Living in the Material World (Martin Scorsese, 2011)

This week was filled with so many inspiring events–Blur’s performance at the Brit Awards where they were awarded Outstanding Contribution to Music (and Adele getting her knickers in a twist because her acceptance speech was truncated so that the band could perform–boo freaking hoo), Kentucky kicking butt twice (…why were we down by 13 at halftime against Mississippi State, though? I still don’t understand!), and discovering that I have a new favorite Ricky Nelson song (“String Alooooong”, oh my could that boy sing or what). But today would have been George Harrison’s 69th birthday, and there is nothing so dear to my heart as my Beatles. And I decided to mark the occasion by viewing Martin Scorsese’s documentary about George, Living in the Material World, for the first time.

I had high expectations for this film. I loved The Last Waltz and No Direction Home, and I had no qualms about Scorsese tackling a subject as mysterious and complex as George. I must admit, however, that I was slightly underwhelmed by this film. When asked whether the film revealed anything new to him about his dear friend, Ringo Starr replied in this month’s issue of Mojo: “No…but I knew George really well.”

Of course I could never profess to know George as well as Ringo, but I found myself waiting for something more while watching the film. Everyone you can imagine is interviewed for this film–Harry and Pete Harrison (George’s older brothers), Olivia, Dhani, Paul, Ringo, Yoko, Pattie Boyd, Eric Clapton, Tom Petty, Eric Idle, the late Neil Aspinall, and on and on, but I’m not quite sure why some were interviewed, as they really had nothing to say–for example, Derek Taylor’s wife. You and your husband came to England, met John and George at the airport, and you all had LSD on the car drive to Brian Epstein’s house. And they were really nice to you. Cool. (This is the part where Wayne and Garth are all, “NOT!”) This is not to say that no one had any revealing insights–there were plenty but perhaps there were some that should have ended up on the cutting room floor, as should have the disproportionate amount of time devoted to the George-Pattie-Eric triangle. That was unnecessary and boring, augmented by Pattie Boyd reading from her insipid autobiography.

The film is sparse with details; there is no voice-over narration to guide you. You are expected to know who Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr are without titles (as you should be, let’s be honest); you are expected to know the general details of the Beatles’ story. This allows space for what I think is the film’s greatest strength–the use of rare footage and photographs, many taken by George himself. My single favorite scene in the film is the footage that opens and closes it: George is in one of his many gardens, hiding behind the tall flowers, making faces that are simultaneously somber and playful. That footage, lasting only a handful of seconds, captures so much of George. I enjoyed the film most when Scorsese used footage like this, sometimes interspersed with the music of the Beatles and Harrison, and let it simply speak for itself.

George Harrison, Living in the Material World

Is there anything you would say to George if he were around today?
Dhani Harrison: Were have you been? I had a dream and that was what I said to him in the dream, so I guess that’s what would be the question. Where have you been since I last saw you? And he answered it, so I can tell you the answer as well, which was, “Here, the whole time.”

I loved Ringo’s recollections the most. He recalled how, in their early days of fame, they all stopped somewhere to eat. George was the first one back in the car–behind the wheel, in the driver’s seat. Paul, however, had the keys. And so a stubborn argument ensued. “I have the keys!” “I’ve got the wheel!” They finally left about two hours later. Ringo did not disclose who drove.

He shared how in the frenzy of Beatlemania, they often had an entire floor of a hotel to themselves. They, however, found themselves meeting in the central location of the bathroom–just to be together.

Ringo also shared this aphorism: “The Beatles had one day off a month, and on the day off, Paul would go to a beauty pageant.” Booyah.

Photograph by Astrid Kirchherr

Astrid Kirchherr shared another one of my favorite anecdotes. The Beatles arrived in Hamburg, only three days after the death of Stuart Sutcliffe, which they were ignorant of until she told them at the airport. Once she took them back to her home, John asked if he could see the place where Stuart used to paint. Once in the room, he was overcome with emotion, and she nudged George to stand behind him as she framed a photograph. George was just barely eighteen, but, she said, he had such a calm and strengthening presence. I love the emotion–and, as a result, the relationship between the two–she captured in that series of photographs.

Interviewer: He [John Lennon] was no angel.
George: He wasn’t. But he was as well.
Interviewer: Was he?
George: Yeah.

Olivia Harrison remarked that there is the saying or teaching that in this life, one must perfect one human relationship in order to truly love God–you practice loving God by loving others, and she felt that one relationship for George was with his music and by extension, the other Beatles and other close friends who were also his musical collaborators. This documentary gave a balanced view of George, showcasing both his faults and successes as a man, but what I took most from this film was what a kind, genuine friend he was to so many.

Interviewer: Are you individually millionaires yet? 
John: No…
Interviewer: Where does all the money go? 
John: Well, a lot of it goes to Her Majesty. 
George: She’s a millionaire. 

The Beatles actually were the most adorable, endearing, witty, talented, genuine group of people to ever grace this earth. Just thought I’d throw that out there. And it’s kind of scary that there are people who don’t hold them in the highest regard. That really, really scares me.

Back to the film, though.

