studios all over the United States, and around the world, which my friend Mike had once so casually alluded to, may have greatly accounted for the presence as well of the familiar sounds of this singularly infectious style of music found in American jazz; and which has been happily incorporated into the vocabulary of multi-ethnic performing artists from places as far afield as Africa, France, Italy, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Russia, and Japan.
This influence can be partially attributed to immigration, which first took place during and after the Second World War, with the early appearances of such iconic figures as singer-actress Carmen Miranda, guitarist Laurindo Almeida, Metropolitan Opera star Bidu Sayão, crooner Dick Farney, and poet and diplomat Vinicius de Moraes. This would become known as the “first wave” of Brazilian artists to hit the American musical and cultural shores.
The next mass migration occurred soon after the worldwide bossa nova craze took off in the early 1960s, made fervent by the championing of the cause by such luminaries as Tom Jobim and Luiz Bonfá, who were later joined by guitarists Oscar Castro-Neves and Bola Sete, singers Astrud and João Gilberto, and bandleader Sérgio Mendes. This “second wave” also came about just as Brazil had won successive victories in the World Cup Soccer finals of 1958 and 1962, and which coincided with my own family’s moorings into the port of New York around September of 1959.
With the further flowering of MPB and the tropicalismo movement of the late sixties and early seventies, artists as diverse as Caetano Veloso, Maria Bethânia, Gilberto Gil, Gal Costa, and Tom Zé (all from the Northeastern state of Bahia), along with Chico Buarque and Milton Nascimento, had evolved a highly eclectic and controversial brand of music that, while popular with the public, proved consciously critical of the right-wing military government’s repressive practices.
Along with other leftist-leaning intellectuals, poets, directors, writers, and journalists, many of these fine artists were either jailed or banished in a solemn “third wave,” with Caetano and Gil prominent among the offenders that included movie-maker Carlos Diegues and Brazil’s future president, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, in their number.
Mass Defection and Disaffection
The fourth, and possibly largest, flight of immigrants from Brazil began as the country took its first unsteady steps toward democracy in the late eighties to early nineties. It later threatened to totter altogether as the scandal surrounding President Fernando Collor de Mello helped spiral the already sputtering economy further downward in the early nineties.
At the time, the mass defection of so many Brazilians, by both legal and illegal means, to the environs of such tempting locales as New York, Miami, Los Angeles, Boston, San Francisco, Dallas, Houston, and Toronto, greatly increased the size of the overseas community of artists and musicians, and for which American jazz has been eternally grateful.
It certainly helped to benefit the dining and restaurant business: the popular lower-Manhattan hotspot S.O.B. (Sounds of Brazil), for example, had affiliated itself with jazz chanteuse and pianist Tânia Maria, another Brazilian émigré. It catered exclusively to the now chic and highbrow tastes, both culinary and musical, for all things Brazilian among New York’s dinner-hopping crowd.
In the major cities, however, these makeshift expatriates quickly became a rather motley assortment of street personages more akin to Old World gypsies than to New World pioneers, constantly multiplying and dividing in number and size — vanishing and reappearing with equal dexterity — and traveling freely to-and-from the U.S. and Brazil, seemingly at will and without proper documentation.
I personally ran into many of them while living in New York. Most were invariably from the state of Minas Gerais, the birthplace of composer-guitarist Toninho Horta, and of Milton Nascimento, another popular vocal export and a highly influential artist among knowledgeable jazz buffs (see Wayne Shorter’s 1975 album Native Dancer).
But all these migratory patterns and sociopolitical ramblings are neither satisfactory nor fully convincing explanations for this musical diversity and embrace of Brazilian talent. For another, more mundane exploration of this phenomenon, we must look to one Edson Aparecido da Silva, known professionally by the name “Café.”
Café, a percussionist from the Vila Maria section of São Paulo, has appeared on many American jazz recordings featuring such artists as Herbie Mann, James Last, Sadao Watanabe, Gato Barbieri, Chuck Mangione, Ernie Watts, Paquito D’Rivera, and Stevie Wonder. He first began his musical association with Chesky Records — primarily an audiophile specialty label out of the Big Apple — as a new arrival atop the “fourth wave” of immigrants back in 1985.
Record producer and part owner of the label, David Chesky, is a multi-talented bandleader, jazz pianist, and classical composer in his own right, as well as a confirmed Brazilianist. He enlisted the aid of some lesser known but experienced Brazilian performers (Ana Caram, Romero Lubambo, Badi Assad) to counter-balance the engagement of older, more established pros (Luiz Bonfá, Leny Andrade) in his all-digital music productions.
Chesky’s own album of original compositions, Club de Sol (1989), is a particular favorite of mine, and is highlighted by his superb piano playing and by Café’s distinctive vocal and percussive effects on several of the tracks.
The Love Connection
Both my wife and I had the immense pleasure of meeting Café at the Brasilia Restaurant, in midtown Manhattan, in the spring of 1988. It was basically a friendly get-together of teacher and students from my Portuguese language class at the New School for Social Research in Greenwich Village.
Upon greeting him, I was immediately struck by Café’s pleasant demeanor — typical of many Brazilians — and easy smile, which completely lit up his coffee-colored countenance, hence his descriptive sobriquet. He wasn’t tall by American standards, but was as solidly built as the Gávea rock in Rio, and as sturdy as a Brastemp refrigerator (a native-Brazilian brand).
He was visiting a fellow student at the time, a doctor by profession, who lived on Roosevelt Island, an exclusive and nearly inaccessible enclave wedged between the boroughs of Manhattan and Queens.
It was apparent from our brief conversation that Café had abundant personal charm, which he used to overcome his rudimentary grasp of English. “Americans are so… antipathetic,” he explained, as he plopped increasingly generous portions of feijoada (a black bean stew made with dried meat and pork) onto a spacious dinner plate. He was trying to describe the general aloofness of most New Yorkers by using the Portuguese word antipático in lieu of “unfriendly,” the more common English term for it.
“Not so,” I argued, as the discussion really started to heat up.
While we were talking, his doctor friend — a blue-eyed, strawberry blonde — sat there and beamed at him, fascinated by his bungled yet inoffensive transgressions against the English language. The obviously smitten American professional appeared to be totally captivated by this happy-go-lucky, wire-haired Afro-Brazilian musician seated to her left.
It was then that it finally struck me, the reason why so many jazz practitioners enjoyed playing and performing Brazil’s marvelous music: they simply happened to love Brazilians. But I needed to put this theory to the test.
I thought back to some captivating artistic and romantic pairings of the recent past: American trumpeter Randy Brecker with jazz keyboardist Eliane Elias; actor-director Robert Redford with sexy screen siren Sônia Braga; movie director Bruno Barreto and his actress wife Amy Irving; jazz-funk guitarist Lee Ritenour with his Brazilian spouse Carmen Santos; and other amorous associations too numerous to mention, including my own.
I remembered, too, that back in his salad days as an entertainer, Sérgio Mendes and his Brasil ’66 ensemble recorded and performed a Burt Bacharach/Hal David song, “The Look of Love”, which proved to be one of the group’s most requested numbers. Maestro Mendes was far more successful in his musical career in the States with his then-revolutionary strategy of lacing a Brazilian beat or two into the seams of American pop standards — a musical union of sorts — than he would ever have been had he stayed in his native land.
I guess my theory could be true after all, I reasoned. This love affair that American jazz and pop musicians have had, continue to have, and — dare I predict it — will continue to have for Brazilian harmonies, rhythms, and musical textures, despite the difficulties they may encounter with their respective languages from time to time, clearly reflects the real, palpable, and overpowering affection they must feel for the unaffected and ingenuous qualities of the Brazilian people themselves.
It would seem to be the all-important missing ingredient I had been searching for all along, if not the all-powerful magnetic allure — a literal marriage of convenience, and of mutual benefit.
One could probably justify anything to oneself, I correctly fathomed, if given enough time and thought. But yet I could not help to recall that in his massive historical novel War and Peace, Russian author Leo Tolstoy once wrote that to love life is to love God.
Since many Brazilians truly believe the old adage that Deus é brasileiro (“God is Brazilian”), it should naturally follow, then, that to love life is to love Brazilians — and, by extension, their music, language, and culture.
If only most things in life and art were that simple, or logical. ☼
Copyright (c) 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes
There’s No Need to Fear, Timão is Here!
“Don’t worry,” my father assured the rowdy bunch of soccer aficionados that had gathered outside the Cinco Esquinas (Five Corners) Bar & Grill, near the central part of the city known as Parí, “Corinthians will do it.”
“What? You can’t be serious?” exclaimed Azevedinho, one of dad’s old cronies. “Annibal, tell me you’re joking?”
“That stupid team hasn’t won a damned thing in years,” roared another, “and you’re saying they’ll be champions? Quick, someone, call an ambulance!”
“I’m telling you, Corinthians will win,” dad repeated, with even more gusto than before. “I’ll cut off my neck if they don’t go all the way,” he declared, as he defiantly left the bar, followed by the raucous crowd of doubting Thomases.
Dad was on his way to Morumbi Stadium, an imposing Coliseum-like structure situated in the choicest section of São Paulo, accompanied by my mother, her younger sister, and his brother-in-law. They were to be the guests of my father’s oldest nephew, Fredemari, who was shortly to become the chief administrator of Sport Club Corinthians Paulista, and were to celebrate his timely promotion in fairly big fashion: by going to the concluding match in the Paulista Championship between the underdog black-and-white-striped Timão (the name Corinthians followers gave their club) and the Ponte Preta squad.
Arriving early at the stadium, they sat down behind a glass-enclosed partition in a specially reserved corporate booth, cushioned from the delicate blows of paper cups, flying debris, and stray confetti strewn about everywhere by the thousands of delirious soccer fans assembled for this exciting occasion. They were flanked as well by the governor of the State of São Paulo along with other notables, politicians, and dignitaries.
The date was October 1977. Corinthians had last won the elusive Paulista title back in 1955, the year after my birth. Since then, the club had weathered 22 dismal seasons of ever-worsening drought conditions without ever having won a single campeonato. It was more than time for the team to make up the lost years and break this nearly quarter-century curse inflicted upon them — and dad did not want to miss out.
“Thanks be to God,” my father pronounced upon his return to New York, after having taken the month off to visit family and friends, “Corinthians did it.” At this point, he furtively crossed himself, which I correctly took for reverence.
“They did?” I quickly noted, giving my parents a big welcome home hug. “Did what?”
“They won the Paulista Championship,” he croaked, in barely audible tones.
“What happened to your voice?” I inquired. Mom then intervened, and explained that my father had yelled himself hoarse at the stadium after Corinthians had finally regained their championship club crown.
“Oh, I see,” was my absent-minded reply. Undisturbed by my lack of interest in this latest news flash, dad asked how I had spent the last four weeks that they had been away.
“Well, I went out last Sunday to Giants Stadium with Uncle Daniel,” I answered, “and we both saw Pelé’s final match with the Cosmos and his old team, Santos.”
“How was the game?” dad whispered, his words taking on the sound quality of a badly tuned radio broadcast.
“Boring. Low scoring, no thrills, no nothing. And the weather was awful, too. Cold, damp, and drizzly.”
“What did you expect from soccer in October?” he snorted. “Ridiculous!”
“Yeah, but there were seventy-seven thousand people in the stands. And Pelé gave a moving farewell speech. How was it at the stadium in São Paulo?” I asked innocently.
As if in blind obedience to some invisible, preconceived cue, dad pulled out his copy of the most recent edition of the Brazilian magazine Manchete. “See for yourself,” he asserted proudly.
There, on its front and back covers, was a splendid panoramic display of Morumbi Stadium, filled to the rafters with one hundred and fifty thousand screaming fans. Huge plumes of gray smoke issued from every conceivable vantage point, along with hundreds of fire cracker explosions, dozens of colorful balloons, miles of waving banners, and bushels of ticker-tape streamers, all vividly capturing the festive Carnival atmosphere provoked by Timão’s amazing victory performance — with my parents smack-dab in the middle of it all.
“Wow,” I mused to myself, wishing like crazy that I had been there with them, “it must’ve been quite a show.”
“You wouldn’t have believed it,” said dad, all misty-eyed and venerable for once, “but your mother and I witnessed it. Imagine nothing for 20 years and then, all of a sudden, a miracle. And I told everyone that because I was there, cheering for Corinthians, that they simply had to win, but no one believed me.”
My father’s voice was almost gone now, as he went to the kitchen to get a glass of water to soothe his aching throat.
“I bet they believe you now, huh dad?” I smiled knowingly, while gawking at the magazine photograph.
“Pois é,” was his strained final say on the matter. “Yes, indeed.”
My father had been what was once most commonly referred to as a corinthiano roxo or, for lack of a better translation, a “purple-faced Corinthians fanatic.” He truly ascribed to the lyrics of that old stadium standard (author unknown):
Doutor, eu não me engano,
Meu coração é corinthiano.
Doctor, I’m not mistaken,
But my heart beats Corinthian.
Indeed, all serious Timão addicts were widely renowned for their collectively shared suffering, usually experienced at home or in the stadium, and in clamorous accompaniment to the troubles of their luckless team.
Dad was no different. He had first felt his own unrequited pangs for the club during the daunting Depression years of the 1930s, as a less than academically inspired youngster brought up in the cement surroundings of São Paulo.
He frequented the club’s Parque São Jorge sports complex, located in the burgeoning middle-class neighborhood of Tatuapé, where it occupies enormously expansive property space to this day. He loved to hang around the main lounge, attempting to play snooker with the local pool sharks and trying to participate in the conversations of the more senior club members, all of whom had scrupulously analyzed the swings of the pendulum in the team’s ever-vacillating fortunes with the solemn exactitude of astrophysics.
With the aid of friends, but more specifically through the connections of his Corinthians-employed nephew Frede, dad became a lifetime member of the club, as had most of his relatives, with the notable exception of brother-in-law Arlindo, who was of Italian descent and, therefore, more of an “in the blood” Palmeiras rooter.
I suppose there were stray sheep to be found in just about every family’s flock, including ours, but our Uncle Arlindo was an especially lost cause. He would go into paroxysms of distress every time a foul was declared against his favorite green-shirted players. He would then proceed to berate the offenders, as well as rain down a hailstorm of abuse onto the head of the profligate referee responsible for the call, until finally being ejected bodily from the playing field. And those were his good days!
Uncle Arlindo reshaped team fanaticism into a pure art form.
All Glory and Honor Is Yours, Corinthians
Much as he had done with opera, film, and classical music, my father was the major soccer mover in my life, and in the life of our Brazilian immigrant family. His all-out love for the sport, especially where it concerned Corinthians (and every four years, the Brazilian national team), was what most clearly permeated our home environment during those precious times when the constant demands of work and school were assiduously set aside for the simple pleasures of soccer.
Dad’s unsinkable enthusiasm for the game can be traced back to his early life experiences. The many outrageous soccer stories he was wont to recall from time to time, in addition to other similarly embellished tales, were told with a marked infectiousness and lively brio that are as difficult to recapture in writing as they were in the retelling. Nevertheless, they formed the crux of my own personal opinions about this highly entertaining subject almost from the moment I could speak.
My father used to tell me about the various friendships he had formed over the years, especially the one with Oswaldo Nunes, who I met in 1979. He was another of those overzealous soccer fans one hears so much about — and rightly so, for Oswaldo’s famous uncle, the great Manoel “Neco” Nunes, was one of the original Corinthians Club idols from the early decades of the twentieth century.
Considered by knowledgeable Brazilian soccer buffs as a legendary sports figure along the lines of a Babe Ruth or a Knute Rochne, Neco Nunes had been a pioneer player in his day, and was a worthy participant, too, in the national team’s legacy. His life-sized bronze bust, still to be seen outside the lobby of the main administration building (where I had first gazed upon it during my initial visits there), is a testament to Neco’s superb soccer credentials and historic contributions to the club and to the sport.
Another of my father’s friends, Nelsinho, who I also made the personal acquaintance of, was an ex-member of the 1955 Corinthians championship team. He worked as an athletic trainer at the club, and remained a recognized mainstay there for years once his playing days were over.
In fact, it was largely due to the generosity of people like my cousin Fredemari and the other club officials that kept many former players out of the streets and on the company payroll when nothing else was available to them. One sensed the profound gratitude these proud men felt for Corinthians, and the total allegiance they swore to the club, due to this extra degree of compassion shown them by the powers above. And not many people knew about this magnanimity, save for a select few.
“But for the grace of God and Corinthians go I,” dad once told me, as another of his impoverished pals passed by to greet him.
The Long and Winding Soccer Road
While my father had lived in São Paulo, he was able to associate freely with others of the original club champions who were still in permanent residence there, including the ever-popular Baltazar, another best buddy from the Golden Age of fifties futebol. But all that changed once we moved to the soccer-less streets of 1960s New York.
Because of our fundamentally Brazilian sports background, however, it can be stated, with complete conviction, that my family and I were fortunate eyewitnesses to the incredible growth and spread of soccer in the United States. On the flip side, I can also testify to the agonizingly slow and painful deterioration of the same sport in my native land at the hands of incompetent coaches, unscrupulous club owners, and overly avaricious players.
My own childhood memories of the game were filled with scenes of long, hot summers on weed-covered playing fields, learning to play soccer with my dad and younger brother, always competing for attention and space with the other popular outdoor activities of sandlot baseball, schoolyard stick ball, and cement-court basketball.
I can recall one Sunday afternoon in the mid-sixties, when dad took us to see our first exhibition match at Downing Stadium on Randall’s Island, where we thrilled to the once-in-a-lifetime pairing of Santos’ star scorer, O Rei (“The King”) Pelé, with Europe’s two-time Athlete of the Year, Eusébio, the Lion of Angola, who despite his ferocious-sounding epithet was actually born in Mozambique.
I can remember viewing the 1970 World Cup matches from Mexico on the giant closed-circuit screens at Madison Square Garden, and dancing in the aisles there with my family and our compatriots (as a huge Corinthians banner was unfurled) when the imperturbable Brazilian squad trounced Italy’s Forza Azzurri (“The Blue Force”) by a score of 4-1, to retire the coveted Jules Rimet trophy with an historic third world title.
I closely followed the late-seventies phase of Pelé’s American career with the New York Cosmos, and even went to many of their home games at the Meadowlands Stadium in New Jersey, to watch world-class players of the caliber of ex-Lazio striker Giorgio Chinaglia, the German “Kaiser” Franz Beckenbauer, the Portuguese Seninho, the Brazilian Carlos Alberto, the Dutchman Johan Neeskens, and the Croatian Vladislav Bogicevic, attempt to transform the fledgling North American Soccer League into one of international standing and competitiveness.
I looked back fondly on a nervy conversation my father had in the early eighties with Professor Júlio Mazzei, the late soccer coach, teacher, and mentor to Pelé, as dad asked him over lunch why more Brazilians weren’t hired by the Cosmos as starters; to which, the ever-loquacious Professor Mazzei responded that the owners of the team had demanded more players from the Continent because of the higher proportion of European immigrants living in the U.S. In other words, it was strictly a marketing ploy, but he felt sympathy for my father’s frustration in wanting to see more of his fellow countrymen play here, and, quite naturally, commiserated with him over it.
I empathized with the league’s later monetary misfortunes, as it inevitably folded in 1984 due to serious lack of funding and interest, as well as television ratings. Many (but not all) of the overpaid international stars who had come here were on their last soccer legs anyway, and went on to finish up their field careers as spent war veterans with very little left to thrill testy North American audiences.
Moreover, I managed to observe the slow and steady buildup of the sport throughout the remainder of the eighties and nineties, up to its present participative level.
And during the time of my residency in São Paulo, I withstood the steady onslaught of constantly televised games; the endlessly confusing soccer tournaments; the incomprehensible club playing schedules; the scandalous Wanderley Luxemburgo corruption investigations and the shocking revelations they ultimately disclosed of money-laundering and feather-bedding activities; and, worst of all, the pathetic and self-serving press conference given by coach Mário Zagallo, after Brazil’s embarrassing loss to the French at the 1998 World Cup finals in Paris.
Surely, I surmised, with a deep sense of saudade (“longing”) for the glory days of soccer, the final reckoning for futebol was close at hand. But then, in Japan, in the year 2002, the Brazilians won their fifth world championship, and all previous soccer transgressions were dutifully absolved.
Keeping Faith with Football
Earnest soccer fans will argue, of course, that the driving force behind their adored teams was fueled not by greed but by passion; that the outstanding mental and physical attributes of the greatest players were complemented not by the bulging balances of their bank accounts but by the overpowering love, affection, and respect they showed for their sport.
