Leading Man on Fire — A Denzel Washington Primer (Part Six): Much Ado About Malcolm

Brother Malcolm (Denzel Washington) sings the praises of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad (photo in background) in Spike Lee’s ‘Malcolm X’ (1992)

‘X’ Marks the Spot

When you’ve scaled the highest mountain and sailed the deepest sea, where do you go from there? And when actors reach the absolute peak of their profession, what do they do for an encore?

Every performer must ask these age-old questions, but not everyone is prepared to face the challenges. If they do confront them, not all of them can succeed. Some reach the summit only to fall flat on their butts; others manage to stay on top (but barely). Still others crest too soon, while some take years to reach their potential.

Clawing your way to success can become an all-consuming passion. Once there, however, the struggle continues for those whose needs are many — come what way. So who, in their right mind, would risk it all on a project deemed too risky and controversial to win over the hearts and minds of skeptics?

For film star Denzel Washington and producer, director, screenwriter and part-time actor Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing, Mo’ Better Blues, Jungle Fever), risk and controversy were part of their game plan. The work they put into their next venture, Malcolm X — a project that had been kicking around Hollywood for some time — was almost too good to be true. In the words of the garrulous Mr. Lee, the film speaks for itself. “It just grows in stature,” he insisted. “That performance … ”

Ah, yes, THAT performance! Spike went into detail about Denzel’s preparation for the difficult part of Malcolm X in an online conversation for the Reserve Channel with singer-performer Pharrell Williams.

“All the speeches in the film were Malcolm’s actual speeches,” Lee claimed. “I’m reading the script. Well, the speech is over, I’m going to call ‘cut.’ But [Denzel] keeps going. He kept going another five minutes until finally the film ran out in the magazine. And the stuff that he said was better than Malcolm’s words. So, I finally called ‘cut.’ I go to Denzel. I said, ‘Denzel, that was great. But where did that come from? You went on five minutes after what was scripted!’ He said, ‘Spike, I don’t know.’ So that’s the type of … he was bringin’ it in.”

Malcolm (Denzel Washington) preaching in Harlem in ‘Malcolm X’

“Did that moment go in?” Pharrell inquired.

“Oh, it’s in the movie,” replied Lee. “But here’s the thing that people don’t understand. Denzel worked a year before we started shooting. He told his agent, ‘I’m not working anymore.’ He prepared a year for that role. What did he do? ‘I’m playing a Muslim. OK, I can’t eat pork anymore. I’m playing a Muslim, I can’t drink. I have to learn how to speak Arabic, I have to learn to read the Quran.’ He became a student of Malcolm. It’s more than just the impersonation. It’s more than just dyeing his hair red or putting on the glasses or the voice. Because all that is superficial.

“Denzel knew he had to be in a space spiritually where Malcolm comes into his vessel. So that’s why he was able to do that five-minute thing after the scripted pages ended. That was Malcolm in him, Malcolm came into his soul right there. I said [that] to Denzel, he could not remember what he said.

“You got to put the work in,” Lee concluded. “Otherwise, you’re bullshitting. You’re shuckin’ and jivin’ … If you’re bullshitting, your stuff is not going to stand the test of time.”

And what a time it was! The name part in Malcolm X, released in November 1992, was the longest and most elaborate of Denzel’s decade-long film career to that point and beyond. Next to Inside Man (2006), the Malcolm X project was Lee’s most “mainstream” picture. Denzel had earlier appeared as Malcolm in Laurence Holder’s 1981 off-Broadway play When the Chickens Come Home to Roost. Obviously, the star was familiar with the character’s background and had put forth the effort into becoming the former Malcolm Little, aka “Detroit Red.”

‘Malcolm’ in the Middle, Beginning and End

Denzel was close to the real Malcolm X’s age when he completed Spike’s massive three-hour epic. As a matter of fact, the ex-Nation of Islam minister and one-time follower of the (once) Honorable Elijah Muhammad was 39 years old at his death (on February 21, 1965), compared to Denzel’s 38. In the height department, Denzel stood six-foot one-inch tall, compared to Malcolm’s six-foot-three or -four, a slight if perceptible difference; and they both had slim builds.

Dee’s refined facial features, while elongated and thin, did not exactly resemble that of Mr. X’s. In critic and writer David Thomson’s judgment, Malcolm was “gaunter” and “had a hardened carapace — to life and the camera — that no actor could conceive of.” This was spot-on accurate. And as dynamic and flashy a presence as Denzel could bring to the screen, he had not yet gone through the vagaries of life nor had he experienced the poverty, the misery, the bitter struggles and severe hardships that Malcolm and the Little family had to contend with on a daily basis. Interestingly, the two men had more in common than originally thought: both their fathers were ministers, both came from large families, and both were raised by their mothers.

Side-by-side comparison: Malcolm X and Denzel Washington

Looking at it from another angle, Leonardo DiCaprio, who took on the eccentric Howard Hughes in Scorsese’s The Aviator (2004), faced a similar handicap since he neither resembled nor talked anything like the mysterious billionaire recluse. However, Leo did maintain a furrowed brow throughout the length of the picture. Perhaps he learned from Denzel that to assume the visage of a known historical figure, one must mentally realign one’s features (either by sheer concentration or force of will). There was also a huge age disparity between Hughes and the actor playing him. Basically, viewers had to take Leo’s assumption of the part more on “faith” than on actual likeness.

In contrast, Denzel’s smoother, unlined countenance captured, “in spirit” (as was claimed in the above discussions), the corporeal and emotional as well as the vital psychological characteristics of Malcolm in the assorted phases of his life: from kitchen worker to Pullman porter; from a street hustler, pimp and drug pusher to convicted felon; from ex-con to eager acolyte; from faithful minister to disillusioned devotee; and, finally, from an African-American seeking clarity and wisdom to that of a reinvigorated human being.

That was quite the trajectory for one man to have undergone. In that, Denzel would need all the help and support he could get from Spike and his large cast and crew. If, as they say, timing is everything, then both Lee and Dee were blessed and guided by it. The time, 1992, more than a year after the Rodney King beating, was indeed right for Malcolm’s story to be told. Much more than your normal biopic — their models would be Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi from ten years prior and the same director’s Cry Freedom (1987) about South African activist Stephen Biko, played by Denzel himself — Malcolm X traces the ups and downs and the ultimately tragic course of the main protagonist’s life-cycle.

The physical aspects of the production would, by necessity, encompass the changing hair and fashion trends of the various time periods in question, along with the settings, locales, events, personalities, and individuals involved. Some biographical matters would be rendered in flashback, whereas others moved the drama along in chronological order.

Each of the periods had its own specific look: for example, the zoot-suited weirdness of the thirties and forties (set in brightly-colored hues) and the darkly portentous sixties (told in earth-toned severity). As he did with Do the Right Thing, director Lee’s color palette (courtesy of cinematographer and fellow New York University Film School graduate Ernest Dickerson) varied from the bold and outlandish to the dowdy and stern. Historical accuracy would be stressed, but not slavishly so. And, more significantly, given Lee’s penchant for over-the-top, in-your-face brashness, Malcolm’s milieu would be recreated, as close as humanly possible, to what was known and documented about it.

Malcolm as “Detroit Red” (Denzel Washington) with his best friend Shorty (Spike Lee) in their zoot suits

Beginning with Malcolm’s “Detroit Red” period, Denzel would first personify the handsome dandy who could win over women and befriend the likes of gangster West Indian Archie (a distinctive Delroy Lindo). Malcolm’s escapades with best friend Shorty (Spike Lee, in a riotously comedic tour de “farce” part), his subsequent arrest and imprisonment, and his later conversion to Islam by the insistent Brother Baines (a stern Albert Hall) would take some liberties with the facts, but adhere closely (for the most part) to such sources as The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley (first published in 1965) and the original screenplay by Arnold Perl (revised by scriptwriter Lee).

At the epicenter of activity would be Denzel’s pivotal interpretation. Similar to that of Peter O’Toole’s T.E. Lawrence from Lawrence of Arabia (1962) — another epic depiction of a flawed historical character surrounded by events spiraling out of his control — Dee would be present and accounted for in virtually every scene. Film critic Julian Roman had hitherto noted that Denzel’s Private Trip in Glory was “a transcendent performance.” If that was the case, then the actor’s active participation in Malcolm X transcended anything that had come before.

He and Lee could have fallen on their butts if their efforts had failed to stir the masses. The famously motor-mouthed director was known to talk his head off about racial, economic, political, and socially relevant matters — topics designed to focus primarily on whatever theme or issue his latest project happened to touch upon. Success, in the eyes of some, would be fleeting if at all attainable.

They each proved their critics wrong. With his compelling screen presence, Denzel had successfully portrayed one man’s momentous journey despite the short, turbulent life he left behind; how that man had changed his outlook, at key intervals, because of his reawakening: first to religion, then to active militancy; next, to polemics; and, finally, back to religion — more precisely, to the universal brotherhood of man.

Cinematic Moments to Remember

The beauty of Washington’s performance, then, was his complete and utter devotion to Malcolm’s mission. You could sense his passion in every word and movement. For anyone watching the film, Denzel shines a beacon on what is, at first, a rather devious individual — called “the devil” in the scene where a Catholic priest (snidely played by Christopher Plummer) uses that exact term.

That this individual had a soul and a unique ability to move people to action is hinted at in the “indoctrination” process he underwent via the Nation of Islam’s efforts. Malcolm’s teary-eyed meeting with the Honorable Elijah Muhammad (humbly if calculatedly played by a soft-spoken Al Freeman Jr.) is one of the most memorable and moving episodes in the entire picture. Their solemn encounter had to be emphasized, for later, when Malcolm learns that Elijah Muhammad has been less than “honorable” in associating himself with under-aged girls, he experiences a change of heart.

In between, curious bystanders (few at first) both see and hear Malcolm giving street-side lectures and preaching to anyone who will listen that blacks have been oppressed by whites for centuries (“We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock. Plymouth Rock landed on us!”). He begins to draw more and more crowds. Soon, he becomes more popular than the man whose so-called “virtues” he’s been extolling. This does not curry favor with the Muslim brotherhood. The journey climaxes in the startlingly violent blood-bath near the end where Malcolm is gunned down before a gathering that includes his wife Betty Shabazz (a sympathetic Angela Bassett) and their young children. The scene is shocking in its brutality.

Malcolm’s wife Betty Shabazz (Angela Bassett) with Malcolm (Denzel Washington) in ‘Malcolm X’

Despite the lurid quality of his death, there are moments where Malcolm makes a point of demonstrating the power of the spoken word (and mesmerizingly so). In others, specifically the scenes at the police station where Malcolm confronts a surly white desk sergeant, which is also the place where a battered and bloodied Brother Johnson (Steve White) is visited by him and his band of “Brothers,” Malcolm is calm and deliberate. Here, moderation and steadfastness prevail.

In a related sequence, silence and hand gestures lead the way. When a mob of protesters is seen standing and shouting “We want Johnson!” outside Harlem Hospital, an enormous police captain (Peter Boyle) comes over to accost Malcolm. He orders him and his followers to disperse. After a doctor assures Malcolm that Brother Johnson will survive his wounds, Malcolm flashes a smile at the captain and, turning his back to the lawman, raises a gloved hand, which immediately quiets the crowd. Pointing his finger and hand in the opposite direction, the crowd calmly files out military style (to a “rum-tiddy-tum-tum” drum roll accompaniment). The startled captain remarks, under his breath, “That’s too much power for one man to have.”

