Tom Hooper’s Adaptation of Cats Gets It All Wrong…Oh So Wrong

Judi Dench as Old Deuteronomy from Cats (Universal Pictures)

Tom Hooper’s 2019 adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Cats is bad. Mind-boggingly bad. The kind of bad that is hard to watch. Cats is not destined to be a cult classic. It doesn’t horseshoe from being so bad it becomes good. It doesn’t become camp (though it does try). It won’t be resurrected as a cult classic. It won’t be revisited as an underrated gem. It’s a bad film made with such good intentions that it feels churlish to criticize. So many critics slammed the film, citing its terrible special effects or bad performances as the main reason why the film doesn’t work. And those critics are correct – the rendering of the anthropomorphic cats is gross and disturbing – but the problem isn’t just Hooper’s interpretation of Cats, the problem is the source material. Though Lloyd Webber’s stage musical is a blockbuster, it’s a pretty shoddy show. The plot – if one could call it that – is nonsensical and tedious to follow and the music is repetitive and dull.

As the film opens, we become well acquainted with the film’s major problems immediately. The admittedly catchy score is dated – its sickly synths – introduces the lean score. The visuals feel off. It looks queasily real and animated, a confusing landscape that resembles a video game. As we see a faceless somebody fling a pillowcase into a jumbled alley, we see the true obstacle of the film: it’s the cats. I don’t know what Hooper thought when he allowed for the cats.

In the Broadway musical, the cast members were dressed in Lycra and tights, with tufts of fur and stylized makeup. They didn’t look like real cats, but that wasn’t the point. They looked like an 80s MTV-pop version of what dancing cats should look like: harlequinesque makeup, bushy wigs, fuzzy legwarmers. Costume designer John Napier allowed the costumes to be stylish and abstract with splashes of color and shapes that informed the characters. In Hooper’s version, the actors are CGI’d into anthropomorphic cats and it gets strange and confusing. The human faces look shoddily copy/pasted and because the actors engage in intricate dance sequences, they’re obviously bipedal, but then when they do walk on all fours, they’re on their hands and knees? They have human hands and feet. I mean, it all looks odd and ugly as if Cats is taking place on the Island of Dr Moreau. Also, the film tries to get clever by sizing the cats to scale, but then the CGI seems to get that wrong too because sometimes the cats seem too small. None of it is right.

Some of this could be saved if the performances are good, but unfortunately, the cast – made up of some pros like Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Jennifer Hudson, Rebel Wilson, Taylor Swift, James Corden, Idris Elba, and Jason Derulo, flounder mightily. Dench is laden down with furs and she seems to be heaving herself around; McKellen is odd and strange (and barely looks like a cat); Wilson and Corden are on hand for some (alleged) comic relief but neither comedian does well. The only decent note is Hudson, who as Grizabella, gets to sing the show’s big hit theme, “Memory” and does so beautifully. She tears into the maudlin pop ballad with a fiery passion that is at odds with how ridiculous she looks. The rest of the cast is made up of stage dancers and singers and the dance sequences are admittedly well done: Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography is good and the dancers, ingenue lead Francesca Hayward in particular, do solid work, despite looking so awful.

Upon its release, Cats bombed mightily. Critics savaged the film and audiences found it bewildering. I watched the film with some perverse curiosity. Could a movie be that bad? Yes it can. It’s a mystery as to how this movie got made and more crucially, how it got released in its current state. If the CGI was junked and the production went back to essentially filming a stage performance, it wouldn’t have been such a gigantic disaster; granted, the actors would still have to sing the terrible music but it would have lent the surreal, absurdist imagery some plausible suspension of belief.

Instead, we’re left with this shambolic mess that takes itself way to seriously to dip into ridiculous camp a la Rocky Horror Picture Show or The Room. Instead, it collapses underneath the weight of its far-reaching pretensions and shoddy, rushed work.

In Tribute to Cinematic Giant, Sidney Poitier

Sidney Poitier was an iconic cinematic legend and artistic giant. In a career which spanned over 60 years, Poitier found success in some of Hollywood’s most memorable films like Blackboard Jungle (1955), The Defiant Ones (1958), Porgy and Bess (1959), A Raisin in the Sun (1961), To Sir, with Love (1967), In the Heat of the Night (1967), Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), and winning an Oscar for his work in the 1963 film, Lilies of the Field. Poitier was a versatile actor who brought a regal majesty to his roles, imbuing a stylish dignity to the parts; but he also had a sly sense of humor which he was able to bring to his lighter work. In the 1960s, whilst cities across the USA were seeing protests, rebellions, and tumult, Poitier was enjoying his greatest success, becoming a major box office draw. Along with his career as an actor and director, Poitier used his celebrity to draw attention to important causes, the Civil Rights in particular. At the height of his fame, he was an outspoken advocate for racial equality and he was one of the few widely popular film stars of Hollywood during the 1960s.

The cover of Sidney Poitier’s memoir
Sidney Poitier: The Measure of a Man- A Memoir
(Harper San Francisco, 2000)

Though his screen persona and inherent elegance would sometimes limit him to roles that relied on his sleek looks and gravitas, he was able to transcend even the most idealized roles by giving them more depth, humanity, and tone than the scripts would have; Poitier was in an unenviable position: as being one of the few Black film superstars, he was saddled with a responsibility to be everything to everyone. It was unfair. White audiences didn’t want him to be a three-dimensional human being and Hollywood wanted him to be an emblem (and would treat him as a token at times), but Poitier overcame these constricts and created a filmography that is rich and varied.

Top 10 The Highlights of Sidney Poitier

Blackboard Jungle (1955) – an explosive and then-innovative film that looked to urban blight and racial tensions that arise in an inner-city high school in 1950s New York City. Much of the film’s legacy is wrapped in its unflinching look at the various struggles of city public schools; Blackboard Jungle is also known for its use of rock and roll on its soundtrack. As with most films that look to chronicle the various struggles that befall on the inner-city, Blackboard Jungle is rife with issues, namely a white savior narrative as well as exploitation of trauma. Poitier – in an early performance – plays a troubled teen who starts off as a rough antagonist to the film’s protagonist (Glenn Ford), before eventually growing and developing a truce and an allegiance. As with a lot of his roles, Poitier does deep, empathetic work.

