Sunday, July 31, 2011

Third Time's the Charm?

Trilogies were not always a part of the cinematic landscape. While serials have been around since the Nickelodeon days, with moviegoers paying to see the same characters again and again and again, trilogies are a later invention. First, of course, sequels had to come into their own, which took years, and only then was the trilogy truly born.

Sequels and serials, to state the obvious, are two different things. From Russia with Love isn't the sequel to Dr. No but a continuation of the character James Bond in a new adventure. Likewise, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade are not prequels and sequels, as they are often called, but, again, continuations of the character, Indiana Jones, from Raiders of the Lost Ark. The fourth film, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, continues the character further.

I said "to state the obvious" near the beginning of the last paragraph but it clearly isn't obvious as Wikipedia's entry on sequels list the James Bond films as sequels. Technically, I suppose they are and so I must distinguish that for the purposes of this piece, a sequel is the continuation of a specific story that was only partially completed by the conclusion of the first film. It is not the new adventures of James Bond, Indiana Jones or any host of other action characters, from those in Lethal Weapon to those in Rush Hour. Nor is it a series of three movies that have been classified together as a director's trilogy (Annie Hall, Manhattan and Hannah and her Sister, for instance, would be Woody Allen's New York Relationship trilogy) or three films made with disconnected storylines and characters that are thematically linked by the same director (The Three Colors Trilogy by Krzysztof Kieślowski) It is a single story drawn out over multiple parts which, again for the purposes of this piece, would be, in particular, three parts. The story can be a biography following one character as he grows through life (The Apu Trilogy or, in a more limited sense, The Godfather Trilogy) or a specific story progression (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Trilogy aka The Millenium Trilogy, The Star Wars Original Trilogy, Lord of the Rings) with the same characters over three movies.

It was the audience desire to see the same characters again that gave birth to serials, which hit their stride in the thirties. Hollywood achieved consistent box-office success by giving the public the same characters in similar situations doing the same things they did last time, only with different supporting actors, a new script (loosely defined) and a new title. No one operated under the delusion that Boston Blackie, Torchy Blaine or Flash Gordon were ever expanding on their characters or exploring deeper emotional terrain in the next installment, they just wanted to see them again in a vaguely similar adventure and would happily pay for the privilege.

And serial characters weren't always confined to low budget affairs. The Thin Man movies proved that the idea could work on a big budget too, as long as you had top dollar actors (William Powell, Myrna Loy) willing to keep it up. The Andy Hardy movies were also given ample budgets and starred Mickey Rooney, for years the top draw in all of cinema. And, internationally, Sergio Leone and Akira Kurosawa scored big with their nameless men fighting for survival (their own and that of others) in the Dollars Trilogy and Yojimbo/Sanjuro movies, respectively.

But all of the above info can be found on the aforementioned Wikipedia page, linked here, where you too can, if you choose, read all about sequels and serials and how they came about. The above was only intended to differentiate between the two before getting to the meat of the matter, which, having amply buried the lead, I present in the form of a question: Do trilogies work?

The answer to that question is essentially meaningless ("some do, some don't") but acts as a good enough jumping-off point for a discussion. A better question might be, "At what point does a story's plot become so complicated and/or its characters so complex that more than two to three hours running time is required to tell the tale?" After all, practically every book ever written and every movie ever made is a trilogy in and of itself. They have a beginning, middle and end. In the case of a cinematic trilogy, the story is simply broken up over three installments rather than presented in one overly long film.

I would love to start the conversation with the trilogy generally acknowledged to be the seminal work of the form, The Apu Trilogy, but as it is not readily available for most to see (it is not on Netflix for DVD rental or instant viewing although an older DVD transfer of the set can be purchased on Amazon - this unavailability is, by the way, shameful) and since I, myself have seen only the final installment on PBS decades ago, I should reserve it for later discussion, when I have acquired the set or, if fortune smiles upon me, it is presented at the AFI Silver and I can take it in on the big screen.

Instead, we'll start a few years later with a trilogy that didn't become a trilogy for almost twenty years. For sixteen years, from 1974 to 1990, The Godfather movies were a pair, not a trilogy, until, finally, in 1990, Francis Ford Coppola decided it was time to finish the story of Michael Corleone. Even now, there is little consensus as to whether or not that decision was a good one. Nevertheless, The Godfather movies, especially the first two, are considered magnificent works of cinema by most cinephiles the world over.