My father would spin in his grave if he ever caught whiff of the stench of scandal that had wrapped itself around his favorite pastime. On the other hand, he might also have taught us to continue to believe in the spirit of the team; that despite the recent setbacks, the hard times, and the terrible moments of loss, there would soon come the grand celebrations, the good times, and the glorious triumphs to be, if we would only keep faith with the game.
And dad was the living embodiment of that principle: his own faith was of the type that would never move mountains, but instead willed his teams to win.
As young children, and later as adolescents, my brother and I looked to our parents for help and guidance with all aspects of our lives, believing them to possess outsized hearts to go with their heads and hands; always telling us what to do and when to do it, much as anyone’s parents might. We also viewed them as godlike creatures — indestructible, infallible, and all-wise in the ways of the world.
So how could we, as rational human beings, possibly ever have believed that dad could really bring his favorite clubs back from the brink of sudden death, to deliver them to the promised winner’s stand, and turn team despair into total victory?
It seemed inconceivable for us to accept that our father had made some sort of devious pact with a minor soccer demon; rather, it appeared more likely he might have made all of this come to pass through the sheer force of his personality — not to mention several well-placed slaps to the knee.
But regardless of whether it was logical or not, we eventually became true believers in spite of our doubts. We needed to believe, for dad had convinced us to believe — because he was himself convinced of his gift, firmly and categorically.
As if in imitation of some ancient Eucharistic rite, he gave full credence to the notion that his own manifest presence in our living room, or at a soccer stadium, could somehow turn the proverbial tide against an implacable foe and confer credibility upon Corinthians, earn esteem for Brazil, or nurture respect in the Cosmos — and, by dint of it all, acquire safe passage into football heaven, for whosoever was the lucky recipient of his brash beneficence. Isn’t that what all purple-faced fanatics aspire to?
Mind you, it didn’t always work out that way; but, like grace itself, it was there for the asking. And, if perchance, the teams really did need dad’s earthly intercession… so be it.
It’s been almost 20 years since my father passed away, yet I can’t help thinking that he would have gotten a tremendous kick out of Brazil’s latter-day World Cup wins, which, sadly, he never got to see. He would also have been among the first to join in and sing, right along with us, the popular anthem for Timão, “Salve o Corinthians.”
Perhaps the song could, in the end, serve some higher purpose: as a universal rallying cry for soccer clubs everywhere. The lyrics curiously read like a long-lost biblical passage — only insert the name of “Corinthians” for any team or organization, substitute the country of “Brazil” for any nation or continent, and one would still have a rousing enough theme-song that could reverberate in a thousand soccer stadiums, with the true sentiments that die-hard fans have always felt for their beloved sport.
Dad would have wanted it so:
Salve o Corinthians,
O campeão dos campeões,
Eternamente dentro dos nossos corações,
Salve o Corinthians,
De tradições e glórias mil,
Tu és orgulho dos desportistas do Brasil.
(Lyrics by Benedito Lauro D’Ávila)
Hail to you, Corinthians,
The champion of champions,
You are and forever shall be in our hearts,
Hail to you, Corinthians,
With a thousand glories and traditions behind you,
You are the pride of every sports-lover in Brazil.
(Translation by the Author)
Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes
HOW THE WORLD’S GREATEST TENOR
BECAME ITS BEST-LOVED CULTURAL ICON
Luciano Pavarotti. Say it with me: “Lu-cia-no Pa-va-rotti.” Even his name flows trippingly off the tongue. Ah, to be blessed with his wonderful talent! I could go on for hours about the art of one of the world’s greatest tenors. I’ve decided instead to let the subject speak for himself — or, in Pavarotti’s case, sing — although there will be a fair amount of discoursing along the way.
You see, I have a personal stake in this overview of the life and career of the late Italian tenor, in that my own passion for opera evolved just as Pavarotti was coming to prominence in the late 1960s to early 1970s. Although I never saw him on stage, I have heard and seen many of his performances on the radio and through recordings and television. But make no mistake: Luciano Pavarotti was a fabulously talented pop star and much admired — and imitated — opera singer of the first rank.
But how could that be? How could a balding, six-foot-tall, 300-pound-plus, middle-aged male with a scraggly beard, emoting in a strange, impenetrable tongue, reach the absolute pinnacle of international super-stardom? Surely Pavarotti wasn’t the first classically-trained artist to have crossed over into the pop realm, nor would he be the last. He was just the most famous. But how did he do it? I hope to be able to answer that question.
Elixir of Love
Let’s begin by discussing Donizetti’s 1832 comic opera, L’Elisir d’Amore or “The Elixir of Love” — specifically the second act aria, “Una furtiva lagrima” (“A furtive tear”), sung by the lead character Nemorino. This was the perfect part for Pavarotti. In fact, it was one of his best stage roles: that of a naïve young farmer, a country bumpkin-type — not too bright but not too dumb, either — from the sticks of la bella Italia, much like the great man himself.
To convey Nemorino’s shyness, Luciano used his enormous bulk to his advantage in generating sympathy for this fellow. With superb comic timing, he played the character straight, as a big, warmhearted teddy bear of a guy hopelessly in love with Adina, the most popular girl in town. (He would pick the most popular girl as the object of his affection!)
Near the middle of the act, the eligible lasses of the village all crowd around a stunned and clueless Nemorino. Unbeknown to our hero, his rich uncle has just died and left him a small fortune — which explains the female throng’s sudden interest in him. Nemorino thinks his attraction has something to do with the magic elixir he recently purchased from a traveling quack doctor (in reality, it’s a cheap bottle of Bordeaux wine). But as the girls shamelessly flirt about him, Nemorino catches sight of Adina gazing sadly over her shoulder. Out of the corner of her eye, he sees a tear well up and run down her face.
With this, the poor man is left alone to muse over what he’s just witnessed. Finally he cries out, “Ah, she loves me, yes, she loves me. I see it now. Oh, heaven, if I could die right now I would not ask for more.”
Pavarotti wrings every ounce of pathos from this piece. His easygoing demeanor, crystal-clear diction, and unforced delivery are perfect examples of what is termed bel canto, or “beautiful singing,” at its best, a style once popular in nineteenth-century opera that became the essence of this tenor’s art.
Needless to say, Nemorino wins the day (and the girl), and all ends happily for them. Indeed, Pavarotti earned repeated praise for this part every time he performed it — and with good reason.
Rise to Fame
The story of Luciano Pavarotti’s rise to international renown is very much the story of Italian opera and song, and of American mass culture and crossover entertainment, as we’ve come to accept it, from the 1970s onward.
During his long professional career Pavarotti sang most everything an Italian tenor could conceivably sing, and a whole lot more besides: from the intricate bel canto masterworks, to his rare forays into Mozart territory; from the major roles of the master Verdi, to the best of the Puccini repertoire. With one notable exception (Donizetti’s Daughter of the Regiment), he sang almost exclusively in his native Italian.
On the debit side, Luciano tackled lead parts he probably had no business attempting in the first place — for example, Verdi’s Otello, in an ill-fated outing with the Chicago Symphony; the same composer’s Don Carlo, for which he was roundly booed at Milan’s La Scala Opera; Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci and Giordano’s Andrea Chénier, works that were much too heavy for his naturally lyric tone, while studiously avoiding more rewarding roles he undoubtedly would have excelled in, in particular Gounod’s Faust and Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots.
He appeared on numerous late-night talk shows, in dozens of magazine ads and TV commercials — most famously for American Express. “Do you know me?” was the catchphrase at the time; after that well-placed marketing ploy aired in prime time, who didn’t know who Luciano was?
He sang on the radio and in live television broadcasts, recorded a variety of operas and song recitals, in addition to giving numerous charity benefits, wherein he shared the limelight with such iconic pop figures as Sting, Bono, Elton John, Michael Bolton, Cyndi Lauper, Eric Clapton, Andrea Bocelli, Zucchero, and many, many others.
He even tried breaking into mainstream Hollywood with the 1982 feature Yes, Giorgio, a bold move engineered by his then-manager and brain-trust, Herbert Breslin, a part allegedly “tailor-made” for the tenor’s talents.
What was so unusual about that? Why, from the early silent and sound periods to the postwar boom era, and beyond, many of opera’s stellar attractions have tried to make a go at a motion picture career: remember Geraldine Farrar, Lawrence Tibbett, and Grace Moore? How about Lily Pons, Lauritz Melchior, Nelson Eddy, Jeanette MacDonald, Risë Stevens, and Ezio Pinza?
The most memorable of them all was Mario Lanza, whose volcanic personality, temperamental “prima donna” antics, and huge box-office drawing power Pavarotti soon began to emulate — for better and (usually) for worse.
Upon seeing the finished product, most critics and reviewers shook their heads in disbelief at the banality of Yes, Giorgio: “No, Luciano,” was the negative cry, as they scolded him in unison for his efforts. The film was supposed to have mirrored the happy-go-lucky, jet-set lifestyle of a famous opera star (talk about typecasting!), who falls in love with a throat specialist (actress Kathryn Harrold) after almost losing his voice.
About the only thing this bomb lost was the studio’s money. As a result, it turned out to be the biggest flop of Pavarotti’s 40+-year career. Still, whatever Luciano did for his art, and wherever he went, the fans were sure to follow. Like an Italian Pied Piper, Pavarotti set the standard for performing in the most exotic of locales, becoming the very model of a modern, major opera star of his day: from the concert hall to the sporting arena, he always gave them their money’s worth, whether it was at New York’s Great Lawn and Madison Square Garden, or London’s Hyde Park; the Baths at Caracalla, Paris’ Eiffel Tower, or Beijing’s Forbidden City.
Speaking of Beijing, it was said that while en route to that distant, faraway land Pavarotti took along entire sets of cooking utensils, pots, pans, fresh fruits and vegetables, all sorts of meat and an untold number of homemade dishes, all on the unsubstantiated rumor of how miserable the eating and living conditions were there. After a while, most of the food had to be thrown away. A pity!
Notwithstanding the constant travel, the temper tantrums, the petty jealousies and feuds among rivals, and the pressures of a classical-music career — oh, and don’t forget the occasional fling with the ladies — Luciano’s voice held up remarkably well under the circumstances, and usually rang out with its customary brilliance and warmth, especially in its highest reaches. Not for nothing was he crowned, “King of the High C’s,” by journalists.
Three Tenors Franchise
While not a particularly large instrument per se, it possessed the requisite carrying power and “ping” needed to be heard in the farthest reaches of the auditorium. He had no trouble at all being heard at Caracalla, what with all the microphones and camera equipment lying about, when, in July of 1990, on the eve of the World Cup Soccer Finals in Rome, The Three Tenors franchise was formally launched.
This was a financially lucrative endeavor that paired the “King” with his two main rivals: the Spanish-born Plácido Domingo and younger colleague José Carreras. It was Carreras who, after recovering from a five-year battle with cancer, hit upon the innovative idea of doing a benefit concert for his leukemia foundation.
With a billion and a half viewers worldwide, it was the most-watched classical-music program in history. In addition, the subsequent compact disc made of the much-hyped media event became the best-selling classical album of all time. Bravo, Luciano!
This desire to branch out into uncharted vocal waters (and be all-things to all-people) was characteristic of Pavarotti’s eagerness to please his public, as well as to satisfy his own conscious need to be adored — this, despite the tenor’s repeated assurances that he was only trying to bring the operatic art form to the vast, untapped masses longing to hear the master sing.
It’s safe to say that no artist since the great Enrico Caruso had done more to popularize Italian opera and song than Luciano had, with Lanza running a close second.
Many suspected that, at this point in his career, he was only in it for the money. John von Rhein, music critic for the Chicago Tribune, put the matter into perspective with the following assertion: “When [Pavarotti] extended his trademark white handkerchief to the legions of enraptured fans who packed his concerts, it seemed as if he were embracing the world, assuring every listener he was singing just for them. He drank in their fervent applause as if it were mother’s milk.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself.
For all his fame and notoriety, near or away from the concert platform, the charismatic primo tenore did not start out in life with the notion of conquering the world of grand opera. Oh, no. In fact, it’s almost a cliché to say that he came from real life, humble origins.
He was born in the Northern Italian city of Modena, on October 12, 1935 — Columbus Day, to be exact, a national holiday. He would later serve as Grand Marshall for New York’s Columbus Day Parade, leading the procession on horseback and draped in his country’s national flag.
His father, Fernando, was a baker by profession, who sang in the town’s amateur choral group. He was blessed with a high, resonant voice, which many in the city came to believe found its way to his son, Luciano’s, golden throat. Pavarotti at first trained as an elementary school teacher before settling upon a full-time singing career. Like any red-blooded, Italian native son, he loved soccer and harbored an unfulfilled ambition of one day becoming a professional athlete.
When that failed to materialize — no doubt due to his inability to turn away generous helpings of the local cuisine — he turned instead to selling insurance to make ends meet, before taking up his musical studies with former tenor Arrigo Pola in his hometown, then moving on to vocal coach Ettore Campogalliani, who also taught his childhood friend, the soprano Mirella Freni.
Pavarotti’s professional stage debut occurred on April 29, 1961, as Rodolfo in Puccini’s La Bohème, at the Teatro Reggio Emilia. This was a good choice for the tenor, in that he continued to rely on this role as his frequent calling card and “good luck” piece throughout the early portion of his career.
The opera itself is a paean to young love. It follows the time-tested, tried-and-true formula of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl — girl dies. As cartoon character Bugs Bunny once astutely observed, “Well, what did you expect in an opera? A happy ending?” One of Puccini’s own librettists, Giuseppe Giacosa, characterized the melodious four-act work as, “All poetry and no plot, while Tosca,” the opera that immediately followed Bohème, “is all plot and no poetry.” There’s a great deal of truth to that statement.
Nevertheless, it was good enough to serve as the premiere showcase for the first of the Live From the Met series of telecasts, broadcast on Public Television, in March 1977, which Pavarotti played a historic part in. A trivia note: more people watched La Bohème on TV that one night than had seen the opera on stage in the entirety of its 80-year existence — so much for the power of the medium.
This little tidbit of information was not lost on Luciano, who made a conscious effort thereafter to use television and the infant CD and home video market to advance his newfound celebrity status — a wise move on his part.
Before that groundbreaking event took shape, he had taken the lovesick poet Rodolfo all over the operatic world. Most of his initial appearances in Europe, South America, and the U.S. were in this one role, including his official Metropolitan Opera debut, on November 23, 1968 — coincidentally, within a few short weeks of a certain Señor Plácido Domingo’s first appearances there. These two supremely gifted individuals would go on to form a friendly rivalry of sorts — well, not always so friendly.
Boy Gets High on C
Getting back to Bohème, where most tenors ran aground in this challenging work, due to its high-lying vocal range, Pavarotti wallowed in it: his voice opens up gloriously the higher up it goes. A good illustration of this is the aria, “Che gelida manina” (“Your little hand so cold”). At its climax, Luciano takes a full-voiced high C easily and quite comfortably, holding on to the note for dear life but with enough breath left over to complete the phrase.
Listen to how Rodolfo, the “boy” in this case, manages to convey his romantic sentiments to Mimì, the “girl,” in such a heartfelt, straightforward, and unassuming manner. The technique employed is known as parlando, or “speaking” the lines of the piece, and is as much a part of the tenor’s own natural way with words as it was the composer’s exceptional ear for expressing everyday conversation in song.
But as good as it was, Pavarotti made an even bigger splash over at London’s Covent Garden, and especially at the Metropolitan Opera House, in the 1972 production of The Daughter of the Regiment, the one with the nine high C’s. Try doing that on a regular basis!
In his tell-all book, The King and I, manager Herbert Breslin noted that, as physically big as Luciano was back then — and he only got bigger over time — he was still able to cavort about the stage with complete abandon. Dressed up to resemble an enormous toy soldier, he was as engaging “in character” as he was out of it.
He had to do something to stand out from the crowd. He was, after all, competing against a veritable who’s-who of opera’s biggest and brightest talents. Two of the very best, Australian soprano Joan Sutherland, his co-star in Daughter of the Regiment, and her husband, conductor Richard Bonynge, along with mezzo Marilyn Horne and soprano Beverly Sills, formed the major contingent of the bel canto revival at the Met and elsewhere.
It was around 1965, during a fourteen-week “down under” tour of Australia, that Pavarotti started to make a name for himself by his close association with the couple. Legend has it they were enticed not only by his beautiful sound, but by his imposing height: being close to six-feet herself (in her high-heel shoes, of course) Dame Joan was tired of tenors a foot shorter than she was. She wanted a partner who could stare down into her eyes instead of up into her neck. She took one look at Luciano, and he was hired on the spot.
It’s a shame he didn’t stick with bel canto, though, for he was such a natural fit for that long dormant form. Instead, he opted to branch out into more accessible projects in order to accommodate the vast majority of patrons still clamoring to see him.
That’s not to say he did not meet with continued success in his chosen field. Quite the contrary, he became a winning interpreter of the Verdi canon — most notably, as the womanizing Duke of Mantua in Rigoletto; the kindhearted Gustavo in Un Ballo in Maschera; the heroic Manrico in Il Trovatore, which, if memory serves me, has a few forceful high C’s of its own; and the title character in Ernani.
His most frequent assignment after Rodolfo and Nemorino was that of the painter Mario Cavaradossi in Puccini’s “shabby little shocker,” Tosca. He not only repeated it a total of 60 times at the Met alone, he made all his farewell appearances in it, the last of which took place on March 13, 2004.
That date was the unfortunate culmination of the final phase of his once illustrious career, the so-called era of self-indulgence: that of the cork-died hair and painted-on eyebrows; the inability, or just plain laziness, to learn new roles; the last-minute cancellations; the struggles with his weight; the heavy use of cue cards to bolster his faulty memory; the highly publicized battles with ex-wife Adua; the marriage to his former secretary Nicoletta, a woman 35 years his junior; the assorted physical ailments, that took their inevitable toll on his health and well-being, ending in knee and hip replacement surgery; and so on, and so forth.
As Rodolfo once marked the beginning of his good fortune, Cavaradossi now marked the end of it, most presciently at Lyric Opera of Chicago: in 1989, after canceling over half of his scheduled appearances there, the tenor was dropped from the cast, as well as being declared persona non grata at the house, a bad omen indeed. Pavarotti took it all in stride, commenting afterwards, “I was as unlucky for Chicago as Chicago was for me.”
End of the Rainbow
He tried doing it again, at the Metropolitan of all places, in a series of benefit performances penciled in for May 2002. The role? You guessed it: Cavaradossi. His excuse? The common cold, only this time the Met’s management had an ace up its sleeve: they had secretly flown in their latest tenor discovery, the 33-year-old Sicilian sensation, Salvatore Licitra (who passed away himself, on September 5, 2011, from a tragic motorcycle accident), in case Luciano decided to cancel the engagement.
True to form, Pavarotti pulled out, and the local press had a field day with news of the non-event: “Fat Man Won’t Sing,” went the headlines! Diving for cover went the Met’s general manager, Joseph Volpe. Two years later, both Volpe and the Fat Man agreed to make peace with each other, as Luciano finally sang his last in the role that got him into all the trouble in the first place: Cavaradossi!
Only now, because of the physical limitations imposed on his movements, his late-career re-assumptions of the role were fairly static ones. Whatever the director, producer, or prompter, had in mind for the singer to do, photographs from that period show an all-but immovable Pavarotti practically glued to the furniture.
He was helped, to and fro, by numerous “unseen” hands throughout; in Act II of the opera, where Cavaradossi is arrested, brought in, questioned, then tortured in an adjoining room, it seemed easy for the tenor to get away with being carried about the stage by an army of able-bodied assistants — it was all part of the show, wasn’t it?
In the last act, however, Cavaradossi is awaiting his execution by firing squad. He reminisces about seeing Tosca for the last time and bids farewell to his love in the melancholy air, “E lucevan le stelle” (“And the stars were brightly shining”).
The most telling aspect of his reverie is the last line: “And never have I loved life so much!” We could say the same about Pavarotti: in spite of all that he had been through those last years, never had he loved his life as much as he did then.
On September 6, 2007, a golden voice was silenced forever, as the sad news was transmitted over the world’s airwaves: tenor Luciano Pavarotti, at age 71, had passed away from complications brought on by pancreatic cancer. We mourned his death, but celebrated his life. He won our hearts and moved us with his talent and charm; his joie de vivre and embrace of all humanity; his virtues and his faults; his triumphs and his failures.
In the 1982 film Yes, Giorgio, surely a failure of titanic proportions if ever there was one, Pavarotti ended the flick with what was later to become his signature tune, the aria “Nessun dorma” (“No one shall sleep”) from the opera Turandot, Puccini’s last, unfinished masterpiece.