Director Lee, whose knowledge of the movies was honed by his attendance at both Morehouse College and Clark Atlanta University, along with a Master of Fine Arts from the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU, had clearly referenced a similar situation from Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) where the gigantic Captain McCloskey (Sterling Hayden) tells Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) to clear out from guarding his dad, the wounded Vito Corleone, before bashing him on the jaw.

Police Captain (Peter Boyle) tells Malcolm to disperse the crowd

Prior to Malcolm’s untimely end, he experiences another epiphany. His life-changing pilgrimage to Mecca, the site of Islam’s holiest shrine, and his collective worship with others of the same faith — many of whom came from differing backgrounds, races, colors, and creeds — forces Malcolm to accept the fact that Islam, and indeed every religion, is meant for everyone and not just a select few.

In that wide-ranging conversation both he and Spike Lee had for the 2006 DVD/Blu-ray Disc edition of Inside Man, Denzel claimed that Malcolm X wasn’t his hardest role; that he had previously done the play and was familiar with the contentious black activist’s life. So he felt comfortable enough to do it. Possessing the “gift of gab,” as he phrased it, Denzel had Malcolm’s speeches pasted to his dressing room wall. When it came time to shooting the actual footage, Lee kept loading the camera with film.

“I was trying to capture the spirit,” Denzel confirmed for the cameras.

“The spirit,” Lee repeated and continued. “Just acting, ‘Well, I’m going to look like him,’ that’s just surface stuff.”

There was nothing “surface” at all about Denzel Washington’s Oscar-nominated turn, one of the finest screen portraits in many a year. He was able to penetrate deep inside, in between, over and above Malcolm’s surface and into the person himself. That the veteran Al Pacino beat him out for Best Actor honors in Scent of a Woman was an injustice and a dereliction of duty by the members of Hollywood’s Motion Picture Academy.

Nevertheless, when he worked on Malcolm X, Denzel would pray every morning, “before I came to that trailer,” to be filled with the man’s spirit. “I’m like, ‘All right, Malcolm, come on.’ And it’s not for me. It’s for him and for those hopefully that he affected.”

Those prayers were not in vain.

End of Part Six

(To be continued….)

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

Leading Man on Fire — A Denzel Washington Primer (Part Five): ‘Together We Stand, Divided We Fall’

Jack Moony (Bob Hoskins) chews over Napoleon Stone’s advice (Denzel Washington) in ‘Heart Condition’ (1990)

‘Reel’ Life and Real Life

Whether it be on the big or small screen, or in the intimacy of the legitimate theater, to bring their characters to life actors must be able to draw from personal knowledge and experience. One of Denzel Washington’s chief assets as a film star and stage performer is his ability to capture, so vividly and earnestly, the essence of what makes his protagonists tick.

As a for instance, in Mo’ Better Blues (1990), where the youngster Bleek would rather go outside and play with his friends than practice his scales, the mother (represented by legendary African American artist Abbey Lincoln), is, at her core, a figure taken from real life. Denzel’s own mother, “Lynne” (a nickname for Lennis), was cited by him as a probable inspiration for that portrayal, as well as the actor’s driving force behind his success.

Near the end of the film, when Bleek finds himself teaching his young son Miles the finer points of trumpet playing, the boy gets distracted by friends calling out to him to come and play. Bleek’s wife, Indigo, takes Miles to task by insisting he practice his scales. Instead of a reprimand, Bleek, recalling his earlier encounter with mom and how she and his father ended up arguing about what to do, relents and allows Miles to go and join his pals.

Denzel revealed similar facets of his Mount Vernon childhood in a 1992 television interview with Barbara Walters. “I thought [my mother’s] purpose in life was just to embarrass me,” he let on. “She’d come get me on the street, at any time, in front of anybody.” He recalled an incident where his mother once smacked him across the cheek when he started to make faces at friends about his predicament. “I know that she never gave up on me. She had a lot of reason to. You know, I got kicked out of college and she did the same thing.”

Walters asked Denzel how he managed to overcome that setback. His response was that he took a semester off to read acting books, which then led to his finding work in summer stock. That’s how he got interested in the profession. Walters mentioned his private life, which remained private as far as the actor was concerned. She also brought up his family and the fact that he had four children, two of whom were twins.

Denzel Washington with his wife Pauletta

“One named Malcolm. After Malcolm X?” she queried. And who could blame Barbara for trying to make the obvious connection.

“No,” was Denzel’s immediate response.

“No?” she asked back, puzzled.

“No,” he added coolly.  “After my wife’s cousin Malcolm.” Apparently, Ms. Walters, the seasoned reporter and interviewer, and possibly her staff had failed to do their homework. Maybe they were out in the street playing ball.

Denzel switched the topic to his spouse Pauletta. “My wife, you know, is the backbone of our family. And I’m wise enough to admit that … We’ve known each other too long, we’ve been through too much … And being a star and all of that, temptations all around, and I haven’t been perfect. I’ll be quite candid about that. We’ve gone through ups and downs and we’re still together. And we’re best friends.”

This self-revelation about his past — and his acceptance of the conjugal life as a serious contract between two consenting adults — smacks of the understanding Denzel has had not only about his own life’s purpose and his reliance on strong women, but of what he could bring to his onscreen portrayals.

Getting to the “Heart” of the Matter

Two minor efforts and one reasonably competent release comprised the next phase of Denzel Washington’s cinematic output.

Advertising poster for ‘Heart Condition’ (1990)

The first film, titled Heart Condition, a drama-fantasy-comedy-police thriller, was released in February 1990 to mixed (code word for “middling”) reviews and less-than-decent box office returns. Starring the versatile English actor Bob Hoskins (Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Brazil, Hook) as police officer Jack Moony, the dashing Denzel as ambulance-chasing lawyer Napoleon Stone, Chloe Webb as the hooker with a heart of gold Crystal Gerrity, Roger E. Mosley as Captain Wendt, and Ja’net Dubois as Stone’s mother, the film has a reputation for having been a “career killer.” Surprisingly, neither Hoskins nor Denzel suffered any lasting repercussions because of it.

In Roger Ebert’s review, the late movie critic blasted the picture for being “all over the map,” one that “tries to be all things to all people” with multiple points of view, subplots galore, major and minor mishaps (including but not limited to endless car chases, shootouts, mistaken identities, etc.), and an over-abundance of double entendres and dumb sight gags, some in excruciatingly poor taste. And we thought Carbon Copy was bad! This flick tops even that early entry in the “comedy without substance” category.

The premise concerns a racist cop, Jack Moony, whose clashes with lawyer Stone come about through the shifty advocate’s spirited defense of his clients — namely, a pimp named Graham (Jeffrey Meek) and his stable of whores. One of the prostitutes, the aforementioned Crystal, is Moony’s ex-girlfriend. Things get “complicated” when (a) Stone starts to date the lovely Crystal; (b) Moony suffers a near fatal heart attack from over-indulgence; and (c) Stone gets shot and killed at around the same time. What, too many hitches for you? You ain’t heard nuthin’ yet!

While Moony is in the hospital, he undergoes an emergency heart transplant. Guess whose heart he gets? No, really! One of the flick’s (um) “funnier” moments comes when somebody plants an over-sized black rubber penis between the recovering officer’s legs as he lies in bed. His reaction? The aptly named Moony dashes out to the nurses’ station and plants the fake penis on the counter.

“You put it in, now you take it out,” he demands. The nurse looks over at the doctor and asks, “You wanna tell me where he had it?” Hardy, harr, harr. Of course, what Moony meant was to take the heart out. You see, he’s a bigot, a regular Archie Bunker-type. And being a bigot, he can’t stand the thought of a black man’s heart beating inside his white man’s chest — specifically, that of his worst adversary Stone. Imagine Archie Bunker getting, say, George Jefferson’s heart! Or worse, Fred Sanford’s from Sanford and Son! That’s the basic setup.

The ghost of Napoleon Stone (Denzel Washington) stares down at Jack Moony (Bob Hoskins) in ‘Heart Condition’

And there’s another gimmick to contend with: the lawyer reappears to Moony as a ghost (in expensive suit and tie, no less), not just to haunt him but to make his life miserable. How miserable does he make it? Well, Stone keeps after him about eating healthier (“Keep away from them cheeseburgers! They clog your arteries and make your breath stink!”); and he snatches his cigarettes to prevent Moony from getting cancer. But what Stone really wants from Moony is to solve the mystery of who killed him.

Oh, and one more point: the ghost tries to hook Moony up with the hooker, who’s really a nice girl underneath the glamorous lipstick and wardrobe. As I said, it gets complicated. Far be it for me to reveal any more of the plot. You’ll have to take my word for it: this is one convoluted crime caper. Still, Hoskins and Washington make a rambunctious pair — each with his own acting style. These two “bosom buddies” go at it tooth and nail, and then some. They’re about as compatible as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito. Just don’t expect anything in the way of intelligent conversations about race. It’s all for laughs, until it isn’t.

On a side note, neither actor would work together on any subsequent film projects.

Along similar but more violent lines, Denzel’s next picture, Ricochet (1991) — released in October 1991 and co-starring John Lithgow, Ice-T, Lindsay Wagner, Kevin Pollak, Josh Evans, and John Amos — was a police crime caper helmed by Australian action director Russell Mulcahy (Highlander, The Shadow).

Poster art for Russell Mulcahy’s ‘Ricochet’ (1991)

In this one (unseen by your truly), Denzel plays both a cop and a lawyer, occupations he will assume in many an upcoming feature. Lithgow is a vicious killer (talk about casting to type) who swears vengeance on Denzel, especially after the ex-cop becomes an assistant district attorney. And, like the ghost in Heart Condition, the Lithgow character succeeds in making Washington’s life miserable — a pure hell, to put it plainly, but without the cornball antics. This picture boasts so many twists and turns and hard-to-believe story angles that the characters gets lost in a maze of double- and triple-crosses.

Man Without a Country

On a slightly more believable note, the underrated Mississippi Masala (1991) held promise as a “date flick” with serious overtones. First released in France in September 1991, later in the UK in January 1992 and in the States a month later, Mississippi Masala blends a clash of ethnicities (one Indian American, the other African American) with a story about two everyday people who fall in love. Call it a romantic brew laced with social awareness.

Denzel plays Demetrius Williams, a self-employed carpet cleaner in Greenwood, Mississippi, about as far from the Mason-Dixon line of demarcation as you can get. Sarita Choudhury is Mina, a young Ugandan-born Indian woman who falls for the smooth-talking Demetrius. True to his gladiatorial namesake, the carpet cleaner engages in verbal combat with Mina’s father, Jay, played by Indian-born British actor Roshan Seth (Gandhi, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom).

Mina (Sarita Choudhury) walks beside her main crush, Demetrius (Denzel Washington) in Mira Nair’s ‘Mississippi Masala’ (1991)

Indian-American director, writer and producer Mira Nair (Salaam Bombay!, Monsoon Wedding), along with Indian-born screenwriter Sooni Taraporevala (Salaam Bombay!, The Namesake), fashioned an intelligently conceived account of racial conflict and reverse discrimination among working folk. Although there were problems at the outset with casting (for example, Ben Kingsley, a British subject with Indian ancestry, was originally slated to take on the part of the father) and the film barely broke even at the box office, Mississippi Masala can be seen as a precursor to Denzel’s next outing, the controversial Spike Lee-directed biopic Malcolm X.

Director Nair and her screenwriter completed the story in Brooklyn, after considerable research into the various cultures and locales involved. Filmed on location in and around Mississippi and Kampala, Uganda, the film has the ring of authenticity about it, as do the main characters and their hot-headed temperaments.

