By Scott Ross
The Doors (1991)
Oliver Stone’s examination of Jim Morrison, co-written with J. Randal Johnson, has been harshly criticized, not least by members of The Doors, for distorting him and for emphasizing his pretension and his self-destructive behavior. But when a rock star, and a young man of 27, dies suddenly I submit that we may at least wonder whether drugs and alcohol may have played a role. On the other hand, the Morrison depicted in The Doors is so repellent and narcissistic it’s difficult to know how he could have possessed the charisma, and the creativity, to become a cultural icon. This is not to say that Val Kilmer is charmless in the role — indeed, he is exceptionally compelling — merely that the obnoxious qualities Morrison displays here are so prominent they cancel out his attributes.
The movie holds fascination despite these cavils. No one’s pictures look the way Stone’s do, or are put together remotely as he assembles them. The Doors has an appropriately trippy quality, and not only in the drug sequences. Stone emphasizes Morrison’s death obsessions literally, to the point of having both the spirit of an elderly Native shaman (Floyd Red Crow Westerman) and Richard Rutowski as Death stalking Kilmer at periodic points, such as when Rutowski dances more than suggestively behind Morrison during an orgiastic concert appearance; Stone said he wanted to convey the image of Death “fucking him in the ass,” which is curious considering how the picture shies away from any suggestion of Morrison’s alleged bisexuality — a claim his bandmates also, of course, vociferously deny.
But then, as everyone surely knows by now, rock music, unlike every other performing category on earth, is composed wholly and entirely of heterosexuals.
Alexander: The Ultimate Cut (2004 / 2013)
I missed Oliver Stone’s epic study of Alexander the Great when it was released in 2004, but I certainly remember the rank homophobia that attended it, from audiences, critics and entertainment reporters. The sexuality of Alexander the Great has been a matter of controversy for centuries, but one would like to have believed that by the beginning of the 21st, some reasonableness on the subject might obtain. Instead the movie was derided, with schoolboy snickers, as Alexander the Gay. Even if one ignores his intense relationship with Hephaistion, or chooses to assume that he was chaste with his young eunuch courtier Bagoas, that Alexander married late, and left no heir, is surely indicative of something.
My own readings on Alexander have been limited to Mary Renault’s glorious fictions, particularly her splendid The Persian Boy, told from the perspective of Bagoas. Stone and his co-scenarists, Christopher Kyle and Laeta Kalogridis, based their screenplay largely on the historian Robin Lane Fox’s book on Alexander, but Renault was an inspiration as well, largely I would assume via Fire from Heaven, her novel of his formative years. (A third, Funeral Games, describes the events immediately following his death, likely by murder.) The scenarists frame their narrative around the reminiscences of the aged Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins), and limn the forces that shaped Alexander, from early childhood to the end. Of necessity, Stone and his co-authors omit much, including the burning of Persepolis, the particulars of which are still uncertain. And, rather surprisingly for Stone, there is no voice in the picture, however small, critical of Alexander for his voracious need of conquest. Rather, the filmmaker is besotted with the warrior king’s creative attempts to unify the vanquished and respect their cultures. That is not to say that this is not in itself admirable — and unusual, in any age. Merely that, whatever his virtues, Alexander was an insatiable imperialist, taking by force land that did not belong to him and, however benignly, enslaving the people who lived on it.
That said, the picture is superbly mounted, with the sort of breathtaking sweep only a master could achieve, and a cast of fascinating characters, chief among them of course Colin Farrell’s at once fierce yet essentially gentle Alexander. In his dyed-blond beauty, he is, appropriately both to the subject and to Stone’s conception, a deeply romantic figure. (There is, indeed, a rather gratuitous, if admittedly attractive, shot of him, naked and filmed from behind as he rises from a bed, that fully reveals not merely Farrell’s shapely backside but his genitalia and which would not be out of place in a pornographic video.) Val Kilmer is a likewise full-bodied Philip, lusty to a fault — his rape of an underling leads directly to his assassination — and, despite his crudeness and bluster, an essential guide to his son. Christopher Plummer has a nice scene as Aristotle; Jared Leto is a fine Hephaistion, wearing his love for Alexander both lightly and with palpable hurt at no longer sharing his erstwhile adolescent lover’s bed; and Francisco Bosch makes a lovely Bagoas, although obviously older than his historical precedent. The movie’s finest performance, however, is that of Angela Jolie as Alexander’s mother Olympias. Passionate and scheming, and as ruthless as her husband, Jolie’s Olympias makes abundantly clear why Alexander kept her at arm’s length. Rosario Dawson makes a memorable Roxane, animalistic and raging with jealousy. When naked on her wedding night, however, her bared breasts are revealed as pendulous and unappealing, although I am well aware than many heterosexual men consider them “hot.” That sex-scene contrasts strikingly with the one, later, between Alexander and Bagoas; where with Roxane he is aggressive, indeed even brutal, matching her bestial nature, with Bagoas he is tender and loving. One suspects that, while making love to another young man is natural, he must stir himself artificially to have sexual relations a woman… and that he understands his bride all too well.