The story of the trilogy is the story of Michael Corleone as he rises to the head of the Corleone Family. It follows Michael's character without a continuing story, that is to say, when the first Godfather ends, there is no cliffhanger, no unresolved moment we anticipate being the starting point of the next film. The movies aren't about plot but about Michael, how he changes, grows (or doesn't) and, perhaps, redeems himself. Interestingly, the movie of the trilogy most reviled, Part III, may be the most important for making the trilogy "work", to the extent that it does work at all.

The Godfather movies illustrate a problem symptomatic of many trilogies, one that, simplified, could be stated as such: The first movie tells the whole story. Many trilogies essentially work this way. From Star Wars to The Matrix to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the continuing story is unnecessary to the first movie. The continuing story of Michael Corleone, Luke Skywalker, Neo or Lisbeth Salander may be of interest and, perhaps, satisfying to the those seeking deeper exploration of the characters, but to the first movie, completely unnecessary. Had there never been another Godfather movie after the first one (or Star Wars or Matrix or Dragon Tattoo) no one would have noticed. The first installments of all of those trilogies work just fine on their own and feel completely enclosed. Had there never been another Godfather film, I don't imagine people would have been complaining, "I can't believe they left us hanging! What happens after that door closes?!"

And so the second installment must carry some emotional weight, some deeper understanding of character than the first, since the story is only of minor importance. The Godfather, Part II, in this respect, also seems to work on its own, independent of the first. It certainly helps if we have seen the first film but if we haven't, it's not a disaster. The second film contrasts father Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) with son Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) at different stages of their familial career. In the first film, we saw Vito entrenched in his position as Head of the Family and Michael just making his way up, albeit reluctantly at first. In the second film we see the reverse: Michael is now entrenched and Vito is now making his way to the top. In both films, Vito seems to do his work with a personal connection to those around him. The first movie even begins with Vito accepting requests for personal favors on his daughter's wedding day. In the second film, this quality is explored further, including his rise to power by killing the kingpin of Little Italy, Don Fanucci (Gastone Moschin).

Considering Vito's power-grab, one could argue that he takes on the risk of killing Don Fanucci, not only because he believes Fanucci's power is weak and doesn't want Fanucci demanding shares of his takes but also because he is tired of seeing the community terrorized by him. That may not be true but the point is, it could be true. It could be imagined that Vito would kill Fanucci for the good of the Italian-American community and, as a side-benefit, gets to be the new Don for the neighborhood for his troubles. Whether it is true or not is entirely beside the point. Vito is presented as someone for which that kind of action would not be entirely improbable.

In the first film, when Michael takes on the role as Head of the Family, it feels different. After his encounter at the hospital, where we see Michael emboldened for the first time, we see him at the family home telling his brother Sonny (James Caan) how he will kill the two men responsible for the near murder of their father. When he assures Sonny "it's not personal, it's business," we believe him. It's his father and family that have been threatened and yet we fully believe that, to him, it is just business.

That line about it being "business" only fully resonates when we see how unbusiness-like Vito's actions are in the second installment. When Vito helps a widow and her dog stay in the tenement building from which they were about to be ejected, it is of no possible financial benefit to him. In fact, he's paying out of his own pocket to make it happen. It's about as far from being business-like as one can imagine. It's personal, strictly personal.

And none of this has anything to do with a trilogy. The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II are two sides of the same coin. They simply tell the story of Michael, contrasted with Vito, with one movie, the second part, furthering the exploration opened up in the first. But, again, there is no point where Part II feels like an unfinished "middle movie" of a trilogy, like Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers or Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, in which the viewer is abundantly aware that there is more to follow. No one expected a Part III in 1976 which is why, when none appeared, people weren't demanding to know "what happened next" in the adventures of Michael Corleone. It was only in 1990 that the third installment created a trilogy, first by simply existing and, thus, making the sum total of Godfather movies three, but, more importantly, by shoe-horning into the "story" Michael's redemption or, at least, his attempt at it.

Whatever the qualities of the third film, or lack thereof, the point is that none of it feels necessary in the slightest. The first two films exist so completely on their own as individual works that the third feels like nothing more than an installment designed to create a forced trilogy where there wasn't one to begin with. In this regard, I'd have to rank The Godfather Trilogy as one of the worst trilogies under the definition of a trilogy used here. What it feels like is two masterworks of the cinema, Parts I and II, working off of each other but not necessarily continuing from one to the other, followed by a third unrelated film with the appendage "Part III."