One of the movie’s prime attractions is the rapport shared by a charismatic Denzel with his attractive co-star, the engaging Sarita Choudhury. Their on-again, off-again, then on-again relationship is more than credible and firmly rooted in their respective character’s familial dilemmas. As critic Ebert observed, it’s “more than a transplanted Romeo and Juliet,” or an updated version of West Side Story. If anything, the lead characters’ issues are comparable to those of Tony and Maria.

Actress Sarita Choudhury as Mina, the love interest in ‘Mississippi Masala’

In Mina’s case, her father Jay, as head of the family, has suffered humiliation and expulsion from his home in Uganda due to ex-dictator Idi Amin’s edict that all “Asians” must leave the country forthwith. (This narrative corresponds, to some extent, to several of Denzel’s earlier forays Cry Freedom and For Queen and Country). Jay’s distrust of people of color and the motives behind their actions are the guiding forces of his and his wife’s objections to their only daughter dating an African American, albeit a successful sole proprietor. The situation is a difficult one for actors as well, in that they must convey bias towards one another in ways that audiences can relate to and sympathize without seeming obvious or cloying.

Much of the success of this production comes from Roshan Seth’s truthful yet poignant depiction of Jay as a victim of circumstances beyond his control. Both cultures, Indian and African American, are given equal time to make their case, both pro and con. Even the sharp-witted and keenly discerning Demetrius must contend with mindless preconceptions of so-called “family values” where his own relatives are concerned.

Jay (Roshan Seth) has a heart-to-heart with Demetrius (Denzel Washington) in ‘Mississippi Masala’ (1991)

We, the viewers, can make up our own minds based on our background and experiences. Whether you agree with Jay and his wife’s viewpoints (who appear to discriminate among their own kind), or whether you take Demetrius and Mina’s side of the argument (one that shines a light on the struggles of all people of color in the segregated South), there will be lots to discuss after the houselights come up. The closing footage, wherein a young Ugandan child stretches forth his hand to touch Jay’s cheek, will touch your heart as well.

Indeed, this highly recommended flick has topical resonance for today’s displaced migrants and for all individuals who identify with country and culture — the essence of what makes us tick.

End of Part Five

(To be continued….)

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

What’s Eating Johnny Depp? The Actor at Age 50: A Mid-Career Retrospective (Part Five) — The British Period and Thereabouts

Actor-musician Johnny Depp at the turn of the half century

Nice Work (If You Can Get It)

That old proverb about “All work and no play make Jack a dull boy” could never be attributed to our eponymously titled, middle-aged thespian, i.e., the remarkably adept Mr. John Christopher Depp II, aka Johnny Depp.

With a rich bevy of diverse acting assignments before him, many as varied and sundry as stars half his age would absolutely die for, Depp remained at the forefront of the most-sought-after-screen-personalities category from the New Millennium onward.

Not all of Johnny’s cinematic endeavors were paved with gold, mind you. In spite of ever increasing budgets, exhaustive work schedules, stratospheric salary demands and critical brickbats, the still-popular film actor continued to impress reviewers and fans alike with his versatility and wide-ranging choice of projects.

Indeed, the time he spent in Western Europe, directly (and indirectly) correlated to his live-in relationship with the French-born Vanessa Paradis, certainly had a pervasive effect on how, where and when Depp would put in his next big-screen appearance.

Many of his choices were, for lack of a better word, “odd” or bordering on cameo and/or “supporting player” status. Still, nothing could stop the ever-striving JD from seeking out more satisfying challenges — something that would continue to occupy his hyperactive imagination for years to come and ensure a prominent spot on his expanding curriculum vitae.

‘Lasse, Come Home!’ — Chocolat (2000)

Johnny Depp (l.) helping himself to a treat from Juliette Binoche’s hands in Lasse Hallstrom’s ‘Chocolat’ (2000)

One of Depp’s better-than-average characterizations occurred in his next international film foray. Swedish movie director Lars Sven Hallström, more commonly known as Lasse Hallström, tapped Johnny Depp to appear in the whimsically themed Chocolat (2000), based on the novel by English author Joanne Harris. Lasse and Johnny had formerly worked together on What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, which had also placed an ensemble cast in quirky yet tantalizing situations.

Filmed on location in both France and England, Chocolat stars the amiable French actress Juliette Binoche as chocolatier Vianne Rocher, a sort of modern-day fairy godmother but without the magic wand and pixie dust. Instead of those standard accoutrements, Vianne uses sweets to charm her customers. In Binoche’s words, “Vianne sells small dreams and little comforts through chocolates.”

Featured as well are some familiar names as repressed village types, among them a dour-faced Alfred Molina as the killjoy mayor Comte de Reynaud, fabulous Judi Dench as the resentful landlady Armande, and Matrix alumnus Carrie-Anne Moss as her straight-arrow daughter Catherine. Rachel Portman (The Cider House Rules), one of the few female film composers under-utilized by Hollywood at the time, wrote the starry-eyed music score.

Others in the cast include Lena Olin (reuniting with Ms. Binoche since their joint appearance in Philip Kaufman’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being) as the abused wife Josephine, hulking Peter Stormare as her menacing husband Serge, veteran actress Leslie Caron as a lonely widow, John Wood as the old geezer secretly infatuated with her, and America’s own charmer, Johnny Depp, as an accommodating barge owner named Roux with a faux Irish brogue.

Despite a misleading ad campaign showing Binoche feeding Johnny a bite-sized morsel (which implied a much larger part in the picture than he actually had), Depp’s short-lived contribution as Juliette’s gypsy lover is fleeting but significant enough to merit our consideration.

Blues Brother: Juliette Binoche listens to Johnny Depp as he tunes his resonator guitar in ‘Chocolat’ (2000)

By the way, Johnny’s guitar playing is for real and, according to director Hallström, it was the first time he played the instrument on screen. In addition, his little dance with Dame Judi is an absolute delight and rekindles fond memories of the Brando-Dunaway partnership in Depp’s Don Juan DeMarco.

In a 2015 interview for The Hollywood Reporter, Binoche admitted that neither Johnny Depp nor Alfred Molina liked the dark, tasty treat very much. In fact, Depp spat out his portion of chocolates after each of their takes, which goes against the spirit of the script’s premise. Ah, but that’s real life for you.

Indeed, this fanciful tale, billed as a “sinfully delicious comedy” (wink, wink) of a stagnant French village frozen in time, abounds in intimate side-stories. But over the “main course” of the feature, Binoche manages to change even the humorless mayor’s mind through her delectable confections. Which goes to show that sweetness and light make everything right.

Since the story takes place at Easter (as close to Christmas time as you’re liable to get), Vianne can be seen as the angel third-class Clarence from It’s a Wonderful Life, or at best one of Charles Dickens’ three ghosts. Which ghost would that be? Take your pick! Then ask yourself this question: Who can know the mysterious ways of whimsy?

From Hell (2001)

A deadly serious Depp as Inspector Abberline in ‘From Hell’ (2001)

From the unbearable lightness of dark chocolate, we plunge into the darkest recesses of the human mind. From Hell, a thriller loosely based on Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s graphic-novel take on the infamous serial killer Jack the Ripper, was Johnny’s next venture.

Directed by Albert and Allen Hughes, collectively known as the Hughes Brothers (Menace II Society, Dead Presidents), From Hell stands as the official start of what we like to refer to as Johnny’s “British period,” wherein the actor displayed an ersatz (yet perfectly respectable) English affectation in several big-budget pictures.

Prior to From Hell, Johnny participated in two minor features, specifically The Man Who Cried (directed by Sally Potter) and Before Night Falls (under Julian Schnabel’s direction, the fellow who befriended street artist Jean-Michel Basquiat and who made a motion picture about him — see my review of that film: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2019/04/21/an-artists-life-for-me-ten-motion-pictures-that-ask-the-question-does-life-imitate-art-part-three/).

Another Anglo-French flick, The Man Who Cried is an operatically-themed work that re-teamed Johnny (fourth-billed from the top) with Christina Ricci, his co-star in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Sleepy Hollow. For yours truly (opera lover that I am), to hear actor John Turturro emoting as Italian tenor Dante and singing Nadir’s aria from The Pearl Fishers (voiced by true-life tenor Salvatore Licitra) is a bit hard to swallow.

In the biopic Before Night Falls, Johnny forgoes his heartthrob status to take on dual character parts: that of the transvestite Bon Bon (an unintended reference to Chocolat, no doubt) with that of Lt. Victor; opposite the Spanish Javier Bardem, who portrays gay Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas. Viewers may be reminded of Depp’s wacky assumption of famed Golden Turkey Award winner Ed Wood (if you see the movie, you’ll know what we mean).

Javier Bardem (l.) has a falling out with “Bon Bon” (Johnny Depp) in Julian Schnabel’s ‘Before Night Falls’ (2000)

Depp’s skill at vocal mimicry came in handy in the above features, in that he successfully undertook a Romanian accent in The Man Who Cried, as well as a Cuban one in Before Night Falls. Beyond that, both films slipped off the radar as far as box-office was concerned. But the one that got them all talking again came direct From Hell (quite literally in fact).

You might call this a “slasher fest” or body horror-cum-murder mystery. However you see it, From Hell will curdle your hair. Depp takes the part of Police Inspector Frederick Abberline, an opium addict who spends his off hours in a den of haze and smoke, with horrid “visions” of killings dancing in his head. He takes a personal interest (a little too personal, it turns out) in investigating what became known as “the Ripper murders,” due mostly to the brutal way the homicides of Whitechapel prostitutes were committed.

Poster art for ‘From Hell’ starring Johnny Depp and Heather Graham

True to form, the inspector falls in love with, and tries to protect, one of the targeted streetwalkers, Mary Kelly (played by a much-too-wholesome Heather Graham). And why were the Whitechapel hookers being targeted for execution? Well, if you believe the cockamamie theories put forth, they were all unwitting participants in a coverup perpetrated by Freemasons (what, those guys again?) to protect the libidinous Prince Albert, heir to the English throne and Queen Victoria’s randy grandson, from being caught with his breeches down. Shame, shame, shame, Uncle Bertie!

Robbie Coltrane (the giant groundskeeper Hagrid from the Harry Potter series) plays Abberline’s assistant, Sergeant Peter Godley, in good-natured, friendly-banter fashion. Mr. Coltrane uses his large frame to buttress Johnny’s slenderer figure. They come across as squabbling combatants à la Laurel and Hardy. Ian Holm (The Fifth Element, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy) invests the role of Dr. William Gull, a former surgeon and physician to Her Royal Highness, with just the right amount of highborn reserve; while Ian Richardson (Dark City) as Abberline’s superior officer is impatience personified, and perfectly capable of cutting anyone down to size with a mere look.

Much of the thunder was taken out of this newest screen version of old Jack’s tawdry tale — mostly, in our view, due to a previous trip down this same rabbit hole via the much better Murder by Decree from 1979. In that earlier incarnation, Sherlock Holmes (a perfectly cast Christopher Plummer) and Dr. Watson (a fumbling yet pensive James Mason) are assigned to investigate the Ripper murders and wind up implicating the usual suspects (Freemasons, Royal Family hijinks, etc.). We can take the comparison further with the recent Sherlock Holmes (2009), directed by Guy Ritchie and starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law as master detective and loyal cohort, respectively, where the recycled Freemasons plot gets skewered with an absurd sleight-of-hand angle.

In the Hughes Brothers’ grislier adaptation, which author Moore vehemently distanced himself from (with claims of their having turned the inspector into an “absinthe-swilling dandy”), the blood and gore quotient was turned up to 11. Somehow and despite the distasteful aspects to the story, both Depp and Ms. Graham managed to avoid the temptation of a tagged-on “happy ending” by a parting of the ways (oh, what sweet sorrow). Sadly, a disillusioned Inspector Abberline closes out his police career with one last shot of dope in a public bath house.