Living in the Material World has much to recommend it–home movies from the early days to backstage on the Dark Horse tour to Dhani helping George in the garden to the Traveling Wilburys rehearsing in the kitchen, the warm memories from Ringo, the good and the bad memories from Olivia, including a detailed recollection of the night a man invaded their Friar Park home and stabbed George, Paul’s honesty about George’s contributions to the Beatles music and his own bossiness that stifled George’s creativity at times, Yoko’s generous words, and the inclusion of photographs paired with so many of George’s most beautiful compositions. I’ll probably be listening to All Things Must Pass constantly for the next few days as a result.

“He just lit the room.” –Olivia Harrison on George “leaving” his body 

As he did in life. Happy birthday, dear. Love and miss you always.

Advertisements

Five Favorite Montgomery Clift Performances

The Oscars are next week and just to give you an indication of how incredibly vacuous and self-congratulatory the ceremony will be, George Clooney is nominated for Best Actor. I mean, it’s not exactly Marlon Brando for The Godfather, is it?

Once upon a time, though, Montgomery Clift was nominated for an Oscar. Four times. He never won–unjustly so–but his performances inspired countless actors: Brando, Dean,   Pacino, de Niro. And on and on. He did not die young, an immortal idol like James Dean; he died at home quietly, alone, aged 45. He did not remain an enduring film star like Cary Grant or John Wayne, dying with just seventeen films to his name. And so he is often forgotten–but only by those who have never witnessed one of his indelible performances, each one marked by his exceptional talent, vulnerability, and intensity.

This list could easily encompass all his films because Montgomery Clift never committed a mediocre performance to film. But here they are–my five favorite Montgomery Clift performances.

Honorable Mention: Judgment at Nuremberg (Stanley Kramer, 1961) 

Montgomery Clift, Judgment at Nuremberg

“I want that you tell me was she feeble-minded? My Mother! Was she feeble-minded? Was she?!”

OK, so I fibbed a bit. There’s six films on this list. Five was just way too constrictive.

Clift appears in a mere seventeen minutes of Stanley Kramer’s 186-minute film about four judges who executed Nazi sterilization and “cleansing” policies. The film boasts an all-star cast, including Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland, Burt Lancaster, and Spencer Tracy, but Clift’s performance eclipses them all. He portrays a sterilized Jewish man, Rudolph Peterson, who claims the Nazis sterilized him because of his family’s political affiliations. During cross-examination, however, the defense alleges the reason for his sterilization was his genetic “feeble-mindedness.” Peterson’s vigorous, heart-wrenching reaction to the charge is unforgettable, as he holds up a photograph of his mother and asks the court if she was feeble-minded.

Clift struggled to remember his lines; Spencer Tracy reportedly told Clift to play the scene to him, and that is the take that appears on film. Director Stanley Kramer states that he instructed Clift to ad lib, a way to convey the character’s confusion, and that helped calm and drive Clift to his performance. Criticisms that the shambling behavior Clift exhibits in the film (parodied here by Martin Short) are indicative of his drug addiction are ridiculous; Clift appears a mess because his character is a mess. The fragmented sentences, the broken syntax, the trembling hands show that the character of Peterson is not in control of his physical or mental state. The actor, however, despite all his personal turmoil, is.

Actress Nancy Walker and her husband, who were close friends of Clift, reportedly got up and left the theatre after Clift’s scene, Walker declaring that nothing else in the film could possibly surpass what they just saw. Too true.

Clift received his fourth and final Oscar nomination for this film–this time as Best Supporting Actor. George Chakiris won the award for his performance in West Side Story. If anyone needed further proof that the Oscars is a sham, that’s it.

5. The Heiress (William Wyler, 1949) 

Montgomery Clift as Morris Townsend, The Heiress (1949)

I want that you tell me this dude is a fortune hunter. Look how utterly disappointed he looks that Catherine is dancing with some old guy. Come on!

 Ah, my first Montgomery Clift film, you will always be very near and dear to my heart. I wanted to watch an Olivia de Havilland film that wasn’t, you know, Gone with the Wind, and so I found The Heiress and was completely enchanted by Clift and his performance.

Based on the Henry James novel Washington Square, it is the story of Catherine Sloper (de Havilland), a plain yet wealthy young woman, who comes under the spell of the charming and handsome Morris Townsend (Clift). Is he truly in love with her or is he simply after her money? Clift’s performance is so infuriatingly convincing, I’ll never be completely persuaded. He apparently hated his performance (here’s a photo of him watching the rushes of the film), however, and he was criticized for appearing too “modern.” Sorry, I missed that.

'Stached Monty, The Heiress

Important lesson I learned from this film: if you want to age someone seven years, just give them a ‘stache. It does wonders. 

The bigger villain in the story (to me, at least), though, is Catherine’s father, Dr. Sloper (Ralph Richardson), who constantly belittles his daughter for being so plain, awkward, and unlike her dead graceful mother. He threatens to disinherit her if she defies him by marrying Townsend, whom he believes to be a fortune hunter. He is perhaps more responsible for the transformation we see Catherine undergo–a chilling performance that earned de Havilland her second Academy Award for Best Actress.

Clift’s performance, though, sticks with me. You’ll never convince me he was just a greedy fortune hunter. You just won’t.

4. A Place in the Sun (George Stevens, 1951)

Montgomery Clift & Elizabeth Taylor, A Place in the Sun

“I love you. I’ve loved you since the first moment I saw you. I guess maybe I’ve even loved you before I saw you.”

