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Entries in Obituary (5)

Monday
Feb272017

REMEMBERING BILL PAXTON

Bill Paxton had the kind of star quality that Hollywood was never able to entirely utilise. When his popularity soared on the back of standout bit parts (The Lords of Discipline, 1983; Streets of Fire, 1984; The Terminator, 1985) and movie-stealing support characters (Weird Science, 1985; Aliens, 1986; Near Dark, 1987), the studio suits shoehorned him into leading man parts that failed to do his unique talent justice. We are grateful for his blockbuster hits, but no one will cite Twister (1996), Titanic (1997) or Mighty Joe Young (1998) as the films that capture what was engagingly ‘wild’ about ‘Wild’ Bill Paxton.

Having passed away at the age of 61, the always-in-demand actor was working up until his death. The cult success of his HBO drama Big Love and the role of Randall McCoy opposite Kevin Costner in the mini-series Hatfield & McCoys ensured that he was always welcome on the small-screen; his latest role was the lead in the series, Training Day. As an industry that respected and a fan base that adored him begins to mourn their loss, we recall his fearless, soaring, often unhinged big-screen performances...

Private Hudson in ALIENS (Dir: James Cameron; 1986)
Cameron met Paxton when they were both working for pennies on the set of a Roger Corman shoot over three decades ago. The director gave the manic young Paxton an on-screen shot as the nameless punk who incurs the merciless wrath of Schwarzenegger’s killing machine in The Terminator (1984). The young actor earned enough industry credibility to secure the role of Chet, the hilariously unhinged militaristic older brother in John Hughes’ Weird Science (1985). When Cameron was casting his sequel to Alien, he called upon his friend to drop the comedic ‘bigness’ of Chet and give full flight to the ‘unhinged military’ side. Paxton stole every scene as Private Hudson, the tough-talking but increasingly terrified marine whose on-screen meltdown and last defiant act of heroism gives the classic sci-fi action-thriller a crucial and soulful human warmth, as well as some of genre cinema's most quoted lines ("Game over, man"; "Stop your grinnin' and drop your linen"; "Why don't you put her in charge!?"; "Hey Vasquez, have you ever been mistaken for a man?"). The director and the actor would remain lifelong friends, working together on True Lies (1994), in which Paxton gives one of his funniest performances as the con-man Simon, and as salvage expert Brock Lovett in Titanic (1997). In a statement released overnight, Cameron said of his late friend, “"It was a friendship of laughter, adventure, love of cinema, and mutual respect. He was a good man, a great actor, and a creative dynamo.” (Pictured, above; Paxton, with co-star Michael Biehn, in Aliens)

Severen in NEAR DARK (Dir: Kathryn Bigelow; 1987)
Bigelow and Cameron were romantically linked at the time; she had seen the character work that Paxton had put into creating Hudson and the audience empathy his presence engendered. When casting her modern-western/vampire-noir horror film Near Dark, Bigelow realised his ballsy swagger and imposing masculinity was perfect for the role of sadistic predator Severen, the most heartless of the roaming band of bloodsuckers. She also knew that the chemistry between the Aliens cast was something special, casting Paxton’s co-stars Jenette Goldstein and Lance Henriksen. The film failed to catch on at the box office (it was late to the party in terms of cool vampire pics, with The Lost Boys premiering only two weeks prior), but quickly became a must-watch VHS favourite and remains a cult classic. The bar room bloodbath, during which Paxton utters the line, “I hate it when they don’t shave,” as he feasts on the jugular of an unkempt cowpoke, is unforgettable.    

Gus in THE DARK BACKWARD (Dir: Adam Rifkin; 1991)
Adam Rifkin’s putrid, magnificent take on celebrity culture could not have come at a worse time for Bill Paxton. In the four years since the industry buzz generated off Aliens, he had starred in critically acclaimed work that no one had seen (Near Dark; Pass the Ammo, 1988) and commercial efforts that had underperformed (Slipstream, 1989; Next of Kin, 1989; Navy Seals, 1990; Predator 2, 1990). In hindsight, an occasionally sickening but inspired satire co-starring Judd Nelson as a man who grows a third man out of his back only to be exploited for fame by Paxton’s slimy, grimy garbage man was not the most thought-through career move. But fans of the film (including yours truly, who penned a wordy appreciation in 2014) cite it as the stuff of legend and absolutely crucial to one’s understanding of the appeal of Paxton as an actor. From his Fellini-esque romp with obese prostitutes to his devouring of a rotten chicken leg to his amorous nuzzling of a garbage tip corpse, Paxton is mesmerizingly disgusting yet entirely sympathetic.

