Greetings all and sundry!
With a New Year just making itself known with surprisingly dense fog, unseasonably cold wind and weather rattling panes of glass. I’ve taken to curling up in a favorite leather chair, Beverage close at hand and delving into some ideas and topics that have been seeking sunlight in my gray matter. With a steadily occupied, though unsung purveyor of his chosen raft, trade and art. Making consistently small ripples in films that when first released fared less well than expected, Though, with the passage of time. Have become minor classics. Several of which fall into the realm of what I call “Guy Films”. While all of my selections fall into:
Two Favorite Things!: Ensemble Acting & Fred Ward
First seen as one of a group of cell block mates who befriend Clint Eastwood’s Frank Morris in Don Siegel’s Escape From Alcatraz from 1979. There was something about his elder Anglin brother’s slovenliness and gruff, straightforward delivery that raised my eyebrow. An undercurrent of patience while being coiled tight as a spring inside. That made him a decent foil for Mr. Eastwood as the plot slowly unfolds amongst the Cat & Mouse games played with the prissy, fastidious Warden, Patrick McGoohan. Mr. Ward is but a small cog in a larger vehicle of “Men Behind Bars” entertainment. Making his actions and words memorable amongst a large and diverse cast.
Making him a third or fourth choice of Walter Hill two years later. In the culture clashing, Testosterone laden, lost in the Louisiana swamps gem, Southern Comfort. Playing Corporal Lonnie Reece. One of nine men sent out on an Army National Guard weekend Maps and Orientation exercise that starts to go wrong very early on. And only get worse as they wander deeper into the foggy, damp and miserable swamps. Not high enough on the Chain of Command for his often cautionary words to betaken seriously. Opposite Keith Carradine and Powers Boothe. Who are in charge and deeply enmeshed in their own personal pissing contest.
Creating a sometimes fairly accurate look at the foibles and responsibilities of running a cohesive squad as little “sickening factors” like bad weather and loss of communications make themselves known. And add to the tension and pressures of less than friendly contact with those who hunt, fish, live and thrive in a six or seven map grid coordinates of the assigned “exercise area”. Making Mr. Ward a larger part of a smaller film where mystery and suspense play heavily. And brings about an ending no one really sees coming!
Which brings us to a minor Docu~Dramatic marvel helmed by Phillip Kaufman and adapted from Tom Wolfe’s best-selling tale.
The Right Stuff (1983)
A criminally neglected, caught between cinematic technologies offering that stylishly chronicles the evolution of “The Space Race” and its knights in shining armor. The Mercury Astronauts. From the very late 1950s and its quiet, though incredibly gifted and ballsy, Captain Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard. Rarely more soft-spoken or better!) breaking the sound barrier in the tiny Bell X-1 aircraft above what would later be Edwards Air Force Base. To Russia and its ground breaking Sputnik satellite and first cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin. Who put a face to the coming political, economic and technological war to come.
The balloon goes up and volunteers are sought from the military ranks. Pilots, of course. Though engineers would have equal footing later on. All ramrodded by a sadly caricatured LBJ. Air Speed Record setters like Marne pilot, John Glenn (Ed Harris). Hot Naval Aviator, Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn), Air Force Korean War Ace, Gus Grissom (Mr. Ward). Test pilot, Gordon Cooper (Dennis Quaid), Numbers cruncher, Wally Schirra (Lance Henricksen) and Deke Slayton (Scott Paulin).
Brought together and quickly made famous through a lucrative ad campaign, cutesy of Life magazine. While enduring physical, mental and psych evaluations that would weld this group contained egos against the starched, silent, efficient tyrant, Nurse Murch (Absolutely perfect, Jane Dornacker!) of New Mexico’s Holliman Aeronautic Medical facility.
Allowing director, Kaufman to construct a tale that doesn’t deviate much from what I remember of that halcyon era of my young life. With a superb cast of hungry talent being close to dead ringers for those being portrayed, Especially Mr. Ward and his lantern-jawed perpetual “five o’clock shadow. Ed Harris’ too close to perfect “Clean Marine”, John Glenn. Scott Glenn’s spot on Naval fighter jock, Al Shepard. And Dennis Quaid’s prankster kid brother, Gordon Cooper.
Leading the charge on their own egos and volition at first. Then becoming a cohesive unit in the locker room, “Man versus Monkey” debate. With Mr. Ward’s gruff Gus changing the discussion from questionable late night activities to the elephant in the room. What goes up first, trained pilots or smaller, more expendable chimps? It’s an excellent example of logical layered dialogue. Waylaid by Gus, but added onto by all seven astronauts deciphering “What Gus is trying to say.”