After The Heiress, this was the next Clift film I watched, and I remember wondering if this guy was ever going to stop fooling me into thinking that these dirtbags (?? I’ll never be completely convinced!!) were actually innocent, decent people.

Clift portrays George Eastman, a poor relation of a wealthy industrialist who takes an entry-level factory job at one of his uncle’s facilities. His rich family treat him as an outsider, but Eastman is eager to impress them and works hard to advance in the company. He also begins a relationship with fellow factory worker Alice Tripp (Shelley Winters), a breach of workplace policies, until he meets socialite Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor), with whom he immediately falls in love. The fact that Alice is pregnant and expects Eastman to marry her, however, complicates the situation.

Eastman takes Alice out on a boat, intending to drown her. He loses his nerve, and Alice stands up in the boat, falling into the water. Does Eastman really drown her or does he simply watch her die, refusing to help her? I don’t know. I just don’t know.

This was the first of three films that paired Taylor and Clift. To promote the film, the studio arranged to have Taylor accompany Clift to the premiere of The Heiress. Clift reportedly had no idea who Taylor was and dreaded the evening, but the pair instantly became lifelong friends once they met.

A Place in the Sun was Taylor’s first foray into more serious, dramatic films. Clift helped shape her performance, which was hailed as the best of her career at the time. This–extracting the best performance out of other actors–was to become a pattern, another testament to his extraordinary talent.

This film earned Clift his second Oscar nomination for Best Actor. Marlon Brando was also nominated that year for A Streetcar Named Desire. Both actors thought the other would win the award. Humphrey Bogart, instead, won for The African Queen.

3. The Young Lions (Edward Dmytryk, 1958)

Montgomery Clift, The Young Lions

“I want to say something to you. I’m not opinionated. I don’t think I have a single opinion in the whole world. I don’t know why I kissed you–I just couldn’t help it, I guess. I guess I wanted to impress you. I was afraid if I was myself, you wouldn’t look at me twice.”

After suffering a disfiguring car accident in 1956, Clift was unsure whether he still had a future as an actor. The Young Lions was his first post-accident film, and it proved unequivocally that yes, Montgomery Clift could still act. Or, at least, it proved it to me. People in 1958 were somewhat unsure and apparently brain-dead.

The Young Lions, based on Irwin Shaw’s acclaimed novel of the same name, tells the stories of three soldiers in World War II: Lieutenant Christian Diestl (a blonde Marlon Brando), a German officer who gradually loses his faith in the Nazi cause, Michael Whiteacre (Dean Martin), a show business coward who eventually wants to prove himself, and Noah Ackerman (Clift), a Jewish soldier who suffers bigotry in the military.

Clift, as always, underwent rigorous preparation for the role. His weight dropped to 130 pounds, and he used putty to augment his nose and ears. He is absolutely heartbreaking as the shy and sensitive Ackerman. One of my favorite scenes in the film is when Ackerman meets a girl, Hope (Hope Lange), at a party and accompanies her home. He clumsily kisses her, and she slaps him. He turns, embarrassed and ashamed, to return home, only to turn back to ask her for directions. It’s incredibly endearing. Ackerman bears many similarities to another soldier Clift portrayed, Private Robert Prewitt in From Here to Eternity. Both are resistant to conformity and refuse to succumb to the abuse of others. Ackerman, though, suffers extreme prejudice in a military professing to fight intolerance abroad.

Touted as rivals throughout the 1950s, Brando and Clift actually had great respect and admiration for each other. Brando wrote in his autobiography that he considered Clift a friend and a very good actor. This was the only film in which they both appear, although unfortunately they never share any scenes. (You have no idea how disappointed I was when I found this out…oh, about halfway through the film.) During filming, they apparently avoided one another–understandable, considering they had very different approaches to acting. Clift completely immersed himself in a role, endlessly debating how a character should say a certain line, where their eyes should focus their attention, how they should open a door. Brando could waste literally hours of film trying to figure out what direction he wanted to take with a scene, and he rarely bothered to learn his lines. Clift remarked that Brando was “sloppy” during filming. Brando was concerned about Clift’s growing alcohol and drug addiction, going so far as to offer to attend Alcohol Anonymous meetings with him. Clift privately appreciated the gesture deeply but publicly retorted that didn’t Brando have his own problems (i.e. Brando’s notorious weight fluctuations)?

The Young Lions was an important film for Dean Martin, who was looking to revitalize his career after his professional split from Jerry Lewis. Once again, Clift helped a fellow actor give one of his best performances. Clift also admired his own work; he considered the role and resulting performance his favorite, and he secretly felt it would earn him his fourth Oscar nomination. Following the premiere, his fellows actors congratulated him on his riveting portrayal, but none of them could hide the one condemnatory review that would crush Clift. Bosley Crowther wrote in The New York Times: “Mr. Clift is strangely hollow and lackluster as the sensitive Jew. He acts throughout the picture as if he were in a glassy-eyed daze.” (Obviously, he and I did not watch the same film.)

Clift broke down, telling friends, “Noah Ackerman was the greatest performance of my life. I couldn’t have given more. I’ll never be able to do it again. Ever.”

Sadly, I don’t think he ever really did.

2. From Here To Eternity (Fred Zinnemann, 1953)

Montgomery Clift, From Here to Eternity

“Nobody ever lies about being lonely.” 

