Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Vampire Burlesque

      Between the under-seen Valentino (1977) and the under-valued Altered States (1980), visionary British director Ken Russell was in preparation to direct a film adaptation of Bram Stoker's inextinguishable creation, Dracula. Up to that point, the bulk of Russell's oeuvre had focused on the arts; music in general. His black and white productions for the BBC (1959 to 1970) have become essential entries in the artist's celebrated and infamous canon.

Sandwiched firmly in between two inarguable masterworks, Women in Love (1969) and The Devils (1971), Russell's The Music Lovers (1970) is a big screen take on famed Russian composer Tchaikovsky's tortured life and perhaps the world's first extended music video. For the next six years of his most highly celebrated creative cycle, Russell would devote nearly every film project to the exaltation of the arts, and the artist as tragic hero in particular.

above top: Richard Chamberlain as Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky in The Music Lovers (1970) 
above bottom: Oliver Reed as Father Urbain Grandier in The Devils (1971)

Whether filming the life of obscure French sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska in Savage Messiah (1972) or turning the relationship between 19th-century composers Franz Liszt and the antisemitic Richard Wagner into a cosmic battle invoking vampires, nazis, spaceships and Frankenstein's Monster in the delirious Lisztomania (1975), Russell seemed to be exorcising his own demons in the process.

Like Russell himself, his Dracula would have been (as Russell biographer Joseph Lanza puts it) "a great patron of the arts", who only sought to immortalize fellow creative souls as opposed to immolating them for his own survival. An excerpt of Dracula's dialog from Russell's script:

"What is the love of God? Little by little he reveals to you the wonders of the earth, like a parent offering a child a glittering box of sweets, then just as you reach out eagerly, he snatches them away. Those whom he loves, die as quickly as May flies while we, whom he hates, live on and on...How jealously God guards His immortality. Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Tchaikovsky: as soon as they challenged him with their vision of heaven, he cut them down - until we started to fight him. Now some of our greatest artists are Nosferatu. But if it were known, they would be persecuted for sorcery, demonology, persecuted for creating eternal beauty. So, once in a lifetime, they change their identity, even their style."
It almost seems natural that Russell's attention at some point would turn to Stoker's immortal Count. Lisztomania, which starred The Who front man Roger Daltrey (who also starred in Russell's big screen adaptation of The Who's Tommy the same year), is effectively a partial homage to the Hammer Films vampire movie. Russell's elaborately conceived version of Dracula was intended to be the next phase in his alchemical melding of burlesque, rock musical and high art.

above: vampires psychic and literal in Russell's Lisztomania (1975): Paul Nicholas as Richard Wagner the Vampire about to suck the life force from his contemporary Franz Liszt played by Roger Daltrey 

He set his sights on none other than Mick Fleetwood, co-founder and drummer of the ineffably popular band Fleetwood Mac, who at the time were scaling the absolute summit of their long and winding career. Russell (overcoming a fear of flying) jetted to the States to meet with the naturally pale and gaunt Fleetwood, a fellow Englishman, who was on tour with his band in Washington, D.C.

The show got called off fortuitously giving Russell and Fleetwood a real chance to talk shop. Russell had high hopes of Fleetwood Mac scoring the film. Fleetwood even agreed to have a pint of his own blood removed everyday during the shoot, in some perverted ode to the Stanislavski craft of Method acting. But all of this fruitful imagining was not to be.

above left: Max Schreck in Nosferatu (1922); above right: Mick Fleetwood with Stevie Nicks circa late 70s
below: Michael John Kells "Mick" Fleetwood

The backing fell out when not one, but two Dracula films hit the big screen, John Badham's Dracula (1979) starring Frank Langella (reprising his hit Broadway role) and Werner Herzog's Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979) with Klaus Kinski in a practically shot-for-shot remake of Murnau's silent masterpiece Nosferatu (1922). Russell would eventually return to Stoker's world (albeit loosely) with a film adaptation of The Lair of the White Worm (1988).

