In Tribute to Cinematic Giant, Sidney Poitier

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

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

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

Top 10 The Highlights of Sidney Poitier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Barbra Streisand: the greatest star

In 2001, when honored by the American Film Institute with its lifetime achievement award, Barbra Streisand mused about the other recipients, including Bette Davis, who had made over 80 films. On stage, Streisand pointed out that she had only made 16 films up to that point.

“I’ve always wanted to be an actress,” she said. “Ever since I can remember.” She added, “My dream was to be a classical actress. I wanted to play all the great parts. Hedda Gabler. Nora in A Doll’s House. Shaw’s and Shakespeare’s Cleopatra. But tonight, I stand before you, not having done any of it. I got sidetracked, I guess. I couldn’t get a job as a dramatic actress, so I started to sing.”

The speech gets at Barbra Streisand’s film career – a wildly successful career that still hasn’t fulfilled all of its potential. Because Streisand didn’t look like her peers – like Sandra Dee or Audrey Hepburn – because she had a distinct, unique, if unconventional beauty, she wasn’t seen as a leading lady. Instead, she was the strange and unique kook. A weird beatnik who had streaks in her hair, Cleopatra eye makeup, and a funky thrift shop aesthetic.

Her film debut is considered one of the greatest film debuts in film history. In a role that she created on Broadway, she played Fanny Brice to Oscar-winning perfection in the 1968 musical comedy, Funny Girl (dir. William Wyler) The film is still the one that uses Streisand’s unique talent in the best way. It was a musical at a time when the genre was dimming, yet it became a classic hit. The myth of Brice was inextricably braided into Streisand’s public persona. When looking in the mirror, covered head-to-toe in leopard print, Streisand smirks, “Hello, gorgeous,” introducing herself as a movie star, blurring the line between film and reality. Streisand has a kindred spirit with Wyler, who films his star like a consummate Broadway producer. When she’s belting “Don’t Rain on My Parade” on the ferry at the end of the film, a star is born.

Because of the resultant superstardom from Funny Girl and her recording career, Streisand became a leading lady in the 1970s, starring in a string of hit films, casting her as the romantic lead, opposite handsome matinee idols like Robert Redford, Kris Kristofferson, and Ryan O’Neil. The Way We Were, The Main Event, What’s Up Doc?, and A Star Is Born defined 70s pop mainstream cinema.

What’s Up Doc? is arguably her best performance during her 70s movie star era. Peter Bogdanovich was able to emulate the screwball comedies of the 1930s with unerring, accurate skill, recalling Howard Hawks at his best. As Judy Maxwell, Streisand is a sexy, loopy gem, a furious comedy tornado. She never reached the comedic heights of What’s Up Doc? again.

In the 1980s, Streisand made only two films – her most notable being her directing debut, Yentl (1983), based on a short story by Isaac Bashevis Singer about a young woman who dons men’s clothing to continue her education, which is reserved for me. Yentl was a labor of love for the diva – she not only directed the film, but starred in it, help write the screenplay, and produced the soundtrack with Michel Legrand and Alan and Marilyn Bergman. The film was an ambitious work, admirable in her reach. She wanted to tell the story of the importance of education and knowledge, as well as, the power of fatherhood. Streisand’s relationship with her stepfather was notably difficult, and her birth father died young, leaving her with feelings of abandonment and emotional issues that she seemed to approach with Yentl.

Her other film of the 1980s, Nuts was a notable effort, in which Streisand found herself working with powerhouses like Richard Dreyfuss, Maureen Stapleton, Eli Wallach, and Karl Malden. It was a Method movie and it was one of Streisand’s most challenging roles. It would be the final time that Streisand would essay a role that pushed her talent. Nuts is a laudable effort, one that Streisand took very seriously. She took on scoring duties as well as producing and starring in the film.

By the 1990s, Streisand established herself as an entertainment legend and power player. A successful world tour and an extended career of best-selling albums were a great companion to her film efforts of the 1990s, including 1991’s The Prince of Tides, her second directing effort. Based on the novel by Pat Controy, the film was a box office hit and was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture (though she was notably snubbed for best director) In retrospect, the film shows the director at her best and worst. She’s very good at getting excellent performances from her actors and she’s also solid at framing a scene. She has an eye for lighting and using visuals to paint a beautiful picture – her use of water in the film is especially skillful. There’s also a violent scene of rape which Streisand handles with adept taste, restraint, and honesty.