The story goes that, at the opera’s gala premiere at La Scala, conductor Arturo Toscanini, a personal friend of the composer — and no slouch himself when it came to promoting classical music in this country — upon reaching the point in the drama that Puccini stopped writing, turned to the audience and said, in a voice choked with emotion: “It was here that the Maestro laid down his pen.”
It seems appropriate now that we finish this account of the life and career of Luciano Pavarotti with Prince Calàf’s heroic song of triumph, the final phrases of which ring out, in rising tones: “Vincerò! Vincerò!” – “I shall win! I shall succeed!” And you know what? I believe he did.
So who put the “pop” in Pavarotti? He did, of course, by just being himself. And how did the world’s greatest tenor become its best-loved cultural icon? By doing the thing he loved best: by singing everything and everywhere. He truly was all-things to all-people. And the best thing to happen to the art of Italian song since pizza. ♫
Copyright (c) 2010 by Josmar F. Lopes
Remember Blockbuster Video? How popular it used to be (until the company filed for bankruptcy)? I sure do. Some fifteen or more years ago I found myself in one of their stores, wanting to rent some movies for a long weekend. I just wanted to rent a few films that my wife and I could watch in one sitting. Nothing too noisy or violent or upsetting, you understand, just entertaining and relaxing — and with a good, solid story. You know what I mean? A nice, easy to take, family-type movie.
Going to Blockbuster was always the same. My routine when I got there was to say to myself, “What movie do I rent today?” Then I’d walk around the aisles for an hour and a half, usually looking at what there was that I hadn’t seen yet, but would like to rent.
I stepped into the store lo these many moons ago and started to do my bit. First stop was the Latest Releases section. Oh hey, there’s Pulp Fiction. I hadn’t seen that one yet. I’d love to rent that. But what’s this? They’re all out! Every single copy has been rented out. How’s that possible? This store must’ve had thirty-something copies of this one movie alone. It’s definitely not your average neighborhood video emporium, that’s for sure. So how could every single copy be out at the same time? You mean to tell me that thirty other people had the same idea I had, to rent Pulp Fiction on a lazy Saturday afternoon? Why couldn’t they rent something else? Better yet, why couldn’t I rent something else?
That’s a good idea. Pulp Fiction is too violent anyway. All those guns and killings and brains and all… My wife would kill me if I brought that home.
Let’s see. What else is there to rent? Hmm, lot’s of Sharon Stone and Madonna movies over here. Madonna? Nah, too much cleavage… Sharon Stone? Nope. Too much Sharon Stone, period! All right, let’s see what else we have here… Wow, look at this! A whole bunch of Anthony Hopkins movies I haven’t viewed. What a brilliant actor he is! His movies are great, and they all have Emma Thompson on the cover. Talk about safe sex, she’s married to that other great actor, what’s his name, that Shakespearean fellow… Uh, Ken, Ken… Kenneth Branagh. Yeah. That’s it. Oh, he’s fantastic. I saw him in Henry V, Dead Again and Hamlet. He’s terrific.
Hey, wait a minute. Wasn’t he in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein? You know, the Robert de Niro version? Man, I hated that film, so bloody and gory. Yuck! Branagh’s good, but he’s no Anthony Hopkins. Oh, pardon me, Sir Anthony Hopkins… And aren’t Ken and Emma divorced now anyway? At least, that’s what I saw on Entertainment Tonight. Well, if it’s on Entertainment Tonight, then it’s got to true, right? Scratch Ken and Emma off my list.
Here’s an Anthony Hopkins flick without Emma Thompson that I haven’t rented yet: Shadowlands, directed by Richard Attenborough and co-starring Debra Winger. Yeah, I heard about this film. Hopkins plays the famous British author C.S. Lewis, the one who wrote The Chronicles of Narnia stories. Wasn’t he an atheist or agnostic or something? And in the film, doesn’t he marry this American poet, Winger, who teaches him to love life and God? And then she dies? Man, why is it that every movie Debra Winger appears in she dies? Didn’t she die in Terms of Endearment, after putting up with her pain-in-the-neck mother Shirley MacLaine and philandering husband Jeff Daniels for two-and-a-half hours? What a movie life she must have! Anyway, Shadowlands sounds awfully depressing, but at least it got good reviews. I think I’ll take a chance with it. Nice, easy family-type movie.
That’s one feature down. Maybe I should get one more film in case this one bombs. Most people do that, you know. It’s called insurance. You know something? I haven’t seen a good black-and-white picture in a good long time. I’ll rent one of those for a change. Good thinking. Let’s go over to the Classic Dramas section and see what’s available there.
Well, well, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Clark Gable. Now that’s more like it. I’m sure I’ll find something neat here. Hey, will you look at that! The Fountainhead, based on Ayn Rand’s bestseller about an idealistic architect. I’ve been dying to see that film in just about forever. Every time it was on TV my dad would change the channel. He wanted to see war pictures with John Wayne. And he hated John Wayne. Now why would he do that…?
Well, I like this cast — Gary Cooper, Patricia Neal, Raymond Massey — all class acts. Let’s see, Robert Douglas and Kent Smith are in it, too. Kent Smith? Who the hell is that? Oh, yeah, now I remember. He was in Cat People. Or was it The Leopard Man? Well, anyway, it was definitely a movie with felines. Ugh, that guy gives me the creeps… At least the director King Vidor’s pretty good. He did War and Peace with Audrey Hepburn. And Audrey’s “in” right now, what with Breakfast at Tiffany’s and My Fair Lady being released on video. Say, I just finished taking a writing course. It would definitely be worth my while to rent something literary for a change.
Well, what’s wrong with renting Breakfast at Tiffany’s? For one thing I already saw it, and for another I simply hated it. Too damn talky! Maybe The Fountainhead will be better. Still, I can’t see that quintessential cowpoke Cooper playing an urban architect. He’s the strong and silent type. Maybe he plays a strong and silent-type architect… Yeah, that makes sense. They don’t do a lot of talking at all, architects, do they? What with all those blueprints and building plans and such. They’re strictly numbers guys, sort of like accountants with T-squares: nice, easy and safe. Yeah! Great casting, King! I think I’ll rent that. Now I’m all set for these two great films. Can’t wait to get to my apartment and see them!
I paid my rental fee and went straight home with my movies. The first one I popped in was The Fountainhead. Great score by Max Steiner. Lush photography and sets — very art deco. Okay, what else is there? Oh yeah, the plot. Something about a struggling young architect who refuses to conform to others’ ideas and only wants to create artworks for himself. Hmm, sounds too cerebral to me. Let’s see if this turkey picks up when Patricia Neal comes into the scene.
And there she is! At last! Wow, what a looker she was, too! I seem to recall that a few years later she had a terrible, debilitating stroke that left her unable to talk. Her husband at the time, Roald Dahl, helped regain her speech after years of intensive therapy.
Say, this is getting pretty literary, isn’t it? I mean, Roald Dahl was another famous children’s book writer, wasn’t he? Didn’t he write Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang? See? I knew renting this thing was going to be good for me.
All right, there’s Neal again, and she’s pining for Cooper. Jeez, this movie’s a mess, especially the scene where Neal catches a glimpse of Cooper in a marble quarry pit with this humongous jackhammer in his hands. Now there’s a Freudian slip! That scene left nothing to the imagination. You’d have to be blind not to read what was on Neal’s mind after that one.
She keeps on thinking about Cooper with that ridiculous jackhammer, pummeling away on some piece of marble somewhere in that stupid quarry pit, when suddenly, there he is, dashing in through her open window. Neal’s dressed for the kill, but why is she running away from Coop? Didn’t she want him to grab and kiss the hell out of her? Isn’t that why she left the window open in the first place?? Didn’t the screenwriters bother to read their own script???
Cripes, what a scene! No wonder my dad changed the channel. I would have, too. Well, it’s too late now. Boy, what else does this movie have besides phallic symbols? And let’s not forget Neal’s four-poster bed — heck, I’m really surprised that jackhammer scene got through the censors, what with rampant prudery ruling the day back then. Not like our open-minded, liberal attitudes of today, right? Makes me glad my kids aren’t around to see this. I’d have sent them to bed without brushing their teeth, I would.
After almost two hours of interminable torture, second lead Raymond Massey — the Citizen Kane-like, big-city newspaper mogul — blows his brains out in his big-city office, while Patricia Neal boards an elevator to the top of the tallest building in Manhattan to meet her lover-boy, urban-cowboy architect Gary Cooper, who waits for her as she rides up, up, up to the sky, ever higher, higher, and HIGHER. The End.
Whew, and thank goodness. Two thumbs way down for that effort. I’m glad I didn’t buy that movie. I’d probably have asked Visa to credit my account. And what happened to the strong and silent-type architect? He couldn’t stop talking. Talked all through the damn picture. Talk, talk, talk. Yup, he sure did. Not Gary’s’ best role, I’d have to say.
So what’s next on my agenda? Ah, yes, Shadowlands. But that’ll have to wait for later tonight. I’ll see it with my wife after supper, a hot shower, and a nice shave.
I can’t go wrong with good ole Sir Anthony, right? I mean, he’s an excellent actor and all. Every movie he’s been in has been great. No profanity, no violence, no phallic symbols. They’re all nice, easy family-type films, and… Hey, hold on a minute. I just remembered something: didn’t he play that horrible character in the movie The Silence of the Lambs? The guy who ate people’s livers with fava beans, and then washed them down with a good chi-an-ti? What was his name in that one?
Wasn’t it Hannibal the… CANNIBAL…??? ¤
Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes
Pretend you are about to take an essay exam and are getting ready to answer the following question: what do Portuguese fado, Italian opera, and Música Popular Brasileira have in common? Give up? Many people would too. But think about it for a moment. Outside of the fact they’re all separate and distinct music styles, each with its own specific method of interpretation and delivery, what have these various genres given the world if not a wealth of extremely talented and versatile performers?
In this piece, the focus will be on the successful careers of three of the most talented and versatile of these performers (only one of whom, by the way, is Brazilian by birth). They have dedicated their lives to incorporating aspects of the above entertainment areas. All share an unbounded admiration for Brazil’s music and culture, which they have wisely chosen to express in their own distinguishing manner.
Neither Fish nor Fado
Her arms were extended outward, as if in gentle supplication to restless audience members to lend an attentive ear toward her wistful song. The look was both haughty and proud, the attitude one of openness and warmth, with a touch of simpatia tossed in. Her bearing was unwaveringly regal yet becoming of one whose build is so lean and slender. There was also the unmistakable air of the diva about her.
It must have been the classic profile, the protruding chin, the dark complexion, and the magnificent blonde coiffure, its many endless and fascinating curls, like those of a face on an ancient Aegean vase, all intricately woven into unbroken lines across her faultlessly-formed features.
Suddenly, the hallowed name of Maria Callas sprang to mind. While remembering the faded kinescopes of the once celebrated star of La Scala and other international opera houses, I was reminded of Portuguese singer Mariza’s striking resemblance to the immortal La Divina — and to the Divine One’s searing intensity and command of the operatic stage.
In interviews granted throughout 2003, given concurrently with the release of her second album Fado Curvo (Times Square Records), the Lusitanian songstress, born Mariza dos Reis Nunes in Mozambique but raised in the Mouraria section of Lisbon, cited the revered Greek-American soprano Callas and her illustrious countrywoman, Amália Rodrigues, as pervasive influences on her own individualized take on contemporary fado.
Having seen Mariza perform live and in concert on the campus of North Carolina State University’s Stewart Theatre, I can wholeheartedly agree. Though not strictly a Brazilian entertainment form, nor remotely related to traditional Western ideals of the operatic, this freely emotive and soulful style of singing has been with us for nearly two and a half centuries — much longer, in fact, than any of the standard repertory items of masters Verdi, Wagner, and Puccini combined.
Most of all, there’s something grandly theatrical about the art itself — the hand gestures, the facial expressions, the song structures, the lyric flights of poetic fancy — that has lately transformed fado into a worthy successor to the almost-absent stage presentations of opera in Brazil’s own artistic firmament.
Mariza’s devout following knows, too, that years before her recent world-music conquests, the rebellious future stage figure had visited Rio de Janeiro, the “holy shrine” of Carnival, where, as inevitable as the Copacabana tide, she became infatuated with the soothing sounds of samba and bossa nova, only to return to her adopted land as an invaluable dispenser of its native song collection.
“I was looking for something when I went to Brazil. I had to do that to come back to my first love. But what I was looking for was in front of my nose all the time and I was the only one who couldn’t see it.”
The search for one’s true calling in the entertainment field can be an excruciatingly nerve-wracking venture for any performing artist, let alone one of Mariza’s standing and repute. Relief came in the satisfaction she gleaned from having to face up to the style’s built-in challenges.
“Fado is an emotional kind of music,” she proclaimed, “full of passion, sorrow, jealousy, grief, and often satire… I just want to sing.” And that she does well enough – particularly, on the darkly sentimental opening numbers, “O silêncio da guitarra” (“The Silence of the Guitar”) and “Cavaleiro monge” (“Monk Rider”), and the exuberantly festive “Feira de Castro” (“The Fair at Castro”).
While leaning more towards tradition for her first album, Fado em Mim (“Fado in Me”), Mariza took a much freer approach to Fado Curvo, finding both refinement and nuance in the piano-and-cello accompaniment of “Retrato” (“Portrait”) and a softer pop side for “O Deserto,” before ending on a passionate note with “Os anéis do meu cabelo” (“Curls of My Hair”), a semi-autobiographical piece.
Having gone about as far as a modern fadista could go in her profession, she decided to stretch herself even further by joining forces with acclaimed carioca-born arranger, musician, and producer Jaques Morelenbaum, a graduate of the New England Conservatory of Music, for her third go-around with the musical genre: the 2005 release of Transparente, also for Times Square Records.
Mariza flew all the way down to Morelenbaum’s hometown of Rio, “Because,” she pointed out later, Jaques’ “entire working environment is in Brazil.” With that, the exotic-looking entertainer confirmed to the UK’s FLY magazine that she “didn’t do anything [for two months] but thinking, working, and singing on this new album. I woke up every morning and waited for the hour to start working. I was able to achieve a greater intimacy, not only with music but with poetry as well… It was very good for me. Besides having the chance to meet and work with new musicians, it helped me to concentrate completely on my new album.”
A veteran of several-hundred studio sessions, Jaques Morelenbaum has concentrated his own efforts on assisting quite a number of professionals with their recording projects — and with some of their live performances as well. Among the most notable are Antonio Carlos Jobim, Egberto Gismonti, Gal Costa, Chico Buarque, Milton Nascimento, David Byrne, Marisa Monte, and Carlinhos Brown, not to mention his work with directors Walter Salles Jr. and Gerald Thomas. This was exactly the kind of Brazilian connection Mariza was hoping for in her next musical venture.
“I’m very fond of Brazilian rhythms, such as bossa nova, Vinicius de Moraes, Elis Regina [and] Caetano Veloso,” she told interviewer Petr Dorůžka of the Website Free Music. “I already knew Jaques had worked with Caetano and [Japanese composer] Ryuichi Sakamoto. We met in music festivals in Portugal and abroad. I’ve always wanted to work with him. I spoke to my record company and they liked the idea. I suggested it to Mr. Morelenbaum and he returned to my suggestion with all possible dates. I’ve always thought that doing it would help me to reach the sonority I was looking for.”
For the BBC, Mariza delved further into her nation’s musical distinctiveness: “I am looking for fado from a different perspective, because I now travel a lot… I am starting to find that this music that belongs to Lisbon, to Portuguese people, is starting to feel more and more universal. It speaks about universal feelings. Each country interprets it in its own way. We are crossing cultural lines now. And I feel so proud about it.”
Taking into account the end result, she divulged to Free Music that, “When I listen to this album I feel my fado, my sound. Jaques Morelenbaum uses all musical instruments in a magical way, with lots of care. He was the producer for this record; he understood me.”
We, too, understand what Mariza was striving for, and where her aspirations currently lie: right now, they’re with her dynamic vision of fado. Fortunately for her fans, she’s left one foot dangling in the doorstep of the pop-music world, which is as it should be.
“I listen to all kind of music, as long as it’s good. But I have to confess, I have my preferences: Maria Callas, Tony Bennett, Nina Simone, Sting. Like everywhere we do have international pop artists in the charts, but there’s good music being done in Portugal, like Rui Veloso, Carlos do Carmo, Jorge Palma. To name a few.”
That’s too few to please the masses. But on her own, Mariza has had no problem doing just that.
Lisbon Story and Well Beyond
It seems the fado standard has been placed in exceptionally capable hands with Mariza. Other contemporary practitioners of the form, such as Cristina Branco, Aldina Duarte, Kátia Guerreiro, Mísia, and Dulce Pontes, continue to hold up their end by keeping the flame of fado’s essence alive.
While popular within their own country’s confines, they have yet to command the attention of outside audiences the way Mariza has, or to reach out beyond the borders of Lisbon’s famed Alfama district, the scene of numerous triumphs from Portugal’s past.
One Portuguese artist who did reach out beyond Lisboa, and whose face and voice outside audiences have clearly grown accustomed to over the years, is the lovely Teresa Salgueiro, the former lead singer for the group Madredeus.
Their music, which some critics have labeled as cloying and pretentious, comprises elements of traditional fado with touches of folk, tango, New Age, world-beat, Middle Eastern, flamenco, and other sources factored in. True to his family’s surname (which, in English, is rendered as Magellan, the Portuguese explorer who first circumnavigated the globe), guitarist, musician, and producer Pedro Ayres Magalhães, one of the group’s founding members, is the individual most responsible for its wide-ranging repertoire.
“Fado is sung in the first person… telling sentimental stories,” Magalhães explained in a 1995 interview with New York Times writer Alan Riding. “Our themes are as universal as possible, talking about feelings, life and death,” a statement that convincingly supports the conclusion Mariza eventually came to reach.
When you listen to one of Madredeus’ carefully-concocted creations — O Espírito da Paz (“The Spirit of Peace,” EMI, 1994), for instance, or their 2000 compilation Antologia (Metro Blue) — you experience an atmosphere of calmness blanketed against a soundscape of six-string Spanish guitars; mixed with harmonically absorbing accordion flourishes grounded firmly by the cello’s deep-bass fullness; punctuated intermittently by synthesized keyboards, originally programmed by Rodrigo Leão, the other founding member, and later by Carlos Maria Trindade, the producer and piano player on Mariza’s Fado Curvo.
The real standout, however, is Teresa’s elegant soprano tone, the vocals of which well up from the center position. In Portuguese, the name Salgueiro means “willow” (as in “weeping willow”). It’s a sound that, in reviewer Imre Szeman’s poetic construct, “combines earthly desire and cosmic awe, material longing and transcendental hope, and which settles over you like a state of grace.”
The urge to hold back one’s tears, then, is diminished amid the gentle sweep of her voice — delicate, supple, and ethereal — as it passes over you in soft, undulating currents. There are but a handful of performers that can do this to a person. Teresa Salgueiro happens to be one of them.
In the late 1980s, while still a teenager, Salgueiro was discovered working as a singer in a Lisbon bar by Magalhães and Leão, who asked her to join their newly formed band of five. Impressed by their sound, she agreed to increase the number to six by becoming the group’s only female member. “A gift of nature,” Magalhães conceded. “It was strange to find someone who is 17 who sings with [such] joy and with the same timbre and vigor as the voices people remember hearing in Portugal.” Not for nothing was she billed as the number one “pretender” to the great Amália Rodrgues’ fado throne.
Resultantly, Madredeus was lifted to local prominence during an especially fertile period for world music, where the ethnic diversity of such artists as The Chieftains, Enya, The Gipsy Kings, Youssou N’Dour, and Yanni was much celebrated and highly in vogue. The presence of someone as young as Salgueiro only added to the formula. Even so, the group remained stubbornly peninsular-bound.
It was German filmmaker Wim Wenders who eventually rescued Teresa and her band-mates from anonymity. Wenders was so taken with their work that he used several of Madredeus’ songs to accompany Salgueiro’s soft-spoken screen persona in his 1994 movie Lisbon Story (Viagem a Lisboa). “I wanted to film them as they performed,” the director asserted to Alan Riding. “They were playing with such pleasure, such intensity, and integrity; and Teresa’s voice filled the small space with so much emotion that I felt a shiver running down my spine.”
Their compelling soundtrack (entitled Ainda, or “Still”) was rushed into production in order to fill the skyrocketing demand for the group’s music. By then, Teresa’s disarming and totally un-self-conscious portrayal of herself, pitted against Wenders’ cinematic alter ego, actor Rudiger Vogler, became a winning combination with viewers. The film went on to do for present-day Lisbon what Black Orpheus had done for Rio in its sixties heyday.