Any resemblance to Johnny’s deadly serious Inspector Abberline with his deft comic portrayal of the bumbling Constable Ichabod Crane is sheer coincidence. The two detectives are worlds apart in temperament and tone, as are Depp’s love interests in each. Incidentally, Depp uses a mild Cockney accent to underscore Abberline’s humbler background to that of the supercilious blue-blooded twits populating the upper-echelons of British society.

Blow (2001)

Johnny Depp as drug dealer George Jung in ‘Blow’ (2001)

What came out From Hell, and what many critics and reviewers drew from Johnny Depp’s performance, was his affinity for and attraction to ensemble work. Similar to fellow actor Denzel Washington (an older star whom we’ve also written about), but unlike his contemporary Tom Cruise, Depp much preferred to share the limelight with his fellow practitioners.

You can interpret that decision as either claiming the glory or spreading the blame, but Johnny was serious about taking a backseat to fame and fortune. He already had it, to put it plainly; let others have their turn.

This led to his next assignment, one most leading men would either give their right arm for or refuse to touch with a ten-foot pole. Directed by Ted Demme (filmmaker Jonathan Demme’s nephew), the movie Blow (also from 2001) sported an unusually unlikeable and unglamorized central figure for Johnny (in blond tresses, no less); that is, of 1970s cocaine dealer and drug smuggler George Jung.

One thing about this production that stood front-and-center from the rest was that Johnny would no longer need to hide his American speech patterns underneath a foreign accent. That would be left to the Latin participants, namely Penélope Cruz, Jordi Molla, Miguel Sandoval, Jennifer Gimenez, and others. Cruz, however, proved especially egregious in the part of Jung’s Colombian wife Mirtha, a shrill-toned shrew that, as the story progressed, became impossible to tame.

Penelope Cruz, Johnny Depp & Jordi Molla party hearty in ‘Blow’ (2001)

On the other hand, reliable and complimentary support would come from the likes of the excellent Paul Reubens (the former Peewee Herman) as Derek Foreal (no, really, for real!), Jung’s middleman in La-La-Land; Cliff Curtis as Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, the head of the Medellin cartel; a sullen Ray Liotta (GoodFellas) as Jung’s old man; and young Emma Roberts (Julia Roberts’ niece) as Jung’s daughter Kristina Sunshine. This was a “reel” family affair (no pun intended).

Another, more important discovery was Johnny’s apparent concern for the downtrodden, i.e., the lowlifes, the miscreants, the so-called “scum of the earth” — people best left to wallow in their own misdeeds. This “empathy” for the down and out, for lack of a better word, would manifest itself on-and-off the screen in future portrayals that would bring the restless actor low box-office receipts but much professional satisfaction.

(End of Part Five)

To be continued….

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

An Artist’s Life for Me — Ten Motion Pictures That Ask the Question: ‘Does Life Imitate Art?’ (Part Three)

Jeffrey Wright, David Bowie, Gary Oldman, Dennis Hopper in ‘Basquiat’ (1996)

The battle for self-expression and the yearning that artists have, within themselves, to place their thoughts, their feelings — indeed, their very soul and essence — onto sculpture or canvas can be an all-consuming endeavor. How does one convey that which is so deeply felt, that internal longing to break free of one’s physical confines, and perpetuate a moment in time?

That is what transforms the merely good artists into truly great ones. But the quest to achieve that end can only lead to personal sacrifice. Sometimes, the sacrifice can be to one’s mental state; at other times, it can mean giving up one’s corporal ability to create; and still others may have to forgo their very lives for their art.

That is the price, to put it plainly, for artistic immortality.

Basquiat (1996)

He was born in Brooklyn, New York, to middle-class comfort. Upon quitting high school, he lived and worked on the Lower East Side — literally, in the streets — during the height and rediscovery of graffiti art and its equally viable cousins, street art and visual art.

His name was Jean-Michel Basquiat, and he was of Haitian and Puerto Rican descent. He was fluent in several languages, including French and Spanish. He rose to fleeting fame and fortune among the glitterati, as his participation in a highly publicized 1980 “Times Square Show” would make known. Yet he experienced a precipitous fall, as well as an early death, at age 27, in 1988 of a drug overdose.

His all-too-limited but event-filled life and career became the subject of the biopic Basquiat (1996). Did you say, “Suffering for his art?” Indeed we did! And Basquiat was a walking, talking textbook example of the suffering artist in form, shape, substance, and style. But did he SUFFER for his art? That’s a good question! According to Art History: The View from the West, Volume Two, “Although he was untrained and wanted to make ‘paintings that look as if they were made by a child,’ Basquiat was a sophisticated artist. He carefully studied the Abstract Expressionists, the late paintings of Picasso, and [the work of] Dubuffet, among others.”

The film that was based on his art and life starred the equally young and charismatic Jeffrey Wright (Angels in America, The Hunger Games, Only Lovers Left Alive, and HBO’s Westworld), who gives a remarkable performance as the titular soft-spoken artiste. Wright is soooo good in the role that one quickly forgets that he is acting a part: we get to dislike, and almost hate, his self-destructive behavior as well as his imprudent lifestyle and damaging personal relationships.

A young Jeffrey Wright as the equally youthful Jean-Michel Basquiat in ‘Basquiat’

In fact, thirty years after Basquiat’s death an article appeared in the July/August 2018 issue of The Atlantic, entitled “The Enigma of the Man Behind the $110 Million Painting.” The subtitle of the piece posed the question: “Was Basquiat an artist, an art star, or just a celebrity?” We are still struggling with those labels to this day!

Since Basquiat’s untimely passing, the article goes on to state, the price for his works has “climbed steadily upward,” but that few of those “in the know” can explain its worth as art, or what exactly makes his art so valuable. The early fascination with his paintings and the undue praise heaped upon them has been deemed an over-exaggeration; that their childlike scribbling and so-called “primitivism” inaccurately (or unfairly) reflected the true substance and quality of the youth who created them.

Basquiat’s canvases, the author of the article Stephen Metcalf suggests, “were made by a young man, barely out of his teens, who never lost a teenager’s contempt for respectability. Trying to assert art-historical importance on the paintings’ behalf, a critic comes up against their obvious lack of self-importance. Next to their louche irreverence, the language surrounding them has felt clumsy and overwrought from the beginning. What little we know for sure about Basquiat can be said simply: An extraordinary painterly sensitivity expressed itself in the person of a young black male, the locus of terror and misgiving in a racist society. That, and rich people love to collect his work. We have had a hard time making these two go together easily. But so did he.”

Love it or loathe it, Metcalf’s harsh but earnest assessment of the artist’s work came many years after Basquiat’s East Village heyday. While providing some retrospective value, apart from this piece we must look closely at the film itself, which was made not eight years after Basquiat’s demise by one who knew him personally: director and co-writer Julian Schnabel. In doing so, we are faced with a decision: whether Basquiat was or was not “the real voice of the gutter,” as one of his many admirers declares; or simply a streetwise black youth who failed to develop his art beyond its nascent state.

Advertisements at the time of the movie’s release hinted that Jean-Michel Basquiat (according to a New Yorker press release) was “this generation’s James Dean.” I’m not so sure that’s an accurate depiction of the man. However, what this semi-fictionalized account seems to do is associate the artist’s fleeting connections to established pros, such as Andy Warhol and his crowd, with his abrupt success.

‘Basquiat’ poster art

In the film, when Warhol dies suddenly after a post-operative procedure to remove his gallbladder, Basquiat’s world starts to fall apart. In truth, let’s say that Basquiat had been doing drugs and freebasing cocaine more-or-less on a routine basis. While living on the edge, Warhol’s passing only pushed Basquiat further over the cliff.

To quote from Metcalf’s perceptive Atlantic article: “after he became famous, Basquiat went, in quick and ghastly succession, from sweet East Village magpie to café-society boor to dead.” The film follows this sad trajectory religiously and to the letter. What it fails to explore, in sum, was Basquiat’s effect on the overall art world; if his peculiar style of street art (one he rejected over time, and also tried to destroy) would result in a school of eager followers.

In real life, Basquiat could barely draw figures accurately. When he turned to fellow black performers (e.g., jazz artists Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie) and black athletes as models, the poignancy of his creations could finally be discerned. To equate or contrast what he freely drew with modern masterpieces (for instance, those of Pablo Picasso) does him a disservice. If anything, Basquiat was a uniquely raw talent, albeit a poorly developed one. Perhaps this very poverty inherent in his abilities became the very thing that made his work so accessible to the average Joe.

Directed and co-written by fellow Brooklynite Mr. Schnabel, who was also a painter and innovator and no stranger to the artistic milieu (he, too, profited handsomely from his work), the movie is replete with familiar faces in supporting roles. Among the talents involved are such bona fide scene-stealers as Gary Oldman as Albert Milo (a Schnabel stand-in), Michael Wincott as René Ricard, a fresh-faced Benicio Del Toro as Basquiat’s friend Benny Dalmau, Claire Forlani as girlfriend Gina Cardinale, Dennis Hopper as art collector Bruno Bischofberger, Christopher Walken as the Interviewer, Courtney Love as “Big Pink,” Tatum O’Neal as Cynthia Kruger, and of course the enigmatic David Bowie (wearing an atrociously ill-fitting wig) in a very individualized, fey take on pop-art specialist Andy Warhol, one of Basquiat’s mentors.

On a personal note, I accidentally ran into Warhol himself many years ago, in Midtown Manhattan, during the early-1980s. I remember his hair as stringy and bleached pure white on top; underneath, it was jet black. And Warhol was very tall and thin, with a pasty visage and spindly legs that seemed never to end. That Bowie captured his other-worldly look and distant, faraway gaze is a tribute to the late multi-talented musician.

Pollock (2000)

Marcia Gay Harden & Ed Harris in ‘Pollock’

Similar in content to Basquiat (that is, the rise and fall of a notable, and perversely original, American artist), this warts-and-all portrait of avant-garde painter Jackson Pollock in Pollock (2000) is a worthy film effort by first-time director and long-time screen actor Ed Harris.

The bald-pated Harris (The Right Stuff, The Abyss, Snowpiercer, HBO’s Westworld), who also starred as the volatile abstract expressionist, spared little in depicting the alcoholic rages of the gifted but deeply flawed, “clinically neurotic” artist.

Pollock developed a spontaneous style of painting known as “drip-technique,” which was variously described as “volcanic” and “full of fire.” He gained fame and a reasonable amount of notoriety in the 1940s for his brash, impulsive approach to modern art. That he took the art world by storm is an understatement. Today, Pollock is considered by many art historians to be an innovative but ultimately tragic figure.

His equally rocky relationships to family (he was the youngest of five brothers, all of whom abandoned him), and especially to the women in his life — among them, his long-suffering wife Lee Krasner (played by Marcia Gay Harden, who copped a Best Supporting Actress Award for her role); and art collector and millionaire socialite Peggy Guggenheim (Amy Madigan, Harris’ real-life wife) — were fraught with ups and downs and fueled by his exhaustive drinking bouts and manic-depressive mood swings.

Ed Harris as lookalike painter Jackson Pollock

Too, Pollock’s love-hate relationship with friends and close relations is captured in a particularly raucous Thanksgiving Day gathering, where the artist literally explodes with rage as he overturns the dinner table (with turkey and all the trimmings intact). All of which are exclusively captured by Harris and screenwriters Barbara Turner and Susan Emshwiller. Jennifer Connelly played one of his lovers, the artist Ruth Kligman.

