MVP of the Month: What Do These Four Movies Have in Common?
Posted on October 15, 2018 at 8:00 am
Common is a successful musician and won an Oscar for the song he co-wrote with John Legend for “Selma.” But we are seeing him more often on screen as an actor, most recently in four movies out this fall that could not be more different.
In The Hate U Give Common plays the uncle of Starr, the teenage girl who is the movie’s main character. In a key scene, he speaks to her honestly about the way even he sees black and white suspects differently.
Smallfoot is an animated story about a community of Yeti who believe, because their leader has told them, that humans are only a legend. Common plays that leader, known as the Stonekeeper. He is not exactly a traditional movie bad guy because he just wants what is best for his community. But in trying to keep them safe, he has kept them from the truth.
In “All About Nina,” Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays a talented but dysfunctional stand-up comic who wants to be on a “Saturday Night Live”-style sketch comedy television show. Common is the love interest who will challenge her to be more honest with him and with herself.
Common is a two-star admiral in “Hunter Killer,” a Gerard Butler action movie about an American submarine and Seal team rescue the Russian president from a coup attempt. The admiral is the voice of reason from US military headquarters.
He has more movies coming soon including the fact-based “St. Judy,” about an immigration lawyer, “The Kitchen,” a crime story with Tiffany Haddish, Melissa McCarthy, and Domhnall Gleeson, and “Eve,” from director Tate Taylor (“The Help,” “The Girl on the Train”). Whether it’s a comedy, drama, romance, or thriller, whether he’s a good guy or a bad guy, he brings a natural presence and humanity to all of his roles, and I look forward to whatever he does next.
Lady Gaga plays Ally, who becomes a star in what is the 4th or 5th version of this classic story, depending on whether you count “What Price Hollywood.” Lady Gaga herself becomes an instant movie star as already-star Bradley Cooper becomes an instant writing and directing and maybe even singing star in one of the year’s biggest releases.
Cooper said the moment that inspired the film was at a Metallica concert. “About seven years ago I was lucky enough to be backstage at a Metallica concert at Yankee Stadium. I had met Lars Ulrich, and I listened to Metallica when I was 14 years old. That’s why the character says, ‘Ride the lightning’ in Silver Linings Playbook. At the concert, I was behind the drum kit, and I could see the sweat on the back of Lars’ neck, and at the same time, I could see the scope of the audience in front of him. It was a beautiful proscenium, and that was the first moment where I thought, ‘Oh, I’ve never seen that on film, the subjective eye that could actually be epic and personal at the same time. And that was the beginning of the idea of how we were going to shoot all of the concert sequences that you just saw. It is all subjective. We never left the stage. But hopefully, you felt the scope of where they were.”
The concert scenes feel authentic because they are. Cooper filmed at real performance spaces, including the largest privately owned music festival in the world, Glastonbury, where they had just eight minutes to shoot before a performance by the star of the last version of A Star is Born, Kris Kristofferson.
Cooper said, “I had the luxury of having worked so often on camera and on stage, so I knew what I needed from a director as an actor in order to feel comfortable enough. As Al Pacino said, ‘We’re just trying to grab a few moments of authenticity.’ It’s important to create a space so that all the actors feel completely safe but also to know that it’s going to be hard. They’re going to have to go to places that scare them. They’re going to know that I’m right there with them. I’m not on the sidelines. It’s going to be okay to fail, but they have to risk. I have no desire for them to sit here and watch something that does not mean anything, that isn’t really personal to them and to me. Everybody wants to express the deepest part of themselves to another human being and feel safe about that. It’s very cathartic and healing.”
Fair warning. It was about ten seconds into this film when the first “Hello, darling” dissolved any critical distance I could muster, and by the time about five minutes later when we got to a “How ghastly,” as only Dame Maggie Smith can say it, I melted into a little puddle of pure happiness. So if seeing four of the greatest actresses in the world talk about their decades of experience and friendship is not for you, then ignore my gushing about how much I love them and how much I loved this film.
Dame Judi Dench, Dame Maggie Smith, Dame Joan Plowright, and Dame Eileen Atkins all came of age in the late 1950’s, beginning in theater and then movies and television. Director Roger Michell (“Notting Hill”) gives us a chance to eavesdrop on one of their get-togethers “to gossip, to remember, and to laugh.” They talk about acting, of course, but also about navigating show business and what they think of critics, and about husbands (everyone agrees that Dame Joan’s husband, Lord Oliver, was the most difficult), beauty, fear, competition, awards (we see each of them being Dame-d, by either Prince Charles or Queen Elizabeth II), Americans, Shakespeare, and aging, with the advice each of them would give their younger selves, though Dame Maggie (I would not dream of any other form of address, given the disdain they show for American clumsiness with titles) admits that her younger self would never have listened. And they do it all with such impeccable diction and classically trained technique in the exquisite timing of le mot plus juste.