Stone’s theatrical edit ran 175 minutes; a subsequent “Director’s Cut” for DVD was 167; the home video labeled “The Final Unrated Cut” ran 214; and Stone’s 2013 “Ultimate Cut” 206. In this edition the filmmaker took out much of what he had placed in the third version, feeling he had added in too much. At any length, this is a picture that isn’t going to satisfy many: The Leonard Maltin movie guide describes it as the first of Stone’s movies that can be called “boring.” Taste is a personal matter, of course — de gustibus non est disputandum, and all that jazz — but the sort of mind that could find Stone’s lavish, violent, engrossing examination of Alexander and his world “boring” is not one with which I would care to spend much time.
The Stunt Man (1979)
The virtues, and the weaknesses, of this one-off remain intact after four decades. What still works in Richard Rush’s adaptation of the Paul Brodeur novel (on which Rush shares screenplay credit with Laurence B. Marcus) are the carnival fun-house milieu, the mood of comic desperation, the freewheeling energy, the vivid characterizations and the acting — especially in the peerless performance of Peter O’Toole as the flamboyant director of the film-within-a-film, hovering omnisciently in his special crane and dispensing bumptiousness and aperçus with equal aplomb. Rush builds up the atmosphere of Wonderland uncertainty so beautifully that by the climax we’re fully persuaded things could go any number of ways.
What bothers me about the picture now are the things that bugged me in 1979. First is the performance of Steve Railsback as the fugitive pressed into assuming the mantle of the title figure. At the time, having seen Railsback’s intense, chilling turn as Charles Manson in the television Helter Skelter, I thought my dis-ease with him here was residual. I’ve watched The Stunt Man numerous times since then, and am forced to conclude it’s not my prejudice that’s to blame, but Railsback — and Rush as the screenwriter and director. That he’s distrustful, even hostile, is understandable; that he exhibits a charmless, snarling arrogance and a seething, hyper-masculine proprietary claim on Barbara Hershey’s affections stamp him as someone to be avoided, not embraced. Yet everyone seems to love him. Why?
Second is the enforced anti-war metaphor, which felt misplaced during the period just before Reagan. (Not that there is ever a lack of war in the world, or of covert and hostile American actions, but Vietnam was a fading memory by the time Rush finally got the picture made.) Brodeur’s novel, published in 1971, concerns a young conscript who escapes from the bus taking him to basic training, and has an anti-Vietnam atmosphere baked into the situation. And in that book, the movie the young hero stumbles into is an avant-garde affair, largely improvised, not a big-budget war picture seeking relevance.
Third, the stunts themselves feel like cheats. As surely everyone remotely interested in movies knows by now, and knew then, filmmaking is a laborious (and often boring) process involving many set-ups, and rehearsals for the big set-pieces and stunts. Here, Railsback is repeatedly thrown into a continuous series of elaborate bits, and the on-screen cameras follow him from the beginning of each to the end, with no breaks. If this was meant by Rush to heighten the unreality of O’Toole’s set, it’s a miscalculation; all I am aware of when I watch these sequences is how impossible those big scenes would be to capture on a single pass.
Movie aficionados will recognize the Hotel Coronado setting as the place Billy Wilder shot much of Some Like it Hot.
