Usually, I intuit, I lose half or more of you right at the top when I post a story about Alexander Payne. I get it. I really do. Well, not entirely. It seems that for some of you Payne’s work doesn’t register as all that funny or entertaining or satisfying. This despite the fact that over the last 20 years his films have received as much or more critical praise and box office love as many directors whose movies you may more readily embrace, such as Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, David O. Russell, John Singleton, Antoine Fuqua, Jason Reitman and the Coen Brothers. I chalk it up to a taste thing. Fair enough. But I also have the sneaking suspicion that many of you have seen only a fraction of his films and that some of you have not seen any of them. If that’s true, then it’s a crying shame because you’re rejecting work based on perception without even trying it on for size. I mean, how do you really know if you like it or not if you don’t see it for yourself and purely base your appraisal on a trailer or a review or a stray comment or two? We all do it, of course, but I’m mainly addressing this to Nebraskans who, I would like to believe, should feel some natural affinity and curiosity, if not loyalty, for the work of one of their own. I know shared home state roots only go so far and Payne’s film worlds may seem very distant or disconnected from your own reality, but I don’t think that you would feel that way if you attended to them with an open mind. His humanistic films have something for everyone because they are drawn from the same human condition we all all subject to when it comes to love, loss and loneliness. If you watch his films and they still feel apart from you then his work may just not be for you but even then I suggest that that may change with his new film “Downsizing.” It’s interesting to say that because this film will intentionally be both very far removed from life as we know it and very close to it. It will depict worlds reminiscent of and different from mine and yours as it swings from some unnamed Middle Earth to very near future Omaha to a Leisure Land resort for miniaturized humans that includes a slum to Norwegian fjords and villages to various spots around the globe. In a first for Payne, much of the movie will be populated by characters representing diverse races and ethnicities to go along with the disparate locations. Visual effects will render the downsized-world alone and in juxtaposition with the normal-sized world. All of this is set against an end-of-world backdrop of extreme climatic, geo-political tensions and cosumer mania that pretty much mirrors where we’re at right now. The combination of little people. big ideas and a star-studded cast headlined by Matt Damon facing moral decisions and life and death questions amidst mind-blowing sets just might make this Payne’s first blockbuster. In which case he will be viewed in a whole new light by the industry and by some of you. Suddenly, Payne will be mentioned in the same breath with Michael Bay, J.J. Abrams, James Cameron and Christoper Nolan. Now wouldn’t that be a kick?
This is my new feature on “Downsizing” appearing in the April 2017 issue of The Reader (http://www.thereader.com/). It’s my latest read-all-about-it exclusive about the project informed by interviews with Payne, his co-writer Jim Taylor, cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, visual effects supervisor Jamie Price, second unit director Tracy Boyd, editor Kevin Tent and casting director John Jackson, Who knows, after reading this piece it might even whet your appetite for seeing the film when it releases in December. It would behoove you to see it since I’m suggesting the film might just be the next big thing on the world cinema landscape. But don’t take my word for it. Be sure to see it for yourself when it opens and make up your mind based on that. Trailers for it should be hitting online and theaters soon, so that will give us all a sneak peak at what to expect. For you Payne cynics out there, just keep an open mind.
Hot Movie Takes:
Payne’s ‘Downsizing’ may be next big thing on world cinema landscape
©by Leo Adam Biga
Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”
Story appears in the April 2017 issue of The Reader (http://www.thereader.com/)
Just as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey marked a seminal movie event, Alexander Payne’s Downsizing has milestone written all over it.
Kubrick’s 1968 landmark inspired by writer Arthur C. Clarke’s musings pushed special effects to new heights and gave sci-fi films higher standards to aspire to in terms of visuals and ideas. Now, a half-century from the release of that opus, Payne’s putting final touches on his own bold vision of imaginative fiction.
The big budget, visual effects-laden Downsizing confronts relevant social, political, ecological issues. Only once previously, with Citizen Ruth’s hot takes on abortion, has Payne been so thematically current. With its withering look at corporate greed, hyper consumerism, minority marginalization and ego-maniacal pitch men, Downsizing hits the zeitgeist on a global scale.
“It’s a big movie,” he said. “Not just the visual effects but the scope of the story with more of an episodic structure that spans many years and different locations.”
Just as the late Kubrick made elaborate satiric observations on human frailties, so does Payne. Their films register cold for many but there’s more warmth there than you recall. Where 2001 is a speculative adventure about the role of extraterrestrial life on Earth and beyond, Downsizing’s own mediation on what it means to be human remains firmly planted here.
Months away from its December theatrical release, Hollywood’s curious to see what a filmmaker identified with intimate human comedies does with a picture of this scale. Ironically, for Payne to achieve a film about miniaturization he worked with a larger crew and budget, on more, bigger sound stages and in more practical locations than ever before. Locations spanned Los Angeles, Omaha, Toronto and Norway. Second-unit director Tracy Boyd traveled to South Korea, Malaysia, Morocco and Spain to accrue crucial montage footage.