Dale ‘Hurricane’ Dixon in ONE FALSE MOVE (Dir: Carl Franklin; 1992)
Hank in A SIMPLE PLAN (Dir: Sam Raimi; 1998)
Dad Meiks in FRAILTY (Dir: Bill Paxton, 2001)
Paxton was a born-and-bred Texan and, as this trilogy of films connected by their rural settings reveal, he never shied away from representing the darkly shaded complexities of life on the land. In Carl Franklin’s indie crime thriller One False Move, Paxton played Sheriff Dale Dixon, the Arkansas lawman whose thrill at working with LAPD investigators is muted when secrets from his past merge with revelations about the case. In A Simple Plan, Sam Raimi’s snowbound tale of mistrust and doublecrosses, Paxton plays the outwardly decent man Hank, whose crumbling morality and descent into a life of compromised principles represents one of the actor’s best roles. By the time he directed and co-starred with Matthew McConnaughey in the chilling religious-themed Frailty in 2001, Paxton was deep inside the minds and hearts of country folk and the angels and demons that occasionally drive them to unforgivable acts of devotion. Roger Ebert recognised Paxton as “a gifted director”, calling Frailty “a complex film that grips us with the intensity of a simple one.”

Astronaut Fred Haise in APOLLO 13 (Dir: Ron Howard; 1995)
Perhaps because his most beloved and successful roles were slightly off-center or perhaps because he just never actively sought them out, Bill Paxton rarely got to play the ‘everyman’ (one exception was Jan de Bont’s blockbuster Twister, though his performance suggests he was a bit disinterested in the thinly-drawn lead role).  When afforded the opportunity by Ron Howard to play the beaming young astronaut Fred Haise in Apollo 13, Paxton revealed a glowing goodness of character and sturdiness of spirit that came to represent the inherent heroism celebrated in the film. If Tom Hanks’ Jim Lovell was the embodiment of good ol’ USA derring-do and Kevin Bacon’s Jack Swigert was the square-jawed non-doubter of the new technology, Paxton was the rest of us, the one for whom space travel was a mystical, soul-enriching journey to the heavens. Not for the first time in his film career, Paxton was the perfect conduit for viewer empathy and engagement. Howard recognised that the actor possessed that rare quality that instantly ingratiated him to audiences. It was an asset that probably cost him A-list fame – stars need to construct an air of mystery and ambiguity about their true character – but it ensured he was and will remain much loved.

Friday
Dec162016

TWELVE DAYS OF CINE-MAS: TEN SOARING SPIRITS

TWELVE DAYS OF CINE-MAS
A traditional festive countdown, reflecting upon my 2016 movie-watching moments...

TEN SOARING SPIRITS
In a year that saw the passing of so many greats from the world of cinema, there were many more who weren’t afforded the farewell they richly deserve…

ALICE DRUMMOND, Actress (pictured, above; with Awakenings co-star Robin Williams); died November 30, aged 88.
Alice Drummond’s most beloved bigscreen moment amounted to barely 3 minutes of screen time, most of which was spent pushing a trolley around the basement archives of the New York Public Library. But Alice Drummond’s encounter with the vaporous apparition that kicks off Ghostbusters sets the tone for what would become the biggest comedy of all time. Her character didn’t even have a name in Dan Aykroyd’s and Harold Ramis’ script, so Bill Murray, as Dr Venkman, improvised, “Alice, I’m going to ask you a couple of standard questions, okay…?” From her debut in Carl Reiner’s Where’s Poppa? (1970), she carved an invaluable character actor niche for herself, which also included roles in Hide in Plain Sight (1980), Eyewitness (1981), The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982), Awakenings (1990) and Ace Ventura Pet Detective (1994).
We’ll never forget… her deadpan delivery, turning lines like “My uncle thought he was Saint Jerome” (in Ghostbusters) or “Dan Marino should die of gonorrhoea and rot in hell” (in Ace Ventura Pet Detective) into pure gems.

