Put your life in the hands of this rock ‘n’ roll band…

Oasis: Supersonic has it all: writing a certain song in the amount of time it takes six men to eat Chinese take-out, a speechless Liam Gallagher, ambushing a certain member of the band with a fire extinguisher because of his football preferences,a kiss for the camera, smashing a certain individual in the head with a cricket bat, the story of Abel and Cable, whispers of sausages, and much, much more. But how much do you want it?

The documentary, which played in US theaters for one night only (and that night was this past Wednesday, so sorry if you missed it, but no fear–it’s On Demand and iTunes and My Christmas List), focuses on the rise and early, insane success (covering, roughly, 1991-1996) of rock ‘n’ roll band (remember those?) Oasis, culminating in their historic performances at Knebworth Park. Combining audio interviews (no talking heads here) with Noel and Liam Gallagher as well as other band members, friends, family, and crew with live footage, never-before-been-seen-by-fans’-eyes home footage, and delightful animations, the story of this rock ‘n’ roll band and its two battling brothers is endlessly entertaining,  insightful, and surprisingly moving–just as advertised.

At the heart of Oasis, of course, has always been the combative, true love-hate relationship between Noel and Liam Gallagher. Their tension and explosive dynamic drove the band, while also ultimately killing it. In the film, the brothers offer differing explanations for their difficult relationship. According to Liam, Noel still holds a grudge against Liam for drunkenly urinating all over his new stereo; Noel rebuts that Liam has always resented Noel for his songwriting talent and being naturally assumed as the leader and decision-maker of the band. Noel offers perhaps the best explanation about the differences in their personalities: Noel is a cat, moody and valuing independence, while Liam is a dog, attention-driven and requiring constant attention (“play with me, play with me, play with me, throw this ball for me”).

Home video confirms this: in one of my favorite moments, Noel is intently focused at the mixing board in the studio during the recording of (What’s the Story) Morning Glory, and Liam pokes his head through the door, eventually dancing his way through the room, attracting all the attention. Yet, despite all their differences and jealousy, they each acknowledge the other’s strengths (often telepathically, according to Liam)–Liam praising Noel’s talent as a songwriter, Noel declaring Liam “cooler than me” (“There’s not a day go by that I don’t wish I could rock a parka like that man,” he states) and the greatest singer and frontman of his time. And even amidst all the tension and arguments, you can still see the inexplicable love and affection the two have for one another.

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“If this ever goes on video, I would apologize, but I’m not gonna ’cause he’s a PRICK!” Noel Gallagher

Aside from the basic differences in their personalities, however, the film highlights another dissimilarity between the Gallagher brothers: what exactly constitutes a great rock ‘n’ roll band. Noel believes in the power of the music and its fans, while Liam firmly believes that no rock ‘n’ roll band is truly great without the antics–being arrested (or, even better, deported–while en route via a ferry, no less), tearing up hotel rooms (“that’s a lot of work,” notes Noel), taking loads of drugs, and, of course, sex. (Never mind that The Beatles did just fine without this kind of lewd behavior–at least in excess or in public.)

During the group’s first visit to the United States, they appeared at the famous Whiskey A Go Go. Reeling from the effects of crystal meth (also known as ninja speed in some circles), the performance was a shambles: the group members weren’t always playing the same song (Noel apparently had a different set list from everyone else), and Liam may or may not have thrown a tambourine at his older brother. Disgusted by the band’s performance and behavior, Noel briefly left the band, retreating to San Francisco to meet up with a girl he’d met at an Oasis gig. When Noel told her he was leaving the band, she responded, “Well, what else are you going to do?” Lacking an answer, Noel wrote “Talk Tonight” and returned to the group. The dynamic between Noel and the rest of the band, however, had irrevocably changed: it was no longer a sense of “us,” it was now a sense of “me [Noel] and them.”

This revelation is one of the most moving and honest in the film. The Gallagher brothers have always been unabashedly honest, but their honesty throughout Supersonic is often startling. For example, the band’s first drummer, Tony McCarroll, has repeatedly been portrayed as incompetent and dim-witted in the band’s history. The Gallaghers (and others as well) concede their cruel treatment of McCarroll in Supersonic. “Whatever he [McCaroll] says is probably true,” Noel admits.

Noel similarly crushes the myth that the band suddenly became cohesive, successful, and talented once he became part of the picture. The band struggled to be noticed–until fate stepped in and the band tagged along to play at a gig in Glasglow with the band of Alan McGee’s ex-girlfriend. “There were seven people in the room, and he was two of them,” Noel later explained. McGee fell in love with the group on the spot and asked if they wanted a record deal. Wa-hey!  

Except there was no celebratory mood of “we’ve made it!” on the ride back home that evening, and the band struggled to record their first album (recorded on two separate occasions and finally successfully mixed by Owen Morris as a seemingly last-ditch effort–“Do whatever you want [with the tapes],” Mark Coyle instructed him). Yet, when fans sang along to the nonsensical lyrics of “Supersonic” on the day of its release at a gig, Noel began to realize the power of the band and its fans.

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Witnessing Noel’s haircut during his days as an Inspiral Carpets roadie on the big screen alone was worth the price of admission. More of this, please.

Despite the band’s arrogance, Noel, in one of the film’s most touching moments, attributes the dominance of Oasis to the group’s fans. Just as he did not realize he wanted to be in a band until he heard his songs being played back to him by his bandmates (his aspiration, up until that point, had been to simply keep his job as a roadie for the Inspiral Carpets–and, hopefully, get a new haircut), he similarly did not realize the power of his songwriting until hearing countless fans singing “I know a girl called Elsa/She’s into Alka-Seltzer/She sniffs it through a cane on a supersonic train” (…seriously, what?) along with his cocky younger brother. Oasis played to a record-breaking crowd of 250,000 during their two-night performance at Knebworth Park; however, Noel declares, that was not because of anything the band had ever done. It was because of the 2.6 million people who applied for tickets; it was the fans.

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Oasis, 1994: Tony McCarroll, Bonehead, Noel, Liam, and Guigsy (who is stoned through 98% of the film, suffering from nervous exhaustion the other 2%).

Yet Oasis is a truly unique phenomenon that will likely never be repeated. Cocksure and controversial, the Gallagher brothers were the most forceful rock ‘n’ roll stars the music world had seen for quite some time (maybe ever)–and hasn’t seen since. They were a group of homely (except for Noel and Liam, who was truly beautiful–and knew it), average musicians (no virtuosos ’round here) from a council estate who gained a record deal by fate, destiny, foreordination, whatever you want to call it. They produced the fastest-selling debut album (up to that point) and the second-fastest-selling album in U.K. history back-to-back, and their incredible songs, as Noel predicted, have (thusfar) lived forever.

Yet, the scale of their success is somewhat lost to our culture, partly because we have nothing to compare it to. When is the last time an individual (never mind, two of them) said exactly what s/he thought (even if it was as unfortunate as “Taking drugs is like getting up and having a cup of tea in the morning”)? When is the last time hundreds of thousands of people gathered to hear a single group perform–and they were actually focused on being a part of the experience instead of being apart from the experience by seeing it through their cell phone camera? No, as Noel states in the film, we live in a celebrity-driven, social media-crazed, self-absorbed culture. The internet is our global village, not the park of an English village with a population not even totaling 5,000. We take images of ourselves, not the world around us. And, Noel ponders in the documentary’s final moments,what does that mean for our history?

Supersonic reminds us of how much Oasis meant (and means) to so many people and what a cultural loss we are currently suffering through. Its only downfall is that it concludes with the historic concerts at Knebworth. Oasis should have disappeared into a puff of smoke at that point, Noel affirms, and Bonehead agrees. (The band instead continued, with various lineups, for 13 more years.) Liam disagrees, arguing that just because you’ve reached a peak and are likely to not go any higher doesn’t mean you just stop and give up. I’m not sure who has the stronger argument, but I do know I still miss this group of arrogant, disruptive, not-the-best-looking group where the whole was greater than the sum of its parts, exemplified by thousands of fans, not the lead singer, singing the chorus of one of their best-loved songs. So maybe Liam was right–you shouldn’t just stop and give up. At least not today.