Blackboard Jungle [DVD] [1955]
Blackboard Jungle
(dir. Richard Brooks) MGM, 1955

Edge of the City (1957) – an early part of Poitier’s career, Edge of the City is a moving drama that is at-once profound and, yet still has issues that date it. The film is an important of the construction of Poitier’s screen persona – particularly, the perception of his nobility. Edge of the City talks about race and friendship as well as violence and cruelty. The script – written by Robert Alan Arthur – makes Poitier’s character a combination of ideals and norms and is typical of the “issue films” of the 1950s. Director Martin Ritt, a veteran of FDR’s WPA, and an artist who was caught up in the Hollywood Red Scare, put together a film that ticked the boxes of white liberal popular cinematic art of the mid-century. Even though Edge of the City would have a hand in some of Poitier’s casting issues later on, he gives a complex performance, doing wonderful work.

Edge of the City
Edge of the City
(dir. Martin Ritt) MGM, 1957

Porgy and Bess (1959) – The tragic musical – composed by George and Ira Gershwin – was brought to the screen by Otto Preminger. The film is an important, if curious, entry in Poitier’s oeuvre, as it wasn’t initially successful and subsequently, it failed to find a home viewing audience as well (substandard copies of the film are available). The script – written by N. Richard Nash, based on the libretto by DuBose Heyward – has a troubled story that includes difficult topics, including rape, poverty, murder, and drug addiction. Though by 1959, the movie musical was about to enter a difficult period in the genre’s history, the stark tragedy of the opera made for a difficult subject for a Hollywood musical. Poitier gives an impassioned performance (despite being dubbed by Met opera star Robert McFerrin) and is matched with the luminous, yet tragic Dorothy Dandridge.

Porgy And Bess (1959) (Region 2)
Porgy and Bess
(dir. Otto Preminger)
Columbia Pictures, 1959

A Raisin in the Sun (1961) – Lorraine Hansberry’s landmark stage drama was made into this important film that featured a searing, explosive performance as the troubled and complex Walter Lee Younger. The play is a pointed look at housing discrimination, economic and racial prejudice, and the importance of human dignity. Hansberry’s work remains a seminal piece of art that shines a much-needed spotlight social conditions that affirm racial and economic inequities. Poitier’s performance is truly magnificent in this film and he does personable work with his costars, Ruby Dee (as his wife, Ruth) and a truly towering Claudia McNeil (as the Younger matriarch, Lena). A Raisin in the Sun poses questions about the choices people are forced to make when they are desperate and in difficult situations and Hansberry refuses to offer pat, easy answers.

A Raisin In The Sun [DVD] [1961] [2003]
A Raisin in the Sun
(dir. Daniel Petrie)
Columbia Pictures, 1961

Lilies of the Field (1963) – This film won Poitier the Oscar for Best Actor in 1963. The Ralph Nelson film – based on William Edmund Barrett’s novella – is a sentimental story about a young man, Homer Smith (Poitier) who finds himself working with a group of nuns, helping them to build a new chapel. A wary, complicated friendship develops, particularly with Homer and Mother Maria (Lilia Skala), who believes Homer has been sent by God to help. Poitier deserves the Oscar for his performance, which is warm, funny, and deeply humane. Unfortunately, after 60 years, it’s clear that the role is somewhat one-note and reinforces the idea of Black people being dropped on this earth to help and serve others, particularly whites. Homer breezes into the nuns’ lives and because his empathy (as well as pride) is manipulated by the strong-willed Mother Maria, he sticks around to help the group, and then, just as quickly, he disappears after being of use. Lilies of the Field is engaging, mainly because Poitier’s warmth and multi-layered performance.

LILIES OF THE FIELD
Lilies of the Field
(dir. Ralph Nelson) United Artists, 1963

A Patch of Blue (1965) – like a lot of Poitier’s films, A Patch of Blue is another ‘issue’ film that tackles a topic and does so with a lot drama (though maybe this film can tip a bit into melodrama). Like many of his other roles, Poitier’s Gordon Ralfe is a kind, upstanding individual tasked to help save someone: this time a young, blind woman who is an abuse victim, nearly pushed to prostitution by her monster of a mother. The actor brings an intelligence to the role and though Guy Green’s script packs a lot of bathos to the proceedings, Poitier doesn’t let his work get buried by the seemingly dramatic plot. But what makes A Patch of Blue is the sensitive way in which Green tells this story of interracial friendship, maybe love, and Poitier gives a beautiful performance.

A Patch of Blue by Warner Home Video by Guy Green
A Patch of Blue (dir. Guy Green) MGM, 1965

To Sir, with Love (1967) – One of the best high school movies ever, Poitier seems to have closed a loop of sorts, playing a student in a troubled American high school in Blackboard Jungle and in middle age, he plays a teacher at an East London school in To Sir, with Love. It’s not a perfect film – it does dip into sentimentality at times, and there are some predictable beats – but again, Poitier elevates the material with his graceful work. Because of Poitier’s popularity and star power, the film is considered a popular classic and a big hit, one of his most successful movies of his career.

To Sir, with Love
To Sir, with Love
(dir. James Clavell) Columbia, 1967

In the Heat of the Night (1967) – Norman Jewison’s atmospheric, tense, and taught drama that has political and social relevance still today, particularly when we look at the relationships between criminal justice, the police, and Black Americans. Poitier is Virgil Tibbs, a talented police officer who is racially profiled in Sparta, Mississippi, but agrees to stay in the town to help the local racist police chief (Rod Steiger in an Oscar-winning performance) solve a murder. Jewison captures a simmering, terrifying Mississippi in which Tibbs is tasked to do his work in a hostile environment, continuously reminded of the town’s antipathy for his presence. It’s a great film that doesn’t aim to show redemption or happy answers about race – instead, it’s a suspenseful thriller that works as a backdrop to social commentary about the corrosive effects of racism and bigotry.