For decades, and perhaps still, the most famous trilogy was the Star Wars trilogy. This trilogy, existing entirely between The Godfather, Part II and Part III with seven years to spare, falls more in line with a traditional story-bound trilogy. The second installment, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, leaves little doubt to the viewer that this is the middle of the story and there will be a final installment yet to come. And even though the first film works entirely on its own, a trilogy is created from it that feels more or less honest, even if it's not until the second film that it becomes apparent it is a trilogy. The same can be said of another eighties blockbuster trilogy, Back to the Future. Like almost every other trilogy, the first movie can easily exist on its own (and I like to pretend that's the case, quite frankly) but the trilogy that does exist works as a trilogy when viewed in totality.

More recently, another popular trilogy, The Millennium Trilogy (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl that Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest) followed the same pattern but made the exploration of its characters deeper and more meaningful to the story. The first movie, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, works as a completely contained single film. Again, no second or third movie could have ever been made and the first film wouldn't have felt unfinished. It's only in the second film that a continuing story sets itself up and by the end of the second installment, we're left wondering what will happen to Lisbeth, with a third installment clearly telegraphed to the viewer.

Still, The Millennium Trilogy works better than most because the main characters, Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) and Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), resonate with the viewer as people with more going on inside their heads of interest than anything going on in the story. In fact, the story that takes us through the second and third installments interested me far less than simply watching Rapace and Nyqvist play their parts. The story, involving government intrigue, cover-ups, lies and courtroom showdowns, has already left my head a mere year or so after watching them. Most of it left my memory within weeks. What kept me interested was those two actors playing those two characters. They seemed real, vulnerable and desperate. The courtroom showdown could have been about anything, really. In the end, it's nothing more than a MacGuffin. The point is to watch Salander and Blomkvist and root for them because we feel connected to them. In this way, The Millennium Trilogy is one of the few trilogies that seems to exist as a lengthy character study, like The Godfather films and The Apu Trilogy.

However, what about a true trilogy, one in which even the first film makes it clear that the story within it is to be told in parts and the first part, upon completion, does not stand on its own as a finished story?

By those standards, The Lord of the Rings is probably the truest cinematic trilogy in existence. This may very well be the case because the original work upon which they are based, the novels by J.R.R. Tolkien, were intended to be one volume of a two volume set, rather than a trilogy. It was the publisher that decided the massive story should be broken into three works, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King. This probably explains why the first installment doesn't feel entirely self-contained because it was, in fact, literally, the beginning of a story Tolkien had written as one volume with a clearly defined beginning, middle and end. There is, within the trilogy, a specific story that continues from one to the next and each character within that story has specific goals and duties to perform in the service of that story. It is, without doubt, a trilogy, not just a set of three movies that have been made to work together. Each one stands on its own as a terrific entertainment but makes no attempt to be a complete story. The first two are adamant in their presentation that the viewer know this is only the beginning and middle. It passes the "First Movie" test of the trilogy, something no other trilogy discussed here has done: If no other movie were made after The Fellowship of the Ring, yes, people would wonder why the story was left hanging, as it were. The Lord of the Rings is indeed a trilogy, perhaps one of the few true trilogies in existence.

And so, it could be concluded, trilogies don't work very well, generally speaking. More often than not - much more often than not - they start with a first installment that, if need be, could stand alone as a single movie without ever having two sequels attached to it. Trilogies tend to feel like Hollywood greed more than a deep artistic need to "finish" the story. There's a first movie, it performs tremendously at the box office and the studios decide, "This should be a trilogy," at which point the second film gets made and finally starts a story to be completed in the third.

Trilogies have even started up in the middle of a film series that, otherwise, didn't originally set out to properly continue a story but rather present new adventures, ala James Bond. This happened with the Star Trek franchise after the success of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The next two Star Trek films continued a story that hadn't existed as a continuing story until Star Trek III: The Search for Spock got made. By the end of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, the story finally finished and it was clear there had been a trilogy and a fairly decent, if inconsequential, one at that.

The Lord of the Rings will most likely continue to be the standard bearer for true trilogies, that is, stories that break their beginning, middle and end into three separate films. The Godfather movies will continue to have two of the best movies ever made contained within a nominal trilogy, but it doesn't feel like a trilogy at all. The first two movies stand alone as explorations of Michael contrasted with Vito, to be watched in tandem or separately. The third is something else altogether and exists solely to make a trilogy where before there was none.

