It’s time for another look at (relatively) recent Blu-Rays and DVDs aimed at the hardcore movie lover — though more casual viewers looking for something beyond Hollywood’s latest mass-market offerings are certainly allowed to kibitz at the Corner as well. Today’s selections are from Hollywood, off-Hollywood, England, and France and were made mostly in the 1930s or the 1970s, though we will be looking at one from 1998 — only yesterday!
This week’s box office preview has been canceled both by some hopefully not at all serious health-related family tasks I’m handling today and also by the death of a truly notable filmmaker. Aside from being both extremely talented and extremely inconsistent, he was a sort of bridge between the classic Hollywood era and post-“Bonnie and Clyde” era of film school auteurs that arrived just his career faced its first major crisis. He was a little too hip and raunchy for the old school crowd and a little too old school for the hip crowd, and I think that was Blake Edwards’ most interesting quality.
Excessive consistency was not one of Edwards hobgoblins. I have to admit there are a number of his films — mostly from his later career — that I haven’t seen primarily because their reputation isn’t so good. I’ve probably forgotten a couple that I have seen by an act of will. At his best, though, there are very few Hollywood directors who could claim anything half as marvelous as “The Days of Wine and Roses,” the brilliant slapstick set-pieces of “Return of the Pink Panther” and “The Pink Panther Strikes Again,” and, most of all, 1982’s “Victor/Victoria,” a film that was both aggressively old-fashioned and easily the most bold pro-gay, pro-tolerance film ever to be made by mainstream Hollywood to that point. It was also simply topnotch entertainment, a work of hilarious compassion, and a joy forever.
Of course, that’s merely scratching the surface of Edwards’ films. Some of his less perfect pieces are nevertheless hugely entertaining and, in their own way, fascinating documents of their time. Prolific as a writer, producer and director from the 1950s until the 1990s, he had a career that supposedly went back to helping Orson Welles write the 1939 “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast when he was still a young teenager and continued into television in the fifties, so there’s quite a lot to go through. The assertively naive-yet-sophisticated silliness of “The Great Race,” a childhood favorite of mine from numerous TV viewings, still holds up, and looks better in widescreen than those panned-and-scanned TV prints I grew up with. “S.O.B.” is famous as the film in which Julie Andrews’ naked breasts all but received top billing; they certainly got a stars’ entrance. It’s also is a fascinating case study in how Edwards got caught in the crossfire of the Hollywood generational wars and is one of the most interesting anti-Hollywood films made in Hollywood. (I’d love it if you took a look at my 2008 thumbsucker about “S.O.B.” over my currently dormant blog.)
Largely because of Audrey Hepburn’s lingering fame and greatness, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” is a lot of people’s favorite movie and it’s not hard to see why. It can be breathtakingly wistful. Because of Mickey Rooney’s over-the-top godawful portrayal of a sex-crazed Japanese neighbor, it’s also not hard to see why none of those people are Asian. Bert Kwouk’s far more human, relatively competent and hilarious Kato in “The Pink Panther” series is a small consolation, but still a consolation.
Blake Edwards really was a hugely contradictory director. Deeply cynical, terribly romantic, a champion of tolerance and capable of creating stereotypes so vicious they stand-out even among films of their day, lacking in an obvious “style” but nevertheless a notable auteur in his versatile way, Edwards was just weird enough to be, maybe, truly great.
As usual, David Hudson over at MUBI has much, much more.
Warner Archives’ long-awaited DVD of Robert Altman’s rarely seen 1971 follow-up to his “MASH” breakthrough is an example of some of the best, but a lot more of the worst, of the great director’s filmmaking approach. Bespectacled Bud Cort (“Harold and Maude”) stars in the title role as a geeky but confident youth building a human-powered flying machine in a fallout shelter at the then new Houston Astrodome, looked over by a mysterious goddess-like earth mother/protector (Sally Kellerman). Meanwhile, assorted right-wingers in Brewster’s sphere are dying under never fully described or explained circumstances, including witchy Margaret Hamilton (“The Wizard of Oz”), complete with ruby slippers, and unrecognizable Stacey Keach under an enormous amount of age make-up as a greed-obsessed millionaire. A tough, plays-by-his-own rules San Francisco cop named Frank Shaft (Altman favorite Michael Murphy) is working the case, but the only thing connecting the deaths is the presence of bird feces on the corpses — which is, I guess, supposed to be hilarious and also meaningful. Meanwhile, the seemingly sex-negative Brewster bumps into a girl with a talent for wacky black comedy car chases (Houston-bred Shelley Duvall in her first film role). Altman discarded the original screenplay by Doran William Cannon, who wrote the infamous “Skidoo,” and so the writer can’t be blamed for the narration featuring Rene Auberjonois as a possibly half-bird ornithologist. It’s not all torture. The final few minutes find their way to a bit of actual movie poetry beneath the skylight of the Astrodome, but this bird doesn’t stay airborne for long.