In the Heat of the Night (The Criterion Collection)
In the Heat of the Night
(dir. Norman Jewison)
United Artists, 1967

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) – Director Stanley Kramer was known for his social critique films. For Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Kramer looked to interracial marriage (it’s important to note that during the film’s production, interracial marriage was illegal in 17 states). The film is a solid comedy that is notable for being the final pairing of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn (who won an Oscar for her work). Poitier is very good in this film – though to be honest, his role is somewhat thin. He was posited as the ideal man with little-to-no flaws, so Poitier has to work hard to make his character interesting and stand out – which he does with some charming aplomb. More so than any other performance of his career, this role relies almost exclusively on his star power and movie star charisma.

Guess Who's Coming To Dinner? [DVD]
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner
(dir. Stanley Kramer)
Columbia Pictures, 1967

For Love Ivy (1968) – Sidney Poitier put together this story and worked with Robert Alan Arthur, with whom he worked on Edge of the City for this romantic comedy that paired him with jazz virtuoso, Abbey Lincoln. The film was another popular hit for Poitier and it was a charming film, far lighter than most of much of his work during the 1960s. It showed that the actor as funny and very appealing; he’s a breath of fresh air.

For Love of Ivy [DVD] [US Import]
For Love of Ivy
(dir. Daniel Mann) Palomar Pictures

Clueless: Social Stratification and Hierarchy in Amy Heckerling’s Beverly Hills

Still from Clueless (Paramount Pictures, 1995) l to r: Elisa Donovan, Stacey Dash, Alicia Silverstone

In Amy Heckerling’s Clueless, social stratification and hierarchy define the stylized wilderness of the fictional Bronson Alcott High School. There’s an adopted caste system of social groups that move throughout the school, rarely overlapping with each other, and supporting the tiered world in which the film’s heroine, Cher Horowitz (Alicia Silverstone) rules from the top. Cher uses her popularity for her own betterment, but she also has flashes of noblesse oblige, understanding that her place of privilege also has its responsibilities. Though some unfamiliar with the film would dismiss Cher as an archetypal “dumb blonde,” it’s clear that though Cher may not be scholastically inclined, she’s a sharp and shrewd player in her world – a masterful manipulator of her circumstance, who has been able to flourish socially because of a combination of wit, guile, and dashing. The movie – based on Jane Austen’s comedy Emma – tells the story of social mobility and class warfare in the context of an affluent Beverly Hills high school.

Part of what makes the film so successful is Heckerling’s ability to write teenagers. Though 40 when she wrote the film, Clueless features sparkling dialogue that simultaneously lampoons and honours teenage lingo. The phrase “As if!” has entered the popular vernacular, and the film’s stylized take on high school life resonated with audiences in spite of the conspicuous wealth depicted in the film. The film easily transcends the familiar “teen comedy” or “high school comedy” trope. Cher ultimately emerges from this film as a flawed but enjoyable protagonist, as she proves to be a perfect guide to the world in which she’s perched near the top. The success of the film and its ingenious way of telling the story is due, in large part, to the talents of Heckerling, a veteran of teen comedies, and an auteur who has proven to be a formidable chronicler of teenaged life.

Amy Heckerling is celebrated for being one of the most consistent comedic directors in the 1980s and 1990s, helming mainstream comedies like the Look Who’s Talking franchise, National Lampoon’s European Vacation, and arguably her most important work (save for Clueless), 1982’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High, a film that could be seen as a precursor to Clueless. In Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Heckerling takes on Cameron Crowe’s script about the intertwining lives of high school teenagers. She gives audiences an almost Altman-esque look at the California high school, and as with she did with Silverstone in Clueless, she pulls an iconic, breakout, star-making performance from a then-rising star Sean Penn (Fast Times was only his second film) In the best of her work, Heckerling has an uncanny eye for telling funny, tart stories that manage to be clever and intellectual, and yet firmly mainstream. Clueless is ultimate Amy Heckerling film that combines the filmmaker’s intellectual vigor, commercial instincts, and satirical eye.

Clueless came out in the summer of 1995 in the midst of a minor trend of Jane Austen dramatizations. This Austen-boom, so to speak, saw big screen adaptations of Austen classics such as Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, Persuasion, and a more faithful adaptation of Emma. In Clueless, Heckerling takes the story of Emma: a rich young girl who meddles in the lives of others, and moves the story from 1815 England to 1995 Beverly Hills. Austen’s titular heroine is a spoiled woman whose life is choked with privilege. Due to her wealth, Emma doesn’t have to be married to earn wealth and security; and because her mother died, Emma assumed the role of head of her household. As a result, she’s bored and as a distraction, she turns to her community. Because she’s smart and beautiful, Emma is also very conceited and believes she can do no wrong, which inspires her to become a matchmaker, as well as, to engineer some social mobility. Hecklerling’s adaptation is pretty faithful, particularly, in how she brings Austen’s issues of class consciousness and highlights how timeless some of these issues are.

In Clueless, Emma is now Cher, though her concerns are largely the same. She lives in a giant Beverly Hills mansion, with a distracted father and must contend with the regular scolding of an older brother-figure. In her high school, Cher with her best friend Dionne (Stacey Dash), go through the hallways, leaders of their social pack. With her skill and acumen, Cher can manipulate those around her, including her teachers, who are susceptible to her charms. And similarly to when Emma found Harriet Smith, and worked on making her into a society lady, Cher finds her Harriet in Tai (the late Brittany Murphy), a genial outcast who “benefits” from Cher’s makeover. Though writers like Nore Ephron and Carrie Fisher have been likened to Austen – primarily for their ability to craft well-constructed comedies with biting wit – but Heckerling was able to capture Austen’s devastatingly sharp sense of humour and recast it in a 1990s setting. There are wonderful sight gags – the sight of cellphones plastered on people’s faces was hilarious back in 1995 – and the costumes (by Mona May) are cartoonishly over the top. Heckerling coats everything in a shiny, glossy, candy shell. But more importantly, Heckerling gives Clueless a strong narrator, who reports the various school cliques back to the audience, with an exhaustive breadth of knowledge and an unerring eye for detail. These different cliques rely on socio-economic status, gender, sexuality, cultural identity, and race. Though there’s nothing inherently better/worse about these different cliques, it’s clear that in Cher’s social circle, there’s strict guidance on when, why, and how members of various cliques interact.