DON CALFA, Actor; died December 1, aged 76.
With his distinctive looks and great character actor presence, Don Calfa spent a career stealing scenes, however small, from some of Hollywood’s biggest stars. The Brooklyn native quit high school to acquire his SAG card and began a career in front of the camera with 1968 underground oddity No More Excuses for director Robert Downey Sr. It was the first of 88 film and TV credits, working with directors such as Peter Bogdanovich (Nickelodeon, 1976), Martin Scorsese (New York New York, 1977), Blake Edwards (10, 1979), Steven Spielberg (1941, 1979) and Warren Beatty (Bugsy, 1991).
We’ll never forget… the two vividly realised comedic roles that became fan favourites - bumbling hitman Paulie in Weekend at Bernies (1989) and mortician Ernie Kaltenbrunner in Return of The Living Dead (1985).

PAUL SYLBERT, Production Designer; died November 19, aged 88.
Some of the most beautifully composed frames in Hollywood film history have been the work of Paul Sylbert, the New Yorker who designed and dressed sets during the early days of television before a distinguished film career. Following active service in Korea, he relocated to Los Angeles and was soon crafting the visual texture of such films as One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Kramer Vs Kramer (1979), Blow Out (1981), Ishtar (1987) and Biloxi Blues (1988). His beautiful work was twice recognised by the Academy; he won his only Oscar in 1978 for Heaven Can Wait then, 13 years later, earned a nomination for The Prince of Tides (1991).
We’ll never forget… the combined body of work left by Paul and his twin brother, the late Richard Sylbert, also one of Hollywood’s greatest ever production designers (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?; Shampoo; Chinatown; Reds; The Cotton Club).

SONIA BORG, Scriptwriter, Producer; died February 4, aged 85.
Many hours of great drama during the formative years of Australian television can be credited to Sonia Borg. The Viennese immigrant landed at Crawford Productions after her Shakespearean touring troupe had brought The Bard’s work to Hong Kong, India and beyond; once in Melbourne, she produced, directed and acted in such landmark series as Homicide, Division 4, Matlock, Rush, Power Without Glory and I Can Jump Puddles (pictured, right; with actor Leonard Teale). The Australian film industry will always remember her as the writer of the classic film adaptation Storm Boy, family pics Blue Fin and Dusty and, exhibiting her versatility, the Tarantino-endorsed killer-croc pic Dark Age.
We’ll never forget… “Birds like him, never die.”

MARGARET WHITTON Actress; died December 4, aged 67.
In an acting ensemble that included Charlie Sheen, Tom Berenger and Wesley Snipes, somehow the ballsiest cast member of them all was Margaret Whitton, as hardbitten club owner Rachel Phelps in David S. Wards’ Major League. So indelible was her impact on the testosterone-fuelled comedy, it would be the role that defined her character actor career, despite years spent on stage (she debuted on Broadway in Neil Dunn’s acclaimed  Steaming) and television (The Doctors; Miami Vice). An inauspicious debut in 1975’s Teenage Hitchhikers led to a Hollywood career that included The Best of Times (1986), 9½ Weeks (1986), The Secret of My Success (1987), Ironweed (1987) and Man Without a Face (1993).
We’ll never forget… that locker-room cool; her sexy, steel-willed persona that brought a sweaty, sweary bunch of manly men to their knees.

ALBERTO SEIXAS SANTOS, Director; died December 10, aged 80.
One of Portugal’s most respected filmmakers, Santos was elected President of the Portuguese Film Institute in 1976 at the age of 40. Beginning his career as a film critic, he studied film production in Paris and London before becoming an integral creative force in the ‘Novo Cinema’ movement of the late 60s. His first feature, the politically-charged drama Brandos Costumes, screened at the Berlin Film Festival. A committed advocate of his native film industry, he formed the film collective Grupo Zero, which encouraged free-spirited and socially conscious works.
We’ll never forget… his divisive 1999 drama Mal (Evil), a multi-strand narrative that examines gender roles and social ills in contemporary Lisbon; a Best Film winner at Coimbra Caminhos do Cinema Português and Golden Lion nominee at the Venice Film Festival.

