Bigger Than Life

Director Nicholas Ray’s bombastic follow-up to “Rebel Without a Cause” failed in 1956, but has become a cinephile favorite despite being available only at museums and on Fox Movie Channel and TCM. Now presented fully restored and in a ultra-first-rate Criterion edition, film geeks may be entranced by Ray’s outlandish use of widescreen and color, but it also stands as one of the most profoundly emotional and disturbing of classic-era Hollywood melodramas.

James Mason (who also produced) stars as Ed Avery, a kindly suburban schoolteacher struck by a rare, painful, and deadly illness. The only path to survival is a new “wonder drug,” in this case cortisone, a steroid. In time, Avery seems recovered, except that he is slowly becoming a control-obsessed tyrant and drug addict with delusions of grander prone to increasingly extreme reactionary diatribes. Of course, his loving and too dutiful wife (Barbara Rush) and devoted young son (Christopher Olson) suffer. His health-obsessed P.E. teacher best friend (Walter Matthau, terrific in one of his earliest film roles) experiences some discomfort as well, but mid-fifties people were far more naive than we are now about science-driven “miracle cures.” “Bigger than Life” could have been called “Fascist With a Chemical Cause.” (Ray was the prototypical “Hollywood liberal.”) At heart, however, it is an exploration of the potential for madness underlying all family life and quite a baroque one. “Bigger Than Life” treats the potential dissolution of a family somewhat like sci-fi horror and, in this case, it kind of is.

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RIP Lynn Redgrave (updated)

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Following on the deaths of Corin Redgrave and Natasha Richardson last year, another member of the Redgrave family acting dynasty has left us too soon. Lynn Redgrave has passed on at age 67 from the breast cancer that first attacked her in 2003.

Ms. Redgrave made quite a splash back in 1966 in the English hit, “Georgy Girl,” getting an Oscar nomination and a lot of worldwide attention as  a zaftig “ugly duckling” who finds herself the center of attention for her handsome flat-mate (Alan Bates) and an aging millionaire (James Mason). Though she later became slender enough to play traditionally glamorous and very sexy leading ladies — and did occasionally in such roles as the ill-fated “The Happy Hooker” — she instead gravitated to a very British-style career in which she rather brilliantly covered all kinds of serious and comedic parts on stage, television, and movies. (Deep comedy fans might remember her in Woody Allen’s “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex” and the disaster movie spoof, “The Big Bus.”) While her sister, Vanessa Redgrave, was getting attention on a massive scale with her high end film and stage career and far-left politics, she appeared in a series of commercials for Weight Watchers’ products, starred in the U.S. sitcom, “House Calls” and gracefully segued into often quirky character roles like her accent-heavy Oscar-nominated turn as a housekeeper in 1998’s “Gods and Monsters.”

Though I’ve always enjoyed Ms. Redgrave’s work in all media over the years, I’ve never actually caught her signature movie role. After the flip, we have a couple of scenes that indicate this one might be worth very much renting or adding to your Netflix queue.

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The logic of casting

Yesterday, Mike Fleming reported that Nick Cassavettes was in talks to direct the fourth, or possibly fifth — depending on how you reckon it — version of “A Star is Born,” a perpetually successful property that dates back to the 1930s.

You can complain about remakes all you want, but this is one story that really begs to be remade with every generation, as it’s always pretty much always relevant and only more topical with each new decade. In case you’ve never seen any version, it’s the story of a young actress and/or singer on the way up who becomes involved with a star very much on the way down, mostly because of substance abuse. Apparently the thinking is to once again make the on-the-go female a singer, as in the now iconic 1954 version starring Judy Garland and James Mason directed by George Cukor, and the commercially huge but critically dissed 1976 Barbara Streisand/Kris Kritofferson version directed by Frank Perry and, perhaps, an uncredited Streisand. Names like BeyoncĂ© and Alicia Keys are being mentioned for the female lead.

The two male stars Fleming mentions are interesting. I don’t need to say why Robert Downey, Jr. is either too on the nose or absolutely and utterly perfect for the role. Real-life parallels and method acting possibilities aside, he’s a intriguing choice also because of his own forays into singing. Could make for a dramatic duet or two.

