Category Archives: actors

Starring Roger Moore As James Bond

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One couldn’t help but be saddened by Roger Moore’s passing at age 89. My heart sank when I read the news on Monday morning. Roger Moore is best known as the man who played Ian Fleming’s famous spy James Bond in more films than any other actor. His depiction of Bond may be the most parodied, but in many respects that sense of parody was initiated by Moore.

Sean Connery’s Bond is a tough, sexually aggressive and predatory character. He reflects the feeling of masculinity in jeopardy of his times, as swinging London gave way to the summer of love and sexual liberation. When Connery first played Bond, the Beatles sang only love songs, when Moore took over the mantle in 1973 with Live & Let Die, the Beatles were no more, there was only Wings.

Moore’s interpretation of James Bond reflects his times, from Black Power to Watergate, to Reagan. For Moore, Bond offered audiences an escape from the horrors and the monotony of their everyday existence into a world of absurd cartoon physics, wacky gadgets, gorgeous women, and terribly corny puns. Moore never took Bond too seriously, he knew it was absurd, and he knew that was what kept people coming in droves to see the Bond films.

Live & Let Die (1973), The Man With The Golden Gun (1974) and The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) are Moore’s best Bond films. The writing is taught, the sleaze is thick, and the glamour is tacky. In these films the milieu of Fleming’s novels are best preserved. Moore’s self awareness in his part, combined with this aesthetic made him more inviting in many ways than Connery had been, and certainly less predatory. The gigantic set pieces of Moonraker, Octopussy and A View To A Kill were yet to come.

As Roger Moore began his tenure as Bond in the early seventies there had not yet been Star Wars, nor had United Artists become so totally dependent upon the grosses of the Bond films for its survival. As all of this changed, the films grew and grew in there spectacle, to the point that Moore’s take on the character seemed out of place. By the mid-eighties, with Reagan in office, the chauvinism of Bond was no longer to be interpreted as a dark joke, but to be celebrated quietly (as it eventually would be in the hands of Pierce Brosnan). Bond couldn’t be “camp” anymore.

Given the progress of film technology, it is Moore’s excellent sense of camp that actually makes his films the most accessible in the pre-Brosnan era of Bond (Connery’s first two outings are by far the best, but the films that followed are equally as trite as Moore’s worst pictures). From a historian’s perspective, it is fascinating to watch Moore’s early Bond films in terms of their give and take relationship with Rudy Ray Moore’s Dolemite films as well as other films of the Blacksploitation genre.

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Die hard fans of Bond tend to be dismissive of Roger Moore’s contributions to the franchise, preferring the hard hitting antics of Daniel Craig or the classy and sleek delivery of sleaze of Brosnan’s Bond. But I remember as a kid in the third grade telling my father that I had seen two Bond films at a sleepover. He warned me to avoid the Roger Moore films. I didn’t do as my father asked because I wanted to see for myself; and I actually enjoyed them. They were funnier than the other films, and they felt more removed like a dream.

Roger Moore’s version of James Bond is very much a dream. The world of those films is not the serious matter of life and death we associate with the idea of Bond. Roger Moore knew he was inhabiting the “dreams” of young men, and his films reflect that, they invite us to share that dream, in all of its silly prepubescent logic.

-Robert Curry

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Conversations With Joan Crawford

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Silver Screens Are Larger Than Life

Recently I received as a gift ANDY WARHOL Polaroids 1958-1987, published by Taschen.  It is a marvelous presentation of Warhol’s work, quite fascinating when one begins to compare these original Polaroid portraits with the more famous paintings that were born from them.  However, given recent events this month I have been particularly drawn to a photograph Warhol took of David Bowie during his first visit to New York in 1971.

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Polaroid of Bowie by Warhol, 1971

Bowie’s admiration for Warhol has been well publicized by Bowie himself during this period.  He did, after all, write a song for singer and actress Dana Gillespie about the Pope of Pop that he himself recorded for his own Velvet Underground inspired album Hunky Dory.  Similarly, Warhol’s dislike for Bowie’s song has been equally well publicized by Bowie biographers Tony Zanetta, Marc Spitz, and Warhol biographer Bob Colacello.