From there Madredeus toured all over Europe, as well as Africa, Asia, the United States, and South America. During a yearlong 2006 sabbatical, Salgueiro resolved to strike out on her own, eventually reemerging as a well-regarded soloist in São Paulo for a January 2007 series of performances at the Golden Cross Jazz Club (formerly Tom Jazz) in the high-profile neighborhood of Higienópolis.
The concerts were held to commemorate her recently concluded EMI project, Você e Eu (“You and Me”). As ambitious a recorded undertaking as any in recent years, the CD showcased the entire spectrum of Brazilian popular song, beginning with the thirties and forties, the so-called “golden age” of samba and choro; moving up to the prime bossa nova period of the 1950s and 1960s; right down to the chart toppers of the mid-1970s.
Included were such classics as “Marambaia,” a lively number often associated with Elis Regina; “Na Baixa do Sapateiro” (“Bahia”) and “Pra machucar meu coração” (“To Wound My Heart”) by the ever-popular Ary Barroso; “O samba da minha terra” (“My Country’s Samba”) and “Saudade de Bahia,” both by the late Dorival Caymmi; Luiz Bonfá’s lilting “Samba de Orfeu” from the movie Black Orpheus; the beautiful “Se todos fossem iguais a você” (“Someone to Light Up My Life”) from Tom Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes’ inaugural Orfeu da Conceição collaboration; a smattering of Jobim’s best work with other wordsmiths (“Estrada do sol,” “Inútil passagem,” “Triste,” and “Meditation”); and concluding with Chico Buarque’s prize-winning “A banda” from 1966.
The best that could be said about Salgueiro’s attempts at this more pop-driven burst of song is that she excelled brilliantly in the fast numbers. A side-by-side comparison with the late singer-actress Carmen Miranda, who was herself of Portuguese extraction, left little doubt as to her rhythmic capabilities and care for note values. Teresa covered herself in glory on the lightning-quick “Marambaia” and on Jobim’s gossamer work, “Chovendo na roseira” (“Double Rainbow”).
But she may have wandered too far from her fado roots — a codfish out of salt water, most likely — in the slower-paced bossa nova items. Here, her thick native-born accent became more of an actual hindrance than an obvious advantage. The dissimilar vowel sounds of her Lusitanian ancestry clashed with the more-rounded demands of the title tune, written by Vinicius with Carlos Lyra; or the highly literate “Insensatez” (“How Insensitive”), one of master Jobim’s loveliest incantations, done to flawless perfection by him and Frank Sinatra nearly four decades prior.
What was the motivating force behind this amalgam of musical styles? “Você e Eu symbolizes the encounter of a Portuguese singer with the music and musicians of Brazil,” Salgueiro explained to the Mundo Lusiada Website, “a partnership and a communication built through music; above all, [it is] the acknowledgement of our collective individuality before the individuality of the other, the joy of having a dialogue and the willingness to make this encounter possible.”
There has always been some degree of hesitation among fellow Brazilians as to whether or not they will admit to a fondness for their mother country’s music. In this case, however, there can be no question of a certain singer’s unrestrained ardor for Brazil’s melodic inventions.
“Ever since I was a child,” she remembered fondly, “I loved to hear the sound of the Portuguese language in Brazilian music, and early on I admired and followed their interpreters, their authors, and their composers.”
Nonplussed by her detractors, Salgueiro insisted these songs were “[m]elodies that have always captivated me with their beauty and sophistication, words that have enchanted me by the power of their images and their ability to evoke so much simplicity, always close to the popular vernacular, the poetry of longing and of love.”
The album’s final tally, a formidable 22 tracks in all, posed a monumental challenge for any pop stylist, then and now. But for Teresa Salgueiro it was an especially noteworthy endeavor, one she greeted with her habitual graciousness and aplomb. “Finally, we can live this experience for the first time directly with the public… I am grateful to [pianist, arranger, and musical director] João Cristal for teaching me to sing these songs and sincerely hope to share this happiness with many more people.”
On the heals of her successful live solo work — held over for several nights by popular demand — can there be any chance that Teresa will get back together with her old fado crowd? The answer appears in the credits for Você e Eu: listed as executive producer of the album, in addition to its head of mastering and art direction, is the leader and co-founder of Madredeus, composer-lyricist Pedro Ayres Magalhães. Burning her artistic bridges is definitely not a part of Salgueiro’s lounge act.
“A Great Little Noise”
For all their novelty and fame, Teresa Salgueiro and Mariza both represent, in their own specialized manner, the modern views of an already established, older order. Between them, however, they’ve developed certain undeniable traits. Some of the more familiar include a finely honed (if somewhat flamboyant, in Mariza’s case) fashion sense, an appealing voice, an attractive and outsized stage presence, an artist’s innate sense of what the public wants, business and financial smarts, and the big theatrical gesture.
As a yardstick for superior vocal ability, big theatrical gestures (in the form of graceful arm and hand movements) are the stock-in-trade as well of another, better-known Marisa: MPB singer, producer, arranger, songwriter, and Tribalista, the Rio-born Marisa Monte.
In an October 2002 interview for Brazzil magazine’s music editor Bruce Gilman, Marisa revealed, quite offhandedly, the real reason behind the spontaneous use of her upper extremities in many of the artist’s live presentations.
“They’re the kind of gestures that I make when I’m talking. Really, I talk a lot with my hands. It’s funny because… in some songs my hands are attached to the guitar, and I really miss moving them. It’s like a suspension of my expression. Moving my arms and hands is something that really helps me to sing and to communicate a song’s meaning.”
Whatever it took, for the past 20 years Marisa Monte has been communicating many a song’s meaning not only through sweeping hand gestures but also via her superb singing voice and stunning good looks on stage. Today she stands as one of Brazil’s most dependable musical exponents, a full-blown example of the heterogeneous nature of talent.
“I’ve never started from the premise that my music is this or that,” she made known in a 2006 New York Times article. “Even for me, it’s difficult to pick a label. People don’t know if I’m pop or something else. The labels never last long anyway, because at any moment it becomes easy for me to destroy all the theories.”
Guitarist and musician Arto Lindsay, who has presided over several of Marisa’s recorded entrees, referred to her as a person of wide taste, “but also very mainstream. One of the secrets of her success is that she has really popular taste, and so is very honest about doing what she does and looking for the best from every genre.”
The possessor of an obviously open and gifted mind-set as well, the carioca native let Gilman in on some of her “secrets” with a purposely winding back-story involving her own artistic coming of age: “When I was eighteen, I went to Italy to study opera, which gave me the opportunity to study the repertoire and to live outside Brazil awhile. But after living in Italy for a year, I began to see Brazil with different eyes.
“For the first time, I could see how rich, original, and unique Brazilian music is in relation to the rest of the world. I saw myself a long way from home and realized how hard it was going to be to put aside all the cultural weight, the density of my background. Never before had I felt so Brazilian.
“To escape my background, to forget all the culture that had been implanted since birth, I would have had to live outside of Brazil for the rest of my life. I also knew it was going to be very difficult for me to put aside modern production techniques.
“And since opera is something that is turned more toward the past, I could see clearly how, for me, it was more important to be in Brazil than to be singing opera in Italy. So I came back when I was nineteen. I had been receiving invitations to record pop music in Brazil since I was sixteen, but studying in Europe was just a way of taking enough time to find my way, to decide what I really wanted.”
By her own calculation, Marisa has recounted this thrice-familiar tale “millions” of times, including at least once to her colleague and friend, producer Arto Lindsay. “And I am sure I’ll keep telling it forever,” she chuckled. “Even if I write it down, it’s not the same as hearing it in my unique voice.”
Ah, yes, that “unique voice.” Gilman has praised its “extraordinary dexterity,” “a mezzo-soprano, warm in timbre and unbelievably flexible,” blessed with “a wider sweep of coloration on all ranges than most voices in contemporary Brazilian pop.”
“Silvery and liquid,” raved Times reporter Larry Rohter, “it glides, flutters and skips above her songs with a delicacy that invites listeners to relax and enjoy the ride.” Mr. Lindsay alluded to Marisa’s “work ethic” and “beauty that matches her voice,” along with applauding her interest in Brazilian and Portuguese literature and her “understanding of the way pop art works.”
“For me, it’s all art,” she responded. “I’m interested in what’s going on in other artistic expressions as a reference for what I’m doing. And I like to talk to people from other cultural areas because I think it’s interesting to compare the process of creation, the concepts in the works, and to exchange these kinds of feelings and ways of production.”
By way of example, she has surrounded herself with an impressive lineup of individuals with “other artistic expressions”: Carlinhos Brown and Arnaldo Antunes, Nando Reis and David Byrne, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Laurie Anderson, Bernie Worrell and Philip Glass. But the first to unlock the possibilities may have been her longtime supporter, journalist, songwriter, and television and music producer Nelson Motta — not quite the haute voix of the avant-garde, but an astute judge of latent talent nonetheless.
Here, in an extract from his Noites Tropicais: Solos, Improvisos e Memórias Musicais (“Tropical Nights: Solos, Improvisations, and Musical Memories”), are Motta’s earliest recollections of the fast-rising nineteen-year-old sensation:
“What I saw and heard gave me the vivid impression of being before a real talent. And more: of a strong scenic personality, of a youngster with an optimal musical culture and superb taste in repertoire… And an obsessive desire to learn, to better herself, and to grow. It wasn’t just her ambition to cut a record, to play on the radio, or to become a pop star. She wanted to be a stage singer, much like the lyric singers of old; and the recordings, if they materialized, would be a secondary natural consequence of all that; because she believed that great music happened live – with all of its risk-taking, lack of a safety net, and short-lived moments – just like in the theater and the opera world.”
Her adolescent idol was the soprano Maria Callas — one of those “lyric singers of old” that, by sheer coincidence, was the same role model that inspired her namesake, fadista Mariza, to take the artistic plunge. Her link to Velha Guarda (“The Old Guard”) da Portela Samba School of Rio, from where her knowledge of Carnival and samba must have derived, proved invaluable to her development as a performer. (It helped that her father Carlos had once been cultural director for the group.)
What about all those recordings that were expected to have materialized from her stage success? Not to worry. Unlike many artists who issue album after album of mindless filler, Marisa has spent much of her free time in thoughtful contemplation as to what exactly to leave behind for posterity.
To date she’s recorded a grand total of eight solo albums and one group effort — not very impressive numbers in themselves, but hardly second-rate studio fodder either. Her first, MM (World Pacific) from 1989, was a live performance based on an early TV special. If anything, it set the tone for what was to become her signature eclecticism.
The songs were drawn from all quarters, and highlighted the work of a contemporary rock band, an Italian pop-rock artist, a purveyor of Brazilian soul, and a psychedelic group from the seventies, along with a few standard-issue set pieces from different time periods, the most memorable of which was a version of the Motown classic “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” (Strong and Whitfield), as well as tracks that paid tribute to Carmen Miranda, George and Ira Gershwin, and Kurt Weill.
Despite its one-word title, her second album Mais (World Pacific, 1991) did not feature “more” of the same, but took a different turn in that she co-wrote many of the numbers with ex-Titãs partners Reis and Antunes. A cover of Caetano Veloso’s “De noite na cama” (“At Night In Bed”) and selections from sambistas Cartola and Pixinguinha, in addition to an item by a gentleman identified only as Nordestino, rounded out the program.
She continued along this line for her next major outing, the improbably christened Verde, Anil, Amarelo, Cor de Rosa e Carvão (Blue Note, 1994), marketed in the U.S. under the banner Green, Blue, Yellow, Rose and Charcoal. The guest list for this super-production read like a name-dropper’s guide to the musical galaxy, i.e., Gilberto Gil, Carlinhos Brown, Celso Fonseca, Paulinho da Viola, Velha Guarda da Portela, Messrs. Glass and Worrell, Romero Lubambo, Fred Hammond, and so forth. It was perhaps Marisa’s biggest seller abroad.
Her subsequent work, Barulhinho Bom (“A Great Little Noise,” EMI, 1996), a double-compact disc combination of live performances and studio proficiency, solidified her pop-music credentials; in fact, it went above and beyond anything she had done before. From that point, extensive touring, the presenting of more and elaborate stage shows, playing on and producing albums by other artists — even the creation of the record label Phonomotor for the purpose of preserving her own projects — took precedence over domestic bliss.
Nevertheless, two more releases followed. Memórias, Crônicas e Declarações de Amor – “Memories, Chronicles and Declarations of Love” (Blue Note, 2000), was a title that seemed lifted from Mr. Motta’s recently published reminiscences. It won a Latin Grammy Award for Best Pop Album in 2001. Topping even that envious honor, the 2002 launch of Tribalistas on Phonomotor, with fellow participants Carlinhos Brown and Arnaldo Antunes, hit Number Twelve on the Billboard charts, earning generous Grammy notices and winning one for Best Brazilian Contemporary Pop Album.
Not until she became pregnant with her son did Marisa take some needed time off. Following a three-year hiatus, she came back, fully charged, in 2006 with two back-to-back albums of mostly new material by her and Tribalista band members Brown and Antunes, Universo ao Meu Redor (“Universe All Around Me”) and Infinito Particular, both for EMI. With a little help from some old friends (Adriana Calcanhotto, Caetano Veloso, Jaques Morelenbaum, Eumir Deodato, João Donato, Paulinho da Viola, Philip Glass, and Daniel Jobim), these works turned out to be winners as well.
Marisa herself took a more proactive role in their production, exemplified by her mastering of some rather exotic instrumentation. Many of those she used, such as the auto-harp, melodica, kalimba, metaphone, cajon, vocoder, baixo, cowbells, and reco-reco, sounded suspiciously like leftovers from a discarded Uakti session. Even computerized electronics were no barrier to her experimentation.
“I love manipulating the sound of everything. You can create new instruments that don’t exist or new tonalities for traditional instruments. Plus, the mixture of the pure sound with the processed sound is really cool.”
Nelson Motta was right about a lot of things. Mostly, he was spot-on concerning his former protégée’s having the patience and self-discipline to take her musical ambitions to Valhalla-like heights. Of course, Marisa has never been content to stay within predictable parameters — and, as far as we can tell, no safety net was ever extended for this peerless risk-taker, either.
Turning once more toward the past, if she had lived during the early part of the twentieth century Marisa would surely have raised the bar for the likes of Rosa Ponselle, Geraldine Farrar, Maria Jeritza, Claudia Muzio, Lina Cavalieri, and other prima donnas of their ilk. And that’s no small feat, since they were all true operatic superstars of the very first order, renowned as much for the beauty of their voices as for their fabulous looks on stage.
In the breadth and scope of their knowledge, however, they would be no match for our modern-day diva. Why, back in the day she might even have forced them into some type of early retirement, or taken over at a moment’s notice. That’s soooo like the theater and opera world, isn’t it? A world and a culture Marisa Monte has yet to completely escape from. ◊
Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes
Hello, movie fans! Here’s a second list of my favorite (and not so favorite) films — many of them acknowledged cinema classics by any definition of the term and, as the title of my post suggests, memorable in their own ways. Let me know your views and thoughts on this list, which is in semi-alphabetical order. Happy reading!
The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
Though filmed in the “wilds” of the California hills and originally conceived as a vehicle for movie tough-guy James Cagney, this classic version of the story of Robin Hood and his merry band of thieves is grand movie-making at its finest. It proved a box-office bonanza for the Warner Brothers studio at a time when the hounds of war were yapping at the heels of Europe, with many of the predominantly British and/or UK cast sensing the difficulties their fellow countrymen abroad were about to undergo. As a result, there are superb performances from just about every member of the group, especially the excellent Robin Hood of the youthful and athletic Errol Flynn, who was never better in green tights. Olivia de Havilland, in her third pairing with the swashbuckling Flynn, is the lovely Lady Marian, Claude Rains the slightly effete but thoroughly malevolent Prince John, and Basil Rathbone the slimy scoundrel Sir Guy of Gisbourne — and a fairly decent swordsman, at that. With yeoman work provided by Melville Cooper as the phlegmatic Sheriff of Nottingham, boisterous Alan Hale in a repeat of his earlier silent stint as Little John (he was to assume the role one last time in 1950’s Sword of Sherwood Forest), bullfrog-voiced Eugene Pallette as the rotund Friar Tuck, and Una O’Connor, Herbert Mundin, Patric Knowles, Ian Hunter (a model King Richard), Montagu Love, Lionel Belmore, and many others in fine support. Exquisitely scored by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, for which he won a deserved Oscar. It’s possibly the closest Korngold came to his concept of “opera without words.” Directed with flair and gusto by Michael Curtiz and second unit director William Keighley, whom Curtiz later replaced. Perfect family entertainment and lavishly filmed in early three-strip Technicolor. For adventure and romance, it has never been topped. Remade many times, with Richard Todd, John Derek, Richard Greene, Sean Connery, and, in recent times, Kevin Costner, Cary Elwes, and Russell Crowe taking turns as Robin.
Peter Shaffer adapted his successful stage play for the screen, both opening up and expanding the drama along the way. The basic fiction of Antonio Salieri’s murder of his rival Mozart is retained, but it’s the locale (filmed in Prague), the richly elegant eighteenth-century costumes, and the charismatic performances that give this film its vibrant life, in addition to the master’s heavenly music, performed on the soundtrack by Sir Neville Marriner. Austrian composer Wolfgang Amadeus (Latin for “To love God”) Mozart, precocious and scatological — well documented in his voluminous correspondence with his wife, father and sister — was a true and undeniable genius of his or any other time. A prolific composer, he dabbled in just about every conceivable musical form; produced works of astonishing range, beauty and originality; and achieved worldwide fame and recognition in his short life. On the other hand, the Italian-born Antonio Salieri was a fairly run-of-the-mill mediocrity who wrote innumerable pieces for the church and the theater, almost none of which have survived into the modern classical repertoire. F. Murray Abraham was catapulted into the front ranks of lead actors with his fascinating, multi-layered portrayal of the jealous court composer Salieri, helped in large measure by the superb makeup job of veteran Dick Smith. Tom Hulce is the vulgar, potty-mouthed, maniacally cackling but ever-so-charming “Wolfie,” a finely detailed achievement, with Elizabeth Berridge as his klutzy lower-class spouse, Constanze. Hulce and Berridge’s distinctive Americanness is wisely exploited by Czech director Milos Forman as a counterpoint to the highbrow snobbery of the snooty types that populate the backstabbing royal court of Austrian Emperor Joseph II, played with a haughty air of self-confidence (and boundless good humor) by the wonderful Jeffrey Jones. The other cast members include Simon Callow (a noted author in real life, who played Mozart on the British stage), Roy Dotrice (as Leopold Mozart), Patrick Hines, Charles Kay, Christine Ebersole, Vincent Schiavelli, Kenneth MacMillan (in an amusing bit restored for the expanded director’s cut), Barbara Byrne, and Kenny Baker (R2-D2 of the Star Wars series) in a “small” role. The movie narrowly misses a four-star rating, as the play was much more concentrated on the stage and is shorn of some of its lovely literary language due to the different requirements of the film medium. In addition, it takes extensive liberties with the perception and presentation of Mozart’s operas that distort their true historical nature and significance. Other than that, it’s a fabulous showcase for classical-music lovers. (Too many notes, indeed!)
Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
Western ambience, Western atmosphere, Western attitude — but wait! It’s not a Western at all, but a reasonable facsimile of a film noir that takes place in broad daylight (now there’s a novelty for you). Clearly, opposites attract in this case. And talk about having a bad day, each one of this movie’s denizens experiences what can only be described as a less than fulfilling sojourn. John Sturges, the director, had slaved away on Hollywood B-pictures for nearly a decade before rising to prominence with this brief but tightly concentrated, highly suspenseful thriller. This was Sturges’ second foray with Tracy (their first was the formula courtroom drama, The People Against O’Hara), who initially declined to participate in the production. However, he quickly changed his mind, once he got wind that film noir icon Alan Ladd was willing to do the picture if Tracy wasn’t. Bad Day at Black Rock turned out to be Tracy’s final screen appearance for MGM — indeed, a bad day for MGM! The story takes place in the aptly titled Black Rock (it was filmed in Lone Pine and Alabama Hills, California, near the Sierra Nevada mountains), a frontier dustbowl dwelling at the end of World War II, where a mysterious one-armed stranger’s sudden presence and polite inquiries into a Japanese-American named Komoko are met with antagonism and suspicion from the local townsfolk. The stranger’s probing and the hostile reactions of the citizenry ultimately turn the atmosphere of this sleepy, redneck ghost town topsy-turvy. Spencer Tracy plays John Macreedy, the laconic loner, who can take extremely good care of himself (he has a mean karate chop). Robert Ryan is Reno Smith, the town’s mover, shaker and resident mischief-maker, as well as all-around bad apple. He’s got the townspeople tied around his little pinky, or so he believes. When things start to unravel around him, Smith lashes out aggressively, much like a cornered mongrel. The always excellent Ryan and a taciturn Tracy shine in this one; they go toe-to-toe in verbal discourses that define one another’s characters in understated ways (the screenplay is by Don McGuire and Millard Kaufman, from a story by Howard Breslin). Our “modern action movies” can take a lesson from these two worthy pros in how to convey craftiness and subtlety through looks and glances alone. The “action” aspects are expertly handled in a real-world manner by Tracy and the mean-as-a-junkyard-dog duo of Lee Marvin and eternal fall-guy, Ernest Borgnine. A haggard Dean Jagger is the alcoholic sheriff with a permanent hangover (and guilty conscience) over what happened to Komoko. Featuring John Ericson and Anne Francis (who starred together in the short-lived TV-series Honey West), with Walter Brennan, Russell Collins and Walter Sande, all good in Sturges’ first major Hollywood hit. It’s a rather slow starter, but stick with it — you’ll be amply rewarded for your patience. Superb widescreen photography by William C. Mellor. The deep, dark secret everybody wants to avoid discussing concerns a fallen comrade of Japanese descent who saved Tracy’s life; he wants to pay respect to his dead buddy by returning the hero’s medal to his father, Komoko. Andre Previn wrote the powerful score. This film was a springboard to Sturges’ later string of all-male ensemble efforts, most notably Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Great Escape (1963), all three of these actioners high-level macho-escapist fare at their feverish best.
