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In Memoriam: Filmmaker Gail Levin followed her passion

May 7, 2016 5 comments

In August it will be three years since the death of my friend and frequent subject, documentary filmmaker Gail Levin, an Omaha native who made a great success for herself in Boston and New York City. Her films won awards and critical kudos. They often played on PBS. She was fascinated by a lot of things but she was particularly attracted to fellow creatives and artists, and thus some of her best known and most seen work explored the inner workings and demons of James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Cab Calloway, and Jeff Bridges. Perhaps the film that got her the most attention was Making the Misfits,  an examination of that strange, wonderful, and star-struck amalgam of talent on that great American film The Misfits, whose cast included Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, Montgomery Clift, Eli Wallach, and Thelma Ritter. John Huston directed a script written by Arthur Miller. The following piece is something I was commissioned to write about Gail upon her death by her brother and sister in law. They knew of my personal and professional association with her and I was much honored that they would think of me to attempt to do justice to her life and career. We sent this piece to select media, including The New York Times, and the obit writer from The Times did follow up with me to ask me several questions. Some of what I wrote also ended up in an Omaha World-Herald piece. When I think of Gail, I think of high energy and deep passion. She was another of the hundreds of Nebraskans who came out of here to do great things in film. Her brother David and I have become friends and we have tried, so far without success, to interest local organizations in supporting a tribute program to Gail and her work. She left behind an immense and important archival collection of correspondence, photographs, tapes, scripts, and notes related to completed and unfinished work. She interviewed and corresponded with dozens of great artists over a four decade period. We do hope the materials find a good home and that her work can be remembered via an exhibition and/or repertory series.

On my blog, http://www.leoadambiga.com, you can search for additional stories I wrote about Gail and her work.

 

Gail Levin

 

In Memoriam

Filmmaker Gail Levin followed her passion

 

If you’re a devotee of public television then chances are you saw the work of the late nonfiction filmmaker Gail Levin. The Omaha native and longtime New York City resident died July 31 in a NYC hospice care facility at age 67 after a long fight with breast cancer.

Outside Ken Burns and Errol Morris, documentary filmmakers are rarely household names. Levin herself was little known to the general public but her award-winning films were seen by millions on such PBS-carried series as American Masters and Great Performances.

Possessing an animated personality, intense curiosity and keen visual sense, Levin left an impression wherever she went and she leaves behind a body of work that will endure.

“Gail was an enormous creative force as a filmmaker and a creative thinker. I worked on many projects with her and she became a very good friend as well, and I’m very sad,” said American Masters creator and executive producer Susan Lacy. “Her films sort of had a poetic quality to them that is missing in many documentaries and she had a depth in the way she told stories. You could always tell a Gail film because she was so visual. She really understood the power of an image.

“Most documentary filmmakers work within a limited vocabulary, She did not want her vocabulary limited, and I really admired her.”

Levin made films about many subjects but came to be best known for her documentaries about cinema greats Marilyn Monroe and James Dean.

Marilyn Monroe: Still Life (2006) explored the complicity of the sex goddess and the photographers who most worked with her in creating images that remain potent pop culture symbols today. Her struggles with fame and her eventual premature death forever fixed her as an alluring, beguiling figure in the collective consciousness.

James Dean: Sense Memories (2005) examined the many layers of the brilliant actor who blazed a hot trail in New York and Hollywood with his quirky Method style and unconventional lifestyle. His tragic death in a car crash at age 24 forever cemented his status as a rebel symbol.

Both the Monroe and Dean films earned CINE Golden Eagle Awards and were featured in Montreal’s International festival of Films on Art.

Another of her well known works, Making the Misfits (2002), delved into the personal machinations that went on behind the scenes of the 1961 John Huston-directed feature film The Misfits and its cast of doomed icons Monroe, Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift.

Two of her most recently telecast films were profiles of actor-musicians separated by distinct cultures and generations. In Jeff Bridges: The Dude Abides she revealed the man behind the cool enigma of signature roles in such acclaimed post-modern films as The Big Lebowski. In Cab Calloway; Sketches she celebrated the multi-talented black entertainer’s impact on jazz and dance and his role in the Harlem Renaissance.

For the Calloway piece she incorporated animation by noted editorial cartoonist Steve Brodner. She previously collaborated with Brodner on the multi-platform political satire series The Naked Campaign during the 2008 presidential election.

She served as a series producer on Picturing America on Screen, an online, on-air National Endowment for the Humanities and PBS collaborative focus on how American art treasures illuminate American history and lore. She was also a producer/director of host introductions and other program content for the PBS ARTS Fall Festival.

Some of her favorite work came producing segments for the A&E cable network’s Revue series that variously featured conversations between artists or profiles of artists. She particularly enjoyed the programs that paired artists for free-wheeling, unscripted discussions.

“I did one after another with incredible people. Martin Scorsese and Stephen Frears. Tom Stoppard and Richard Dreyfuss. Francis Ford Coppola and John Singleton. Yo-Yo Ma and Bobby McFerrin,” she said in an interview. “I just think this notion of giants talking to each other is a very interesting concept. I actually think they speak to each other far differently than they speak to anyone who interviews them, no matter who you are. It’s just fascinating.”

Other notables she profiled included Elizabeth Taylor, Cher, Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones and Bernardo Bertolucci.