Animal Crackers (1930)
This was my first Marx Brothers movie, seen at a late-show screening when I was 15. That event took place a couple of years after Steve Stolier was instrumental in getting Universal to strike a new print and release it to theatres, where it proved surprisingly popular. Or perhaps not so surprisingly; the 1960s vogue among college students both for old movies and for their anti-hero stars (Bogart, Cagney, Mae West, W.C. Fields, the Marxes) was still with us in 1974, and the night I saw the picture, in tandem with my mother — whom I blessed then, and still do, for taking me to a movie at 11.30 on a Saturday night in summer and not complaining about it — the place was nearly full, the big audience roaring at Groucho’s 45-year old puns and topical jokes. My love for the Marxes, whom I had previously encountered only in print, photos and old recordings, increased a hundred-fold that night. And Mom had a good time, too.
I discovered only comparatively recently that Paramount truncated several scenes and trimmed some mildly risqué dialogue from this “Pre-Code” comedy for a late-‘30s reissue of the movie, so the inclusion of a clean, un-censored copy on The Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection Blu-ray boxed set is particularly welcome. If you know the picture already you won’t see reinstated entire scenes you don’t recall, but the mild shock of hearing Groucho engage in some additional, suggestive repartee in his “Jameson, take a letter” sequence with Zeppo, or realizing that even the “Hooray for Captain Spaulding” opening number was slightly expurgated, will simply add to your pleasure at seeing this lively, joyous enterprise again. Especially since, even more than the somewhat deadly 1929 movie of The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers gives a prime example of just how spontaneous and original Mrs. Marx’s boys must have been on the stage.
The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
Pet peeve, which over the years has become even petter, or peevier: People who use the phrase “Manchurian Candidate” and think they’re referring to an assassin. Raymond Shaw, the hapless marksman brainwashed to commit a crime once considered “unthinkable,” is not the eponymous figure of Richard Condon’s sharp, strange novel, written in the late 1950s but, science-fiction like, projected as the narrative of a future event; the “Manchurian Candidate” is in fact his hated stepfather, the at once bibulous, doltish and McCarthyesque Senator John Iselin. Pauline Kael thought the book “fool-proof” for adaptation, and so slighted George Axelrod’s exceptional screenplay: While he retains much of Condon’s slightly off-center dialogue, Axelrod’s changes are felicitous, and beyond mere streamlining. They are also the very things auteurists go into rapture over, presuming that it simply must have been the movie’s director, John Frankenheimer, who devised the dizzying, disorienting approach to the flashback sequences in Manchuria. That these are beautifully shot and edited is undeniable, but the concept was entirely Axelrod’s. It’s also axiomatic among the ignoratti that Frank Sinatra, one of the movie’s producers, kept the picture out of circulation following a single television airing in the mid-1970s (where I first encountered it) out of deference to the memory of Jack Kennedy. Not at all. He merely wanted more money than he was being offered.
The moment late in the movie in which Shaw’s manipulative mother (Angela Lansbury) plants a deep kiss on his lips was shocking in 1962, but Condon goes even further, both with the character’s hellish personality and with her incestuous impulses; her first lover was her father, and she does far more than merely kiss Raymond. Lansbury was universally admired for her performance, and she should be. So, for that matter, should Sinatra: As Marco, the viewer’s surrogate, he hits every note with precisely the correct emotional weight. Fortunately, Axelrod removed the ugliest aspect of the character — his (to me, truly brainwashed) determination to save the Medal of Honor from embarrassment, up to and including re-programming Raymond to kill the Iselins and then himself. Axelrod has more respect, for both Raymond and Marco.
The rich supporting cast includes Janet Leigh in a very strange role (no less strange in the novel) whose meaning is open to interpretation; James Gregory as that consummate dope Johnny Iselin; Khigh Dhiegh as the chief Chinese doctor, whose frequent laughter and ready smile are the very opposite of sinister, which somehow makes them even more appalling; and the always splendid John McGiver as a representative of that now thoroughly dead specimen, the liberal Republican. David Amram’s effective score includes one of the most striking main title themes ever heard in an American movie.
Winter Kills (1979)
Another Condon adaptation, but nowhere near as successful as The Manchurian Candidate, largely because the writer and director, William Richert, diverges so often from his source. The Condon novel is, like its predecessor, both steeped in American political realities and history, and wildly, almost grotesquely, satirical. It’s a market Condon had cornered, and the wise filmmaker follows his lead. Richert deviates in crucial ways, and in so doing loses much of the demented logic of the book involving a Kennedyesque family, an assassinated president, a deep conspiracy involving intelligence and the Mafia, the American surveillance state and the family’s young scion (Jeff Bridges) suddenly hauled into the middle of it.