A highly accomplished stage actor, trained at Julliard under the tutelage of such exacting instructors as the legendary John Houseman, Kevin Kline pretty much started his film career as one of the best of the best, a genuine “actor’s actor” and also something of an old fashioned movie star with the presence to match. His first movie role was opposite Meryl Streep in Alan Pakula’s 1982 Oscar-winning film version of “Sophie’s Choice.” That was followed by Lawrence Kasdan’s Oscar-nominated ensemble dramedy, “The Big Chill,” and a leading role opposite Denzel Washington in Richard Attenborough’s portentous 1987 apartheid drama, “Cry Freedom.”
Though that was followed up by a part in Kasdan’s lighthearted homage to classic westerns, “Silverado,” Kevin Kline’s comic gifts remained under-recognized until his utterly ingenious, deservedly Oscar-winning turn as the murderous and hilariously insecure and pretentious Otto in the farce classic, “A Fish Called Wanda.” After that Kline became one of the screen’s most reliable comic leading men with parts in such high-quality mainstream comedies as “Dave” and “In and Out,” was well as the occasional part in such hard-edged tragicomic dramas as “Grand Canyon,” again with Lawrence Kasdan, and Ang Lee’s “The Ice Storm.”
Kline, who recently completed a successful stage run in Edmund Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac opposite Jennifer Garner, has — like other outstanding actors of his generation — gracefully moved from the A-list to the art-house. Though once noted for turning down movie roles in favor of stage work — John Stewart reminded him of his “Kevin Decline” nickname on his recent “Daily Show” “Colbert Report” appearance — Kline has been a busy and hugely reliable film actor for decades. More recent roles include the screen’s first correctly gay Cole Porter in the 2004 musical biopic “De-Lovely,” Garrison Keillor’s radio detective Guy Noir in Robert Altman’s 2006 swan song, “A Prairie Home Companion,” Jacques in Kenneth Branagh’s version of Shakespeare’s “As You Like It,” and the 21st century’s version of Inspector Dreyfus opposite Steve Martin‘s Inspector Clouseau in the rebooted “Pink Panther” series.
Add to those the role of the suave but irascible platonic male escort Henry Harrison in Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s adaptation of the Jonathan Ames novel, “The Extra Man.” Taking in a confused and nervous younger protegee (Paul Dano of “There Will Be Blood”), Harrison is an utterly reactionary self-made throwback to another time and place, and an ideal role for an actor gifted with the finest of old fashioned acting virtues.
Born in 1931 in what was very soon to become Hitler’s Germany, young Michael Peschkowsky was living in Manhattan by 1939. It was great luck both for the future Mike Nichols and for the country that accepted him.
Nichols is, of course, one of the most respected directors in Hollywood, and for good reason. He’s the original, craftsmanlike, and emotionally astute directorial voice responsible for such sixties and seventies classics as “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” “Carnal Knowledge” and, of course, “The Graduate” (the source of his only directorial Oscar so far) as well as such eighties, nineties, and oughts successes as “Silkwood,” “Working Girl,” “The Birdcage,” and “Closer.” Even if some of the later films are not on the same level of quality as his earlier films — and several, especially his 1988 box office hit, “Working Girl,” stray into mediocrity — it’s still one of the most impressive and diverse careers of any living director in Hollywood.
That’s just on the big screen. On television, Nichols has rebounded in the eyes of many critics, directing two of the most acclaimed television productions of the last decade, 2001’s “Wit” with Emma Thompson, and the outstanding 2005 miniseries adaptation of Tony Kushner’s brilliant and mammoth epic play, “Angels in America.” With his 80th birthday just a year and a half away, he’s still working hard with two thrillers movies planned, including an I’ll-believe-it-when-I-see-it remake of Akira Kurosawa’s “High and Low” currently being rewritten by the decidedly counter-intuitive choice of Chris Rock.
Before he directed his first foot of film, Mike Nichols was a noted theater director. That in itself is not so unusual a root for directors to travel. What is different is that, before he was a noted theater director, he was half of one of the most influential comedy teams in show business history, Nichols and May. (His comedy partner, Elaine May, went on to become an important, if less commercially successful, writer and director in her own right.)
Still, from the moment he directed his first major play, Neil Simon’s “Barefoot in the Park,” Nichols mostly abandoned performing. Today, his highly regarded early work is mostly known only to fairly hardcore comedy aficionados.