Unfortunately, The Prince of Tides would also become the film that would mark Streisand as a self-serving diva. Though much of this criticism is rooted in sexism, there is some validity in questioning Streisand’s choices with the film. Her character, for example, is a supporting player in Conroy’s book, but is expanded to a lead in the film. She also frames herself in gauzy, lovingly lit shots as if she were shooting an album cover. Her performance in the film is sound, but she’s overshadowed by the searing work of Nick Nolte and Kate Nelligan, who play fractured survivors of abuse.

The other film that Streisand directed – her last to date – is 1996’s The Mirror Has Two Faces. Unlike The Prince of Tides or Yentl, The Mirror Has Two Faces is remarkable in its lack of ambition. It’s a straightforward, mainstream romantic comedy. Streisand directs it as if she were Nora Ephron, Rob Reiner, Garry Marshall, or any mainstream rom-com film director. She also stars in the film, and though it’s not a particularly memorable performance, it’s a good reminder that there was a time when she was a very funny actress. The most notable thing about The Mirror Has Two Faces was that it resurrected the career of film legend Lauren Bacall, who played Streisand’s vainglorious mother. The movie tells the story of a brilliant Columbia University professor (Streisand) who is unlucky in love. Through the machinations of her sister (Mimi Rogers), she’s paired with a handsome, if rumpled, math academic played by Jeff Bridges (the latest in a string of handsome blond onscreen lovers). The film does ask some pointed questions about standards of beauty – though Streisand’s vaulted vanity never allow her to ever look homely or unattractive, so the big makeover reveal (complete with exercise and beauty montage over a Richard Marx power ballad) doesn’t have the impact it should.

For the last few years, Streisand’s focus seemed to be on her music and touring. She made sporadic appearances on film, most notably as Rosalyn Focker in the Ben Stiller comedy franchise Meet the Fockers and Little Fockers. The films weren’t great art by any means, but in Meet the Fockers, Streisand was able to flex her comedy muscles again, playing in the sandbox with stars Stiller, Robert DeNiro, and Dustin Hoffman. She also starred alongside Seth Rogan in the road comedy Guilt Trip, leaning into the Jewish mother stereotype. Though Streisand was enjoyable in these films, it’s a bit of a head-scratcher why she chose these middling projects to break up long blocks of absences in her film career.

As earlier noted, Streisand’s a major figure in 20th century cinema with a relatively thin resume. Her contribution to film isn’t one classic film, but instead, as moments. It’s her crooning the title theme song from The Way We Were. It’s her tearfully belting through “My Man” in Funny Girl. It’s her, in a crunchy perm, wearing a peasant blouse, staring down a crowd in A Star Is Born. In interviews, Streisand has repeatedly insisted that film making is far more fulfilling and rewarding to her than making music, but her film career is seemingly inseparable from her music career. Whilst she was deserving of the AFI Lifetime Achievement Award, it’s fitting that her thank you speech did address that her career – though wildly successful – is still one of untapped potential.

Albert Brooks finds Debbie Reynolds the role she deserved almost 50 years in her career

In 1996, two film legends enjoyed the some of the best reviews in their careers: Lauren Bacall starred in Barbra Streisand’s romantic comedy The Mirror Has Two Faces and Albert Brooks resurrected Debbie Reynolds career in his comedy Mother. While Streisand’s film used Bacall’s glamour and history, Brooks unearthed a little-seen side of Reynolds’ screen persona and underrated talents. In Mother, Brooks exposed a sly and hidden comedic talent that went unused for decades.

By 1996, Debbie Reynolds was a Hollywood icon, but a large chunk of her legend was tied up in her screen persona, her time as a refugee from the Golden Age of Hollywood, and her general razzle dazzle aesthetic. Aside from Singin’ in the Rain or maybe The Unsinkable Molly Brown, Reynolds film career was more of a busy blur. By the 1990s, she was more famous for being Princess Leia’s mother.

So Mother is an excellent vehicle for the actress. When Brooks was casting the film, he wanted a 50s film icon to play the titular character – a passive aggressive, somewhat repressed woman who has left emotional scars on her son’s self-esteem and his career. Former first lady, Nancy Reagan was Brooks’ choice. Before becoming a politician’s wife, Reagan was known as Nancy Davis – a 1950s Hollywood b-movie actress who would fall in love and marry the future California governor and POTUS, Ronald Reagan. Unlike Debbie Reynolds, Nancy Reagan never found much success as a film star. Though she was interested in the film, she ultimately passed because of her husband’s ailing health.