Without Precedent

I often wonder about my love for The Beatles–why it is so inexplicable and embedded in my DNA and how millions of people, different from me in innumerable ways, feel precisely the same. Maybe this ingrained, intense feeling is why fans are so incredibly protective of the band’s legacy and equally critical of anything pertaining to The Fab Four, even if it is a feature-length documentary directed by an Academy Award winner named Ron Howard.

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John Lennon, with son Julian, visits Ron Howard and company on the set of Happy Days in 1974.

The producer of the film, Nigel Sinclair, who also produced Martin Scorsese’s documentary about George Harrison Living in the Material World, explained fans’ dual reaction to the announcement of the film: “Ron had people come up to him in the street and [they would] say ‘Mr. Howard, I’m so glad you’re doing the Beatles film.’ Ron said, ‘Of course the subtext is “And don’t screw it up.”’

From me to you (hey, I’m trying my zest here), he does not mess it up.

(My criticisms are few and minute, so let’s get them out of the way. I find the commentary from individuals not part of the Beatles’ circle superfluous, unnecessary, and rarely insightful. Do I care what Sigourney Weaver wore to see The Beatles at Shea Stadium? Not really. Do I care that Jon Savage’s parents wouldn’t let him go to a Beatles concert? Not really. What makes them different from the thousands of other ordinary people who loved The Beatles just as fervently? Oh, right, they are of some renown. Whatever. Get out. Secondly, the film’s tagline boasts that this film is about the band you know but the story you don’t…well, not really. I didn’t really learn anything new, but I did see lots of new photos and footage, and I got to see The Beatles on the big screen, replete with the entire Shea Stadium concert. Horrid snobby portion of this post over.)

Eight Days A Week: The Touring Years tells the story of The Beatles, using their live performances as its focus, which, on the surface, may seem odd, since The Beatles were never exactly synonymous with extraordinary live performances. They didn’t have pigs or light their instruments on fire or create auto-destructive art. Their audiences were not rapt in hearing the words of a lyrical poet, as Dylan’s fans were (a fact he was proud of in his early career, especially when The Beatles’ phenomenon surfaced). For much of their performing career, the music was secondary to the spectacle of seeing The Beatles. By choosing this least-regarded facet of the band, however, Howard is able to more fully reveal how the Beatles progressed and evolved by contrasting it with the circus-like atmosphere of their increasingly stagnant live performances.

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Foreshadowing in Hamburg, 1960: “Their name liveth for evermore.”

The Beatles’ stage performances weren’t always so stagnant, though, and their success was not an accident that happened overnight. Ringo states in the film that playing was the most important thing for the band, and their stints in Hamburg, Germany, allowed them the opportunity to perfect their craft while playing for eight or more hours every night—to unruly, difficult-to-please crowds or to an empty club (empty except for a bearded drummer from another Liverpool group, Ringo Starr). This was their apprenticeship, this is where they learned how to play in front of people–how to mach schau, and when they returned to England, they broke the jazz-only rule at Liverpool’s The Cavern Club, performing a total of nearly 300 times. Having dominated The Cavern Club and garnered a local following, the group was still looking to improve and to move the next step up the ladder.

That next step up the ladder was not what any of The Beatles expected: Beatlemania. Opening with color footage of the band playing in Manchester in November 1963, the film shows the excitement and the burgeoning mania: girls screaming, fainting, and the sheer joy John, Paul, George, and Ringo exude. The film illustrates this joy and excitement perfectly with its abundance of unseen (or, at least, under-seen) concert and interview footage. Fans debate the sexiness of the members (“Ringo’s got a sexy nose.” “George’s eyelashes are sexy.”) and declare their undying love for them: “Paul McCartney, if you’re out there listening, Adrian from Brooklyn loves you.” Fans’ adoration for the Beatles ignites laughter but is genuine—and contagious. Just as contagious and laughter-inducing is The Beatles’ humor—then and now. Just a few favorites: John introduces himself to a reporter as Eric, George uses John’s mop top as an ashtray, George thanks Ringo for his contribution to a fan club record and remarks “We’ll phone you,” and Ringo recalls his inability to hear the band’s music at their concerts, “I couldn’t hear anything. All I could see was Paul’s arse, John’s arse…” Ringo had the best seat, am I right?     

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After conquering Europe, the Beatles arrived in the United States, where the madness escalated to a whole new level. While the Beatles complied with the larger venues (and greater profits) and increasingly manic American crowds, they refused to accommodate the demands of segregated venues. In this regard, they were pioneers, standing for what they believed to be right. As journalist Larry Kane, who accompanied The Beatles on their 1964 North American tour, remarked, he was touched by The Beatles’ kindness, their genuineness, and their intelligence.

After 1964, though, The Beatles’ pioneering in the live arena stalled, except by breaking attendance records by playing in larger venues. The opposite was true of their recording career, where they continued to flourish. With each record, they progressed, wrote better songs, and experimented with new sounds and ideas, culminating with the release of Revolver in May 1966. Tellingly, the Beatles never performed any songs from Revolver live, demonstrating how the sophistication of their recording career had overtaken the circus that was their live show.

By 1966, the group’s rosy relationship with the public was fraying. Not only were their performances inaudible but touring had become a life-threatening situation, which escalated with John Lennon’s remark that The Beatles were, in fact, more popular than Jesus Christ. (Real talk hurts.) Even their relationship with the press, who had adored their wit and cheekiness, was verging on hostile. In a clip, one journalists asks The Beatles why they are so “horrid snobby.” Paul, irrefutably the most diplomatic Beatle, answers that they are not snobby but the journalists and their questions are not particularly nice and get what they deserve. (Again, real talk hurts.) Death threats, Beatle burnings, and exploding firecrackers at concerts became the new norm for The Fab Four. They arrived to their final concert, at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park on August 29, 1966, in an armored truck. They decided they’d had enough–of touring, at least. Still, in these tense moments, you can still see their camaraderie and the joy their music brings.

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Paul McCartney and George Harrison at The Beatles’ final concert in 1966.

Despite all the obstacles this band faced — touring was a money-making venture not an artistic one, their concerts lasted no more than thirty minutes and offered little variation in terms of set lists, and oh yeah, the screaming which made it impossible for them to hear one another — the film shows what a good live band The Beatles were. They could have easily not put any effort into their live shows at all, but they were often in tune and played as a cohesive unit. That unity is a testament to their closeness as individuals and their faith in one another, my favorite aspect of the film.

“I was an only child, and I suddenly felt as if I had three brothers,” Ringo states in the film. Paul gets emotional recalling the first moment Ringo played with the group, and George expresses how he was always glad that they had one another to lean on and share the experience, unlike an isolated Elvis or Sinatra, declaring, “We were very, very close to one another.” This is the band that went from staying in a single cramped room in the back of a theater in Hamburg to occupying the entire floor of the New York Plaza Hotel, where they found themselves gathering together in one room to get away from the pressure of being Beatles and just be with each other.

They loved one another and had faith in each other, just as many individuals around them had faith in them — notably George Martin having faith in their artistic vision to not touch the unorthodox structure and sound of “Tomorrow Never Knows” and Brian Epstein sacrificing so much for them and maintaining his faith in them despite no measurable success for so long (John Lennon once said there was a period where the only people who had faith in the band were Brian Epstein and George Harrison). And by having faith in each other, they inspired others to have faith in one another — so that it didn’t matter if you were black or white, weird or popular, young or old; The Beatles were a uniting force, beautifully encapsulated by the chorus of grown men singing “She Loves You” to celebrate their football club’s victory season. And there it is — that inexplicable feeling of love swelling inside me. I love The Beatles like no other. They are, quite simply, without precedent.