Forget Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr smoochin’ on the beach, Montgomery Clift’s Private Robert Prewitt is what makes this film. Prewitt, like Ackerman of The Young Lions, is tough, principled, a loner, an outsider rejected by the thing he loves most (the Army). Watching him suffer through “the treatment” he endures because of having made the (right) choice to adhere to his principles makes you cringe with pain.

It’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role except Clift, who was not the first choice (Aldo Ray was). He took boxing and bugling lessons, although he knew his playing would eventually have to be dubbed for the film. He wanted his breathing and fingering to be completely realistic. Two of my favorite scenes in the film involve Clift playing the bugle–in the bar when he grabs the bugle from some punk and says, “Why don’t you learn to bugle?” and shows him how it’s really done, and playing “Taps” after the death of Maggio.

From Here to Eternity earned Clift his third Oscar nomination for Best Actor. Clift had not been overly concerned about winning the previous two, but by all accounts he really wanted to win this time around and was deeply disappointed when he lost to William Holden for Stalag 17. He reportedly said, “What do I have to do to prove I can act?”

Clift did not lose because Holden was a better actor who gave a better performance. It was mathematics. From Here to Eternity had more votes for Best Actor than any other film. Burt Lancaster, though, was also nominated for Best Actor and because so many members voted for him as well as Clift, the votes cancelled each other out. Further proof that math sucks.

Donna Reed and Frank Sinatra, though, both won Oscars for Best Supporting Actress and Actor, respectively. As before, Clift helped to drive them to perform. He and Sinatra, who was desperate to prove himself as an actor, became especially good friends. After winning his Oscar, Sinatra said, “I wanted to thank Monty Clift personally. I learned more about acting from Clift—it was equal to what I learned about musicals from Gene Kelly.”

Similarly, Donna Reed said of Clift: “I had never worked with any actor like him; to watch him was incredible and memorable. He had a talent and a side to our profession I had never seen before, just superb.”

Never seen before, never seen since.

1. The Search (Fred Zinnemann, 1948)

Montgomery Clift, The Search

“You have no idea how useful it’s gonna be for you to know English. You can go wherever you like–everybody knows what OK means. You can use English all over the world, not just America–Canada, Africa, Australia, India, even in England they understand English. Well, sort of.”

It was difficult to determine which Montgomery Clift performance is truly my favorite. As stated previously, any and all of his films could top this list. (Except maybe Freud, which is just extremely turgid and excruciating to watch, partly because I know what the film did to Clift as a person.) I ultimately chose The Search, his film debut (although Red River was filmed first, its release was delayed due to legal issues), because there is something so inexplicably pure and genuine in his performance as an army engineer, Steve, who tries to help a young child (Ivan Jandl), left orphaned and homeless by the war, learn English and find his mother.

Clift had a deep connection with children, friends said, not because he talked to them or treated them as children but because he treated them as fellow human beings. They instantly flocked to him and he to them. His scenes with Jandl, who spoke no English at the time of the film and memorized his dialogue phonetically, are unbelievably endearing. My favorite scene in the entire film is when Steve first tries to teach Jim “yes” and “no.” Just when Steve is about to give up all hope, Jim says no, and Steve excitedly asks him, “Am I genius or am I not?”

“No,” Jim says.

“OK. OK. But look, lad, the answer should have been yes!”

It’s one of the most adorable things in the world.

There are so many films about World War II, but this is one of my favorites because it tells such a different, heartwarming story. Director Fred Zinnemann allowed Clift a considerable amount of control over the script, and Clift remembered the experience of creative freedom fondly. It would remain one of his favorite roles, and it earned him his very first Oscar nomination.

He, of course, lost to Laurence Olivier for Hamlet.

Do yourself a favor–instead of watching the bland Oscars next weekend, watch Montgomery Clift put all the others to shame. Because he can act.

The Chaperone: My Favorite Episode of The Monkees

I love The Monkees. Monkees Monday on Nick-at-Nite was the center of my universe as a young child (and I roamed the earth like a zombie for years afterward once it was no more). Programming the VCR to record a single episode of The Monkees at 3 A.M. gave me the will to live as a young adolescent. Staying up until 2 A.M. marathoning episodes of the show during finals week at Ohio University was my modus operandi. (OK, so I should qualify that was somewhat involuntary, since college students are exceptionally loud and idiotic creatures. Especially during finals week. Especially at Ohio University.)

I’ve seen and loved all 58 episodes countless times (I raise my hands in supplication to the invention of DVDs), but I will always only ever have one favorite episode of The Monkees: the ninth installment of the first season, “The Chaperone.”

The Monkees, The Chaperone

“She’s divine, lovely, beautiful, devoon, marvelous.” Uh oh. Davy’s in love. As usual. 

“The Chaperone” features The Monkees‘ single most-used plotline: Davy falls in love with a girl. A blonde girl. A blonde girl with no personality. Not that he would know that because he’s never actually said more than three words to this girl and he’s not that bright anyway.

This particular vacuous blonde girl, though, has an exceptionally strict father, a former Military General who only allows her to attend chaperoned parties. So what do The Monkees do?

General Dolenz

“What do you mean you don’t remember? Everyone remembers The Battle of the Bulge. Oh! It’s me you don’t remember.” 