Sequels and serials will never go away. There's too much money to be made and audiences actually do enjoy seeing the same characters again and again. If they didn't, television would have never succeeded. But when it comes to a trilogy proper, the landscape is pretty barren. There are plenty of them out there but for most, the first time's the charm. The second and third times aren't even needed.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Resolve Nothing!

And so, once again, it is Wednesday. And, once again, TCM beckons. I resolve the issue of not resolving the issue, something I long ago resolved I would do. If you so desire to read about it, please do so here. As always, enjoy the post and please clean up after yourself. No, seriously, my editor complained about the mess last time guys, so really, use the trash cans, okay? Thanks.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

What a Wonderful World this Could Be...

...if we were all as nice as comment spammers. You know, comment spam gets a pretty bum wrap in my book. Comment spammers are looked on as leeches and parasites who pollute the online world with their useless info and even more useless links. Okay, maybe they do but here's the thing: They're so damned nice!

Now that I work for TCM I have a whole new world of spam that's opened up to me beyond the doors of Cinema Styles. I just started over there and already the comment spam is simply overflowing with effusive praise. Look at this one, for example:

"Hello my friend! I want to say that this post is amazing, nice written and include approximately all vital infos. I would like to see more posts like this."

That's from a nice young woman, or man, or genderless spambot from, best I can tell, somewhere in the former Czech Republic. He/she/it provides a very nice pop-up ad along with the comment (which I can't see as TCM has blocked it - Curses!) but look at the comment itself. "Hello my friend!" Wow, we haven't even met and I'm a friend. And judging by the exclamation point, a pretty cherished one at that. And my post? Nothing short of "amazing," although, disappointingly, with no exclamation point.

Now, I'll be honest. When I wrote the post this comment is for, a post on period films, I wanted to include all vital infos. I worked at that, and hard, and was hoping someone would notice. Czech Republic expatriate, thank you! You don't know how much it means to me that you did, indeed, notice that I had included all vital infos. Not some, mind you, all! Vital infos are really pretty useless unless you go the whole way with them.

Finally, the post ends with "I would like to see more posts like this." My mysterious genderless mass-marketing friend, I would like to see more commenters as nice as you!

I know what you're thinking: "Okay, Greg, that's one isolated example. I bet they're not all that nice."

Well then what do you make of this, for the same post: "Hey, I came across this amazing site and wanted to share it with my fellow Water Pipes enthusiasts." Hand to God, I shit you not, I was trying to reach Water Pipes enthusiasts with that post. 100% true. I can't adequately express my thanks to you, Zowslillies from getwomenfor dot me for not only noticing but sharing. You, sir or madam, are a trooper.

And if you think kindness and generosity are limited to the english language, think again. Or just read this: Много диет. Диеты для похудения. Начало · Диеты для похудения · Диеты чтобы поправиться · Лечебные диеты · Рецепты блюд · Украшения

Put that into Google Translate and you'll get, "Many diets. Diets for weight loss. Begin diets for weight loss diets to recover · · Therapeutic diets · Recipes · Jewelry." [places both hands over heart and nods head in thanks] You and I, nencileggleoms, we are one.

But I've saved the best for last because, sometimes, it's important to know we're not just doing this for ourselves. We're not just doing this to talk about movies. We're doing it for something more, something bigger, something grander. That's why this message from unbranka-dzienci touched my heart and moved me to tears. Here it is:

"We’re a group of volunteers and starting a new scheme in our community. Your web site offered us with valuable info to work on. You’ve done a formidable job and our entire community will be grateful to you."

Oh. My. God. Did you read that? Did you read it carefully? Folks, I have an entire community that is grateful to me. Repeat: Entire community! Well,, good luck with those schemes! I'm happy I was able to offer you valuable info to work on. Not to brag, but that's kind of my m.o. See, I offer all vital infos so it doesn't surprise you were able to cull some valuable infos from it.

And now, can the community of online readers and commenters follow the example of the kind and generous comment spammers? If I write about a movie, discuss it with me, sure, but also try and mention how your community considers me a kind of demigod. Mention how you noticed that I really broke through to all those Water Pipers out there or just offer up a simple thanks for the "vital infos" because, I promise you, I'll provide them all.