Pollock was killed in 1956 in a car crash at age 44 near his Long Island home. The crash also took the life of Kligman’s friend, Edith Metzger (actress Sally Murphy).

The resultant Pollock project took up more than 10 years of Harris’ life, who immersed himself in the late artist’s painting style and milieu, even down to smoking unfiltered Camel cigarettes much favored by Pollock. “Pollock said several times that he couldn’t separate himself from his art,” Harris indicated to Edward Hellmore of The Guardian. “Not knowing much about modern art when I began to read about him, it was much more his persona — his struggles as a human being — that was interesting to me.”

Significantly, Harris was urged by his own father to research the life of Jackson Pollock, who the elder Harris insisted bore a striking resemblance to his son Ed. Harris agreed wholeheartedly and to which we are all indebted. He devoured all the available material, especially the biography Jackson Pollock: An American Saga by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White. He even took up painting and mimicked Pollock’s drip technique in a studio he had built in his Malibu home.

Ed Harris (as Jackson Pollock) in ‘Pollock’ (2000, directed by Ed Harris) Photo: Photofest/Sony Pictures Classics

Discovering that he and Pollock had a lot in common — TOO much in common, it turned out, which included the imbibing of spirits — Harris made up his mind to not only act in the film but direct it as well. “It wasn’t intended to be my picture,” Harris mused at the time, “but I was so intimate with the material that I didn’t want to hand it over [to someone else].”

In the movie, Pollock’s “desperate need for approval” overwhelmed him at every point. When he finally achieved recognition, he felt even more isolated and desperate. “It wasn’t what he thought it would be,” Harris stressed. Fame is never what it’s cranked up to be!

 Overall, Harris’ film project is the closest we’ve come to fully capturing an artist’s actual working methods and technique. There’s a fascinating scene late in the movie that immortalizes the artist’s surly encounter with filmmaker Hans Namuth (Norbert Weisser), who tries to get Pollock to recreate his style for posterity. Pollock feels inhibited by his presence and is unable to “perform” before the cameras. It’s because of this encounter and Namuth’s resultant “action photo” of Pollock at work (reproduced by Brazilian artist Vik Muniz, in 1997, as part of his series “Pictures of Chocolate”) that solidified Pollock’s reputation. 

In the same Art History: A View of the West, Volume Two tome (by University of Kansas Professor of Art History Emerita Marilyn Stokstad), we read that Pollock “experimented with spraying and dripping industrial paints during his studies with [the Mexican muralist David] Siquieros. He was also, according to his wife, a ‘jazz addict’ who would spend hours listening to the explosively improvised bebop of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.” 

In their mutual love of jazz and all things avant-garde, Pollock and Basquiat, although they thrived about thirty years apart, were both very much  of like minds. Another fascinating and somewhat overlooked connection point is the fact that both lead actors, Jeffrey Wright and Ed Harris, appeared together in HBO’s acclaimed sci-fi series Westworld, as the android Bernard Lowe and the mysterious Man in Black, respectively.

Frida (2002)

Mexican mural painter Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina) places his weary head next to that of Frida Kahlo (Salma Hayek) in ‘Frida’

Here is another cinematic biopic (with an appropriate one-word title) in the modern-day trend of presenting celebrated personalities and/or artists from the past as (quote) real people with real-life hang-ups, issues, and other so-called “defects” — to include (among them) bisexuality, alcoholism, slovenliness, and infidelity, along with radically opposing political viewpoints.

Not that any of these defects prevented them from realizing their artistic aims. It’s just that coming as Frida did on the heels of Ed Harris’ Pollock, the life and naïve folk art of famed Mexican painter Frida Kahlo — excellently portrayed on the screen by Mexican-American actress Salma Hayek (of Lebanese descent on her father’s side and a dead ringer for Kahlo); and helmed by veteran opera, theater, and film director Julie Taymor (The Lion King on Broadway, The Magic Flute at the Metropolitan Opera) — refuses to take wing.

Frida Kahlo & actress Salma Hayek as ‘Frida’ (Photo: Nick Harvey/REX/Shutterstock)

Produced as well as slaved over by the maverick Ms. Hayek (another bold and fairly historic move on Hollywood’s part) and featuring another of those “all-star” lineup casts, to include the likes of Ashley Judd, Antonio Banderas, and Roger Rees, the film races along at a breakneck speed in an attempt to cover as much of Frida’s short yet significant artistic and personal life as it possibly can.

Certainly her on-again, off-again, on-again relationship with the womanizing, large-scale mural painter Diego Rivera (a particularly adept Alfred Molina, measurably more handsome than the real-life Rivera was reputed to be), her tryst with notorious Russian revolutionary and Marxist theorist Leon Trotsky (a bespectacled Geoffrey Rush), and her debilitating bus accident and subsequent ill health, are given only as much detail as a two-hour flick can allow.

Meanwhile, Frida sits and paints with her back strapped to a wheelchair. Her paintings and efforts at completing them dissolve, during the course of the picture, into actual scenes depicting major and minor events in her “reel” life.

Painting from life: Salma Hayek as Frida Kahlo

If there is anything going for this fast-and-loose biopic is the fact that Hayek bears an impressive and uncanny resemblance to the real Frida Kahlo. And, yes, the real Frida was a headstrong and driven force of nature — especially where it concerned her art and those numerous self-portraits in differing states of repose and/or native dress. Kahlo created a hugely individual style with little to no connection to Western European ideas or to the prevailing (at the time) Modernist trend.

Of late, the movie has achieved a significant degree of controversy chiefly for its distributor, Miramax, and the man holding the cash bag, Mr. Harvey Weinstein. According to published reports and various accounts, Ms. Hayek had accused Mr. Weinstein of demanding sexual favors from her in order to put up the financing her picture required. One of those demands involved a full-frontal nude sex scene with another woman (the aforementioned Ms. Judd). For his part, Weinstein has denied the accusations, although he only came through with the theatrical release upon the scene being filmed.

Another sex scene, this time involving Ms. Hayek as Frida and Mr. Rush as the nervous Trotsky, was purportedly inserted posthaste into the drama, but as part of the initial screenplay. In this instance, Kahlo’s bisexuality has stood in direct contrast to the alleged facts as they were known to have occurred. That Frida’s art thrived, despite the fact she was a woman invading and partaking in a so-termed “male profession,” stands as a tribute to her tenacity and fierce determination.

In comparison to the mixed heritage of Jean-Michael Basquiat, Frida Kahlo was born “of a German father and a part-indigenous Mexican mother,” which gave her work a distinctive footprint in both cultures. To quote once more from the thoroughly exhaustive and well-documented Art History: A View from the West, Volume Two, “The value of Kahlo’s art, apart from its memorable self-expression, lies in how it investigates and lays bare larger issues of identity.”

Scored by Oscar-winning composer Elliot Goldenthal (Ms. Taymor’s real-life husband), the concluding song, “Burn It Blue,” is performed by Brazilian songwriter and singer Caetano Veloso and Mexican-American singer-actress Lila Downs. Edward Norton, who plays a rather low-key Nelson Rockefeller, another art-loving financier who has the dubious honor of having destroyed Diego Rivera’s monumental Rockefeller Center-based mural, also contributed unofficially to the screenplay.

(To be continued….)

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

Street Life: The Politically Incorrect World of Animator Ralph Bakshi

Cartoonist, artist, writer, producer and animator Ralph Bakshi

Cartoon Caricatures

For those who grew up in the inner cities — and by that, I mean the worst parts of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx, to encompass the streets of Philadelphia, the segregated neighborhoods of Washington, D.C., and the over-crowded tenements of Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, and East L.A. — the pervasive violence, the lack of upward mobility, the profanity and discrimination, the sexist treatment of women, the drugs, prostitution, and out-and-out squalor and despair were an inescapable way of life. (If you don’t believe me, check out the HBO series The Deuce.)

Add to these an irreverent outlook, a comically skewed yet perceptive observation of humanity with all its failings and faults; of basic “survival mode” amid the stench of neglect and decay, and you begin to understand what drove the art of a young Jewish immigrant growing up in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn during the 1940s and 50s.

For artist and animator Ralph Bakshi, irreverence toward the status quo (with his middle finger prominently raised in direct response to it) was a natural form of self-expression, a method for combating the boredom and loneliness of line-drawing or cell-painting — and of perfecting his own off-kilter approach to what nowadays is known as the politically incorrect.

The young Ralph Bakshi, drawing away in his studio

Nothing in Bakshi’s background, which manifested itself in his copious artwork, was commonplace or mundane. Quite the opposite: whether his characters were anthropomorphized animal figures or highly-caricatured examples of the human kind, for better or worse they lived and breathed the urban street life, something the young Bakshi was intimately acquainted with. They throbbed with vibrancy and authenticity — even if that so-termed authenticity verged on the exaggerated and extreme.

In today’s contentiously politicized atmosphere, an artist of Bakshi’s ilk, and intensely polemical output and worldview, would be hailed as a visionary. His work would be broadcast on primetime cable with the same loyalty and dedication that have made such programs as the Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim, HBO’s Westworld, Black Mirror, or the award-winning series The Handmaid’s Tale the critical bonanzas they’ve become.

But back in the 1970s and 80s, when Bakshi first gained notoriety by depicting outright lust, loose morals, avarice, intolerance, violence, and racial bigotry in full-length cartoon fashion (Fritz the Cat, 1972; Heavy Traffic, 1973), he was looked upon with disdain if not outright revulsion as the architect of animated subversion. By capturing the stereotypical behavior of the racially mixed minorities he had grown up with, and by imposing his own personal (some would say “offensive”) stamp and pulp style to animation, Bakshi revealed the true “colors,” such as they were, of big-city life and the people who populated it.

“Fritz the Cat” (1972), based on Robert Crumb’s underground comic

Rotoscopy, or the process of tracing live-action models and settings from real-life individuals or photographs, became a workable (albeit crudely stylized) means of translating Bakshi’s vision into actuality. The later introduction of computer graphics and CGI-animated features, however, only emphasized the fact that what Bakshi had accomplished at the time clearly pointed in that direction. He once complained, in an online interview, that he was heavily criticized for having used the rotoscopy method once employed by such pioneers as Max and Dave Fleischer and Walt Disney, which modern computer animation has taken full advantage of. His reaction: he expressed excitement at the prospect that he, a simple cartoonist and writer, was the path-breaker.

In the early days of his career, Bakshi toiled at Terrytoons and Hanna-Barbera, while later branching out with his own makeshift studio. He worked, when work was indeed available, for such big-name outfits as Paramount, Warner Brothers, and Twentieth Century-Fox, but never with lavish budgets and always on the brink of ruination. If the results remained stillborn or obviously rushed, their very crudity and inconclusiveness lent his features a degree of quaintness and immediacy — that is to say, of living in the moment.

Not a Second to Spare

The sultry Holli Would (voiced by Kim Basinger) from the live action-animated feature “Cool World” (1992)

This feeling of living in the moment was unlike anything one had gotten from earlier animated productions. The influence of New Hollywood, and the newfound freedom of expression and permissiveness that came with it (“sex, love and dope” were some of the themes), served as both a godsend and a curse to Sixties and Seventies filmmakers such as Bakshi.

Along with the animator, a new generation of cinematic entrepreneurs (i.e., Arthur Penn, Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, John Milius, John Cassavetes, John Carpenter, Paul Schrader, and others) had come of age in the wake of this new open-mindedness. As a group, they succeeded in tearing open the motion-picture envelope of what could be seen and heard on the big screen.

