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.

The Golden Girls chronciles: The Pilot (“The Engagement”)

TV pilots are a tough watch sometimes. Often they’re filmed months before the actual show and if they’re picked up, we see major differences between the pilot and the show, and those differences can be jarring. Sometimes it’s the sets or characters that don’t land. The other thing about pilots is that writers are tasked to introduce new characters to audiences and they have to do it in such a way that it feels organic but detailed enough so that viewers get to know the characters. Because The Golden Girls has a fairly straightforward premise: four older women share a house in Miami, there isn’t a whole lot ‘nation building’ needed. Work sitcoms often start with a ‘first day’ setup with a new employee joining a company. On the pilot of The Golden Girls, we aren’t introduced to the premise, we’re merely dropped into an episode as if the show had already been on. Very tricky, but it worked.

So, The Golden Girls starts its 7-year run with the establishment shot of the Golden Girls house that has become iconic in its own right (though don’t try to make architectural sense of that house – it doesn’t work, unless the house’s architect was M.C. Escher). That opening shot would become synonymous with the show and opened nearly every show. We also learn that the episode is written by Susan Harris.

Susan Harris is the show creator. She was a TV veteran having worked most notably on the cult classic sitcom Soap (which starred future Empty Nesters Richard Mulligan and Dinah Manoff) She was approached by her husband producer Paul Junger Witt who was tooling with the idea of launching a show about older women. According to Harris, Witt came to Harris after another writer backed out of the project and convinced her to return to television after she heard the premise of writing show around older women. Though Harris’ concept of older was different than the networks:

What I thought was older women, the network and I were not on the same page at the time. I thought older women — 60, 70, 80. Older to the network seemed to mean 40-50. We casted the way we did, and we never discussed age.

So, it appears as if Harris got her way because the show’s final cast: Bea Arthur, Betty White, Rue McClanahan, and Betty White were all between 50 and 65 when the show began. And what a cast. Arthur and White were both TV sitcom legends. Arthur had spent the 70s starring as the liberal feminist title character in Normal Lear’s Maude (which Harris wrote the iconic abortion episode for) and White was a TV pioneer from back in the medium’s early days, eventually becoming a comedy icon in the 70s for her spicy turn as Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Both Arthur and White were Emmy winners and Arthur was a Tony-winning singer-actress to boot.

Rue McClanahan was a TV veteran, as well, paying her dues on a variety of sitcoms before landing a regular role on Maude as the scatter-brained Vivian. A respected stage actress, McClanahan was a fixture on 70s television, appearing in a series of TV movies and becoming a seemingly professional guest star. She and White were paired for the Vicki Lawrence sitcom Mama’s Family before they worked together on The Golden Girls.

The only television neophyte was Estelle Getty, a wonderful stage actress who was celebrated for her great work in Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy. A New York working actress, Getty was a stand-up comic, as well (which may explain her facility with the one-liners she was given). Though Getty was roughly the same ages as her costars, through aging makeup and clothing, she was cast as Arthur’s mother Sophia Petrillo.

Now, on to the pilot. We’re immediately introduced to the lead character, Dorothy Zbornak (Arthur) who barrels her way through the living room set and into the kitchen. Without introduction or preamble, Dorothy launches into her line, “I taught a class today,” quickly establishing that she’s a teacher. With a pissed off weariness, she grouses, “The finest school in Dade County. Two girls had shaved heads and three boys had green hair.”

l to r: Bea Arthur and James Levin

Golden Girls fans will immediately notice something odd. The person stirring a pot at the stove isn’t a Golden Girl but a younger man. This character is the main part of the pilot that is jettisoned with the show is continues. Charles Levin stars as a gay housekeeper, Coco. It would be the only appearance by Levin, whose character wasn’t a good fit for the show (it’s not Levin’s fault – he’s very good in this episode). It’s the only off note in the episode. Much of Coco’s role in the household would eventually be taken over by Sophia, anyways.

But more important than the temporary Coco is the quick and efficient way in which Harris and Arthur capture just what kind of character Dorothy is. She calls her students “too ugly to look at” and conveys the kind of perpetually burned out demeanor of a lot of hardworking (well, overworked) public school educators. Some of Dorothy’s objections: nose rings, dyed hair, shaved heads don’t work as jokes, really anymore as these things wouldn’t feel so out of place in a public school, nor would it signal class or temperament, but the early 80s still had some holdover of the generation gap of the 1960s and 1970s. Men with earrings would still be a punchline as would be tattoos. These minor details do date but not so much that we don’t understand Dorothy’s issues.

We are then introduced to another character, Rose Nylund (White), who comes into the kitchen from another entrance (possibly the garage – again, the floor plan of the house is science fiction). Her occupation is quickly noted as a grief counselor when Dorothy cracks a sarcastic retort to Rose’s weary sigh, “What a day, one sad person after another.” Dorothy snipes back, “you work at grief counseling, what do you expect comedians?”

In the midst of this exchange, we get the third Golden Girl, Blanche Devereaux (Rue McClanahan), who sidles into the kitchen wrapped in a mink stole. Sharp-eared fans will note that McClanahan hasn’t yet adopted the lyrical – though totally hokey – Southern accent at this point. She’s still speaking closer to her natural Oklahoma accent.

As Blanche saunters across the kitchen to the kitchen, Rose naively asks if Blanche is going out, and yet again, Dorothy swoops in with another sharp barb, “No, she’s going to sit here, where it’s 112° and eat enchiladas.”

It’s important to note that in just over a minute, Harris does a lot with the writing, not only giving each actress her entrance, but she does a solid job in establishing the comic rhythms of the characters. It’s remarkable work – so much is packed into so brief a sequence but we already know who these characters are. A lot of the credit is due to the actresses as well. Bea Arthur’s perpetually disgusted bark and stingy delivery lets us know that Dorothy’s the wisecracking heavy; Betty White’s wholesome, chipper demeanor clues us into Rose’s sunniness; and McClanahan has already been able to establish her character’s sauciness by simply mincing with sass across the set.

l to r: Rue McClanahan, Bea Arthur, Betty White

The other great thing about the way Harris opens up the show is that we immediately enter the episode’s main plot: without any superfluous trimming, we’re smack dab in the middle of the story: Blanche is dating a guy named Harry. That may seem like a very lean plot, but The Golden Girls manages to be quite subversive in its day by representing older women with vital and vibrant love lives (this is particularly true of Blanche).

Because the episode is a pilot, Harris has garnished the script with a lot of quips, giving most of them to Dorothy. It’s a little joke-heavy and Dorothy’s character comes off as a bit of a churl, but even if it’s a tad too much, the jokes are still very funny (“Oh it is wonderful dating in Miami. All the single men under 80 are cocaine smugglers).

But Harris isn’t contented to just make this a sitcom without some feeling or depth. Part of what makes The Golden Girls so special is that it was a show from a new and novel perspective. Rarely has television presented audiences with the POV of older, yet still vibrant women. In that regard, the show was groundbreaking. Because of the ages of the ladies, Harris is able to pen some very good, very candid ruminations of aging that wouldn’t normally be found on network sitcoms. The characters are very honest about aging and its pitfalls, particularly in a society that prizes youth among its women.

As the plot moves forward, we get more details. The main detail being that Blanche is expecting a marriage proposal which then leads to the question of what will the other girls do once Blanche is married. It’s here that we get more insight into how the girls found each other and more importantly, what this living situation means for them. Part of the issues these women face is being single and in late middle-age means that society has narrowed the variety of options for them. These women found a situation that works: a lovely home in Miami, roommates that will be there for you, and a gay cook (who disappears after the first episode). Rose spins a bit out of control in existential dread when she realizes that it’ll all go away when Blanche is married, thereby threatening her safe existence that she seemingly and luckily stumbled upon.

About 7 minutes into the show’s pilot, and Harris has done a lot for us. She’s explained the premise of the show, introduced all of the characters, and if that wasn’t enough, she also opened up the plot for the week. As an addition to the mix, we get the final Golden Girl, Estelle Getty as Sophia Petrillo. Sophia is Dorothy’s mother and we learn that she’s been living in a retirement home, Shady Pines (another bit of Golden Girls trivia that becomes a recurring joke and a catchphrase). Getty is a consummate comic pro and completely immerses herself in the character. Though she’s playing a woman in her 80s, she was only 62 years old at this point, a year younger than her onscreen daughter.

Getty’s Sophia Petrillo is a joke machine with an arsenal of one-liners which informs the relationship between she and Dorothy. Arthur once enthused that the comic duo of Dorothy and Sophia is one of the greatest in TV history. She’s not wrong: just the visuals: the redwood-tall Dorothy towering over the lilliputian Sophia. Sophia’s irascible attitude is explained away in the pilot as a resultant of a stroke which debilitated the part of her brain that filters her thoughts (an explanation that smacks of bullshit, a bit, if I’m honest) But Sophia is mean. Upon seeing Blanche done up for the evening, Sophia declares that she “looks like a prostitute.” And her verdict of Harry? “He’s a scuzzball.” Much of the show’s most popular moments in the show are Sophia’s cutting put downs.

Estelle Getty

Once Sophia enters the group’s dynamic, we then get the rest of the plot which culminates in an almost-wedding. You see, the conflict Harris has set up for her characters is Rose’s continued angst about the wedding. She’s not only unhappy about potentially losing her home but she also harbors some misgivings about Harry which she cannot explain. In Blanche’s bedroom (with the iconic banana leaves wallpaper), Rose repeatedly tries to warn Blanche from marrying Harry but is thwarted by Dorothy in a series of brilliantly-choreographed physical attacks, which include Dorothy swiftly flinging a protesting Rose into a closet.

Of course, we expect the wedding not to go forward because this is only the first episode. And the resolution is simple: Harry is a bigamist wanted in a number of states (the cop who has to break the news to a heartbroken Blanche is a pre-Designing Women Mesach Taylor). Blanche sequesters herself in her bedroom in grief. Harris gifts McClanahan with some lovely lines, including the distressing, “I feel like such an old fool, not just a fool, but an old fool.” The old bit is important because it foreshadows a series-long obsession Blanche has with aging. Of the characters, she’s the most vain and vulnerable about her age, despite being the youngest.

The final act of the show is set on the lanai (another integral part of Golden Girls lore). The girls are worried about the isolated Blanche who finally makes an appearance after hiding for some time. It’s here that Harris brings in another important theme of the show: family. The Golden Girls is a family, domestic sitcom but one that queers the idea of families, by creating an alternative family of friends. Golden Girls wouldn’t be the first to do this: I Love Lucy, The Lucy Show, The Mary Tyler Moore Show were shows that presented viewers with families of friends. When Harris introduces this notion of friends-as-family, it’s a very sweet moment, one that is recurring throughout the rest of the show’s history. Blanche assumed she would be devastated and unable to move beyond her pain, but then she stumbled upon happiness, unexpectedly. She opens up to her housemates, admitting that she suddenly discovered she was happy because of them. “You’re my family,” she says, reaching out and gripping Rose’s and Dorothy’s hands, “And you make me happy to be alive.” It’s an open moment that is beautifully performed by McClanahan and the others.

l to r: McClanahan, White, Arthur –
in a scene that would appear in the opening credits

Harris wraps up the pilot by having the girls celebrate their friendship by leaving for lunch at Coconut Grove. This sort of ending would be repeated throughout the series: the girls fall into each other’s arms happily as the episode winds to an end. The pilot also establishes a rhythm that becomes familiar for the show: the ladies are presented with some kind of problem, they come up with a solution, they will tease and make fun of each other, and before long, they will hug and profess themselves best friends.

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.

A Qualified Success: Martin Scorsese’s Concerted Efforts to Revive the Movie Musical with New York, New York

In a way, it was a matter of trying to come to terms with a reality that I sensed from these movies that I’d seen from 1945 on to 1957. But I did away with the convention of the time.

Martin Scorsese

When assessing Martin Scorsese’s career, most will cite Raging Bull, Mean Streets, or Goodfellas as his greatest achievements. Reading through a series of top ten lists, and the predictable entries appear: The Wolf of Wall Street, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, The Departed, Mean Streets. The most controversial entries could be Casino or The Age of Innocence. Few people will mention New York, New York, his foray into the movie musical, which saw the director try to introduce the traditional Hollywood musical to the New Hollywood of the 1970s. Like much of his work, the film carries themes of anger and ambition – though instead of framing it in the crime world, he couches his concerns in post-war show business. Urban decay is an important thread throughout his films – the decay that brings about organised crime, but in this case, Scorsese wards off urban blight in his hermetically-sealed fictional world that at-times resembles a lush box of Valentines Day candy. It was his first big-budget spectacular that found the director helming a project that cost over $14 million, a seemingly instant ascent from his more modest productions. Despite the resources and talent involved, New York, New York is sad case of a brilliant director with a brilliant idea that almost pulls it off.

l to r: Liza Minnelli and Robert DeNiro, New York, New York (dir. Martin Scorsese), United Artists, 1977.

New York, New York is Scorsese’s attempt to bring Vincent Minnelli or Stanley Donen into the 1970s, whilst still maintain the verisimilitude of his filmmaking style. It’s an uneasy marriage because Minnelli, Donen, Busby Berkeley, Charles Walters filmed in a highly stylized, artificial manner. Their movies suspended reality. Characters would break into song in the middle of conversations, with extras joining in intricate choreography, while invisible orchestras back them up. The costumes were often grand, and the acting was pitched higher, as if they were performing on a Broadway stage. Aesthetically these movies looked different, too, because they were often filmed on sets simulating cities like Paris, New York, or Los Angeles. And these sets presented these urban landscapes as being tidy, clean without litter, homeless people, fights. MGM’s exaggerated aesthetic also followed into how the characters dressed and looked – the makeup was heavy, lips were ruby red, cheeks candy apple-hued, hairdos were elaborate and constructed.

Scorsese was part of a film movement that purposely moved away from this artifice. His critical success in the 1970s saw a reaction to the old Hollywood system and it was moving away from the antiquated studio system. The studio system had been crumbling for quite some time, done in by the rise of television as well as changing tastes in audiences, influenced undoubtedly by the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, feminism, as well as the Vietnam War. Scorsese, along with his peers including Francis Ford Coppola, Michael Cimino, and Michael DePalma confronted the raw, ugly, violent realities that plagued urban settings, and explored the societal and emotional causes of the violence. Because the New Hollywood was free from the Hays Code era, these films were free to depict violence as well as once-taboo subjects like prostitution, rape, abortion, murder. The violence was confrontational, and audiences weren’t allowed to escape it.

So, in some respects, New York, New York is a brave film in Scorsese’s canon because it’s a film that looks to unite the disparate movements in film. Scorsese makes a loving Valentine to the MGM musical, leaving visual cues and homages throughout the film, as well as, reaching for the kind of grand spectacle that he hadn’t tried before (he never dealt with a film that boasted hundreds of extras and a lavish score and an army of backup dancers) It’s his A Star Is Born or Singin’ in the Rain and he shows his love, not just for old Hollywood, but for music and performance. What the movie proves is that Scorsese is very good at staging a musical number. And Because Scorsese was prone to take risks, he not only set out to make a postmodern Hollywood musical, but an epic one at that, which clocked in at nearly 3 hours, and boasted a 10-minute musical number in the middle. He trusted that his audiences would be drawn into the spectacle.

If New Hollywood rejected the artificial trappings of Old Hollywood, Scorsese showed he had a nostalgia and a love for it. Because the film was such an undertaking and a novel one, Scorsese had no precedent to look to. It’s borrows heavily from Minnelli and Donen, particularly in some of the obviously artificial street settings which are painted backdrops, but he didn’t want to abandon the emotional truth that New Hollywood achieved. Scorsese had a hard time encapsulating the film, demurring, “I don’t know how to define it. I mean, I had an idea, on the one hand to embrace the artifice in a good sense, the artifice and the beauty of the old Hollywood, with room enough for a new way of looking at life.”

As mentioned earlier, New York, New York is a product of Scorsese’s cinematic upbringing and a clear influence on this film is George Cukor’s 1954 showbiz musical drama A Star Is Born. Scorsese’s plot resembles Cukor’s in that both films deal with a marriage that disintegrates due to fame and fortune. The film looks at the fractured relationship of two talented performers, who struggle to stay together because of warring ambition, ego, and a terrible clash of personalities. As their fame grows, so does their inability to be married. And despite Scorsese’s efforts to embrace the Old Hollywood aesthetic, he also presents an unflinching view of domestic rancour and domestic violence that are a seeming bad fit for the idealized world of a Hollywood musical. It’s this unexpected juxtaposition that gives the film its intended emotional power – musical numbers are inherently joyful and there are sharp tonal shifts when the film moves away from a musical number to a scene of domestic strife.  

The plot of the film is straight forward: On V-J Day in 1945, brilliant, but mercurial saxophonist Jimmy Doyle (Robert DeNiro) spots comely USO singer Francine Evans (Liza Minnelli) from across a crowded nightclub and he instantly falls in love. The world is rejoicing the surrender of the Japanese, and the film’s open shows lots of possibility and optimism. It’s here that it’s most like an old Hollywood musical. Scorsese has wide shots of rapturous celebration on sets that are obviously fake (Scorsese would become famous for filming on the streets of New York City), and cinematographer László Kovács works with the director to create a lush, sumptuous look to the film that resembles flattering glamour shots.

Francine and Jimmy get together and despite her initial frostiness, she falls for him. She unwillingly tags along to an audition that goes badly because of Jimmy’s temper, and she saves it by urging him to play to her crooning. The two discover that they share an easy chemistry that eventually translates to a successful touring act. As their careers progress their love becomes doomed by their talent, ego, and competitiveness, and eventually their marriage falls apart. After Francine gives birth to their son, Jimmy abandons them, and goes on to a distinguished career as a jazz musician, whilst she becomes a successful musical comedy star and entertainer. Scorsese employs neon-soaked montages to show us the growing success of Jimmy and Francine’s act but slows down the action to individual moments of tension and rancour to highlight the ruptures in their union – including an anxious scene in which the two are rehearsing in front of a band and their strained relationship spills over to how they interact with their band musicians. 

As the film reaches for stylistic goals – namely, successfully blending two disparate movements in cinema as well as a panoramic and epic scope for a director who never worked at this scale before, Scorsese tried to inject some of his signature features into the film, namely the raw, seemingly improvised nature of the actors’ performance. One thing that must be said about the Hollywood musical is that it appears staged and meticulously plotted. With New York, New York, Scorsese avoided this tactic namely by confining the musical numbers to diegetic performances in the film as opposed to gigantic musical numbers in which characters randomly burst into song.

This reach for a more urgent, spontaneous tone in the context of a gigantic production like New York, New York was difficult to pull off. The intimate scenes between his lead actors managed to retain some closeness but Scorsese struggled with successfully mingling the two styles. “Basically,” he said, “I tried to deal with the style I was experimenting with…I wanted to push the improvisation more.” This proved difficult though because during the colossal production, “sets are being build or dismantled and you got 500 extras,” making it hard for Scorsese to his improvised method.

But he does manage to pull it off in isolated parts of the film, namely due to the chemistry he shares with his frequent collaborator Robert DeNiro, who matches Scorsese’s New Hollywood aesthetic. Unlike matinee idols of Old Hollywood, DeNiro was an actor who looked and sounded like a real person, removed from the idealized notion of masculine beauty. He rarely played heroes and his acting was informed by the Method style which resulted in idiosyncratic work that often felt dangerous, nervy, and prone to sudden explosions. Scorsese was able to work with DeNiro to give New York, New York a volatility that is usually lacking in a Hollywood musical. Ronald Reagan, a former actor himself, though a consummate product of the Hollywood system, once decried Method acting as “dirty” and in a certain sense, he’s right. Because Hollywood musicals require a certain stylized reality, gritty, emotionally complex performances like DeNiro’s are rare and subvert the standards of a Hollywood musical. When DeNiro is on screen, especially in his discordant scenes with Minnelli, Scorsese coaxes a performance that is akin to a tight spring that threatens to jump at any moment. He’s at once menacing, yet beguiling, and manages to cut through the thick, lacquered gloss and remain real even if he’s pacing on a train platform with a painted train in the background.  Scorsese’s goal was to explore the tension that arises with the “kind of naturalistic behaviour of the actors within the confines of an artificial-looking film.”

And the film does look very artificial at times. When the film opens to the celebration and the crowd of revellers, a spotlight lingers on a pair of saddle shoes that trod on a filthy newspaper, heralding the surrender of the Japanese. The camera pans back to take in the large crowd that is surging through the New York street, it looks fake – the sidewalks too uniform and new (no cracks or pockmarks), the buildings on the side of the street to fabricated and flat. The proportions look off, which Scorsese did deliberately, finding slight details like street curbs being too high or the Manhattan skyline being painted part of the challenge when trying to impart sincerity in an artificial setting. There’s a scrubbed, polish look to New York, New York that is a marked difference from Scorsese’s other films from the 1970s.

And if DeNiro is Scorsese’s way of disrupting the artifice with gritty realism, the casting of Liza Minnelli is an homage to that artifice as well as to the lore of the Hollywood musical. Not only is Minnelli a musical star like her character, but she’s a direct link to the Golden Age of Hollywood – her parents Vincent Minnelli and Judy Garland are two of the era’s most important figures. Unlike DeNiro, Minnelli doesn’t convey a deep and profound authenticity. She’s patently showbiz in the way that she delivers her lines – her nervous smiles and comic delivery feeling forced and rehearsed as opposed to her co-star’s more instinctual performance. Minnelli isn’t an actress so much as a personality and therefore Scorsese does wonders with her when he directs her in the musical numbers as he is able to show her off at her best, when she is singing and dancing. It’s when she’s called upon to face DeNiro that Scorsese’s attempt to marry two disparate modes of filmmaking makes the film truly fascinating because DeNiro’s work is so authentic that he appears to just be, whilst Minnelli’s more affected showbiz work feels stylized and exaggerated. And because Scorsese is so interested in looking at the tension between these two ways of acting, the film actually benefits from this clash.

The other thing that must be looked at when examining New York, New York are the musical numbers. Scorsese isn’t a natural for musical films, but he was more than up to the task when he took on New York, New York. Because of the film’s length and its challenging material, it’s clear that Scorsese was not only interested in making an interesting musical, but an important one. This is clear because he also includes a long, 10-minute musical number that breaks up the film and signals Francine’s success as a musical comedy star. As mentioned earlier, New York, New York owes a lot to A Star Is Born and Singin’ in the Rain. Both older films are also considered “important” musical films, and both have extended musical numbers that act as centrepieces in the film. In Cukor’s A Star Is Born, it’s the “Born in a Trunk” medley, in which Judy Garland’s character, a Vaudevillian, tells her rags-to-riches story through an extended musical number that runs over 15 minutes and acts as a showcase for Garland’s singing, dancing and performing talents. In Donen’s Singin’ in the Rain, we see this in Gene Kelly’s “Gotta Dance” number – an extended bit that is a fictional Broadway show that Kelly’s character stars in, that again serves to highlight the star’s prodigious musical talent.

The key musical number, “Happy Endings” is part of a film-within-a-film. At this point in the plot, Francine and Jimmy have split up, and Francine’s gone on to become a major star. The fictional film is a vehicle and the musical number serves as a vehicle for Minnelli as well as for Scorsese to show his versatility and ability to helm a large and spectacular sequence. Never has Scorsese had so many elements to join on the screen. There are dancers, musicians, and actors, with large elaborate sets as well as intricate choreography. Filming these kinds of sequences is difficult because so much of the impact of these moments depend on how the visuals come off, and Scorsese scores handsomely. The sequence starts with Francine’s character playing an usher who imagines herself to be a musical comedy star, and she’s discovered by a smooth-voiced crooner who steps out of her way just as she’s about to ascend into superstardom. As is common with these long medleys, there’s a choppiness to the proceedings, but Scorsese handles these shifts in between songs and scenes masterfully, ably aping the kind of smooth work that his predecessors have done. And even though Scorsese thrives on depicting gritty intimacy, he’s also a master at showing off a spectacle, as seen in the finale of the “Happy Endings” sequence when the camera pans to a large staircase, with Francine descending slowly and gradually being inching closer to the camera. She’s wearing a red, over-the-top evening gown, and she’s flanked by dancers in sequined ruby. The colours come off, popping, as Scorsese chooses deep, jewel tones for his palette to mimic the extravagant colours of the Hollywood musical (without resorting to the drippy, juicy garishness of Technicolor).

There are visual cues in the musical number in which Scorsese also harks back to the classic Hollywood musical. These bits are subtle, but unmistakeable. Most notable is how he recreates a version of the “Gotta Dance” sequence from Singin’ in the Rain, that featured Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse. The famed musical number took place in a bar with bright red walls that matched Charisse’s outfit. Scorsese pays homage by having part of Francine’s number take place in a nightclub that is also blood red, with dancers in the background gyrating rhythmically to the jazzy big band music.

It’s these stylistic choices that make New York, New York work despite it all getting away from Scorsese’s control. Because the film is a love letter to a bygone era, it slightly tips into corny area – especially when we’re seeing Minnelli on screen. Her scenes when she’s performing are unabashed showbusiness, and Scorsese indulges in his ardour for that more stylized type of direction. When he’s filming Francine’s recording session of “But the World Goes Round” he lovingly frames her in a dramatic spotlight, the world nearly pitch-black around her. She’s dressed in a (relatively) simple outfit of a white top, with sparkly jewellery at her shoulders and throat, and she’s heavily made up, with the period hairdo, and it’s here that Scorsese is really trying to recall Judy Garland. Minnelli’s singing – a throbbing, vibrato-laden belt – is reminiscent of Garland’s and the two look eerily alike in the number, and Scorsese pulls off a neat trick in getting Judy Garland (or at least a decent facsimile) to perform in a film in the 1970s. It’s his homage to Garland’s “The Man That Got Away” from A Star Is Born, in that he reaches for a moment – through a torch song – to move the plot forward by emphasising both the song’s optimism as well as melancholy (which are two qualities that define Minnelli’s screen persona) to narrate how the two characters are forced to adapt to their difficult circumstances – alone, away from each other – and despite it all, the world does move on. It’s in the “But the World Goes Round” number that Scorsese really taps into emotional intensity of the film’s message about perseverance. The song starts of slow, a shuffling pop ballad that becomes increasingly frantic as Minnelli starts to build up crescendo – it’s as if Scorsese doesn’t really believe in the message of perseverance and wants to convince himself and the audience by having Francine turn the number from a bluesy pop song into a full-throated anthem, which has Minnelli practically roar near the end (when she belts out the word “sound” so overcome is she with both the song’s message and her leather-lunged voice, she grips her head as if it were about to explode). Scorsese reaches transcendence in this moment and New York, New York doesn’t feel like a canny pastiche anymore. As beautifully as “Happy Endings” comes off – and it’s a masterful job – there is a feeling of effort behind the number, as if Scorsese wants the audience to know the gears moving behind the production. But he achieves seamlessness with “But the World Goes Round” showing off a stylish and rakish quality to his work that is far removed from its usual harsh grittiness.

In interviews, Scorsese talked about his love for films, especially when he was growing up. He came of age as a film goer during the Golden Age of Hollywood, consuming MGM and Warner Bros musicals but he’s become one of the most important figures of New Hollywood. But he doesn’t approach the older style with smugness but true affection which is why New York, New York should have worked. It isn’t snarky and though it’s mean at times (this is especially true in the DeNiro scenes), he doesn’t mock the Hollywood musical. He would take on the theme of entertainment later on his career – The King of Comedy is a notable example of his take on showbiz and celebrity culture – and his previous film Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is also about a fledgling singer (though one with far less natural vocal resources) and so much of New York, New York is about wanted to achieve a certain goal and being frustrated. It’s a fitting theme to parallel Scorsese’s reach in making this film. Like Francine and Jimmy, Scorsese is a talented individual who is a master at what he does, but he also has an oversized ambition that threatens his output. At times, the film feels like a challenge or a dare that Scorsese has done on himself, to see if he can make the kind of film that Stanley Donen or Vincent Minnelli were able to.

The end of New York, New York is interesting because he again he wants to lovingly mesh the realism of contemporary filmmaking with the glossy fabulousness of a Hollywood musical. Usually in a Hollywood musical, the film ends on a high note – literally, if the musical signs off with a musical number. Often the cast will gather at the end to belt out the final tune (often the title tune) and we’re almost treated to a curtain call. The classic Hollywood musical was usually a musical comedy – something to work as escapist entertainment to distract audiences from the Great Depression or WWII. Though audiences sought escapist entertainment in the 1970s, Scorsese wasn’t interested in distracting his audiences, which is why New York, New York comes off so strange.

In the final sequence, we have Minnelli perform the title tune, written by her long-time collaborators, John Kander and Fred Ebb (who penned the songs for Minnelli’s Oscar-winning turn in Cabaret) By the end of the film, both Francine and Jimmy are established in their respective careers. He comes to see her at a nightclub and she’s singing the theme song. The song’s lyrics speak to the kind of cockeyed – sometimes foolish – optimism that people hold on to when they move to a large city like New York. It’s a city that is fabled to be a city of opportunities. People from nowhere appear there and with some luck and hard work, they can become successes. That is what happened to Jimmy and Francine who become big stars, despite the many obstacles (most self-induced) that get in their way. Like with “But the World Goes Round,” Minnelli invests the song with her brand of razzle dazzle showmanship. It’s here that we don’t really see Francine anymore, but are watching Minnelli. Unlike the optimism in “But the World Goes Round,” the optimism in “New York, New York” is sincere and hard-won. In the former musical number, she’s working overtime to convince herself and her audience, and she’s always near failure; but with “New York, New York” it’s far more of a triumphant call. Again, Scorsese shows his facility with filming musical numbers, though this scene is far simpler and less infused with meaning than “But the World Goes Round.” It works as a red herring, to reassure audiences that they’ll have a happy ending. But Scorsese wisely subverts this convention by having Jimmy and Francine stay apart. Jimmy wants to get back with Francine and leaves her a note, but she responds by ignoring it, leaving him waiting for her, until he realizes that she’s not coming back. Therefore, the musical ends on a bit of a deflating note, as we don’t close out with another rousing number – one in which our star pumps her fist in the air in victory – but instead we see two sad people, resigned to their fate, move on.

Watching New York, New York, one must admire Scorsese’s chutzpah in choosing to make such a strange film. The concerns of the film, mainly succeeding in show business while trying to maintain a self-destructive marriage doesn’t necessarily feel like a Scorsese film. He will go on to become synonymous with hard-bitten crime dramas that chronicle urban blight and urban decay, particularly the violence that results from urban blight, but he would also stretch himself again, surprising audiences by directing a lush period drama, The Age of Innocence or the grand historical epic, Kundun. But New York, New New York stands apart because of its audacity and nerve. The movie musical was facing an identity crisis in the 1970s as it was having to compete with gritter, more substantial fare, and critically and commercially, the film failed to find a large audience (though it has a small, cult following) A major hallmark of Scorsese’s filmography is about characters being too real and too recognizable; too much is shown. His characters are rarely ideals, and in fact, they often operate as either anti-heroes, villains, or as avatars to highlight moral depravity or destruction in an urban setting. New York, New York is an outlier in the film because rarely did Scorsese reach for such visual pleasure in his films. He wanted New York, New York to look beautiful, in its oft-deco splendour, and eschewed much of his usual themes of destruction and decay. He wanted the film to be a genuine addition to the genre’s canon and not operate as a dated, antiquated relic, but be vital in the landscape of 1970s cinema. That is why along with shedding much of his grittiness, he also avoided much of the genre’s squeaky cleanliness. Instead he pioneered a combination of two – something that has rarely been done before. And even if the film has a few more misses than hits, it’s still an admirable achievement to appreciate.

Can They Do It? Hoping Against Hope with Christopher Guest’s Waiting for Guffman

l to r: Parker Posey, Christopher Guest, Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Fred Willard, Waiting for Guffman (dir. Christopher Guest), Castle Rock Entertainment, 1996.

While studying in college, I joined an improv group in Chicago. Along with being a member of this improv group, I also joined a theatre troupe, indulging in my inner performer, hoping that I’d either I unearth some deep acting talent or even better, that I’d be discovered on stage and become a star. The appeal of prospective stardom, no matter how humble the situation, drives many amateur performers to the stage. Though I was a liberal arts major, walking through my general education requirements, joining these acting groups gave me license to call myself an actor, no matter how low stakes my performing career was.

That is why I identify with the characters of Christopher Guest’s 1996 comedy Waiting for Guffman. The story – written by Guest and Eugene Levy – is about a small Missouri town about to celebrate its 150th anniversary. To commemorate this auspicious occasion, a group of amateur actors put on a show, led by the ambitious, but frustrated, theatre director Corky St Clair (Guest). Under the passionate – if misguided – enthusiasm of Corky, locals join the production of Red, White, and Blaine, a musical that charts the history of smalltown Blaine, Missouri.

Corky assembles a gallery of dedicated amateurs who look to Red, White, and Blaine to inject some excitement and culture in their bucolic and prosaic lives. Local dentist Dr Allan Pearl (Levy), travel agents Ron and Sheila Albertson (Fred Willard and Catherine O’Hara), and Dairy Queen waitress Libby Mae Brown (Parker Posey) looked to the show as an opportunity to showcase their talents; Dr Pearl and the Albertsons in particular are wannabe performers who hope that someday their artistic talents will lead them to showbiz success. With Libby, the story is somewhat more poignant: Libby sees possible stardom as a way of leaving Blaine and shrugging off the grim life of a smalltown Dairy Queen waitress. It’s not just that these characters love being on stage, they bank a lot of emotional investment in the play, being able to set aside any nagging snatches of reality that expose their endeavor for what it really is: a hokey, local production of a mediocre play in an obscure American hamlet. 

The plot of Waiting for Guffman is inspired by the series of Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland musicals of the 1930s. In those films, the formula is set: Rooney and Garland are a pair of fresh-faced youths who find themselves confronting some obstacle that can only be solved by an old-fashioned musical. Corralling a group of preternaturally talented friends, Rooney and Garland stage a musical and the town is saved. Of course, in Waiting for Guffman, the characters’ musical skills are nowhere near Rooney’s and Garland’s. Never is that clearer than in the hilarious audition sequence in which the denizens of Blaine, including our heroes, perform with heartbreaking sincerity. Among the townfolk who show up at the local high school to try their hand at the Blaine version of the Great White Way, we see Libby warble an off-key yet hopelessly coquettish version of the Doris Day classic, “Teacher’s Pet”; Dr Pearl valiantly struggles through “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair”; and the Albertsons – who bill themselves the Lunts of Blaine, do a mind-boggling smash up of Maria Muldaur’s “Midnight at the Oasis” and an homage to the Taster’s Choice instant coffee commercials. The characters power through self-doubt and lack of talent to impress Corky, the seemingly urbane sophisticate who breezes into Blaine with his Broadway-level vision.

Waiting for Guffman is a film about want. Most screenwriting teachers instruct their students that when writing scripts, the key is to make sure that their scripts work off characters’ motivation. Characters must want something to make the story compelling. In Waiting for Guffman, the characters want to put on a good show. But more than that, they also want to escape the dreariness of their smalltown lives, even if it’s for a couple hours when they’re performing on stage. Corky, like his actors, is also a character who is living off a desired dream, one in which he isn’t a failure. Though he’s an off-off-off-off Broadway veteran, he’s able to indulge in modest pretension in Blaine, being able to charm the locals who seem awestruck by his flamboyance and his gung-ho attitude towards the theatre. And when he promises an actual Broadway producer for the opening night of Red, White, and Blaine, suddenly the stakes are much higher, and the actors dreams of stardom suddenly seem attainable. The tension suddenly is heightened as we see the actual production of Red, White, and Blaine and we can revel in its surprising competence when throughout the whole film, all we saw was how inept the actors – and Corky – really are.

Waiting for Guffman is a film about want. Most screenwriting teachers instruct their students that when writing scripts, the key is to make sure that their scripts work off characters’ motivation. Characters must want something to make the story compelling. In Waiting for Guffman, the characters want to put on a good show. But more than that, they also want to escape the dreariness of their smalltown lives, even if it’s for a couple hours when they’re performing on stage. Corky, like his actors, is also a character who is living off a desired dream, one in which he isn’t a failure. Though he’s an off-off-off-off Broadway veteran, he’s able to indulge in modest pretension in Blaine, being able to charm the locals who seem awestruck by his flamboyance and his gung-ho attitude towards the theatre. And when he promises an actual Broadway producer for the opening night of Red, White, and Blaine, suddenly the stakes are much higher, and the actors dreams of stardom suddenly seem attainable. The tension suddenly is heightened as we see the actual production of Red, White, and Blaine and we can revel in its surprising competence when throughout the whole film, all we saw was how inept the actors – and Corky – really are.

With Ron and Sheila Albertson we see a pair of veteran Blaine thespians who manage to intimidate the other Blaine actors with their fragile egos and misplaced confidence. Part of this confidence comes from living in a small town with severely limited opportunities. When introduced to Ron, the audience gets an immediate peak into his good-natured bluster that is simply a gloss over his desire to “be something and be somebody.” Though they run a travel agency, the Albertsons have never travelled outside of Blaine and in Blaine they can act out their ‘big fish, small pond’ life, which is largely buttressed by their theatrical dreams.

Like the Albertsons, Dr Pearl is a local professional – a dentist – who also nurtures dreams of stardom. Pearl’s introduction is as sad as the Albertsons, the dentist admitting that at school, he would not be considered the ‘class clown,’ but he boasts that he sad ‘beside the class clown’ and ‘studied him’. He goes on to admit that as a teen, he lifted the schtick from a funnier, more gregarious classmate. Dr Pearl is even given a theatrical history, as we learn through his interview that his grandfather was a performer with the Yiddish vaudeville in New York City.

In both these early interviews, we see a distressing tableau of dissatisfaction and yearning. Some of Guest’s work (as well as that of his actors) feels a bit smug and condescending towards smalltown America – much of the comedy of Waiting for Guffman wouldn’t work without the creeping pity that Guest feels for his characters – but the pathos is well-earned as all these people want to do is put on a good show despite being hopelessly untalented at performing.

As the film chugs along, we see moments in which the importance of this play is communicated to the audience. We see scenes of rehearsal with Corky’s directing style – which is a tossed salad of pretentious nonsense – and we also see how clearly invested these characters are in the fiction of their artistic venture. These scenes build up by creating new layers of absurdity as we see just how ridiculous and useless these actors, and their director for that matter, really are. Corky’s grand vision for Red, White, and Blaine outstrips both his troupe’s ability as well as his own. But because the characters are sympathetic – mainly due to the mesmerizing work of Guest’s company of actors – we start to empathize with their dreams and hope – against hope – that they’ll be able to pull off a good show. 

The opening night is important because Guest does a lot to manage – and confound – expectations of his audience. Throughout the film, we see bits and pieces of Red, White, and Blaine, and frankly, it’s confounding. The elements include alien abduction, a stool factory, and a love story – the plot of Red, White, and Blaine feels like a collage of high school productions. When Corky’s request for more money from the town council is bluntly denied, we are sent into another spiral crash as the production is imperiled by Corky’s increasing panic and disillusionment. When he temporarily quits the show, sequestering himself into his flat, his actors disperse, unmoored and undone by the disappointment of not putting on Red, White, and Blaine. Though a raucous comedy, there are few scenes in cinema as pitiable as a resigned Libby grilling a single chicken wing on a backyard barbecue grill, in front of a rather distressing clapboard house, sucking on a cigarette and musing about going back to work at the Dairy Queen. When finally convinced to return, there’s a renewed energy in the actors’ rehearsal as they saw how close they were to losing this chance.

Because the buildup to the opening night is marked by so much goofiness, it’s a bit of a surprise to see who professional this little town is about its theatrics. As we see the citizens of Blaine make their way to their seats in the theatre, we see the orchestra, tuning its instruments, prepping itself for the show. The sight of competent musicians wearing tuxedoes and looking like a real orchestra is a shock, really. And once it launches into the overture, we’re duly impressed with where this is all going. Though we’re rooting for this team as they bumbled through rehearsals, we feel as if this is doomed to be ridiculous, but on opening night of Red, White, and Blaine, we feel that maybe these kooks can pull this off.

It’s during the performance that we start to believe that Corky and company would prevail. Red, White, and Blaine is an affectionate pean to Blaine, Missouri. Do the actors suddenly become the Royal Shakespeare Company? Of course not. But they all manage to channel their enthusiasm into shockingly proficient work, the Albertsons reining in their hammy showboating, Libby displaying a winsome charm, and Dr Pearl finding surprising dignity and gravitas in his performance. Though Corky is refused his injection of $100,000, the production value of Red, White, and Blaine is solid. And the music – written for the film by Guest and his regular collaborators Michael McKean and Harry Shearer as well as award-winning composer William Ross – is engaging and heartily performed by Corky’s troupe. When they throw themselves into the square-dancing sequence of “Covered Wagons Open-Toed Shoes” we see all of the hard work pay off to the merriment of the happy audience members. But more than just their good work, we are utterly charmed by the sheer joy on their faces. The unbridled delight comes from not just the thrill and excitement of performing on stage but with the promise of impressing the titular Mr Guffman and wowing their local townspeople. 

What makes Waiting for Guffman so ingratiating is the way that Guest’s actors fully realize the kind of star-eyed wonder of the townspeople. Red, White, and Blaine is a way for the folks from Blaine to come together to not only celebrate the anniversary of their town but also to indulge in momentarily feeling like Broadway or the West End. Dr Pear, the Albertsons, and Libby all are working out their love of local theater on the stage and their zeal is infectious. When councilman Steve Stark (Michael Hitchcock) is beside himself with admiration for Corky’s work as well as envy and desire, he gushes during the intermission:

You know, I knew that Corky could act, and he could direct, and he could produce. But who knew that he was going to act and sing and dance? You know he can just do everything there is to do. And there’s only one other person in the world that can do that, and that’s Barbra Streisand. He is – uh – I don’t know, an inspiration to this town, that’s what he is

His enthusiastic monologue is capped with a frustrated, “God, I wish I was in the show!”

The ending of Red, White, and Blaine ends on an appropriate note with a patriotic musical number, with the cast marching out in Yankee Doodle Dandy drag to a John Souza-like march and we’re hooked. As the cast parades off the stage into the cheering audience, balloons drop and we’re simultaneously relieved and entertained by how good the show is. And we see that Mr Guffman’s reserved seat is occupied by a distinguished gentleman who joins in the festive reception of the play at its conclusion. Because Red, White, and Blaine went so well, we actually believe it when the gentleman agrees with Corky that the show has the potential to go to Broadway; when we learn that Mr Guffman – Corky’s theater critic failed to show up and the nice gentleman was merely a theatre goer – we’re crushed like the characters because we – like the characters – became convinced that the show was a hit.

The postscript catching us up to the Red, White, and Blaine castmembers three months later show us that despite the disappointment of Mr Guffman’s no-show, the showbiz bug bit our friends. Dr Pearl left quaint Blaine for Miami Beach to become an entertainer at a retirement home; the Albertsons traveled to Hollywood to find their fame and fortune, finding themselves nameless extras. When Dr Pearl pronounces that his experience on Red, White, and Blaine taught him that he has a need to entertain, which reminds me of my times as a wannabe sketch comic and actor. Like Dr Pearl, I threw myself into my acting, my enthusiasm far outstripping my talent, but I was intent – along with my fellow actors – on putting on a good show. Against all odds, people like Dr Pearl, Libby, the Albertsons, or Corky rally, summoning up all of their (meager) talents and (boundless) enthusiasm to put on a good show. That is what makes Waiting for Guffman such an engaging watch. If Corky was a brilliant director and if his actors were brilliant hoofers, we wouldn’t be worried about whether the show would be any good and we wouldn’t be as invested in the potential high or crash that these wonderful characters are facing. By the end of the film, we want Red, White, and Blaine to do well and we’re just as moist-eyed with joy when it does.

The Friends Project: “The One Where Nana Dies Twice”

“The One Where Nana Dies Twice” (1994), Friends, Series 1, Episode 8, NBC, November 10

This is a very strange and tonally inconsistent episode. Some of the episode is played quite beautifully, and then a lot of it trades in that patented Friends-style homophobia that makes it so tedious to watch. In this episode – written by Marta Kauffman and David Crane – has two major plots running in parallel: in one, referenced, in the title, Ross’ and Monica’s (David Schwimmer and Courtney Cox) grandmother dies; in the other, Chandler (Matthew Perry) is in a homophobic tizzy because his coworkers and his friends think he has a ‘gay’ quality, and in glorious early 90s bigotry, he’s pissed off and defensive. The tone on the episode whipsaws between poignant and lovely to hacky and awful. The editing and directing (the normally spotless James Burrows) are to blame for this goofy episode being lopsided and uncomfortable to watch.

So much of contemporary criticism of the show centers on its awful, dated approach to queerness and while I think that criticism is unfair and, frankly, a bit whiny, I forget that there are episodes like this in which we watch a guy turn himself inside out with angst over being perceived as gay. It’s not even that his peers think being gay is bad, in fact this whole farmisht affair started because Chandler’s coworker Shelly (a fab Nancy Cassaro) wants to set him up with a guy from the office (Stuart Fratkin) and this sends him spinning. He goes to his friends and they all agreed with Shelly that Chandler has a whiff of gayness about him. Not only is his panic horrible but the evidence presented to him is so thin and dumb (he’s smart and funny) that this subplot feels awfully stupid. Chandler’s waspish bitchiness was always interpreted as queer subtext, but his irritating angst about being seen as queer is exhausting.

Far better is the story about the titular Nana dying. The script still struggles to find a consistency, at times, the episode was touching and other times it dipped into a Carol Burnett sketch. While gay bashing Chandler at Monica’s, Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) gets a phone call from her Italian boyfriend from Rome (how fancy!) but the call’s interrupted by Ross’ and Rachel’s pop -we know things are bad because Monica’s face drops and there’s a fade into the next scene and we see the Gellers at the hospital. Elliott Gould and Christina Pickles are back as their parents, along with Elinor Donahue as their aunt, Lillian. The title refers to a moment when Monica and Ross are sadly saying goodbye to their late grandmother, lying peacefully in her hospital bed, but she breaks out of her death briefly sending Ross and Monica screaming from her room.

There are some truly lovely moments sprinkled throughout the episode, even if it leaps around so much. Part of Nana’s idiosyncrasies was her love of Sweet’n Low packets. As Ross was rummaging through Nana’s closet and accidentally came up some shoeboxes full of Sweet’n Low packets which rained down on him, as he tearfully smiled at this sweet memory. Another nice scene had Monica and her mother share a kind moment at the reception when the two come to an understanding about their prickly relationship. And in probably the loveliest scene so far in the season, the friends are sitting around at the end of the episode, going through Nana’s photographs and they find a picture of Nana in early 20s in 1939, sitting at a coffee house with her circle of friends. Ross muses, “It looks like a fun gang” – it’s a charming moment that ends an erratic episode beautifully.

Some of the best moments on Friends – or any good sitcom – are the more moving, touching scenes. Friends has a number of them, more in the later scenes, and this episode is a good nod toward the potential this show has to tug at viewers’ heartstrings. Though we haven’t seen Nana ever, the writing and Schwimmer’s and Cox’s performances provide an emotional heft that is surprisingly potent (the addition of sad score music is a bit superfluous). The script unfortunately doesn’t trust its audience to keep its attention, so we have some broad physical humor, including Ross plunging into an open grave – a tired, predictably gag that I believe everyone would have seen. Schwimmer is also called upon to perform more Mr Bean-like slapstick at the reception portraying a drugged up Ross who palms a bunch of painkillers and stumbles and sways around the group of mourners, professing his sloppy love to all his friends, including Rachel, who responds in kind, humoring him (not catching that his love for her is different than his fraternal love for Monica and Phoebe)

Judy Geller (Christina Pickles)

A quick thing about Christina Pickles. She was known for her long-running role on St Elsewhere earning a bunch of Emmy nominations for that show, and picking up an Emmy nomination for this episode as best guest actress (she would finally win an Emmy 2018 for her work in the web series Break a Hip) I didn’t like her character in the first episode she was on – I found the dynamic of the pushy Jewish mother a bit cliched but she does some lovely work here. The scene that she shares with Courtney Cox is quite affecting: when Judy shares that she had a difficult relationship with her late mother, always dodging her criticisms, the actress was able to show flecks of self-awareness as her character realizes that she does the same thing to her own daughter. Like Maggie Wheeler from “The One with the East German Laundry Detergent,” Pickles endears herself to audiences, proving in this episode to be as appealing as the cast members.

“The One Where Nana Dies Twice” is an unfortunate episode because are some gems studded throughout the episode and the sweet ending does close the story on a high note. Unfortunately, the noxious gay panic as well as the confused approach to the funeral scenes threaten to undo much of better moments. It’s an early episode, still, so some patience is still warranted.

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