TADEUSZ CHMIELEWSKI, Director; died December 4, aged 89.
Considered the godfather of post-war Polish comedy and one his nation’s most accomplished filmmakers, Chmielewski was shooting his breakout hit Ewa chce spac (Eva Wants to Sleep) only two years after graduating from the prestigious National Film School in 1954. When it earned Film and Screenplay honours at San Sebastian, Chmielewski became a national celebrity and outspoken advocate for his film industry peers. When not directing his own hits (Walet Pikowy, 1960; Pieczone golabki, 1960; How I Unleashed World War II, 1970), he would write for the likes of Andrzej Czekalski (Pelnia nad glowani, 1983) and Jacek Bromski (U Pana Boga za piecem, 1998). He was recognised for his unified approach to the national cinema when elected as Vice President of Polish Filmmaker’s Association (1983-1987) and was given the Medal for Merit to Culture in 2010.
We’ll never forget… his active service with the National Armed Forces during and after World War II while still in his teens.

DAVID HAMILTON, Director; died November 25, aged 83.
Ailing health and the sordid details of an alleged sexual assault kept British filmmaker and photographer David Hamilton a virtual recluse in his final years; he died from an apparent suicide in his Paris apartment. At the height of his fame, his controversial portraits of naked, often pre-teenage girls and young women were both celebrated and reviled by the mid-70s cognoscenti. Graduating from stills to film, he maintained his grainy, soft-focus aesthetic and artistic obsession with the nubile female form and blossoming sensuality. His narrative feature debut, Bilitis (1977) was an arthouse sensation; the follow-up, Laura (1979) a worldwide hit. Subsequent works Tendres Cousine (1980), A Summer in St Tropez (1983) and First Desires (1983) were more of the same and dwindled in popularity.
We’ll never forget… how he defined his subject matter when questioned in 1995: ““Nudity and purity, sensuality and innocence, grace and spontaneity; we made contradictions of them. I try to harmonize them, and that’s my secret and the reason for my success.”

SULABHA DESHPANDE, Actress; died June 4, 2016, age 79.
One of India’s most beloved character actresses, Sulabha Deshpande featured in over 73 Bollywood films and countless hours of television since her debut Silence! The Court is in Session in 1971. Much of her film work was to support her philanthropic arts, which included the groundbreaking experimental theatre group Rangayan and the establishment of new Marathi and Hindi theatre groups throughout the 70s and 80s. Her key film roles were in Arvind Desai Ki Ajeeb Dastaan (1978), Gaman (1978), Bazaar (1982), Ijaazat (1987) and English Vinglish (2012).
We’ll never forget… her undertaking to introduce children to the joys of live theatre, a goal that led to the establishment of the junior theatre company Chandrashala in the mid 70s.

FAN HO, Director; died June 19, aged 78.
Considered one of China’s most acclaimed photographers, Fan Ho graduated to feature directing in 1970 with the hit film Mei (Lost). He was oon signed to the Shaw Brothers stable, where he delivered such artistically pleasing and wildly popular works The Girl With The Long Hair (1975), Innocent Lust (1977) and Notorious Frame Up (1978). A split from the giant studio led to a lean period until, in 1982, he returned with the evocative works Expensive Tastes (1982), Two for the Road (1984) and Smile Again (1985). Late in his career, his tastes became increasingly provocative; his final films were the tasteful if fleshy I Desire (1987), Brief Encounter (1988), Erotic Nights (1989) aand Temptation Summary (1990).
We’ll never forget… that five of his films have been selected for preservation status, earning a spot in the ‘Permanent Collection’ of the National Film Archives of Taiwan and Hong Kong. 