Let’s Movie

Turner Classic Movies’ latest (err…last-year-latest) branding campaign turns what perhaps we typically think of as a passive activity — watching a movie — into a verb. The campaign invites those who love the movies to tune in (but not turn on or drop out) and enjoy movies as they were meant to be — commercial-free, uncut, and presented in their original format — on TCM. TCM has furthermore invited movie fans to share their favorite things about the movies — not a list of your favorite movies or the best movies but instead a list of moments, lines, and visuals that have made a lasting impression on you and encapsulate what you love about the wonderful world of film.

I recently finished reading Furious Love, a book about Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. It tells of how Burton was initially unimpressed with Taylor as an actress. “She’s just not doing anything,” he complained to Joe Mankiewicz, Cleopatra‘s director. Then Mankiewicz showed him Taylor’s impact onscreen and from her, Burton learned how the visual element of film could often trump the spoken element of theater. Some of my very favorite moments are those subtle, visual moments that you have to watch for closely (sometimes these moments prompt explanation in the list that follows, sometimes they don’t), but still many of the items on this list are simply lines that have often crept into my everyday dialogue. It was surprisingly difficult for me to come up with 100 different items without resorting to citing multiple moments in the same films, so I didn’t. So, in no particular order with no rhyme or reason or much thought at all, here are some of my favorite things about the movies…

1. Brando’s Grief (On the Waterfront, 1954)

Terry Malloy (Brando) has testified against Johnny Friendly, and all of his friends are angry at him–even the young “Golden Warriors” Terry has befriended. Terry, who keeps pigeons, goes up on the roof to check on his pigeons. He finds that they are all dead, killed by the youth who once idolized him. “What did he have to do that for? Every one of them.” Edie (Eva Marie Saint) has again followed him and calls his name, attempting to comfort him. Brando does not face her but turns into the pigeon coop and waves her away meekly with his hand. He needs to grieve alone–just for a moment. And Brando communicates this with a single gesture — Best Actor, indeed.

2. “Hey, Boo.” (To Kill A Mockingbird, 1962)

3. Oscar’s Breakdown (The Odd Couple, 1968)

“I can tell you exactly what it is. It’s the cooking, the cleaning, the crying. It’s the talking in your sleep. It’s those moose calls that open your ears at 2:00 in the morning. I can’t take it anymore, Felix, I’m cracking up. Everything you do irritates me, and when you’re not here, the things I know you’re gonna do when you come in irritate me. You leave me little notes on my pillow. I’ve told you 158 times I cannot stand little notes on my pillow. ‘We are all out of corn flakes. F.U.’ Took me three hours to figure out that F.U. was Felix Ungar.”

One hundred and fifty-eight times. Not just one hundred, one hundred and fifty-eight. I love the precision and efficiency of the entire script of The Odd Couple: every line has a purpose and nearly every line brings a laugh.

4. The Nose Swipe (The Sting, 1973)

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5. “HOT DOG!” (It’s A Wonderful Life, 1946)

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6. “Ha, ha, ha, ha! My mouth’s bleeding, Bert! My mouth’s bleeding! Zuzu’s petals… Zuzu… There they are! Bert, what do you know about that! MERRY CHRISTMAS!” (It’s A Wonderful Life, 1946)

Alright, have to stop quoting that movie now. Basically everything about It’s A Wonderful Life should be on this list. Every. Single. Thing. Oh, why don’t you stop annoying people! Really, I’m stopping now. Say, brainless, don’t you know where coconuts come from? Oops. Sorry. It’s this old house. I don’t know why we don’t all have pneumonia. Drafty old barn of a place. It’s like growing up living in a refrigerator. I just can’t help it. This film is in my DNA. Why? Because it’s beautiful and perfect and lovely and Zuzu’s petals!

7. Montgomery Clift’s Feeble Goodbye (The Young Lions, 1958)

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Noah Ackerman (Clift) has been drafted, and he says goodbye to his wife, whom he’s just recently met and married. He kisses her and then begins to walk down the street. He turns around half-way, hoping to see her once more, but he can only bare to stare for a few seconds. He slowly turns and begins to walk again, and he lifts his right hand in an effort to wave, but he only manages to raise it to his waist and give a pathetic and heartbreaking wave.

8. “Hubbell, people ARE their principles!” (The Way We Were, 1973)

9. Robert Mitchum’s entire presence in Cape Fear (1962). 

In a word, creepy. It keeps me awake at night. Just plain old creepy.

10. “Po-tat-oes. Boil ’em, mash ’em, stick in a stew.” (Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, 2002)

11. “My, she was yar.” (The Philadelphia Story, 1940)

12. “Excuse me.” (The Philadelphia Story, 1940)

Stewart’s unscripted hiccup almost made Grant lose it. Classic. 

13. Maggio’s death in From Here to Eternity (1953)

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“But it was the death scene that got them, he knew it. He and Monty had talked about that scene a dozen times. The trick, according to Clift, was not overplaying it. Dying was like snow falling.” — James Kaplan, Frank: The Voice 

I love that quote from James Kaplan’s amazing biography about Sinatra. It sounds just like Clift, and it is so, so, so true. Clift was the master of not overplaying anything–ever–and his effect on Sinatra’s acting was palpable. Sinatra was never better (as an actor, anyway).

14. “Think you used enough dynamite there, Butch?” (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, 1969)

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15. What was that? (A Streetcar Named Desire, 1951)

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Just thinking out loud here…should Brando’s body in Streetcar be a separate entry? Not trying to objectify him or anything, but really, it was a work of art, the peak of all male beauty evereverever, something to be treasured and admired for all time and eternity, an inducer of drool and convulsions…

16. Best Dressed – Romper Division, 1964

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Hey, here’s the King of objectifying: James Bond!

17. “Yeah ho, leetle fish…” (Captains Courageous, 1938)

Ah, Spencer Tracy’s fake Portuguese accent.

18. “Listen, I don’t mean to be a sore loser, but when it’s done, if I’m dead, kill him.” (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, 1969)

Love to.

19. “We all go a little mad sometimes.” (Psycho, 1960) 

20. “God bless you, too.” (The Misfits, 1961)

This scene — Clift’s first appearance an hour into the film — is often cited as one of his best performances by fans and critics alike, its popularity attested by the fact that in Clift’s copy of the script at the New York Public Library’s Performing Arts archive, this one page has been stolen.

What I love most about this scene is how Clift seamlessly uses the phone booth as a prop. The door is casually left open when the conversation is light and non-invasive–Perce boasts of his recent accomplishments in the rodeo and sends his love and greetings to his family back home; the door is hastily closed to prevent his new and old acquaintances from hearing–or seeing, rather–his fractured state–the arguments with his mother about spending his rodeo money and his relationship with his stepfather.

And I think part of what makes this scene–and this character–so real, so very real, is that Clift embodies it almost perfectly. Perce, like Clift (especially at this time in his life), is self-destructive and lonely. He later tells Roslyn his friends and girlfriend abandoned him a year previously, and he has no one talk to. Many of Clift’s friends, too, severed him, particularly after his accident and further spiral into drug addiction, branding him a lost cause. Perce’s relationship with his mother is strained, as evidenced by the phone call; Clift’s suffocating and tumultuous relationship with his own mother arguably fueled many of his deep-rooted and life-long problems. And when Perce emphatically states, “Oh, no, no, no, my face is fine. It’s all healed up. Just as good as new.” Well, my heart just breaks.

The most devastating line of the phone call, however, is reserved for last. The operator has notified Perce his call is about to expire, and Perce hurriedly tells his mother to tell his relatives, whom he lists by name, hello for him. An argument about his stepfather–and his failure to specifically ask his mother to say hello to him–ensues. And subsides. The door is, of course, closed. Perce promises to call at Christmastime and anxiously asks, “Hello? Hello?”, wanting to tell his mother one more thing. The call has been disconnected. “God bless you, too,” he mutters–presumably to dead air.