Levin had two major film projects in-progress at the time of her death: a portrait of Hollywood photographer Sam Shaw; and the recreation of conversations between cinema giants Alfred Hitchcock and Francois Truffaut, whose critical analysis helped turn Hitch from popular suspense director into serious auteur.

The 1965 Omaha Central High School graduate left her hometown nearly a half century ago but often got back to visit family and friends.

She’s survived by her brother David Levin, sister-in-law Karen Levin and cousin Jerrold Neugarten. She earned an education degree at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and did graduate work at Wheelock College in Boston. Her first foray into filmmaking came when she enlisted children in a Boston Head Start program to participate in homemade photo-film projects borne of her curiosity about the era’s heady free cinema movement.

She returned to school, this time at Boston University, for a mixed educational and filmmaking doctorate.

Her path was similar to the one taken more than a decade earlier by fellow Omaha native and Central grad Joan Micklin Silver, who went East to work in theater and television before breaking into independent feature filmmaking. NYC-based-Micklin Silver still makes films today.

In interviews Levin traced her penchant for arts subjects to her growing up the only daughter of “an erudite” Nebraska Jewish family that owned a string of retail clothing stores and indulged a taste for cultural pursuits. She also spoke of having become a die-hard film buff as a teen upon seeing Italian director Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2 at her neighborhood Dundee Theater in Omaha.

An internship on a Boston WBZ-TV kids show led to an associate producer’s job that turned into a senior producer slot. She then evolved into being an intrepid independent filmmaker who went wherever the stories that inspired her took her. She captured a trans-Atlantic rite-of-passage in the Emmy Award-winning The Tall Ship Lindo.  She revisited the scorching Nevada desert locations of The Misfits for Making the Misfits. She also documented candid, intimate dialogues with famous figures from the worlds of sport, art, entertainment and academia.

By the early 1980s Levin moved to New York to work as a TV producer-director and by the middle of the decade formed her own production company, Levson, whose name she later changed to Inscape. Her deep ties to Boston led her back there for some of her most prized projects.

Levin often pursued film projects that coalesced with her passions. For example, the lifelong sports fan jumped at the opportunity to do a film profile of Boston Celtics coaching legend Red Auerbach. Her love of arts and letters found perfect expression in her Harvard: A Video Portrait, which she made to commemorate the historic Ivy League school’s 350th anniversary.

Her admiration of photography and film saw her repeatedly make artists working in those mediums her subjects.

Whatever the story, Levin steeped herself in it.

“I make it my business to know what I’m supposed to know about these things,” she told an interviewer.

Finding a subject that engaged her and running with it was her joy.

“When I discover something, it does fuel me,” she once said. “I love finding the connections and chasing them down. It’s not just about having a good idea. It’s having somehow or other the planets line up exactly the right way and when that happens that’s just…You have to be passionate about this stuff for that to happen.”

“Gail Levin was one of the most exciting, caring, ALIVE people I’ve ever met,” posted National Public Radio host Robin Young on the in memoriam web page of WNET, the producer of American Masters. “Oh to be once more in her energy field when she was seized by a creative vision.”

It’s some consolation to those who knew Levin that she was doing exactly what she wanted to do.

“I’ve been so blessed,” Levin said in an interview. “I have had a career that I love…As hard as it is sometimes I don’t even care. Besides, I don’t know how to do or like anything else. I’ve had hugely impassioned projects and I’ve been able to see them from the moment that little light went on in my head to the final edit.”

Her colleagues mourn her death and the stark reality there won’t be a new Levin film to look forward to.

“The documentary community is kind of in a state of shock and we’re all devastated by her loss,” said Lacy.

Levin’s passion work lives on though through revival screenings and viewing platforms like Netflix.

A 1 p.m. Sunday graveside service will be held at Fisher Farm Cemetery, 8600 South 42nd St, in Bellevue, Neb.. In lieu of flowers, memorials may be sent to the Fred and Pamela Buffett Cancer Center (c/o the University of Nebraska Foundation) or to Temple Israel synagogue or to a charity of choice.

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Hot Stuff: American comedy classic ‘Some Like It Hot’ pushed boundaries


Hot Movie Takes – “Some Like It Hot”
©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

 

Ribald comedies are old hat in Hollywood.  If prostitution is the oldest profession, than comedies with a good dose of sexual intrigue in them, whether you call them romantic comedies or screwball comedies, comprise one of the oldest genres since the dawn of the sound era.  However, it’s one thing to use sex as a comic linchpin or prop – I mean, anyone can do that – but it’s quite another thing to go beyond being merely risque or naughty and fashion a really good story to support the old nudge, nudge, wink, wink, as a Monty Python bit put it, and present three-dimensional characters.  As my story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) argues, Billy Wilder’s 1959 classic Some Like it Hot miraculously turns what would essentially be a one-joke premise or sketch in the hands of most filmmakers into a satisfying two-hour farce tinged with pathos.  Wilder’s great script. expert direction and perfect cast pull it off.  Omaha film impresario Bruce Crawford is reviving this gem for one night only on the big screen, April 24, at the Joslyn Art Museum.  Introducing the film will be Kelly Curtis, a daughter of Tony Curis, the magnetic actor who was never better than in this tour de force performance in which he plays the straight man for most of the picture until his character wondefully imitates Cary Grant in order to seduce Marily Monroe’s Sugar Kane.  Curtis and Lemmon are great in drag and Monroe is never more fully Monroesque than in this film, where her voluptuous figure, sensual power, and emotional fragility create a most alluring combination.