Thursday
Nov052015

THE BEAUTIFUL WORDS OF MELISSA MATHISON

Screenwriter and author Melissa Mathison passed away on Wednesday, aged 65, at the UCLA Medical Centre, having fought neuroendocrine cancer for several months. Her Hollywood experience was legendary; the political-science graduate from Berkeley befriended Francis Ford Coppola (she would babysit his young children) and became his PA during the production of The Godfather Part II and Apocalypse Now. Over four decades, six of her screenplays would transition to the big-screen (including a co-writing credit with Stephen Zito on Caleb Deschanel’s 1992 drama, The Escape Artist); at the time of her passing, her adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The BFG (the third collaboration with Steven Spielberg; pictured together, below, on the set of ET) was in early post-production. Her work, filled with warmth, humour and honesty, will never be forgotten… 

THE BLACK STALLION (1979; Dir: Carroll Ballard)
Having worked as a TIME correspondent, Mathison was encouraged to tackle her first screenplay by Coppola, playing the mentor role. With fellow feature debutants William D Witliff and Jeanne Rosenberg, Mathison crafted the adaptation of Walter Farley’s novel into the first of her classic family storylines. Under the stewardship of director Carroll Ballard and visionary eye of DOP Caleb Deschanel, Mathison’s lean, spiritual tale of the desert-island friendship between Alec (Kelly Reno) and The Black Stallion has endured; in 2002, it was admitted into the National Film Registry by the US Film Preservation Board.
Classic line: “’Cause this Black, he can outbreak ya, y’know? He can outbreak ya. You’d just be sittin’ in mid air.” – Henry Dailey (Mickey Rooney).
Says Mathison, “We all agreed the movie should be like a children's book, with just pictures. That's when I learned to take out the words, to tell the story visually, which is the best training there is." (LA Times; July 9, 1995).

E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL (1982; Dir: Steven Spielberg)
With John Sayles and Ron Cobb, Steven Spielberg had written a 99-page treatment called Night Skies, a sequel-of-sorts to Close Encounters of the Third Kind. While in the midst of the action-movie mayhem that was the Raiders of the Lost Ark shoot, Spielberg met his leading man Harrison Ford’s girlfriend (and future ex-wife) Melissa Mathison. She took the script’s final scene, in which an alien is abandoned on Earth, and crafted a first draft, entitled ‘ET and Me’, in just eight weeks. ““It was a script I was willing to shoot the next day,” Spielberg said on the DVD commentary of the film’s 30th anniversary re-release. “It was so honest, and Melissa’s voice made a direct connection with my heart.” The writer’s first sole screenwriting credit would become the most successful film of all time and earn her an Oscar nomination.
Classic line: “I'll...be...right...here.” – E.T.
Says Mathison, “In 1982, I was not yet a parent, but I was a stepmother, and had been a consummate babysitter and an older sister. The kids in E.T. can be directly linked to kids I knew. I even stole some of my little friends’ best lines: i.e. ‘penis breath.’ What adult woman could have thought of that?” (The New Yorker; October 3, 2012).

TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE, Segment 2: KICK THE CAN (1983; Dir: Steven Spielberg)
Working under the pseudonym ‘Josh Rogan’, Mathison adapted the original teleplay, ‘Kick the Can’ by George Clayton Johnson for the anthology reworking of Rod Serling’s cult TV series. Although it appears mid-film, it was the final segment shot during the troubled production. Following the on-set deaths of Vic Morrow and two child actors while filming John Landis’ opening segment, Joe Dante and George Miller had shot their contribution; Spielberg, back behind the camera for the first time since ET, was tasked with delivering his special brand of magic in the tale of old folk literally rediscovering their youthful selves. Critics weren’t kind (the New York Times said the “rather ugly, sentimental comedy” was “inept in every way”), but retrospectively the narrative clearly captures Spielberg and Mathison at the most whimsical, least cynical juncture in their professional lives.
Classic line: “Fresh…young…minds…” – Mr Bloom (Scatman Crothers).