Not some, all. That's my vow to you or my name isn't ccziuueld at freegold dot com. Peace.

Happy Wednesday from TCM

It's Wednesday again, time to plug my Wednesday post over at TCM's Movie Morlocks. This time I celebrate James Mason for his skills at playing something too often overlooked by his fans and something you'll have to go to TCM to read about.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Peter Falk: Offer You His Raincoat

On June 23rd, 2011, Peter Falk fell away from this world and, at that moment, this world became a lesser place. By now the tributes surely number in the thousands and possibly (probably) everything that can be said about his career has been said so I'll not lead you down that path again. Instead, I'd like to tell you how Peter Falk wove his way through my life and into the life of my step-daughter without ever knowing it. But he did and did so powerfully.

Peter Falk was the first celebrity of which I have any recollection. That's because every time Columbo rotated its way back into the NBC Mystery Movie line-up, my family watched it. My mom, my dad, my brother and my sister. We all watched Columbo, together. And even though I was too young to follow the show, I enjoyed it. Peter Falk had a comforting presence that made everything seem all right. Columbo never got rattled, never lost his nerve or his temper. He was calming, deliberate and patient. He was, like my own father, a perfect role model.

Although I didn't realize it until later, there was something extraordinary about Columbo, something that would have failed, and miserably, without Peter Falk. I didn't realize as a kid that mysteries weren't supposed to show you who the killer was in the opening shot. By the time I saw Agatha Christie murder mysteries later, a part of me wondered, "How come they're not telling us who did it from the start?" Columbo, unlike any other mystery, showed you the murder and then showed you Detective Columbo figure it out (save two episodes). Think about that: The viewer saw the murderer in the opening scene. That meant that figuring it out couldn't be the thing that held your attention. It had to be held by a character figuring out something that you already knew! There's a reason no other mysteries bothered with this format: They didn't have Peter Falk.

And it was Peter Falk that held my famiy's attention. It was him. He kept us coming back and all of us fell in love with him, watching him on our television at home, in Charleston. Charleston, South Carolina.

And it was in Charleston, South Carolina, in the summer of 1974 that we got news that Columbo was coming to town. An episode was going to be filmed at The Citadel, the military college located in Charleston. It got even better. Richard, a neighbor and friend of my dad's, worked at The Citadel and was put in charge of public relations. One day my dad came home and told everyone that Richard had set it up. We we're all going to meet Peter Falk!

The excitement from my sister was about as palpable as anything you can possibly imagine. She didn't just love the show, she was in love with Peter Falk and couldn't believe something so astonishingly lucky could possibly be happening to her.

"Boy," she must have thought, "did we pick the right town to live in!"

Yes, we would all meet Peter Falk. Well, everyone except me and my mom. When the day came, I didn't want to go. I was little and still didn't really understand it all and even though he was a comforting figure, I was a kid and it was hot and, well, my mom and I stayed home. My dad took my brother and sister to The Citadel and they got an autographed picture from him and got to take pictures of themselves hanging out around and sitting in Columbo's famous Peugeot 403 while the cast and crew worked out the nuts and bolts of the episode. We still have those pictures, of course, as well as the autographed photos to my sister and brother. And they all thought he was great. How could they not? Story after story about Peter Falk reveals a man of generosity and kindness and friendship. My brother and sister and dad were not let down.

When the episode aired, By Dawn's Early Light, with Patrick McGoohan and Bruno Kirby, we watched proudly as the episode revealed itself to be one of the best the show had ever offered up. And to think it was filmed right there, right there in Charleston! And my brother and sister and dad had been right there, on the set, for one day of the filming.

As I grew older I watched Columbo in reruns and slowly understood the brilliance of Falk's portrayal. In 1979 I saw The In-Laws with my mom and loved it. I started to really get Peter Falk. Then I saw him in movies like Murder, Inc and The Brinks Job and, finally, the semi-improvised works of John Cassavettes. Eventually, I wondered why he wasn't more celebrated than he was.

I still wonder that.

After that I went to college, got a job and started living life. I got married, got divorced and in the luckiest stroke of my life met Laura, a wonderful woman with wonderful children and we fell in love and got married. Her daughter, Elle, was a toddler when we met and I've watched her grow over the years and take on many of the same interests as Laura and I. Like any kid, she loves watching certain movies over and over. One of those movies, early on, was The Princess Bride. Thanks to her, I've probably seen that movie, in pieces or whole, a hundred times. Don't ever ask me to watch The Princess Bride. I've seen it. Believe me, I've seen it.