Downsizing’s every bit as ambitious as 2001 but both films are relatively simple at their core. Amid all its visual interstellar trappings, 2001 intimately rests on astronaut David Bowman’s interior time-space journey. Instilling in audiences the necessary sense of awe and immersion required Kubrick and Douglas Trumball to advance effects by a generation.
It’s not surprising Kubrick made Bowman’s mind-blowing head trip the POV reference point since the late iconoclast’s films were quite inner-directed despite their big ideas and sometimes massive sets.
Just as Kubrick distilled epoch events into an intimate tableaux, Payne distills human kind’s hopes, fears, vagaries in the intersection of three people meeting in a strange new world. Paul (Matt Damon) is the Everyman mensch whose surreal ride from normal to small, from nobody to pioneer, we hitch onto. Goran (Christoph Waltz) is the Euro-trash hustler who befriends him. Ngoc Lang (Hong Chau) is the Vietnamese human rights activist who becomes his love interest.
To naturalistically realize the small world, Payne relied on visual effects supervisor Jamie Price. The former Industrial Light and Magic wizard oversaw artists from ILM and other companies in making micro humans more believable than ever seen before on screen. Pulling this off is critical because the film’s entire vision hangs on audiences investing in characters and incidents without the distraction of call-attention-to-themselves effects.
Downsizing, like 2001, depends upon intact illusions without seams or wires showing. Where 2001’s monumental effects depict deep space and infinity, Downsizing depicts human discourse.
Co-writer Jim Taylor said he and Payne took the same approach to their original story as with all their films. “Really what we love are the details – the tiny, every day interactions people have. It’s such a great irony and a lot of people don’t necessarily realize this – that the more specific you get, the more universal it is.”
Sure, the story’s replete with big concepts revolving around global warming’s dire consequences, but Taylor said, “We’re not making An Inconvenient Truth because that’s not our job. The themes are an excuse to enter this realm of relationships and personal struggles.”
Price said upon first reading the script he realized this project represented a whole new animal.
“What struck me about it immediately is that it really is an atypical visual effects movie. It’s a movie where the visual effects are used purely to serve the dramatic needs of the story. That’s a very refreshing and clever use of visual effects that drew me to it.
“Unlike building a set or having actors standing in a practical environment, there’s a lot that’s just not there when you’re rolling the camera and so you need to forge a good relationship and build the trust so that the director feels he’s going to get what he needs to tell the story the way he wants to tell it. Similarly, in visual effects, it’s our job to inform the director and the rest of the crew so that everyone has a good understanding of what we need to achieve the work successfully.”
In this case successful means making the effects look so real they blend in with the mundanity of every day life that Payne so exactingly extracts – just as Kubrick did.
“What I think makes Downsizing unique is its fresh take on a genre that’s been around for a long time,” Price said. “Movies in the past with small characters interacting with normal-sized humans have broadly fallen into three categories: science fiction, comedies, family movies or some combination. They often have a very different aesthetic than what Alexander intended.
“At one point producer Jim Burke asked me which movie in the past do I think most embodies the look we’re going for in Downsizing and I said, ‘I don’t think there is one.’ There’s pieces of movies with similar elements to what we want to achieve but there isn’t a movie that really has the same aesthetic.”
Downsizing’s its own thing, Price said, because it’s a movie crafted by an auteur. “Early on, Alexander asked me, ‘How do we make this special?’ And I said, ‘Well, the way you make it special is you make it an Alexander Payne movie, because none of these other movies are that. If you bring your sensitivity and style to it then it will become something unique and new,’ and I think it has.”
Payne said Price did things to “trick me into thinking I’m making a real movie, not a visual effects movie.”
“He did it in such a way that I could focus on what’s important, which is the story, the characters, the acting, and keep that front and center,” Payne said. “That’s not to say a lot of thought was not put into the look and to how the sets should be and what we we’re going to build and what we’re going to extend digitally. That’s a constant discussion. But through all of that I knew my job was to keep the eye on the ball of the story.
“I never want the heft of this film to mar any intimacy of tone or idiosyncrasy of humor.”
Payne relied on Price’s team to make actors at ease with the effects work. Even though this was Payne and Price’s first production together, they go back eight years to when Payne first tried getting the movie made. An advantage of the long wait between conception and production was technology advances. A constant was Payne’s desire to not interfere with the actors’ process.
“Alexander was very interested in maintaining the spontaneity of the performances, which is difficult when one of the actors isn’t there and is going to be shot later,” Price said.
It helped having a star in Matt Damon whom Payne confirms is “the total professional” he’s reputed to be.
“For Matt Damon or any actor isolated in a visual effects scene, I made sure there was a person opposite them,” Payne said. “The actor still had a true acting partner in the scene (reading lines off-camera).”
Price said, “We made some choices during the production process, such as the way we built sets or how we staged certain things, so that Alexander could sort of forget the fact there was a green screen back there or there was only one half of the performers in the scene because we were going to be shooting another element green screen later.