Though I think Reagan’s casting would’ve made the film very interesting, ultimately, it was good luck that Reynolds was available, instead. Though Reagan was a moderately gifted actress, she didn’t have the resources necessary to pull off a tricky role like Beatrice Henderson. I’m sure age and experience would have lent Reagan a gravitas and presence, but Reynolds wasn’t just relying on her star quality and her legend – she gave a fully- realized performance as Brooks’ emotionally icy mother.

Brooks’ script has him cast as John Henderson, a science-fiction author who is going through a midlife crisis. His career is stalled because he’s suffering from writer’s block, and his romantic life has hit a wall after two divorces. Trying to figure out where dysfunction came from, he looked toward his mother. Wanting to discover why his life is such a mess, he informs Beatrice that he’ll be moving in.

The film finds comedy in the Odd Couple dynamic between John and Beatrice. A middle-aged man, twice-divorced, and rather set in his ways, finding fault in everything his mother does. The script – penned with the late Monica Johnson – finds comic cold in highlighting the yawning gulf between John and Beatrice. The years apart had only hardened the differences between the two – John’s a vegetarian and Beatrice is a food hoarder. The first evening they’re together, she tries to feed him three year-old cheese, ensconced firmly in her freezer like the corpse of a wooly mammoth. She’s left nonplussed by his persnickety habits. His insistence on trying to unknot their relationship is confusing and threatening.

As Beatrice, Reynolds imparts the role with a tart mix of flinty steeliness and cheery obliviousness. There is also a great bit of daffiness. As John’s involved scheme gets stranger, she responds with a baffled deadpan. And Reynolds’ physicality – she’s very sweet-looking, makes her moments of passive aggression more powerful and painful. As John is mining his past, he brings up the various moments that Beatrice inadvertently hurt his confidence. She’s not an unfeeling monster – we see flecks of regret that she semi-successfully buried.

As an actress, Debbie Reynolds found greatest success in light comedies. In Mother, she uses that deft comic touch when playing Beatrice. Brooks does an excellent job of pulling out the comedian in Reynolds. Most of the uproarious moments come when the two are at odds, especially in a situation caused by Beatrice’s single-minded eccentricities. For example, the shopping sequence is a work of beauty. As the John and Beatrice stroll the supermarket aisle, he pesters her with his high-minded, armchair analysis of Beatrice’s idiosyncrasies, including her thriftiness. Their lack of understanding is perfectly encapsulated by their emotional tug-of-war over fancy, organic, $10 jelly. The frugal Beatrice, a Great Depression baby, scoffs at the notion of buying artisanal jelly, which John feels is an indication of her lack of self-worth. Resentful of being psychoanalyzed in the jelly aisle of a grocery store, she snaps, “Just because I don’t want to spend $10 for bullshit jam has nothing to do with what I feel about myself.” The image of wholesome-as-Apple-pie Debbie Reynolds hissing “bullshit” in a supermarket is an indelible one, but that is exactly what is so powerful about Reynolds’ performance.

Though Brooks isn’t as interested in engaging with Reynolds’ star history as Streisand was with Bacall, it doesn’t mean he can ignore the star baggage the actress brings to the role. He wanted an ideal 1950s actress – someone who projected warmth and sunniness, so that the casual cruelty feels all the more cutting and brutal. Her face – still cute – is sunny and open, but it can be clouded by confusion, hostility, and exasperation. When John expounds on some philosophical parental revelation, Beatrice is able to register the hurt and anger. Beatrice isn’t a woman who indulges in self-examination, as doing so would disrupt a carefully-constructed armor to shield herself from ugly truths – mainly, that she resent motherhood for interrupting her dreams of being a writer. Her angst and hostility were directed at John, a writer, who represented the kind of life and career she could have had if she didn’t get married and have children.

When Mother was released in late 1996, the film was warmly received, but Reynolds got unanimous praise for her performance, one that surprised many who saw the actress toil away in thankless supporting roles for years. To Brooks’ credit, he wrote a complex and complicated role for an older woman and made sure that the character wasn’t merely a plot device, but a character in her own right. It’s a rare character and one that should be celebrated and remembered fondly.

 

The ascension of Jean Smart

Earlier this month, Jean Smart made her debut on the HBO series Watchmen as FBI agent, Laurie Blake to great fanfare and universal critical acclaim. Indie Wire opined that “Jean Smart delivered [writer Damon Lindelof’s joke] perfectly” and thought she was “dynamite.” In an otherwise mixed review, the Independent writes that Smart is “tremendous” and considers her “One of those great, often unsung character actors, she has a hazy drawl and a forceful, commanding presence, put to dizzying use.” Vox finds Smart to be “one of those actors who commands the screen no matter what she’s doing.” Den of Geek dubbed Smart a “treasure” and Games Radar considers Smart’s performance “Award-worthy” calling her a “top-tier” talent who does a “masterful job” on the show.

Her role in Watchmen is just the latest is a string of well-received performances that have made Smart one of the most sought-after character actresses of her generation. Before Watchmen, Smart earned critical raves for her malevolent performance on FX’s Fargo. She also impressed critics with supporting turns in Legion as well as a near-legendary turn on 24 as well as an Emmy-winning turn on the Christina Applegate sitcom Samantha Who? She also is a perennial Emmy nominee in the guest actress category, winning twice for her riotous performance on Frasier.

When looking at Smart’s performances, it’s no surprise that she’s enjoying this mid-career renaissance. For those paying attention, it’s clear that Smart is more than deserving of these critical plaudits. At her best, Smart is a commanding presence, able to imbue her characters with a wary weariness. Her physicality is imposing – tall, leggy, and beautiful, she’s arresting on screen, able to pull focus. In Fargo she was significantly de-glammed and instead terrified her audiences as a monster.

For many, Smart will always be Charlene from Designing Women. For five seasons, she was the cherry, sunny – if slightly naive – blonde. Her performance was subtler than those of her costars and it was sometimes easy to overlook her. She was often relegated to straight man status to the far kookier and sillier comedic antics of costars Delta Burke, Alice Ghostley, and Mesach Taylor; meanwhile, star Dixie Carter was given carte blanche to chew scenery and stop scenes with long-winded speeches. Smart’s more naturalistic performance would sometimes get a bit lost in the comedic hijinks.

And even if she was a bit more subdued than her fellow castmates, Smart had some great moments on Designing Women – moments that would signal the sort of fortunate career she’s enjoying now. When the plots centered on Charlene, Smart was more than capable to hold her own and anchor an A-plot; and the writers were clever enough to gift the character with idiosyncrasies of her own, including a lovely – if maddening – habit of rambling about mundane and banal topics.

As a physical comedienne, Burke was given the most opportunity to play, but Smart was no slouch – look at the episode in which she and costar Annie Potts descend on a salad bar, buzzing through like two Tasmanian Devils, looking for a lost string of pearls. When a nervous waiter interrupts her just as she plunges her hand into a pitcher of salad dressing, Smart stops to ask, “Is this French or thousand island?” When told it’s thousand island, she responds with a chilly snootiness, “I don’t care for thousand island.” Her affectation of elegance is pitch perfect – her hand dripping with salad dressing, and she convincingly sells the notion that Charlene is able to snooker this waiter into believing she’s simply a customer who loves her salad dressing. The scene and chemistry between Potts and Smart recalled Lucy and Ethel at their funniest.

After Designing Women, it looked as if Smart would be relegated to made-for-TV movies and failed sitcoms. She starred in the Absolutely Fabulous remake High Society, an underrated flop in which she traded quips with the wonderful Mary McDonnell; she channelled Martha Stewart in the tepid Style & Substance; and was easily the best thing in a pair of failed family comedies, The In-Laws and The Center of the Universe.

But she kept working, putting in sterling performances. Her work on Frasier is brilliant comedy. To offset the effete, precious comedy of Kelsey Grammar or David Hyde Pierce, Smart adopts a loud, blowsy persona, playing Fraiser Crane’s unrequited high school crush. She’s a breath of fresh air, injecting the proceedings with a brash, charming vulgarity.

Arguably, it’s 24 that remade Smart’s career from merely steadily working actress to something more. In a show that felt overstuffed with great performances, Smart stood out as the emotionally unstable first lady, Martha Logan. Her at-times operatic work was riveting, as she drew audiences in. Martha Logan was a character that acted as a whistleblower and truthteller, but her credibility was suspect because of her personal demons; Smart was able to convey both the strength, but also the messiness. For many who were used to Smart’s light sitcom work, 24 was the first peek into how resourceful of an actress she truly is.

So, her current career high on Watchmen is a satisfying entry into a career that is seemingly on the rise, despite the industry’s hostility towards women “of a certain age.” The fact that Smart can work more than she ever had before, in material that is very interesting and complex is great. It’s a joy to see someone so talented and hardworking gifted with chances to share that talent and hard work.

The Stone Age: Sharon Stone, the last great movie star


Sharon Stone on 40th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

Sharon Stone is not a great actress. She can be if she has a good director (it’s no mistake that Martin Scorsese has gotten a brilliant performance out of her), but for the most part, Stone doesn’t act so much as she is. But that’s totally fine in my book. Sharon Stone is the kind of actress that would’ve been huge in the 1940s. Contrary to what false nostalgia will tell you, the Golden Age of Hollywood wasn’t necessarily staffed by more skilled thespians. In fact, many of our greatest stars of yesteryear – Humphrey Bogart, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, John Wayne – would seem incredibly mannered by today’s standards. That’s not to say that these actors weren’t good, but they didn’t act so much as bend and twist their screen persona to match whatever script was shoved at them.

Sharon Stone is like our era’s Joan Crawford. Stone doesn’t appear in a film, she struts through it, dominating the scenes with a bright, overpowering screen presence. She doesn’t awe us with an incredible skill – she’s not Meryl Streep or Jessica Lange – but she’s awesome because she burns the screen with a magnetic charisma, that is flinty and powerful.

It’s not wonder then that Stone’s filmography is so spotty (for all their legendary status, Davis and Crawford both also have some creaky credits to their names) For every Casino, she has a string of forgettable or atrocious stinkers that are only salvaged by her regal appearance.

Sharon Stone as Catherine Tramell in Basic Instinct

The first film of note in Stone’s career is Basic Instinct (1992, dir. Paul Verhoeven) Essentially b-movie junk dressed up as a glossy noir, Stone’s performance is lost in the hype around the infamous interrogation scene in which she uncrosses her legs, revealing she’s not wearing underwear (Stone was not aware that the shot would be visible) It’s not a demanding role and it relies heavily on the actress’ hardened, chiseled beauty. But it made Stone a star. Before Basic Instinct, she was paying her dues, toiling away doing nothing forgettables (King Solomon’s Mines, Cold Steel, Scissors), often playing gorgeous ciphers, but never really breaking out. Basic Instinct gave her that defining, iconic role that legendary actresses want, though it’s largely memorable for that one scene than any work – no matter how estimable – that Stone does on the screen.

Basic Instinct‘s infamy and success made Sharon Stone a movie star, but she followed that film with more duds, each merely vehicles for her to stand around, be beautiful, and preen.

By 1995, she was underrated and so it came as some shock that when Casino came out, critics were impressed with her work. Playing against Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci, Stone could’ve easily wilted and disappeared. Scorsese doesn’t make movies in which women thrive – they are masculine films and the women are often victims, mothers, or wives. Stone gives her sole brilliant performance as Ginger McKenna, wife of DeNiro’s Sam Rothstein.

As Ginger McKenna in Casino

Stone is gifted by a screenplay (by Scorsese and Nicholas Pileggi) that creates an impressive (if eventually reductive and clichéd) arc for her to play out. When we see Stone in the beginning of the film, she’s fresh-faced and beautiful, decked out in a sparkly, rhinestone-encrusted dress that came up to a dazzling, multi-coloured rainbow around her neck. Her thick blond hair was scraped back and spilled out as a luscious, golden waterfall. She’s a vision and is basically the reason why film exists.

Ginger is an unlikable character. A grifter and a hustler who moves around, finding men to exploit. She has few redeeming features as a personality. Like the men in the film, Ginger survives on sheer will and wit, getting by because life is really hard on her. Her inevitable decline is sad and terrifying, but not surprising. The script does to her what cinema has done to “unlikable women” – it’s reduced her to a screaming, keening mess, who eventually ODs and dies a pathetic disaster.

DeNiro’s performance in Casino suffers from a sense of familiarity – he’s done this before with Scorsese, and though he’s effective, it’s not affecting. Pesci is explosive, but again, it’s something we’ve seen. Even when they’re coasting, they’re masterful. But it’s Stone who leaves the major impression with a loud, extravagant performance that essentially outclasses her costars as well as the material. It’s a lightening-strikes-once performance, but it’s memorable.

Stone was nominated for a raft of awards, including an Academy Award, but lost to Susan Sarandon’s yeoman-like effort in the capital punishment drama Dead Man Walking (more on that in a bit)

So, did Sharon Stone embark on a career of prestige films after her wonderful work in Casino?

Diabolique Stone’s funniest (unintended) comedy

Her next film was a remake of the French noir classic Diabolique. It was so campy, drag queens would’ve found it too much and call for more restraint. The film was a critical and commercial failure, but Stone owned it, as if it were the most expensive Dior loaned to her. As a murderous school teacher who’s plunged into a tale of intrigue and betrayal, Stone strides through the film as if she were killing it on a catwalk. She’s decked out in expensive – if dated – wardrobe, including fitted suits and leopard print, and she’s got a cigarette in her mouth, which seems to be always on the verge of a smirk, as if she were in on the joke. As if she saying, “Yes, this movie is garbage.” Diabolique is a terrible film – expensive trash that is fun to watch because Stone is at her most Stone-ness. She’s channelling Bette Davis and Joan Crawford and Barbara Stanwyck and Lauren Bacall. Her line reading is dripping with artifice and irony and her performance is completely disconnected from the film. She doesn’t fit into the movie and doesn’t try. It’s a terrible performance, and yet she’s brilliant.

Doing her best Sean Penn impression in Last Dance

The same year, she does a Susan Hayward impression in Last Dance. Hayward emoted, raged, and cried behind bars in I Want to Live, and Stone does the same in Last Dance. Unlike Diabolique, Last Dance is a “serious” issue film, and as such Stone takes herself and the film too seriously. Even the film’s tagline, “Sometimes justice is a crime” is insufferable. As if to prove that her Oscar nomination wasn’t a fluke (as well as to possibly duplicate Sean Penn’s victory in his death penalty film Dead Man Walking), Stone approaches her character Cindy Ligget with a grim determination. Gone is any self-awareness or droll inscousance that made Diabolique so watchable, and instead, we feel bad for Stone because neither, director Bruce Beresford, nor the screenwriters Steven Haft and Ron Koslow have it in them to pull this tricky movie off. It’s not that Stone is bad – she’s actually pretty good, and affecting as a woman fighting for her life on death row, but it’s an admirable effort that falls short. It’s clearly a vehicle to maintain the critical momentum of Casino, and it fails because the ingredients of Last Dance don’t measure up to Casino.

The rest of Stone’s film career is a long and undistinguished series of films that squander the kind of distinct and unique qualities that make her a star. Her brainy wit doesn’t translate naturally into comedy, so her work as a comedienne comes off as brittle and unnatural; as a dramatic actress, she doesn’t always reach the depths and heights required of the script.

Strangely enough, some of Stone’s best, most personable work at the later stage of her career has been television. Regardless of her box office fortunes, because of her star power, she’s always able to radiate the air of a really big guest star when she makes an appearance on television. In David E. Kelly’s The Practice, she garnered some of her best reviews (and nabbed an Emmy), playing to her strengths as an eccentric lawyer diva. She had similar success on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. In both those shows, Stone gets to march in on sharp stilettos, deliver her lines in her intense, Faye Dunaway-esque way, and make the other stars shrink as mere mortals in her presence. As great as Mariska Hargitay and Chris Meloni are, they’re TV people – Sharon Stone is a movie star- and her imperious attitude never lets viewers forget it.

At 61, Sharon Stone is still gorgeous and still able to turn it out when she wants to. On red carpet premiers, award shows, and chat shows, she shines best. She gets to put on a crazy, drag queen-y dress, look beautiful, say something nutty, and charm people. She’s best when she’s playing the role of “Movie Star” because it plays to her strengths. She doesn’t do accents well (her New York drawl in Gloria should’ve been illegal; and her swamp cabbage Southern patois in Last Dance was absurd); she doesn’t have much range, nor does she can she convey a wide variety of emotions (she does intense well – her piercing eyes and razor -sharp cheekbones are made for intense). But what she does well is portray the inherent, absurd artificiality that comes to movie making. Her looks are too perfect – she looks sculpted – and she’s just too showy. As a result, she would never do in a kitchen sink drama. Even when she’s de-glammed, as she tried in the YA dramedy The Mighty, she still looked like a goddess, just a goddess who shops at TJ Maxx.

So where does Sharon Stone fit in contemporary cinema? It’s unclear because it’s obvious that contemporary cinema is a landscape that is hostile to actresses like Sharon Stone. Not only is she a woman of a “certain age” in an industry obsessed with youth, but her style is dated, and better suited for a bygone era, one in which we didn’t want to watch actresses melt and disappear into their roles. Sharon Stone belongs in an era in which we watched Joan Crawford as much for the shoulder pads, eyebrows and lips, as we did for the melodrama. She belongs in an era in which we watched Katharine Hepburn and Bette Davis to listen to their idiosyncratic mannered ways of speaking. She belongs in an era that doesn’t know the meaning of the word “ensemble.” Despite a filmography that is littered with mostly forgettable fare, it’s still clear that Sharon Stone is our last, great movie star.

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