It was 10 years ago today that Frank Sinatra died and the occasion is being marked with a multi-media explosion that includes a U.S. postage-stamp issued yesterday.
Even though Sinatra never took acting very seriously, 22 of his movies are being reissued on DVD by Warner Home Video in various sets (including a “Rat Pack” collection you don’t want to buy unless you are yearning to see “4 for Texas” and “Sergeants 3” again).
The Sinatra I love is the perfectionist singer-musician who revolutionized the recording industry in the 1950s with a series of “concept” albums for Capitol Records that still sound freshly recorded today.
On movie sets, Sinatra was famous for telling directors that they would only get one take out of him, but in the recording studio he demanded time and the best from everyone (including himself).
The albums — such as “Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely,” “In the Wee Small Hours” and “Come Fly with Me” — were sequenced by Sinatra and his arrangers (most often Nelson Riddle) to have the dramatic arc of a movie or play.
At a time when most long-playing records were randomly assembled tunes, Sinatra began creating stories out of carefully chosen songs — old and new.
“Come Fly With Me” is a buoyant ode to travel and movement, taking the listener from the introductory title tune through “Moonlight in Vermont,” “London by Night” and “Brazil.” If you’re in a dark state of mind, listening to this CD is a surefire mood elevator.
I tend to agree with the Sinatra fans who believe “Only the Lonely” might be the singer’s greatest recording, but it is such a melancholy collection that it isn’t really designed for casual listening (Sinatra was said to call it “the suicide album” only partly in jest).
I don’t think there has ever been a simpler or more beautiful arrangement for a pop song than the one Nelson Riddle wrote for “One for My Baby” — the last cut on the original vinyl “Only the Lonely” (the CD version tacks on two extra tracks including a great version of the Rodgers and Hart standard “Where or When”) . Riddle cited “Only the Lonely” and “Songs for Swingin’ Lovers” as his two best Sinatra collaborations.
Sinatra did produce and star in one of my all-time favorite movies “The Manchurian Candidate,” but his film work pales in comparison with the recordings he left behind.
Will Friedwald — author of the peerless Sinatra-in-the-studio tome, “The Song is You” — captured the essence of the singer’s unique and timeless form of musical performance when he wrote, “Where other singers, at best, work with lyrics and melodies, Sinatra deals in mental images and pure feelings that he seems to summon up almost without the intervention of composers, arrangers, and musicians, as vital as their contributions are.”
Sinatra’s best “movies” were the ones he created in his listeners’ minds as he sang.
It was 10 years ago today that Frank Sinatra died and the occasion is being marked with a multi-media explosion that includes a U.S. postage-stamp issued yesterday.
Mercedes Ruehl is giving a very sly and very funny performance as sculptor Louise Nevelson in Edward Albee’s bio-play “Occupant,” running at the Signature Theatre in Manhattan through July 6.
Although the production is being billed as a “world premiere,” an earlier version of the play was set to open in 2002 at the Signature, but was forced to close only a week into the run due to the illness of Anne Bancroft (she died three years later).
I caught an early preview of “Occupant” last weekend — the official press opening is June 5 — and thoroughly enjoyed Ruehl’s virtuoso performance alongside the work of Larry Bryggman as an oily interviewer in the Charlie Rose vein.
It is a bit of stretch to call what Albee has written a “play.” “Occupant” doesn’t have the suspense or the dramatic momentum of the writer’s great work — it is a deliberately slight mock interview in which Nevelson (who died in 1988) is brought back from the hereafter to discuss her life and work.
Although the set-up is supernatural — how did the interviewer pull Nevelson back from the other side? — what Albee gives us is nothing more than a two-hour Q&A in which the artist ignores her flat-footed interrogator much of the time to charm us with anecdotes drawn from her 89-year life.
Those who go into “Occupant” expecting some big moment of resolution or even an explosive dust-up between the artist and the interviewer will be sorely disappointed.
But the two hours are good light fun in which Albee satirizes the whole celebrity interview process and shows how entertainment value almost always trumps “truth” when a famous person agrees to be questioned in a public forum.
Ruehl goes so deep into her character that we forget we are watching the star of “Married to the Mob” and “The Fisher King” on screen and “Other People’s Money” and Albee’s “The Goat” on stage. The illusion that we are observing and listening to the real Nevelson expounding on art, New York City and her elusive search for “love” is maintained with scarcely a false note by a terrific actress who appears to be enjoying every moment on stage.