21. CALVIN: Don’t admire people too much. They’ll disappoint you sometimes.
CONRAD: I’m not disappointed. I love you.
CALVIN: I love you, too.
— Ordinary People, 1980

22. “Shut up and deal.” (The Apartment, 1960)

23. “Lorraine, my density has popped me to you.” (Back to the Future, 1985)

24. “Fiddle-dee-dee!” (Gone with the Wind, 1939)

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25. “Boy, I got vision, and the rest of the world wears bifocals.” (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, 1969)

26. Sam Spade. That is all. (The Maltese Falcon, 1940)

The movie that made me realize how cool Humphrey Bogart is. Like, so cool. And the Maltese Falcon is my token of choice in TCM’s Scene It. I win every time. Just sayin’.

27.  “Buzzard’s guts, man! I am the President of the United States, clothed with immense power! You will procure me these votes.” (Lincoln, 2012)

Just…Buzzard’s guts, man. And, well, Daniel Day-Lewis is exceptional. When you think about it, he really is the most amazing actor. He is so different and distinct in each role; he immerses himself so fully in each of his roles that he becomes those characters.

28. “I’m obsessed, thank you very much.” (St. Elmo’s Fire, 1986)

Basically, the entire character of Kirby Keager should be on this list. “Quick, what’s the meaning of life?” “Dale Biberman.” Emilio Estevez is great — he plays this character, whose fascination and obsession with this girl is actually quite creepy when you think about it, so earnestly and with such innocence that you are kind of rooting for Kirby when he pulls up to that snow-covered cabin.

29.  “Hey, Johnny, what are you rebelling against?” “What d’ya got?” (The Wild One, 1953)

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So cool, yet so hot at the same time. Sigh.

Brando said he personally identified with Johnny’s response, that the line reflected his individual feelings and beliefs about life as a whole. Watching The Wild One now, it’s extremely dated, yet the film did represent a specific attitude of its time and spoke to young people of that generation–and perhaps still can speak. I love that a movie, so dated and seemingly obsolete, can encompass a time so completely yet still have the power to be relevant across time and shifting mores.

30. Mike Love elicits sympathy in Love and Mercy (2015). 

Weird, right? Mike Love, whose upcoming memoir Little Douche Coupe is set for release in September, is a total jerk — even in the movies. Watching Love and Mercy the oh, I don’t know seventeenth time, though, I found myself feeling sorry for his character and gaining a better understanding of what he might have been feeling.

In the movie, Mike visits Brian at his home. Brian is playing the beginnings of a song on his piano, which is placed in a large sandbox in the middle of his living room. Pet Sounds has been released, was a disappointing commercial failure (it didn’t even go gold, man), and The Beach Boys are at a crossroads. Brian is obviously hurt and perhaps a little lost, pounding out these chords, searching for something, anything. Mike approaches the piano, and Brian says, staring down at the piano keys as if he’s embarrassed to look Mike in the eye, “I have this song playing over and over in my head. I just don’t have the words or the melody. Do you have anything?” He finally looks up at Mike, and the camera turns to Mike, whose expression reveals how much he craves the companionship and approval of his cousin. Brian wrote Pet Sounds without any input from Love at all and even though I tend to believe that Love probably over-states his contribution to The Beach Boys’ golden formula, he was Brian’s most frequent collaborator. It must have been difficult for him to be cast aside for reasons he could never really understand, and in this moment, I can just see how much he wants to be a part of the songwriting process with his cousin again.

31. Diagnosing Bob (What About Bob?, 1991)

Bob Wiley: Well, I get dizzy spells, nausea, cold sweats, hot sweats, fever blisters, difficulty breathing, difficulty swallowing, blurred vision, involuntary trembling, dead hands, numb lips, fingernail sensitivity, pelvic discomfort.
Dr. Leo Marvin: So the real question is, what is the crisis Bob? What is it you’re truly afraid of?
Bob Wiley: What if my heart stops beating? What if I’m looking for a bathroom, I can’t find it, and… my bladder explodes?

32. “I can eat fifty eggs.” (Cool Hand Luke, 1967)

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“Why you got to go and say fifty eggs for? Why not thirty-five or thirty-nine?” “I thought it was a nice round number.”

33. Denys: You’ve ruined it for me, you know.
Karen Blixen: Ruined what?
Denys: Being alone.
— Out of Africa (1985)

I don’t know that a better expression of love exists.

34. Ricky Nelson’s picture falling off the wall in The Parent Trap (1961). 

That is the only appropriate response when someone does not know who Ricky Nelson is, which is, unfortunately and tragically, becoming more and more common. Ya’ll have no sense of history.

35. The first twenty minutes of Saving Private Ryan (1998). 

I can’t believe those boys–yes, just boys–did that. For me, for you, for the world. Of course they would have rather been at home, going to college, working a job, playing  baseball, but they did it, and I can have never really know what that was like, but the first twenty or so minutes of this movie offers a glimpse.

36. Sonny Corleone beats up Carlo. (The Godfather, 1972)

What can I say? I rather crave violence. I love every minute of The Godfather. And The Godfather II. We don’t really talk about The Godfather III.

37. “Thank you, Mr. Willy. Thank you. You’ve made my day.” (The Goonies, 1985) 

38. “Attention campers. Lunch has been cancelled due to lack of hustle. Deal with it.” (Heavyweights, 1995) 

39. “I could never love anyone as I love my sisters.” (Little Women, 1994)

As much as I love books (considering seeking treatment for my addiction) I’m not a believer in the “book is always better than the movie.” I’m just not. Because the movie offers an interpretation, a vision, and sometimes — like the 1994 adaptation of my beloved Little Women — the actors are the perfect manifestations of the characters that previously only existed on the page and in my head. They are tangible.

40. James Dean in East of Eden (1955)

I never really ‘got’ James Dean until I saw East of Eden. I’d seen Rebel Without a Cause and was unimpressed. Years and years (or so it seemed) later, I finally watched East of Eden and was struck by his layered performance of vulnerability, innocence, romance, and defiance. It’s still my favorite performance of his and the one that made me re-examine him as an actor.

41. The Friendship of Elwood P. Dowd & Harvey (Harvey, 1950)

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“Well, thank you Harvey! I prefer you too.”

42. “This is The Voice of Doom calling.” (The Philadelphia Story, 1940)

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Your days are numbered to the day of the seventh sun of the seventh sun! Some people think Jimmy Stewart’s win for The Philadelphia Story was just a delayed Oscar for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Maybe. But he’s absolutely wonderful in this movie, delivering this line with the perfect balance of disgust, nonchalance, and humor.

43. “NO SALE” (BUtterfield 8, 1960)

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44. “Hey mister, can we have our ball back?” (A Hard Day’s Night, 1964)

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So apparently not everyone thinks this movie is a classic or even funny. My family recently revealed this to me, stating, “It’s funny if you like them [The Beatles].” Uh, what? And what kind of demented and unbalanced individuals don’t like The Beatles? I don’t even wanna know. I love The Beatles, and I love this movie. It is pure joy.

45. “Well, nobody’s perfect.” (Some Like It Hot, 1959)

 

I can’t make it to 100. I’m tired. And I don’t know, it’s a very specific-to-me list that perhaps does not make any sense or have any purpose to anyone else on the planet. But I love the movies. They offer these moments that can be shared, that can bring understanding, that can allow us to suspend disbelief and be delighted by the adventures of a mischievous cat who happens to be the FBI’s leading informant or be startled and frightened repeatedly by a shark that looks slightly fake (even in Jaws 19) or be utterly heartbroken when Barbra Streisand strokes Robert Redford’s hair (she was the only one who believed he could write that second novel, who could push him to write it, who really loved him, goshdarnit!). Watching a movie — really watching a movie — is anything but a passive activity. It’s a verb. Let’s movie.