“We used 5-inch tall dolls as stand-ins. We placed them in the scene for the actors to look at and so the camera could frame them up. That way Alexander could see the relationship between the two. We paint them out later. We tried to recreate as much as possible the scenario described in the screenplay even though we were ultimately assembling it digitally later.”
Payne found Damon to be the Everyman he plays.
“Genuinely a delight. He is who you hope he is. And the ease with which he can do anything is really something to watch. He’s only too ready to help,”
For the lead, casting director John Jackson said he and Payne concluded Damon was the only marketable star “that could be that lower middle-class Omaha dude. He is our generation’s Jack Lemmon. He can do comedy, he can do drama, he can do everything. An audience can project whatever they need to project onto him.”
Even though protecting story was Payne’s overriding concern, there’s no escaping technology with 650 visual effects shots. He said the great challenge is “having always to match the digital extension of what those sets would be.” Not just sets, but actors, too. Payne wore a motion capture suit to act out scenes’ physical movements. He knew them better than anyone having inhabited the characters and actions while writing them. The data recorded from his walk-through guided CGI artists in creating 3D-animated Previs (pre-visualization) views that served as digital storyboards.
Though the demands of visual effects sometimes required extra takes, Payne said, “I still tried to be as economical and precise as possible. I might have done more takes to get certain things right because of all the moving parts, the number of extras or something technical about the shot. Even Matt Damon told me, ‘You like to do a lot of takes, but at least I know almost every shot’s going to be in the film.’ He meant
there’s a lot of films where they shoot a ton of footage with little idea of how it might cut together. I may overshoot in takes but not too much in actual coverage.”
Payne depends on various departments to get things right. Director of photography Phedon Papamichael was among many Downsizing crew who go way back with him. The DP felt having this family of creatives around was important on a project with so many new elements,
“He was surrounded by a very experienced crew and team he’s familiar with and we were able to preserve some of that family environment on the set despite the scale,” Papamichael said. “He still knew every driver’s and grip’s name and not only their name but if they have a kid in college who plays football. All of that is different than your average big movie where the director doesn’t know the dolly grip’s name even after 14 weeks.”
Jim Taylor isn’t normally on set much but, he said,
“On this movie we thought I needed to be there all the time, so I was. There were contributions I could make. It doesn’t come up that often but Alexander likes to have someone around he can turn to and say, ‘What do you think? What does that look like to you?'”
Being there for the full 75-day shoot gave Taylor insight on where his writing mate’s come as a director.
“It was really interesting for me to see how much more masterful he was working with the actors, knowing what he needed and getting what he needed and all that.”
Payne’s primary casting director since About Schmidt has been Council Bluffs native and resident, John Jackson. On Downsizing he and Payne filled a larger than usual roster of speaking parts and background extras to reflect the story’s global reach.
“I had many more extras than I’ve ever had on a film before,” Payne said, “and extras of different races and nationalities as we tried to portray certain worlds accurately. And so just on the casting side John Jackson and I had to expand our personnel to corral all the right extras and than on the set to direct them well. That has huge impact down the chain – the assistant directors, costume, even props, get hit harder.”
Jackson usually doesn’t office where the film shoots, but he did at Pinewood Studios in Toronto, where the film’s epic sets filled mega sound stages. He was mesmerized by the production unfolding around him.
“It was every fantasy I had as a kid – being on the lot and being able to walk down onto the sound stages and onto the sets. To see it as it was happening, to see the scope of it, to see all the incredible amount of hard work, planning and organization by the different teams from the grips to the construction guys, and watch it call come together was really humbling and very exciting.”
One new creative collaborator was Italian production designer Stefania Ceila.
“She’s amazing,” said cinematographer Papamichael, “Very passionate, very vocal, expressive and stubborn, but it was a wonderful relationship. Visually. I think we definitely elevated to a new level and Alexander has embraced that. The language still has simplicity and not showing off, not getting in the way, still focusing on the humanity and the emotions of actors.
“Even with all the effects and the scale, filling up the largest stage in North America, we still applied the same Alexander Payne language. In the end hopefully the technology will all sort of go away and just blend in – fall into his style of storytelling and people will not really be aware they’re watching an $85 million effects movie.”
Payne acknowledged the experience was more overwhelming than past projects.
“I had moments on this film when I felt like not only did I not know what I was doing but I had never seen a movie before. It’s been a hard movie. You just get through it.”
Complicating matters, he herniated a disc in Toronto. “I suffered the indignity of directing from a wheelchair for about a week,” he said.
Papamichael said despite everything the experience was akin to other Payne movies, adding, “It was just physically and mentally more taxing because of the longer process.”
After wrapping in Canada, the production broke before reconvening in Norway the last two weeks.
“This was the dessert of the film -– shooting in Norway,” Payne said. “We were bowled over by the beauty of the fjords, where we were shooting north of the Arctic circle in a really beautiful region called Lofoten.”