In Austen’s Emma, the title character’s ultimate downfall comes when she realizes that true social mobility is impossible (at least in 1815 England) When Emma tries to raise her friend Harriet to that of her own social equal, other societal and economic factors outside of Emma’s control intrude. Emma learns that she cannot control everything in her society, despite her arrogance. In Cher’s case, social mobility works on a different level because 1990s Beverly Hills society is slightly more porous than 1880s England. Tai is able to pass successfully in Cher’s social circle because much of what marks someone in a certain social milieu are consumer-driven markers, namely clothes, makeup, and cars. Like most “misfits” in teen comedies, Tai’s conventional beauty is hidden under a modicum of frumpy, unstylish clothing, but after a makeover, she is Cher’s physical equal. In the sequences when Cher is working on Tai, the text also recalls another great literary figure, George Bernard Shaw, and his Pygmalion. Cher’s downfall, like Emma’s, comes when Cher learns that her skills at social planning are limited – though Tai is reasonably successful at aping high society, she also is a source of rancor when she rebels against Cher’s self-serving advice.

Like traditional romantic comedies, Clueless ends on a happy note. Cher, suitably chastened and wiser now, understands the errors of her way and gets the guy she’s meant to be with: not the handsome and dashing Christian Stovitz (Justin Walker), who ends up being queer; nor does she respond positively to the overtures of Elton Tiscia (Jeremy Sisto), whom Cher was grooming for Tai. Instead, like Emma is paired with the sensible George Knightly, Cher is paired with serious Josh Lucas (Paul Rudd), who brings out the best in her. In their pairing, Heckerling steps away from the Austen model (in which the rich and powerful Emma marries the even more rich and powerful Knightly), and instead engineers some smart social mobility: Josh, a “misfit” of sorts (which is why it makes sense that he and Tai found each other somewhat compatible) finds himself in love with the quintessential queen bee, who appears to be the antithesis of his self-serious and intellectual ideals; and Cher finds herself in love with Josh, a social introvert who rejects her way of life as shallow and unsubstantial. Both understand that they have “layers” – this is beautifully played out when Cher corrects Josh’s snobby girlfriend on a detail about Shakespeare’s Hamlet (though Cher’s point of reference is from Mel Gibson’s rendition of the play – a delicious, Heckerlingian way of braiding high and low art)

An important part of the lore in Clueless is the setting. Beverly Hills connotes wealth and affluence – but it can also mean nouveau riche and tacky. Heckerling’s characters constantly skirt and play with the boundaries that separate these concepts. Though the denizens of Beverly Hills are popularly seen as having access to high society, Heckerling does view these people with a tart eye. Cher and Dionne themselves seem impeachable – they understand the ins and outs of social grace and are therefore presented as the ideal, but the people around them, create a loud and colourful array of personalities that continuously push the boundaries of taste, elegance, and class, regardless of economic status. Young girls roam the hallways of Bronson Alcott High School, sporting bandages after nose jobs gifted to them for birthdays. A ladies’ restroom is awakened to a symphony of ringtones, as the collected group of young ladies each checks to see if it’s her phone that’s ringing. And the villain of the film, Amber Mariens (Elisa Donovan) eschews social niceties, openly mocking and bullying those she feels are social inferiors – the latter is especially important because though Cher also harbours snobbery, she isn’t as cruel when engaging with other cliques.

When Heckerling shows these lapses in the social rules, she’s highlighting just how superficial and arbitrary these restrictions are. These moments are meant to be funny and inject the film with much of its humour – especially when members of the cliques have to interact with each other (that is why the moments in the classrooms are so priceless) but also important because Heckerling is not only skewering a hierarchal system that is at base, unfair and without merit, but also, this is a sly case of Heckerling skewering her members of her own industry. The film would not work as it does if it was set in another setting. For example, Mark Water’s Mean Girls (2005) deals with many of the same themes as Clueless but the satirical edge is less cartoony, less camp, and less fabulous because instead of being set in the ridiculous Beverly Hills, it’s set in the more sensible Midwest. Heckerling is not only playing with a relatable subject – being under the bottom rung of the social ladder in high school – but she’s also playing with a recognizable subject: the stupidly rich people of Beverly Hills. She knows that audiences of Clueless were also raised on a steady diet of Beverly Hills 90210, and are very familiar with the tropes that come with a locale that is almost solely defined by the wealth of its residents.

Once Clueless was released, it was met with a warm reception by critics and achieved cult classic status. Its promotional material encapsulates what was thought of as “decadent, silly, rich” in 1995: The film’s main stars, Silverstone, Dash, and Murphy, standing on a grand, neo-classical staircase, covered in purple carpet, each with a cellphone near her face. The clothing is costumey and stylized, that is reminiscent of Patricia Field’s work (I was surprised that she wasn’t the stylist for the film) and the image is the kind of cartoony, rich Beverly Hills caricature that viewers immediately hang their expectations on; the gaudy trashiness of the staircase (I can’t tell what’s uglier – the black bannister or the gold fleur-de-lis) coupled with Silverstone’s absurd ensemble (she’s wearing a red mini dress and a feather boa – she’s dressed like a drag queen), clues us in that this movie is a giant goose to the posterior of Beverly Hills rich self-absorption.

