Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Come All Without, Come All Within, You'll Not see Nothing like the Mighty Len


Regular readers of Cinema Styles have probably noticed I write about acting more than any other aspect of film. I even have an acting category on the sidebar for all my posts on it but none for directing, editing, writing, cinematography, etc. It's not that I don't love and appreciate those aspects of filmmaking but acting was my first love and it can take me in or out of a film faster than anything else. I am much more riveted by a mediocre film with a great performance than by a great film with a perfectly suitable performance. It's just how I roll with these things. And sometimes that can get in the way of a blogger's street cred. After all, we film bloggers are supposed to write about the classics, about Hawks and Hitchcock, Cagney and Stanwyck. We're supposed to serve up insightful posts about cult and camp classics, all manner of genre flicks and The Godfather. We're supposed to write about the latest big films and the discussions centered around them. We're supposed to write about the latest blockbusters and whether they're art or not. We're supposed to be academic and write about great foreign films and film structure and meaning. And without a doubt I love talking and writing about all those things. But we're not supposed to talk about The Four Seasons, written and directed by Alan Alda. That could result in a total loss of street cred. Well street cred be damned I'm talking about The Four Seasons, or more specifically, just how damn good Len Cariou is in the central role of Nick Callan. Like I said, good acting can rivet me.

Any student of the theatre knows Len Cariou. He originated the role of Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street and I was lucky enough years and years ago to see a videotaped performance of it with Cariou and Angela Lansbury. Johnny Depp will forever be associated with the role now but with all apologies to Johnny, Len is Sweeney Todd. End of story. He also originated the role of Fredrik Egerman, in another Stephen Sondheim Broadway smash, A Little Night Music. But movie fans most likely know him for either The Four Seasons or The Lady in White, and television viewers will recognize his face in an instant as he has guested on practically every successful television show of the last twenty years. But it's The Four Seasons I want to concentrate on.

The Four Seasons was Alan Alda's sophomore writing and freshman directing effort after the commercial and critical disappointment of The Seduction of Joe Tynan in 1978. The Four Seasons was considerably more successful with the public and the critics. It boasted a cast of seasoned performers (Carol Burnett, Rita Moreno, Jack Weston, Sandy Dennis) mainly going through the paces of a good natured and inspired if unchallenging relationship comedy. But then there was Len.

Len Cariou plays Nick Callan, the central figure to the plot. It is his decisions about his family and marriage that propel the plot along and give the other characters something to talk about. If directing really is 90 percent casting then Alda came up aces when he cast Cariou. Cariou carries the film on his shoulders and doesn't falter for a second.

Every performer in the film seems to have a moment of outburst. Carol Burnett in the hotel bedroom, Alan Alda in the ski lodge, Rita Moreno and Jack Weston (also in the hotel room), Bess Armstrong at the ski lodge. But not Len. Oh it may have been written that way but he doesn't take the bait. When he chews out Alda's character about invading his personal life he seethes, he tenses up, he represses. He doesn't explode. Know why? He's a damn fine actor that's why.

And then there's the way he effortlessly portrays that guy who's always got to be the macho man. You know, the older guy who was a friend of your parents and drank all his booze straight, had effortless charm and talked about that time he broke his collarbone at a frat party the night before the big game and still scored a touchdown the next day. And you can secretly see that your mother and her friends have a little bit of a crush on him. Nick Callan is that guy and dear lord does Len Cariou inhabit his spirit perfectly. It's a wonder to watch.

But Cariou does something else too. When he leaves his wife of twenty years for a younger model he makes you believe by the end of the movie that he really actually did it because he fell in love, not because his penis was getting restless. He may well have divorced her two years later but within the confines of the movie he makes you see his side, and you don't hate him for it.

Len Cariou was not nominated for either Best Actor or Best Supporting Actor for The Four Seasons. Too bad really, because it's one of the best performances of 1981. He did win a Canadian Oscar, the Etrog, for the film One Man, which I have not seen, in 1977 and has a list of theatre credits that is incredibly impressive. He has multiple Tony award nominations and finally won the Tony on his third nomination for his portrayal of Sweeney Todd. But he has no Oscar or Oscar nomination and I guess that's okay as he doesn't seem overly concerned with film acting anyway. The theatre appears to be his first love. But when he is on the screen, even in small roles like The Lady in White I sit up and take notice and by now you know why; I like good acting. There's something about a sturdy, reliable performer that's reassuring, even comforting. So even if a movie he's in doesn't have a lot to recommend it, even if everybody's in despair, every girl and boy, when Len the actor gets here, everybody's gonna jump for joy. You know the rest.