Micky, alias Colonel Dolenz, phones the girl’s father, General Vandenberg, and informs him that his son, Micky, and his friends are throwing a chaperoned party and would his daughter, Leslie, like to come? Of course she would. So the Monkees have got to get their place decorated for party! This leads to one of my all-time favorite Monkees “romps.” (“Romps” are the hip word used to describe the music sequences of the show. They’re pretty much music videos. Only way more fun.)

Some of my favorite things that happen during this romp:

Mike trying to open the pretzels

Mike trying to open the pretzels. Yeah, so Mike Nesmith is totally my favorite Monkee. I know, I know. I KNOW. I’m pretty sure 90% of this blog’s readers are my family members, and I’m pretty sure all of them hate Mike. Every time the conversation of favorite Monkees comes up everyone gags when I say Mike. I’m never going to live it down. But that’s okay because I don’t really want to. Mike Nesmith always has been and always will be my favorite Monkee. I mean, let’s look at the competition: The New and Improved Stephen Stills, Circus Boy, or A Short, Annoying British Guy Who Will Grow Moobs faster than you can say…well, you’ve already said it. That’s how fast Davy Jones grows moobs. It’s nasty. So of course I’m gonna pick the Texan Twig with the Wool Hat. Of course I am. That ONE TIME my family did a road trip across the entire country, we stopped in Texas and went to the Alamo and I was all, “Why are we here? Where’s Mike’s house?” Anyway. Mike trying to open the pretzels is literally the cutest thing in the world.

Orange Juice?

Peter making orange juice or something. Who knows? Not Peter. Because Peter’s the dumb one.

Mike, Micky, and the Cake

Micky spiraling down the staircase straight into that nasty cake Mike just finished frosting. This is seriously one of my favorite things in the world. It’s my favorite part about the opening credits of the show’s first season. (The fact that they removed it from the second season’s opening was a bad omen. Season two is definitely inferior because of this, Micky wearing tablecloths, and the storylines making less and less sense and therefore becoming less and less funny. Unless you were smoking pot. Which everyone probably was.) I still laugh every time. You can ask my sister because she always gets annoyed and says, “Why do you always laugh? It’s not that funny.” Uh, yeah, it is. It totally is.

Peter blowing up a balloon

Peter blowing up a balloon. Self-explanatory, I think.

Once the place is decorated, the real fun begins. The boys need to find a chaperone. They first try to coax their bloodsuckin’ landlord, but he insists he’ll charge them by the hour for the service. Then their feather-brained drunken cleaning lady falls into the role. Then she (literally) passes out of the role and it then goes to…

Micky as The Chaperone

Mrs. Arcadian aka Micky. Micky makes such a pretty lady. General Vandenberg is, of course, smitten. He even gets up to dance amidst the party’s illustrious guests, which include Mr. Clean and Tarzan. Micky just can’t take it anymore, though, and laments to Mike because Mike is always a supportive friend, a good listener with sound advice. What’s the problem, he asks. “He’s getting fresh,” Micky tells him. Mike reminds him that he is doing it for a friend in need who happens to be in love with General Vandenberg’s daughter.

“Yeah,” retorts Micky. “And I’m going to be his mother-in-law.”

“If you play your cards right,” qualifies Mike.

General Vandenberg does end up proposing marriage to Micky, after the boys’ landlord arrives, also becoming infatuated with Mrs. Arcadian, and after he overhears Davy blowing Micky’s cover to Leslie.

The Honeymoon in Venice

Micky is initially repulsed by the idea and tries to reason his way out of it. But once General Vandenberg promises a Honeymoon in Venice, Micky is sold. No one, not even Mike, can get him to reveal the truth to General Vandenberg.

Cover blown

But it’s no big deal because General Vandenberg already knows. “There is no excuse for this kind of deceit!” he roars. Oh, but there is, his daughter tells him, explaining that all she wanted was a date with Davy. You should have just asked me because, he says, he is not an unreasonable man. A resolution is reached. It’s a touching moment of understanding between father and daughter. As Mike declares, “All’s well that ends well.”

Do I gotta give back the ring?

One thing is troubling Micky, though: does he gotta give back the ring? (“Return the ring,” advises Morrissey.)

The tag scene then finds Davy and Leslie on a chaperone-free date:

Davy, Leslie, and the new Chaperone

It’s okay, Davy. You’ll get over her by next week’s episode because you go through more girls than Brandon Walsh.

The Monkees will always be one of my favorite television shows for so many of the reasons illustrated in this episode–the ridiculousness, the humor, and, of course, the music. I remember being outraged the first time I discovered the Monkees were accused of not being a “real band.” Of course they were a real band! My dad owns all their records! Ah, youth. This is the part where Micky uses his line that the Monkees did become a real band just like Leonard Nimoy became a real Vulkan.

Real, fake, human, Vulkan, I really love The Monkees.

The Right Profile: That’s Montgomery Clift, Honey!

Montgomery Clift, Life Magazine, 1948

Say, where did I see this guy? 

An empty, desolate feeling always haunts the start of the New Year. Time to take down the Christmas decorations, time to go back to school, time to face three more months of dreary winter. Syd Barrett’s music, with its raw, primitive quality, is a perfect soundtrack to this sentiment, and so I began last year by reading Rob Chapman’s remarkable biography of Barrett, A Very Irregular Head. It was a great read, and it perfectly complimented the harrowing feeling of the season. At the start of this year, I decided to tackle another emotionally exhausting read: Patricia Bosworth’s Montgomery Clift: A Biography.