Then later bringing the fruits of their debate to life. With major changes to nomenclature, job descriptions, functions, abilities and related buzz words as the first prototype “Capsule” is rolled out for inspection. Kicked off by Gus and his initial “Where’s the window?” before Dr. Von Braun and a clutch of “Our German scientists”. As Cooper, Glenn and Shepard steer and manipulate important concessions to their liking with their deal breaking, “No bucks. No Buck Rogers!” As a small pond of photographers and reporters wait impatiently just inside the hangar and out of ear shot.
Two fine examples of the ensemble art in a film filled with many more. Most noticeably amongst the men, but the wives also have their times to shine! Early in the film with their “Maintaining an even strain” tea party at Muroc. Led by Trudy Cooper (Pamela Reed) and Betty Cooper (Veronica Cartwright). Their later acceptance of stuttering Annie Glenn (Mary Jo Deschanel). And the “impromptu” discussion of Gordo Cooper’s future between Trudy and Nurse Burch. Heard only in muffled whispers by Gordo fidgeting in the waiting room outside. Though it is Barbara Hershey who rules and delivers in wondrous ways as Glennis Yeager! Mixing sensuality and a deep vein of concern. With the ability to elegantly, effortlessly keep her risk taking husband in line.
Now. What Makes his Film Good?
A very little messed with screenplay by director, Kaufman. Taken from Mr. Wolfe’s tome. Whose first inkling were hinted at with the author’s original tale, The Truest Sport: Jousting with and Sam and Charlie. And what is the natural progression of a Navy or Marine Aviator? Mr. Wolfe plunges deep and reveals the intricacies and fraternity of those first men shot into ballistic trajectory. And later earth orbits.
From its hard scrabble beginnings at Muroc and later, Edwards Air Force Base. To Holliman and Cape Canaveral. The attention to detail is exquisite. As are the dialogue and exceptional Old School model work in the development of the Bell X-1 and later versions. And the friendly competition between Major Yeager and Chris Crossfield (Scott Wilson) as to who is the faster man on earth.
Cinematography by Caleb Deschanel captures the dusty griminess of the desert around Pancho Barnes’ local watering hole and steak house. Shifts gears to glimpses of the splendor that resides in the very thin envelope between sky and space. To the shiny sterility of laboratories,science and technology as the Mercury project swings into full gear.
Highest marks for Editing by Glenn Farr. Most notably in keeping scenes just as long as they have to be. While juggling split seconds of finely meshed model effects that surpass whatever much more expensive computer constructs were available a the time!
Art Direction from W. Stuart Campbell. And shifting style Set Decoration by George R. Nelson. Music and sound track by Bill Conti is sporadically of its time. When not showing off a veteran’s touch with brass and wind heavy full orchestration.
What Makes This Film Great?
Having the time, patience and wherewithal to assemble a proper cast. Avail them of some of the best dialogue of the 1980s. More than a thumbnail sketch of the characters each would portray. And allow them the opportunities for best efforts. Letting the chemistry come along naturally. Especially where male egos are concerned. While the wives form their own support committees for their husbands, And themselves. Delivering an unvarnished look at what it takes to be “Mrs. (Insert Rank and Last Name Here)”. The wife of a fighter. And adding to the “strain”; experimental pilot. Very heady and near taboo stuff for the early 1960s!
The focus of attention is evenly split amongst the men. First with Sam Shepard’s Chuck Yeager. The Godfather of super sonic flight, Making his mark early and providing the catalyst for what will come later. Sliding near seamlessly to the assembly of seven diverse egos. Who carry the weight and breadth of Project Mercury with a confident wink and smile. And Mr.Ward waiting patiently to add his down home, usually game changing two cents!
Author’s Note: ‘The Right Stuff is available on You Tube.
We’ll now move the clock forward through close to a dozen films and similarly notable roles. Which may be grist for later posts, Silkwood, Uncommon Valor, Swing Shift, UFOria, Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins. Where I thought Mr. Ward delivered surprisingly well as “The Destroyer”. A pulp Neo Pulp paperback hero whose Martial Arts tales kept me company on many a night on the flight line, With a near unrecognizable Joel Gray as his Sensei and Mentor, Chiun. On through Mr. Ward delivering an evil turn opposite Willem Dafoe and Gregory Hines in the Saigon centered, Off Limits. Only to hold the spotlight front and center in Tremors, Miami Blues, chasing crooked psycho ex con, Alec Baldwin. And throwing some needed light on writer, Henry Miller in Henry & June.
To make his mark yet again as the scruffy, laid back, unshaven, often allergic to suits and ties Head of Studio Security, Walter Stuckel in.
The Player (1992)
One of director, Robert Altman’s best, Noted more for its opening and fluid eight minute elevated dolly shot than for the intricate ins and outs of the Hollywood “system”. And a striving studio in particular. Where Jealousy, mistaken identity, deals, double crosses, mayhem, murder and extortion commingle and seek a happy ending.