Liza joins some pros in a game attempt at a comeback with Stepping Out

Liza Minnelli, Steppin’ Out (dir. Lewis Gilbert, Paramount, 1991)

I always said that Liza Minnelli was born in the wrong generation. Had she been a star when her mother, Judy Garland was making movies, from the 1930s to the 1950s, she would have been a much bigger movie star. But she became a movie star in the late 1960s and 1970s, when the New Wave of Hollywood changed the tone and direction of mainstream cinema. Minnelli was an odd fit. She was too sincere. Too enthusiastic. Too much. Stars like Robert DeNiro, Dustin Hoffman, Estelle Parsons, and Al Pacino brought a gritty reality to cinema and Minnelli’s smiling-through-tears, go-for-broke persona was out of step. Though she made a huge splash early in her career, winning an Oscar for her excellent work in Bob Fosse’s 1972 musical drama Cabaret, the rest of her career was a series of disappointments (tellingly, Minnelli’s star shone brightest on Broadway)

Throughout the 1980s, Minnelli’s film career relied more on her celebrity than her talent. Though 1981’s Arthur (directed by Steve Gordon) was a big hit, star Dudley Moore and Sir John Gielgud benefited most from its success. From there, she made a few cameos before returning to a starring role in the ill-fated 1988 comedy thriller Rent-a-Cop, in which she plays a prostitute opposite Burt Reynolds (that year, she also reunited with Moore for a flopped sequel to Arthur) So during that decade, she starred in only three feature films, whilst focusing on her stage work as a Broadway actress and concert performer.

In 1992, Minnelli starred in what was hoped to be a comeback hit for the performer, 1991’s musical comedy, Stepping Out. Based on the hit West End play written by Richard Harris and directed by Lewis Gilbert (Shirley Valentine and Educating Rita), Stepping Out gave Minnelli the kind of role that could have been mistaken for one like Sally Bowles in Cabaret or Francine Evans in Martin Scorsese’s musical drama New York, New York (1977). Stepping Out was a film that seemingly worked to Minnelli’s strengths: it was a light comedy, with some tender moments, a rousing, climactic end, and musical numbers written by her longtime collaborators John Kander and Fred Ebb. Gilbert had a solid track record of making films that were pulled from the stage: the three films he did before Stepping Out (1989’s Shirley Valentine, 1985’s Not Quite Paradise, and 1983’s Educating Rita) were all films that had stage origins. He also proved with Valentine and Rita, that he was an empathetic director when it came to working with plucky, likable leads.

And Minnelli’s role seemed tailor-made for her. Gutsy, sassy, and optimistic with loads of talent, it was the kind of role that was created to allow for Minnelli to show off her gifts and give the audience that ole razzle dazzle. The original play was transformed into a musical and Minnelli’s character – the has-been Broadway hoofer-turned-dancing-teacher, Mavis Turner – was made the focus of the film, with the eccentric supporting players behind.

Along with a good director and an energetic lead, the film also boasted a supporting cast of some great character actors. Film legend and two-time Oscar-winner Shelley Winters appears in what feels like a Shirley MacLaine battleaxe role as Mavis’ friend and pianist, Mrs Fraser; Minnelli’s fellow Broadway baby, Ellen Greene is one of Mavis’ students, as is legendary clown Bill Irwin. Gilbert reunites with his Educating Rita muse, Julie Walters, who plays the wealthy, dithering and self-involved Vera. Canadian film veterans Sheila McCarthy and comedy genius Andrea Martin also are part of the cast. And Carol Woods is the sole actress from the original Broadway production to appear in the film. And future TV funny woman and song-and-dance gal, Jane Krakowski is also featured.

The plot is wafer thin. Mavis is a dancing teacher who is in charge of trying to get a messy group of amateurs to look like something. Each character has a backstory and the dancing class works as an escape. Most of the stakes are pretty mundane, though Andi (Sheila McCarthy) is the victim of domestic violence – a rather jarring plot on an otherwise genteel and fluffy film. Mavis is a frustrated and slightly embittered performer, someone who tried to make it on Broadway but instead ended up teaching in a church basement in Buffalo. To make it more Liza! the script gives Minnelli an opportunity to sing. In a nightclub setting, she croons a jazzy version of the standard “Mean to Me” in a smokey, dingy bar. She also gets a snazzy solo dance number in the film, too. And the finale includes a group performance, with Mavis and her troupe of amateur dancers letting it loose at a talent show, performing to Kander & Ebb’s newly-written title tune.

“Stepping Out” is the centerpiece of the film. The moment when Liza conjures up all of her Liza magic. It’s an odd moment in the film because it’s so old-fashioned in its straight forward depiction. Since the 1970s, musicals often acted in response to the Golden Age of Hollywood. But Stepping Out is simply staged as a musical number without any critique or commentary on the musical film, despite Minnelli’s storied history with the genre. For a rinky dink talent show in Buffalo, New York, Mavis gets a pretty elaborate musical number. It starts off in a bright pink room setting – like something out of a live version of The Simpsons. She’s dressed in pajamas, with pink fuzzy slippers, and a pink terry cloth robe. The song – not Kander & Ebb’s better ones – starts and stops and Minnelli croons, getting flattering closeups. It’s an odd number – one that is meant to reaffirm Mavis’ Minnelli-like talents. As she sings, she struts behind a Chinese screen, doffs off her sleepwear, and then appears, triumphantly, in a glittery top hat and tails ensemble, reminiscent of her look in Cabaret as well as somewhat similar to her mother’s look in “Get Happy” in Summer Stock. She’s joined by her dance troupe, all matching her snazzy outfit. In something out of A Chorus Line, Gilbert frames his dancers simply, capturing their dancing as they work in sync, creating a tableaux in which the characters become indistinct from each other.