Of all the religious widescreen Hollywood epics released in the fifties and early sixties, this sound version of General Lew Wallace’s “Tale of the Christ” is the most revered. And for good reason: it boasts a marvelous international cast, impressive life-size sets, beautiful location shooting, and that awesome chariot race near the end. Oh, and don’t forget a major miracle or two! Charlton Heston is at his jaw-clenching, agonizing best as the long-suffering Judah Ben-Hur (Academy Award for Best Actor). How he manages to confront and overcome the various challenges posed to him by his rival Messala is the major thrust of the drama. The excellent Stephen Boyd is on a par with Heston as a magnificent Messala, the very embodiment of raw Roman ambition. Despite revisionist claims of homosexual vibes between these two characters, Judah and Messala are merely fiercely competitive boyhood chums. They have differing ethno-political views that interfere with their childhood friendship — and that inevitably lead to conflict and tragedy. It’s strictly a man’s world, however, with the only minor flaw being the limited, stilted roles for the women, particularly Israeli actress Haya Harareet as Esther. Judah’s Roman love-interest Flavia, played by Marina Berti, was all-but cut from the final release print; the loss is regrettable, as she would have given Heston’s driven character a personal dimension and added layer of warmth. She appears briefly in the scene where Quintus Arrius (solidly played by British veteran Jack Hawkins) adopts Judah as his son. The film is long but never boring. Several writers laid their hands on the screenplay, among them playwright Christopher Fry and author Gore Vidal, although the onscreen credit is given to Karl Tunberg. The direction is by William Wyler, with a fine assist from his second unit team headed by Yakima Canutt, is technically precise. He succeeds in creating a high degree of tension between the two main protagonists; credit is due him as well for sustaining interest in their feud throughout the over three-hour course they do battle in. The music by veteran Miklos Rozsa is a model for films of this type. He went on to score several more epics in a similar vein, including El Cid (also with Heston), King of Kings and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad. The ending is a bit too literal, but serves as a fitting conclusion to what went on before. The movie betrays its fifties origins mostly in its treatment of Jesus, who is never seen in close-up, only in long shots and from behind. He’s played by opera tenor Claude Heater. Others in the (very) large cast include Finlay Currie, Martha Scott, Cathy O’Donnell, Sam Jaffe, Frank Thring, and Hugh Griffith, an Oscar-winner for his supporting role as Sheik Ilderim.
The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
It’s been called the greatest horror picture ever made – no faint praise for gay British film director James Whale (The Old Dark House, The Invisible Man), whose iconic monster movie this is: a first-rate, and far superior, sequel to his earlier Frankenstein from 1931. Yes, it’s sentimental in spots, even downright cloying in its manipulation of the audience’s feelings for and identification with Dr. Frankenstein’s patchwork creation; yet almost 80 years later it cannot help but wipe the floor of the competition. Played to pathetic perfection by a middle-aged Boris Karloff (The Mummy, The Black Cat), the film has been cloned and parodied by everyone from Abbott & Costello and Mel Brooks to The Rocky Horror Picture Show — often copied, but never equaled. A most satisfying viewing experience, and a right of passage for anyone seriously interested in the horror-movie genre. Colin Clive repeats his role as the restless, anxiety ridden Henry Frankenstein, who is threatened and cajoled by the eccentric Dr. Pretorius, a wild-eyed Ernest Thesiger (a fey stand-in for the director — and how he relishes those rolled “r’s”), into creating a mate for the lonely Karloff. Jack Pierce’s superb makeup job for both the Monster and his titular Bride (Elsa Lanchester, in a dual role, as author Mary Shelley as well) has passed into screen legend. Universal Studios objected to Whale’s humanization of their prize moneymaker, especially the scene of the Monster weeping as the “Ave Maria” blares forth in the background. Their subsequent entry in the series, Son of Frankenstein (1939), reverts to the Monster’s brutish nature. A pity! Expressionistic sets, bizarre shadows and camera angles, and eerily comical secondary characters – in particular, the whiny-voiced Una O’Connor and the slow-witted E.E. Clive as the village burgomaster, along with the sympathetic Blind Hermit (charmingly played by O.P. Heggie) – add up to a smashing good time for all. Terrific music score by Franz Waxman, and featuring Valerie Hobson as Elizabeth, Gavin Gordon as Lord Byron, Reginald Barlow as Hans, Mary Gordon as Hans’ wife, and the ever dependable Dwight Frye as Karl. It quite literally ends with a bang. Essential viewing.
The once-in-a-lifetime convergence of stars, screenwriters, and actual historical events conspired to make this exercise in what would normally have been a formula B-picture into a timeless film classic, one you really can’t resist. The meeting of incongruous leads Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine, the cynical owner of a popular Moroccan nightspot (and latent freedom fighter), and Ingrid Bergman as Ilsa Lund, the luminous lost object of his affection, will forever be remembered as an inspired episode in the Warner Brothers canon of wartime romances. Viennese actor Paul Henreid plays the stalwart second lead as underground resistance leader Victor Laszlo. The screenplay was by Howard Koch (the scriptwriter for Mercury Theatre’s famed “War of the Worlds” broadcast) and the twins Julius and Philip Epstein; among the many high-points are the first meeting of Rick and Ilsa, Sam’s rendition of “As Time Goes By,” the stirring singing of the Marseillaise, the highly-quotable line “Here’s looking at you kid,” and the famous finale at the airport. Others in the sturdy ensemble include Claude Rains as the dapper inspector Louis Renaud, Conrad Veidt as the nefarious Nazi Major Strasser, Peter Lorre as the repugnant Ugarte, jowly S.Z. Sakall (erroneously billed as S.K.) as Carl the headwaiter, Marcel Dalio (a real-life refugee from the Holocaust) as Emil the croupier, Leonid Kinskey as Sascha the bartender, Sydney Greenstreet as Signor Ferrari, owner of the Blue Parrot Café, and, of course, Dooley Wilson as Sam the singer-pianist, who faked his own piano playing. Many other supporting bit players from the marvelous Warner Brothers stable are scattered throughout, including Leon Belasco, Mischa Auer, Oliver Blake, Torben Meyer, William Edmunds, Madeleine LeBeau, Helmut Dantine, Joy Page, John Qualen, Ludwig Stossel, Frank Puglia, and Dan Seymour as the venerable Abdul the doorman. Directed with showmanship, flair, and a rich noir-perspective by Hungarian Michael Curtiz, and brilliantly scored by Max Steiner, who contrary to belief did not write “As Time Goes By.”
In the same year that Paramount was touting The Godfather, Part II as a Best Picture Oscar contender, the studio was cognizant enough to release Polish-born director Roman Polanski’s brilliant crime drama Chinatown. With a masterful, Academy Award-winning screenplay (by writer Robert Towne), superb art direction (W. Stewart Campbell), and finely detailed production values (Robert Evans is credited as producer), it took the cinema world by storm; movie critics fell over themselves with high praise for the venture. That one-word title alone is enough to tell the tawdry tale of well-to-do — and well-heeled — private gumshoe J.J. Gittes (Jake to his “friends”), smartly played by Jack Nicholson, and his seemingly innocuous involvement with Mrs. Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), the wife of Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling), chief engineer for the Los Angeles Water and Power Department. After a series of red herrings, Jake unwittingly stumbles onto a deadly game of cover-up by underhanded city officials, snot-nosed (and violent) gangster types, trigger-happy country folk, and wise-cracking police officers, all of whom know a whole lot more than they’re letting on about the dirty dealings over at Water and Power. As the fabulously wealthy Noah Cross (a smarmy but outlandishly entertaining John Huston, outstanding in a secondary role) casually informs Mr. Gittes, “You may think you know what you’re dealing with, but, believe me, you don’t.” Truer words were never spoken. Nicholson looks smashing in his immaculately tailored suits, wide-brimmed hats, and silk bathrobe (costume design by Anthea Sylbert). So’s that snazzy roadster, too, but it’s all for show. Indeed, that’s the dirty little secret of Chinatown: despite the obvious finery and ostentatious trappings of the rich and famous, the filth begins to pile up fast – a little too fast for poor Jake to keep up with. After one too many revelations, his carefully calculated world comes crashing down around him, as Jake finds himself at sea in a hum zinger of an ending, a tragic denouement of monumental (as well as Oedipal) proportions. With their masks lifted, the characters are revealed as the bizarre grotesques they’ve now become. It’s nihilism writ large, as it were. Most impressive are the camera angles, which were shot from behind Jake’s back. The feeling is of being dragged against one’s will into his unseemly realm, to see for oneself what Jake is about to discover and unravel. We’re accomplices — maybe even voyeurs — witnessing the disintegration of everything he holds dear. Everything about this classy feature, however, is top drawer, including the dynamite cast. Best of all is Nicholson’s Jake, a fellow too smart to get caught with his pants down, but too dumb to prevent it from happening anyway. Dunaway is so gorgeous to look at, and her arguments so compelling and strong, that we’re immediately taken in by her conviction — a true femme fatale in every sense, to her own detriment. Perry Lopez brings just the right touch of sarcasm mixed with disdain to his role as the harried police inspector Lt. Escobar, always one step ahead of his quarry, but wisely taking two steps back to reflect upon the situation at hand. Another major character are the physical locations themselves, which contribute mightily to the overall sense that something’s not right in this part of town (the film was mostly shot in and around the San Francisco Bay area). Also featuring John Hillerman, Richard Bakalyan, Roy Jensen, Bruce Glover, sweaty Burt Young, James Hong, Beulah Quo, Nandu Hinds as Jake’s secretary Sophie, young Diane Ladd, and Joe Mantell as Jake’s partner Walsh, who has the last word: “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” Polanksi appears briefly as the nasty little hood who slices Nicholson’s nose with a knife. The excellent and spare score is by the late, great Jerry Goldsmith – a gem of a composition. The film was cleverly recycled as the basis for Gore Verbinski’s animated Rango (2011), which includes a hilariously sinister take on the Noah Cross character as voiced by Ned Beatty.
Citizen Kane (1941)
What is there left to say about this landmark production? Nothing at the time prepared Hollywood and RKO Radio Pictures for the firestorm of controversy this classic feature generated upon its initial release. The story of the assorted problems it encountered with its plot (purportedly based on the life of newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst) and subsequent distribution is well known. What we’re ultimately left with is a masterpiece of the cinematic art form, what can conservatively be termed a true collaborative effort by all concerned. It’s still amazing to learn, after all these years, how truly revolutionary this production was: the mere fact that it came out of the Hollywood dream factory of the 1930s is proof enough of its uniqueness. Theater director, writer, producer and actor Orson Welles has been given far too much credit for having single-handedly invented many of the camera angles and lighting techniques we now take for granted. In truth, he and his cinematographer, Gregg Toland, were basically following a textbook example of how to make a motion picture. They both get an A+ for effort and delivery. The marvelous script is by Welles and Herman Mankiewicz, although Orson tried to suppress that fact for years thereafter. There is so much to see, and specifically to hear, in this marvelous maiden work that multiple viewings are absolutely mandatory to fully appreciate what is cinematic storytelling at its very best. The plot has been reworked time and again, most surreptitiously by Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon and, to some extent, The Godfather series. The large cast, many of them past veterans of Welles’ Mercury Theater on the Air radio program and his Federal Theater Projects, includes Dorothy Comingore, Joseph Cotten, Edward Sloane, George Coulouris, Ruth Warwick, Ray Collins, Fortunio Bonanova, Philip Van Zandt, Paul Stewart, Erskine Sanford, Gino Corrado, future film director William Alland as the inquisitive reporter, future tough-guy Alan Ladd, and young Orson himself (in a corset, no less, to hide his massive bulk). The extraordinary sound design and deep-focus photography, as well as the musical score by the untested Bernard Herrmann (in his pre-Alfred Hitchcock days), add up to an oppressive atmosphere of a life lived lavishly on the edge. The music for the pseudo-opera Salammbô, an ingeniously lyrical set piece, features many nods to classical composers Richard Strauss and Erich Wolfgang Korngold; although Welles had in mind the French Romantic style of Massenet’s Thaïs, but this will do.
City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly’s Gold (1994)
Sequel to the successful yuppies in mid-life-crisis comedy City Slickers, which also stars Billy Crystal, Daniel Stern, Patricia Wettig, and Jack Palance in his Oscar-winning supporting role as the laconic cattle boss Curly. They’re back, along with Jon Lovitz (replacing snippy colleague B. Kirby Jr.) as Crystal’s no-account brother. Others from the original cast show up at the end, including Josh Mostel, who’s got to be a dead ringer for Wayne Knight they look so much alike. This version has funnier set pieces than the first film, as well as a bigger part for Mr. Palance, whose acerbic asides are just as caustic. The plot is a retread of Warner Brothers’ The Treasure of the Sierra Madre in which Crystal, Stern, Lovitz, and later Palance as Curly’s twin brother Duke, go to the Nevada desert in search of a fortune in lost gold. It includes snippets of the Walter Huston dance, Crystal’s imitation of Humphrey Bogart, and scenes and music from The Godfather Part II. It’s colorfully shot on location in Moab, Utah, and the screenplay is by Crystal and the team of Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, who’ve written several winners for director Ron Howard. As far as sequels go, this one is better than the usual scattershot continuation, and is fairly high up on the laugh meter. Mark Shaiman’s tuneful Western-style score is a shameless rip-off of Elmer Bernstein’s The Magnificent Seven theme music, but it’s a fitting tribute nonetheless. There are a couple of crude jokes and bits, and Crystal engages in some comic hanky-panky with wife Wettig (who has a reduced role here) — but nothing too offensive, at least by adult standards.
Duck Soup (1933)
The most irreverent and irrepressible screwball comedy the Marx Brothers ever perpetrated on moviegoers — and, at slightly over an hour, their most concentrated effort at hilarity ever. Most of the jokes and routines had been perfected by the team in numerous stage appearances, and were already considered old hat by the time they were filmed. Here, they’re elevated to high art, if not high jinks. The threadbare plot, which is but a flimsy excuse for the film’s marvelous comedic high-points, involves dubious Freedonian dictator Rufus T. Firefly’s wrongheaded attempts to wage war against the neighboring Sylvania. Groucho Marx plays the easily flummoxed Firefly, with brothers Chico and Harpo serving as Sylvanian “spies,” while fellow sibling Zeppo tags along as Firefly’s male secretary. Margaret Dumont is priceless as the boys’ clueless foil, Mrs. Teasdale. Tall, aristocratic, and with a flair for fun and mischief, Louis Calhern is the Sylvanian ambassador Trintino, Raquel Torres is the slinky Spanish-style vamp, and old pro Edgar Kennedy (he of the slow burn) is the put upon lemonade vendor. Many outrageous and totally ludicrous skits (“Peanuts, getta you peanuts”) are punctuated by Groucho’s sly commentary, Chico’s fractured English, and Harpo’s silent slapstick. That coat of his yields some singularly offbeat items, to say the least. The musical sequences are pure unabashed fun (play close attention to Groucho’s entrance song — it’s a riot!) and the rousing closing number is a send-up of old vaudeville routines and minstrel shows — no offense intended. A thoroughly enjoyable romp and on most critics’ Top Ten Funniest Movies Ever Made list, this vehicle was the Brothers’ swan song for Paramount Pictures before they migrated over to MGM.
The Ghost and the Darkness (1996)
Based on the true story of two man-eating lions loose in the South African bush country at the turn of the century, the film stars Val Kilmer as Colonel John Patterson, unlikely cast as an Irish engineer assigned to build a bridge across the River Tsavo, and Michael Douglas as Remington, an American big-game hunter spouting rapid-fire syllogisms. They join forces to rid themselves of the beasts, whose nasty habit of eating up the local workforce is crimping the style of British railroad baron and self-styled martinet Tom Wilkinson (The Patriot, Batman Begins). Others in the cast include Henry Cele (Shaka Zulu), whose prominently chiseled features are welcome in a small role as the doomed foreman, the authoritative Bernard Hill (Titanic) as the smart-ass doctor of the camp, and mild-mannered Brian McCardie (Rob Roy) as the Scottish missionary. The usually solid and distinguished Indian actor Om Puri (City of Joy) seems at sea as a disruptive Hindu leader of the workers. The major attractions, however, are the titular lions, and the ones used in the picture are a truly fearsome and ugly-looking pair. The real-life stuffed lions responsible for all the carnage can still be seen at the Chicago Field Museum, as the narrator John Kani so informs us. He plays the stoic African guide, who has the best line in the film when he’s asked about life with his three wives. Filmed on location, it’s better than your average National Geographic special. There’s real ferocity to the beasts, it’s gorgeously photographed, and the sound design is truly spectacular; this is definite home theater demo material if there ever was one. The main roles are somewhat shallow, however, especially Douglas’ (who also produced), and the ending is as contrived as they come. It’s redeemed by the film music, which is by veteran screen composer Jerry Goldsmith, who after over forty years in the movie business still manages to surprise and please the listener. His wonderful score weaves African tribal chants, dance rhythms, and native drum beats into the seams to very good effect. Directed by Stephen Hopkins and scripted by veteran screenwriter William Goldman. The lions will certainly scare you if the acting doesn’t.
Covers similar thematic ground as Anthony Mann’s The Fall of the Roman Empire, and is a close cinematic cousin to such films as Spartacus, Ben-Hur, Demetrius and the Gladiators, and other sword-and-sandal epics. Emperor Marcus Aurelius is about to retire and considers handing over the power reigns to popular general Maximus (“The Spaniard”). Before the emperor can do so, however, he’s murdered in true Roman dysfunctional-family tradition by his envious son Commodus, while Maximus is about to be put to the sword. He escapes, in time to find his wife and child butchered by his former mates. Sold into slavery, he manages to seek revenge by finding glory in gladiatorial combat. The film takes this basic plot point and reinterprets it as sports hero-worship, no better illustrated than in an early scene where Maximus and his troops make ready for combat. Substitute helmets and shoulder pads for shields and swords, and you have the opening play of the Super Bowl Game — complete with pep talks, back-slaps, and color commentary (all that’s missing are a couple of “high fives”). Soft-spoken Russell Crowe is fine and dandy as the brawny Maximus. He has “macho action star” scrawled all over his chest. Indeed, since then he’s gone on to appear in the far superior Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World and Ridley Scott’s remake of Robin Hood. Also featured are Joaquin Phoenix as the conniving Commodus, Richard Harris in the tiny role of the fragile Marcus Aurelius, Connie Nielsen (fresh from her stint as a “fiendish” attorney in The Devil’s Advocate) as Commodus’ sister Lucilla, Djimon Hounsou (a welcome presence) as the glowering gladiator Juba, and Derek Jacobi as the low-key but crafty Senator Gracchus. Oliver Reed hams it up to the hilt in his last screen appearance as the slave trader Proximo. His visage was computer-grafted onto another actor’s body after his untimely passing in mid-production. Spencer Treat Clark (Unbreakable) plays Lucilla’s precocious son Lucius, and Giorgio Cantarini (who co-starred with Roberto Benigni in Life is Beautiful) has a cameo as Maximus’ offspring. Directed by Ridley Scott, slightly out of his league but managing to find his way around the epic conventions well enough. Excellent CGI effects add a much-needed dimension and lift to some of the outdoor scenes, establishing Rome as a major character in itself. The score is by Hans Zimmer, one of his better ones. Jarringly photographed in a manner similar to Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, i.e., a mix of slow motion, stop-action, and rapid crosscutting, with hints of a high-speed documentary style. It all comes together with some roughness around the edges, but should do much to revive the period-action flick, as evidenced by Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy a year later. It owes as much to Braveheart as to Tacitus.