Hot Stuff: American comedy classic ‘Some Like It Hot’ pushed boundaries

Tony Curtis’ daughter, Kelly, to introduce film in Omaha

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in April 2015 isssue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

The 1959 gender-bending film farce Some Like It Hot came at an interesting juncture in the careers of writer-director Billy Wilder and stars Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe.

For each legend it marked a career boost. It reaffirmed Wilder as a comedy genius after a succession of mediocre mid-’50s.dramas and comedies. It further stretched Curtis. It began Lemmon’s long, fruitful collaboration with Wilder. It represented Monroe’s last great comic role.

Paying tribute to a classic named the funniest American movie of all-time by the American Film Institute is a no-brainer for Omaha impresario Bruce Crawford. He’s presenting a one-night revival April 24 at Joslyn Art Museum as an Omaha Parks Foundation benefit.

“Some Like It Hot is to film comedy what Casablanca is to film romance,” says Crawford.

Casablanca found a magical mix of perfect casting, memorable lines and universal themes to make its wartime romance work for any generation, Hot miraculously made a one-joke men-in-drag-meet-sex goddess premise into a timeless romp of provocative puns, innuendos, sight gags and set pieces.

The 7 p.m. event will have special guest Kelly Curtis, the oldest daughter of Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, introduce the picture. Her sister is actress Jamie Lee Curtis.

Kelly accompanied her late mother to Omaha for a 1994 Crawford event feting Alfred Hitchcock and Psycho. This time she’ll share reminiscences and insights about her father, who died at age 85 in 2010. In a recent Reader interview she spoke about how Hot came at a crucial time in his Hollywood ascent.

Starting with Trapeze, Sweet Smell of Success, The Vikings, The Defiant Ones and on through Hot and Spartacus, Curtis showed a heretofore unseen range in rich, demanding parts of enduring quality.

“I think he wanted to prove to himself and to the world he was more than than just a pretty face and those films gave him a great opportunity to do that,” Kelly says. “He loved that he was given a real gift in Some Like It Hot to be able to show his comedic talents as fully as he did. Doing comedy like that is very difficult.”

The plot finds two down-on-their-luck Depression-era Chicago musicians, Joe (Curtis) and Jerry (Lemmon), needing to skip town after witnessing a St. Valentine’s Day Massacre-style slaying. The only open gig is with a touring female band and so they pose as women musicians. Aboard the Florida-bound train they fall for the band’s woman-child singer,s Sugar Kane (Monroe), only Joe’s more determined to bed her once they hit the beach.

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Kelly Curis

Kelly says her father’s idea to impersonate Cary Grant within the context of his character posing as a millionaire in order to seduce Sugar Kane, reveals much about the man who became Tony Curtis.

Born Bernard Schwartz in the Bronx to Hungarian parents, he grew up running the streets with a gang. Talent agent-casting director Joyce Selznick discovered the aspiring actor at the New School in 1948. His quick rise to movie stardom as a Universal contract player was the American Dream made good. Kelly says it only made sense he would pay homage to Grant because the actor was his model for learning how to court women and to project a sophisticated facade.

“Once he had money my father really took to the trappings of being a suave, debonair, European-style playboy. He loved fine houses, fine wines, fine cars. He loved living the life of an Italian count. That was one of his personas and stages he went through. So I think jumping into a role like that to woo a woman is what he’d been playing at his whole life. Even back when he was in a Hungarian Jewish gang, he used his black hair, blue eyes and olive skin to pass as Italian so he could spy on the rival Italian gang I think he always pretended to be something he wasn’t just to survive.”

Much as Grant transformed himself from his poor Bristol origins as Archie Leach into the screen’s most desirable gent, Kelly says, “Tony Curtis was an avatar – it’s the man he invented for himself, which was an amalgamation of all his parts, yes, but it definitely was not Bernard Schwartz.” She adds, “Tony of the Movies is what he liked to call himself and that’s what he aspired his legacy to be.”

She says the multifaceted man she knew took his off-screen work as a painter, photographer, assemblage artist and sculptor seriously.

“It was much more than a hobby. He was constantly creating and he exhibited and sold his art late in his life.”

His heritage was important to him, too.

“My father was a lot more a Jewish man than he presented himself to the world. I think he had a deep sense of Jewish values and a deep love for Judaism. I think he wanted to be more religious but with his lifestyle and interests it just wasn’t to be.”

Kelly worked with her father on the Emanuel Foundation in raising money for the restoration of cemeteries and synagogues in Hungary damaged during World War II.

“It’s something he was very committed to and proud of and during that time we got very close. It was a very good time for us.”

Despite a “libertine” way of life as a notorious Hollywood wild man, she says her father was a staunch American patriot and conservative Republican. Yes, she says, he fell prey to the excesses of fame with his multiple marriages (six), infidelity and substance abuse problems, but he appreciated how far America allowed him to rise.

“Here’s this immigrants’ child who made it, who became rich and famous, which is why he considered himself an American prince. It’s why he loved America as a land of opportunity. The possibilities are endless. He said you just have to want it bad enough, have the talent to back it up and really go for it.”

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She says her father’s career descent after The Great Race and The Boston Strangler was largely self-made.

“He didn’t transition very well into New Hollywood. He wanted to but he wasn’t really interested in letting down the facade of the young virile guy by playing older roles. It bothered him until his death he wasn’t asked to do more but he burned a lot of bridges. He went through a lot of dark years in the late ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. That could have been a lot riper time for him had he not fallen to prey to his demons.