Despite these comic differences, Bowie and Warhol are both men of ideas.  Artists with the uncanny talent of taping into the zeitgeist, for surrounding themselves with fascinating, creative, and iconoclastic individuals.  Without these individuals, the productivity and innovation we have come to associate with Warhol and Bowie would look very different.  Bowie has credited a good deal of his glam rock persona to Andy Warhol’s Pork‘s London production, whilst Warhol very rarely ever credited anyone for giving him any ideas.  Though famously Warhol had his collaborators (Billy Name, Ondine, Paul Morrissey, Fred Hughes, etc) and so did Bowie (Tony Visconti, Mick Ronson, Luther Vandross, Iggy Pop, Brian Eno, Carlos Alomar, etc).

All of this considered, this tangled web of celebrity, the portrayal of Andy Warhol by David Bowie in Julian Schnabel’s Basquiat (1996) begins to be far more than it initially appeared to be on the surface.  In 1996, Bowie was Warhol, he had transformed, even if only on the screen, into one of his idols.  But if the Bowie of 1971 represented the absolute celebrity status of Warhol at that time, then Dennis Hopper must represent the beginning of the rise of Warhol’s star in 1963.

When Warhol had his second show in LA, it was Dennis Hopper who threw Warhol his first glamorous Hollywood reception (this reception began their lifelong friendship).  In Basquiat, Hopper plays Bruno Bischofberger, Warhol’s European art dealer.  When the film introduces us to Warhol, it is in the pairing of Hopper and Bowie, the “journey” and the “achievement”.  In Basquiat Warhol is more of an aura than a tangible character; other characters even talk about him as if he were somehow not of this world.  By 1996, this was undoubtedly true.  Warhol had been dead for nearly a decade.  His brand, his persona had since (as it very much continues to today) permeated our culture absolutely.  Warhol has become Mickey Mouse.

David Bowie as Andy Warhol, 1996

It’s as if no one can ever play Warhol, not even Crispin Glover.  Schnabel’s Basquiat does not rely on Bowie’s immense talents alone to give life to Warhol.  The film itself, through the script, through the performances, and through Hopper is coordinated to make Warhol this omnipresent being residing in the New York of Schnabel’s film, a New York that might as well be the entire country.  Schnabel wisely knows that this is the only effective tactic to give dimension to the unusual relationship Warhol had with the subject of his film, Jean-Michel Basquiat.

It is a clear instance of immortality.  If Warhol’s presence in our mass culture has flourished after his death, why not David Bowie?  Bowie’s decade long hiatus has already proved the staying power of his art, image, and persona.  He has become an icon for LGBT groups, a musical deity for musicians, an inspiration for fashion, etc over the course of his life.  His powers as an artist were even celebrated in his own times as a kind of myth by filmmaker Todd Haynes.  Bowie and Warhol have been such an integral part of the 20th century’s cultural identity that they have negated death.

-Robert Curry

 

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Why Isn’t Everyone Talking About Danny Kaye?

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2013 marked the one-hundredth birthday of Danny Kaye, an entertainer whose career spread from the Borscht Belt to Broadway to film, radio, and television, and whose extracurricular activities included ping-pong, Chinese cooking, orchestra conducing, flying airplanes, and pioneering work with UNICEF.  Yet the year-long celebration of Kaye’s centenary is almost entirely due to the tireless efforts of his daughter Dena.  Although most of his filmography is finally available for home viewing, the lion’s share comes via Warner Archives, an made-on-demand service for obscure titles not popular enough to warrant a wide release.  His most popular starring vehicle, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947), has been remade as a blockbuster movie, but to no revival of interest in the original.  And a recent festival screening of his films was noticeably under-attended.  How is it that the man Walter Kerr once called “the greatest entertainer since Jolson” has become an obscurity to today’s generation?  That’s not to say Kaye has been completely forgotten; his co-starring role in the rightly beloved holiday perennial White Christmas (1954) has ensured him some measure of immortality, and his children’s albums remain favorites among families even today.  Yet Kaye’s storied career has produced very little in the way of serious analysis, criticism, or even idolatry.  He remains something of a cult figure, and even then not among cinephiles and film critics, but mostly among theatre nerds and their grandparents.  It’s a troubling circumstance that needs rectifying, because Danny Kaye is one of the few comedy auteurs of the sound era, and his work warrants the attention of anyone seriously interested in the business of not being serious.