One can only imagine the fevered pitch and surreal sublimity of Russell's intended Dracula flick, with Mick Fleetwood in fangs of all people, and Lindsey Buckingham's guitar on the soundtrack no less. It's easily one of the more epic and ponderous unrealized projects in film history, that much is certain.

above top: Bram Stoker (1947 - 1912); above bottom: Ken Russell (1927 - 2011)

Monday, January 20, 2014

Dark Phoenix Rising
Remembering River Phoenix & Heath Ledger

Phoenix in Dark Blood
     Do we tend to overpraise our young actors once they abruptly leave us? River Phoenix and Heath Ledger left us with only a handful of performances (a little over a dozen each). Phoenix's last film, Dark Blood (1993/2012), has not been seen by a wide audience.

Dutch director George Sluizer (Spoorloos, 1988) was able to re-edit the film and add his own voice-over narration to fill in some of the missing gaps. For anyone who doesn't know the true story of Phoenix's last days, the Utah-based shoot for Dark Blood (and subsequent interiors shoot in L.A.) played a large part in the buildup to the actor's tragic conclusion.

Likewise, those who knew Ledger closely, said the actor had undergone enormous stress following the completion of I'm Not There. (2007) and The Dark Knight (2008). Thankfully, Terry Gilliam was able to work around the unfilmed portions of Ledger's last released project The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009) with an inventive device casting several actors to fill in Ledger's missing parts.

Against the odds, it somehow worked, and provided us with one last glimpse of Ledger's enormous potential and gifts as a true translator of the human condition. Then they gave him an Oscar after he died for something he didn't deserve it for. 
Ledger in Brokeback Mountain (2005)

All artists, great or small, wrestle nearly every day with demons. Most humans do to some degree but for an artist, it's usually the thing that leads them to one dangerous form of escape or another.

It's the price of seeing (or feeling) the world in such horrible detail and in some way being unavoidably responsible for processing it through the use of this device we call talent.

When I was young, I was led to believe the word "talent" was a virtue. As I have shuffled around this mortal coil a bit (and fallen off the turnip truck a time or two), I have come to recognize the word has a paradoxical effect. For the record, to possess a talent for something is indeed a blessing.

We are all talented in some way. More often than not, with regards to art or theatricality, it can subconsciously make one susceptible to anxieties, depression and self-destruction.

Phoenix and Ledger were authentic talents. They both had the demons to prove it. But do we over-value them as artists simply because they expired too soon? Let's be honest. They both lost their battles with demons. My understanding of Phoenix's condition is that he was enormously sensitive to the thoughts and feelings of others.

His last project was a tough shoot and he did not get on well with his female co-star, Judy Davis. For whatever reason, method acting or not, Davis chose to give the gentle and passive Phoenix a hard time while filming and barely acknowledged his presence at all between takes. This bothered Phoenix greatly, especially considering the personal respect he had for Davis as a fellow artist.
Aussie actress Judy Davis

Phoenix, who began using hardcore drugs full-time when filming My Own Private Idaho (1991) had been clean for several months prior to the start of Dark Blood. He was a fragile soul to begin with. In the film, his character is the antagonist to Judy Davis' character.

Phoenix had worked with many serious actors before (Harrison Ford, Robert Redford, Helen Mirren, Sidney Poitier, Richard Harris) and none of them likely gave him the treatment that Davis did on set. For Davis, it was probably professional (her character despises his) but for Phoenix, it went beyond personal. When the filming finally wrapped, after an unbearably stressful scene that required him to be physically intimate with the ice-cold Davis (allegedly, Davis walked off the set after filming their last scene without uttering a single word to Phoenix), he was drained and ready to unload.

The plan was to meet up with a small group of friends and family and do the thing that made him feel most at ease, playing music. His close friend Flea, bass player for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, whom he met while making My Own Private Idaho, was set to perform onstage at The Viper Room, a Hollywood nightclub partly owned by Johnny Depp at the time.

Phoenix brought his guitar along after the terrible shoot. He was soon dismayed to learn that not only were there too many musicians scheduled to be on stage that night, but his best buddy Flea had to break the news to him that Phoenix had been personally denied permission to play. Phoenix immediately retreated to the nearest bathroom where he saw a bevy of drugs being administered by patrons.
entrance to the club where Phoenix died

He mistakenly accepted a toxic speedball (with either too much cocaine or too much heroin) and immediately began convulsing and vomiting. Someone thought the actor just needed to come down, so he was given a Valium and he staggered out of the bathroom back to the table where his siblings and girlfriend, actress Samantha Mathis were seated.