But like I said, she loves classic films too and, by chance, a couple of years back, we decided to rent It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World to watch with her. In it, she saw and recognized Peter Falk. What's more, she liked him. He was the sweet, wonderful grandfather, after all, from The Princess Bride, how could you not? So when all the original episodes of Columbo suddenly showed up on Netflix Instant, we decided to give them a try.

We loved them. They were an instant and gratifying hit. We watched an episode at least every Friday, sometimes one or two others during the week. Eventually, we made it through the entire original series and, when we finished, felt a little sad that it was over. There were other, of course, later Columbos made in the eighties and nineties but, somehow, those felt different. We were going to watch them anyway but the original Columbo was done.

That was about three months ago. Shortly after finishing our run, I found a copy of Falk's autobiography, Just One More Thing, at the library bookstore we go to and bought it. It's told in simple anecdotes rather than chapter after chapter of long winded, ghostwritten prose. It's Falk, through and through, and in it he shows a penchant for dismissing himself and exalting others. As soon as Elle saw it, she got excited. Laura and I gave it to her so she could look through it from time to time, whenever she wanted.

Then, within two weeks of that purchase, we heard the news that Peter Falk had died. When Laura told Elle she teared up. It was like losing a grandfather, even if it was a grandfather you never met in person. And so, I gave thanks that day that Elle had met Peter before he left this world. I gave thanks that he had fascinated me enough as a child that I reconnected with him later in life and, through that, Elle and I had found a new connection. When I first met Peter Falk it was through a shared experience with family. When I bid him farewell the family was new but the shared experience was the same.

And now, for the last time, goodbye Peter. And thank you. Thank you for everything.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Let's All Go to TCM And Read Ourselves a Post!

King Kong, Sherlock Holmes, Dracula, superheroes and spies. What do they all have in common? Ha! Like I'm going to tell you. Puh-lease! But you can find out by simply clicking on over to the Morlocks and checking out my latest post, Frozen in Time: Making the Past Present. There's a 17 or 18 percent chance you won't be sorry you did!

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Laurence Olivier:
Fine Film Actor, So Shut Up!

Many times during Laurence Olivier's film career, I felt for the guy (yeah, that's right, I just called Lord Laurence Olivier "the guy"). Unlike some of my younger readers (surely I must have some) I was actually around to see and anticipate the latest Laurence Olivier movie at the box office. Okay, by the time I was around for Olivier films he was no longer the star but, still, it's no less true. And when I saw those movies, like Marathon Man, The Seven Percent Solution, The Boys from Brazil, Dracula and, later, his earlier achievements leading up to the current stuff, like Wuthering Heights, Hamlet, Richard III, The Entertainer, Bunny Lake is Missing and Sleuth, I thought he was a fine actor. In fact, I thought he was excellent. But in interview after interview with some pissy theatre historian, arch film critic or jealous thespian, on tv and in print, I kept hearing (and Olivier surely must have, too) that Olivier was only an okay film actor and, alas, the world would never know his real talents because his great stage work was never preserved. I'd hear the snide little self-satisfied stories about how he had to be taught to act in the movies by William Wyler (like Wyler didn't do that with practically every actor!) as if to say, by telling the story, that we all understood poor, dumb Larry just couldn't cut it in the movies without lots of help. Well, here's the thing:

That's all bullshit!

Laurence Olivier was a damn fine actor, on the stage and on the screen, and I'm sick to death of the persistence of that deranged meme that he was really a stage actor and a great one and, thus, by some odd algebra, not very much of a film actor. Look, anyone who has acted knows that if you're really good on stage, chances are pretty overwhelming that you're going to be good on film. Where in the hell do you think 90 percent of tv and film actors have come from in the history of cinema? They've come from school, college, community and professional theatre. Yes, it can sometimes take a film or two for an actor to get the hang of it but it's not a career long crutch. Just recently, in a piece I wrote at TCM, I mentioned how big Jack Albertson played it in the movie version of The Subject was Roses but made sure to also note he was "a great actor in his own right." I mean, okay, he played it big for the film adaptation of a play he'd just done a few hundred performances of but guess what? He was Jack Albertson so he adjusted to the medium pretty damned quickly and so did Olivier.