He said the Norway sojourn involved “scouting and shooting from helicopter and boats.” “In the movie there’s a 1927 English yacht we shot on. We were living on a very large ocean liner currently not in use.”
Payne and editor Kevin Tent have been cutting since September. Rough cut screenings yield notes and feedback. Scenes get reassembled “in trying to figure out what the film wants to be,” Payne said. Frequent visual effects meetings, he said, hash out “what we’re going to put in the frame when when we shot there was only green – like literally what is that going to look like, and then tracking the execution of the visual effects artists to make sure it looks good.”
With 2001 Kubrick tackled nothing less than the dawn of man and humankind’s place in the universe. Much of his focus in that film and his other films was on the contrast between the ordinariness of life and its extremes. Under pressure, people do very wrong things. It’s an essentially pessimistic view that seems to suggest man’s inhumanity to man is inevitable and inescapable.
Meanwhile. Payne celebrates foibles as unavoidable traits of our shared imperfection. Unlike Kubrick, he’s hopeful we can navigate life without total ruin. Though divisions cause angst in Downsizing, a sense of community, sacrifice and even love prevails.
Payne said, “This film unites a lot of the themes Jim (Taylor) and I have been using in our previous films and I hope bringing them to a higher level. We will see about that. I don’t think in general it’s that different from what I’ve done before, it’s just a bigger canvas.
“When I think about movies with sprawling episodic structure I think of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, 8 1/2 and Nights of Cabiria, where the story follows one protagonist through a series of adventures and by the end a moment happens that kind of in retrospect gives some thematic narrative cohesion to the story. It pulls a seemingly loose narrative thread suddenly taut. I do not wish to compare Downsizing to those greats but structurally I take inspiration from them.”
Payne and his team have given themselves over to this episodic framework.
“Phedon, Stefania and I in production and now Kevin Tent and I in editing have to accept that it’s a series of short films within one film. Each visually to some degree but now musically we just have to do what feels right in the film and hope to God it holds together.”
Editing is about finding-enhancing the film’s internal rhythms. Payne said, “Getting a handle on a picture of this scope” – he expects it to run 135-140 minutes – “takes a little doing.”
Downsizing contains elements that may remind one of other films, from 2001 to The Incredible Shrinking Man, but overall there’s really nothing to compare it to.
Papamichael said it’s the one Payne film he couldn’t get a visual handle on from the script “and now that I have done it I know why – it’s so diverse in looks and stories.” He said, “It goes through this arc, starting like a regular Alexander Payne movie in Omaha with an average guy at La Casa waiting for his pizza, to he and his wife going to Leisure Land and her leaving him to go through the downsizing process alone. That’s like the whole Kubrick episode of the film. It’s like going from something in About Schimdt to 2001: A Space Odyssey.”
He said the film’s juxtaposition of plastic Leisure Land’s “absurd embrace of American Consumerism” against sterile labs, awful slums, prosaic Omaha sites, world capitals, sublime fjords and an uncharted middle-Earth “really is like a series of short stories or short films that then all connect so beautifully through Paul’s adventure of self-discovery and subtle love story with Ngoc.”
Don’t expect anything but another low-key Paynsian ending that implies more than it shows. Like his other films, Payne said, Downsizing will “end with a feeling more than an event.” “I’m glad we’re able to have an ending to this big movie that hopefully will operate in that delicate space,” Taylor said.
Second-unit director Tracy Boyd, another of Payne’s longtime collaborators, referred to Payne’s consistent goal of surrendering any conscious, overt style to story.
“He so skillfully, masterfully hides the brushstrokes of what he’s doing and you’re fully submerged in what you’re seeing that you forget there’s a director behind all of that. He’s not trying to get you to think about who’s directing the picture as so many filmmakers do. It’s only with repeat viewings you recognize the subtle techniques and clarity behind every vision you see.”
Boyd, Taylor and others close to the project express confidence this promises to be a special, stand-the-test-of-time film. Papamichael disclosed “Paramount’s fully embracing the film – they actually think they have a commercial hit on their hands.” An awards contender, too. Everyone has high praise for the work of Damon and Hong Chau, whose breakout role this could be,
Only the box-office will tell, but Payne-Taylor say it’s their only movie that may have a sequel in the offing.
Should it resonate enough to enter the pop culture consciousness, this could be Payne’s The Godfather, Taxi Driver or Pulp Fiction. Taylor said it’s not as if Payne “wants somebody to give him a shot at some franchise movie.” He echoed Payne’s inclination to do anything but an effects movie as a follow-up. Maybe a long-talked about Western. Or shooting in Greece.
“I would like to do wildly different things,” Payne said.
“That would be fun. I don’t know what yet.”
Initial reviews should appear after major fall festival screenings. Omaha’s Ruth Sokolof or Dundee Theater will premiere Downsizing for its theatrical release.