“Here was this gorgeous man getting older, going through a mid-life crisis and perhaps an existential crisis of trying to figure out who he was and what he was. It was a very troubling time for him.”

There were a couple bright spots (The Last Tycoon, Insignificance) but mostly Tony Curtis was an artifact from a long gone Hollywood. He did live the last several years of his life sober. As his old studio peers died away and his own health failed, he could take solace in having made several stand-the-test-of-time films.

He thought enough of Hot to write a book about its making. Kelly says the movie allowed him to show “his chops” as an actor. He wrote that during the shoot he had an affair with Monroe, whom he claimed was his lover years before. Kelly says, “I don’t know if it’s just one of my father’s stories, but I would love to know.”

Tickets are $23 and available at all Omaha Hy-Vee stores.

For more info, call 402-926-8299 or visit http://www.omahafilmevent.com.

Forever Marilyn: Gail Levin’s new film frames the “Monroe doctrine”

September 20, 2010 2 comments

Cropped screenshot of Marilyn Monroe from the ...

Image via Wikipedia

Marilyn Monroe has been the subject of countless articles, books, and films, and filmmaker Gail Levin, like so many other artists, has long been fascinated by the pop culture icon’s hold on us all these years. Levin made a documentary a few years ago about the Monroe mystique, examining still images of the actress as a way of taking stock of  how the starlet and a handful of photographers she posed for over and over again were complicit in creating the intoxicating sex symbol she epitomized then and continues to represent today.  I must say that even as a young boy I was completely taken by the Monroe package — her looks, her voice, her manner, her everything. For better or worse, I am still enthralled today. In fact, as I write these words a Marilyn poster hanging on my office wall fetchingly looms over me, her abundant bosom straining against the decolletage of a slinky evening dress, one strap having fallen down, and she lost in the reverie of anointing her porcelain skin with perfume.  Marilyn, sweet Marilyn, the embodiment of innocence and carnality that has universal appeal.  My story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) about Levin’s film is unavoidably also about Marilyn, a subject I don’t mind revisiting again, although I do tire of all the prurient conspiracy theories swirling about her untimely death.  I think the truth is she died just as she lived – messily.

Forever Marilyn: Gail Levin’s new film frames the “Monroe doctrine”

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Filmmaker Gail Levin is at it again. Only a year after the Emmy Award-winning Omaha native’s documentary on James Dean premiered on PBS as part of the American Masters series, she has a new Masters film set to debut on July 19 that tackles another, larger screen legend — Marilyn Monroe.

Another Monroe treatise? That cynical reaction is precisely what the New York-based Levin, a Central High School graduate, hopes to overturn with her new documentary Marilyn Monroe: Still Life, premiering next Wednesday at 8 p.m on Nebraska Educational Television.

Instead of yet another biopic approach to this much revisited subject, Levin’s “gentle film” examines the persistence of Marilyn’s image in pop culture as filtered through the canon of still photographs taken of her, photos that largely account for the potency of her sex goddess status 44 years after her death.

Long intrigued by how MM and the photogs who shot her crafted an image with such currency as to cast a spell decades later, Levin committed to the film after hearing Marilyn would have turned 80 this year; reason enough to delve into the ageless Marilyn forever fixed in our collective consciousness. The filmmaker dealt once before with MM — for her 2003 doc Making the Misfits, which looks at the intrigue behind the 1961 Monroe feature vehicle The Misfits, penned by her then-husband playwright Arthur Miller.

On a recent Omaha visit to see family and friends, Levin spoke to the Jewish Press about her new project and the Monroe mystique that still beguiles us. She said MM is a much-referenced figure all these years later “not because of the movies” but “because of all the photographs” — photos the image makers and the icon used to their own ends.

“She made herself quite available to photographers and the list is just endless. We sort of picked a path through this huge archive of photographs,” said Levin. In addition to being “perhaps the most photographed woman of the 20th century,” there are MM-inspired books, articles, songs, videos, “and I was interested in what motivates all of that,” Levin said. “The masters part of this American Masters is as much these great photographers as it is her. It’s kind of book-ended by the great Eve Arnold and the great Arnold Newman. These are two giants of 20th century photography.”

Not just noted photographers contributed to her image. The film includes pics by Ben Ross, “whom none of us had ever heard of before,” Levin said. “He was one of these itinerant photographers from the 1950s and his photographs of her are stunning.” At least one of the artists whose images of MM are featured, Andre De Dienes, was also her lover. “He really knew her from the time she was probably about 20 to the time she died, and shot her all that time, and had a big romance with her,” Levin said. “There’s some very beautiful young stuff with her.”

There’s the ubiquitous Andy Warhol take on Marilyn in the film. Some images are quite familiar but others are new, at least to a general viewing audience and, Levin predicts, some images will even be new to Marilyn and photography aficionados.

Besides interviews with top photographers who helped shape MM’s image, Levin’s film features comments from Norman Mailer, Gloria Steinem and Hugh Hefner. There are even audio excerpts from the last interview Marilyn gave.