I saw my first Montgomery Clift film in April 2011 (The Heiress), and I was never quite the same. I spent the remainder of the year working through his filmography and watched all seventeen of his films in the space of seven months. Film after film, I was completely captivated by his performance, even in some of his weaker films (of which there are literally only a couple–Clift was very particular about his film projects). I was further intrigued by his personal life, marred by insecurity and tragedy, and knew Bosworth’s biography was widely reputed to be the most thorough, accurate, and satisfying. I also knew it would be a draining read, considering the course of Clift’s life. It would be the perfect way to initiate the New Year.

Bosworth’s biography is much more compelling and original than its title would suggest. The early chapters detailing Clift’s background and childhood are utterly captivating and  essential to understanding some of the demons that would haunt Clift later in life. In a nutshell: Clift’s mother, Sunny, was born to an aristocratic family–or, rather, a man and woman who were from aristocratic families and married against the wishes of their families secretly and then had to have the marriage annulled prior to the birth of their daughter. She was then taken under the care of her delivering doctor (Edward Montgomery, after whom she named her son) for a year until she was adopted by the Fogg family, who often treated her unfairly. Once she discovered her true family heritage, however, she began a life-long quest to gain acceptance from her aristocratic relatives. When she married and had children (Clift had a twin sister and older brother), she was determined to raise them as “thoroughbreds,” giving them private schooling, music lessons, and trips across Europe, often separating them from their father for long stretches of time. These excursions were supposedly a condition on Sunny being accepted or recognized by her true family. It never happened.

The absence of his father and constant presence of his domineering mother undoubtedly had a profound on Clift’s psyche. Clift rarely discussed his family history and by the peak of his film career had completely eradicated his critical, demanding mother from his life. It seems that through much of Clift’s life, he sought surrogate parents in friends because he had never truly experienced that family atmosphere. He sought meaning in his life but never found any. As the back jacket of the book proclaims, Bosworth gives his life that meaning.

While he may have thought his life void of meaning, Clift certainly lived his life with integrity. He was one of the first (if not the first) actors to come to Hollywood, free of a slavery contract (e.g. he was not signed to a seven-picture contract with MGM, who decided which films, regardless of quality, he would make). He was allowed to exert unparalleled control over his films for a newcomer. Prior to his debut in Howard Hawks’ Red River (co-starring and out-starring John Wayne), Clift was offered numerous opportunities to become a Hollywood star. Some friends thought him ridiculous for refusing such offers. He wanted, he told them, the agency to be able to pursue projects he felt worthy of his time and talent.

(Clift would almost become legendary for the roles he refused: On the Waterfront, East of Eden, Sunset Boulevard, Bus Stop, High Noon, Friendly Persuasion, Rio Bravo, Prince of Players, Farenheit 451. And on and on.)

Clift’s film career (and life) is typically viewed in two distinct stages: before and after “the accident.” During the filming of Raintree County, Clift was in a traumatic car wreck. After leaving a dinner party at Elizabeth Taylor’s, he lost control of his car and crashed into a tree. Taylor essentially saved his life that evening, pulling his loose tooth, causing him to choke, out of his mouth. (She remained a loyal friend to him, later offering her personal salary as insurance for him–Clift was practically unemployable throughout much of the 1960s because he was considered uninsurable–to be cast in a film that was to be his comeback of sorts, Reflections in a Golden Eye. He died before filming began, and the role went to Brando.)

As a result of the accident, Clift’s face suffered numerous cuts, his lips were severely lacerated, he lost his two front teeth, his nose was broken in two, his jaw was broken in four separate places, the entirety of one upper cheekbone was cracked, and the cracks seeped into the sinus area. The left side of his face was essentially immobile and thus he later preferred his right profile to be shot. No other part of his body was damaged–just his face. It was a cruel twist of fate. Clift had been devastatingly beautiful, and he knew it; it had been one less cause for insecurity. Now he was just attractive, replete with flaws.

While it is true that the accident caused Clift to spiral further into drug and alcohol addiction, his deep psychological and drug problems had been eating away at him for many years before his accident, as early as 1953. His truly was “the longest suicide in Hollywood.” When he died, he was deeply unhappy, largely because his ability to work and thus his main drive and purpose in life had been robbed from him because of the perception that he was uninsurable (due to a lawsuit following John Huston’s–a truly sadistic human being–butchered production of Freud). He had not worked for four years; his final film, The Defector, was released posthumously. Clift appears frighteningly thin and frail, a skeleton. It is truly a sad ending to a film career that began so promisingly.

Waste is a common theme in Clift’s life–waste of time, talent, money, energy–and this is one of the reasons why it is so devastating to read. You want it to get better, but it sadly never does. Bosworth devotes just as much time to Clift’s dedication to his acting as these disappointments, however. The amount of time and energy he consistently devoted to perfecting each of his roles is absolutely amazing–and one can see the work pay off on the screen. Clift is one of the finest actors, often forgotten in the shadow of Brando and Dean, who both worshipped him, but he is just as–if not more–talented and important in the history of film. His performances are not easily forgotten and will likely haunt me forever.