THE INDIAN IN THE CUPBOARD (1995; Dir: Frank Oz)
Mathison’s first ‘family film’ in over a decade was an adaptation of Lynne Reid Banks beloved fantasy, in which 9 year-old Omri (Hal Scardino) finds a new friend in a tiny plastic Indian (played by native American actor Litefoot, of the Cherokee nation) that comes to life. It achieved middling box office upon its initial release but, like much of Mathison’s timeless work, has become a childhood staple for generations.
Classic line: “You are always a great people, but it is not always so good.” – Omri (Hal Scardino).
Says Mathison, “"If children are given some real content, they can feel powerful with their own understanding of it. I think a movie like 'Indian in the Cupboard' will instruct them how to proceed as people. They can think about whether they would have done something the way a character did, how they would have felt about an event in the story.” (The New Yorker; October 3, 2012)

KUNDUN (1997; Dir: Martin Scorsese)
Director Martin Scorsese’s interest was pique when his then-agent sent him Mathison’s original screenplay, chronicling the early life and ascendancy of His Holiness, The Dalai Lama. “I read the script and liked its simplicity, the childlike nature of it,” Scorsese told Film Comment in 1998. “It wasn't a treatise on Buddhism or a historical epic in the usual sense.” A devout Buddhist, Mathison had spent time with The Dalai Lama at her home in Wyoming and worked through 16 drafts of her screenplay before the narrative became fully formed. Early screenings suggested it was an Oscar front-runner (it would earn 4 tech category nominations), but Disney allegedly stalled its marketing approach when Chinese officialdom attacked the film over their depiction.
Classic line: “I believe I am a reflection, like the moon on water. When you see me, and I try to be a good man, you see yourself.” – Dalai Lama (Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong).
Says Mathison, “I think it's kind of pretentious or presumptuous to think that you could actually affect anything with a movie. Certainly, I hoped that people would be moved by this truth and maybe want to get involved on some level. I think when you set out to make a political statement through a movie, you're in big trouble.” (Hollywood Bitchslap; May 23, 1999).

Tuesday
Mar312015

NEW YORK, NEW YORK: THE FILMS OF GENE SAKS AND NEIL SIMON.

As is fitting for a Broadway legend, all of the seven films directed by the late Gene Saks were adapted from legit theatre triumphs. He gave legendary comedienne Lucille Ball her most famous bigscreen role in Mame, and guided Goldie Hawn to a Supporting Actress Oscar in Cactus Flower. But it was his collaborations with Neil Simon that have created his true legacy. In honour of the 93 year-old, who passed away on March 28, SCREEN-SPACE revisits the four films that Saks and Simon crafted, each one a vivid, loving and funny slice of East Coast mores and memories…

Barefoot in the Park (1967)
After a hit run of 1530 performances under the guidance of director Mike Nichols, Barefoot in the Park served as the film debut for Saks and the second bigscreen outing for Simon (following After the Fox, the previous year). Robert Redford had become the toast of Broadway as newlywed WASP, Paul Bratter, the stuffed-shirt foil to his new wife, the free-spirited Corie (Jane Fonda). The film got lukewarm reviews (The New York Times said, “an old-fashioned romantic farce loaded with incongruities and snappy verbal gags.”) but audiences adored the chemistry of the leads; it grossed US$20million (converted, a whopping US$142million). Mildred Natwick, reprising her stage role as Corie’s mother, earned the film’s sole Oscar nomination. Still a date night favourite, it is nevertheless undervalued as timely commentary on the changing face of mid-60’s New York, when the ‘Greenwich Village boho’ lifestyle was rattling the establishment cage.
Did you know…?
– Redford’s stage wife, Elizabeth Ashley, was not considered for the film role, despite coming off a BAFTA-nominated turn in The Carpetbaggers. Actresses considered for the role included Geraldine Chaplin, Sandra Dee, Natalie Wood, Yvette Mimieux and Tuesday Weld.