And for 847th time, can we all understand that big ISN'T BAD! Big acting by a bad actor is bad. Big acting by a good actor is a gift to the audience. So Olivier played it big sometimes, with big accents and big mannerisms and big inflections. So what?! He was a pleasure to watch every time.

When I watch Sleuth, I don't want to see a subtle, under the radar portrayal of conceited, selfish playwright Andrew Wyke. I want that performance BIG because I need to feel in my bones that this guy is an Asshole with a capital "A". And Olivier delivers.

Or how about Szell from Marathon Man? Does that character (and that line - you know the line) go down as one of the great villains in film history if he's played by a schlep who really doesn't seem to know shit about acting in front of a camera?

How about Hamlet, the film version, not the stage version (obviously)? Ever watch Kevin Kline, Mel Gibson, Kenneth Branagh or Richard Burton perform the "to be or not to be" soliloquy? They're all available on YouTube and, actually, they're all pretty good but watch the Olivier version first and then notice all of them going out of their way to NOT do it like Olivier did it! Every choice they make makes Olivier's presence felt by default. They know Olivier's the man to beat here and every one of them is playing to his ghost.

Each movie I've mentioned is a movie in which Laurence Olivier excels. I don't think he was good all the time, hence, certain titles I haven't mentioned. But there are few actors who do nail every performance every time. I don't mean to say he was ever bad, just that some of his performances are much better than others, again, like any actor. But consistently calling him out on his film acting feels a bit like trade jealousy. A way of feeling you've one-upped him, cut him down to size.

But you haven't.

You haven't because Laurence Olivier wasn't just a fine stage actor, he was also a fine film actor. The record of that is preserved for posterity and the evidence is incontrovertible. Eventually, the naysayers will die off but the performances will continue to speak for themselves, loudly and boldly. And the message they speak will be clear: "Laurence Olivier was a damn good actor, regardless of the medium."


This post is a part of the Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh Blogathon held by Kendra Bean at the magnificently obsessed Viv and Larry.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

TCM Inaugural Post

My post at TCM is up as my official duties begin. Check it out if you so desire. Surprisingly, it has nothing to do with movies but is, instead, eight rambling paragraphs about different kinds of cysts, what to look for and how to drain them.

So, anyway, the editor took that down and put up something else I'd sent him on actors and the performances they're known for. Whatever.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Happy 4th from Cinema Styles!

Yvonne De Carlo performs at "I am an American" Day at The Hollywood Bowl, 1951.

Friday, July 1, 2011

TCM, Morlocks and Me

Just a quick announcement about recent events in which I find myself inextricably linked with Kimberly Lindbergs once again. To rework the old political saying, as Kimberly goes, so goes Greg.

See, when I started writing online all those years ago back in 2007, Kimberly was the first person to introduce herself to me. I had gone on Dennis Cozzalio's matchless Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule blog a few times, and Dennis had commented on mine (the first official Cinema Styles commenter ever), and Kimberly popped over to Cinema Styles after finding me there and introduced herself in the comment pages (my second intro, by the way, was from Ken Lowery after we saw each other's comments on Jim Emerson's excellent Scanners blog).

Within about a year (maybe a little more, maybe a little less) Kimberly had posts up on Cinebeats about Cinema Retro and pieces she had done for them. "Cool," I thought. Not long after that, I was contacted by the editor of Cinema Retro about doing a piece for their website thanks to finding me from Cinebeats. "Even cooler," I thought.

After that, one of my favorite blog stops, If Charlie Parker was a Gunslinger There'd be a Whole Lot of Dead Copycats, started by the incomparable and mysterious Tom Sutpen, asked Kimberly to join their ranks and start posting for the blog. About a year later, you guessed it, Tom asked me to join as well.

Then, just shortly after that, Turner Classic Movies asked Kimberly Lindbergs to become a Morlock, one of their official bloggers. At this point, I'm guessing that you can see where this is going. Two weeks ago, Jeff Stafford, online editor for Turner Classic Movies contacted me asking me to join the team. Of course, I said yes. Starting Wednesday, July 6th, I'll be an official blogger for TCM and hope to see you there. A special thanks to the strange and magical Richard Harland Smith for putting in a good word for me and to Jeff for reading Cinema Styles and having confidence I could write for TCM as well.

I look forward to posting for the Morlocks over at TCM and hope you'll join me there, often.

Now would someone PLEASE give Kimberly Lindbergs a million dollars! Please!