Levin said former Redbook editor Robert Stein provided a key insight into MM when he told her “she was an odd combination of innocence and guile.” As Levin has come to find, “I think a transcendent aspect with her is this real genuineness. I think she was completely approachable and accessible…You could be no one and talk to her and you could get into her bed. I think there’s something about her that is completely open, completely accepting. Burt Stern’s assistant was 22-years-old when Stern took photos of her and he said, ‘I was at the bottom of the totem pole and yet she was so kind to me and so sweet to me.’ And people say that across the board about her. Marilyn Monroe was not an imperious bitch. She was not a diva. That’s not who she was. She was a very real person. She was an Everywoman. She really was.”

 

 

 

 

The invention of her image did not happen by chance. Nor did she play a passive role in its creation. She owned her image and, if not the negatives, then what they conveyed. “This was very deliberate. This wasn’t an accident,” Levin said. “She got it and she had it and she made it and she knew it. She was not guileless because she was not stupid. She manufactured this image brilliantly. It was a calculated image, but with good heart, with good intent, with good will.”

Levin feels it’s wrong to apply a feminist prism in viewing Marilyn as a victim of misogyny or unenlightened ambition. “This was a guy’s woman. She liked guys. It was not against her will,” Levin said. “I don’t think she felt victimized at all. I think she exploited it in every way.”

The story of the famous calendar nudes she posed for as an unknown, later published in Playboy at the height of her stardom, reveal an MM in charge of her own image. “Hefner makes the remark that nude photos in those days could take you down. But when they came out she stood right up to it,” Levin said. “Her whole attitude toward it was, This is life. She wasn’t ashamed of any aspect of her body or her being.”

Ironically, Levin was forced to pixilate the nipples and other body parts in the wake of the Janet Jackson breast flash, even though, as Levin argues, the MM nudes are “not pornographic, they’re not slutty, they’re absolutely beautiful. They’ve been made ugly by other people.”

What transpired with the nudes, which made others rich while MM never got a residual dime over the $50 modeling fee, mirrored her life in the spotlight, Levin said. “I think people were rather cruel to her and I think she was hurt. But I also think she was defiant in the face of it. She was courageous. I think the soul of her was terribly resilient.”

Much of the film refers to the sessions that produced the images that still transfix us today, including The Seven Year Itch shoot. In these settings MM willingly gave herself over to the camera. She projected a playful woman-child persona, both real and acted, as she also asserted influence over what final images would see the light of day. Perhaps nothing else gave her such a sense of self-determination.

 

 

 

 

“You see that she loved it. It was her best relationship, really. It was really the place where she was most comfortable and had the most control,” Levin said. “She very much had control of her contact sheets. She would edit them. She was notorious for Xing out photos in red lipstick or marker. Eve Arnold says in the very beginning of the film, ‘This was her way of working and even though I was free to do what I wanted, she really controlled the image.’”

As Marilyn evolved from aspiring actress to star “she understood what it was she wanted” and she pursued specific photographers she knew “could do her justice,” Levin said, “and got herself in front of those people and, of course, those people wanted to photograph her. They considered her a great subject. It was the perfect metier” for a photographer-subject to play in.

A model must make love to the camera for the images to last. MM invested her photos with rarely seen rapture. “Eve Arnold comments there were a lot of four-letter words used to describe the way she seduced a camera. She loved to do it and she did it great,” Levin said. “Marilyn’s take, which I think is the critical take, is she just thought it was great to be thought of as sexual and beautiful. And why not? I think any woman would want to look like that for five minutes of her life.”

For Levin, one particular image encapsulates Monroe in all her complexity.

“We open the film with a dark room sequence in which we print a photograph of her,” Levin said. “It was taken by Roy Schatt during the time she was in the Actors Studio in New York. Her face is completely open. No makeup. You see that sort of Norma Jeane plainness, really. There’s some pictures of her, like this one, that when you look at them you think, Whatever gave her the idea she could pull this off? She’s OK. She has a cute, sweet face, but hers was not a remarkable face. At the same time you see right through that to the whole iconography of Marilyn Monroe. I chose this picture because I thought it emblematic of the whole of her being.”

Like any fine actress, and Levin ranks MM “a great comedienne,” she could summon her public persona on demand. As Levin tells it, “There’s a known story of her walking down a New York street incognito and saying to her friend, ‘Do you want to see her?’” Meaning Marilyn Monroe, superstar sex symbol. The shape shift only took a subtle change — to a more free, less uptight bearing. The power of it bemused and bothered her. “I think she lived in that schism.”

Taking on as familiar a figure as Monroe and all that “we bring to her” scared Levin. “It’s the hardest film I’ve ever made. This material has been so manipulated in so many ways. The challenge and the task is how do I take this and make this something you feel is completely fresh?” In the end, she feels she’s captured the essential Monroe. “We started out liking her and we ended up loving her. We tried not to take anything from her. She looks so beautiful in this film.”

Levin’s Marilyn will have multiple showings, along with her James Dean, the last two weeks of July. Check local NET1 and NET2 listings for dates/times.

With two movie icon subjects behind her, one might expect Levin to tackle another, but her next film may key off a documentary she worked on last fall. From Shtetl to Swing deals with the great migration of Jews from Russia and Eastern Europe to America and their development, with African-Americans, of the music style known as swing. Slated for Great Performances, the film was delivered in less than airable condition, causing series officials to call in Levin to do some “doctoring.” Her work helped the film get “the highest ratings in New York in years for a Great Performances. One of the things I’m planning on next is something similar to that, but on Latin music and how it’s transmorgified into the culture.”