Minnelli, Stepping Out (Paramount, 1991)
Minnelli, Cabaret (Allied Artists, 1972)
Garland, Summer Stock (dir. Charles Walters, MGM, 1950)

When the line breaks up and we get individual performances, we see the theatre backgrounds emerging. Krakowski is easily the best dancer of the bunch and when Irwin joins Minnelli, both performers cease being their characters and are simply two pros doing their thing. Irwin is allowed to do his rubber-limbed clowning bit and Minnelli does her Liza bit. It’s an indulgent sequence in the film – slightly too long – that both highlights the film’s weaknesses as well as its potential. It’s a bit of a messy film in that the Liza Minnelli starry stuff that is shoehorned in the film feels at once intrusive and unsatisfying. She’s energetic in the film, especially in her dancing numbers, but the dramatic bit with the students stalls. Instead, Gilbert should have simply pulled a Fosse and created a musical TV special around his star a la Liza with a Z. As seen in the “Stepping Out” number, Minnelli hadn’t lost any of her star power nor any of her talent or charisma; but she feels ill-served by the dramatic bits of the film.

Part of the problem is that in Stepping Out we’re supposed to buy Liza Minnelli as a down-on-her-luck has-been dancer who cannot catch a break. Minnelli doesn’t have the range to play working class and she cannot seem to shrug off her diva persona. Toiling away in some anonymous church basement, trying to get some bland misfits to learn how to tap seems crazily beneath her. At least with characters like Sally Bowles or Francine Evans, Minnelli was able to bend her extravagant, eccentricity to the script. In Harris’ script, Minnelli is a bit of a drag, her life a humdrum. It’s not that characters in film have to be fabulous, but if it’s Liza Minnelli, yes, her character should be fabulous. That’s the whole point of Liza.

As a comeback vehicle, Stepping Out couldn’t bring Liza Minnelli back to her 70s glory days, but at that point in her career, that wasn’t important anymore. By the 1990s, her concert career essentially became her full time job. As of 2021, she hasn’t been in a starring role in a feature film, instead lending her celebrity to some television projects as well as goofy cameos in 2006’s The Oh in Ohio and most notably as the officiant of a gay wedding in Sex and the City 2, in which she gaily (and gayly) warbled Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)”. It wouldn’t revive Minnelli’s film career nor would it revive the movie musical, but that’s fine because Minnelli’s stardom and celebrity was never attached to just one thing that she did: instead, she’s a star who doesn’t need to be in a hit movie. So, in the end, Stepping Out feels superfluous.

Whoopi Goldberg’s found a perfect vehicle in the entertaining Jumpin’ Jack Flash

Whoopi Goldberg, Jumpin’ Jack Flash (dir. Penny Marshall, 20th Century Fox, 1986)

Whoopi Goldberg and the late Penny Marshall are pioneers in 80s Hollywood comedy. The two women broke barriers in the industry, making their mark with their talents. Marshall, a former TV comedienne who found success on the 1970s sitcom Laverne & Shirley moved away from acting to become a successful director. Goldberg, a multi-talented wonder, was feted in the industry for two brilliant performances: her one-woman stage show, The Spook Show (1983) and her Oscar-nominated work in Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Alice Walker’s seminal novel The Color Purple. The two were paired in the Marshall’s directorial bow, Jumpin’ Jack Flash, an action comedy that was the first of a series of comedy vehicles that saw Goldberg becoming one of the busiest and most popular actresses of the decade. In something akin to the kind of career Eddie Murphy enjoyed, Goldberg found herself in a string of action comedies that relied heavily on her comic persona. Though her film career started with a searing dramatic turn in Color Purple, the decade wound to an end with Goldberg anchoring silly comedies (with a smattering of prestige dramas that reminded viewers of her range)

The story is credited to David Franzoni, the first in his filmography, which would eventually include the Oscar-winning Ridley Scott film Gladiator. Working with Franzoni is the husband-and-wife team, Charles Shyer and Nancy Meyers (both credited under pseudonyms) who would go on to write and direct some of the most popular mainstream comedies of the 80s and 90s. And joining the group, is Marshall’s former Laverne & Shirley scribe Christ Thompson. Marshall was the second directing choice, after veteran director Howard Zieff was sacked. Initially, a starring vehicle for Cheers comedienne Shelley Long, the film production was chaotic when Marshall was brought on – for her first film as a director.

The story is the sort of 80s cold war espionage junk that thrilled audiences. There are many dated elements to the film – particularly the Red Scare stuff as well as the technology. Goldberg stars as Terry Doolittle, a computer desk jockey at a New York City bank. She’s a wise-cracking, irreverent member of her team, though she’s very popular with her coworkers and is a skilled and hard worker. One evening, as she diligently works at her computer (festooned with cool toys like Gumby and Pokey action figures), she gets a mysterious message on her screen, “Knock Knock.” The message is from someone calling himself Jumpin’ Jack Flash, a MI6 agent who is being hunted down by the KGB. Terry interacts with Jumpin’ Jack Flash, and through solving his riddles, makes her way to the British Consulate to convey a secret message. When she’s rebuked at the consulate, she’s plunged into a winding, crazy story of intrigue that sees her fending off scary thugs, ducking bullets, and being kidnapped by being dragged through the streets of New York, locked away in a phone booth.

As seen by the brief plot summary, Jumpin’ Jack Flash is ridiculous and silly. It’s a lengthy collection of threadbare Cold War cliches. Shadowy characters seem to lurk in every corner, threatening Terry. Marshall and Goldberg are saddled with a story that’s about a million miles beneath them and they do their best to enliven the film with their distinct talents. A comedy pro like Marshall does a solid job in telling this story but she struggles with the action scenes. The moments of violence in Jumpin’ Jack Flash feel nondescript, like any b-movie shoot ’em up. When the film is more low key, particularly when Goldberg’s Terry is interacting with characters she likes, there’s a sweet comic humanity to the film.

In fact, though Jumpin’ Jack Flash is largely an action thriller, it’s best moments are when Goldberg is allowed to be funny and when she interacts with sympathetic costars. When Marshall was hired to direct the film, she roped in some of her friends to fill supporting roles like Jon Lovitz, Jim Belushi, Phil Hartman, Carol Kane, and Mike McKean. Other good supporting work comes from a beguilingly young Annie Potts, Tracey Ullman, and Sara Botsford.

And then there’s Whoopi Goldberg. Though she’s a strong, versatile actress, capable of disappearing into her roles (look at her dramatic work, her low key comedic films, or her Oscar-winning role in Ghost), in this film, she’s essentially inserting her comedic persona in a script and running with it. She’s playing Terry Doolittle, but really we’re looking at Whoopi Goldberg caught up in a silly thriller story. She’s irascible, sharp, short-tempered, and intensely intelligent. She applies these character traits to Terry, but it feels as if Goldberg wasn’t sticking to the script but filling out the space in her scenes by being Whoopi. And when I say Whoopi, I don’t mean Whoopi Goldberg, the real woman behind the image, but the comedic image itself. When I write Whoopi, I mean the brand name Whoopi.

But Marshall does some nice intimate work with her star when Terry has heartfelt one-to-one moments with her costars. Carol Kane is her onscreen best friend and the two have a nice, easy chemistry (though the role is a brief waste of an actress of her caliber). And when Botsford’s Lady Sarah Billings comes through for Terry and provides her with some vital information, Terry’s face breaks into a wonderful, warm smile as she says in gratitude, “You’re a real lady, Sarah.” It’s always fun to see Goldberg’s vulnerability beneath the bravado and Marshall does a great job of pulling them out.

The other thing that Marshall does well is give Goldberg moments of physical slapstick. It’s clear that when Marshall and her Laverne & Shirley costar were throwing themselves into the Lucille Ball-esque antics on that show that she was making notes. She creates space for Goldberg to engage in some nifty physical humor reminiscent of Marshall’s (check out some episodes of Laverne & Shirley to see some brilliant comedic slapstick work) When Goldberg’s character is drugged, the actress does a funny job of conveying Terry’s desperate attempts to power through the narcotic’s soporific effects, stumbling her way through a fancy spa, and sliding down a banister. As she skitters through her scenes, her speech littered with slurred asides and blunt truths (she was shot with truth serum – yup, truth serum), and Goldberg does a masterful job of making a ridiculously improbable situation credible.

When the (extremely) convoluted plot is resolved, Terry gets to finally meet Jack. Again, it’s a lovely moment when Terry, dressed up to the nines, is waiting at the agreed-upon place for the rendez vous. It’s a touching moment because Terry’s a heroine and risked her life for this man she never met and yet has forged a closeness and connection. It’s a prescient part of Jumpin’ Jack Flash to have Terry and Jack create a deep and meaningful through the computer screen (something that seems normal now but was a novel and weird thing back in 1986)

Jumpin’ Jack Flash showed the industry that female directors and female action leads had potential audiences. The film’s solid box office (it make over twice its relative budget) gave Goldberg a tidy career as a comedy box office star. She would develop an incredibly prolific filmography larded with huge hits like Sister Act, prestige work like Ghosts of Mississippi, and her Oscar-winning turn in The Color Purple. She would see success on stage and television, as well. Marshall would become one of the most sought-after film directors of her generation, responsible for pleasing, feel good work including 1988’s comedy Big which became the first film directed by a woman to gross over $100 million at the box office. She would have a very respectable CV which included the Oscar-nominated Awakenings and the excellent sports comedy, 1992’s A League of Their Own.

The film would go on to become a minor, popular entry in both Goldberg’s and Marshall’s resumes. It’s the kind of movie that is perfect for a rainy Saturday afternoon. It’s undemanding and easy on the brain and good for a hearty laugh. It’s also a good way to see the beginning of Goldberg’s 80s career which led her to become a one-named brand. Yes, The Color Purple was her introduction to Hollywood (and what a boffo intro it was), but Jumpin’ Jack Flash is far more indicative and representative of the kind of movie star Goldberg would become during the rest of the decade. Even her brilliant, award-winning work in Ghost is closer in tone to Jumpin’ Jack Flash than The Color Purple. The film established Goldberg as the female alternative to male comedy stars like Eddie Murphy, Bill Murray, or Steve Martin; and so because of that, though it’s not a groundbreaking film, it’s an important one nonetheless.

As a special note: the title tune of the film’s soundtrack was a cover of the Rolling Stones classic done by Aretha Franklin. Produced by Keith Richards who worked on the track with Ronnie Wood, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” was a hit for Franklin, just missing the US top 20, and being the first single from her gold-selling 1986 album, Aretha.

Nora Ephron, Jack Nicholson, and Meryl Streep tell a funny, bruising story with Heartburn

l to r: Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep, Heartburn (dir. Mike Nichols, Paramount Pictures, 1986)

A funny thing happened when I was going through my list of films to watch the other night. I was with friends, celebrating the holiday by vegging out on the couch, and we were looking through the films that I own, and in one row – by some kind of algorithm or coincidence, three films were cued in a row: Steven Spielberg’s The Post (2017), Alan Pakula’s All the President’s Men (1976), and Mike Nichols’ 1986 comedy, Heartburn. It felt like a bit of ‘six degrees of separation’ because the three movies are related in some way. Nichols’ film is based on Nora Ephron’s 1983 autobiographical comic novel that detailed the dissolution of her marriage to journalist Carl Bernstein. Bernstein, of course, was the young Washington Post reporter who, with Bob Woodward, did work on the Watergate scandal – their collective work eventually led to the resignation of President Nixon. So, Ephron’s barely-veiled tale of marital infidelity included a major player of both Spielberg’s and Pakula’s films.