 

The Odd Couple (1968)
When Saks and Simon paired up for their second collaboration, few predicted that the The Odd Couple would turn into one of the biggest hits of the decade; the final US box office figure of $44.5million converts to a staggering $300million, making it Paramount’s highest earner of 1968 and topping the likes of Bullitt, The Planet of The Apes and Rosemary’s Baby (and not far behind the top-grosser, 2001: A Space Odyssey). Having played 964 packed-house performances between March 1965 and July 1967 (again, with Mike Nichols directing), it was going to be a challenge to open up the largely single-set staging to the bigscreen. Another hurdle was recasting the pivotal role of Felix Ungar, after Art Carney was not considered for the movie version. With Walter Matthau still on board as the slovenly Oscar Madison and Jack Lemmon now in place (in their second film together), it fell to Gene Saks to recapture the on-stage magic of Neil Simon’s buddy comedy. The script earned Simon an Oscar nomination and won him the Writer’s Guild Screen Writing trophy; Saks understated direction was harshly ignored, earning just a single nomination from his peers at the Director’s Guild.
Did you know…?
– The film broke several records during its season at the famous Radio City Music Hall, including longest single run (14 weeks) and highest gross (over US$3million) in the then 42-year history of the venue. 

Last of the Red Hot Lovers (1972)
Saks and Simon would wait four years before reteaming on Last of The Red Hot Lovers, a darker-hued comedy that showed the maturation of two storytellers willing to tackle the very contemporary theme of infidelity. The play ran 706 performances at Broadway’s Eugene O’Neill Theatre with the portly character actor James Coco as anti-hero Barney Cashman, a restaurateur in a lifeless marriage and determined to have an affair. Paramount had more faith in Alan Arkin as their leading man (despite his expensive flop Catch-22 only a year prior), his smooth good looks at odds with the hopeless, chubby lothario that Simon originally envisioned. The play’s temptresses (Doris Roberts, the Tony-nominated Linda Lavin) were also upgraded to the screen sirens of the period (Sally Kellerman, Paula Prentiss). Simon’s and Sak’s trademark ageing, middle-class Jewish spin on the sexual revolution didn’t play well with critics or audiences, already feeling dated despite only having premiered on stage a few short years before the film adaptation.
Did you know…? – A union strike all but shut down location shooting in New York City just as Last of The Red Hot Lovers was getting set to begin filming. Despite Simon’s and Sak’s beloved NYC being central to the narrative, the production was largely shot in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania.

 

Brighton Beach Memoirs (1986)
14 years after the lukewarm response to Last of the Red Lovers, Saks and Simon would reunite for a melancholy walk down memory lane in the form of the acclaimed Brighton Beach Memoirs. As middle age began to encroach on the pair (Saks was 65; Simon, 59), they pooled their collective memories into the autobiographical story of Eugene Jerome (Jonathan Silverman, replacing Matthew Broderick from the Broadway run) and the idiosyncratic family life of 1937 Brooklyn, an existence that influenced his passion for baseball, storytelling and pretty girls. Having directed and shared in the acclaim of the Broadway season, Saks’ adds his trademark flavoursome eye for location detail (aided by the wonderful production design of Stuart Wurtzel), crafting the warmest, most cinematic film of the pair’s oeuvre. Both the film and play took some stick for employing a rose-coloured rear view (Roger Ebert said, “Simon and Saks should have taken some chances and cut closer to the bone.”) but neither apologised for the warm sentimentality and loving embrace they showed in recounting those awkward ‘teenage manhood’ years. Blythe Danner is a standout as the extended clan’s matriarch.
Did you know…?
– Despite winning a Tony for playing Eugene in the initial stage run of Brighton Beach Memoirs, Matthew Broderick passed on the film version when the shooting schedule clashed with his lead role in John Hughes’ Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Broderick would, however, play Eugene in the film version of Simon’s sequel, Biloxi Blues, opposite Christopher Walken.

Sunday
Dec212014

OBITUARY: VIRNA LISI

Virna Lisi, the Italian actress whose career was both enhanced and hindered by her photogenic assets, has passed away in Rome after a brief, determined battle against an unspecified cancer. She was 78.

Born Virna Pieralisi in the picturesque central Italian seaside city of Ancona, she made her debut at age 17 in Carlo Borghesio’s 1953 melodrama, La corda d’acciao (The Steel Rope), having been discovered in Paris by producers Antonio Ferrigno and Ettore Pesce. Audiences were immediately captivated and Lisi found steady work - as the luminous Maria in Armando Grottini’s musical E Napoli canta (Napoli Sings, 1953); opposite legendary funnyman Toto in the anthology comedy Questa e la vita (Of Life and Love, 1954); and Francesco Maselli’s La donna del giorno (The Woman of the Day, 1956), in which she excels as ambitious model Liliana, who conjures a rape story for publicity only to have the consequences spin out of control.