36 comments:

Marilyn said...

"Len is Sweeney Todd. End of story."

You've got that right. It was largely because of seeing his performance (live - eat your heart out) that I couldn't buy Johnny Depp's one-note portrayal.

I agree about The Four Seasons and Woman in White (the latter a chilling performance). He is simply one of my favorite actors.

(And wait till you see what I'm reviewing today - my cred will be in the crapper.)

Jonathan Lapper said...

One of your favorite actors? That makes me feel so good about this. Ever since The Four Seasons I wondered why isn't he getting more parts. He so's good.

And you got to see Len Cariou playing Sweeney Todd in person? That's amazing! You're incredibly lucky. I wish sturdy, talented, strong actors like Len Cariou were better known.

Marilyn said...

Yup! I saw it on Broadway with Angela Lansbury, the original thing. Blew me away.

Jonathan Lapper said...

Okay Marilyn, I checked out Ferdy on Films and still see Roderick's discussion of Monty in Red River. You have my curiosity aroused. I can't to see what you're reviewing, street cred be damned!

Marilyn said...

I'm working on it now. I usually post at about midday, during my lunch break.

As for street cred, I guess I'm finding that I'm not that interested in keeping up with the Joneses anymore. I'm not interested in highly academic discussions, nor am I aiming for the kind of visibility people like Jim Emerson have. I don't want the pressure of having to keep my numbers up or write to drive comments (not really something I've ever had in abundance). So if I uncork a guilty pleasure, I can look forward to the kind of mocking that makes it all worthwhile - from you and our merry band of commenters.

Jonathan Lapper said...

It's funny you should mention all of that because when I started blogging a little over a year ago I remember wanting to do a piece on Len and thinking, "No I shouldn't do that, I should concentrate on the great classic stuff." And I do concentrate on classic cinema a lot because I love it but after a year of blogging maturity you say to yourself, "Who gives a crap what I write about? If they don't like it they can leave."

I also find I'm not into dry academic discussions myself. It feels too film school to me and I'm not in my teens or twenties (or even thirties) anymore. I like to explore film technique and have done so with things like Eisenstein and montage but I try to do it in a way that expresses my pure love of cinema, not where it comes off as a professor's lecture.

Marilyn said...

Exactly! That's what's so appealing about your blog. It's welcoming, doesn't take itself too seriously, and is obviously the work of a movie lover.

I had a small epiphany the other day. I wondered how I got to be a film person. I was always a theatre freak and never could talk about current movies with people because I never saw them. I think in my heart of hearts, I'll always love theatre more, but it's such a local thing and basically on life support.

Peter Nellhaus said...

It's your blog. You can write about any damn thing you want. I'm most interested in writing about films that are overlooked, or not just not written about by others. Just be true to yourself. As we've seen recently, all sorts of people have opined on The Dark Knight. How many have written about Len Cariou? As for myself, there is never too much love for Rita Moreno.

Jonathan Lapper said...

Marilyn, the theatre that's on life support for me is the classic drama or comedy. All of Broadway now seems overrun by spectacle, fantasy and farce. Local theatre often offers more options because young playwrights still write those small dramas and comedies and thanks to the local theatre's budget when they do an established work they prefer to do classic dramas or comedies rather than a huge extravaganza.

Jonathan Lapper said...

Thanks Peter. I think it takes time for a blogger to figure that out. I know it did for me. You slowly come to the realization that if someone respects your love for film they won't dismiss you out of hand when you talk about an "uncool" movie, and if they do, well, good riddance.

Now your blog Peter, is to my mind a fine example of covering films that you want to see and completely ignoring the zeitgeist of the moment. I can't always do that. I get caught up in zeitgeist myself. with your blog I can almost see film "periods" you're going through with your reviews. It really is like a personal journal where you relay your thoughts about what you've just watched. Great stuff.

Marilyn said...

I'm really lucky to live in a city that seems to attact and collect new, exciting theatre companies - the cache of Steppenwolf, maybe, but it seems it was always thus. I just saw a terrific production of Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party on Sunday in a small, semi-bohemian theatre that's always doing interesting things. There's a kind of theatre for everyone here.

Peter - What you do for Asian films is great. I can never comment because I usually have never seen the films, but I read and make note of your choices. Thanks for what you do.

Pat said...