The other name being floated according to Fleming is Jon Hamm of “Mad Men.” This would presumably take the film more in the direction of the 1954 version, which featured James Mason as the alcoholic movie star in love with Judy Garland’s singer. Hamm’s a terrific and versatile actor and I’m sure he’d be very good. I just hope, however, they’re not just mentioning his name because just he does a great impression of Mason.

This Mason, by the way, is mainly inspired by his “A Star is Born” character. In real life, it was Judy Garland who had the drinking and drug issues. As for Hamm, let’s hope we see his impressionistic skills again — and the writers can again figure out something funny for him to do with them — when he returns to SNL later this month.

  

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A remake for its time? Probably.

Yep, another story about a remake, this time it’s “A Star is Born” which, depending on how you reckon it, will either be the fourth or fifth version of the story of a woman who begins a relationship with an established star, only to eclipse him in the fame game as he gradually self-destructs. The confusion here is that, in 1934, George Cukor directed a film called “What Price Hollywood?” which was apparently close enough to William Wellman’s 1938 “A Star is Born” that RKO considered suing producer David O. Selznick. Just to make matters confusing, Selznick had offered the “Star is Born” gig to Cukor, who turned it down — but who eventually did direct the most famous version of the story in 1954, which I guess means that you could argue that he’s another example of a great director remaking an earlier hit.

Not that any of it matters. There’s a reason this one keeps getting pulled out of mothballs. Consider the clip below from that last version with Judy Garland and James Mason. Does the drunken behavior of Mason as declining superstar Norman Maine remind you of anyone in show business you’ve been hearing about lately around the water cooler? Several people? Everyone?

  

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A post without a Tarantino

I just woke up and realized that there’s more to life than our talented and ever controversial lantern-jawed friend. For example…

* I’ve made it clear too many times that I’m not innately hostile to remakes. But in the annals of apparent bad ideas, Robert Zemeckis using his invariably uninspiring/unconvincing style of motion-capture to remake the Beatles psychedlic animation “Yellow Submarine” is a real contender. I don’t consider the original a great film but it is what it is and remaking it with two of the original Beatles now long passed on seems bizarre to me. I truly don’t see a point here, but maybe I’m missing something.

* I’ve been remiss in not mentioning the whole mishegas going on between Redbox and Warner Brothers. If Warners doesn’t want to sell them the titles prior to 28 days after their release on home video, I’m not sure if there’s any legal justification for forcing them too, but then I’m not a lawyer. On the other hand, as Patrick Goldstein points out in the article from Monday I linked to above, business models like Redbox are going to be unavoidable as the home entertainment market becomes ever more important.

I get more DVDs than I have time to watch for free as part of my critic gig, but I honestly have never understood why anyone would purchase a DVD of a movie that isn’t a huge favorite, much less a movie they’ve never seen before. It’s not like a CD where you can pop it into your car stereo or put it on for background music while you make dinner and, of course, people are figuring out ways to not buy those as well. Seems to me that the economy is forcing people to be a little more discriminating.

* Executive Tom Sherak is the new head of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences (AMPAS to its friends), stepping in for the term-limited Sid Ganis. Anne Thompson has no problem with it. Stepping right into character, Nikki Finke has a huge problem with it, and so do many of her commenters, while the rest are pro-Sherak. Why is it that every time I read the comments at Ms. Finke’s, I get the feeling I’m watching the road company version of “All About Eve”?

* The guy has “movie star” written all over him — he’s a little bit Gregory Peck, a little bit Cary Grant (including Grant’s gift for comedy), with a touch of young Montgomery Clift — so especially with the widely touted ratings success of “Mad Men” on Sunday night, it’s no surprise Jon Hamm is getting movie work. The latest addition to his resume is Zack Snyder’s “Sucker Punch”. Anne Thompson prefers “The Town,” however. One thing’s for sure, if anyone ever decides to do “The James Mason Story,” he’s the guy.

  

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