The Professionals (1966)

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The great Robert Ryan and the much-missed Lee Marvin in “The Professionals.” They would be reunited the following year, briefly, in “The Dirty Dozen,” and seven years later in Ryan’s final film, the superb American Film Theare’s adaptation of O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh.”

By Scott Ross

Richard Brooks was a problematic figure. As writer and director, he was, in the Hollywood of his early period, part of a unique caste. There had never been many double-threat filmmakers; of the five major scenarist/directors around when Brooks moved to the director’s chair (Charles Chaplin, Billy Wilder, Preston Sturges, Orson Welles, John Huston) Sturges had burned out, Chaplin was not so much a writer—The Great Dictator is proof enough of that—as he was an ad lib imaginer, Welles was living and working in Europe, and Wilder always worked with a collaborator. (And no one at that time considered Samuel Fuller a major anything.)

When Brooks tackled hard-hitting, usually urban, subjects he was very good indeed: CrisisDeadline—USA, The Blackboard Jungle. When he ventured into adapting literature, whether novels or plays, he often floundered. Orson Welles once said Brooks should have been shot for the way he mangled Lord Jim, and his Tennessee Williams adaptations (Cat on a Hot Tin RoofSweet Bird of Youth) are wonderfully acted, often beautifully observed, but impossibly hobbled by the prevailing censorship. Elmer Gantry is effective but overlong and bloated, and Brooks’ daring in taking on American religious huckerstering was blunted by nervous studio interference. He fared better with In Cold Blood, although even he shied away from some of its implications, notably the (homo)sexual, and Looking for Mr. Goodbar, while memorable (especially in its shockingly terrifying finale) is a nightmare that appears to equate sexual liberty with seediness and violent death.

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Brooks had two terrific Westerns in him, however; the rousing, and deeply moving, Bite the Bullet (1975) and this one, a rip-roaring adventure out of a very likable Frank O’Rourke novel (A Mule for the Marquesa) that is expansive in the best sense, and carries with it the same humanist impulse that made Bite the Bullet so intensely memorable.

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Richard Brooks and Claudia Cardinale on the set.

Conrad Hall’s sumptuous Western cinematography must have looked incredible on a big screen. And of course, the cast is first-rate: The always interesting Lee Marvin, a very genial Burt Lancaster, the vastly underrated Robert Ryan, and the stalwart Woody Strode as the eponymous adventurers; Jack Palance as a surprisingly sympathtic kidnapper; the luminous Claudia Cardinale as the ambiguous object of the quest; and Ralph Bellamy as the unsavory source of it all.

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The Professionals shares with Bite the Bullet the rigorously unsentimental compassion Brooks finds for all his characters. He doesn’t play the black hat/white hat game. Or, even when you think he does, he pulls a switch on you and allows even the most seemingly malign of characters his or her individual humanity. (Well, everyone but Bellamy, and he’s so avariciously cynical he’s beyond redemption.) That was rare in American movies when Richard Brooks was active, and is by far rarer now.

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Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

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The Aviator (2004)

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By Scott Ross

At first glance, Leonard Di Caprio seemed an odd choice to portray Howard Hughes, just as Cate Blanchett was far from what one expected of Katharine Hepburn. This had nothing to do with their respective talents; Di Caprio gave one of the finest performances ever captured on film as Johnny Depp’s retarded younger brother Arnie in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? and has built on that promise steadily through the years, while Blanchett’s gifts are obvious to anyone who experiences her work. But she has nothing like the classic beauty of the young Hepburn, and Di Caprio, with his round face and Cagneyesque features and pleasant tenor, was much less imaginable as Hughes than, say, Warren Beatty, who has hoped to make a film about this great American eccentric for decades. Or was, anyway;: The Beatty of the Reds era could have pulled it off; the Beatty of today would be believable more as the older, demented Hughes than as the dashing aviation pioneer and renegade movie mogul with his movie-idol looks and youthful panache.

Two minutes into Di Caprio’s performance in The Aviator, however, and all doubts were dismissed. Even the face seemed to alter over the movie’s running time; by the end, he was Hughes, mustache, cracked baritone voice and all. (By contrast, Blanchett never quite overcomes her somewhat lumpy, un-formed features, although her performance is superb.)

The selling points, for me, then, were not the stars but the movie’s director and screenwriter. The playwright John Logan has a history both of taking on well-known historical subjects (Leopold and Loeb and Mark Rothko before The Aviator, Alice Liddell and Sue Mengers since) and for splendid dialogue, characterization and approach. Scorsese, long a personal favorite, has more than sufficient cause, in spite of his varying box-office, to be the finest American filmmaker, certainly of his generation if not of any generation. It seemed like a dream combo.

And so it was. In an epoch in which success in Hollywood is defined more by mass popularity with sub-literate audiences overseas than with the craft of making smart, engaging movies about recognizably human beings, Scorsese and Logan created that rarest of rarities, an intelligent epic—to my mind the most artistically successful, and satisfying since Reds.