American Masters is produced for PBS by Thirteen/WNET New York. Susan Lacy is executive producer of the acclaimed series.

Imagemaking celebrated at Joslyn Art Museum: “The Misfits” and Magnum Cinema

September 20, 2010 1 comment

Cropped screenshot of Marilyn Monroe from the ...

Image via Wikipedia

I love writing about film, and several of my new posts will reflect that.  The following article for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared in 2003  to report on an exhibition of Magnum photos and a screening of the classic film The Misfits at the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha.  The connection between the photo agency and the film is explained in the piece, but suffice to say that my main interest was in writing about a film I always admired, even as a kid, when its adult themes were well beyond my years.  But the melancholic work resonated with me even then, perhaps because I so strongly identified with its outsider characters and their vulnerability.  Every time I watch the movie I glean new insights from it.  Of course as I got older I learned that this was the last film of both Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable, one of the last that Montgomery Clift made, and that the marriage between Monroe and the film’s screenwriter Arthur Miller was effectively over, all of which lends the performances a tragic certain patina.  Kevin McCarthy, who played Monroe’s husband in the opening scene, was the special guest at the revival screening of The Misfits.  I did an advance phone interview with him and he was just a delight to speak with.  I saw on the news that he passed away the other day.

My friend and fellow Omaha native Gail Levin, a documentary filmmaker, took the measure of the potent forces at work in the film and on the set in her film, Making the Misfits.  Find other posts on this blog about Gail and her work, including her documentary about James Dean.  One of her latest films profiled Jeff Bridges.

 

Imagemaking celebrated at Joslyn Art Museum: “The Misfits” and Magnum Cinema

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

It is only fitting a photographic exhibition at Joslyn Art Museum capturing candid moments of movie legends should kick off with a screening of the legendary film The Misfits, a picture resonating with so much of what makes the movies alluring.

From iconic stars who met tragic deaths to an enormously talented writer and director dealing in potent themes to a majestic Western landscape filmed in moody black and white and riddled with rich metaphors, The Misfits has it all. The film, apropos its title, is an evocative tale, sparely and honestly told, about the disenchantment and yearning of drifters and dreamers hanging on to an endangered way of life in the vanishing wild of the Nevada desert. It is a quintessentially American story about pursuing individual freedom and expression in a conformist world and following dreams, even if deferred, with the aid of a star.

Omaha film impresario Bruce Crawford is presenting, in his usual boffo style, this one-night only tribute to The Misfits on Saturday October 11 in Joslyn’s Witherspoon Concert Hall. The doors open at 6 p.m., the event begins at 7 and the film unreels at 7:30.

Among the Crawfordesque touches planned are searchlights, red carpet fanfare, horse riders, a trick roper and reenactors portraying the film’s two stars, Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable. Special guests include actor Kevin McCarthy, who plays Monroe’s jilted husband in the film. McCarthy will speak before the picture. Legendary producer and former Paramount Studios exec A.C. Lyles was also to have appeared, but will instead be presiding at the memorial services of two Hollywood greats that recently passed away, Donold O’Connor and Elia Kazan.

As with past film events (including Ben-HurPsychoKing KongThe SearchersWest Side Story), Crawford’s secured a restored print, from United Artists, for the show.

After the film, audience members may enjoy a cash bar, cash hors d’oeuvres and desserts in the museum’s atrium, get autographs or photos of McCarthy and Lyles and see a sneak preview of the traveling exhibition Magnum Cinema: Photographs from 50 Years of Movie Making. The exhibition, which runs through January 4, 2004, includes images that a team of photojournalists from Magnum, a renowned, worldwide cooperative photo agency started in 1947 by famed imagemakers Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, David Seymour and George Rodger, took during the making of The Misfits. In all, the exhibit displays 111 works by 39 leading photographers culled together from Magnum’s archive of more than one million photos covering the breadth of human endeavor and experience.

For a long time, The Misfits, that elegiac tone poem to the passing of the American Wild, was regarded more as a morbid curiosity than a successful filmic drama. Besides being a psychologically-complex, symbol-filled, post-modern adult Western where the only “action” comes late in the last reel and where the only “hero” is a broken down cowboy in crisis, the movie has long been overshadowed by the looming, larger-than-life legacies of the three Hollywood idols who starred in the project and died untimely deaths after its completion.

Clark Gable, the one-time King of Hollywood, suffered a massive heart attack only 11 days after shooting wrapped. Gable, who was 59, lost weight in preparation for his part as a lean, laconic horseman. Plus, he did his own rigorous stunts, including wrangling wild mustangs on location in the unforgiving Nevada desert. About a year later, in 1962, Marilyn Monroe, the then and forever reigning sex goddess, died at age 36 of an apparent drug overdose. Montgomery Clift, the romantic screen idol who made male sensitivity sexy, passed away unexpectedly at age 45 in 1966.

Rounding out the supporting cast were dynamic Eli Wallach and Kevin McCarthy, Actor’s Studio veterans with Clift, and powerful character actress Thelma Ritter.

Then there were the on-the-set intrigues that played out amongst the rarefied company of creative titans that wrote and directed The Misfits. The script was authored by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Arthur Miller (Death of a SalesmanThe Crucible), the towering intellectual icon of American theater, for his then wife Monroe. Directing the picture was Oscar-winning filmmaker John Huston (The Maltese FalconThe Treasure of the Sierra MadreThe Asphalt JungleThe African QueenMoby DickThe Man Who Would Be King), the great maverick adventurer-artist of American cinema.