Not all of Richert’s alterations are deleterious, however, particularly his use of a woman on a bicycle as the herald of atrocity and his re-imagining of the communications maven played in the picture by Anthony Perkins. Indeed, when I first saw the picture nearly 40 years ago, it was a single throwaway line of Perkins’ — one with no antecedent in Condon — and the way it was delivered, and filmed, that stuck with me.* He also gets a climactic moment with Jeff Bridges that encapsulates the movie’s odd, almost off-hand, approach to black comedy. But what Condon’s fictions really need for effective transmigration to the screen are not wholesale re-writers but creative editors. The fun of his books lies as much in peeling back their layers of deceit and deception as in their peerless dialogue; pull too many pins out of Condon’s puzzles, their entire edifices collapse and you’re left scrambling to pick up the pieces and rebuild without a blueprint. Thus we get Sterling Hayden as a nutso general who is what General Jack D. Ripper might have become if the world hadn’t ended in Dr. Strangelove and Dorothy Malone as Bridges’ idiotic mother, a character long dead in the novel and wholly unnecessary. Worse, Richert turns the Bridges character’s one real ally inexplicably against him at the end — that, or his final scene is so confusingly shot and edited I misunderstood what was happening. Possibly both.
The casting is largely a help, although Toshiro Mifune is wasted in a nothing role, and there isn’t nearly enough of Richard Boone, or of Eli Wallach as a Jack Ruby stand-in. Belinda Bauer is appropriately unfathomable as Bridges’ sometime lover and Elizabeth Taylor puts in a brief but juicy cameo, but John Huston as “Pa” Kegan and Jeff Bridges as his diffident son are utterly perfect. Most of Pa’s lines in the novel sounded as if they were written for Huston’s curious, half-whimsical/half-sinister drawl, and the image of him at the end, clinging to a gargantuan American flag, is both appalling and funny. Bridges meanwhile is ideally cast as the audience surrogate, a young iconoclast who didn’t know his late brother all that well, is equally fascinated and repulsed by his infinitely wealthy father, and trying vainly to go his own way. With his big, open, handsome face and his ability to express both worldliness and shocked naïveté, no one of his age and weight in the ‘70s could play soiled innocence quite as well as Bridges.
American Graffiti (1973)
Universal Pictures had so little love for this extremely low-budget George Lucas project the studio nearly blew what eventually became a financial behemoth (13th on the list of top-grossing American movies as late as 1977) and a cultural touchstone of the decade. And although it actually takes place in the 1960s — the poster tagline famously read, “Where Were You in ‘62” — this picture, its wall-to-wall soundtrack of period oldies, the concurrent Broadway musical Grease and the subsequent unofficial (and infinitely more conventional) Graffiti television spinoff Happy Days led to a nostalgia craze for all things 1950s. Not everyone was so happy about those days, however. Progressives such as the film historian and critic Marjorie Rosen who lived through the ‘50s recalled the era as a time of stultifying conformity, reactionary politics and bullies wearing D.A.’s and motorcycle jackets. Yet even Rosen’s contemporaries among the original reviewers confused Lucas’ genuinely innovative, and rather despairing, look at the time of his youth as just a funny, nostalgic exercise. You mean the way nearly every teenager in Modesto, California is desperate to get out of it and the rest waste their time endlessly cruising the streets, waiting for something to happen and encountering hoods and speed-demons hoping to get someone else to risk his life in a race just to feel halfway alive? Some fun!
Although Ron Howard had been famous from childhood, the rest of the cast was pretty much unkown, and included a somewhat porky Richard Dreyfuss as the Lucas surrogate; a relaxed and likeable Paul Le Mat as a laid-back mechanic/hot-rodder who’s like the legendary gunslinger in a hoary Western, sighing as he’s challenged once again by some punk with a souped-up engine; Charles Martin Smith as the perennial loser; Cindy Williams as Howard’s girlfriend; Candy Clark as a sweet-natured good-time girl; the young Mackenzie Phillips as a misfit “tween”; Bo Hopkins as a street-thug; as well as Kathleen Quinlan, Joe Spano and Harrison Ford, some of whose scenes, trimmed at Universal’s demand, were restored by Lucas in 1978, as Le Mat’s latest challenger. Wolfman Jack also shows up, as himself. (Well, who else would he be?)