The look of The Aviator is remarkable; in the first third of the movie, Scorsese emulated the look of two-strip Technicolor (three-strip in the following third) giving the images a vibrancy and color that make a serious movie surprisingly light, airy and beautiful to watch. The arc of the narrative takes in Hughes’ obsessive, and seemingly capricious, follies (The Outlaw, the H-4 Hercules, sneeringly referred to as “the Spruce Goose”) and his increasingly, if slowly arrived at, mental and emotional instability. The scenarist first merely hints at the now-fabled “crazy old rich man” to come, then, in a long and agonizing sequence following Hughes’ near-fatal crash, makes it clear that whatever lucidity Hughes re-establishes is momentary only. Di Caprio heart-breakingly suggests the disorientation of those early brushes with dementia, his eyes expressing mounting panic and confusion at what his mouth is saying (“The way of the future… the way of the future…”) and it’s chilling and deeply moving at once.

After several decades of unfettered violence and gore at the movies, I am seldom shocked by what I see on an American screen. Disgusted, certainly, often repulsed and upset, at the assault on my senses. But genuine shock at the movies is rare, and in The Aviator, Scorsese and Logan pull it off not once, but twice. I can vividly remember my gasp, near the beginning, when, while Di Caprio’s Howard is shooting aerial footage for Hell’s Angels, another biplane’s propellers smack into his hand-held camera. Hughes merely reaches for another. It’s a moment of genuine terror immediately alleviated by logical (and relieved) audience laughter.

The second moment of shock comes at mid-point, during the crash of Hughes’ experimental FX-11: The stunning shot of that huge wing bisecting the upper story wall of a Beverly Hills mansion. It was so unexpected (or was, to this viewer, who knew little about Hughes’ history as a pilot) that I heard myself gasp a second time. In neither sequence was the shock I felt so viscerally related to violence in the usual sense of that word, but to the sudden up-ending of the immediate surroundings, and its effect on a human being.

If I felt any disappointment with The Aviator, it was at the movie’s refusal to examine Hughes’ alleged bisexuality. For all I know Logan may have included that element of Howard’s persona in his original script, but a major, expensive ($110 million) Hollywood movie, directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Leonardo Di Caprio, was hardly going in that direction. One can imagine the usual Bonnie and Clyde excuses being given and arguments offered (“We’re telling a story about a man so obsessive and weird, we can’t risk alienating the audience with that too!”)

That, even in 2004, perception still trumps complete honesty, in this single area at least, is itself something of a shock.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

Barbra Streisand in “Yentl”

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By Scott Ross

Barbra Streisand, examining the china on Amy Irving’s table (“A matched set/From France, yet”) in her own adaptation of I.B. Singer’s “Yentl, the Yeshiva Boy.” A beautiful, visually rich evocation of early 20th century Polish-Jewish life, Yentl also boasted a splendid central performance by its writer-director. If a male actor had made this impressive a directorial debut, he would have been showered with praise and given an Oscar. Streisand got neither.

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Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

Ellen Greene in “Little Shop of Horrors”

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By Scott Ross

Ellen Greene as Audrey, the hapless salesgirl heroine of Little Shop of Horrors. As fulsome vocally as she was inspired comedically, hers is a musical movie performance to stand with the classics of the genre. Greene’s impassioned release on the “Suddenly Seymour” duet with Rick Moranis sends chills racing up my spine every time I think of it.

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Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

Kathy Bates and Judy Parfitt in “Dolores Claiborne”

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By Scott Ross

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The great Kathy Bates as Dolores Claiborne.

Although the movie is nowhere near as good as Stephen King’s literary thriller — that the filmmakers did not trust the material is evident in their making Dolores’ daughter, who barely appears in the novel, a central character  — their movie contains two superb performances. As the battered wife of an unrepentant drunk, Bates gave us the flip-side of King’s Annie Wilkes from Misery, as warm and conflicted as Annie was coldly psychotic.

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Judy Parfitt as Dolores’ wealthy employer, Vera Donovan. The central mystery of the story — did Dolores murder the bed-ridden, seemingly unreconstructed rich-bitch Vera, or merely help her only friend end her suffering? — is also central to the role, and the British Parfitt was stunningly good. Her iconic line, “Sometimes being a bitch is all a woman’s got to hold on to,” ultimately proves heartbreaking in context.

 

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

Barbara Hershey in “The Stunt Man” and “Tin Men”

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By Scott Ross

Barbara Hershey (formerly Seagull) as Nina in The Stunt Man. Richard Rush, who directed and co-wrote the movie, called her “the dream girl.” She certainly was… even if her most pivotal scene ended up on the cutting-room floor.

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Hershey in Barry Levinson’s brilliant comic drama Tin Men. As the wife who discovers she’s been used as the ultimate prize in an escalating competition between her car dealer husband and a disgruntled aluminum siding salesman. This is from the lovely scene in the Baltimore rain, where she confronts Richard Dreyfuss with the truth and he, unable to say the words, “I love you” can only stammer, “I wanna… I wanna be with you.” Hershey is stunningly good.

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Copyright 2014 by Scott Ross