Love & Mercy (Bill Pohlad, 2015)

After The Beatles, The Beach Boys were the first band I really loved. I bought records that I couldn’t really play, committed an A&E Biography of Brian Wilson to memory (still looking for a way to put this skill on a resume), and I may have even fashioned some Beach Boys puppets out of popsicle sticks. Okay, so maybe I was a little obsessed–crazy, even (popsicle sticks?!)–but my love for this band, including their introverted, slightly off-center leader, was so indelible that fifteen or so years later I approached Love and Mercy, Bill Pohlad’s biopic about Brian Wilson, with both excitement and trepidation–excitement because I love Brian Wilson and his story, trepidation because there is so much room for error.

Love and Mercy tells the story of Brian Wilson in two distinct periods of his life. His story is told by two different actors out of necessity. The Brian Wilson of the 1960s was a very different person from the Brian Wilson of the 1980s. It’s that simple. He was different, both physically and mentally. It would be impossible for a single actor to play both roles; it would be asking too much. It’s a miracle that Brian Wilson lived through the experiences. How can you ask one actor to do the same?

In the first narrative, Paul Dano plays Wilson in his mid-20s at the height of his musical powers creating Pet Sounds, “Good Vibrations,” and the ill-fated Smile album. The seeds of mental illness are evident, however, as Brian begins to suffer notably from auditory hallucinations and paranoia during this period. The later thread shows the progression and effects of this mental illness.

In the 1980s, Brian (now portrayed by John Cusack) has become a somnambulant and over-medicated prisoner of his controlling and manipulative doctor, Eugene Landy (played with terrifying ferocity by Paul Giamatti). When he meets his future wife, Melinda (Elizabeth Banks), for the first time, he leaves her a note on the back of her business card: “Scared, Lonely, Frightened.” Each thread is equally compelling, even though I initially doubted that the 1980s story would be able to hold my attention the way the Pet Sounds sessions would. I was also uncertain that John Cusack could convincingly render Wilson.

My doubts were ill-placed. I was wrong. I feel like one of those freaks that booed Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965–and not even one of the freaks booing because the sound quality was poor, but one of those folk purists irate at Dylan for plugging in an electric guitar. Oh my gosh. Don’t be one of those freaks. The quality of Cusack’s performance is not poor; it is subtle and sensitive and maybe different from anything else he’s ever done before–I wouldn’t know, though, because I never made a popsicle puppet out of his head.

Brian (John Cusack) and Melinda (Elizabeth Banks) outside the Griffith Observatory.

Cusack undoubtedly has the more difficult role for one simple reason: there is virtually no music in the 1980s storyline, and if you want to know Brian Wilson, you have to listen to the music. Cusack instead has to communicate Wilson’s thoughts and feelings through his walk, his mannerisms, nervous ticks, and wooden speech. There is a single scene where Cusack’s Wilson sits at the piano and plays a song for Melinda, and for a brief moment, you catch a glimpse of the creative, trusting, sweet man that Wilson is or was or could be.

As impressive as Cusack’s depiction is, Paul Dano is, quite simply, amazing. A·maz·ing. AMAZING! Oh my gosh. I am ready to make a popsicle puppet out of this guy’s head. (I’m kidding. I think.) Dano physically bears a stronger resemblance to Wilson, and he even sings like Wilson in the film–so much so that it is often difficult to discern whether it’s actually Dano or Wilson singing. Music helps Dano’s characterization significantly. When Dano’s Wilson is in the studio, headphones on, singing with his brothers and cousin and bandmates, he just looks so happy and at ease. I felt tears welling up in my eyes because I know that’s who Brian Wilson is.

Brian (Paul Dano) plays “God Only Knows” for his cruel and abusive father, who tells him it sounds more like a suicide note than a love song.  

Dano’s skill is part of what makes the 1960s story so satisfying to watch, but it’s also the recreation of the period. The attention to detail in the film is extraordinary: the filmmakers faithfully replicated Beach Boys concert footage, the studio where Brian created Pet Sounds, and every piece of clothing, right down to Mike Love’s dumb fur hat.

There is little humor in the 1980s (mostly it derives from whatever Paul Giamatti is wearing), but the humor is abundant in the 1960s. Remember, Brian Wilson is actually a very funny person. While the rest of the band has been on tour in Japan, Brian has been at home in the studio, working tirelessly on Pet Sounds. When the band returns to the studio to record vocals, Mike Love pats cousin Brian’s belly and tells him he’s put on some weight. “You need to go on a fast with me sometime,” he tells Brian. “I’m eating as fast as I can,” Brian responds. Amen!

Humor also comes in the form of Mike Love’s existence. Concerned about the lyrics of “Hang on to Your Ego” (turned into “I Know There’s An Answer” on the released album because Love refused to sing the lyrics of “Ego”), Love whispers to Brian “Is this a druggie song?” The rest of the guys roll their eyes. (I imagine this happened a lot because Mike Love is really embarrassing. It’s kind of a mystery how and why they let him in the band.) Humor comes from one liners from brother Dennis (who looks less like Dennis but acts like Dennis so it’s OK). “Surfers don’t even like our music,” Brian insists in response to Mike Love’s claim that they should keep making music about surfing and cars and girls because that’s what their fans love and understand, not the radically different music and lyrics of Pet Sounds. “They don’t,” shrugs Dennis, with perfect timing. And a lot of humor comes from Brian Wilson’s two dogs, Banana and Louie, who are featured on Pet Sounds. They steal every scene they’re in, including one of my favorites.

With Pet Sounds having been completed and received lukewarmly by fans, Brian and the band are moving onto their next project. Brian has an idea for a song about the vibrations dogs pick up from people, but, as always, he’s struggling with lyrics. He calls Mike over to help. Brian sits at his piano, placed in a sandbox in the middle of his living room, and pounds out the rhythm. Mike suggests some lyrics, and they begin to put the two together. Banana barks (and maybe does something else). “Well, piss on you, Banana, I like it!” Mike scolds.

To some, the narratives of Love and Mercy may seem disjointed and unrelated. I disagree. Even though Brian Wilson was different in the 1960s than he was in the 1980s, there are striking similarities and parallels. In 1985, Brian Wilson is starving. “I’m hungry, Gene,” Brian tells his doctor. “You’re not hungry! You only think you are! Can’t you tell the difference?” Landy screams in response. Brian is starved of food, his family, his free will, his music, and love. He is the victim of Dr. Landy’s control and cruelty. In the 1960s, Brian Wilson is starving, too, even though he is saturated with food, drink, and drugs. He craves the approval of his brutal father, and he ultimately abandons Smile not just because he is taking way too many drugs (which he is) but because he is starved of the musical support and love of his bandmates. Even though he always brought so much love and happiness to others through his music, Brian Wilson himself was always looking for love.

Love and Mercy is a sensitive, factual film. Of course it doesn’t tell you everything about Brian Wilson or The Beach Boys. (To the reviewer complaining that the film doesn’t explain the presence of Tony Asher and Van Dyke Parks: well, piss on you! Read a record label and figure it out for yourself. Actually, it’s pretty clear who Van Dyke Parks is in the film, so I don’t know what your hang up is.) It can’t, and it doesn’t need to. It just needs to offer you a representation of who Brian Wilson was and why he–and his music–matter. It does just that, with the finest acting and the best soundtrack. I can’t wait to see it again.

My only complaint? The actor who plays Al Jardine (who has NO speaking lines) is actually taller than Carl Wilson…
Uh, yeah. Right. Baby needs a step ladder to get up on that car.

My Other Favorite Actor From Omaha

In the past two months that I have not updated this blog, I have spent a ridiculous amount of time researching a select group of plays by Tennessee Williams. This has included watching A Streetcar Named Desire more times than I care to count. This has made me want to watch nothing but Brando, which works out well since TCM is celebrating the man’s 91st birthday today with a slew of films.