However, these early career highlights were tempered by works that merely exploited her rare beauty, such as Mario Mattoli’s Le diciottenni (Eighteen Year Olds, 1955), an uncredited turn in Antonio Pietrangelo’s Lo scapolo (The Bachelor, 1955) and Alex Joffe’s broad comedy Les hussards (Cavalrymen, 1955). She turned to the blossoming world of television to further establish her acting credentials, taking on the lead role in the landmark 1957 mini-series ‘Orgoglio e pregiudizio’. The format would serve her well over the course of her career, with roles in such hits as ‘Una tragedia american’ (1962), ‘Philo Vance’ (1974) and ‘Beauty Centre’ (2001) as well as dozens of TV movies helping her maintain a high public profile.

A support role in Sergio Corbucci’s blockbuster historical epic Romolo e Remo (Romulus and Remus, 1961) and her potent presence in Joseph Losey’s 1962 erotic-drama Eve brought Lisi to the attention of Hollywood producers at a time when studios were unveiling a Monroe-like starlet almost weekly. But Lisi’s talent and craft was already well-honed and she was sought to co-star with many of the international industry’s top male stars - Jack Lemmon (How to Murder Your Wife, her 1965 American debut); Marcello Mastroanni (Casanova ’70 and Kiss the Other Sheik, both 1965; The Voyeur, 1970); Alain Delon (The Black Tulip, 1965); Vittorio Gassman (A Maiden for The Prince, 1966); Frank Sinatra (Assault on a Queen, 1966); Tony Curtis (Not With My Wife, You Don’t!, 1966); Anthony Quinn (The 25th Hour, 1967; The Secret of Santa Vittoria, 1969); Rod Steiger (The Girl and The General, 1967); George Segal (The Girl Who Couldn’t Say No, 1968); William Holden (The Christmas Tree); Charles Aznavour (The Heist, 1970; Love Me Strangely, 1971); David Niven (The Statue, 1971); and, Richard Burton (Bluebeard, 1971, alongside Raquel Welch).

Virna Lisi was aware of the dangers of being typecast in the ‘exotic beauty’ role. She famously turned down Roger Vadim’s Barbarella, the international sensation that would make Jane Fonda a star, and bought out her contract with the United Artists studio, convinced the were withholding strong parts from her in favour of skin-deep support turns. She went to great lengths to challenge herself in often non-commercial fare, such as an early starring role alongside Gastone Moschin and Nora Ricci in Pietro Germi’s Signore & Signori, which would earn the Grand Prix trophy at the Cannes Film Festival. As she matured, accolades were bestowed upon her for Liliana Cavani’s Al di la del bene e del mal (Beyond Good and Evil, 1977), Alberto Lattuada’s drama La cicala (The Cricket, 1980); Carlo Vanzina’s comedy Sapora di mare (Time for Loving, 1983); and, Luigi Comencini’s romp Buon Natale, Buon anno (Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, 1989). Her greatest triumph would come in 1994, when she was cast as ‘Catherine de Medicis’ opposite Isabelle Adjani’s titular monarch in Patrice Chereau’s La reine Margot (Queen Margot); the role would earn Lisi honours at Cannes (Best Actress) and France’s Cesar Awards (Best Supporting Actress). She has been honoured with eight career achievement awards, including acknowledgement from Venice, Lecce and Taormina festival bodies.

She has largely worked in television since completing Christina Comencini’s 2002 Italian ensemble dram, Il piu bel giorno della mia vita (The Best Day of My Life), her dominant matriarch winning acting honours at the Italian Film Journalists Awards and the Flaiano Film Festival. Her final film, Latin Lover, reteams the actress with Comencini and is due for realease in 2015.

Married to architect Franco Pesci for 53 years (he passed away in 2013), Virna Lisi is survived by her son, Corrado, and three grandchildren.