I can't say I've given Len Cariou a lot of serious thought till now (although I'm a "Sweeney Todd" devotee and insanely jealous of Marilyn for seeing the original on Broadway.) But, in retrospect, I can see your points about how Carious gives by far the best performance in "The Four Seasons." And I'm always happy to see him wherever he pops up - I remember being quite glad to see him in "About Schmidt" and wishing he'd had a bigger role in it.

Jonathan Lapper said...

Pat - That's what I thought too, with About Schmidt, and I guess anything I see him in. Good actors make you want to see more their characters. In the end, I don't think I'm trying to elevate Len above anyone else or any other classic actor, I'm just saying he's an excellent actor of considerable skill and talent and I wanted to pay tribute to that.

Jonathan Lapper said...

Marilyn - I remember reading about Steppenwolf and actors like Malkovich and Sinise before they were even in films back in the early eighties. That's pretty incredible considering I didn't live in Chicago and it was ... a theatre troupe!

They made quite an impact.

Jonathan Lapper said...

Oh and Peter - Thanks for the comments on my posts on The Film Experience. I don't think Nathaniel's regulars really care for what I put up there so it's nice to see a friendly face.

Fox said...

This is what I like about yours and Marilyn's (Ferdy on Films you guys!) blogs. You dig up these films I've never heard of and write on them with appreciation.

p.s. Excellent freaking banner!!! That film alone could produce a year's worth of banners.

Sheila O'Malley said...

Bless your heart, Jonathan.

I absolutely love The Four Seasons (I love Rita Moreno's flipout in the hotel room - when she is furiously brushing her hair) - and yes, Cariou's part is essential. You're right: By the end, you realize: Huh. He probably did fall in love.

Sandy Dennis was great, too. I am forever haunted by her character's photos of vegetables. So weird. So lonely.

Jonathan Lapper said...

Thanks Fox. Len's a great actor and I'm more than happy to introduce to anyone that is unfamiliar with his work.

And that Georgie - he'll get his comeuppance soon, don't worry.

Jonathan Lapper said...

Sheila - And going through the years I've met people (and been there myself) where a married couple grows in completely different directions, after all, they made a life committment in their early twenties. I now know with age you know next to nothing about who you are in your early twenties. When one leaves the other he or she is considered bad or evil for doing so. In some cases that may be true but in other cases, like the one in the movie and the ones I'm familiar with in real life, it's simply that age has taught you that you made the wrong decision and usually only one half of the marriage realizes that.

And even though I singled out Len, it's a great cast of performers all around. Sandy Dennis inhabits her role to a tee as well.

Sheila O'Malley said...

And Carol Burnett is fantastic. There's that great scene where she starts laughing HYSTERICALLY about Danny being "afraid of his underwear" ... they're out to dinner ... and she literally cannot stop laughing, even though she is hurting the other character';s feelings and basically disturbing the peace. I am amazed by how real her laughter is ... It reminds me of that close-up of Candice Bergen laughing in Carnal Knowledge ... where you (the audience) almost aches for the character to stop laughing, just so she can catch her breath.

I haven't seen the movie in years, but obviously it has stuck with me.

Thanks, again - putting it on the Netflix queue.

Flickhead said...

Is there no love for Susan Seidelman's The Boynton Beach Club? Perhaps living in an "active seniors" community prejudices me here, but I love that movie and Len is quite good in it...especially when facing a naked, 68-year-old Sally Kellerman. Plus, it's got 68-year-old Dyan Cannon who has the physique of a 17-year-old and the face of Warren Beatty. Not the beautiful Splendor in the Grass Warren, but the Town & Country Warren.

Jonathan Lapper said...

Sheila - You know what I always liked about Carol Burnett in relation to this movie? There was an interview with her way back in 1982 after the movie had come and gone (don't ask me where I saw it, could've been 60 minutes, 20/20, Barbara Walters - I just don't remember) and she was asked about the Oscar campaign, in which she had caused a minor stir.

You know how the studios start putting out those "For Your Consideration" trade ads for movies and actors. Well they did it for her for "The Four Seasons" for Best Actress. As soon as she found out she got in contact with the studio and insisted they cease and desist with that immediately. She said in the interview, and I'm paraphrasing from memory, "Look I was good, I think, but nothing great. But mainly, considering who I was acting with in that movie I refused to be singled out over such great performers."

That always stuck with me. That seems like pure class to me.

Jonathan Lapper said...