My favorite, though, is absent from the line-up. That’s okay because I’ve also watched it more times than I care to count. It is another perfect film. It is another film to take to that desert island. It is a film with a quote for every occassion. Overhear a conversation about weight or dieting? “When you weighed 168 pounds you were beautiful.” Someone say something that rubs you the wrong way? “You know, you’re not too funny today, fat man.” Need to pay someone a compliment? “You had your hair…Looked like a hunk of rope. And you had wires on your teeth and glasses and everything. You was really a mess.” Someone hounding you to grow up, get a real job, get some ambition? “I always figured I’d live a little bit longer without it.” Get annoyed with questions? “It’s none of your business!” See a pigeon in the road? “A pigeon for a pigeon!” Someone insults the upcoming holiday that is Easter? “Some people think the Crucifixion only took place on Calvary. Well, they better wise up!” And for everything else, there’s… “Definitely!” It is On the Waterfront

"During an acting class, when the students were told to act out 'a chicken hearing an air-raid siren,' most of the students clucked and flapped their arms in a panic, while Brando stood stock-still, staring up at the ceiling. When asked to explain himself, Brando replied, 'I’m a chicken - I don’t know what an air-raid siren is.'" -- Marlon Brando by Patricia Bosworth

“During an acting class, when the students were told to act out ‘a chicken hearing an air-raid siren,’ most of the students clucked and flapped their arms in a panic, while Brando stood stock-still, staring up at the ceiling. When asked to explain himself, Brando replied, ‘I’m a chicken – I don’t know what an air-raid siren is.'” — Marlon Brando by Patricia Bosworth

This film–like so many of his great performances–is all about Brando. You cannot take your eyes off of him–not that you would want to. Why? Because he creates a character with such a front of toughness that has such an underlying vulnerability, a character (Terry Malloy) who is constantly torn between his loyalty to his “friends” and his “conscience.” (“Conscience. That stuff can drive you nuts.”)

There’s probably no better example of Brando doing this than in the famous taxi cab scene with Rod Steiger, who plays Terry’s older brother Charlie. Charlie has been sent to talk to Terry to try to convince him to play “D&D” (“deaf and dumb”); if Charlie can’t convince him, then he has been instructed to kill his own brother. When Charlie pulls the gun on Terry, Terry gently pushes away the gun. He does not respond with anger but with sadness that suggests the depth of his pain. “Oh Charley!” he says in tone that is reproachful, loving, and sad.

"To see if there were vibes between Marlon and myself, Elia Kazan put us in a room, and he whispered to me 'Eva Marie, you’re home alone and your sister’s boyfriend is coming. Do not let him in the house!' So here comes adorable Marlon knocking on my door, and I did everything possible to discourage him. And somehow he got in the room, and we started talking and he put the radio on, and we started dancing. The sparks just flew. He was adorable but a little frightening…you felt he could see right through you. He gave every line reading differently, so that it was always new. You could just see it in his eyes. I’ve worked with many fine actors but he was the finest.”

“To see if there were vibes between Marlon and myself, Elia Kazan put us in a room, and he whispered to me ‘Eva Marie, you’re home alone and your sister’s boyfriend is coming. Do not let him in the house!’ So here comes adorable Marlon knocking on my door, and I did everything possible to discourage him. And somehow he got in the room, and we started talking and he put the radio on, and we started dancing. The sparks just flew. He was adorable but a little frightening…you felt he could see right through you. He gave every line reading differently, so that it was always new. You could just see it in his eyes. I’ve worked with many fine actors but he was the finest.” — Eva Marie Saint

Not too much later, Terry is called into the street to discover the dead body of his brother, who has been killed for not following through with his assignment. Terry is distraught and angry. He immediately seeks revenge and goes looking for mob boss Johnny Friendly with a gun in hand. His love interest, Edie, has followed him and begs him not to do anything. He ignores her and instructs her to get the Father to take care of Charley’s body, but “For God’s sake, don’t leave him alone here long!” His voice nearly cracks with emotion; there is so much concern for his brother and his dead body being left alone.

My favorite scene, though, comes toward the end of the film. Terry has testified against Johnny Friendly, and all of his friends are angry at him–even the young “Golden Warriors” Terry has befriended. Terry, who keeps pigeons, goes up on the roof to check on his pigeons. He finds that they are all dead, killed by the youth who once idolized him. “What did he have to do that for? Every one of them.” Edie has again followed him and calls his name, attempting to comfort him. Brando does not face her but turns into the pigeon coop and waves her away meekly with his hand. He needs to grieve alone–just for a moment. And Brando communicates this with a single gesture. It’s the same gesture he would use years later in The Godfather when Don Corleone learns that Michael–Michael, whom he loved so much, for whom he wanted so much more than the life of a Don–has been sent to Sicily because he is the one who killed Sollozzo. The Don lifts his hand and weakly waves away the speaker: he needs to be alone with his grief.

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“I interviewed some deaf actors and I asked them who their favorite actor was, and they said Marlon Brando. And I said, ‘Why?’ and they said, ‘Because even though we can’t hear what he’s saying, we know exactly what he means.’ In other words, his expression told everything.” — Patricia Bosworth 

I could talk about every scene in this film, but I (sadly) have more research to do. (It is addicting.) Brando rightly won an Oscar for his performance in On the Waterfront. It’s one for the ages. Happy birthday, Bud.

The Perfect Film

A few months (yes, months–I am a slacker, just like George McFly) ago, I pondered the question of which films I would most like to take with me to a fictional desert island. I composed a long post sort of contemplating this question without ever reaching any conclusion.

The recent holiday season, however, reminded me of one film I would definitely want to take to that desert island. Even though I have seen this film so many times that I can recite each line of dialogue and anticipate every inflection of James Stewart’s voice, its story is just as compelling, revelatory, and poignant as its first viewing: It’s A Wonderful Life.

There is not a single mis-step in this film: every actor is perfectly cast, every line of dialogue is essential and perfectly delivered, and at no point does the film lag or lose its focus. It is a perfect film. That is not a statement of hyperbole; that is the truth. And even though in some ways, It’s A Wonderful Life is a product of its time, it remains, at the same time, essentially timeless.

A favorite scene? Impossible. Young George, his sore ear bloodied, cowering from Mr. Gower, who then embraces him for what he has done for him. George and Mary hovering near the edge of the swimming pool in the midst of a Charleston Dance Contest. “They’re cheering us, we must be good!” George and Mary, faces pressed together, on the telephone. “I don’t want any plastics, and I don’t want any ground floors, and I don’t want to get married – ever – to anyone!” Mr. Potter extends a tempting offer — George asks to have time to think it over with his wife — he reaches to shake Mr. Potter’s hand and realizes he doesn’t need 24 hours, he doesn’t need to talk to anybody, the answer is no, doggone it because Mr. Potter is nothing but a scurvy little spider. George, having seen how his absence affects the lives of those he loves, prays on the bridge where moments earlier he had contemplated suicide, “I wanna live again. I wanna live again. Please, God, let me live again.” Snow falls and…Zuzu’s petals! The final scene — George, overwhelmed and overjoyed at the love and support of his family and friends. “Look, Daddy, Teacher says, every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings.” “That’s right, that’s right. Attaboy Clarence!”  

A favorite line of dialogue? Equally impossible. “George Bailey, I’ll love you ’til the day I die.” “Oh, why don’t you stop annoying people?” “Isn’t it wonderful? I’m going to jail!” “I wish I had a million dollars…Hot dog!” “My mouth’s bleeding, Bert! My mouth’s bleeding!” “And that goes for you, too!” “…and then I’m comin’ back to college and see what they know.” “Excuse you for what?” “You were born older, George.” “Merry Christmas, you wonderful old Building and Loan!”

A favorite character? Ah, now that’s easy. There’s really only one choice, isn’t there? George Bailey, so proud of his membership in the National Geographic Society, was so sure he knew what he was gonna do tomorrow and the next day and the next year and the year after that — exploring and building things — but instead he ends up staying in Bedford Falls selflessly taking over his father’s job he found so stifling, ultimately feeling like a failure who wished he’d never been born — a wish whose devastation can only be revealed to George by an angel without wings. How fitting then that the film was not a critical or commercial success upon its release — like George and his father before him — and through the years has rightly been elevated to the status of classic.