Bakshi, as the only animator, was a key contributor to this idea of a more open cinematic experience, the literal exposure of urban myths regarding our beloved American society — a cruel, dishonest, and demeaning one, from the point of view of the oppressed, which included such insalubrious characterizations as street hustlers, hookers, bums, vagrants, drug dealers, low-life types, pot-smokers, corrupt police officials, innocent bystanders, the mob, high school dropouts and college kids, and so on (see Fritz the Cat; Coonskin, 1975; and Hey Good Lookin’, 1982).

“Hey Good Lookin” (1982), Bakshi’s semi-autobiographical feature

Ralph Bakshi’s so-called genius, then, was in taking the side of the not-so-casual observer. His “camera lens” focused primarily on subject matter and theme, along with their accompanying surroundings — aspects that, in today’s mixed-up crazy world, have endeared him to a whole new generation of film fans.

His overall film work (yes, even the less characteristic sci-fi/fantasy features) are a symbiotic blend of actual street sounds and competing voices, mixed together with whatever-was-available background footage, still images, out-of-focus snapshots, and flavorful period music. The stunning visuals, many if not all of them individually and painstakingly traced from life, attest to the director, screenwriter, and animator’s innate ability to make use of existing material.

He is never to be confused with the likes of Ed Wood, who despite whatever outward enthusiasm he might have demonstrated in his amateurish film productions, could never be considered an artist. Bakshi was, and remains, an artist through and through.

The interracial relationship depicted in “Heavy Traffic” (1973), with its mixture of live-action (background) with animated foreground figures

Not that his on-the-fly working methods would be mistaken for professionally-finished “quality” product. In stretching the limits between the real and the imaginary, Bakshi frequently struggled with budgets and lack of funding. More often than not, he failed, to a large extent, to bring his vision to completion. Although less polished than the majority of his contemporaries’ work, to this writer (and, let’s face it, to most viewers) the less polished and “finished” Bakshi’s product felt the more revelatory and genuine they became. Indeed, their very imperfections proved more artful, more thrilling, and, yes, more true to life than anything introduced by the Disney Studios.

Certainly the textures were there: the sense of an incomplete masterpiece-in-the-making; of further insights to come (then again, maybe not); the inescapable feeling of imbalance, of rawness and raunchiness; of disproportion and of sketchiness, of living on the edge or whatever else he could think up.

The copious bloodletting and perpetuation of ethnic and cultural stereotypes were there in spades (no pun intended). Add to them the clash of varying styles and formats within the same picture frame, and the incompatible combination of realistic drawings with cartoony creations — again, the intervention of real life into that of the make-believe film world.

This clash of styles would continue to be a hallmark of many of his productions, in particular that of Coonskin (1975) and the later Cool World (1992). Adult-oriented plots, defiantly for (and about) mature audiences and the all-too-serious situations that abounded in his films, along with their ribald humor — these were the qualities that set Bakshi apart from every other animator of his period.

The controversial and racially charged “Coonskin” (1975)

We need only mention the extraordinary use of Nazi propaganda footage from pre-World War II Germany to entice rebellion (Wizards, 1977); the medieval storming of a rotoscoped castle, taken wholly from MGM’s Ivanhoe (The Lord of the Rings, 1978); and entire scenes lifted from Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (Wizards again), or the tracing of Saruman from Charlton Heston’s Moses in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (The Lord of the Rings). Were these blatant infringements of copyrighted material, or were they Bakshi’s personal homage to classic films and the individuals who made them?

Pot smoking, sexual promiscuity, philandering, fornication, drug addiction, hustling: indeed, all levels of documented human behavior were explored and exploited, as unsavory as they appeared to some. All of these facets simply emboldened Bakshi, who conveyed the deeply flawed personalities of his creations as they were. But the empathy he displayed for them nonetheless shines through the muck. No one is perfect, in his assessment, and no one is less flawed than anyone else. We’re all human, or inhuman if you prefer. That’s the lesson one learns when watching one of his pictures.

A true original and an independent hero to writers and art directors alike, Bakshi’s films are fascinating from the point of view of their uniqueness. His characters float in a surrealistic environment of their own formation, a hallucinatory topsy-turvy world as unseemly and disjointed as an LSD trip. Yet, there is something poetic to his work, the dialogue (as coarse and vulgar as it gets) is no more shocking than, say, the harshest of David Mamet or the gutter language employed on cable network programs.

His influences extend from the aforementioned brothers Max and Dave Fleischer to Walt Disney; from Walter Lantz, Bob Clampett, and Ollie Johnston to Tex Avery, Ub Iwerks, Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng, Paul Terry, and the underground comic book artist Robert Crumb, among others. To such established cartoonists as Milt Caniff, Al Capp, Al Hirschfeld, and Chic Young; even to comic and pulp creators Harvey Kurtzman, Jack Davis, Lin Carter, and Jim Steranko.

Robert Crumb (self-portrait), underground comic book artist, writer, musician, and creator of “Fritz the Cat”

Bakshi’s films remain as relevant in today’s society as they ever were. For reasons already noted, we continue to face the same age-old problems of race, sexism, drug addiction, corruption, organized crime, gun violence, inequality, and such as many of his characters have experienced — with an ever-increasing lack of faith in our institutions to control or combat them.

His films have proven especially popular with young adults, now coming of age at a perilous point in our history (and who, ironically, happen to see themselves depicted on the screen); teenagers in love, interracial relationships, and gender bending; kids in trouble leading aimless lives, bigoted mind-sets, and families squabbling over who-knows-what.

Bakshi once stated that he came to the animation business at a time when animation was in its death throes. The art was dying, he claimed, and he was right. He may also have been the catalyst who led the charge in its revivification during the modern era.

Always a voracious reader, Bakshi wrote about the people he knew: the blacks, the Puerto Ricans, the Italians, the Jews, and the other ethnicities in his neighborhood. He had a fondness for their culture and how different or alike they were from one another. Above all, he reveled in their individuality and distinctiveness, their abundant love of life, and most characteristically their music. He felt a responsibility to discuss these folks in his work, to talk about their lives, to capture their complexities in timeless of-the-era fashion that still resonates with fans to this day.

In future installments of this series, we will be looking at each of his films individually, and discuss their merits and deficits, as well as their continued significance in and application for our troubled times.

(End of Part One)

To be continued….

Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes

An Artist’s Life for Me — Ten Motion Pictures That Ask the Question: ‘Does Life Imitate Art?’ (Part Two)

“Lust for Life,” directed by Vincente Minnelli, with Kirk Douglas as van Gogh

The troubled artist and the work he or she produces, or attempts to produce, are favorite themes of motion pictures devoted to their lives and loves, and to the sacrifices they’ve made for their art.

Those who are not blessed with the God-given talent for creating art are frequently puzzled as to what drives these artists to dig so deep down into their souls that they damage their physical health — or what little of it they had to begin with. Hand in hand with these ailments, their mental faculties are oftentimes disturbed, much to their detriment and to irreversible effect.

When these ailments are transferred to the silver screen, viewers can’t help but feel as though they are voyeurs partaking of these cinematic re-enactments. This brings us to the next batch of features about the artistic life and its consequences.

Lust for Life (1956)

One of the prime examples of the artist who suffered, deliberately and repeatedly, in order to produce great art (or any art, for that matter) involves the Post-Impressionist Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh (pronounced “Hawh” in the original Dutch, with an emphasis on the guttural, hard “H” sound).

We are all familiar with van Gogh and the stories of his obsessive-compulsive behavior and explosive temper. The well-told tale of how, unable to sell his work or make a living from his paintings, the harried Vincent ended up committing suicide after countless bouts of depression, psychosis, lead poisoning, alcohol, and such. How he sliced off an earlobe after arguing with the equally intractable Paul Gauguin. And how, after his death, his works were eventually “discovered” and made famous the world over.

From such a story, more stories arose and took hold of the reader-listener. One of them, writer Irving Stone’s 1934 biographic book Lust for Life, formed the basis for a motion picture of the same name. MGM’s widescreen Metrocolor® production of Lust for Life (1956) featured a talented lineup headed by the scorching Kirk Douglas as van Gogh, Anthony Quinn as fellow firebrand Paul Gauguin, James Donald as Vincent’s art dealer brother Theo, Henry Daniell as their rigid father Theodorus van Gogh, Everett Sloane as Dr. Gachet, Noel Purcell as Anton Mauve, and Pamela Brown as Christine, with Niall MacGinnis, Madge Kennedy, Jill Bennett, Lionel Jeffries, and Laurence Naismith in other roles.

Vincent (Kirk Douglas) paints furiously while Gauguin (Anthony Quinn), standing over him, fumes at his efforts

Stylishly directed by Vincente Minnelli, with a jarringly powerful film score by Miklós Rózsa, the movie follows a familiar trajectory of events leading up to Vincent’s premature passing. (Stone also authored the 1961 historical novel, The Agony and the Ecstasy, about the High-Renaissance sculptor and artist Michelangelo’s struggles with Pope Julius II to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the subject of our previous post.) The outstanding cinematography was provided by Russell Harlan and Freddie Young, with superb recreations of many of van Gogh’s magnificent portraits, still-lives, and landscapes.

The screenplay, by former radio broadcaster and writer Norman Corwin, emphasized van Gogh’s growing mental instability and mounting frustrations with his lot in life, sometimes in straight dramatic displays, other times coupled with over-the-top histrionics. Take, for instance, the notorious “hand-over-the-lit-candle” incident, a legendary trope among movie buffs that has been savagely mocked ever since its initial introduction (especially by impressionist Frank Gorshin, who perfected Douglas’ clenched-jaw, gritting-of-teeth acting style).

Vincent (Kirk Douglas) with Gauguin (Anthony Quinn) in Arles, France

Starting out as an itinerant minister, the film portrays van Gogh as an abject “failure” in this regard, but as an individual with a social conscience and an immense capacity for work and personal sacrifice. He was also an extremely lonely, boorish human being. Rejected outright by one of his female cousins, van Gogh runs off to Gay Paree (at his brother Theo’s suggestion) where he takes up painting. By the way, his art-dealer sibling, as compassionate and accommodating a soul as one would ever hope for, provides Vincent with monetary assistance whenever possible.

Unfortunately, van Gogh is rejected as well by the academic art world for his undisciplined working methods, primitive painting skills, and skewed proportions (ironically, the very things he would be most known for). Vincent’s dependency on his brother only aggravates an already explosive situation.

Consequently, both Vincent and his newfound friend, the self-absorbed, bullying painter Gauguin, retreat to Arles in the south of France (again, the idea was Theo’s) where, for a time, they bolster each other’s work (and ego). Soon, Gauguin realizes that Vincent is unstable, while the impatient, restless van Gogh — as much of a control freak as he is an obsessive-compulsive — nags Gauguin to drink. The two men argue incessantly, which ends badly for van Gogh. The scene of the slicing off of Vincent’s ear, shot off-camera but within an excruciatingly descriptive sound design (bolstered by Rózsa’s sharp-edged music), is memorable more for the self-loathing it suggests rather than what is actually shown of the self-mutilation.

The performances throughout are commendable, however, with Kirk taking the acting (or, rather, OVER-acting) honors, although Quinn as Gauguin copped a Best Supporting Actor Award at the Oscars. Still, this is Douglas’ show all the way. The fact that he spoke fluent French (the film was shot on location, as depicted in the copious exteriors) and bore an impressive likeness to the real van Gogh (with red beard and straw hat intact) only added to its so-called “authenticity.” Douglas played on the audience’s sympathy, which works for a time but can get downright cloying when he (in character) constantly grasps his head and runs his hands through his cropped hair for the hundredth time. Sadly, this is what 1950s Hollywood took for its depiction of mental illness.