Directed by former Harvard-graduate Edward Zwick, the letters of another Harvard alumnus, those of Col. Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick, who also provides the voiceover), a young, white Union commander in the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, written to his northern abolitionist mother (Jane Alexander, unbilled), formed the basis for this inspiring portrait of gallantry and racism during the American Civil War. Other relevant sources included the novel One Gallant Rush: Robert Gould Shaw and His Brave Black Regiment by Peter Burchard and Lincoln Kirstein’s photographic compilation, Lay This Laurel. Unlike the real-life 54th, which was made up mostly of free black men from the North, the screen regiment is comprised almost entirely of ex-slaves. Except for the presence of Shaw, his parents, and the imposing figure of author and abolitionist Frederick Douglass (Raymond St. Jacques) — two of whose sons actually signed up with and fought for the 54th — the principal participants depicted in the drama are purely fictitious. One of these fictitious creations, Trip (Denzel Washington), is flogged for having deserted his troops in the midst of their training. As it turns out, Trip was only looking for a decent pair of shoes, which the troops had been denied due to the racist tendencies of the quartermaster in charge of their supplies. Denzel’s tearful acquiescence in full view of his fellow troopers, and before his commanding officer, is one of the most powerful sequences in the movie. He and the other volunteers eventually get to display their fighting spirit and worth as soldiers in a futile and vividly realistic suicidal attack on an impregnable beach fortress off the coast of South Carolina. The hardships these men experience along the way frame the main part of the story behind the unsuccessful charge at Fort Wagner where, historically, the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry lost half their men. Pride, courage, bravery, dignity and sacrifice are all touched upon in this potent war drama, a fitting tribute to the soldiers who fought and died in that vicious battle, which occurred almost simultaneously with a similar confrontation on the wide-open fields of Gettysburg. After several nominations wherein he came up empty-handed, in 1990 Denzel finally won a well-deserved Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his personification of an angry black man railing against social injustice. The most poignant portion of the film comes when the lifeless body of Col. Shaw is unceremoniously thrown into a ditch alongside the corpse of Pvt. Trip and others of their regiment, with sea birds squealing and squawking noisily overhead. With a screenplay by Kevin Jarre and striking photography by veteran British cinematographer Freddie Francis, Glory also featured excellent performances from Morgan Freeman, Cary Elwes, Andre Braugher, and Jihmi Kennedy, with Alan North, Bob Gunton, John Finn, Jay O. Sanders and Cliff De Young in other roles. The exceptionally fine and moving score by James Horner, with the welcome participation of the Boys Choir of Harlem, is one of this composer’s best remembered pieces. It’s a favorite of record collectors and sound buffs (Shawn Murphy is the sound engineer), with more than a hint of Carl Orff’s Carmina burana in its sweeping choral passages and otherworldly tonalities.
The Godfather, Part I (1972)
“I believe in America. America has made my fortune.” So begins one of the most influential Hollywood films of the seventies, with sorrowful undertaker Bonasera (Salvatore Corsitto) making a desperate plea for justice in godfather Don Corleone’s inner sanctum. Francis Ford Coppola’s directing career took off like a rocket as a result of this film’s unprecedented popularity and success. It made him and Paramount Pictures a bigger fortune than either of them could ever imagine. Mario Puzo’s pulp novel The Godfather – not exactly high art or intellectually challenging as literature – came to passionate life in Coppola’s now-classic depiction of the Sicilian-American underworld (we know what he meant, even though the word “Mafia” is never uttered). Postwar America is the setting for this violent tale of Don Vito Corleone, the godfather of the title, who lords it over his crime syndicate as one of the heads of the five New York “families.” Gambling, prostitution, murder incorporated, judges in hip pockets, and nefarious bribery schemes are their life blood. But incredibly, the godfather refuses to dabble in drugs, which makes Don Corleone out to be a beggar among thieves. His unequivocal stand against dope dealing lands him in hot water with the opposing forces longing to take over his territory. Played by the legendary Marlon Brando, the Don is power personified: a lift of a finger, a cock of the head, and his slightest whim is dutifully obeyed by head enforcer Luca Brasi (former wrestler Lenny Montana). Brando won a well-deserved Best Actor Oscar (he refused it, however) for his subtle, tour de force performance, even though he’s relegated to what is essentially a supporting role. Equally deserving is Al Pacino (note the fire in his eyes) as youngest son Michael. It’s been said this film is about the dark side of the American dream; while true enough in practice, the real crux of the drama (with screenplay by Coppola and Puzo) is the unquestioned devotion Michael feels towards his father, despite his distaste for dad’s work. Michael proves his love by taking over the family business after Don Corleone is seriously injured in a botched assassination attempt — perpetrated by the shifty-eyed Sollozzo (cagey Al Lettieri) — and after hot-headed brother Sonny (James Caan) is gunned down at a Long Island toll booth. So many quotable lines (“I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse,” “Leave the gun, take the cannolis,” and “Never tell anyone outside the family what you’re thinking”), so many individualized portraits (i.e., Clemenza, Tessio, the Tattaglias, Apollonia, Don Tommasino, Fabrizio), it’s one of those movies that demands our undivided attention. No matter how many times you’ve seen it there are always fresh insights to be savored over: the opening trumpet solo – mournful, longing, full of untold regret; right-hand man and ex-cop Al Neri (Richard Bright), closing the door on Michael’s wife Kay (Diane Keaton); Brando’s tearful breakdown (“Look how they massacred my boy”) upon viewing the dead Sonny’s shattered features; that ironic, masterfully orchestrated finale whereby Michael wipes the slate clean of his father’s foes while standing as godfather to his sister Connie’s child; and many more. With a fine ensemble cast, including Robert Duvall as Tom Hagen, Talia Shire (Coppola’s real-life sister) as Connie, John Cazale as Fredo, Richard Castellano as the fat Clemenza, Abe Vigoda (Fish in Barney Miller) as Tessio, Alex Rocco as Moe Green, and John Marley, Sterling Hayden, Richard Conte, Al Martino, Morgana King, Gianni Russo, Vito Scotti, Simonetta Stefanelli, Angelo Infanti as Fabrizio, and Gabriele Torrei (uncredited) as Enzo the nervous baker. Striking cinematography by Gordon Willis, incredibly detailed production design by Dean Tavoularis, and of course that instantly recognizable film score by Nino Rota. Need we say more?
The Godfather, Part II (1974)
At three hours and twenty minutes, it’s almost as long as Gone With The Wind, but not nearly as funny. Francis Ford Coppola’s successful continuation of Mario Puzo’s Godfather saga is more than just excessive padding: it looks backward in time to the story of orphaned Vito Andolini, who flees Sicily to come to New York at the turn of the century, winds up on Ellis Island, has his surname changed to Corleone, grows up in poverty on the Lower East Side, then marries, has a family of his own, and faces down the dreaded Don Fanucci (played in oily fashion by the formidable Gaston Moschin) to become a “respected” member of society; and forward to the new don, Michael Corleone (an intensely driven Al Pacino, never better), and his efforts to salvage his family’s Nevada holdings from the clutches of soft-spoken but ruthless gangster Hyman Roth (Actor’s Studio co-founder Lee Strasberg in his movie debut) while simultaneously confronting a traitor within his midst as well as dealing with his failed marriage to skeptical wife Kay (the returning Diane Keaton). Every scene is a comment on, and a reflection of, similar ones to be found in Part I. Outright lies, blatant betrayals, treachery, duplicity, and double- and triple-crossings galore, with enough chokings, drownings, stabbings, and garrotings to fill ten crime novels! Spellbinding direction, high production values, and a supremely talented cast make Part II that rarity of movie sequels – damned if it isn’t better than the original, in spite of more than a few lapses in narrative logic (what’s the story with those Rosato brothers, anyway?). Featuring Robert Duvall as world weary consigliere Tom Hagen, struggling to understand Michael’s secretive ways; Talia Shire as Michael’s sister Connie, who makes a spectacle of herself with new boyfriend Merle Johnson (the real name of actor Troy Donahue, as Merle) at her nephew Anthony’s first communion; John Cazale (suave, in a black mustache) as younger brother Fredo and his shady dealings with Roth’s Sicilian “messenger boy,” Johnny Ola (Dominic Chianese); and the stoic Robert De Niro, excellent as young Vito Corleone, who copied Marlon Brando’s mannerisms and hoarse vocalization, while picking up an Oscar in the process. Also starring playwright Michael V. Gazzo in a winning performance as old-timer Frankie Pentangeli. Gazzo’s role was “invented” by the screenwriters due to the producers dropping Richard Castellano from the cast – his salary demands simply couldn’t be met. Instead, we have Irish-Italian actor B. Kirby Jr. as a slimmed-down version of the youthful Pete Clemenza, along with G.D. Spradlin as the garrulous Senator Geary, Richard Bright as Al Neri, Joe Spinell as Willy Cicci, and Morgana King, Leopoldo Trieste, Amerigo Tot, Fay Spain, Abe Vigoda, Gianni Russo, James Caan, the incomparable Harry Dean Stanton as an FBI man, Danny Aiello as Tony Rosato, and Peter Donat as Senator Questadt. Roger Corman puts in another of his patented “guest shots” as a member of the investigating committee looking into Michael’s Cosa Nostra connections. Gordon Willis’ dark-hued photography is back, along with Nino Rota’s lush score, supplemented in part by Carmine Coppola, the director’s father. A five-star family affair, to be certain. Would we lie to you?
The Godfather, Part III (1990)
More rambling than either of its illustrious predecessors, with new characters spilling forth by the minute and an unusual familial “relationship” to ponder over, Part III of Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather trilogy is the last and least admired installment of the series. His canny exploration into the inner workings of organized crime in America, with Mafia boss Michael Corleone as the chief suspect and subject, closes the circle he started with the Oscar-winning The Godfather some 16 years prior. An older and frailer Michael Corleone (Al Pacino, in gray hair and buzz cut) tries to make good on his past pledges to go straight and legitimize his lucrative Mafia dealings. In attempting to extricate himself from the Family “business,” Michael unwisely hands over the reins of power to a ruthless street enforcer, an onerous “clotheshorse” named Joey Zasa (oleaginous Joe Mantegna). When Michael’s trigger-happy nephew Vincent (Andy Garcia) comes busting in on the action, Don Corleone takes an instant liking to this, his brother Sonny’s bastard son, but is wary of the youth’s violent temper. Further complications ensue, such as Michael’s outwardly charitable donations to and involvement with the Catholic Church, which give way to other, unforeseen repercussions within the hierarchy of that venerable institution – all the way up to the Vatican’s banker, in a thinly veiled reference to the Michele Sindona affair of the late 1970s, along with a few others. There are so many red herrings, as well as false leads and dubious plot twists, especially the romance between Vincent’s cousin, and Michael’s daughter, Mary (an amateurish performance by Coppola’s daughter Sofia, who became a noted filmmaker in her own right); along with son Anthony’s operatic aspirations and eventual debut as Turiddu in Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, it all gets to be a bit much. Still, once all the machinations are finally set in motion, the inevitable grand finale (a truly operatic ending) materializes. It’s a humdinger of a conclusion, which may remind cinephiles of Rod Steiger in The Pawnbroker. But that Joey Zasa is a prize characterization, thanks to the chameleon-like Mantegna. In addition to him, we get several new personalities, i.e., the crooked Don Altobello (“tall and handsome”), played by short and frumpy Eli Wallach; Franc D’Ambrosio (with a background in musical theater) as Anthony Corelone; the Irish-brogue-spouting Donal Donnelly as Archbishop Gilday, as devious a hoodlum priest as they come; silver-haired lounge lizard George Hamilton as Michael’s immaculately tailored lawyer B.J. Harrison; former middleweight boxing champion Vito Antuofermo as Zasa’s bodyguard Anthony “The Ant” Squigliaro; and veteran thespian Raf Vallone as an exceptionally impressive Cardinal Lamberto, who hears Michael’s guilt-ridden confession, which happens to be the movie’s emotional highpoint. Of the numerous returnees, Diane Keaton is her low-key self as Michael’s ex-wife Kay, whom he reconciles with during the course of the drama; sullen Talia Shire (Coppola’s sister) as the widowed Connie, who totes a suspect box of cannolis to the opera; Richard Bright is a much heavier Al Neri; singer Al Martino appears as singer Johnny Fontane; Gabriele Torrei is Enzo the baker (the nervous fellow who tried to light his cigarette in the first Godfather); and Jeannie Linero as Lucy Mancini, Vincent’s mother. Directed by Coppola in high-flung fashion, with the peerless cinematography of Gordon Willis, production design by Dean Tavoularis, art direction by Alex Tavoularis, and musical direction by Carmine Coppola, Francis’ father. It may surprise fans that this picture was mostly filmed in Rome’s Cinecittà Studios, also used by Martin Scorsese for his Gangs of New York. It’s not the masterpiece that everyone wanted or expected from Francis, but a worthy pretender nonetheless. Do yourself a favor and see it, if only to have your curiosity sated as to how this whole Godfather thing gets sorted out.
Gone With the Wind (1939)
It’s hard to fathom that Margaret Mitchell’s best-selling fictional novel, Gone With the Wind, was practically an unwanted property in Hollywood. No studio head would get near a Civil War story, let alone adapt one for the screen. For years Tinsel Town touted the widely-held notion (perpetuated by MGM boy wonder, Irving Thalberg) that “No Civil War picture ever made a nickel!” That boast would forever be put to rest when producer David O. Selznick, who was Louis B. Mayer’s son-in-law, purchased the rights to Atlanta native Ms. Mitchell’s thousand-page tome. The result was a box-office juggernaut that went on to break all existing records. As heavy as Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, the book GWTW (as it is customarily abbreviated) can be described as the American version of Leo Tolstoy’s massive historical epic War and Peace. The comparison is not at all a stretch, for both works take place during intensely turbulent periods of immensely significant change for their respective eras. For starters, Mitchell concentrated on the character of Katie Scarlett (originally Pansy) O’Hara, a lively spitfire of a Southern belle who uses large dollops of charm, guile and willful behavior (along with a ruthless capacity for survival) to overcome any number of obstacles, both to her person and to her beloved Tara. But what relation does Scarlett have to Natasha Rostova, the heroine of Tolstoy’s novel? Quite a lot and more than meets the eye! It was as if GSTW’s author had merged the personality of Natasha’s cousin, the mild-mannered Sonya (the mirror image of a Melanie Hamilton), with that of Scarlett herself, then had her pine away for the cerebral Pierre Bezukhov (standing in for poetic dreamer Ashley Wilkes), while spending the bulk of the story’s plot on the sordid lives of the buxom Helene Kuragina (another side of Scarlett’s capricious nature) and her dashing lover Dolukhov, who safely incorporates multiple aspects of Rhett Butler. We may add another viable connection: the invading Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte with that of Union General William Tecumseh Sherman. These contrasts may one day serve as the thesis for a more extensive study along the same lines. But for now, let it suffice that the three-hour-and forty-minute screen adaptation of Gone With the Wind is itself a masterpiece of narrative filmmaking. Overlooking the literary merits and deficits of its script (credited to Sidney Howard, who died before the film was released) or the cavalier treatment of the slavery issue, as well as its muddled political views, GWTW represents the highpoint of Hollywood storytelling at its starriest. Contrary to belief, wise-cracking Clark Gable (in the role of a lifetime) was not exactly a shoe-in for Rhett Butler. Also considered were such marquee names as Ronald Colman, Gary Cooper, Basil Rathbone and Errol Flynn. Selznick knew that Gable was right for the part, but he was loath to haggle with his wily father-in-law over his employment. Mayer drove a hard bargain in allowing Gable, then under contract to MGM, the opportunity to star in Selznick’s mammoth production. A deal was finally struck between the two moguls whereby Selznick would obtain Gable’s services in exchange for MGM getting the distribution rights. With literally a cast of thousands, some of the other key players involved were Leslie Howard as Ashley, Olivia de Havilland as Melanie, Laura Hope Crews as Aunt Pittypat, Hattie McDaniel (an Oscar winner for Best Supporting Actress) as Mammy, Butterfly McQueen as housemaid Prissy, Thomas Mitchell as Gerald O’Hara, Harry Davenport as Dr. Meade, Ona Munson as Belle Watling, and Victor Jory, Isabel Jewell, Rand Brooks, Carroll Nye, Oscar Polk, Eddie Anderson, Ward Bond, Irving Bacon, Louis Jean Heydt, and many other walk-ons, cameos and bit participants, including stuntman Yakima Canutt. Directed initially by George Cukor, who was fired and replaced by Victor Fleming (The Wizard of Oz), with some scenes, quite possibly, helmed by Sam Wood and even Selznick himself, all attention rightly belongs to Vivien Leigh as Miss Scarlett. The celebrated and well-publicized search for the elusive Scarlett is the stuff of movie legend, leading up to Selznick and his brother, Myron’s, unique choice of Ms. Leigh (born in Darjeeling, British-India) for the challenging role. Among the vast field of contenders and aspirants vying for the same part were Bette Davis, Paulette Goddard, Susan Hayward, Miriam Hopkins, Jean Arthur, Joan Bennett, Lana Turner, Alicia Rhett and Lucille Ball. In hindsight, of those mentioned Leigh was the only actress who measured up to Mitchell’s vivid description of the green-eyed, sweet-faced, yet “lusty with life” protagonist, copping an Academy Award (the first of two) as Best Actress for her extraordinary efforts. The score by Max Steiner, one of the longest to that time, is a certifiable classic among movie-music buffs. The instantly recognizable main Tara theme practically screams Hollywood to any and all corners. The production was designed by William Cameron Menzies, with art direction by Lyle Wheeler and costume designs by Walter Plunkett. If this isn’t the greatest epic Hollywood’s Dream Factory has ever produced (it’s all a matter of personal taste, in the final analysis), then Gone With the Wind absolutely lives up to its reputation as a certifiable crowd-pleaser without equal.
The Graduate (1967)
“Hello darkness, my old friend / I’ve come to talk with you again.” The first lines of director Mike Nichols’ screen adaptation of Charles Webb’s novel The Graduate come from “The Sounds of Silence,” written and performed by singer-songwriter Paul Simon and his partner Art Garfunkel. Contrary to accepted wisdom, the song was unrelated to Nichols’ film, but only became part of the finished soundtrack as an afterthought. It seized upon the prevailing mood of the time, which reflected the angst, the awkwardness, and the uncertainty of modern life, as well as the feelings of impending doom that the Vietnam War (and other crises) would soon bring to the fore. What Nichols brought to the material (an opening salvo in the so-called Hollywood “New Wave” of contemporary productions) was a biting wit and satiric edginess that captured the true essense of the turbulent sixties as few flicks of the era did. Not to say there weren’t other, equally absorbing glimpses into sixties pop culture (Bonnie and Clyde and In the Heat of the Night among the better ones); but this film, which made stars of its leads — and a household word out of Simon and Garfunkel — was the hands-down favorite. The sexual revolution is about to kick into high gear when Benjamin Braddock (a perpetually befuddled Dustin Hoffman, in his first major screen role), the clueless graduate of the title, comes home after four years of undergraduate studies in the East. Benjamin has no idea what to do with his life; his rich, upper-class parents (William Daniels and Elizabeth Wilson) provide little guidance, as do their unhelpful neighbors: “I just want to say one word to you,” the kindly Mr. McGuire advises him. “Just one word. Are you listening? Plastics.” Unable to face up to the challenge, Benjamin isolates himself in his room. Into his dreary world walks Mrs. Robinson (a supremely self-possessed Anne Bancroft, who was only a few years older than Hoffman), the alcoholic wife of his father’s best friend and law partner (delightfully underplayed by a laid-back Murray Hamilton). Mrs. Robinson initiates the young fool into the pleasures of the flesh, which boosts the ungainly Benjamin’s confidence level to no end. A hilarious hotel rendezvous notwithstanding, wherein the utterly bewildered Benjamin almost loses what’s left of his bearings, all goes well with the affair; that is, until he is introduced to Mrs. Robinson’s strikingly beautiful daughter, Elaine (angelic looking Katharine Ross). When Mrs. Robinson hears of the couple’s budding romance, she decides to take matters into her own hands, to disastrous but ultimately comic effect. Many of the film’s most memorable moments, including Dustin’s head-banging episode at the hotel room, were spur-of-the-moment inspirations, as recounted in Mark Harris’ book Pictures at a Revolution. Besides the other Simon and Garfunkel hits scattered throughout the story (“Mrs. Robinson,” “Scarborough Fair/Canticle,” and “April Come She Will”), the remaining music was supplied by jazz artist Dave Grusin. Calder Willingham and Buck Henry wrote the riotous screenplay, with Buck playing it straight as the deadpan Room Clerk. Many priceless vignettes by an army of featured contract players, including (try to spot them) Alice Ghostley, Marion Lorne, Norman Fell (“I don’t think we’ll have any more of this agitation. Will we, Mr. Braddock?”), Mike Farrell, Richard Dreyfuss, Elaine May (who partnered with Nichols onstage in the fifties and sixties), Jonathan Hole, Noam Pitlik, and Kevin Tighe. Still as fresh, funny and sharp as it was in 1967. Our favorite scenes are Benjamin’s disruption of Elaine’s wedding and the iconic last shot of the two of them in the back of the bus. This one scores a perfect 10 in my book.
Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
What makes a film a classic? Better yet, what makes a film epic a classic film epic? Without boring readers to tears with dry, statistical analysis — and for the sake of argument — let’s say that David Lean’s 1962 desert opus Lawrence of Arabia conveniently fits both bills. At roughly four hours in length, including overture, intermission and exit music (in Robert Harris’ exemplary restoration effort), it’s every critic’s Exhibit A in the “classic film epic” department, no contest about it. Why is that? Well, it’s got style to burn. It’s got wit, it’s got taste, it’s got sweeping romantic vistas and magnificent location scenery. It also features an enigmatic title character in T.E. Lawrence, deftly handled by the young Peter O’Toole in a wide-ranging (and revelatory) performance of the first order. Viewers were equally divided as to whether Lawrence was any more knowable at the end of the saga than at the beginning. Certainly the way the character’s been written (Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson contributed the Oscar-nominated screenplay) makes Lawrence out to be more of a warmongering adventure seeker and less of a real hero — an anti-hero, if you prefer. Still, all glory and honor are due O’Toole for what must have been an impossible acting assignment. He had to capture Lawrence’s softer “feminine” side, so to speak (his latent homosexuality could only be hinted at in 1962), without giving away the game or giving up any of the manly heroics associated with the historical figure. In addition, O’Toole had to reveal Lawrence’s exceptionally volatile nature as well as his high tolerance for pain – the torture scene featuring the sadistic Turkish Bey with the troublesome cough (played by Jose Ferrer) is a good case in point. The plot, in brief, concerns misfit British officer, Lieutenant Lawrence, and his involvement with Saudi Prince Faisal (Alec Guinness in a false beard and even more faux accent). His orders are to keep a close watch on those Arab beggars (“They’re a nation of sheep stealers,” according to the bigoted General Murray) and report his findings to British High Command in Cairo. Instead, Lawrence takes the bull by the horns by throwing himself headlong into an ad hoc campaign of his own devising. “I’ve got orders to obey, thank God. Not like that poor devil. He’s riding the whirlwind,” comments Murray’s replacement, General Allenby. Lawrence’s goal is to oust the stubborn Turks from the gulf port of Aqaba by using ragtag Bedouin tribesmen, the only force available to him. As fate (and luck) would have it, his plan works brilliantly — too brilliantly, one might add – and rather too easily for Lawrence’s future benefit. Sadly, it’s all downhill from there for the heavily burdened “El Aurens,” as the natives now call him. A legend of his own making (helped along by American reporter Jackson Bentley), Lawrence learns that he’s human after all and prone to all-too human failings — among them, a built-in self-loathing for what he’s become. In his international film debut, Omar Sharif contributes class, charm, and good looks (along with a sizzling screen presence) as Lawrence’s sympathetic Arab companion, Sherif Ali. Anthony Quinn (with an immensely prominent, hooked proboscis) is warrior chieftain Auda Abu-Tayi, his “ally” in arms. Others in the all-male cast include Jack Hawkins as a remarkably convincing General Allenby, Claude Rains as Dryden, head of the Arab Bureau, Anthony Quayle as Colonel Brighton, Arthur Kennedy as Jackson Bentley (the Lowell Thomas doppelganger), and bushy browed Donald Wolfit as the short-sighted General Murray. The film is divided into two parts, with the second half dragging slightly. The downbeat ending is, as expected, just that. But there’s no overlooking the award-winning desert cinematography by Freddie Young, or Maurice Jarre’s flavorful and much admired (by this author, anyway) film score, another award winner. Director Lean keeps it all together, in the process showing how to keep the focus on the human element amid the bloody spectacle of war. Produced by movie mogul Sam Spiegel, whose crowning achievement this undoubtedly was. All that’s left to say is: “Here, here!”
The Mark of Zorro (1940)
Fancy sword-play, dashing derring-do, damsels in distress, padres and peasants in revolt against their oppressors – all this, and lovely Linda Darnell, too. These are just some of the doings in this classic Twentieth Century-Fox swashbuckler, a film that defines the genre as few others from that period have. Handsome leading man Tyrone Power has a field day in the dual role of Don Diego Vega, foppish fool and carefree gentleman by day; and as Zorro, devil-may-care swordsman and masked good-guy avenger by night (from Johnston McCulley’s original 1919 story, with hints of The Scarlet Pimpernel thrown in). Darnell is the alcalde’s young niece, the beautiful Lolita Quintero. This sound remake of Douglas Fairbanks and Noah Beery, Sr.’s silent adventure flick is superior entertainment all around. Basil Rathbone takes over as bad-guy Captain Esteban, who shows off his remarkable fencing skills in a fast-paced duel to the death with Power (choreographed by fencing-master Fred Cravens). Eugene Pallette is the typically harried Fray Felipe, with J. Edward Bromberg as the alcalde Don Luis Quintero, Gale Sondergaard as his wife Inez, Montagu Love as Don Diego’s father, Don Alejandro Vega, and George Regas, Chris Pin-Martin, Frank Puglia, and Pedro de Cordova as extras. Stylishly directed by Rouben Mamoulian (Queen Christina, Blood and Sand), the film reeks of class. It also boasts a marvelously memorable, one-of-a-kind score by one of Hollywood’s most decorated film composers, Alfred Newman. Once heard, the main melody will remain with you for days on end. The plot revolves around Don Diego returning to nineteenth-century Southern California after having spent his youth in Spain. He finds his hometown in turmoil, thanks to the greedy Don Luis and the abusive Captain Esteban. Slowly but surely, Diego hits upon a plan whereby, with the aid of Fray Felipe, he begins to take the town back from the rich overlords with daring night raids on their purse-strings – sort of a Spanish-style Robin Hood, if you will. In the meantime, he throws the suspicious captain off the scent by courting the highborn Lolita. Remade for television, in 1974, with an appropriately polished Frank Langella as Diego, villainous Ricardo Montalban as Esteban, and Gilbert Roland and Yvonne De Carlo as Diego’s parents; and in 1998 as The Mask of Zorro, starring athletically inclined Antonio Banderas and an equally dexterous Catherine Zeta-Jones, with Anthony Hopkins as an over-the-hill Don Diego. Power’s version is still the best by a long shot. Sumptuously photographed by Arthur C. Miller, the 1940 film accomplished in 94 minutes what it took the other versions hours to do – but never quite made it. A winner in every way.
The Music Man (1962)
Where would high school musicals in this country be without this perennial (and thoroughly entertaining) slice of rural American life, the ever-popular theatrical showstopper The Music Man? An absolutely perfect, razzle-dazzle realization of Meredith Willson’s sprightly tribute to turn-of-the-century, small-town mores. Super salesman “Professor” Harold Hill (Gary Conservatory, Gold Medal Class of ‘05) comes to River City, Iowa, to fleece the local yokels out of their hard-earned cash, by duping them into signing their kids up for a proposed boys marching band. He attempts to deliver on his promise while simultaneously courting the town’s spinster librarian named Marian. It all turns out well in the end, though. Many lively and original musical numbers, along with delightful dance sequences, contributed by a well-blended cast, some from the original New York stage production. Stars Robert Preston, in one of his strongest roles, as the fast-talking con man Harold Hill, lovely Shirley Jones as the warbling Marian, young Ron Howard (then billed as Ronny) as her little lisping brother Winthrop, Pert Kelton (the original Alice Kramden on TV’s The Honeymooners) as the lady with the Irish brogue, Mrs. Paroo, along with Buddy Hackett as fellow flim-flammer Marcellus Washburn, blustering Paul Ford as the self-inflated Mayor Shinn, Hermione Gingold as his wife Eulalie Mackechnie Shinn, and the phenomenal barber shop quartet known as The Buffalo Bills. Directed by Morton Da Costa, who oversaw the original Broadway outing. Beautifully captured in widescreen Technicolor glory, an absolute must for full enjoyment. Toe-tapping, trombone-thumping fun all the way. Don’t miss it!
For satire to be truly effective it must consist of the following elements: irony, wit, sarcasm, parody, exaggeration, and a surefire sense of the absurd. In addition, it should be devilishly clever as well as funny, with the laughter sticking in one’s throat. Where Network is concerned not only are these elements present, but there’s also an air of urgency to the characters, along with the seemingly distraught situations that Oscar-winning screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky (The Hospital) and director Sidney Lumet (Twelve Angry Men, Fail-Safe) have placed them in. Much of the story revolves around aging television anchor Howard Beale (an exhaustively manic and over-the-top Peter Finch in his final screen appearance), who heads up the nightly newscast for fourth-rated TV network UBS. Howard is on his last legs, a man with precious little to live for. But instead of retiring gracefully from the scene he threatens to blow his brains out on the air, much to the consternation of news division heads, especially excitable corporate flunky Frank Hackett (a perfectly realized Robert Duvall). Despite the best efforts of fellow newsman Max Schumacher (played by veteran thespian William Holden, whose worn features betray more than a hint of sadness) to keep him in line and out of trouble, Howard escapes from Max’s apartment (in the pouring rain, no less) to make a beeline for the TV studio, where he delivers one of cinema’s most impressive lines: “I want you to get up right now and go to the window. Open it, and stick your head out, and yell, ‘I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore.’ ” His erratic behavior becomes a lifeline for Howard as well as a godsend for the network, thanks to an ambitious rising star in the news division named Diane Christensen (Faye Dunaway at her sleaziest). She sees the eccentric anchor as her ticket to fame and fortune: the Mad Prophet of the Airwaves, so she says – a combination of Andy Griffith’s Lonesome Rhodes with our own Glenn Beck – a patently insane fellow who could give the struggling network the ratings boost it sorely needs. The question that was asked at the time of the movie’s premiere was: could TV networks be THAT ratings conscious (and that unscrupulous) as to program a show with the title The Mao Tse-tung Hour, about radical leftists attempting to overthrow the U.S. government? Or be seriously touting Sibyl the Soothsayer as a newscaster? You bet it could. Nowadays, this is what passes for “entertainment” (if you’re unconvinced, tune in to Long Island Medium or Fox News for further proof). And Network was the trailblazer in this respect, the most prescient and forward-looking film Hollywood has ever produced. Finch won a posthumous Best Supporting Actor Oscar (the first ever awarded to a deceased star) as the “making-it-up-as-he-goes-along” Mr. Beale. Beatrice Straight won the Best Supporting Actress Award for her scene-stealing turn as Holden’s estranged spouse Louise. And Dunaway ran away with the Best Actress honors for her lead role as the scheming Diane. With Ned Beatty, brilliant as the evangelical head of the network, Mr. Jensen (“You…will…atone!!!”), Arthur Burghardt (an actual vegetarian) as the Great Ahmed Kahn, licking his chops over a bucket of fried chicken; and Wesley Addy, Bill Burrows, Conchata Farrell, and Kathy Cronkite as the slogan-spouting, Patty Hearst-lookalike Mary Ann Gifford, along with Ken Kercheval, Lance Henriksen, and a host of others. They’ll still be talking about this one when we’re old and gray, it’s that relevant. A shocker of an ending tidies things up nicely… well, sort of.
A Night at the Opera (1935)
No, not the Queen album, but just the Marx Brothers’ best attempt at integration of top-drawer comic and musical material into a feature-length film, the boys’ first for MGM’s Wunderkind, Irving Thalberg. A classic comedy of only the most outlandish proportions, its sideways pokes at snobbery, elitism, the establishment, and serious music-making remain timeless and fresh even today. Groucho plays society gatecrasher Otis B. Driftwood (don’t you just love those outlandish names of his?), with Chico and Harpo as pretty much variations of their usual meddling (and incompetent) selves. Verdi’s Il Trovatore gets a well-deserved drubbing (talk about a ridiculous plot!), thanks to the Brothers’ spurious efforts to champion the debut of their new tenor discovery Ricardo Baroni, played by the curly-headed Allan Jones. The romantic subplot between him and the fetching Kitty Carlisle, as soprano Rosa Castaldi, is just another ingredient in the general movie mayhem. They have excellent voices, by the way. Margaret Dumont returns as the rich dowager, Grande Dame and patroness of the opera Mrs. Claypool, whose girdle must be made of cast-iron, she’s so ramrod straight. The wonderfully phlegmatic Sig Rumann is the flustered opera impresario Mr. Gottlieb. And Walter Woolf King lends considerable (if under-appreciated) support as conceited male divo Rodolfo Lasspari. The enjoyable songs (“Cosi, Cosa,” “Alone”) are coupled with a riotous, nothing-sacred finale at the “New York” Opera Company, with some hilarious bits on board an ocean liner thrown in — “And two hard-boiled eggs” (HONK) “Make that three hard-boiled eggs” — that have passed into movie legend. Written by George S. Kaufman, among others, and directed by the Brothers’ favorite handler, Sam Wood. All the vital elements finally clicked for the boys. This was the first Marx Brothers’ movie sans younger brother Zeppo.
The Prince of Egypt (1998)
Kids may want to tune in, along with their parents, to this animated musical account of the Exodus story, The Prince of Egypt, a 1998 product of DreamWorks Pictures, the joint Steven Spielberg-Jeffrey Katzenberg studio venture. It incorporates state-of-the-art digital animation effects, and utilizes the voices of Val Kilmer as Moses, Ralph Fiennes as Pharaoh, Patrick Stewart as his father Sethi, and Michelle Pfeiffer, Jeff Goldblum, Sandra Bullock, Danny Glover, Ofra Haza, Steve Martin, and Martin Short in other key roles, to tell the tale of Moses, the Ten Commandments, and the parting of the Red Sea. Despite the clash of accents among the talented cast, the story is straightforwardly told, and this version, which is vastly superior to most Saturday morning fare (if not quite up to the advanced level of the best of the Disney Studios) is entertaining and gripping nonetheless. The visual rendering of the characters favors an elongated eloquence reminiscent of the Mannerist style of portraiture (think El Greco, or possibly Modigliani) that gives the finished product a uniquely original stamp of its own. The rivalry between the young prince Moses and future pharaoh Rameses is a thinly-veiled reworking of the Judah/Messala conflict found in MGM’s 1959 version of Ben-Hur, another superior religious picture. Thankfully, the script is on the same high level as that feature. And there’s even a hit song, i.e., “When You Believe,” to thrill to, beautifully sung in the movie by Pfeiffer, and repeated in the end credits as a power duet between then-reigning pop divas Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston. This is highly recommended for all family members.
The Searchers (1956)
Which movie was John Ford’s greatest? Some may say The Grapes of Wrath or How Green Was My Valley; others cite the Cavalry trilogy or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. But for my money, it has got to be The Searchers (based on the book by Alan Le May), a grandiose statement of Shakespearean proportions in its use of language (sometimes stoic, sometimes descriptive), locale (Monument Valley), comic relief to dissipate tension (the loony bird Mose, the Jorgenson clan, the preacher-turned-Texas Ranger, Capt. Clayton), and supremely memorable characterizations, the finest of which is John Wayne. He gives a towering performance as Ethan Edwards, a man obsessed with rescuing his kidnapped niece Debbie (Lana Wood as a child, big sister Natalie Wood as a teenager) from the arms of a Comanche chief named Scar (Henry Brandon). Failing to realize that he himself is scarred by his past — not just from battle but with the taint of racism and fear of miscegenation — Ethan lives out his bigotry in a search of his lost soul. It seems that he and Chief Scar are both motivated by feelings of revenge for the atrocities perpetrated on their loved ones. Ethan’s adopted nephew, Martin (Jeffrey Hunter, in another indelible portrait), acts as his conscience and guide through this minefield of hate, a Jiminy Cricket trying to keep his uncle honest about his motives in their years-long search. There’s a poetic rhythm and unmistakable melancholy to their journey. Director Ford wisely keeps dialogue to a minimum. We merely sense Ethan’s unspoken love for his brother Aaron’s wife, Martha, a lost amour from his youth. Their looks and gestures say it all. The opening number, “What Makes a Man to Wander” (sung by the Sons of the Pioneers) states the story’s theme right from the outset — it reappears at the end, serving the same function as a Greek chorus in summarizing prior events: “What makes a man to wander / What makes a man to roam / What makes a man leave bed and board / And turn his back on home? / Ride away – ride away – ride away.” Although the score is credited to Max Steiner, the song was composed by Stan Jones, a sometime member of Ford’s stock company. But the focus remains on Wayne’s character. Ethan eventually brings Debbie back to civilization, but he cannot partake of the happy homecoming. He stands outside the doorway, forever apart, forever searching, as he walks slowly away. One of Wayne’s greatest accomplishments on screen is the depth to which he was able to plummet to get at Ethan’s brooding character, i.e., that of the rugged individualist wounded by society’s encroachment, who seeks redemption for his sins by doing that which most men refuse to do; to face hardships head-on, only to retreat into the background once their duty is done. Wayne dredged up the darkness that resided within his own psyche: he’s Lucifer after the fall, trying to regain a measure of his humanity; Odysseus after the wars, lost on the Western prairie, pining for home and hearth; and Captain Ahab, driven to madness by his desire to even the score with those who annihilated his kinfolk. The other cast members, all of them good, include Ward Bond, Hank Worden, Ken Curtis, Harry Carry Jr., John Qualen, Olive Carey, Vera Miles, Antonio Moreno, Pippa Scott, Dorothy Jordan, and Warren Coy. Wayne’s son Patrick makes a cameo appearance. Fess Parker was originally tapped for the role of Martin, but the Disney Studios refused since Parker was tied up with promotional duties as Davy Crockett, a part that Wayne later played in The Alamo. With outstanding location photography by Winton C. Hoch, and a concise screenplay by Frank Nugent (The Quiet Man, Fort Apache), The Searchers influenced scores of motion pictures, among them George Lucas’ Star Wars series and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver.
A Star is Born (1954)
In reading critic and author David Thomson’s book “The Big Screen,” I came upon a section devoted to movie musicals — specifically, the 1954 musical version of A Star is Born with Judy Garland and James Mason, produced by Sid Luft (Judy’s husband at the time), directed by George Cukor for Warner Bros., and written by Moss Hart. The 1937 version, produced by David Selznick, was conceived by Alan Campbell, Robert Carson Dorothy Parker, and William Wellman after Adela Rogers St. John’s story, “What Price Hollywood?” (1934), the film of which Cukor also directed. Thomson points out a connection I never noticed before: that the wistful music for both “The Man That Got Away” from A Star is Born and the song, “Over the Rainbow,” from The Wizard of Oz (1939) were composed by the same man, Harold Arlen. A coincidence perhaps? Hmm… And both numbers in turn were performed by the same singer, Judy Garland, at opposite ends of her fame and fortune. If it can be said of any artist, it most assuredly exemplifies the work of the former Frances Ethel Gumm: that she wore her pain on her sleeve. In Judy’s world, it would be considered a badge of honor (or dishonor, depending on your point of view) to be shared with anyone and everyone you’d come in contact with. When we’re young and naïve, the mere thought of experiencing pain and hurt are anathema to our very being. It’s so traumatic a sensation that you’d want to flee the room, and the person, where pain is present. As we grow older and, we must admit, hopefully wiser, we long to be near it; to grasp it, hold it, stroke it, much as a moth is helplessly drawn to the flame. We know we may be burned by our proximity to the one whose pain and anguish erupts from every fiber of her soul. But that’s exactly how we should experience Judy Garland’s art at this, the pinnacle of her career. Her pain was our pain — and it’s inescapable. This film, made when she was only 32 (but looking years older), is Judy at her tortured peak, her “swan song” to her fans; an insider’s fisheye glimpse of a complicated life lived in full view of the paying public. By now, most viewers will be familiar with the plot of talented band singer Esther Blodgett (Judy), renamed Vicki Lester, whose career rises in direct proportion to her alcoholic actor-husband Norman Maine’s faltering one. To spare his wife from tumbling along with him, Norman (Mason) decides to end his life by drowning his troubles at sea. Both stars shine in this fabulous Technicolor widescreen CinemaScope spectacular, with Judy providing equal parts vulnerability and humor to overcome her many backstage issues (i.e., her dependency on drugs, her weight problems, and her illnesses, both real and perceived). Besides the aforementioned “The Man That Got Away,” which summarizes the story textually and contextually, there is the 18-minute “Born in a Trunk” sequence to admire, choreographed by Richard Barstow to the music and words of Roger Edens and Leonard Gershe. Other songs include Arlen and Ira Gershwin’s “Gotta Have Me Go With You,” “Here’s What I’m Here For,” “It’s a New World,” “Someone at Last,” and “Lose That Long Face,” along with a medley of George Gershwin and Rodgers and Hart tunes. The other cast members are Charles Bickford, Jack Carson, Tommy Noonan and Amanda Blake. Trimmed of approximately 37 minutes after its successful release, A Star is Born has been painstakingly reconstructed to 176 minutes (but not the test-cut time of 196 minutes or the premiere running time of 182 minutes) for the DVD/Blu-ray Disc editions, with scenes and numbers restored using photographs, pan and scan footage and snippets of outtakes, making it a not to be missed one-of-a-kind experience. Sadly, once you’ve seen the end product, you may never want to view it again. Considering what Judy went through in the final months of her life (epitomized in Peter Quilter’s theatrical play, “Judy Garland – The End of the Rainbow”) in eerie imitation of the film’s premise, there’s just too much pain attached. Indeed, she paid the ultimate price for Hollywood stardom. The film was remade again by Warner Bros. in 1977, this time as a vehicle for Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson.