It is often difficult to separate an actor and the character he plays, and it is never so hard as with Jimmy Stewart in It’s A Wonderful Life. He creates a character so real that the instant he speaks a line, you believe him. You believe George Bailey is a real person, not a character in movie, and Stewart does it so effortlessly that it’s hard to believe that he’s acting. Without George Bailey, the people around him and the town of Bedford Falls falls apart and without Jimmy Stewart, It’s A Wonderful Life, too, would fall apart.

It’s A Wonderful Life is quite possibly the most effective and affective film. You identify with George Bailey, you care about him and root for him as if you really know him, and at the end of the film, you’re so glad that he has recognized how wonderful he is that you are even able to forget that nasty old Mr. Potter is left unpunished.

It’s the perfect film to watch at Christmas. It’s the perfect film to watch in July. It’s the perfect film to watch on a desert island. It’s the perfect film.

Its-A-Wonderful-Life

Happy New Year to you…in jail!

It’s…Hard

I recently saw this question posed: “Which five films would you take with you to a desert island?” I’ve been contemplating what my answer to this question would be, and in formulating a list of the films that I love and that reveal more to me with each viewing, I reached a point where I could not decide which film of a particular actor I would bring with me. There was no question as to would I bring a piece of this actor’s work; it was the torture of deciding which one to bring. There are days when I just want to be charmed by Cary Grant or drown in the jewels that are Paul Newman’s eyes or listen to Spencer Tracy tell it like it is or melt into a puddle at the sight of Robert Redford, but there is one actor above all the rest who means the most to me. That actor is, of course, Montgomery Clift.

But why? What would make a desert island so unbearable without one of his films to keep me company?

In the simplest terms, the man was spell-binding. It is difficult to imagine him as an actor today, in an age where it is hardly uncommon to watch a movie without resorting at least once to checking your e-mail or Googling the weather or checking IMDB to identify from which episode of a sitcom you recognize an actor, because when Clift is on the screen, you–or at least I–cannot take your eyes off of him, and it is not simply because of his looks.

1948

World peace is found in 1) your smile and 2) close-ups of your face

Clift had the ability to become so embedded in the script and character that you forget he is an actor; he is the character, and the transition he makes from actor to character is so seamless that you do not even realize it has taken place. You become so engrossed in his performance that you do not even realize that it is just that–a performance–until it is over. Then you are compelled to watch the performance again and take note of every nuance — how he underplays each scene in Red River and yet his presence still demands attention, how he bids goodbye to his wife in The Young Lions, only able to lift his hand to his waist in a final, small, pathetic wave, how he raises his hand to his lips to blow a kiss to Lee Remick in Wild River but falters, self-conscious.

This ability to embody his character so fully, to fuse his body and soul so seamlessly with the character that the distinction between character and actor is indistinguishable, is what some believe cost him an Oscar. (He was nominated four times and unjustly robbed each time. Not that I’m biased. No, really, I’m not. He. Was. Robbed. Four times.) If that theory is true, then that is utterly ridiculous. Isn’t that what an actor does (or should do)? Perhaps there is some truth in that theory, but I lend more credence to the theory that he never won because he always refused to play the game, so to speak, of Hollywood. He repeatedly refused to sign long-term contracts with studios, and when he did finally make the transition from stage to screen, he did so on his own terms. “I told them I wanted to choose my scripts and my directors,” he later recalled. “‘But sweetheart,’ they said, ‘you’re gonna make a lotta mistakes.’ And I told them, ‘You don’t understand; I want to be free to do so.'”

Photographed by Stanley Kubrick, 1949

“They try to put people into smart little pigeonholes. It’s the same way they make instant coffee, it’s quick and easy–but I’m not coffee and I don’t pigeonhole.”
— Montgomery Clift, 1960

The dedication and effort he put into perfecting his craft is remarkable. In Raintree County, there is a flash scene (a scene which lasts no more than a second or two on the screen) in which Clift’s character opens the door to his wife’s bedroom and sees his son for the first time. He practiced opening and closing the door countless times–abruptly, tentatively, fearfully, joyfully, excitedly–all in his search for the one way which would convey the exact emotion in the exact way he wanted.

He learned to play the bugle for From Here to Eternity not because his bugle-playing would be heard on-screen but because he believed it was necessary for his mouth and throat movements to be accurate. He memorized the entire Latin mass for his role as a priest in I Confess. He went to get a terrible haircut before filming his appearance in Judgment at Nuremberg because he believed it was the kind of thing his character would do. He nearly broke his back while learning to ride a bronco for The Misfits. On his final film, The Defector, he performed all his own stunts, repeatedly falling into the icy Elbe River and refusing to wear a waterproof suit beneath his clothes, despite his poor health.

So intense was his concentration that while filming A Place in the Sun, he would often finish a take drenched with sweat. “When I play a role I pour all my energy and emotion into it,” he explained. “My body doesn’t know I’m only an actor. The adrenalin rushes around just like in a real emotional crisis when you throw yourself into an emotional scene. Your body doesn’t know you’re kidding when you become angry, tearful, or violent for a part. It takes a tremendous toll on the performer emotionally and physically. I delve as deeply as possible into the characterization. I can’t pace myself the way some other actors can. I either go all out or I don’t accept the picture. I have to dredge it out of me. I’m exhausted at the end of a picture.”

Monty with the McCarthys and their son, Flip

“He struggled from the plane with an armful of unwrapped toys for all the kids he knows. His own luggage was in a beach bag…”
–Augusta Dabney, commenting on his return from a trip to Europe in the fall of 1948

Clift believed that a character could be defined by his gestures, in the way he walked, and so he poured over his scripts, paring his lines to a minimum. “Good dialogue simply isn’t enough to explain all the infinite gradations of a character,” he declared. “It’s behavior–it’s what’s going on behind the lines.” This philosophy made him ideal for the deaf mute in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, a script he was sent toward the end of his life and was enthusiastic about but unfortunately never lived to fulfill. While filming The Search, he persistently battled with the screenwriters about the changes he felt should be made to the script. His input and revision of the script was such that he should have received a writing credit. Instead, the men with whom he battled so relentlessly won an Academy Award for their screenplay.

The end result of this immense commitment to his craft was a character who was so real, so believable that you can imagine what he is feeling and seeing just by seeing the gamut of emotions reflected in Clift’s beautiful and haunting grey eyes. And the instant he speaks a line, so carefully culled, you believe him. So moving and realistic was his portrayal of the G.I. Steve in his film debut The Search that an audience member approached director Fred Zinnemann and asked, “Where did you find a soldier who could act so well?”

The Heiress

Clift watching himself in The Heiress (1949). He was not pleased.

Despite all the energy he put into his characters, despite his meticulous revision of his scripts, and despite his selectiveness about the roles he accepted, he was rarely, if ever, pleased with his performance on the screen. He didn’t like Red River or The Heiress or From Here to Eternity or, least of all, Raintree County, the film during which he had his near-fatal accident that changed his looks and life. He was too hard on himself.

The Young Lions (1958)

“I had to try to master myself, find the real me outside my looks which people were hung up on and so was I.”
–Montgomery Clift

There are, however, people who agree with Clift’s assessments of his acting. They say he always looked so frail and sensitive on-screen that you could pinch him or utter an unkind word and he would collapse and burst into tears. True, Monty was a sensitive man and often portrayed equally sensitive characters on-screen, but there was often an inner resolute spirit present in the characters he portrayed–and, I would venture to say, in himself. Was Matthew Garth frail and sensitive as he withstood the brutality of John Wayne’s Thomas Dunson in the final scene of Red River? What strength must have Clift possessed to continue to work after his accident that changed his looks, some would say ruined (boo!), in an industry so smitten with superficial beauty?