Phoenix looked ill and was in an out of consciousness. He complained that he couldn't breathe. He was rushed out the nearest exit where he quickly collapsed on the sidewalk and went into violent seizures. He then went into cardiac arrest. By the time the paramedics arrived and rushed him to Cedars Sinai Medical Center, it was too late. River Phoenix was dead at 23.

Accounts vary as to the specific nature of Ledger's drug use. After the actor's death, a mere five years older than Phoenix at the time, it was hard to tell what was nonfiction and what was tabloid fodder. What isn't debatable is the chronic battle he was having with insomnia; a condition that had plagued the actor for some time.

above left: Phoenix in My Own Private Idaho (1991); above right: Ledger in I'm Not There. (2007)

He had just wrapped up filming two intense shoots back-to-back (in addition to breaking up with actress Michelle Williams, his girlfriend and mother of their daughter Matilda) and had crashed at the SoHo, NY apartment of friend Mary-Kate Olsen. He died there alone of acute intoxication from oxycodone, hydrocodone, diazepam, temazepam, alprazolam and doxylamine.

In other words: two downers, two sleeping pills and two hardcore painkillers (used to treat people with bone cancer). Almost a year (and one month) later he was the posthumous winner of the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for The Dark Knight.
opening titles for Ang Lee's film

Personally, I stopped caring about the Oscars years ago. While it's still a treat to see a favorite performer be honored for giving a career topping performance, it's also a political boon amongst an industry of multimillionaires out to pat themselves on the back and applaud their own investments. If it were any different, they'd let the audience do the voting.

If I hadn't already seen Ledger give a career topping performance in Brokeback Mountain (2005), I may have dismissed him as just another Hollywood tragedy claiming a posthumous consolation prize (a few performances too late). The truth is, Ledger really did deserve an Oscar for Brokeback Mountain and not for The Dark Knight.

I have never been a fan of Christopher Nolan's films. Dark does not equal substance. It also doesn't replace story logic. These films are huge investments for a movie company, and the marketing machines (from the publicity department down to the critics-for-hire) went into overdrive promoting the edgy conceits of this franchise.

I'm fine with edgy, when there's a point to it. When it becomes a vacuum that sucks the life out of a script or a character, it serves no purpose. The point of Nolan's Batman films was to be edgy because the other attempts to film them had not. For me, that's not good enough. It's defrauding the audience. It's betraying the characters, and the actors who play them.
Ledger as the Joker

When I saw Ledger's performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight, I immediately felt something was missing. It felt technically proficient and consistent, but something was off.

Initially, I seemed to be missing the big problem, and it had little to do with Ledger (doing a very weird and introverted interpretation) or the flaccid character direction I'm sure Nolan (the faux visionary) was barely able to supply him with.

The writing was sub-moronic. The entire purpose behind the Joker's nefarious plot was to burn a pile of money? He sewed a bomb into a guy's stomach while incarcerated in a holding cell? Then the film started getting praised for it's realism. The critical reaction just all seemed scripted to me. So the big problem, next to the staggeringly puerile storyline and screenplay, was that Ledger's performance was simply not able to rise above it.

I started this post with a question. It's a question (after all this rambling) I'm still not sure I'm able to answer. River Phoenix and Heath Ledger were both singular artists. In addition to the camera loving them, they were able to enlighten us and capable of translating a writer's message from page to screen. It's the whole gestalt of what an actor must successfully do.

When the writer's message isn't necessarily clear, or it simply isn't an idea worth selling (as I believe was the case with The Dark Knight) it's then up to the actor to take their performance to some other place or another level. I feel Ledger was betrayed by the film that ultimately pushed him to the edge of his own personal limits. He deserved more than that particular movie draining all his energy and leaving him physically and emotionally spent. Perhaps then, a bit ironically, he did deserve the Oscar after all. Just not for the merits of his performance.

above left: Phoenix in Running on Empty (1988); above right: a message left for Phoenix at his place of death

Phoenix and Ledger will be remembered because they continued to challenge themselves, to not sell out and to improve with every part. Unfortunately, the game has changed in Hollywood only recently. It's not an artist's town anymore. There are very few (if any) actors of this caliber on the map.

The average age of a Hollywood leading man seems to grow older and older (DiCaprio will be 40 in November) with each passing year. The fact that Ledger was able to embody a lifetime of regret and pain in Brokeback Mountain, his finest role, at a mere 25 years old (and what Phoenix was capable of doing at only 18 in Running on Empty, 1988) is the real reason we mourn their passing.