Amongst an enormous cast, including dozens of single and group cameos. And centered obliquely upon script screener and executive, Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins). Whose job it is to select and green light scripts and screenplays from around the world in general. And California in particular, Giving his nod to about 12 out of tens of thousands, A man much sought after. Especially as Buck Henry pitches a sequel to The Graduate during the opening moments. And much reviled by those whose toils have been rejected.
One such angry individual is David Kahane (Vincent D’Onfrio). Whose screenplay Griffin dismisses out of hand. Causing Kahane to up the ante with calls, messages and postcard. Griffin tires of this and suggests an after hours meeting at a local art house. Griffin arrives late and confronts who he thinks is Kahane. An argument ensues. Griffin suggest drinks at the bar close by, Thinking they are going to part amicably, Griffin is taken aback by Kahane’s rejection. Punches are thrown beside a fountain. Kahane falls and drowns, Griffin has the wherewithal to make the scene look like a botched robbery, And goes about creating an alibi.
With the funeral for Mr. Kahane to attend (Shades of ‘The Bad And The Beautiful). Griffin is taken aside by Walter Stuckel (Mr. Ward) and filled in that the police are investigating a murder. And that witnesses have pegged Griffin as the last person to see Kahane. Detectives Avery (Whoopi Goldberg) and Longpre (Lyle Lovett) ask questions, But don’t get a lot of mileage from Griffin. Who dodges them for an upcoming intrigue and power play from New Guy and Griffin’s boss, Larry Levy (Peter Gallagher). Who has a much easier way of scripting and approving films from the day’s newspapers.
The loose noose of the law doesn’t really start to tighten as Griffin is watched and his Stalker calls to bump, check and up the ante yet again. With a snake in Griffin’s car! Which send Griffin into the arms of his other girlfriend, June (Greta Sacchi). Having sent his first, Bonnie (Striving and conniving, Cynthia Stevenson) off to New York on some tawdry errand. Griffin and June attend an awards dinner. Griffin calls Levy with an idea and two writers to pitch their screenplay. Which could either make a fortune. Be dropped while in pre or post production. Or be saved at the last-minute by Griffin. Thus disgracing and getting rid of the threat of Larry Levy in one fell swoop.
I’ll leave it right here for Spoilers sake.
Now. What Makes This Film Good?
Classic Altman taking on a sprawling idea. With working sets to match. Most, courtesy of the defunct Zoetrope Studios of Francis Ford Coppola. Fill it with an abundance of recognizable faces. And allow any and all to wreak smiling backhanded havoc upon that which pays their bills, Adding the twist of “a movie within a movie” in regards to how those movers and shakers behave towards their peers. And those who are not.
Perhaps a bit too close for comfort when sitting down and pitching ideas. Though that is a large and enjoyable chunk of this entertainment, Picking up the Battle Axe used so brilliantly in Hollywood Boulevard, Sweet Smell Of Success and The Bad And The Beautiful and laying siege to “The System” for all to see. While appreciating the underlying humor of it all.
Creating a film that is one part Hipster Homage for film buffs, fans, aficionados and geeks for its many references. One part pan and scan of those whom we’d spent money to see in our youths, And one part very clever, though slightly warped murder mystery.
Direction by Mr. Altman is flawless and loving to a fault. Especially with the opening Tracking/Dolly introduction. That works every bit as Mr. Welles’ earlier opening in Touch of Evil. Cinematography by Jean Lepine is gentle when required. Occasionally light-hearted in open terrain and areas. And suddenly tight and tension filled in close encounters with Griffin and his nemesis.
Production Design by Stephen Altman is solid. And leaves plenty of room for Set Direction and Decoration by Jerry Fleming and Susan Emshwiller. To leave the pleasant touches one would expect to see in board rooms, bars, cemeteries, court yards, al fresco restaurants, ball rooms and sound stages intact.
Music by Thomas Newman is more than up to the task, Backstopping emotion while adding suspense when needed.
What Makes This Film Great?
Few variations from Michael Tolkin’s novel and screenplay.And populated in several key scenes with the faces you would expect to see in and about Tinsel Town. Given free rein to ad lib to their hearts content. While adding tangible and solid back drop and ground for the principal players to move from pillar to post as the tale unwinds.
High marks for Tim Robbins’ charmingly arrogant Mr. Griffin. The supposed “smartest man in the room”. Though left in the dark when confronted by a situation and Stalker he has no control over. Trying to proceed with information gathered and delivered by Mr. Ward’s “Been There. Done That” Walter Stuckel. Who’s one step ahead and quick to unravel and clean up any accumulated messes that may damage the Studio.
Though the alleged “murder” of a relative nobody may appear to be small beer. Mr. Ward uses every moment of his screen time to relate gather notes, gossip and speculation. While being underestimated by any and all.
Not a large role, but a meaty one in its way. As another character in a most notable cast. In a film that is devoted to details. Right down to Bonnie’s suck up Personal Assistant who “loves” whatever genre of film is mentioned throughout!
Author’s Note: ‘The Player’ is available on You Tube.