And though Nichols’ film doesn’t touch upon Watergate, the insular world of Washington, DC is tartly skewed in Ephron’s script. Parties take place in large DC mansions with Beltway power players gossiping about senators, congressmen, and journalists. Ephron’s avatar for Bernstein is Mark Forman (Jack Nicholson), a DC political journalist who meets Ephron’s fictional alter ego, Rachel Samstat (Meryl Streep) at a wedding. The two have instant chemistry, they date, before marrying despite Rachel’s misgivings. Both Mark and Rachel have been married before and Mark has a reputation for womanizing (his two best friends confirm this to a reticent Rachel at their wedding) Of course, as the title confirms, Mark treats Rachel rather shabbily, unable to stop himself from cheating with a DC socialite. Ephron’s script puts Rachel through a lot: as she and Mark try to renovate a should-be-condemned Georgetown townhouse, she’s seemingly perennially pregnant whilst having her infant fused to her hip, all the while Mark is running around on her.

Nichols’ background as a comedian along with Ephron’s razor-sharp, tart sense of humor makes Heartburn a very funny movie, despite the seemingly dour and depressing premise. Much of this is due to the director’s facility with getting great performances from his actors. Streep and Nichols have an affinity for each other – she shares a smooth, top-shelf classiness with the director: they both seem to epitomize glossy, classy, prestige Hollywood. And Heartburn is a reunion of sorts, as Nichols, Streep, and Ephron worked together before on the environmental drama, 1983’s Silkwood. All three were nominated for Academy Awards for their work. Silkwood‘s a stark biopic of the crusading efforts of Karen Silkwood, the labor activist who was pushing for stricter safety rules at the plutonium plant in which she worked; her mysterious death made for a compelling drama, and Streep excelled as the titular character.

Hearburn‘s concerns aren’t as lofty nor are the stakes as high, but Ephron’s brand of sophisticated and urban comedy makes for a smart film that is highly enjoyable, despite the travails that befall upon our heroine. The script strikes a delicate balance in presenting Rachel as a hapless victim and fighter. A large reason why this balance is successful is due to Streep’s performance. Event at her most self-pitying moments, Streep allows Rachel’s mordant humor and sarcasm to shine through: this is vital for a character that would have come off as a wet blanket if not interpreted with the droll comedy that Streep employs. Though Streep is revered as an actress, some detractors point to a mechanical fussiness to her performances. Nothing could be further from the truth in Heartburn; probably because Streep’s comedic performances are far looser and more natural than her dramas. Yes, Streep is a master tragic actress, able to wring tears and break our hearts. But more impressive is her work as a comedienne. Her face is so expressive and she employs his wonderful take in which she allows her face to literally drop, slightly slack jawed, with her eyes in mid-roll, when her character is facing some kind of indignity. It’s a world-weary expression, as if she cannot believe all of the shit she has to endure. It’s a face that practically shouts, Jesus Christ! This shit again?!?!

I’ve spent some time writing about Streep’s work, but Nicholson is also excellent in the film. As an actor, Nicholson, like Streep, came of age during the New Wave of Hollywood when the highly stylized Studio System gave way to the more naturalistic, brutal style. Nicholson is an actor who felt dangerous. He is intense and explosive, his emotions often ugly and uncontrolled. Though his acting style has been reduced to bad impressions (the sly line line delivery, the arched eyebrows, the devilish grin) it works surprisingly well for Ephron’s light comedy and Nichols’ deft touch. He’s a funny guy and though he can feel like a lot, Nichols wisely makes his role a supporting one to Streep’s show. The danger that he displays in films like One Who Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest feels a bit off-kilter, which adds an itchy tension. Even in a slapstick moment, like when he’s singing Broadway showtunes to Streep’s Rachel in honor of their baby, he’s hamming it up, but there’s an underlying sense of mania that makes the scene ever-so-slightly uncomfortable. There’s a touch of Daryl Van Horne in his singing.

As a duo, Nichols and Ephron create a fantastic world in which everyone is witty and funny and capable of throwing around smart one-liners. The two are masters at crafting light comedy. Some of the funniest, most awesome moments in Ephron’s original text make it into the film, including a truly remarkable scene in which Rachel’s therapy group is robbed at gunpoint. The group sessions are funny and very well-cast with some top quality character actors including Mercedes Ruehl, Joanna Gleason, and the great Maureen Stapleton. The robbery scene also features a very young Kevin Spacey as the crook who points a gun at the members of the group, ordering them to divest themselves of their money goods and lie on their stomachs; a very pregnant Rachel apologetically points out that she won’t be able to comply completely, to which the understanding crook says, “Do your best.”

In the melee, as the robbery victims are pulling off expensive earrings and necklaces, Nichols injects a fabulous moment of comic gold, as Rachel struggles to wrest off her diamond ring from her swollen fingers, the other group members jumping up to help, greasing her fingers, as the anxious – yet weirdly patient – robber looks on. It’s a ridiculous scene, the kind that Ephron excels at (after all, this is the woman who wrote the fake orgasm scene for Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally…) She has a great way of sliding in an incredulous, incredible scene in a moment which in the hands of a lesser talent would feel stupid. In the book, for example, there’s a magically funny scene, in which a character dies, but comes back to life, slowly sitting up on her deathbed. A scene like that shouldn’t work (and interestingly enough, it doesn’t make it to the film, maybe because it would be too much) but Ephron makes these kinds of moments believable.

Though Heartburn isn’t the greatest work of either Ephron, Nichols, Streep, or Nicholson, it’s a great, fun movie that does a good job in allowing Ephron to settle some emotional scores. Some reviewers found the film a bitter response to her husband’s infidelity (which is totally okay, btw), but it’s a triumphant answer to a particularly difficult time in her life. The joke is don’t ever mess with songwriters or comedians because if you do, you’ll end up in their work. In pissing off Nora Ephron, a renown wit, Bernstein inspired a gem of a film. It’s not a mean movie – though Nicholson’s Mark is clearly the cad in the piece, and there’s little to redeem the guy – but Ephron isn’t interesting in being ‘nice’, either. Heartburn is an aggressively mainstream, commercial film, but one that is unusually intelligent and smart.

As a special note: the soundtrack of Heartburn includes the soft-pop standard “Coming Around Again” by the prolific Carly Simon who stumbled onto a fruitful career in 80s as a movie theme writer.

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