Hot Movie Takes – “Rawhide”
©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”
I love a good Western. This quintessential American film form is full of possibilities from a storytelling perspective because of the vast physical and metaphorical landscapes it embodies. The American West was a wide open place in every sense. Everything there was up for grabs. Thus, the Old West frontier became a canvass for great conflicts and struggles involving land, resources, power, control, law, values, ideas, dreams and visions. With so much at stake from a personal, communal and national vantage point, dramatists have a field day using the Western template to explore all manner of psycho-social themes. Add undercurrents of personal ambition, rivalry, deceit and romantic intrigue to the mix not to mention race and ethnicty, and, well, you have the makings for a rich tableaux that, in the right hands, is every bit as full as, say, Shakespeare or Dickens.
All of which is to say that last night I viewed on YouTube a much underrated Western from the Golden Age of Hollywood called “Rawhide” (1951) that represents just how satisfying and complex the form can be, This is an extremely well-crafted work directed by Henry Hathaway, written by Dudley Nichols and photographed by Milton Krasner. Tyrone Powers and Susan Hayward head a very strong cast rounded out by Hugh Marlowe, Jack Elam. Dean Jagger, George Tobias, Edgar Buchanan and Jeff Corey.
“Rawhide” isn’t quite a Western masterpiece but it’s very good and elements of it are among the very best seen in the Western genre. Let’s start with the fact that the script is superb. It’s an intelligent, taut thriller with a wicked sense of humor leavening the near melodramatic bits. Nichols wrote some of John Ford’s best films and so in a pure story sense “Rawhide” plays a lot like a Ford yarn with its sharply observed characters and situations that teeter back and forth between high drama and sardonic relief.
Like most great Westerns, this is a tale about the tension between upstanding community, in this case a very small stagecoach outpost stop, and marauding outlaws. Across the entire genre the classic Western story is one variation or another of some community, usually a town or a wagon train, under siege by some threat or of some individual seeking revenge for wrongs done him/her or of a gunman having to live up to or play down his reputation.
In “Rawhide” escaped outlaws are on the loose and the stagecoach station manager (Buchanan) and his apprentice (Power), along with a woman passenger (Hayward) and her child, are left to fend for themselves by U.S. cavalry troops hot on the bad guys’ trail. When the four desperate men show up they make the station inhabitants their captives. The leader (Marlowe) is an educated man who exhibits restraint but he has trouble keeping in line one of the men (Elam) who escaped prison with him. Sure enough, things get out of hand as tensions among the outlaws and with the surviving hired hand and woman mount. The criminals are intent on stealing a large gold shipment coming through and the captives know their lives will be expendable once the robbery is over, and so they scheme for a way to escape. The trouble is they are locked in a room most of the time and when let outside they’re closely guarded. Their best chance for getting out of the mess seems to be when a nighttime stage arrives but it and its passengers come and go without the man or woman being able to convey the dire situation. But one more opportunity presents itself when the daytime coach with the gold shipment approaches and the pair, aided by the outlaws’ own internal conflicts. use all their courage and ingenuity to face down the final threat.
The dramatic set-up is fairly routine but what Nichols, Hathaway and Krasner do with it is pretty extraordinary in terms of juxtaposing the freedom of the wide open spaces and the confinement of the captives. A great deal of claustrophobic tension and menace is created through the writing, the direction and the black and white photography, with particularly great use of closeups and in-depth focus. Hathaway’s and Krasner’s framing of the images for heightened dramatic impact is brilliantly done.
The acting is very good. Power, who himself was underrated, brings his trademark cocksure grace and sense of irony to his part. Hayward, who is not one of my favorite actresses from that period, parlays her natural toughness and fierceness to give a very effective performance that is almost completely absent of any sentimentality. Marlowe is appropriately smart and enigmatic in his role and he displays a machismo I didn’t before identify with him. Buchanan, Jagger, Tobias and Corey are all at their very best in key supporting roles that showcase their ability to indelibly capture characters in limited screen time. But it’s Elam who nearly steals the picture with his manic portrayal that edges toward over-the-top but stays within the realm of believability.
“Rawhide” doesn’t deal in the mythic West or confront big ideas, which is fine because it knows exactly what it is, It’s a lean, realistic, fast-paced Western with just a touch of poetry to it, and that’s more than enough in my book.
Hathaway made more famous Westerns, such as “The Sons of Katie Elder” and “True Grit,” but this is a better film than those. With his later pics Hathaway seemed to be trying to follow in the footsteps of John Ford with the scope of his Westerns, but he was no John Ford. Hathaway was best served by the spare semi-documentary style he employed earlier in his career in film noirs like “Kiss of Death,” “13 Rue Madeleine” and “Call Northside 777” and Westerns like “Rawhide.” One exception was “Nevada Smith,” which does successfully combine the leanness of his early career with the sprawling approach he favored late in his career.
Rawhide 1951 Full Movie – YouTube
Hot Movie Takes:
PAYNE’S “DOWNSIZING’” – It may be next big thing on the world cinema landscape
BY LEO ADAM BIGA, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”
April 2017 issue of The Reader
Hot Movie Takes – Gregory Peck
©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”
Gregory Peck was a man and an actor for all seasons. Among his peers, he was cut from the same high-minded cloth as Spencer Tracy and Henry Fonda, only he registered more darkly than the former and more warmly than the latter.