They plumbed their own inner depths in order to teach us something about ourselves. Something that praise alone seems hardly an adequate response.

above left: memorial tribute for Ledger; above right: Ledger in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Golden Age of Sutherland

     Poor Donald Sutherland. He had the misfortune of giving one of the best performances of his career the same year that featured Robert De Niro in Raging Bull, John Hurt in The Elephant Man, Robert Duvall in The Great Santini, Jack Lemmon in Tribute and Peter O'Toole in The Stunt Man. I say "poor" because his quiet portrayal of a repressed but devoted husband/father in first-time director Robert Redford's Ordinary People (1980) seems to be one of the last things he gets remembered for these days, as well as being one of the biggest nomination snubs in Oscar history.

The truth is, with the exception of De Niro, Hurt and Duvall, Sutherland's performance was the most award worthy one that year, and certainly more than deserved a place amongst best in show. Prior to the crisp and sobering tone of Ordinary People, Sutherland was mainly known for his more kooky, offbeat parts ranging from the lovable: MASH (1970), Kelly's Heroes (1970), and National Lampoon's Animal House (1978) to the perverse: The Day of the Locust (1975), 1900 (1976) and Fellini's Casanova (1976). Two of my favorite Sutherland performances from this period found the actor in more subdued waters: Klute (1971) and The Great Train Robbery (1979).

above left: Redford directing Sutherland in Ordinary People (1980); above right: Sutherland and Jane Fonda in Klute (1971)

Then of course there were the two bona fide cult classics: Don't Look Now (1973) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978). Both of them arguably brilliant. John Sturges' The Eagle Has Landed (1976) has also acquired a small, devout following over the years. Alex in Wonderland (1970), Johnny Got His Gun (1971), Steelyard Blues (1973) and The Disappearance (1977) have yet to attain their true cult status. He even made a cameo in The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977) and played a Victorian basket case in fellow Canadian Bob Clark's underrated Sherlock Holmes/Jack the Ripper mystery Murder by Decree (1977).

above left: Sutherland with co-star Federico Fellini (playing himself) in Paul Mazursky's Alex in Wonderland (1970); above right: Fellini and Sutherland collaborate again, this time with Fellini behind the camera in Fellini's Casanova (1976): below: as the endlessly quotable Sergeant "Oddball" in Kelly's Heroes (1971)

Sutherland is one of those rare actors who can make even a thoroughly reprehensible character seem likable, and more importantly, relatable. He appeared in over a dozen films (including The Dirty Dozen, 1967) before playing a set of twins in Bud Yorkin's Start the Revolution Without Me (1970), but it was this specific period, mainly the Seventies (up to 1980's Best Picture winner Ordinary People), that constitutes the golden age of Sutherland's oeuvre as a film actor.

above top: Robert Altman's MASH (1970); above bottom: Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now (1973)

In the following years, he's done some equally compelling work: Eye of the Needle (1981); Threshold (1981); Heaven Help Us (1985); A Dry White Season (1989); JFK (1991), Backdraft (1991), Six Degrees of Separation (1993), Without Limits (1998); Panic (2000) and the cable movies: Citizen X (1995) and Path to War (2002) among others. He received praise for a small role in 2005's big screen adaptation of Pride & Prejudice and has more recently been recognized by a new generation as the corrupt President Snow in The Hunger Games (2012 - 2015) film series. 

 above left: John Landis' Animal House (1978); above right: Stuart Cooper's The Disappearance (1977): below: Michael Crichton's The Great Train Robbery (1979)

There have been a few genuine head-scratchers along the way: Gas (1981); Crackers (1984); Revolution (1985) and I'd be remiss if I didn't at least mention Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992) and Space Cowboys (2000) in this last category. I'm positive I left out several of the more questionable and curious ones. Here's hoping that one day, when he's perhaps reached the appropriate vintage for such a thing, the Academy finally decides to hand him a long-overdue trophy for his entire body of work (he does turn 79 this year!). In all honesty, it's the least they could do.

above left: Bernardo Bertolucci's 1900 (1976); above right: John Schlesinger's The Day of the Locust (1975); below: Philip Kaufman's Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)