By all accounts, the collaboration between Miller, Huston and the other artists involved was relatively congenial. Miller, the insular egghead, wore his pensiveness like a badge of honor. Huston, the unabashed sensualist, presided over the set like a lion on the hunt. Monroe, the bright but brittle star, variously charmed and confounded everyone with her child-like persona and neurotic flights of fancy. Gable, the macho, devil-may-care journeyman, bore all the distractions like the true gentleman and professional he was. Clift, the complex, introspective method actor riddled by insecurities, tried fitting into this dysfunctional family.

Adding to the tension were the personal dramas playing out during the project. Gable felt out-of-step with the times given the studio system he became a star in was dying, the pictures he became identified with were not being made anymore and the kinds of rebel parts he built his persona on were going to younger actors.

Hounded by the press since their headline-making marriage a few years before, the unlikely match of the serious writer Miller and the blond bombshell Monroe was falling apart by the time the movie began shooting. Monroe was at a personal and professional crossroads. Desperate to shed her sexpot image, she was finding studios and audiences less than eager to see her in a “serious” light. Already suffering from the emotional turmoil that defined her last years, she caused much disruption and many delays with her chronic tardiness, absences and blown lines.

In a phone interview from his Sherman Oaks, Calif. home, McCarthy recalled Marilyn’s difficulties in the brief scene they have together in The Misfits. In it, she rushes up the steps of the Reno courthouse where McCarthy, her estranged husband, is hoping she will rethink her decision to divorce him, but instead she brushes him off with the enigmatic line, “You’re just not there.”

What should have been a simple take turned into an ordeal.

“She was having trouble remembering her lines in sequence,” McCarthy said, “and John Huston was getting to the point where he didn’t know what to do. He couldn’t hear her. He’d ask, ‘Did she say all her lines?’ And I’d go, ‘No,’ or the guy running the boom would go, ‘No, she’s missing some of the stuff, Mr. Huston.’ She came running up the steps maybe 16 or 17 times. Well, finally, after a lot of procedures and wrangling, they put a microphone underneath my tie and ran a wire up my pants leg, all the kinds of things you didn’t do then…So, I was pinned to the spot where I was standing, and when Marilyn finally said everything, Huston turned the camera around and did a take with me. And I was through with the picture.”

Ironically, McCarthy said,it was a film I reluctantly took because I was too vain to be playing a scene where I was gone in 28 seconds or something like that when my buddies Eli Wallach and Monty Clift were playing full-blooded, fully-written parts.”

The palpable strain caused by Marilyn was made worse with Miller always looking over her shoulder on the set. Then there was the script’s lack of any clearly defined narrative driving force or traditional happy ending and the demands on the players to drop all hint of vanity in portraying a motley crew of losers in emotionally raw scenes rare for that era of American cinema.

 

Screengrab of movie "The Misfits"

 

 

 

Miller came up with the story, which originally appeared in Esquire Magazine, after an extended stay in Nevada to establish residence in Reno for his divorce from his first wife. Besides the dissolution of his marriage and the bloom of new romance with Monroe, his plays were being dismissed and he was reeling from the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings in Washington, where he’d been called as a witness and refused to name names in the Communist witch hunt proceedings.

It was in Reno where Miller was introduced to similarly displaced persons as himself. Not surprisingly, the three major male figures in the film are cowboys who, as Bruce Crawford puts it, resist “modern civilization encroaching on them and their free-spirited way of life.” Gay (Gable) is an aging, spent, but still gallant horse wrangler, Purse (Clift) a sweet-natured rodeo rider and Guido (Wallach) a cynical war veteran turned bush pilot. The men prefer living a hand-to-mouth existence rather than “work for wages.”

Perhaps projecting himself into the characters, Miller has each stubbornly hold fast to some ideal of freedom and vision of happiness amid this harsh new era reining them in. When Monroe’s nurturing character, Roslyn, comes onto the scene she forms them into a loose family of misfits, each of whom is running away from something or towards something. Perhaps, as Gay says, they’re all trying “to find a way to be alive.” In Roslyn, who awakens promise and desire in the men but ultimately chooses the older Gay, Miller seemed to be imagining a hoped-for reconciliation with Monroe.

Unusual for Huston, The Misfits revolves around a female figure. With the exception of Katharine Hepburn’s turn in The African Queen, no actress so dominates one of his pictures as Monroe does in the part of Roslyn, the human equivalent of the wild mustangs the men try corralling. When, near the end, she expresses disgust at the idea the horses will be sold to the dog food factory, she makes the men question themselves and their methods. In using trucks and a plane to round up the animals for such an inglorious end, the men realize they’ve corrupted the very thing they love.

For Crawford, the denouement is “the end of an era…the end of the West as we once knew it. It’s the last roundup. The cowboys are left knowing they’re going to have to find another way of feeling alive and validating their lives.”

Anyone who knows Huston’s work can see the story echoes the recurrent theme of his pictures — a group of people banded together in search of some prize or goal that proves elusive amid the human conflicts and dramatic fates that arise. And, like much of Miller’s work, the story examines the uneasy gulf between ideals and reality, the challenge of remaining an individual in a corporate era of crushing anonymity and the need for and difficulty of maintaining human-family relationships in a world where people act, by nature, at cross-purposes to each other.