Publicity shot for “Lust for Life” of Vincent van Gogh and Kirk Douglas, side by side

Not quite as authentic as well was Scotsman James Donald as Theo. Donald is a tad too rigid and refined, with a typical Anglican reserve to his bearing that was not out of place in such later military fare as The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and The Great Escape (1963). But here, one longed for him to open up the floodgates, to show some fire and spirit. Historically, under the upstanding, above-board exterior Theo was just as volatile and driven as his older brother. This is hardly explored at all; what we get instead is sympathy, sympathy, and, oh, yes, more sympathy.

Vincent’s controversial suicide and bedside death are also shown, albeit to suit the dramatic purposes of the story. (And there is no mention of Theo’s own passing six months later from dementia and paralysis, an inexcusable oversight.) Modern research has shown, however, that Vincent may not have taken his own life after all, as previously thought, but could have been shot quite by accident by some mischievous teenagers in the French village of Auvers-sur-Oise where he lived and worked.

Besides the aforementioned gorgeous photography, the best thing about Lust for Life is Douglas’ uncanny, spot-on portrait of the artist, the quintessential case study of bipolar affliction.

The Moon and Sixpence (1946)

Herbert Marshall (l.) speaking with George Sanders as Charles Strickland, a stand-in for Gauguin, in “The Moon and Sixpence”

We move on from Vincent’s emotional foibles to a movie about Paul — Paul Gauguin, that is, the Parisian-born Post-Impressionist and purveyor of primitivism. Did you know that Gauguin’s life was dramatized long before van Gogh’s (in a highly romanticized manner, of course) and by another actor? Yes, the Russian-born British citizen George Sanders portrayed Monsieur Gauguin — or rather, an artificial version of the same.

The film was entitled The Moon and Sixpence (1946). Released independently by United Artists and directed by Albert Lewin (The Picture of Dorian Gray), the movie was based on a novel by William Somerset Maugham, first published in 1919.  Both the novel and the movie are fictionalized accounts of the author’s friendship and acquaintance with the reclusive, egomaniacal yet world-renowned artist, painter, and sculptor Gauguin.

In this black-and-white feature (the restored print has some amber-tinted Tahitian scenes, along with a brilliantly lit Technicolor finale), Gauguin is renamed Charles Strickland, a bored London stockbroker who longs to leave the dull confines of British domesticity and bourgeois respectability in order to paint his innermost desires. Sanders gave the artist in question a cautiously hulking, brooding quality. He also dies of leprosy, another fictional slant to the story (by way of punishment for his sins?). The real Gauguin was suspected of having (and spreading) syphilis. As Strickland nears his own end, he orders the natives to burn his final masterpiece, so that little to nothing of his life’s work is left behind. What was all that about suffering for one’s art?

George Sanders as the fictional artist Charles Strickland

The real-life Gauguin was a staid, middle-class financier (if at a lower hierarchic level) who, when the bottom fell out of the market of his life, turned to painting as a full-time livelihood. He left his solidly middle-class wife and family to eventually make his way to Paris, then to Martinique and eventually to faraway French Polynesia, where he doted on the local flora and fauna, to include the lovely young Tahitian lasses who figured so prominently in his work.

In the movie, the author Somerset Maugham is called Geoffrey Wolfe and was portrayed by London native Herbert Marshall, who appeared in the same role, and in the same year (but under the author’s real name), in a Tyrone Power-Anne Baxter vehicle for Twentieth Century-Fox called The Razor’s Edge — a later Somerset Maugham narrative about a soul- searching angry young man looking for meaning in his life, and in the lives of his filthy rich society friends.

Vincent & Theo (1990)

Tim Roth as van Gogh in Robert Altman’s more faithful “Vincent & Theo”

Directed by the independent-minded auteur Robert Altman (M*A*S*H*, Nashville, The Player), this two-hour feature starred the versatile Tim Roth as van Gogh and Paul Rhys as his brother Theo.

It’s basically a Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau re-evaluation of Vincent and Theo’s perpetually intertwined relationship to each other, documented (or not) in those hundreds upon hundreds of letters they wrote. Many, if not most, of Theo’s correspondence to Vincent were destroyed by Vincent himself. Although art historians and the public in general have access only to Vincent’s side of the exchange, one can still get a more than complete picture of their association via the circumstances in which the brothers addressed their thoughts and related to one another.

In a word, they were inseparable. Director Altman, in a making-of mini-documentary, mentions that they were very much like the Corsican Brothers, i.e. if one got sick, the other threw up. When Vincent died, Theo died, too. They shared a commonality of interest in art, due to two uncles who worked in the art field. Consequently, Theo became an art dealer and, as noted in many accounts, introduced his brother to the leading art figures of the day, among them Cézanne, Rousseau, Pissaro, Seurat, and, of course, Gauguin.

Equal time is given to both brothers’ predicaments and to the respective, symbiotic parts they played in one another’s lives. The closeness, fierceness, mutual admiration, rivalry, and out-and-out disgust they displayed are more fully explored in Altman’s film than in Minnelli’s standard Hollywood biopic.

Vincent’s coarseness and slovenliness are emphasized as well, sometimes for contrast against the clean-shaven and dignified Theo’s appearance, but more often to place the artist within the context of his art (which, we are told pictorially, served as a projection of his inner torment). Vincent lived as he wanted, and his dirty, disheveled, dissipated lifestyle, stained clothing and teeth, abrasive behavior, and poverty-stricken habitation became the manifestation of what viewers generally suspected an unappreciated artist’s life to be.

Theo (Paul Rhys) is approached by brother Vincent (Tim Roth) in “Vincent & Theo”

Credit for this outstanding personification goes to Tim Roth, who literally becomes the suffering artist Vincent. There’s nothing likable about this individual at all. We see Roth eat his paints; he even drinks the turpentine he uses to thin out those paints — heck, right out of the canister, mind you! If obsession is the key to this character’s turmoil, then Roth has earned his keep. This is as close to the way the real van Gogh may have behaved as one is likely to get — maybe too close for the audience’s comfort.

In contrast, Paul Rhys as Theo is the exact opposite of his brother. Tall, slim, and oh-so-proper and prim, Rhys wears his respectability on his sleeve. He also loves his older brother to death with an unending verve and passion, and will do anything to help him. Theo tries, mostly in vain, to find a buyer for Vincent’s work, yet Vincent accuses him (rather unfairly) of not doing enough to aid him in that respect. Is Theo his brother’s keeper? No matter how much Theo tries to prop his brother up and get him to stand on his own two feet, Vincent plops back down to wallow in self-pity and self-hate.

Neither brother comes off well in this showcase. After two hours of this (the feature was originally intended as a four-hour-long miniseries for television), viewers are ready to throw up their hands and yell, “Enough, already! We get it, we get it! Artists suffer for their art!”

Theo (second from right) gazes at an art work, while Gauguin (second from left) watches at back

In sharp contrast to the above, the mincing portrait we get of Gauguin (French-Bulgarian actor Wladimir Yordanoff) is an unfortunate misstep. Unlike the lustful, violent, boastful, larger-than-life Anthony Quinn figure, here, Gauguin is played as more of a wimp, as personality-less putty in Vincent’s manipulative hands and utterly lacking in energy and vibrancy. No “lust for life” in this guy? Hmm…. I guess not.

The score by Gabriel Yared is another huge letdown. While it’s true that Rózsa’s very film-noir influenced themes tend to spotlight the painter’s intensity a bit too obviously, they do serve the underlying emotional purposes quite appropriately. Yared’s music, however, goes nowhere. It fails to do what film scores were intended to do: which is, to sonically add to the general understanding of a picture’s aims. Something by Erik Satie, or Claude Debussy, would have been a better way to capture the moodiness and melancholy of the era, as well as the essence of van Gogh’s fabulous output.

In general, Altman’s Vincent & Theo is a warts-and-all (and then some) study of two brothers — a much closer real-life assessment of their star-crossed lives — while Minnelli’s Lust for Life is your standard Fifties grin-and-bear-it struggle for fame and fortune, a one-sided essay on one artist’s failure to make good.

End of Part Two

(To be continued…..)

Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes

Delivered in Pain: The Birth of Nations — Operas, Musicals and Movies with Patriotic Themes (Part Two): History Blends with Drama

Battle of Wills and Wonts

Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson (Charlton Heston) gives Jean Lafitte (Yul Brynner) an ultimatum in “The Buccaneer” (1958)

It is instructive, at this point, to compare two of producer-director Cecil B. DeMille’s historical epics, both dealing with the pirate and privateer Jean Lafitte under the title The Buccaneer. Taking place in and around New Orleans, and along the bayous and waterways of early 19th century Louisiana known as Barataria, the two films (the first, from 1938, in black-and-white; and the other from 1958, in glorious Technicolor and eye-catching VistaVision) feature, as a minor protagonist, the equally colorful and charismatic Major General Andrew Jackson.

Known to history as  “Old Hickory,” Jackson served as our seventh U.S. president from March 1829 to March 1837, but the films concentrated instead on the prior events of the War of 1812 as well as the lead-up to the Battle of New Orleans of 1814.

The War of 1812 was considered a “do-over” for the defeated British army of King George III. The forces of His Royal Majesty that came back to fight in America — that is, to pick up where their colleagues had left off during the Revolutionary War — were, in essence, battle-hardened veterans of the Napoleonic campaigns. No pushovers as far as trained combatants were concerned, the Red Coats were met by a raggedy bunch of volunteers, misfits, Native Americans, poorly equipped Creoles, and African American slaves.

Joining them were bands of desperados governed, to put it mildly, by French-born adventure seeker Jean Lafitte (his actual surname is spelled Laffite, with two “fs” and only one “t”). Fabulously wealthy due to their plundering of Spanish ships off the Caribbean Coast and near the Gulf of Mexico, Lafitte and his followers, to include his brothers Pierre and Alexandre (who is called, in both film versions, by the bogus moniker Dominique You), opted to fight for the American side.

History records that Lafitte’s brother, Pierre, had been captured and arrested for piracy by the Americans. Their idea was to use Pierre as a bargaining chip in order to obtain Lafitte’s loyalty to their cause. Yet, frère Pierre is neither mentioned nor found in either screen production. Logically, the screenwriters may have felt that one brigand named Lafitte was one too many for viewers to handle.

Franciska Gaal, Fredric March & Akim Tamiroff in the 1938 version of “The Buccaneer,” directed by Cecil B. DeMille

Nevertheless, both films capitalized on the involvement of Maj. Gen. Jackson, who took command of a seemingly hopeless situation by spearheading the defense of New Orleans. What Jackson found when he got there was a city without means, i.e., one lacking in even the basic necessities regarding supplies and munitions so as to put up a spirited resistance. Jackson was forced to contend with Lafitte and his cutthroats, whom he despised for their thieving ways (in the films, Lafitte offers his services in return for a pardon for his offenses).

The American Governor, William Claiborne, however, took a harder line. He had previously refused to deal with Lafitte. Instead, he ordered that his base be attacked by U.S. warships harbored nearby. This led to Lafitte’s retreat into the bayous and the capture of some of his followers, including Dominique You. Interestingly, “General” You and his compatriots had once served in Napoleon’s Grand Army as cannon and artillery men. Their expertise in that department would eventually prove useful to Jackson and his buckskinned squirrel shooters. He would need them, as well as their ample supply of arms and ammunition, for the coming confrontation with the British.