Reading Bosworth’s biography (which is undoubtedly the best of the three Clift biographies I’ve read–and just one of the plain best biographies) was a satisfyingly crushing, depressing way to begin the New Year. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Look out for a companion post coming soon where I detail some of my favorite Montgomery Clift performances. I’ll try not to do all seventeen films. But he’s just that good.

Nine Reasons Why Press Is My Favorite Macca Video

Yesterday…

Paul McCartney released his sixteenth solo studio album, Kisses on the Bottom. It is essentially an album of Paul McCartney singing really, really old songs like a really, really old man and creating an entirely new genre in the process–easy easy listening. I might actually be able to enjoy it when I’m–I don’t know–sixty-four. Or something.

No, really, it’s okay, but after listening to it and nearly falling asleep, I had to go back to what is probably my favorite solo Paul McCartney (not to be confused with Paul McCartney & Wings, Paul McCartney and Wings, or Wings) song for about an hour on repeat to remind myself that the man once had edge: “Press,” from 1986’s Press to Play. “Press” also happens to be my favorite Macca video.

Macca waiting to get on the tubeWhere’s Macca? Can you spot him among all the lonely people on their way to jump on the tube? 

SYNOPSIS: “Press” is a video that shows Paul McCartney, former Beatle, riding the tube (just like all the common people do) and miming his latest single, “Press.” No one that appears in this video is a paid extra. These are all real people riding the tube. And they think nothing of Paul McCartney standing around, picking his nose, singing. It’s completely normal. As early as 1963, Macca was telling journalists that one of the things he missed most about becoming famous was riding a bus. Well, in 1986, he was able to make a dream come true and use public transport once again. Luckily, it was all captured on film, and here nine reasons why it’s my ultimate favorite Macca video.

9. Little known fact: it features a cameo by Yoko’s cousin

Cousin

I don’t know. I just think that’s really cool.

8. It shows us what a great person Paul McCartney really is, part one: helping a kid, who is obviously lost, find his way in the tube station.

Paul McCartney is just so darn nice. And cool.

7. It shows us what a great person Paul McCartney really is, part two: he spares some change for a street musician.

It’s probably fake money, but whatever.

6. I don’t know, but I think I see Robin Williams’s inspiration for Mrs. Doubtfire

Maybe? Kind-of-sort-of? I really don’t know. Let me just use this opportunity, though, to say that this is my favorite Macca Mullet. Ever. Salt ‘n’ peppah. He should bring it back. Just. Sayin’.

5. Two words: no comment

Except to say that I really, really, really love Paul McCartney.

4. Macca totally fits in with the crowd; he acts like a completely normal person

I just think that’s really refreshing.

3. It shows us that Paul McCartney cares about his fans

This is totally not a set-up. Real person, real fan, real t-shirt, real Paul McCartney. If you don’t think this is the sweetest thing ever, then you probably also hate kittens and think Fredo didn’t deserve to be killed in Godfather II.

2. Paul McCartney, at 44, is still The Cute Beatle and can still totally pull chicks. 

Linda is notably absent from this video. She would not be happy. (That perm totally clashes with Paul’s mullet, by the way.)

1. Paul McCartney picks his nose

This is probably the coolest thing ever. Yeah, I’m actually 12.

Don’t take my word for it, though, watch the video for yourself. Have a different favorite Macca video? Don’t tell me unless you want me to inform you that you have absolutely no taste because “Press” is the best video EVER!!

House of Dark Shadows (Dan Curtis, 1970)

House of Dark Shadows

So, a historic event happened last Tuesday.

That’s right, House of Dark Shadows aired on Turner Classic Movies.

Forget to set your DVR? It’s okay. I set my DVR and I’m never, ever going to erase it until it is released on a Blu-Ray/DVD Combo pack combined with Night of Dark Shadows, inundated with cast & crew commentary, deleted scenes, and behind-the-scenes documentaries. (Get on that, MPI.) Plus, you are all invited to a House of Dark Shadows party…

  • What? House of Dark Shadows P-A-R-T-Y!!
  • When? Anytime you’re in the mood to let the greatest vampire of all-time tell you how much you remind him of his long-lost love from the 18th century. (He’ll give you a really cool music box.)
  • Where? The Old House, of course!
  • Why? Because Barnabas Collins is simply irresistible.

I watched the film again for the first time in about ten years, and I finally got an interrupted night of sleep sans nightmares, so I think I’m finally ready to write about it.

I first saw House of Dark Shadows when I was in middle school, and what I remember most about it is blood–lots of blood–and the slew of nightmares that followed. It is considerably more graphic than the original series, and it is definitely a scary movie, mostly because this is something that could really happen. Or at least I think so.

House of Dark Shadows is essentially an adaptation of a handful of the television show’s original stories–the resurrection of Barnabas Collins, his pursuit of Maggie Evans, and Dr. Julia Hoffman’s efforts to cure him of his vampirism. There are several differences, however, most notably the number of people who discover Barnabas’s secret and Collinwood’s doorbell upgrade. There are also a few plot holes–for example, how is it possible for Barnabas to acclimate to the 20th century so quickly? When we see him attack his first victim, he knows, without question, how to open a car door.