Kaye first came to moviegoers’ attention via a series of musicals for producer Samuel Goldwyn in the 1940s, but he didn’t really come into his own until the following decade when he formed Dena Productions (named for his daughter) with the aim of making films that took better advantage of his skills as a performer.  This act in and of itself reveals an auteur’s concern and control over his work, and the films reveal a fixation on identity and duality.  These are common subjects for screen clowns, but Kaye brings to them a complexity and wit that is uniquely his own, playing on the idea of hidden depths, and the difference between a layered, multifaceted personality and a duplicitous one.  In Wonder Man (1945) he plays an introverted bookworm and his twin brother, an extroverted nightclub entertainer who periodically possesses him as a ghost in order to bring his own killer to justice.  In Merry Andrew (1958) Kaye is a buttoned-up archaeologist who finally finds his calling as a circus clown after a lifetime of being stifled under his father’s oppressive thumb.  Knock On Wood (1954) finds him as a ventriloquist involuntarily expressing his true feelings through his dummy before being mistaken first for a spy, then for a killer, and then forced to impersonate an Irishman, an English motorist, and finally a ballet dancer.  The Court Jester (1955) has Kaye undercover at the palace, mistaken for an assassin, hypnotized into being a dashing rogue, knighted by the king, mistaken for an outlaw, and hypnotized again before the film is through.  And Kaye isn’t the only one to wear many hats.  The captain played by Glynis Johns in The Court Jester longs to express the femininity she’s forced to suppress as a rebel soldier, and later must pretend to be the king’s wench while in the court, while Mai Zetterling’s psychiatrist goes through a similar character arc in Knock On Wood.  The villains, by contrast, are deceitful, using alternate identities as weapons rather than dabbling in Kaye’s cornucopia of personalities and occupations.  Certainly this all functions as a device for Kaye to entertain us, to trot out a litany of accents, physicalities, tongue-twisters, and songs in his own inimitable manner.  Yet the pattern seems too great, the plots too elaborate for this to be a mere contrivance.

The Court Jester

The Court Jester

Danny Kaye looks at the complex psychology of the human mind and has the courage to laugh, to see the joy and absurdity of the many roles we play in our lives.  These films celebrate our ability to choose who we are.  While it would be a mistake to overlook Kaye’s many collaborators – particularly Norman Panama and Melvin Frank, the writing-producing-directing team behind Knock On Wood and The Court Jester, and Kaye’s wife Sylvia Fine, who helped choose his projects and contributed songs to nearly all of his feature films – there’s no denying that the films of Danny Kaye are united by his own distinct voice.  It’s a voice well worth hearing, and a hundred and one years after his birth, it seems about time we started talking about him.

-Hank Curry

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Invincible Moron

“I’m a Marxist, of the Groucho variety” – Anonymous

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In most cases, Groucho is the pop culture ambassador of the Marx Brothers, and it’s not hard to see why.  His look is both iconic and easy to imitate, his jokes are endlessly quotable.  Sometimes, usually to the high-minded elite, Harpo emerges as the favorite, the angelic slapstick devil that most obviously recalls the clowns of antiquity.  But what about Chico?  Why is the oldest brother always left out in the cold?  Even Zeppo gets more mention, on account of his failure to get laughs.  The reason, I suspect, is that Chico represents a fantasy that nobody has.  Each of the Marx Brothers is, in their way, invincible.  Groucho has the endless wit and acid tongue we all wish we had.  Not only is every quip a surefire zinger, but there are never any consequences to his verbal takedowns.  Groucho can be as nasty as he wants, but Margaret Dumont won’t shout him down until the scene is through and the plot needs to move on, and even then, her protests are rarely effective; a Marx Brothers scene never ends until the Marx Brothers are ready for it to end.   Harpo meanwhile is pure id.  While the rules of society may suspend for Groucho, the rules of reality dissolve for Harpo.  He is free to follow any impulse with total commitment and the full force of his being, not matter how violent, childish, or lurid, and like his brother, there is rarely any punishment.  Chico, on the other hand, is an invulnerable idiot.  Author Joe Adamson once accurately described him as “an invincible moron”, and however it might sometimes appear, it’s no one’s fantasy to be stupid with impunity.  What’s more, his “schtick” is rather difficult to describe, and he’s usually relegated in discussion to being “the piano player”, which is far and away his least interesting trait.  To ignore Chico is a dire mistake; he’s probably the most important Marx Brother of them all.