In many ways he was like the male equivalent of the beautiful female stars whose acting chops were obscured by their stunning physical characteristics. Not only was Peck tall, dark and handsome, he possessed a deeply resonant voice that set him apart, sometimes distractingly so, until he learned to master it the way a great singer does. But I really do believe his great matinee idol looks and that unnaturally grave voice got in the way of some viewers, especially critics, appreciating just what a finely tuned actor he really was. Like the best, he could say more with a look or gesture or body movement than most actors can do with a page of dialogue. And when he did speak lines he made them count, imbuing the words with great dramatic conviction, even showing a deftness for irony and comedy, though always playing it straight, of course.
I thought one of the few missteps in his distinguished career was playing the Nazi Doctor of Death in “The Boys from Brazil.” The grand guignol pitch of the movie is a bit much for me at times and I consider his and Laurence Oliver’s performances as more spectacle than thoughtful interpretation. I do admire though that Peck really went for broke with his characterization, even though he was better doing understated roles (“Moby Dick” being the exception). I’m afraid the material was beyond director Franklin Schaffner, a very good filmmaker who didn’t serve the darkly sardonic tone as well as someone like Stanley Kubrick or John Huston would have.
Peck learned his craft on the stage and became an immediate star after his first couple films. He could be a bit stiff at times, especially in his early screen work, but he was remarkably real and human across the best of his performances from the 1940s through the 1990s. I have always been perplexed by complaints that he was miscast as Ahab in “Moby Dick,” what I consider to be a film masterpiece. For my tastes at least his work in it does not detract but rather adds to the richness of that full-bodied interpretation of the Melville classic.
My two favorite Peck performances are in “Roman Holiday” and, yes, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” I greatly admire his work, too, in “The Stalking Moon” and have come to regard his portrayal in “The Big Country” as the linchpin for that very fine film that I value more now than I did before. He also gave strong performances in “The Yearling,” “Yellow Sky,” “The Gunfighter,” “12 O’Clock High,” “The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit,” “Pork Chop Hill,” “On the Beach,” “Cape Fear,” “The Guns of Navarone,” “How the West was Won,” “Captain Newman M.D.” “Mirage” and “Arabesque.” I also loved his work in two made for television movies: “The Scarlet and the Black” and “The Portrait.”
He came to Hollywood in the last ebb of the old contract studio system and within a decade joined such contemporaries as Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster in producing some of his own work.
Peck’s peak as a star was from the mid-1940s through the late 1960s, which was about the norm for A-list actors of his generation. Certainly, he packed a lot in to those halcyon years, working alongside great actors and directors and interpreting the work of great writers. He starred in a dozen or more classic films and in the case of “To Kill a Mockingbird” one of the most respected and beloved films of all time. It will endure for as long as there is cinema. As pitch perfect as that film is in every way, I personally think “Roman Holiday” is a better film, it just doesn’t cover the same potent ground – i.e. race – as the other does, although its human values are every bit as moving and profound.
Because of Peck’s looks, stature and voice, he often played bigger-than-life characters. Because of his innate goodness he often gravitated to roles and/or infused his parts with qualities of basic human dignity that were true to his own nature. He was very good in those parts in which he played virtuous men because he had real recesses of virtue to draw on. His Atticus Finch is a case of the right actor in the right role at the right time. Finch is an extraordinary ordinary man. I like Peck best, however, in “Roman Holiday,” where he really is just an ordinary guy. He’s a journeyman reporter who can’t even get to work on time and is in hock to his boss. Down on his luck and in need of a break, a golden opportunity arises for a world-wide exclusive in the form of a runaway princess he’s happened upon. Lying through his teeth, he sets out to do a less than honorable thing for the sake of the story and the big money it will bring. It’s pure exploitation on his part but by the end he’s fallen for the girl and her plight and he can’t go through with his plan to expose her unauthorized spree in Rome. I wish he had done more parts like this.
Here is a link to an excellent and intimate documentary about Peck:
Just last night on YouTube I finally saw an old Western of his, “The Bravados,” I’d been meaning to watch for years. It’s directed by Henry King, with whom he worked a lot (“The Gunfighter,” Twelve O’Clock High,” “Beloved Indidel”), and while it’s neither a great film nor a great Western it is a very good if exasperatingly uneven film. That criticism even extends to Peck’s work in it. He’s a taciturn man hell-bent on revenge but I think he overplays the grimness. I don’t know if some of the casting miscues were because King chose unwisely or if he got stuck with certain actors he didn’t want, but the two main women’s parts are weakly written and performed. Visually, it’s one of the most distinctive looking Westerns ever made. Peck also had fruitful collaborations with William Wyler (“Roman Holiday” and “The Big Country”), Robert Mulligan (“To Kill a Mockingbird” and “The Stalking Moon”) and J.L Thompson (“Cape Fear” and “The Guns of Navarone).