Overall, it is a good adaptation of the show’s central story, but watching the initial 200 or so episodes of the show is ultimately more satisfying because of the detail involved. The character of Angelique, so fundamental to understanding Barnabas’s story and his curse, is unfortunately absent. (David Selby is also sorely missing from the film, but we forgive him because somebody had to carry the show, which was being filmed simultaneously, while Jonathan Frid was away. A belated happy birthday to Selby, who turned 71 yesterday!) It will be interesting to see how Tim Burton’s film adapts the same story.

Barnabas Collins, House of Dark Shadows

Makeup artist Dick Smith used the same bald head appliance he had created for Dustin Hoffman in Little Big Man for the aged Barnabas Collins in order to save time and money.

Turner Classic Movies was airing the film as part of a tribute to makeup artist Dick Smith, who was awarded an Honorary Academy Award in 2011. (His impressive credits include, in addition to House of Dark Shadows and the Dark Shadows television series, Little Big Man, the first two Godfather films, and Taxi Driver.)

Jonathan Frid should have one of those. Definitely.

Redford’s Fishing Movie: A River Runs Through It (Robert Redford, 1992)

I have a confession to make: I love Robert Redford.

Correction: I really, really, really, really, really, really, reeeeeaaaally love Robert Redford.

Let me list the things I love more than Robert Redford:

  • My Mom
  • The Beatles
  • Chocolate cake

…That about covers it, I think.

Sometimes, when I’m watching a Redford film, I sense that I have a really stupid expression on my face. Like really stupid. Like mouth open, giddy schoolgirl stupid. I can’t help it. Watching a Robert Redford film just fills me with so much unbridled joy. A Redford film is like a cup of hot chocolate that infinitely replenishes itself with marshmallows, a bed with clean sheets, still warm from the dryer, the sound of a kitten purring, rubbing its wet little nose against the crevice of your chin. It is a beautiful experience.

I am now prepared to say, unequivocally, that A River Runs Through It is the most beautiful film I have ever seen (and it doesn’t even feature Robert Redford’s lovely face–just his voice and direction). And I will probably never, ever get over it. A series of therapy sessions with Judd Hirsch might help, but I doubt it.

“In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.” 

The film tells the story of the Maclean family in Missoula, Montana. (Who knew that Montana was so beautiful? Not me.) The Reverend and Mrs. Maclean have two sons, one rebellious and carefree, the other level-headed and duteous. We see them grow up and lead lives that often intertwine and even more often conflict. Their love of fly fishing, instilled in them by their Presbyterian Minister father, however, always unites them.

Criticisms that this film is too long, too boring, that the fishing scenes lack drama and purpose are ridiculous. The fishing scenes are among the film’s most beautiful. Fishing–and by extension, nature–represents a spiritual experience for the Maclean men, but especially for Norman, the eldest son and the film’s narrator. It allows him to reflect on times spent with those were once closest to him, namely his father and younger brother, Paul. It is similar to Romantic Poet William Wordsworth’s religious relationship with nature (whose poem “Ode: Intimations of Immortality” is quoted by Norman and Reverend Maclean). In “Tintern Abbey,” Wordsworth contemplates multiple visits to Tintern Abbey, with and without his “dearest friend,” his sister, and the beauty that comes from not only from nature but the memory of sharing that beauty with her.

Brad Pitt, A River Runs Through It (1992)

“At that moment, I knew, surely and clearly, that I was witnessing perfection. My brother stood before us–not on a bank of the Big Blackfoot River–but suspended above the earth, free from all its laws, like a work of art. And I knew just as surely and just as clearly that life is not a work of art and that the moment could not last.”

While the theme and symbolism of fly fishing is moving, the more poignant–and, I would argue, more signifcant–theme of the film is that of love, encapsulated in one of Reverend Maclean’s final sermons:

“Each one of us here today will at one time in our lives look upon a loved one who is in need and ask the same question. ‘We are willing to help, Lord, but what, if anything, is needed?’ For it is true we can seldom help those closest to us. Either we don’t know what part of ourselves to give or, more often than not, the part we have to give is not wanted. And so it is those we live with and should know who elude us. But we can still love them. We can love completely without complete understanding.”

The Maclean men had a common bond in fly fishing, but we constantly see their personalities and ways of life clash. We see Reverend Maclean fail to understand Norman’s uncertainty about which direction he wishes to pursue in life after six years of college. We see Norman fail to understand Paul’s resistance to accept help. And we see Paul fail to understand that you don’t always have to be toughest one. Yet they love one another completely, without complete understanding.

“Eventually all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood, and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops, under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.”

Redford tried for years to gain the rights to Norman Maclean’s autobiographical novella, even going so far as to promise Maclean that he could watch the film as it progressed and completely reject it if he didn’t like it. He died before the film was completed. I think, though, that he would have enjoyed it.

It is all too beautiful: the score, the cinematography (which won an Academy Award), the story, the acting, even Brad Pitt’s face–which I’ll begrudgingly (really begrudgingly) admit almost bares a slight resemblance to Redford when he smiles, but most of all the language. (I’m prompted to read the book, which was rejected by countless publishers because it had “too many trees.”)

Now excuse me while I wallow in this film’s beauty again and again and again.

(And yes, that is Joseph Gordon-Levitt, perhaps best remembered as the devious David Collins in the 1991 reboot of Dark Shadows, as Young Norman.)