There is a hierarchy of power within the Marx Brothers, and nowhere is that more evident than in the opening of Animal Crackers.  First, Groucho arrives, and in a lengthy and delightful sequence, he all but destroys society by reducing social nicities and expectations to ruin.  Then comes Chico.  In much shorter time, he reduces all logic to rubble, his malapropisms and puns rendering language meaningless.  Finally, Harpo enters, and he brings the walls of reality itself crashing down.  He drops his pants (in fact, he drops his whole outfit in one fell swoop), fires guns, disperses the guests, chases women, and somehow brings two statues to life merely so that he can play with them.  Physics are gone, there are no more rules.  The Marx Brothers have arrived.

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It’s worth noting that in this escalation of destruction, Chico is not at the bottom, but in the middle; he is more powerful than Groucho.  And in a way, he’s even more powerful than Harpo, because it is Chico who holds this tenuous band together, who is the go-between for Groucho and Harpo.  Groucho is a clown grounded in reality, a product of the society he flaunts.  Harpo is a cosmic clown, who comes and goes as he pleases and to whom rules of any kind are meaningless.  There are very few scenes with just Groucho and Harpo in all of the Marx Brothers movies.  They need Chico to bridge them, to make sense of their senselessness.  Chico grounds Harpo in reality, if only to make sure he sticks around until the credits roll, and he goes toe-to-toe with Groucho, his low status and proud idiocy forcing Groucho into the unwilling role of straight man.  Groucho and Harpo are concerned with themselves and bringing down the structures around them, but Chico is concerned with his brothers, and how he can manipulate them, however ineptly, into getting what he wants, which is usually something simple, like food, money, women, or the day off. Chico is the sanity clause that keeps it all together.  But don’t try telling him that.  He knows better.  With the Marx Brothers, there is no sanity clause.

-Hank Curry

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On Harrison Ford

This piece is dedicated to my good friend and trusted cinematographer Steve Schneider.

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Paramount Pictures acquired the rights to two Tom Clancy novels in the late eighties that they turned over to Phillip Noyce, a veteran director of thrillers, to direct as vehicles for actor Harrison Ford.  In both of Noyce’s films, Patriot Games (1992) and Clear & Present Danger (1994), Harrison Ford plays CIA Deputy Of Intelligence Jack P. Ryan, assuming a role played by Alec Baldwin in the film The Hunt For Red October (1990).  These two films were a successful attempt by Paramount to cash in on the anticipation of the first Pierce Brosnan Bond film Golden Eye (1995) and the box office sensation that was Harrison Ford.  As films Patriot Games and Clear & Present Danger are both modest espionage thrillers with very little in the way of anything exceptional to offer audiences.  What is interesting about these films is how their star, Harrison Ford, acts as a kind of barometer to a change in taste and a change in the times.

Consider Harrison Ford’s two previous franchises, where he played two very similar but equally iconic characters, Indiana Jones and Star Wars.  As either Dr. Henry Jones Jr. or Han Solo, Ford epitomized the freewheeling’ and independent macho male with a darker, more sensitive side.  These two characters reflect a baby boomer ideology, a perception of what it means to be “a man” as the seventies faded into the eighties.  Neither Indiana Jones nor Han Solo have any responsibilities except to themselves and their own ideals, and both characters also function as chivalrous romantics.

By the time Harrison Ford played Jack Ryan on the big screen, nearly a decade had passed since he last played Han Solo in Return Of The Jedi (1983).  In the decade that had lapsed the baby boomers that thrilled to the adventures of Han Solo and his courtship of Princess Leia had all gotten married and found a means of a stable income.  The situation baby boomers found themselves in during the early nineties is very similar to the domestic life of Harrison Ford’s character of Jack Ryan.  Ryan is married, he has children, he has a stable job, and it is even alluded to that he was a Vietnam War veteran.  In this way Harrison Ford’s life on screen mirrors that of the audience just as it had in Star Wars (1977) and Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981).

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Even the threats to Harrison Ford’s happiness metamorphosed on the screen from Nazis and Death Stars to terrorists and drug cartels.  Jack Ryan’s (and in turn Harrison Ford’s image’s) concerns are real ones, are problems that are as tangible in the “real world”, or at least as tangible as a Hollywood blockbuster can afford to be.  But this shift away from the fantastic does not carry over into the kind of action hero antics Harrison Ford finds himself in.  Ford as Jack Ryan is still as superhuman and pure as Indiana Jones or Han Solo.  This suggests that audiences associate Ford’s aptitude for heroics on screen not with his characters but rather with himself, the actor playing the part.

-Robert Curry

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