In the early days, “you went to reps and you stayed in digs and things,” Dame Judi remembers. And if the landlady was unkind, “you nailed a kipper under the table.” Dame Joan Plowright talks about joining her first company, where another actor warned, “She can’t play queens, you know,” and the director replied, “I should think the last thing we want in a theater for contemporary writers is girls born to play queens.”
The Dames began acting as the “Kitchen Sink” era of postwar Britain was evolving into the swinging 60’s. There are some knowing looks and nostalgic smiles as they recall that era. There is a marvelous camaraderie and warm memories of working together that is unmarred by a continuing competition. Everyone remembers that Judi Dench was the first to be Dame-d. (When Dame Maggie got the word of her award, Dame Judi assured her that “It won’t change anything; you can still swear.) And the octogenarian Dame Maggie makes the kind of pointed comment that only the portrayer of the Dowager Duchess can master; her agent assures her that “We’ll look around for a nice little cameo that Judi does not have her paws on.”
Dame Eileen is less well known in the US, and I hope very much that this film and the marvelous archival clips will inspire American audiences to learn more about her. All of the Dames are exceptionally well represented with a remarkable range of clips, showing once again that one of the key differences between US and British actors is the British actors’ willingness to weigh in with equal enthusiasm to everything from classic dramas to avant garde to sitcoms. The glimpses of their work also provide a subtle but clear contrast between their delicious inability to take themselves seriously in real life and their obvious, visceral commitment to their performances, their characters, and the scripts and screenplays they bring to life.
None of them was willing to play Cleopatra (Shakespeare’s version), though all were asked repeatedly. Dame Judi challenged the director Peter Hall: “Do you really want a menopausal dwarf?” (But she did it.) Dame Maggie did it, but in Canada. But Cleopatra is a rare role that is the center of the play. Dame Joan describes “that rare exhilaration when you know you’re in charge.”
They talk about aging, and about fear, not of illness or death but, endearingly, enduringly, about the very thing they have devoted their lives to, acting. “Are first days still scary?” Michel asks, off camera. “All days,” Dame Maggie says immediately. But it is their relish for exactly that challenge that keeps them so vibrant. “Fear is petrol,” says Dame Judi. “It generates such an energy. If you can somehow handle it, it can be a help.”
As marvelous as they are playing other people, it is pure delight to see them as themselves.
Parents should know that the ladies use some frank and salty language and there are some sexual references.
Family discussion: What advice would you give to your younger self? Why didn’t they want to play Cleopatra?
If you like this, try: the films starring the Dames
We mourn the loss of the 20th century’s greatest American comedy writer, Neil Simon, and of Barbara Harris, the effervescent star of films like “Nashville,” “Freaky Friday” (the Jodie Foster version), and “A Thousand Clowns.”
Here Harris appears in one of Simon’s films, “Plaza Suite,” with Walter Matthau as a suburban mother meeting with her lecherous former boyfriend, a Hollywood producer, for the first time since they were teenagers.
May their memories be blessings. And may this sad news inspire us all to revisit their best work.
James Hong — From Groucho Marx and Clark Gable to the Eyeball Jar Guy in “Blade Runner”
Posted on August 22, 2018 at 8:00 am
James Hong is one of the few Asian actors who has been successful in Hollywood for decades, and the success of the all-Asian cast of “Crazy Rich Asians” has prompted a great story about him in Deadline.
He has worked on films with Clark Gable (Soldier of Fortune) and in TV with Jane Wyman in one of the only TV episode John Ford ever helmed (The Bamboo Cross) and many, many others, but it was Groucho Marx who gave Hong his start in the most unusual way. Marx had been alerted to a Chinese man out of Minnesota who was an impressionist. Marx booked Hong on his show You Bet Your Life, and Hong — doing spot on impressions of Peter Lorre, Jimmy Stewart, James Cagney and Groucho himself — was a huge hit with television audiences. So much so that Hong landed an agent — with Bessie Loo (the only agent for Asians at that time).
Hong battled racism in the industry and in the portrayals of Asian characters on screen, but too often had to settle for stereotypical parts.
He said the role of Mr. Ping in the Kung Fu Panda film franchise where he does voice over, “was a wonderful peak in my career” because even though it was animated, he was “sort of a leading character. I did the voice as a cross between a Jewish mother and a Chinese waiter.”
Asked what advice he would give to others coming up the ranks, he was adamant: “The young people have to fight and gain more ground. They have to continue to fight for better images and more roles. There are a few roles, but they are still not casting Asians in leading roles like businessmen,” he said, before adding with a laugh, “And I’m sure it will get better because China has all the money.”