Born in the State of Kansas, actor Hugh Sothern, who played Maj. Gen. Jackson in the 1938 version of The Buccaneer, was a supporting player (usually uncredited) in flicks from the 1930s and 40s. A distant relative of Jackson’s (Sean Wilentz, Professor of History at Princeton University, labeled him a “collateral descendant”), Sothern conveys his kinsman’s volatile personality, hair-trigger temper, and the capricious, mercurial nature of a future U.S. president and Creek Indian War hero.

Be that as it may Jackson’s appearance in the picture is rather inconsequential. As was the norm with DeMille, there were a plethora of character vignettes by a who’s who of veteran scene stealers, each scrambling to top the other. Among the players were Akim Tamiroff as Dominique You, Walter Brennan as the cantankerous Ezra Peavey, Ian Keith as Senator Crawford, Franciska Gaal as Gretchen, Margot Graham as Annette de Rémy, Douglass Dumbrille as Governor Claiborne, Beulah Bondi as Aunt Charlotte, Robert Barrat as the duplicitous Captain Brown, Fred Kohler as Gramby, and Stanley Andrews, Paul Fix, Luana Walters, John Rodgers, and, in cameo roles, Spring Byington as Dolly Madison, Montagu Love as Admiral Cockburn, and literally dozens of familiar faces.

One of those faces belonged to that of DeMille’s son-in-law, the Mexican-American actor Anthony Quinn, as Beluche. He’s the fellow with the faux Creole accent and thin black mustache. Oh, wait! They ALL had faux accents and thin black mustaches — in particular, the titular buccaneer himself, performed by Wisconsin-born Fredric March. DeMille had earlier cast him as Marcus Vinitius in The Sign of the Cross (1932), one of those Romans vs. Christians toga epics. March portrayed Lafitte in typically flamboyant fashion, what with the florid dialog he was forced to speak. Incredibly, March’s impersonation rang true to history. He even bore a resemblance to the real Lafitte, at least as far as the few surviving portraits of the scoundrel had showed.

Anthony Quinn (far left), with Fredric March as Jean Lafitte (far right)

Incidentally, one of the reasons for the capture of Lafitte’s brother Pierre was to thwart his illegal operation of converting the vast plunder they had acquired into hard cash. In shutting down Pierre’s operation, Lafitte was deprived of his livelihood and, consequently, whatever creature comforts his nefarious lifestyle had provided. Survival, then, not patriotic fervor, was central to Lafitte’s participation in the American effort to thwart the British invaders. Still, Professor Wilentz attests to Lafitte’s bravery under fire, not only earning a pardon for him and his men from then-President James Madison, but the “warm public thanks from an admiring Jackson.”

DeMille’s writers, Jeanie Macpherson, Edwin Justus Mayer, C. Gardner Sullivan, and historian and biographer Harold Lamb, took sufficient liberties with the story to provide a fairly decent box office return on Paramount Studios’ investment. Of course, they had to invent several romantic interests to hold the audiences’ attention (recalling the mantra of the period, in that you had to have a woman in there to soften the rough edges).

Two decades later, DeMille decided to revisit his earlier take on the matter, much as he had done with the 1923 silent version of The Ten Commandments. With the worldwide success of The Ten Commandments remake in 1956, DeMille intended to make an even splashier musical version, believe it or not, of Lafitte’s participation in defeating the British. However, after suffering a heart attack while filming the strenuous Exodus sequence in the Sinai desert, DeMille was forced to curtail his activities. Taking the title of executive producer instead, C.B. assigned the directing chores to Anthony Quinn (his one and only effort behind the cameras), with DeMille’s production duties being taken over by longtime friend and associate, Henry Wilcoxon.

Sadly, the remake of The Buccaneer turned out to be “a disastrous flop,” according to John Douglas Eames in The Paramount Story, who blamed the lack of DeMille’s formidable “creative drive” and the “unexciting account of the pirate Lafitte” on the producer-director’s waning health.

To give the 1958 version its due, the picture is beautifully photographed by veteran cinematographer Loyal Griggs (The Ten Commandments, 1956), with the addition of three-strip Technicolor providing a feast for the eyes. The $5 million budget allocated toward it was well spent on period costumes, and suitable props and paraphernalia, a DeMille trademark. Unfortunately, the film is dead on arrival as drama, with the fabricated love triangle between Lafitte (an uncomfortably bewigged Yul Brynner), Gov. Claiborne’s nubile daughter Annette (the lovely Inger Stevens), and the roguish Bonnie Brown straining credibility to the breaking point.

Poster art for “The Buccaneer” (1958)

Much of the casting, too, was well below par for a purported DeMille epic. For instance, the newly invented character of Bonnie Brown (Claire Bloom), the Creole offspring of the renegade Capt. Brown (Robert F. Simon), struck few onscreen sparks. And the normally reassuring presence of such movie heavies as Ted de Corsia, Bruce Gordon, and John Dierkes (their familiar mugs hidden behind false beards and whiskers), along with E.G. Marshall as Gov. Claiborne, and Lorne Greene as the excitable Mercier, verged on egregious miscasting, especially in the flowery wardrobe, oversized pirate hats, and ersatz “period” dialog they were burdened with. Even the hulking Woody Strode made little impact.

At least the magnetic Charles Boyer was capable of bringing some authentic French flair, along with a decent accent, to Dominique You (in addition to his requisite Continental charm), while the querulous Henry Hull took over for Walter Brennan as an annoyingly persistent Mr. Ezra Peavey (“Don’t forget to drink your milk, Andy!”).

Birds of a Feather Rarely Flock Together

The whole studio-bound affair should have been scrapped from its inception. So why did DeMille (or rather, those who were laboring in his stead) insist on the remake being made at all? For one, the wily producer-director had a nose for box office receipts, despite the dreary results and poor reviews. For another, he likely wanted to capitalize on the crackling screen chemistry generated by Yul Brynner, the “sexy bald guy you love to hate,” and the latest hunky male attraction, Charlton Heston. Their initial teaming in The Ten Commandments (as Pharaoh Rameses and the Deliverer Moses, respectively) proved most lucrative for Paramount Studios’ coffers, offering viewers a fascinating glimpse of divergent acting styles.

In between these two assignments, both Heston and Brynner were kept busy with movie work. In Heston’s case, he appeared in three back-to-back productions for three different studios: Three Violent People (1956) for Paramount, which reunited him with Anne Baxter, another alumnus from The Ten Commandments; Touch of Evil (1958) for Universal, with maverick movie director Orson Welles and Janet Leigh; and The Big Country (1958) for United Artists, directed by William Wyler, and starring Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, Carroll Baker, and Burl Ives. This was followed by his biggest part yet, in Wyler’s Ben-Hur (1959) for MGM, another widescreen remake of a silent classic.

Old Hickory (Heston) with Mr. Peavey (Henry Hull) in defense of New Orleans

As for Brynner, he fulfilled two contracts for Twentieth Century-Fox in the film version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I (1956) with Deborah Kerr, and Anastasia (1956) with Ingrid Bergman; and for MGM’s The Brothers Karamazov (1957), with Maria Schell and Claire Bloom, his costar in The Buccaneer.

In analyzing the two versions of The Buccaneer, we can determine that both films followed a similar scene-for-scene path. The latter feature included some slight alterations from the earlier flick, in that the refurbished script (by Jesse Lasky Jr., son of Jesse Lasky, one of DeMille’s fellow Hollywood pioneers; and Bernice Mosk) substituted the boy Miggs (Jerry Hartleben) as the lone survivor of the downed fictional ship, the Corinthian. In the original, the person confronted with the news of the Corinthian’s sinking was Gretchen (Franciska Gaal).

The climax and dénouement are along similar lines. One of the major differences, though, lies in the approach to Lafitte’s personality. Yul Brynner adopted a pensive, brooding mien, quite apart from Fredric March’s self-confident air and lack of diffidence. Brynner also took to sitting in an armchair, a makeshift “throne” (à la Rameses II) in his bayou stronghold — with one leg over the armchair’s side. Hardly regal behavior, but one more appropriate for a pirate. Brynner’s pose may remind audiences of Auguste Rodin’s sculpture The Thinker.

In addition, there’s a 1950s allure to the two love interests: that is, the blonde and blue-eyed, playing hard-to-get New Orleans belle Annette, portrayed by a young Inger Stevens; contrasted with the bayou wildcat, an untamed, dark-haired, and purposely darker-skinned Bonnie, played by Claire Bloom, a tomboy in petticoats and fancy ball gowns. This is reflective of the general change in attitude towards women of the time, the gathering storm of the coming sexual revolution. Annette Claiborne is the highborn daughter of Lousiana’s governor, a trophy bride over-and-above Lafitte’s social station and class; whereas the plain-Jane Bonnie Brown (she apparently wears her name on her sleeve) represents the forbidden other-side-of-town gal, an easier mark for Lafitte, so he may think, but a huge step down in rank.

Inger Stevens as Annette Claiborne, speaking to Jean Lafitte (Yul Brynner)

In both films, Lafitte accepts the blame for the sinking of the Corinthian and the death of all on board. And in both, he and his cohorts are run out of town, so to speak, with Maj. Gen. Jackson giving them an hour’s head start. The disparities, as they were, between these two features are in the setup and execution. The 1958 remake leans more toward the “dramatic” if heavy-handed side, and was obviously influenced by the theater (a remnant of DeMille’s silent movie days). Although DeMille remained on the sidelines for this one, his unseen hand is everywhere, most convincingly with the last-minute entrance of Heston’s Moses-like Andy Jackson, spouting fire and brimstone in an otherwise strained situation.

As Lafitte is about to be dragged bodily to his own hanging by the outraged citizens of New Orleans, Old Hickory fires a pistol into the air upon bursting into the salon, with Mr. Peavey by his side and trusty squirrel rifle in hand.

“By the Lord God,” Jackson thunders, “I’ll kill the next man who moves!” Immediately, all eyes are upon Heston’s towering six-foot, four-inch frame. Who writes scenes like this anymore? One has to experience this sequence to believe it.

“I think I admired Andrew Jackson more than any of the other men of that [historical] genre I’ve played,” Heston went on the record as saying. Curiously, Heston had his first opportunity at portraying Old Hickory in Twentieth Century- Fox’s production of The President’s Lady (1953), a film more preoccupied with soap-opera hysterics than actual facts. Still, it led to his approaching DeMille for background information.

“DeMille had let me see his 1938 version of The Buccaneer to study the character. He also let me look at some research material. He was very kind about it … Five years later DeMille was planning to remake The Buccaneer. At the time I don’t think it was settled to what extent he was planning to involve himself in the production. I still had one picture left on the contract that Paramount had purchased from Hal Wallis. I asked to play Jackson in a cameo role to use up the remaining commitment. [Wallis] thought it was a fine idea. The intended cameo role, however, blossomed into a considerable part as the script developed.”

Indeed, Heston’s eccentric if slightly offbeat assignment saves the picture from permanent ruin. His makeup job was certainly convincing. And, as Prof. Wilentz points out, Heston seemed to have “just stepped off a twenty-dollar bill.” Well, not exactly. His Jackson moves stiffly and decrepitly, seeming much older than he would have been, historically speaking (in fact, Jackson was in his mid-40s, while Heston was 34). His counterpart, Sothern, in the 1938 release, though missing Heston’s imposing height and build, moves more naturally.

Who made the better Andrew Jackson? The choice is strictly to taste, but my vote goes to Heston for his physical presence, and that unmistakable voice.

In yet another connection to The Ten Commandments, the choice of composer for the film’s score turned out to be Elmer Bernstein, whose music for the earlier feature was much admired. Bernstein wrote a similarly-themed score for The Buccaneer. Listen closely to the title music played over the opening credits, and you will hear hints of leading motifs reminiscent of the 1956 epic.

End of Part Two

(To be continued …..)

Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes