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.

Lady Boss: The Jackie Collins Story Tells a Fascinating and Engrossing Story of a Fascinating and Engrossing Woman

My sister was amazing! She had an incredible life.

Joan Collins
Still from Lady Boss: The Jackie Collins Story (CNN Films/BBC Arts)

Jackie Collins became synonymous with glossy, titillating pop-pulp romance fiction. Like Danielle Steele, Barbara Cartland, or Judith Krantz, Collins used her his literary gifts to tell salacious sex romps. But she was more than just a phenomenally successful author, she was also a media figure, a woman who became a brand, an entity onto herself. In the 1980s, she was a ubiquitous figure in pop culture, her quick wit and intellect making her a very popular presence as a professional chat show guest. Initially known as “Joan Collins’ younger sister,” when she abandoned her indifferent dreams of movie stardom for herself and found her own niche as a writer, she transcended that limiting sobriquet and became a superstar in her own right. In Lady Boss: The Jackie Collins Story, Laura Fairrie tells the fascinating tale of a woman who created a persona that helped her sell over 500 million copies of her books.

Collins’ story starts in the UK, in London. She was the younger sister of the blindingly beautiful and talented Joan Collins. Born to a tyrannical and abusive father, Joe Collins, an agent who hid his brutish personality beneath a charming polish. Jackie was mistreated by her father who didn’t see much potential in her. Unlike the Elizabeth Taylor-like Joan, Jackie Collins wasn’t glamorous in the same way and as a result, she struggled to find her place. When Joan went to Hollywood and became a starlet, Jackie followed, a hanger-on, more than anything, someone who joined the glitzy showbiz parties, casting her sharp eye and making internal notes, absorbing the very specific life of mid-century Hollywood. These forays into celebrity social life would eventually become Jackie Collins a romance novel colossus.

The film does a fantastic job of presenting two Jackie Collinses: the slick, rehearsed public figure who can fling around tart one-liners with the aplomb of a stand-up comedian; and through friends and family, we see the private Jackie Collins, a damaged and ambitious woman who shouldered quite a bit of adversity in her life. The film’s structure is straight forward, largely chronological, as Collins’ story is charted from her humble origins in London to her glossy superstardom in Los Angeles. We see home video clips of Sidney Poitier, Michael Caine, Sandra Bullock all palling around with Collins. Fairrie also uses archival material of her subject appearing on television shows like The Oprah Winfrey Show exhibiting Collins’ enterprising way of hustling. Few authors were able to sell books the way she did because she was just as interested in the marketing side of books, actually selling her books, than most authors.

Though Jackie Collins’ stories told tales of ultra-feminine women, Fairrie finds the feminism in her life story. A self-identified feminist, Collins’ mantra was “girls can do anything” and she applied that slogan to her professional life, decrying sexist double standards that damned women who embraced their sexuality. Smarmy gross male talk show hosts and uptight prudes misunderstood her prescience and in one particularly disturbing sequence, Collins was forced to face young feminists who repeatedly and boorishly dragged her, accusing her of being a turncoat and a traitor to feminism.

The sequence that shows Collins pitted against younger feminists is important because it shines a spotlight on the tension and the contradiction in Collins’ public persona: though, Collins created a life and a career for herself, some argued that by using explicit sex (which bordered on erotica), she was merely doing what male authors have been doing to women for years: reducing them to sexual objects.

One thing that Fairrie does well is show the toil and calculation in took to create Jackie Collins. Though she gamely weathered the slings by her critics, privately they stung. Instead of allowing herself to be overwhelmed by the hate, Collins did something proactive and creative, she constructed a persona: Jackie Collins. It was a glossy, shellacked armor: the plastic surgery, the heavy makeup, the big hair, the linebacker shoulder pads, the leopard print (one of her daughters aptly described the visual spectacle as “quite startling”) – it was all a protective crust to deflect the nasty dings she weathered. The seemingly cosmopolitan and urbane Collins who easily glided through TV spots and talk shows was architecture. It was a smart creation, one that admittedly leaned into the campy somewhat vulgar aesthetic of 1980s romance pop fiction. As if to acknowledge this good-natured trashiness, Fairrie sprinkles throughout the film, scenes from a kitschy TV movie adaptation of Collins’ work, starring a bewigged Nicolette Sheridan.

It’s a testament to Fairrie’s interest in Collins as well as the subject’s own celebrity and place in pop history, that Joan Collins is relegated to a supporting role and doesn’t dominate the film’s story. Whilst it was fun for the press to play up the supposed rivalry between Joan and Jackie, the complicated relationship is treated far more interestingly in the film. Joan appears in the film to add context and history but she’s somewhat subdued (well, as subdued as Joan Collins can be). Their relationship was prickly but ultimately it came off as surprisingly normal – well, as normal as possible when you’re talking about Joan Collins and Jackie Collins. What Lady Boss exposed was a very normal and essentially loving relationship between the sisters that is speckled with rivalry that had been spiked with egos, money, and celebrity. (there’s a mordantly funny moment courtesy of a vintage TV spot with an oblivious Jane Pauley mistakenly introducing Jackie Collins as Joan Collins). But it’s refreshing to see that Fairrie doesn’t indulge reductive cartoony bitchy cat fighting. When Joan Collins parlayed her fame into writing some junky romance novels herself, the two women were pitted against each other, though in a far more direct way. Still, the tension doesn’t balloon into some War of the Roses-style tug of war.

Even if people aren’t a fan of Jackie Collins’ work, Lady Boss is a compelling watch. The Jackie Collins who emerges from this film is a very interesting and cool lady. The shiny wit, the overblown, drag-like persona, all of it was part of a fascinating woman. A woman who enjoyed unimaginable privilege but also a woman who worked hard and created everything for herself. It also showed a woman who created an empire but was still riddled with self-doubts, trauma, and vulnerability.

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.

Aaron Sorkin and Lucille Ball fail to convince with the so-so Being the Ricardos

Nicole Kidman as Lucille Ball in Aaron Sorkin’s Being the Ricardos (Amazon Studios)

When Nicole Kidman’s casting as Lucille Ball was announced, there were lots of naysayers who thought it was a bad idea. Will & Grace star Debra Messing leveled some subtle shade against the Oscar-winner, sharing stills from her well-received episode of Will & Grace in which she played the legendary comedienne. Casting Messing as Lucille Ball would have been a no-brainer: like Ball, Messing is a gorgeous, funny red head with a malleable face and a penchant for physical humor (not to mention a comically-awful singing voice).

So, Kidman’s casting was met with hostility even before she filmed a single scene. We know from examples like Paul Feig’s 2018 all-female Ghostbusters that early antagonism can torpedo a film. And in Feig’s film, the anger was unjustified and spurred by racism and sexism.

Given all of this preamble, Being the Ricardos had a lot to live up to transcend. Some paparazzi photos caught pictures of Kidman on location and early images didn’t look good. Some awful, garbage jokesters on the Internet took unkind swipes at her supposed reliance on plastic surgery, botox, and fillers.

And so upon viewing Aaron Sorkin’s project, is Kidman’s turn as Ball a disaster or a triumph? Truthfully, neither. Kidman doesn’t pull a miraculous performance but she doesn’t embarrass herself, either. She’s does some good work, had some solid moments, but is undone by Sorkin’s ham-fisted direction and writing, as well as her astounding miscasting. Kidman is a good actress who can be great. As Ball, she musters some of that skill, making some interesting choice, but there are some bewildering things about her work that shoves the performance from merely a good film to something that side steps camp to something utterly bizarre.

Sorkin’s script for Being the Ricardos condenses a lot. In a week of filming classic sitcom I Love Lucy, Ball and her husband, entertainment virtuoso and bandleader, Desi Arnaz (Javiar Bardem) are dealt with a challenging hand: a youthful alliance with the Communist Party to satisfy her beloved grandfather at the height of HUAC threatens all of the pioneering work that the two had done; as if that wasn’t enough, Ball had to contend with Arnaz’s chronic infidelity and resultant humiliation; and to make matters worse, Ball and Arnaz had to announce to the writers and producers that she was expecting, throwing the show into peril as conservative television wouldn’t allow for a pregnant woman on TV; and during the taping, Ball’s perfectionism and her indomitable will and dominance put her at odds with her writing staff and her costars, including second banana and sidekick, Vivian Vance (a scene-stealing Nina Arianda), with whom she shared a flinty, complicated love.

Sorkin, a veteran of glossy liberal wish-fulfillment projects like The West Wing and The Newsroom transfers his patented film quirks into the world of 1950s television. Characters all engage in verbal fisticuffs, trading quips and speechifying about morality and ethics. And his famed “walk and talk” happens several times in the film, characters speeding through the hidden corners and bowels of a TV studio while rattling off speedy and witty lines at a breakneck speed.

It’s not a good fit, though. The very familiar world of I Love Lucy feels odd interpreted by the heavy-handed Sorkin. His stylized universe doesn’t accommodate the old-fashioned, vaudevillian style of comedy perfected by Ball and her costars. The other issue is the way in which he portrays Ball’s genius. As she listens to her team of writers describe a sketch, going over blocking and staging, Sorkin has Kidman fall into a trance – a mix of Benedict Cumberbatch’s hypnotized deduction in Sherlock or Raven-Symoné’s wide-eyed psychic visions on That’s So Raven – and starts to imagine herself performing the writers’ vision and the audience gets to see Kidman attempt to ape Lucille Ball’s iconic comedy bits.

With Sorkin’s choice of including scenes from I Love Lucy, the film falls into a trap that writer Kyle Turner so eloquently critiqued in his GQ article, “Why Does Stand-Up Comedy in Movies Always Suck?” In his article, Turner points out that when films look to depict comedians, the effect is “plasticine, in contrast with that electricity that comes from live comedy in the wild.” Tyler’s point about fictional representation of stand-up comedy being inartful is an important one because he writes that the craft doesn’t translate well when screenwriters attempt to write stand-up sets. Though Turner is interested in stand-up comedy, his point extends to physical comedy shtick, as well. Films that look to show audiences the depiction of slapstick instead of diegetic slapstick fall into many of the same pitfalls as those that purport to depict stand-up. And Kidman’s attempt to emulate Ball’s physical comedy prowess isn’t the first time that an actress tried to capture the late comedienne’s genius. Two previous films about Ball’s life had her impersonators : Frances Fisher and Rachel York both did admirable work in playing Ball, but both couldn’t emulate their subject’s unmatched comic gifts.

Kidman – a strong and resourceful actress – is no different, unfortunately. She does all the right moves but instead of feeling inspired or funny, the comedy bits disorganized and amateurish. The hilarious grape-stomping scene in which Lucy finds herself tumbling around in a vat of grapes is rendered awkward and strained. Neither Kidman nor Sorkin can mine the kind of magic Ball conjured when she was on television portraying her character.

The other problem with Kidman’s presence in the film is the strange makeup in which the actress is covered when portraying Lucille Ball. Both Kidman and Ball were very attractive but Kidman’s looks are strikingly different, with the face, drawn-in eyebrows, and the pumpkin-colored wigs adding an eerie quality to her closeups. I think it’s the bangs – they’re too short and the Lucy Ricardo hairdo doesn’t complement her face and bone structure in the same way that it did Ball. And we’re used to seeing Lucy Ricardo in black-and-white, so seeing Kidman-as-Lucy in color is unpleasant and odd.

Despite the strange physicality, Kidman does a good job in remembering Ball’s gravelly voice; the problem starts when Kidman does Lucille Ball as Lucy Ricardo. When in character, Ball would adopt a higher tone to convey a girlishness (possibly to offset her middle age); when Kidman does the voice, it sounds like a strained, unpleasant seal bark.

Because Kidman’s is the focus of the film, her miscasting is glaring. Bardem doesn’t do much really with is performance as Desi Arnaz – he does little more than just rely on his considerable star quality and charisma. He doesn’t have as iconic a persona to tackle as Kidman, so he has an easier go of it. The script makes sure we know of Arnaz’s innovative approach to sitcom making as well as his genius. As great as Lucille Ball is, Arnaz’s story is equally compelling: not only a supremely talented singer and musician, but he had incredible vision, working with the best tech people to create new and dynamic ways of filming the show; and on top of everything, Arnaz was a strong and funny comedian in his own right. For too long, Arnaz’s contributions were shoved under Ball’s looming shadow. But so much of Bardem’s work feels disconnected with anything to do with Arnaz (really, he could be playing anybody).

As William Frawley, J.K. Simmons does a very good job as William Frawley, essentially deepening Frawley’s performance as Fred Mertz. Sorkin’s vision of Frawley takes some historical facts: Frawley’s drinking and his animosity toward his onscreen wife, but Sorkin’s script makes him a confidante of sorts to Ball, lending a sympathetic ear when he sees his costar losing it during rehearsals. Simmons is very funny (not surprising) and gives arguably the most winning performance in the film.

But Simmons’ strong work doesn’t alleviate the issues of the film. The biggest being what is the point of the film? As I was watching, I was trying to figure out for whom was this movie made? It feels like an expensive TV movie and I’m curious who the intended audience is. Devoted fans of I Love Lucy will know all of the stories already and Sorkin’s story doesn’t really add anything new. Though, his script tries to include some 21st century topics by having Lucy writer Madelyn Pugh (Alla Shawkat) voice concerns about the show’s infantilizing its titular heroine. Some contemporary feminism questions I Love Lucy‘s dated gender politics with Pugh pointing out that Lucy Ricardo’s schemes can be boiled down to her trying to get her husband’s permission. It’s an astute point that sounds wise coming from a female comedy writer – a position that is still largely gendered even in the 21st century. But doing so doesn’t make Being the Ricardos feel more urgent or relevant because Pugh’s position as a pioneer in her own right isn’t explored. She an exceedingly minor character, her main role in the film as an antagonist to her fellow writer, Bob Carroll Jr (Jake Lacy), who is depicted as being somewhat hapless.

So, though Sorkin avoids a disaster with Being the Ricardos, he doesn’t exactly flip off his critics with a triumph either. The film is mediocre with some solitary moments of inspiration (Simmons and Arianda being the source of most of them) not intriguing enough to enliven this film. It’s important to note that after watching Being the Ricardos, without even noticing that I was doing so, I put on a couple episodes of I Love Lucy. Though Being the Ricardos isn’t a bad film, viewers would do better to watch the original show, to witness not only Ball’s genius onscreen (not to mention Arnaz’s genius behind the camera).

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