Two Peck pictures I’ve never seen beyond a few minutes of but that I’m eager to watch in their entirety are “Behold a Pale Horse” and “I Walk the Line.”
Peck’s work will endure because he strove to tell the truth in whatever guise he played. His investment in and expression of real, present, in-the-moment emotions and thoughts give life to his characterizations and the stories surrounding them so that they remain forever vital and impactful.
For a pretty comprehensive list of his screen credits, visit:
Hot Movie Takes – “Taxi Driver”
©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”
It’s hard to imagine general American moviegoing audiences being prepared for “Taxi Driver” when it hit theaters in 1976. I mean, here was ostensibly a film noir that eschewed standard conventions for a dark fever dream of one man’s mounting paranoia and revulsion in the urban wasteland of New York City.
The character of Travis Bickle didn’t have any direct cinema antecedents but he did emerge from a long line of disturbed screen figures going back to Peter Lorre in “M,” James Cagney as Cody Jarrett in “White Heat,” Richard Basehart as Roy Martin in “He Walked By Nigh,” Robert Walker as Bruno Antony in “Strangers on a Train” and Robert Mitchum as Harry Powell in “Night of the Hunter.”
There are even some hints of Robert Ryan as Montgomery in “Crossfire” and as Earle Slater in “Odds Against Tomorrow” and of Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates in “Psycho” and as Dennis Pitt in “Pretty Poison.”
Bickle also anticiated many screen misfits to follow, including some of the whack jobs in Coen Brothers and Quentin Tarantino films.
As a disenfranchised loner who sees the world around him as a venal place, Bickle obsessively reinvents himself into a self-made avenging angel ridding the streets of scum. His response to the violent, lurid subculture of sex for sale is an explosive bloodletting that is, in his mind, a purification. In the end, after carrying out his self-appointed cleansing mission, are we to believe he is mad or merely misguided? Is he a product or symptom of urban isolation and decay?
Paul Schrader’s brilliant script, Martin Scorsese’s inspired direction and Robert De Niro’s indelible performance took what appeared to be Grade B grindhouse thematic material and elevated it into the realm of art-house mastery. They did this by making the story and character an intense psycho-social study of disturbance. Bickle is not some nut case aberration. Rather he is one of us, which is to say he is an Everyman cut off from any real connections around him. The way he’s wired and the way he views the world make him a ticking time bomb. It’s only a matter of time before he’s set off and goes from talking and fantasizing about doing extreme things to actually enacting them. He lives in his head and his head is filled with disgusting images and thoughts that occupy him as he drives his cab through the streets of what he considers to be a modern-day Gomorrah. He fixates on certain things and persons and he won’t be moved from his convictions, which may or may not be the result of psychosis or sociopathic tendencies.
Schrader’s script and Scorsese’s direction, greatly aided by Michael Chapman’s photography and Bernard Herrmann’s musical score, find wildly expressive ways to indicate Bickle’s conflicted state of mind. Atmospheric lighting captures a surreal landscape of garish neon signs, steam rising from the streets and back street porno theaters, strip clubs and whorehouses. He grows to hate the pimps and pushers, the johns and addicts littering the city. When he tries to intersect with normality, it’s a complete disaster. Languid, dream-like music underscores the moral turpitude bringing Bickle down. Emotionally-charged, driving music accompanies Bickle’s trance-like rituals and final hypnotic outburst that is simultaneously savage and serene.
Travis Bickle is a troubling symbol who straddles the legal, moral and psychological line of impulse and premeditation. Does he know what he’s doing? Is he responsible for his actions? Or is he insane?
De Niro’s transformation from mild-mannered cabbie to scary vigil ante, complete with the famous “Are you talking to me?” break with reality, is where the real power of the film resides. He somehow makes his character believably frightening, revolting, pathetic and sympathetic all at the same time. To me, it will always stand as one of his two or three greatest performances because he completely inhabits this disturbed character without ever going over the top or resorting to cliches. He creates a true original in the annals of cinema that belongs to him and him alone.
There are some fine supporting performances in the film by Peter Boyle, Cybill Shepherd. Albert Brooks, Harvey Keitel and, of course, Jodi Foster as the adolescent prostitute Bickle anoints himself as protector and rescuer of. They and De Niro share some strong moments together. But it’s when De Niro’s character is alone and brooding, stalking and staring, that he most comes alive as a terrible reflection of our dark side run amok.
You can read “Taxi Driver” anyway you want: as exploration or examination, as cautionary tale, as prescient forecast, as potboiler crime pic. But however you read it, it is a vital, compelling and singular work of its time that endures because no matter how bizarre the story and stylized the effects, it’s always grounded in the truth of its single-minded protagonist. The film never stops giving us his point of view, even at the height of his mania.