(The original May 6 to June 29 run of “Occupant” sold out weeks ago, but extra performances have been added through July 6. For more information, go to www.signaturetheatre.org.)
We are all used to the notion of semi-autobiographical movies in which writer-directors act out variations on their own life experience — Woody Allen has spent much of his career doing just that and others who have worked the same genre include Ed Burns and Frenchman Yvan Attal.
But, it isn’t common for a playwright to act on a New York stage in one of his own plays, so David Grimm is exposing himself in “Steve & Idi” — his new comedy-drama at the Rattlestick Theatre in Greenwich Village — in a way that Richard Greenberg and Tony Kushner have not attempted.
Grimm is one of my favorite contemporary theater writers. He received superb productions of “The Great Osram” and “The Learned Ladies of Park Avenue” at Hartford Stage in recent seasons and I’ve enjoyed his off-Broadway shows “Kit Marlowe” and “Measure for Pleasure,” too.
The playwright has a tough, cynical sense of humor that has been restrained a bit in some of his period pieces, but “Steve & Idi” is a angry, confrontational contemporary play about a theater writer on the verge of a nervous breakdown — partially the result of the precarious position of any young and serious American playwright today and partially due to his self-destructive romantic and sexual relationships.
Just as it is probably wrong to assume Woody Allen is all of the characters he’s played in his own films, the Brooklyn writer Steve in Grimm’s play might not be all that much like the “real” writer behind the piece. The writer might be having some fun at the expense of his most tortured artiste friends and acquaintances.
But, with Grimm acting for the first time in 18 years, you can’t help but believe there are strong parallels with Steve that made him feel he should play the part.
To Grimm’s credit, Steve is viewed in a much harsher light than the other characters in the play. He pushes friends and potential lovers away in an often unpleasant manner and the quality of the work Steve is doing is never romanticized either — indeed, we are left with the impression that the play Steve is writing about Idi Amin is probably unproduceable and a symptom of his emotional deterioration.
The device of Idi — or rather the spirit of Idi — marching into Steve’s apartment right after the writer tries to kill himself is used for much sharp humor but the ghost (so well played by Evan Parke) also works as a literal depiction of the writer’s violent imagination.
Director Eleanor Holdridge has assembled a first-rate cast of five for “Steve & Idi” and it is a credit to Grimm that he holds everything together with his witty but harrowing portrait of an artist in melt-down mode.
Some of the reviews of “Steve & Idi” have been savagely negative, so Grimm is working in the face of formidable New York media opposition. Unlike most playwrights who can go off somewhere and lick their wounds, Grimm is up on that stage working out Steve’s demons at every performance. “Steve & Idi” is often as messy and as unstable as the protagonist’s psyche, but it is quite a show.
(“Steve & Idi” is running through May 24 at the Rattlestick Theatre. For more information, call 212-868-4444 or www.rattlestick.org)
It is hard to figure out what audience “Speed Racer” was made for.
The $120 million production from the writing-directing team of Andy and Larry Wachowski has incomprehensible plotting, nauseating Day Glo colors and strobe-light editing that recall those “head” movies of the 1960s and ’70s that were intended to be seen after smoking a joint or dropping some acid (i.e. the midnight movie favorite “El Topo” or the final 15 minutes of “2001”).
And yet, the PG-rated film is being marketed by Warner Bros. as a family movie.
At the Manhattan screening I attended last night, reviewers were encouraged to bring up to five “family” members along, but after the two-hour-and-10-minute assault on my eyes and ears, my first thought was what kind of family would sit through such an incoherent mess. (If I hadn’t been blocked into the center of a crowded row, I would have headed for the exit doors long before the end).
The frenetic cutting and absence of any recognizeable human behavior on screen made it seem like some sort of sophisticated brain-washing tool designed to sell God-knows-what (very much in the vein of that crazy subliminal “test” the potential assassins are given in the 1974 paranoia classic, “The Parallax View”).
“Speed Racer” hangs several wonderful actors out to dry. In the title role, Emile Hirsch — so good in “Into the Wild” — is so plastic-looking that he could be one of those Disneyland animatronic creations they used to have in the Hall of Presidents. Susan Sarandon looks suitably dazed (and airbrushed) as the neo-1950s suburban mom who keeps encouraging her son to try to kill himself in one of the insane races.
Pity the millions of children — and their squirming parents — who will be subjected to this nightmarish concoction beginning Friday.
It has taken 23 years for the Natalie Robins and Steven M.L. Aronson book, “Savage Grace,” to reach the screen. The Touchstone division of Simon and Schuster is marking the occasion with a new paperback edition of the disturbing and fascinating account of high society incest and matricide.
The book won the best fact crime award of the Mystery Writers of America in 1985, but I didn’t read it until the new version of the book landed on my desk recently. I can see why E.L. Doctorow and Norman Mailer provided blurbs for the original hardcover edition — it’s the sort of grisly, ghastly true tale of American privilege gone bad that a novelist would have a hard time selling as a credible piece of fiction.
“Savage Grace” traces the disintegration of Barbara Baekeland and her son Tony during the 1960s and early ’70s as they lived a fast life in Manhattan and Europe hobnobbing with such celebrity friends as James Jones, Salvador Dali and various members of the Astor and Vanderbilt families.
Robins and Aronson use the oral history format so we get a multitude of perspectives on the circumstances leading up to and continuing after Tony stabbed his mother to death in their London apartment on Nov. 17, 1972.
Barbara was divorced from Tony’s father, Brooks Baekeland, who was the heir to the Bakelite plastics fortune of his grandfather Leo.
Both Barbara and Tony were swept up in the “la dolce vita” excesses of the 1960s. The addition of drugs and sexual license to their already neurotic personalities paved the way to a disaster that did not surprise people who knew the situation — but who could have stepped in to stop what was probably inevitable?
When it became clear that Tony was gay, Barbara decided to straighten him out (and prepare him for marriage) by having sex with her son — this apparently turned into an ongoing affair that completely unhinged both of them.
Although it is hard to imagine a more sordid story, Robins and Aronson make the pages race by. As the reviewer in The New York Times put it, “(the book) has a mythic quality that echoes Greek tragedy.”
Will this complex personal story work as a movie? Can the brilliant actress Julianne Moore make Barbara someone an audience will want to contemplate for two hours?
We’ll find out when “Savage Grace” opens on May 30.
The story did find a director who seems perfect for the project, Tom Kalin, who handled an equally disturbing tale of high society psychosis and murder in “Swoon,” his impressionistic 1992 account of the Leopold and Loeb case.
Even though hard-core pornography has been widely available in this country for more than three decades — some of us saw “Deep Throat” 36 years ago in theaters, long before the advent of Internet and hotel room porn — we still live in a culture that keeps behaving as if it is “shocked” by nudity and overt sexuality in the media.
The recent madness over the Miley Cyrus photos in Vanity Fair is a sign of either rampant neo-Puritanism (bare shoulders equals porn?) or cynical PR machinery.
So, I don’t know what to expect Wednesday night in Stamford when I host a gathering at the non-profit Avon Theatre Film Center devoted to the issue of sex in cinema that will include a screening of the 1972 Bernardo Bertolucci classic “Last Tango in Paris” along with the striking new black-and-white short film, “Leave You in Me,” by Stamford filmmaker Dutch Doscher.
Doscher’s film is an honest treatment of a young couple in crisis, played out in their bedroom, with both participants nude the whole time.
The film’s premise is that after the intimacy of their lovemaking, the man and woman then have a primal discussion about the man’s infidelity. Doscher believes it would be dishonest to have the characters clutching at sheets and/or towels before they start talking, and that the viewer should accept the nudity as being entirely natural.
Doscher gave me a DVD of the film at another Avon screening a few months ago and told me he was having a hard time getting the picture screened in the area because of the frontal nudity. I suggested to Avon programmer Adam Birnbaum that he show Doscher’s short with a feature that deals with sex in a frank, adult manner.
When Birnbaum learned that prints of “Last Tango in Paris” were again available — in conjunction with the 90th anniversary celebration of United Artists — it seemed like the perfect pairing with “Leave You in Me.”
It will be interesting to see if the 1972 Marlon Brando vehicle has any shock value left and how the audience will respond to Doscher’s striking contemporary vision of romantic and sexual strife.
(The screening of “Leave You in Me” and “Last Tango in Paris” will be Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. The Avon Theatre is at 272 Bedford St. in Stamford. For more information, call 967-3660.)
When you go to a big movie press gathering, it is standard operating procedure for reporters to be offered T-shirts or soundtrack CDs or even backpacks promoting the film in question.
Usually, I say thanks but no thanks.
Last Sunday at the press conference for “Iron Man,” some reporters grumbled about the absence of the usual movie promo booty, but I was thrilled when a publicist handed me an oblong paperback book, “Making Iron Man,” consisting of photos taken on the set by Jeff Bridges who gets third billing under Robert Downey Jr.
Bridges has been one of my favorite actors for more than 30 years, but I also love the gritty, behind-the-scenes photos he has been taking on sets since “Starman” in 1984.
On the movies he’s made since then, the actor has made gift books of his production pictures and given them to the cast and crew.
Five years ago, powerHouse books published a collection of the actor’s photos — “Pictures” — and it has become one of my most treasured Hollywood books because of the way Bridges shows us the nuts and bolts of making movies.
I was surprised by the number of reporters at the Sunday event who didn’t know about this remarkable book. Critic David Thomson has called Bridges “the taker of some of the best on-set still photographs I have ever seen.”
The actor uses a Widelux camera which produces an extraordinarily wide image. In the foreword to “Pictures” director Peter Bogdanovich writes that “Jeff’s choice of…camera is emblematic of his own vision, which generously includes as much as possible of the ragtag world in which he has spent so much of his life.”
The actor’s respect for the crew — and his understanding of the important role they play on any film — is illustrated by shot after shot that includes make-up people, lighting men, costume fitters.
“Jeff is America’s best actor,” director Terry Gilliam told Bogdanovich. “He’s a Zen actor — he knows the frame, the plane of the film he’s acting in — which is very useful and pretty spooky for the crew because he really knows how films are made. It’s rare for an actor to be so incredibly technical yet real at the same time. He never cheats.”
In the book and in his acting, Bridges makes what he does look entirely natural. The actor-photographer includes several shots of his “Texasville” and “The Last Picture Show” co-star Timothy Bottoms in his book and writes in a caption, “I have always felt that Tim’s performance in ‘The Last Picture Show’ should have won him an Academy Award. He disappeared into his character, Sonny, so completely that his acting was invisible, which is probably why he wasn’t nominated. His acting was too good to be noticed.”
What Bridges said about the acting of Timothy Bottoms is the way I feel about “Pictures.”
The role of the collector and museum curator Sam Wagstaff in the life and art of Robert Mapplethorpe is explored in the fine 2007 documentary, “Black White + Gray,” which has just been issued on DVD by Arts Alliance America.
Wagstaff was the product of a privileged upbringing in New York City — the family home was on Central Park South — and after attending Yale, he became a major force in the art world in his role as curator at Hartford’s Wadsworth Atheneum, among other institutions. Wagstaff had the ability to put new artists on the map by including them in his carefully constructed shows.
Writer-director James Crump shows how Wagstaff’s almost unerring taste and talent for finding the next big thing in the art world gave him the power to make careers.
In the 1970s, Wagstaff shifted into private collecting; his fascination with photography helped to elevate what was then viewed as a largely commercial or journalistic tool into a form of high art.
“Black White + Gray” focuses on the 1970s when Wagstaff became Mapplethorpe’s friend and lover. Mapplethorpe was living with poet and musician Patti Smith at the time and the three of them formed a tight bond.
Smith provided Crump with wonderful interview footage in which she talks about the way Wagstaff influenced Mapplethorpe as a budding photographer and Mapplethorpe introduced the older man to Manhattan’s gay sex underground.
The two men explored the S&M clubs that flourished in the pre-gentrification Meatpacking District; what they saw and did there inspired some of Mapplethorpe’s most striking — and most controversial — pictures.
Dominick Dunne contributes a witty and especially informed interview. The Hartford-born writer knew Wagstaff long before he met Mapplethorpe — before the patrician Wadsworth curator developed his taste for drugs and the underground.
Dunne also did a major piece on Mapplethorpe for Vanity Fair just a few months before AIDS claimed the photographer (Wagstaff had died a few years earlier, leaving most of his fortune and vast photo collection to Mapplethorpe).
“Black White + Grey” impresses with its seriousness of intent and the unusually smart comments Crump gathered from a wide array of articulate people who knew Wagstaff.
Writer Joan Juliet Buck gives the film an appropriately wry New York patina with her no-nonsense narration.