These same critics might even make a claim that Clift had limited range, that he only ever played the same character, a version of himself, over and over. Similarities exist between the characters he played–the tenacity of Noah Ackerman and Robert E. Lee Prewitt, the mercenary nature of Morris Townsend and George Eastman, the near-naiveté of Danny MacCullough and Ralph Stevenson, but these similarities are slight. The characters are diverse and distinct from one another; Noah and Prewitt may have been similar in their resistance to succumbing to the cruelty of the Army and their swiftness in crumbling at the rejection of a girl, but the two characters are hardly identical. There is a nervous edge, an unsurety to everything Ackerman does–how he bounces on toes when he talks, how he lights his cigarette, how he takes hold of a girl’s face with both hands to kiss her. Prewitt, on the other hand, appears constant, immovable, unaffected; his moments of weakness and vulnerability flicker.

cowboys

Been watchin’ cowboy films on gloomy afternoons, tinting the solitude: Clift before his accident as the defiant adopted son of John Wayne in Howard Hawks’s Red River (1948) and afterward as the punch drunk cowboy Perce Howland in John Huston’s The Misfits (1960). 

Or perhaps these critics would try to blame Clift’s looks for the attention his acting receives and similarly denounce the films made after his accident. It is not disputable that the man was devastatingly handsome. It’s just not. (And if you want to dispute it…well, I don’t know. Don’t talk to me. I can’t help you, but glasses might.) Don’t be fooled, however, into thinking that he was less handsome after his accident; the accident made his features less delicate, not less beautiful, and the man aged and didn’t properly take care of his body. Don’t be fooled into thinking that his looks negated or sidelined his acting; he refused to be typecast and always put value on the complexity and interest of the role and story, not the amount of fame or money it would attract. Don’t be fooled into thinking his acting prowess deteriorated after his accident; some of his finest acting is found on film after the accident, despite the pain he was enduring.

Monty & Burt

“The only time I was ever really afraid as an actor was that first scene with Clift. It was my scene, understand: I was the sergeant, I gave the orders, he was just a private under me. Well, when we started, I couldn’t stop my knees from shaking. I thought they might have to stop because my trembling would show. But I’d never worked with an actor of Clift’s power before; I was afraid he was going to blow me right off the screen.”
–Burt Lancaster

And so where does this leave me? Back on that desert island, trying to decide which of his films I would most like to have with me.

Peter Bogdanovich recalled the one time he met Montgomery Clift, when Bogdanovich was working as an usher at a movie theater in New York City. One gray afternoon in 1961, the theater was showing several Hitchcock films, including I Confess, and Clift was in attendance. Part way through the film, Clift made his way toward the back of the theater and lit a cigarette, watching the breathtaking image of his younger, pre-accident self. Bogdanovich approached Clift, told him he liked the film, and asked if he was enjoying it. Clift turned to Bogdanovich and said sadly, “It’s…hard. It’s very…hard.”

That’s how I feel, trying to decide which film to take to this entirely fictitious desert island. It’s hard. Would it be his endearing screen debut, The Search, as he attempts to help a young boy, a survivor of a concentration camp who only answers “I don’t know” to every question, find his mother and teach him English? His arguably definitive portrayal of the stubborn and principled private Robert E. Lee Prewitt in From Here to Eternity? Or would I prefer his complex portrayal of a priest in I Confess, his speech restricted so that he says it all with his magnificent eyes? Would the power of his 17-minute performance in Judgment at Nuremberg as a man sterilized by the Nazis be enough to sustain me? Or what about The Heiress, the movie that introduced me to this wonderful actor, where his preternatural beauty is so distracting that I change my mind repeatedly about his character’s true intentions? (Currently: dude’s a cad but not as much of a cad as her father.) Would I want to be heartbroken by his portrayal of the sensitive Jew Noah Ackerman in The Young Lions, so similar to Prewitt in his endurance of “the treatment”? Or could I even bear to watch him, his thinning hair dyed and his taut skin stretched so thin he almost looks emaciated, perform all his own stunts, even though he was in poor health and probably dying, in his final screen performance, The Defector? Or would I want to enjoy the one film where he had the opportunity to display his comedic abilities (tripping on the train platform in Terminal Station and lambasting that dude about surf boarding in From Here to Eternity aside), The Big Lift, even if it is lacking as a film?

Back to that theater in 1961. Bogdonavich led Clift over to a ledger where patrons were encouraged to write suggestions of films they would like to see. Clift followed Bogdonavich, puffing absently on his cigarette. Bogdonavich opened the book to a page where someone had recently written in large, red letters: “ANYTHING WITH MONTGOMERY CLIFT!”

That, too, is my answer. Which films would I most like to have on a desert island? ANYTHING WITH MONTGOMERY CLIFT! I could watch any of them. Even when the script was weak (like Lonelyhearts or The Defector) or the film was wracked with problems behind the scenes (Raintree County and Freud), or his role was minimal (The Misfits, Judgment at Nuremberg, and Suddenly, Last Summer), his performance is noteworthy. He is compelling and fascinating, often more fascinating with each viewing, and I glean something new from his performance each time I watch. I am more aware of what he is doing as an actor, the extreme dedication and skill and understanding he is bringing to a character in order to bring him to life. Maybe it would be an exaggeration to say that he changed the way I watch movies. But the truth is: it’s not an exaggeration. I compare every actor to him; I watch and try to dissect what an actor is doing and what they are not saying because of him. And no actor is as mesmerizing and satisfying to watch as Montgomery Clift.

Montgomery Clift by Richard Avedon, 1958

“Luxury, swimming pools, expensive cars and all the rest just aren’t very important to me. The big job in one’s life is finding out what is important to you. It’s a major tragedy to race after things that you neither want or need.”
–Montgomery Clift

In his forty-five years and seventeen feature films, he created an indelible, if often unforgotten and underappreciated, impact on innumerable moviegoers, including me, born decades after his death. Today would have been his 94th birthday. Isn’t that amazing–amazing that someone can be gone from this earth for so long and yet still have such a lasting, powerful presence? I think so. Happy birthday, Monty. You were so special.

RECOMMENDED FURTHER READING

  • Patricia Bosworth, Montgomery Clift: A Biography 
  • Judith M. Kass, The Films of Montgomery Clift 
  • Peter Bogdanovich, Who the Hell’s In It 

SELECTED* FILMOGRAPHY

  • The Search (Fred Zinnemann, 1948)
  • Red River (Howard Hawks, 1948)
  • The Heiress (William Wyler, 1949)
  • The Big Lift (George Seaton, 1950)
  • A Place in the Sun (George Stevens, 1951)
  • I Confess (Alfred Hitchcock, 1953)
  • Terminal Station (Vittorio De Sica, 1953)
  • From Here to Eternity (Fred Zinnemann, 1953)
  • Raintree County (Edward Dmytryk, 1957)
  • The Young Lions (Edward Dmytryk, 1958)
  • Lonelyhearts (Vincent J. Donehue, 1958)
  • Suddenly, Last Summer (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1959)
  • Wild River (Elia Kazan, 1960)
  • The Misfits (John Huston, 1961)
  • Judgment at Nuremberg (Stanley Kramer, 1961)
  • Freud (John Huston, 1962)
  • The Defector (Raoul Levy, 1966)

* Do you know what I say? Ha ha! Do you hear me? HA HA HA! Oh, wait, that’s the other actor from Omaha I’m enamored of…

Clift & Brando

“What’s the matter with your friend?” Brando, pictured here with Clift on the set of From Here to Eternity, reportedly asked Clift’s close friend Kevin McCarthy in the 1940s. “He acts like he’s got a Mixmaster up his ass and doesn’t want anyone to know it.” 

(Can I please bring this to my desert island, too? 😍😍)

If you don’t have time to watch all of Monty’s films today or are looking for a sampling of his work and have seven minutes or so to spare, check out this sublime tribute video from YouTube.

It combines some of my favorite moments with beautiful photographs (as if any other type exist of Clift) and a gorgeous, fitting soundtrack (Out of Africa). I’m kind of obsessed with it.

Also I’ll be loading my Monty board on Pinterest with all kinds of pretty, if you’re in the mood to slip into a Montgomery Clift-induced coma.