Flickhead - You have me at a disadvantage. I am unfamiliar with Boynton Beach Club but I just did a quick read on it and I definitely want to see it now. Thanks for that mention of it so much. I knew I was on to something by writing about Len.

Marilyn said...

I actually liked Bess Armstrong a lot. I thought she took a character that is usually a bimbo and unsympathetic and infused her with a great deal of humanity. I felt sorry for the way everyone was ragging on her, unwilling to see her as another human being.

Jonathan Lapper said...

Her character goes a long way towards making the character of Nick Callan more understandable and sympathetic. I need to do a minor edit in my post where I wrote "good natured if uninspired and unchallenging." Discussing it more in depth here in the comments section, it may be essentially unchallenging cinematically, but it feels more inspired than I gave it credit for.

Fred said...

I will forever kick myself for missing Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury in Sweeney Todd and Patti Lupone and Mandy Patinkin in Evita back in the day. I had numerous opportunities, but I didn't take advantage. I did get to see Len sing the National Anthem at Shea before a Met game in the late 70s (during his run in Sweeney Todd) and he did a much better job than the home team (which was awful at that time). Great write up about The Four Seasons and I guess I have to see Boynton Beach Club since my folks live there.

Brian Doan said...

I have the DVD of the Broadway Sweeney, but it has George Hearn rather than Cariou (who'd left the show by then). Love Hearn, and he's superb in the role, but I wish I could've seen Cariou in the part. Oddly, I feel like I know his voice better than his body-- I've worn out the Sweeney Todd and A Little Night Music soundtracks, and he's so much fun on them (listening to him sing "You Must Meet Me Wife" with Glynnis Johns-- their timing and intertwining of lyrical jokes just so on-point-- is really sublime.

I really need to watch The Four Seasons-- I like everyone in the cast, and it's one of those films I've always heard is great.

Hey, academic film discussions can be fun! We're not ALL boring! (: I do hear you on the self-imposed pressures we put on ourselves to blog about certain things, though-- I'm happy to talk about both blockbusters and older films, but sometimes I just want to put up a video clip, tell a joke, or explore some movie or topic that I'm well-aware no one else might care about. But it obsesses ME, so why not?

Marilyn-- great post on PUMP UP THE VOLUME! Like that film a lot, and also share your love of "teen" movies. Your blog is great!

Marilyn said...

Thanks, Brian. I'm not against academics at all, just the rarefied air of the film snob.

And thanks for the compliment.

Jonathan Lapper said...

Fred - You had numerous opportunities? And you didn't take them? Oh well, hindsight I suppose. And your folks live at the Boynton Beach Club and you didn't see that? Fred, come on now. I want to see more of a go-get-em attitude from you okay.

Jonathan Lapper said...

Brian - I think you'd enjoy The Four Seasons. Alda's not very inventive with the camera or editing so it's not a movie to be revered for its cinematic prowess but rather for the fine ensemble acting, and Len of course.

And I like academic too as long as it's not stuffy. I consider a piece on the Fascist Liberalism of H.G. Wells to be an "academic" piece but I don't think I infused it with a bunch of arcane language and referencing, at least I don't think I did. I like posts that pique interest and provoke discussion, even if the discussion is just mutual admiration of an actor or film. When I say "academic" I'm referring to dry, footnote laden, research heavy analysis where the reader doesn't get any sense that there's a writer present. I think Jim Emerson, the folks at the House Next Door, Ted Pigeon and others get very academic without getting dry or boring. They keep it lively and fun.

And yes, Marilyn and her blog rock.

ARBOGAST said...

I have a copy of One Man here, hee hee hee. Yes, he.

Jonathan Lapper said...

Is it everything I dream it to be?

Brian Doan said...

Jonathan, I guess I could put this on the more recent thread, but it feels more thematically right here-- Woody Allen on one of your favorite films (and mine):

http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,20219007_6,00.html

Jonathan Lapper said...

Boy he cannot judge his own work huh? Jesus, that movie's fantastic - beautifully acted, written, directed, photographed. How the hell could he not see that? He's hilariously insecure. That's why I love him. Thanks for the link.

Fred said...

My folks live in Boynton Beach at one of the adult retirement communities on which Boynton Beach Club is based. I don't know if there is an actual "Boynton Beach Club". Still, I'll have to seek it out so I can stop kicking myself. It really hurts.

Jonathan Lapper said...

I much prefer flogging myself. It hurts, but there's a level of excitement as well.