Turner Classic Film Fest: A history of violence

I know, pretty dark headline for  a post about a really fun, glamor heavy film fest. All the more so because, at least for me, TCM  Fest is the kind of event that  can put you in a kind of steel bubble which the daily news can barely pierce. If another Cuban Missile Crisis happened during Comic-Con, what would happen? Maybe if it ended differently this time.

Indeed, even a momentous event  like the death of Osama Bin Laden could just barely penetrate TCM’s  mix of Hollywood fantasy and scholarship. For me, the news first came as I overheard another filmgoer during an intermission of “West Side Story,” which I had popped in on just to see how good the 70mm print was, say to another. “No, he’s really dead.” I figured it was another classic film star gone forever. George Chakiris, who played Sharks leader Bernardo, had introduced the screening, but how were Jets Richard Beymer and Russ Tamblyn doing?

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I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale

Can you name all the major actors from the “Godfather” movies? If you’re missing one, it’s probably John Cazale. He played the initially minor character of Fredo, the tragic runt of the gangster litter who figured so prominently in “The Godfather: Part II.” An accomplished stage actor, Cazale appeared in only five moves before his death from lung cancer in 1978 at age 42, but since they also included “Dog Day Afternoon,” “The Conversation” and “The Deer Hunter” — all nominated for Best Picture Oscars — it is slightly strange he isn’t better known. It’s definitely not for lack of esteem from his peers. This short HBO documentary from director Richard Shepard (“The Matador“) proves that point with testimonials from friends, colleagues and fans including Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Francis Ford Coppola, Sidney Lumet, Gene Hackman, Olympia Dukakis, Richard Dreyfuss, Steve Buscemi, Sam Rockwell, and Meryl Streep, who was Cazale’s girlfriend at his death. It seems that, aside from his ability to submerge himself into a role and raise the game of his fellow actors, the unglamorous and good-natured Cazale also had a way with beautiful women.

Though the packaging of this DVD is first-rate if overly elaborate, it also attempts to hide the fact that “I Knew It Was You” is only 40 minutes long, not counting about an hour’s worth of special features. Nevertheless, this is a sincere, well-made, and entirely laudable labor of movie love.

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Happy birthday, Mr. Hackman

The acting great, who retired recently to write historical novels full time, turns eighty today. I ran a salute to him some time ago, but it’s time for a bit of a reprise. I don’t think there’s any doubt the Gene Hackman is one of the very best we’ve seen. Few have done as good a job of keeping things simple, and that’s about as difficult a trick as there is for any artist.

  

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Downhill Racer

In the mood for an inspirational sports story? You won’t get it in this hard-edged, documentary style 1969 sports film starring Robert Redford (a star but not yet a superstar) as a reckless Olympic-level skier who is utterly selfish and cold-hearted. A pre-“French Connection” Gene Hackman is his coach, probably a good guy and a bit off-put at having to deal with this grade-A douche who, like it or not, might be a champion.

As the DVD extras in this typically strong Criterion package inform us, “Downhill Racer” was originally conceived by Redford as a film to be directed by a hot new European director who shared his passion for skiing. Roman Polanski, however, was too busy with “Rosemary’s Baby,” so Redford concentrated his efforts on working with writer James Salter and first-time feature film director Michael Ritchie (“The Bad News Bears”) to craft this deliberately cold lack-of-character study. The ski footage is as exciting as you can imagine and “Racer” is often as intriguing as it is chilly. Still, it’s primarily a cerebral experience, hobbled by a protagonist who is incapable of changing and a bit dull. Redford and Ritchie inverted the formula in their next collaboration, placing a well-intentioned idealist in conflict with the morally dangerous world of electoral politics in “The Candidate.” That made for a much more engaging movie, but “Downhill Racer” remains worthwhile — and notable historically. Redford says the troubles he encountered making it ultimately led him to conceive of a project to help emerging filmmakers called “Sundance.” That’s more than a footnote.

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A Farewell to Gene Hackman

Don’t worry, Gene Hackman, is still very much amongst the living. It’s just that the 79 year-old Hackman casually discussed his retirement from acting in favor of writing historical novels while talking to Taylor Antrim of the Daily Beast today. (H/t Anne Thompson) Of course, there’s always the chance some great director can lure the Hemingway-loving Hackman out of retirement for the right role, but I’m going to assume he’s for real about giving up acting and thank him for all the great  — sometimes better than great — work.

Without ever really being an Alec Guinness or Peter Sellers-style acting chameleon, Hackman had one of the most amazing ranges of any actors of his era. He played thoroughly screwed up antiheroes, serious and comical villains of innumerable types, and ocasionally simply nice and/or likable guys. He was equally interesting playing all of them — even the nice ones. No doubt one of the best ever.

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