The Ten Commandments (1923)
One of the earliest depictions of the story of Moses and the Hebrew Exodus out of Egypt still available to modern movie audiences comes from famed producer-director Cecil B. DeMille, a former stage actor and Hollywood co-founder, who even in the silent-film era was famous for his lavish historical pageants and superb handling of mass movement in crowd scenes. His first crack at the biblical genre was this 1923 silent epic version of The Ten Commandments, starring Theodore Roberts as Moses, Estelle Taylor as Miriam, and Charles de Roche as Pharaoh, produced by Paramount Studios and partially filmed in Guadalupe, Mexico. The moving Exodus episode and the handing down of the commandments are dealt with in expert fashion, while the rudimentary special effects, particularly the parting of the Red Sea, are indeed impressive for the time. The second half of the film is devoted to a more “contemporary” interpretation of what happens to one of two siblings who breaks God’s rules. Richard Dix and Rod La Rocque play the battling brothers (one good, one bad) in traditional, melodramatic clutch-and-stagger style, while silent movie queen Nita Naldi vamps it up as the tragic temptress who comes between them. Despite the soap opera trappings, the movie proved a big hit at the box office, raking in an incredible four million dollars in its day. The first part is the more gripping portion, and is recommended for joint family viewing. You’ll want to fast-forward through the stagy second section, which tends to drag a bit and might prove too mature for young children.
Touch of Evil (1958)
By the time of its release, the film noir genre had just about played itself out, but leave it to that old filmmaker and former “boy wonder,” Orson Welles, to find new nuances in it. Looking like a perpetually bloated bullfrog, Welles brings a lifetime of indulgence and missed opportunities to his role of the fat, over-the-hill police chief Hank Quinlan, a poor man’s Harry Lime — and twice as dishonest and repulsive. The film features Charlton Heston as a swarthy Mexican (!) detective whose wife Welles frames for murder. Heston refused to play his part unless Welles, scheduled to co-star with the lantern-jawed hero, was allowed to direct. His decision turned this potential grade-B thriller into an art-house classic. As reward for his accepting the assignment, Welles hired (and surrounded himself with) such old cronies as Joseph Cotten, Akim Tamiroff, Joseph Calleia, Mercedes McCambridge, and Marlene Dietrich, who donned a gypsy outfit and black wig to play Quinlan’s ex-squeeze. Curvaceous Janet Leigh is Heston’s doting and doped-up wife. The reedited version (allegedly more faithful to Orson’s original vision) is minus some of the fine, Latin-based jazz score penned by Henry Mancini (a major loss), but the justly famous opening sequence is left mercifully intact, and is just as revelatory. The ending has Welles floundering about like a beached whale, while Dietrich tosses off some choice postmortems. A perfect vehicle for rabid noir fans, and a fascinating glimpse into what can be done on a shoestring (nay, poverty row) budget. The luminous black and white photography is admirably transcendent.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
B. Traven’s 1927 novel about three prospectors panning for gold in the rugged Mexican backlands served as the basis for this classic Warner Brothers film depiction. Written and directed by Academy Award winner John Huston (The Maltese Falcon), who lived for a time in Mexico and appears as the white-suited American continually hit upon for monetary assistance; and co-starring his actor father, a toothless Walter Huston, in an Oscar-caliber performance as the lanky old-timer Howard, it’s an epic morality tale about the dangers of too much greed and too little foresight. Desperate for a quick buck, two down-and-outers, Fred Dobbs (a mean and ornery Humphrey Bogart, in one of his best “bad guy” roles ever) and Bob Curtin (a stocky Tim Holt), team up with the aforementioned Howard, a veteran of past prospecting ventures, upon hearing him talk up a storm about his exploits in a Tampico flophouse. Howard knows a thing or two about prospecting, and even more about human nature. After Dobbs gets lucky with a winning lottery ticket, the trio sets off for the Sierra Madre mountains. Seeing the agile old geezer traverse steep terrain with precious little effort, Dobbs wonders if he isn’t part goat. With Howard’s help, however, they hit pay dirt; but soon after, the men are forced to confront other crises, among them a fourth vagrant named Codie (Bruce Bennett), who’s just itching for a piece of the action. When Codie is killed by bandits and Howard gets whisked off by the locals for saving a boy’s life, Dobbs and Curtin are left to fend for themselves. Eventually succumbing to gold fever, Dobbs tries to eliminate the competition in typical delusional fashion. He meets his fate at the hands of those same Mexican bandits, one of whom, a nervous fellow known as Gold Hat (newcomer Alfonso Bedoya — forever fidgety, thanks to Huston’s non-direction), earlier uttered the famous line about not having to show “any stinking badges.” For an action-adventure yarn, this adult drama emphasizes (wonder of wonders) character development over special effects – in particular, that of the reckless Fred C. Dobbs. His descent into a fiery furnace is a trifle too literal at times, but otherwise this is fine entertainment the whole family can enjoy. It’s amazing what the talented Bogart can do with this two-dimensional creature. By humanizing Mr. Dobbs, one almost feels sorry for the man, which is probably the right feeling to have in these circumstances. Tim Holt is equally memorable for revealing Curtin’s warm and tender side (the touching letter reading episode, for instance). He’s joined by his old man, veteran cowpuncher Jack Holt, who can be seen briefly in the flophouse sequence. Last but not least, there’s the great Walter Huston, sounding off with that infectious laugh of his, as well as doing that funny little dance that Billy Crystal so admired (and stole from) for his comedic version of the story (see City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly’s Gold). One can’t fail to mention Max Steiner’s powerful film score, a major character in itself. Others in the cast are Barton MacLane, young Robert Blake as the boy who sells Bogie the winning ticket, Arturo Soto Rangel, Jose Torvay, Margarito Luna, Pat Flaherty, and (most controversially) Ann Sheridan as a streetwalker. The ending is a masterpiece of cinematic irony, and the film is noteworthy, too, for not having the spoken Spanish subtitled.
Twelve Angry Men (1957)
A powerful look into the American criminal justice system and the mysterious ways of jury deliberation and manipulation, the much lauded Twelve Angry Men was director Sidney Lumet’s first foray into the world of first-run cinema. The story was based on writer and producer Reginald Rose’s Emmy-winning teleplay of the same name, which he developed for the CBS anthology series Studio One. Rose, who created and wrote the successful TV series The Defenders (which also starred E.G. Marshall), had himself served on a trial jury; both the play and the subsequent movie version were taken from his personal experiences of that event. Although Lumet was a product of the off-Broadway theater circuit (he was a co-founder of the Actor’s Studio), he was also a pioneer of early television, having worked on a variety of network programs, among them You Are There, Playhouse 90, Kraft Television Theatre, and the ubiquitous Studio One. The tensions that pervade the 96-minute Twelve Angry Men derive principally from a critical plot element whereby twelve jurors are charged with deciding the fate of a disadvantaged product of an inner-city slum tenement. The defendant, a teenager of Hispanic descent, is alleged to have stabbed his father to death after a loud quarrel. The jurors involved in the case comprise a cross-section of familiar character “types,” each with their own viewpoint based on their individual backgrounds and biases: the bleeding-heart liberal (Henry Fonda), the coldly analytical broker (E.G. Marshall), the narrow-minded bigot (Ed Begley), the self-made businessman and troubled parent (Lee J. Cobb), the endlessly patient jury foreman (Martin Balsam), the mousy bank employee (John Fiedler), the streetwise ex-ghetto inhabitant (Jack Klugman), the chronically indecisive ad man (Robert Webber), the ethnic immigrant (George Voskovec), the common working stiff (Edward Binns), the apathetic sports nut (Jack Warden), and the wise old man (Joseph Sweeney). As they begin their deliberation, the lone holdout, known only as Juror #8 (Fonda), voices a reasonable doubt as to the boy’s guilt. Claiming the prosecution’s case is based primarily on circumstantial evidence, Juror #8 slowly and methodically builds a case of his own for the defendant’s innocence. The movie takes the juror’s theory and follows it to its startling conclusion. Despite a few lapses in logic, including a controversial move by Fonda involving the weapon used to commit the crime, the structure and (basically) one-room setting are unique to films. Along with Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder from 1959, another entertaining, highly adult, almost clinical dissection of a rape and murder case, Twelve Angry Men was deservedly honored in 2007 for inclusion into the National Film Registry. To this day, Lumet’s maiden achievement on film is used in law schools and criminal justice classes as a textbook example of what juries go through in arriving at a life or death decision. One must also mention the claustrophobic environment throughout, thanks mainly to Boris Kaufman’s black-and-white cinematography and the low camera angles. A five-star production hands down, this feature is as relevant today as it was back in 1957— maybe more so! Updated and remade in 1997, it starred Jack Lemmon, George C. Scott, Tony Danza, Courtney B. Vance, Ossie Davis, Hume Cronyn, Dorian Harewood, Edward James Olmos, James Gandolfini, Armin Mueller-Stahl, William Petersen, and Mykelti Williamson. Part of the “fun” of this version, which is several notches below the excellence of the original, is seeing who got which roles in comparison to its predecessor. Try it and see! ◘
Copyright © 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 by Josmar F. Lopes
Orpheus Ascending — A 2010 Revival of ‘Orfeu’ in Rio Sparks Renewed Interest in Vinicius and Jobim’s Work
Number of performers: 16 actor/singers (all black). Number of stage musicians: seven (on guitar, cello, drums, bass, keyboard, percussion, and woodwind). Additional songs used: “Chega de Saudade” (“No More Blues”), “Este seu olhar” (“That Look of Yours”), “Água de beber” (“Water to Drink”), “A felicidade” (“Happiness”), “Chora coração” (“Cry, Dear Heart”), and “O morro não tem vez” (“The Hills Don’t Have a Chance”), among others.
All told, nearly 40 songs and assorted musical numbers were employed, to include the original Tom Jobim score, for the September 2010 revival of Orfeu da Conceição, based on the Greek myth of Orpheus, by Brazilian poet, performer and songwriter Vinicius de Moraes at the Canecão Nightclub in Rio de Janeiro. The show played at HSBC Brasil in São Paulo through October 3rd. From there it was scheduled to move to Brasília, the nation’s capital, with further offerings in Goiânia and Porto Alegre.
The original three-act work, which also premiered in the month of September, in 1956 at Rio’s Teatro Municipal (with sets by architect Oscar Niemeyer), had been condensed into two. Paulo Jobim, composer Jobim’s guitarist son, who was scheduled to play alongside cellist Jaques Morelenbaum, left the show before the opening due to previous commitments. His central spot, as the musician who plays Orfeu’s lovely guitar solos, was taken over by Jaime Alem.
Now simply called Orfeu, after the main protagonist (the producers dropped the da Conceição portion from the title), the show succeeded in sparking renewed interest in a neglected masterpiece of Brazilian musical theater. There was renewed interest as well as in its youthful and energetic cast.
Lead actor Érico Bras (Orfeu), a native of Bahia and a member of Oludum’s celebrated drum corps, had much to say about his breakout stage part: “He’s a seducer, a charmer. He strikes a chord on his guitar and the women fall all over him… For a guy like me, who comes from a band like Olodum, it’s an opportunity to experience another line of work.”
Aline Nepomuceno, a fellow Bahian who played the sweet and gentle Euridice, Orfeu’s love interest, described her character as a bit of a “tease, but in an innocent way. She lacks an explicit sensuality. Her relation to Orfeu is light and of a certain purity… It’s a heavy responsibility,” she acknowledged, “and I’m trying to stay focused. It’s a chance to show off my work, that I’m not just another pretty face from TV.”
Indeed, both actors were considered “veteran performers” of the big and small screens, so to speak, having already appeared together in the TV series Ó Paí, Ó, with Bras having survived a brush with cinema stardom, playing a minor role in the movie Quincas Berro d’Água (“Quincas Water-Yell”), based on the novel by Jorge Amado (Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, Tietá de Agreste).
A major departure from the original play, i.e., the character known as The Poet (formerly Coryphaeus or “Leader of the Chorus”), performed by actor/singer Wladimir Pinheiro, a Niteroi native, was viewed as a stand-in for real-life poet Vinicius de Moraes. The chorus had been reduced to five singer/dancers, in wide-brim hats and lime-colored suits, who in this production served as The Poet’s (that is, Vinicius’) friends. Together, they helped to explain some of the stage action in truncated form (thus eliminating a good deal of expository information), in addition to “softening” some of the scene changes.
One of the criticisms leveled at Orfeu is that the action was too brusque for audiences to follow. “The reason for this,” according to director Aderbal Freire Filho, whose modern updates of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Macbeth inspired a goodly amount of controversy on their own, “may have been due to the play being written over a 10-year span.” The first act was dashed off, in one night, in February 1942; the second and third acts between the years 1946 and 1948, when Vinicius found himself working in Los Angeles; followed by a rewrite in 1952-53 (he lost the third act in transit to Paris), all of “which could have contributed to the brusqueness of the subsequent passages,” Freire reflected.
Another problem was the style of language used. That may have seemed like a bogus issue, considering that flowery oratory was a fairly common practice at that time (the play was originally written in verse form). Historically, Vinicius spent a large portion of his working life overseas, due to his conflicting career as a diplomat with the Brazilian Foreign Service, Itamaraty. Consequently, he was not as familiar with carioca street lingo as he needed to be in order to bring his literary vision to theater life.
Realizing this, the poet enlisted the aid of others in helping him adapt the play’s lofty language for contemporary audiences to enjoy. This resulted in his justly famous – and famously foresighted – written injunction that, “All the personages of this tragedy should normally be played by black actors… The popular slang that is employed throughout, which tends to fluctuate with the times, can be adapted to fit these new conditions. The lyrics of the sambas included in the play… should be used as is, although the story can be altered in the same manner as the slang.”
Still, according to director Aderbal, it was not always possible to escape the passage of time, or “the reference to the slums that exist today.” The changes he made, then, were not just for show. For example, the director introduced three armed bandits, who hold The Poet up at gunpoint. The bandits are later integrated into the story, taking on new roles in Act II.
“I did not create new characters, dialogues, scenes or conflicts within the text,” Aderbal explained. “I don’t call my work an adaptation; it’s different from what was done in the movies [referring to the two previous screen incarnations: the first, Marcel Camus’ Black Orpheus, from 1959; the second, Orfeu, in 1999, directed by Carlos Diegues]. Originally, the play had a chorus and a leader. Here, the chorus becomes friends of The Poet, and the leader becomes The Poet. I introduced dialogues and scenes for these friends; and a good deal of what The Poet [spoke were] lines that Vinicius had written. I put in place songs and dialogue wherever the play allowed. They are interventions that compliment the original verses, but don’t necessarily modify them.”
What About the Originals?
A third issue concerned the original songs. Except for the pop standard, “Se todos fossem iguais a você” (“If Everyone Were Like You”), known in the U.S. as “Someone to Light Up My Life,” recorded by a variety of artists, including Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, the other numbers were, in the view of some critics, “minor works in comparison to what came later,” and “are not representative of the best of Vinicius and Tom Jobim.” This is strictly a matter of opinion – and not a universally held one, at that.
From the musical side of things, arranger/musician Jaques Morelenbaum, who worked closely with Jobim in his Banda Nova days (from the late eighties to the mid-nineties), commented about the insertion of additional material: “There is nothing preserved in recorded form or on video of the original staging or spoken words; but we imagined that, in a production of at minimum two hours duration, there was bound to be other music used that could have been lost over time. We rescued the numbers ‘Euridice’s Theme,’ an instrumental number that Tom wrote for the show for which no lyrics exist, and ‘Dama Negra’s Theme’ [played, for the first time, since the 1956 premiere], a piece that has never been recorded.”
“Vinicius was looking for a composer to write some songs for his play,” added Aderbal, “so that’s how he got to meet Tom. They could have done the job and never bumped into each other again. Today, we know that from there they went on to form one of the most important partnerships in the history of Brazilian music… Besides the songs ‘Happiness,’ ‘Someone to Light Up My Life,’ and ‘Lamento no morro’ (‘Lament on the Hill’), we included songs that were written afterwards, such as ‘Chora coração,’ which fits especially well into one of the scenes [i.e., after Euridice is killed]. Others seemed as if they were created just for this staging, almost as if they were an extension of the original play.”
Morelenbaum and Alem were clearly alert to the possibilities – and astute enough to look at the original score. After which, they decided to present Jobim’s music exactly as written, albeit for a reduced ensemble of players instead of a 35-piece orchestra. (There’s an interesting bit of trivia associated with the original production: Jaques’ father, instrumentalist Henrique Morelenbaum, played in the Teatro Municipal’s orchestra the night of the Rio premiere.)
Staging the Piece
The sets, by Marcos Flaksman, were arranged in minimalist fashion. Stacks of boxes, resembling the shantytown, or favela, that the story takes place in, were displayed one on top of the other. There were staircases on both sides, symbolic of the steps that lead from one shack to the other and from one mountaintop community to another.
The seven musicians were grouped to the left of the playing area, with the guitar prominent in the middle. Chairs were arranged along the back walls and to the right, in which The Poet, chorus, and other participants sat and waited for their turn to speak (this was somewhat reminiscent of the classic staging for Thornton Wilder’s Our Town).
According to producer Gil Lopes, “I wanted to re-stage Orfeu not only for me, but for newer generations [of Brazilians], so they could get in touch with this national classic of dramaturgy. There was a sense of urgency in bringing Orfeu back, now that Brazil, in these times, is in the midst of consolidation, both socially and economically.”
Lopes went on to note that, “Brazil is passing through a time of affirmation. The premiere of Orfeu comes at just the right moment to stimulate this path… Orfeu is absolutely relevant, not only for telling a story that defines who we are, but also in bringing [to the fore] the songs of Tom Jobim, consecrated the world over, that represent the best of what Brazilian music has produced.”
Preparations for this long-awaited revival — the first since Haroldo Costa, the original Orfeu, undertook to bring his version to Rio in 1995-96 — lasted two and a half months, with rehearsals taking up to seven hours a day. Aderbal Freire Filho decided not to interfere, except minimally, with the nucleus of the original plot [the love of Orfeu for his Euridice]: “Everything revolves around the central story,” he insisted, “and along its margins, as a framework for the piece.”
He preserved the natural classicism of Vinicius’ text, while taking the bard’s own reference to his play as “a poem in the form of theater in which the author is profoundly present” quite literally. This is where the idea for The Poet came in: “He is the ideal poet, eternal,” Aderbal claimed, “a name that represents all poets, who represent the art of poetry itself.” Because of this, Aderbal concluded that “The Poet should speak Vinicius’ own [lines of ] poetry, many of which are as well known to Brazilians as his music.”
Orfeu returned to the stage at a time when many of Rio and São Paulo’s theaters were preoccupied with musical productions from Broadway and London’s West End. “Instead of being intimidating,” Gil Lopes claimed, “this reality is a motivating force; it gives more impetus for us to show what is ours. The presence of foreign musicals indicates that the time is ripe to invest in a national production of the same genre. In this instance, there is no more opportune time than to present Orfeu, the greatest of Brazilian musicals, the most illustrious product of our national culture: the encounter of Vinicius de Moraes and Tom Jobim.”
Copyright (c) 2010 by Josmar F. Lopes