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RIP Jean Simmons

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If things had gone a bit differently, she might well have been as huge a superstar as such contemporaries as Audrey Hepburn or Natalie Wood — she certainly had the talent and screen presence to do so. However, as I’m reminded by her New York Times obituary, an ugly situation involving a sexual proposition the married actress got from Howard Hughes may have prevented Jean Simmons from reaching the super-stardom she deserved as much as anyone. The vindictive aviation and filmmaking magnate may have deliberately put her in films he thought were inferior and refused to allow his film studio to lend her out for the lead in “Roman Holiday,” the role that deservedly made Audrey Hepburn a more or less instant star.

Nevertheless, Ms. Simmons, who sadly passed on yesterday at age 80 from lung cancer, outlasted her Hughes contract and gave witty and altogether enchanting performances in numerous and diverse films, ranging from break-out teenage performances as the young Estella in David Lean’s still-definitive 1946 version of “Great Expectations” (she’d eventually play Mrs. Havisham in a TV production) and as Ophelia in Laurence Olivier’s 1948 “Hamlet.” As a puckishly beautiful adult actress who pretty much owned the word “luminous,” she had no problem quietly stealing scenes on an epic scale from the likes of Kirk Douglas in “Spartacus,” Burt Lancaster in “Elmer Gantry,” Gregory Peck in William Wyler’s underrated “The Big Country,” and, most famously these days, Marlon Brando in her only musical appearance, “Guys and Dolls.” Brando was easy to outshine musically though she was also easily his acting equal or superior, but here she shows she would have had to chops to almost hold her own musically with with costar Frank Sinatra, if only the script had called for it. What she lacks in polish, she more than makes up for in sheer commitment.

An admitted survivor of alcoholism, Simmons was a class act on every level who famously complimented Hepburn on her great “Roman Holiday” performance, as painful as it must have been to watch and even though it’s not clear that she wouldn’t have been just as good in the role. She kept working through most of her life — her last significant role was her voice work in the English-language version of “Howl’s Moving Castle” — and her loss to the world of entertainment is not a small one. She was often low-key, but she was never dull.

There’s more from David Hudson, Edward Copeland, Jose at the Film Experience, and Glenn Kenny. The L.A. Times also has an excellent and very detailed obituary.

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Trumbo

Trumbo

23 years after his death, Dalton Trumbo (“Johnny Got His Gun”) remains among the best-known screenwriters of all time. Ironically, that’s largely because much of his best work was done in secret. Jailed in 1950 and then blacklisted for his refusal to discuss his constitutionally protected membership in the Communist Party, Trumbo survived by writing prodigiously, using pseudonyms and “fronts” until 1960, when director Otto Preminger and actor-producer Kirk Douglas openly placed his name in the credits for “Exodus” and “Spartacus” and sounded the first death knell of the Hollywood blacklist.

Drawn partly from a play by the writer’s son, Christopher Trumbo, and featured on PBS’s “American Masters,” this documentary combines interviews with Trumbo’s family and friends, including stars Kirk Douglas and Dustin Hoffman, and dramatic interpretations of his writing by a long list of acting heavyweights such as Joan Allen, Michael Douglas, Liam Neeson, and Donald Sutherland. On the down side, director Peter Askin plays up Trumbo’s heroism while playing down his political extremism and indulges in some pretentious and annoying cinematic tics, including shooting the actors looking on pensively while their occasionally overdone readings play on the soundtrack. Still, when Askin captures the writer’s unsentimental and often humorous essence — as in Nathan Lane’s wry reading of an ingenious letter to the teenage Christopher Trumbo on the joys of masturbation and Paul Giamatti’s testy renditions of Trumbo’s broadsides at his local phone company — this is a highly engaging summary of the life and work of a singular figure in mid-century movie history.

Click to buy “Trumbo”

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TCA Tour, Day 2: “Spartacus: Blood and Sand”

Back in January, I covered Starz’s panel on their upcoming series, “Spartacus,” and at that time, I freely acknowledged that I didn’t personally have much to say about the show because there wasn’t anything to see. I mean, nothing. All we had to work with were the assurances of the executive producers that it was going to be a hell of a show, which I responded to thusly:

Executive producer Rob Tapert describes it as “our reinterpretation of the famous Stanley Kubrick movie,” calling it “a hard-core, testosterone-driven action drama unlike anything on television right now” and “a totally R-rated, hard, hard show that still has all the things that you need in storylines but that delivers the action component that theatrical audiences expect from their entertainment.” Sounds great…but it would sound a lot more impressive if they actually had anything at all to show us or, indeed, had even cast Spartacus yet.

Well, it’s over six months later, and the premiere is “Spartacus” is still another six months away, but at least we’re finally making some headway. Hell, just hiring some actors would’ve been forward motion from where we were last time, but we actually got to see a clip from the show…and, better yet, it was a kick-ass, completely unedited version that had never been screened for anyone else. So suck it, Comic-Con!

First and foremost, Spartacus will be played by Andy Whitfield, an actor who’s virtually unknown outside of his native Australia (and, to look at his paltry list of credits, possibly isn’t even known very well when he’s at home), with Lucy Lawless and John Hannah playing the owners of a gladiator camp, and Peter Mensah serving as Doctore, a trainer of gladiators.

As you may already know, “Spartacus: Blood and Sand” is going to have a very unique look for television, though it’s similar in appearance and tone, not to mention subject matter, to a certain numerically-named film, a fact which executive producer Rob Tapert tackled headlong.

“Yes, ’300′ had a particular look and style,” Tapert admitted. “Zack Snyder brought that hyper-realistic style to a period piece, you know. Certainly, ‘Sin City’ prior to that had been all digital backgrounds, and there’s other shows currently on television that have digital background, from ‘Blue’s Clues’ all the way through to ‘Sanctuary.’ So what ’300′ did so well was make a great deal of money so everyone said, ‘Hey, the audience will accept that,’ and equally the drama played. So it was very easy to point to something and say, well, it worked in that style. Plus, having a digital environment and not having to have ultra-realistic backdrops and an arena like in ’300,’ or in, like, ‘Gladiator,’ it allowed us to actually bring this to the screen. There was no way to do it without having the artifice, so to speak.”

As Tapert noted last year, this is a reinterpretation of the classic story presented within the 1960 Kubrick film, but there is most definitely a tribute to the man who played that version of Spartacus. At least, I think it’s a tribute.

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TCA Tour, Jan. 2009: “Spartacus”

For as long as this write-up may be, I don’t personally have a whole lot to say about Starz’s “Spartacus,” mostly because Starz didn’t have a whole lot to offer up about “Spartacus” except a lot of talk from the show’s creative team.

Executive producer Rob Tapert describes it as “our reinterpretation of the famous Stanley Kubrick movie,” calling it “a hard-core, testosterone-driven action drama unlike anything on television right now” and “a totally R-rated, hard, hard show that still has all the things that you need in storylines but that delivers the action component that theatrical audiences expect from their entertainment.” Sounds great…but it would sound a lot more impressive if they actually had anything at all to show us or, indeed, had even cast Spartacus yet.

“Goddammit, I said I’M Spartacus!”

Granted, it’s promising that the show is being produced by Tapert and his longtime associate, Sam Raimi, and to have Steven S. DeKnight as head writer and show-runner is certainly good news for those who’ve followed his work on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Angel,” and “Smallville.” (He’s also a major player in Joss Whedon’s “Dollhouse.”) But you’d be a fool to be but so optimistic when you’ve not seen a single frame of the series, and the fact that it’s going to be extremely CGI-heavy makes me a little nervous, but here are a few quotes from the creative team to help get your hopes up.

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