Fateful quests are not only intrinsic to Huston’s work, they operate on more than one level, said Michael Krainak, a professor of film history and appreciation at Metropolitan Community College and the man who headed-up Joslyn’s film series in the 1980s.

“Besides a material quest there’s a spiritual quest. His characters search for meaning in their lives. In many cases not all the characters are aware that is happening. So often, characters like Bogart at the end of Sierra Madre never even benefit from it. They’re oblivious to the changes taking place and to the lessons being learned. Huston equated that to the tenets of the existential philosophers. His films tend to end in material failure because for him the ends are irrelevant.

“What gives the quest meaning is the process itself, and you take something from that or you don’t. The ones who don’t often die physically or spiritually and the ones who do are able to carry on. It’s like Syndey Greenstreet’s great reaction to Peter Lorre when they discover the falcon is immaterial in The Maltese Falcon — ‘Well, what are you going to do?’”

Consistent with Miller’s ideology, The Misfits is replete with references to the impermanence of things.

“Gay speaks a line that’s very Milleresque,” Krainak said. “He says, ‘Well, nothing’s it,’ meaning nothing lasts forever. And Miller seems to be saying, Well, if that’s true, then that’s a guarantee of change. A theme of Miller’s has always been this idea of rebirth and reinventing yourself. The humanistic ideas in Miller’s work that are also evident in Huston’s work is this final goal of self-acceptance. To survive the wreckage of your life by seeking shelter in relationships and, more than anything else, by carving out your own meaning in life. The successful characters in Huston’s movies seem to confront the element of choice, You either choose to live an authentic life or an anonymous life. In this movie, becoming anonymous is to ‘work for wages.’”

In The Misfits Gay finally concedes the passing of his ways, but goes out on his own terms (or sword). He utters a line summing up his defiance and regeneration: “A man who’s afraid to die, is afraid to live.”

At the end, he and Roslyn drive off at night in search of a new path. They look out to see the mare and her colts running free, and they smile. She asks, “How do we get home?” He looks up at the night sky and says, “We’ll follow that star and get there.” As Krainak said, “What they’re left with is the quest — to get back on the trail. Instead of the the sunset, they ride off into the evening star. It’s a very Hustonian ending in that there’s promise for redemption or rediscovery or self-knowledge, but no guarantee.” In Crawford’s mind, “That has to be one of the most beautiful, haunting endings in film history.”

Krainak, a Huston buff, said that for years a running argument among cineastes has centered around the question of whether The Misfits is more a Huston film or a Miller film.

“It’s clearly both, but ultimately I think it’s Huston’s film,” he said. “In typical Huston fashion there’s this physical, larger-than-life task that a bunch of ne’er-do-wells on the edge of society attempt and fate somehow intervenes. In The Misfits it’s not so much tempting fate, as in Greek tragedy, but more of an Anglo-Saxon fatalistic attitude that says, If there’s a worst thing that can possibly happen, it will happen. The Anglo-Saxons had a wonderful word for it — weird. It’s indeterminate. It’s a more modern existential attitude toward fate. The character Guido even says something like, ‘I didn’t know that could happen.’ I think that’s so much what The Misfits is about.”

According to Krainak, the Miller-Huston pairing was more than a philosophical fit, but an artistic one. “One thing Miller’s got in common with Huston is a minimalist approach,” he said. “With Huston it was always a minimalist shooting script, shooting style, choice of film language, use of camera and editing. With Miller it was simple sets, lighting and everything focused on characters. Huston had to work very hard to create a visual dynamic when working so close with the figures of these characters in a setting and landscape that is so specific and very important.”

From his extensive reading about The Misfits, Krainak found Huston, with Miller’s blessing, eschewed color cinematography in order to bring out certain dramatic-symbolic points. “Huston definitely wanted stark black and whites in the background and the setting, with the characters, at least as I interpret it, as the shades of gray. That’s how it plays out in the imagery. It’s really a beautiful black and white film.” The atmospheric photography is by Russell Metty and the neoclassical jazz score is by Alex North.” Krainak added that, unlike most films, The Misfits was shot chronologically in order to capture a sense of “immediacy and spontaneity,” vital qualities in a story about impulsive free spirits.

Krainak said the film came at “a very self-indulgent” point in Huston’s career when, in addition to working with Miller, he was collaborating with such artists as Truman Capote (Beat the Devil), Ray Bradbury (Moby Dick), Jean Paul Sartre (Freud) and Tennessee Williams (The Night of the Iguana). “It was a very psychologically-charged period where he was exploring interior adventures or the landscape of the mind as opposed to exterior adventures or the landscape of nature.”

Why The Misfits was, until recently, dismissed as an interesting failure rather than a singular achievement can be explained by its “dense, cerebral, ‘European’ feel and by its star-crossed history, said Krainak, who puts an intriguing spin on the theory by suggesting “a killing off of a Hollywood era” took place with the deaths of  Monroe, Gable and Clift and with the way Huston and Miller “underplayed these icons.”

He explained, “These were aging, wounded icons. Monroe was so vulnerable. Gable completely falls apart in a scene that everybody refers to. Clift takes a bad fall and wears bandages the rest of the film. Their audiences were not used to seeing them that way. What Huston and Miller did with these stars was a precursor of the American cinema renaissance of the late 1960s. The drama, thanks to Miller’s screenplay, and the imagery, thanks to Huston’s direction, made it a film dominated by character as opposed to pure action or star persona.”

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