Like a lot of the best ’70s American movies, this one doesn’t leave you feeling good but you know you’ve had an experience that’s challenged your mind and emotions and perhaps even moved you to some new understanding about the human condition. That’s what the best movies are capable of doing and this one certainly hits the mark.
Hot Movie Takes Monday – “Mississippi Masala”
©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”
Over the weekend I revisited one of my favorite films from the early 1990s – Mia Nair’s “Mississippi Masala.” I remembered it as one of the richest cross cultural dramas of that or any era and upon re-watching it on YouTube my impressions from then have been confirmed.
The story concerns an Indian family exiled from Uganda during Idi Amin’s reign of terror. They were forced to leave everything they owned and loved in terms of home, The patriarch of the family was born and raised in Uganda and lived there his entire life, building a life and career that made him feel at one with a nation his people had been brought to by the British to build railways. Though his ancestral roots are not of that continent, he identifies as African first, Indian second. The family ends up in Mississippi, owning and operating a motel and a liquor store. The patriarch, Jay, and his wife are the parents of an only child, Meena, who was a little girl when her left Uganda as refugees. When we meet her again she is a lovely, single 24 year old woman and still devoted daughter but strains under her parents’ overprotectiveness and their insisting she adhere to strict traditions concerning matrimonial matches and such. Those traditions aren’t such a good fit in America.
Also weighing heavily on Meena is the burden her father carries from being torn from his homeland. He can’t let that severing go. For years he’s petitioned the Ugandan government for a hearing to plead his case for his property and assets to be restored. He is a haunted figure. Part of what haunts him is the way he rebuked his black Ugandan friend from childhood, Okelo, when Amin’s military police rounded up foreigners for arrest, torture, deportation. Okelo is a devoted family friend who is like a brother to Jay and a grandfather to Meena. When Jay is arrested for making anti-Amiin remarks in a broadcast TV interview, Okelo bribes officials to free him. He tries to convince Jay that there is no future for him in Uganda anymore. Okelo tells him, “Africa is for black Africans.” He says it not out of malice but love. Jay is deeply hurt. He can’t accept this new reality but he realizes he and his family have no choice but to flee if they are to remain alive. Jay leaves without saying goodbye to Okelo. Meena sees and feels her father’s bitter anger and her beloved Okelo’s broken heart.
Grown-up Meena, played by Sarita Choudhury, lives with her parents in a diverse Mississippi town where they are the minority. A meet-cute accident brings together Meena and a young African-American man, Demetrius, played by Denzel Washington. He’s a devoted son who owns his own carpet cleaning business. He’s immediately attracted to Meena but at first he pays attention to her to get back at his ex, who’s in town and intent on belittling him. But things progress to the point where he and Meena spark the start of a real relationship. She meets his family and is embraced by them. Then the prejudice her extended family and community feels for blacks gets in the way and things get messy. As it always is with race, there are misunderstandings, assumptions and fears that cause rifts. Meena’s father is reminded of his own close-mindedness – that Indians in Africa wouldn’t allow their children to marry blacks. Demetrius and his circle must confront their own racist thinking.
Everyone in this film has their own wounds and stones of racism to deal with. No one is immune. No one gets off the hook. We’re all complicit. We all have something to learn from each other. It’s what we do with race that matters.
The theme of being strangers in homelands runs rife through the film. Just as African-Americans in Mississippi were enslaved and disenfranchised and often cut off from their African heritage, Indian exiles like Meena’s family are strangers wherever they go and distant from their own ancestral homeland of India.
Meena finally asserts her independence and her father finally gets his hearing. His bittersweet return to Uganda fills him with regret and longing, ironically enough, for America, which he realizes has indeed become his new home. The simple, sublime ending finds Jay in a street market where residents of the new Uganda revel in music and dance that are a mix of African and Western influences. As he watches the joy of a people no longer living in oppression, a black infant held by a man touches his face and Jay ends up holding the boy close to him, feeling the warmth and tenderness of unconditional love and trust.
There’s a great montage sequence near the end where the diverse currents of India, the American Deep South and Africa converge in images that some hot harmonica blues cover. By the end, the movie seems to tell us that home is a matter of the heart and identity is a state of mind and none of it need keep us apart if we don’t let it.
I saw the film when it first came out and though it spoke to me I was still a decade away from being in my first interracial relationship. I was already very curious about the possibilities of such a relationship and I was also acutely attuned to racial stereotypes and prejudices because of where and how I grew up. Seeing the film again today, as a 15 year veteran of mixed race couplings and a 21 year veteran of writing about race, it has even more resonance than before. And having visited Uganda in 2015 I now have a whole new personal connection to the film because of having been to that place so integral to the story.
This was the second movie by Nair I saw. The first, “Salaam Bombay,” was a hit on the festival circuit and that’s where I saw it – an outdoor screening at the Telluride Film Festival. Years later I saw another of her features, “Monsoon Wedding.” I still need to catch up with two of her most acclaimed later films, “The Perez Family” and “The Namesake.”
Watch the “Mississippi Masala” trailer at: