Elizabeth Taylor: The Last Movie Star

Elizabeth Taylor truly was the last movie star. Her star burned brightly for so long and her legacy remains not only the celluloid classics but the fiery brilliance of the star system that ended with her death. She reveled in her role as a “movie star.” And from a very young age she worked at the image she projected. She was raised in the Hollywood studio system and she lived her life as a star of the Hollywood screen.

Some of the movies that are mentioned in connection with Taylor are true classics. “National Velvet” was certainly an early foreshadowing of her great screen presence. It was not only her exceptional beauty but the quality of breathy eagerness and the energy and excitement in her voice when she spoke of the Piebald horse she rode that belies the notion that it was only her looks that led her to great heights.

Elizabeth Taylor had “it”, that indefinable something that makes up the batter equaling a movie star. When asked to name her greatest works, almost everyone mentions “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and “A Place in the Sun.” These are very good movies, but in my opinion, probably not her best.

She was, as another critic pointed out, probably at her best in “National Velvet” as a young, untrained actress. Her later films that would definitely be on my “must see” list for any Elizabeth Taylor retrospective would include:

“Ivanhoe”: She plays a young Jewish girl who is enamored with the knight Ivanhoe, played by Robert Taylor. She is filmed all in white at one point and the camera truly falls in love with her presence. She is never lovelier as a young ingénue than in this film,

“Cleopatra”: This film was so controversial at the time. This early sixties film had cost over-runs and scandals and affairs attached to it that gave it an instant notoriety. It is a rather campy film in a Cecil B. DeMille-style kind of way. But ironically, the early scenes between Taylor and Rex Harrison have a kind of humor and chemistry that is lost in the later love scenes between her and Richard Burton

“The Taming of the Shrew”: This is, in my opinion, the best of the Taylor-Burton collaborations. Richard Burton’s stage presence and Shakespearean training lend itself to this production directed by Franco Zefferelli. The costumes and cinematography are unique to the era and there is a touch of humor that is somehow lacking in many of their other collaborations.

“Father of the Bride”: Elizabeth Taylor is showcased as the young bride playing alongside the great and incomparable Spencer Tracy. The pairing of the two was well played here and there is also a lightheartedness to this fifties film that waxes nostalgic and wears rather well in the modern era.

What were they Thinking?

Two thoughts on the Academy Awards show Sunday night. It’s wonderful to see “The King’s Speech” honored, and Colin Firth was a “shoo-in” for Best Actor. But when you’re looking back on any actors entire body of work, it’s always nice to find some of the ones that got away.

Some films are simply not distributed or didn’t make it big as box office hits, but are worthy of attention if you enjoy movies. For Colin Firth, he will always be associated with “Pride and Prejudice” as THE Definitive Mr. Darcy.

However, he has been in some other note-worthy films. “Valmont” was an early film, and he also appeared in “The English Patient”. His comic style and timing was exceptionally displayed in both “Bridget Jones” films with Renee Zellwegger. And, of course, he hammed it up with Meryl Streep and others in “Mamma Mia” last year.

But one of the memorable performances was his portrayal of a Father who was an inventor in the coming of age movie, “My Life So Far.” These roles can really showcase the nuances, subtlety and range that an actor like Firth projects.

Some other note-worthy performances that are often missed are Russell Crowe’s early film, ‘The Sum of Us”. Based on a stage play, Crowe portrays a gay man but it’s his relationship with his father, with whom he lives, and the interaction between the two men that makes this film special.

Another great British actor, Clive Owen, is in a seldom seen movie adaptation of the play, “Bent”. He gives an extraordinary performance as a gay man in a German Concentration Camp during WW II. The range and nuance that is seen in Owen’s performance is something that he isn’t always allowed to display when he plays a tough guy role.

The under-appreciated films that these actors have starred in prior to their big break out roles can sometimes give you a better idea of why they have been nominated and are considered some of the best actors working in film today.

The second thought is on the Awards show itself. Why in the world did they hire Anne Hathaway and James Franco to host? They were in way over their heads, it was obvious from the start, and it turned out badly. But this is just one in a long line of disastrous hosting gigs that Oscar has presented in recent years.

David Letterman comes to mind, and there was the year that Snow White and Rob Lowe went into the audience to sing to Tom Hanks and Paul Newman. Jon Stewart did not fare well, and several comics bombed badly (Richard Pryor played a frozen, nervous man that didn’t translate well).

For a town that prides itself on “creativity and innovation”, sadly, the true corporate nature of the movie industry rears its ugly head when all is said and done. They want a winner, someone who can host like Bob Hope or Billy Crystal, and these types of entertainers don’t grow on trees. There are a select few who can do it year after year and it’s always hard to keep the material fresh. Stand up comedy should be followed by short routines and usually there are other comics and popular entertainers inserted in the mix.

But this year, it’s almost like all thoughts of entertainment were banned from the broadcast. Where was Ben Stiller or Jim Carrey? Or Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber? Where was Angelina Jolie or Brad Pitt? Or George Clooney & Julia Roberts?

Older famous pairings like Robert De Niro with (almost anybody) would have been nice. Warren Beatty was sitting in the audience just applauding! He could have been on stage with Jack Nicholson. Elizabeth Taylor is gravely ill, therefore they could have recognized her body of work as a past recipient. But no, this would have been way too much for the lame milquetoast production that was just downright boring.

Sometimes it’s better to take chances and to fail then to just be so bland and boring that no one really cares what happens. That is the case here. They need some creative minds to “re-think” the Oscar broadcast.

Originally at the Oscars they sat at tables and had a dinner show. They should seriously think about having food served like a CineBistro. It might be more interesting to watch celebrities eating. Or turn it into a reality show with introspectives and montages, mixed with celebrities and comics who know how to entertain a room while the camera is rolling-LIVE! I would suggest almost anything would top the stale, dull, by rote type of pabulum that seems to flow from the spicket each year at Academy Awards time.

This is not brain surgery but it does require common sense. That is something that has been in short supply in so many of our major industries lately. The corporate mentality strikes again!

Capsule Review: Robin Hood

1. Robin Hood: Russell Crowe and Ridley Scott together have compiled all the main ingredients for the Robin Hood “stew”. First, you explain how the story with Robin plus his band of Merry Men gets all the way from the Crusades into Sherwood Forest. That takes the better part of one hour. My one big “beef” with this plot was the time it took to get Robin and his crew into the Forest.

Everyone knows that Robin is the Earl of Locksley. This is another vital element. Everyone knows that Richard the Lionhearted is the “good” king and John is the evil brother. There is the Sheriff of Nottingham, who is always up to no-good. And layered over everything is the love story between Robin and Maid Marian.
In this instance, the fleshing out of the story pays off because Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett work together to craft a believable relationship between two strong characters.

The Merry Men are an aside in this instance, giving the usual storyline a nod and a wink. But the main theme of the story is always the fact that Robin is an outlaw and an altruist at heart. Throw in the conceit of Robin as Master Archer and you concoct a fairly plausible story of “Robin Hood.”

It works, in this instance, even if it does take a tad long to get to the “meat” of the storyline. But this Robin may easily overtake the bastardized Kevin Costner version to find a place in the annals of Robin Hood lore. Not a place quite as high as the gold standard of “Robin Hoods” with Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone.

Crowe is not a swashbuckling sort of Robin. This is a man with some humility and has his tongue firmly in cheek. The stuff that dreams are made of is found more in the outlandishly overblown performance from a young Errol Flynn. But as Robin Hood’s go, this makes for a pretty good story.

Capsule Review: The A-Team, Liam Neeson and the state of Summer Movies

Apparently, Liam Neesan is the new “go-to” tough guy. The mantle that was long worn by the likes of John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Sylvestor Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Sean Connery is now being filled by Mr. Neeson.

In the sleeper hit from last year, “Taken” the word of mouth and buzz was generated by Neeson’s measured performance and quiet sense of violent energy. When Neeson was seen in an early film with Dennis Quaid and Cher,( “Suspect”), I remember thinking of this forgettable plot, “The only one really trying to ACT is the mute guy with no lines!” That was Liam Neeson and he has managed to convey the sense of urgent unrest in his greatest roles, such as “Schindler’s List”.

This type of action-pabulum is usually thrown out for audiences who don’t care about minor details like acting and plot points. But in this case, “The A Team” is simply a nice little piece of action-candy. It’s not high theater, but it’s not as low-brow as some might think.

The other actors, notably the Australian actor Sharlto Copley, who was most recently seen in “District 9,” are not always trying to aim for the trees with their acting chops but it makes for a nice relaxing two hours of mindless action theater for those who know the drill. There is nothing wrong with knowing what the basic elements of the plot will be. The audiences in Shakespeare’s day all knew the story line of his plays. The trick is in getting the audiences attention and keeping it.

I have taken solace in the fact that critics have been sitting up and taking notice of the fact that the summer movie season has really been loaded with a bunch of crap. There are bad movies and there are unfortunate re-makes and there are movies that should never have been made.
I am funny about things like this because, the older I get, the more it takes for me to actually GO to the movie to see something. Rarely will I get the urge to go and sit for two hours or more without a compelling urge to see a certain actor or to see some new plot twist or variation.

I guess the older I get, the more I see that there really is not much new under the sun. But it’s no secret that the summer movies have been loaded with nothing. The few exceptions are mentioned here, but it’s been an extraordinarily long summer for fans of GOOD movies.

Capsule Review: The Other Guys

“The Other Guys” is a typical Will Farrell movie in that he is in it to make ‘em laugh. The twist is that this time the movie has some really clever and original moments that will surprise those of us who have come to expect Will Farrell “boiler plate” comedies.

You know that he is going to “out-dumb” the rest of the cast with his quirky sayings. You know that he is going to irritate his partner in fighting crime, Mark Wahlberg, who is perfectly cast as the irritated foil to Farrell’s desk-bound persona.

There is a really funny cameo bit from “The Rock”, Dwayne Johnson and Samuel L Jackson but, as is the case in some great comedies, one of the “second bananas” ends up stealing the show. Cast as the captain presiding over the pair of misfits, Michael Keaton reminds us that he got his start in stand-up. Keaton at one point earnestly points out that his second job at “Bed, Bath & Beyond” is one of the reasons he’s trying so hard to ensure that his department doesn’t step over the line…This is just one of the many asides that are tossed out on the dartboard for the audience to absorb.

The twist in this film is the fact that Will Farrell loves his desk-jockey position in the police department and Wahlberg, as the volatile and trigger-happy partner, is not content to stay in the office. Mayhem ensues and the laughs pile up. This film is a happy follow-up to the quirky piece Farrell did with John C. Reilly, ‘Stepbrothers”, directed by Farrell “go-to” guy, Adam McKay (Mckay also directed the funniest of Farrell films, “Anchorman”.

Capsule Review: Dinner for Schmucks

Steve Carell and Paul Rudd are two immensely likeable actors working with at times, an annoying script. The premise is based on an earlier French film, which is problematic from the start. French comedy doesn’t always translate well, and, although I haven’t seen it, I suspect that the comedy was a subtle one whereas in America, we tend to use a sledgehammer to “Jerry Lewis” the comedy out of all situations (i.e…”milk it for all it’s worth!)

In this instance, less probably should be more, but the actors somehow turn in into a bittersweet sort of treatise on the corporate greed and insensitivity of big companies that is a popular mantra these days. The opening is one of the most interesting and creative elements that showcases the quirks and foibles of Carell’s obnoxious character.

There is just enough here to make it interesting to watch and nothing more. I would say that the like-ability factor goes a long way in this case to make the film watchable. But this piece of sugar candy will melt in your brain and fizz away before you leave the theatre.

Capsule Review: Date Night

Most of the reviews for this movie have focused on the pedestrian plot line and some of the predictable formulaic comedy (reminiscent of “The Out-of-Towners”) and not on the performance of the comics or the fact that this is a rare comedy NOT skewed for younger or thirty-something audiences. At one point, Ms. Fey states, “Don’t judge me…What is a flash drive?”
At this point, we realize why some audiences/reviewers will not “get” this movie. The old-fashioned idea of a “date night” is almost quaint by today’s standards. This is a comedy for baby boomers. It is made for those of us who are “of a certain age.”
For that reason alone, baby boomers should identify with this movie. The idea of a married couple wanting to make their marriage work and working at it by going out on the town on a “date” is a hilariously quaint notion in some quarters. That is what makes a lot of Steve Carrell’s films work. The fact that he starts from the point of view that he is “square” and not hip. He is everyman to a lot of people and that is something that is lacking in a lot of film stars today. It’s the same quality- the quality of connecting- that comes through in Tom Hanks movies. Date Night is a light comedy and it is not for everyone. But if you like this kind of comedy, it may tell you something about who you are. And that is not necessarily a bad thing.