Lucas was responsible for the picture’s self-contained, almost European structure (one night in late summer, from dusk to dawn) and shot it guerilla-style, for a little over three-quarters of a million dollars. Although Ron Eveslage and Jan D’Alquen are credited with the sharp cinematography, Haskell Wexler received a consulting credit and likely deserved the lion’s share of the praise for how beautifully composed and lighted the widescreen images, filmed largely at night, really are. The ensemble construction of the screenplay — Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck filled it out, and added humor, never Lucas’ forte — is almost Chekhovian, and when the picture ends you feel you’ve spent the night observing these young people and wondering where each will be next year at the same time. If that isn’t classic filmmaking, it’s certainly something you don’t see every day in America. 46 years later, you barely see it at all.
Marathon Man (1976)
The French Connection (1971)
Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)
Am I the only one who suspects the only way the Disney Star Wars series can survive is if its creators move past their predecessors? Fortunately, through plotting and attrition, that necessary goal is closer: J.J. Abrams, belatedly fulfilled Harrison Ford’s 1983 wish, killing off Han Solo in his initial movie; Rian Johnson sent Luke Skywalker to his reward here (though one strongly suspects Abrams will use his spirit, a la Alec Guinness, in his upcoming The Rise of Skywalker); and, sadly for those who loved or admired her, Carrie Fisher’s addictions took her out of the picture permanently after she completed her scenes in this, the second installment of the current trilogy. Will any of this spur Abrams’ and Johnson’s successors in future Star Wars projects to abandon the (real or surrogate) fathers-and-sons through-lines of nearly every episode in the franchise so far? Surely there is more than one plot-line in that galaxy!
This observation will probably earn me extreme opprobrium, but I make it without rancor or cruelty: Fisher’s death at least spares us during the forthcoming final third the Hillary Clintonesque conception of Leia by Abrams and Johnson, and which presumably inspired Clinton’s deranged, transductive and Trump-maddened acolytes to begin calling themselves “The Resistance.” Fisher’s delivery in these pictures was so slurred one couldn’t help wondering whether, like her presumed inspiration, Leia’d been off somewhere in the intergalactic woods drinking chardonnay.
The truly hopeful signs of this series have been the development of their central characters: Rey, embodied by the extraordinary Daisy Ridley; John Boyega’s complicated Finn; Kelly Marie Tran’s endearing Rose Tico; and, to a lesser extent, Oscar Isaac’s hotshot pilot Poe Dameron, who has had less character development. But Adam Driver, as interesting as he is capable of being, was an odd choice to portray the offspring of Han and Leia, as he looks like neither Fisher nor Ford. Worse, he embodies the inability of the filmmakers to abandon the narrative yokes of the last 40 years of Star Wars movies. Still, he’s just mercurial, and unbalanced, enough to be somewhat unpredictable.
Heaven Can Wait (1978)
There are few pleasures quite like discovering that a movie you loved in your youth is not only in no way dated but is every bit as delightful as you remembered. Warren Beatty’s directorial debut (he shared the job with Buck Henry) remains impressive: A gentle, quirky comic fantasy, perfectly cast and, within its fantastic framework, utterly logical. Beatty and the great Elaine May based their screenplay on the 1941 Robert Montgomery comedy Here Comes Mr. Jordan, itself taken from a play by Harry Segall called Heaven Can Wait… later the title of a 1943 Ernst Lubitsch/Samson Raphaelson collaboration starring Don Ameche, itself a life-after-death fantasy.
The picture concerns a rising professional quarterback called Joe Pendleton (Beatty, looking almost impossibly trim and desirable) who, taken too soon by a presumptuous angel (Henry) is sent back to earth in the body of a rapacious industrialist lately murdered by his wife (Dyan Cannon) and secretary (Charles Grodin). Joe’s determination to lead his old team in the upcoming Super Bowl drives the plot, which aside from the hilariously homicidal lovers includes Joe’s accommodating guardian angel Mr. Jordan (James Mason), a passionate and outraged British environmentalist (Julie Christie), Joe’s befuddled former trainer (Jack Warden) and three sublimely unflappable servants (Joseph Maher, Hamilton Camp and Arthur Malet.) It’s among the most agreeable comedies of its era, wonderfully light on its feet — both emotionally plangent and dry as vermouth.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)
*”Don’t panic; panic is counter-productive.” Doesn’t sound like much, does it? Context is everything.
Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross