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
(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

Steven Spielberg loses the plot with his take on J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan mythology with his shambolic Hook

Steven Spielberg’s 1991 film Hook is a bizarre interpretation of J.M. Barrie’s classic children’s tale Peter Pan, supposing what would happen if the evergreen adolescent left Neverland and grew up. Built around the sprawling talents of the late, great comedian Robin Williams as Peter Pan, the film tries to pull all kinds of 90s hot topic issues – working parents, quality time, kids being estranged from their parents – and fit them into the familiar story of the band of Lost Boys who live in the fantastic Neverland in perpetual childhood.

DVD cover of the 2000 edition of Hook

Before its release, Hook had a troubled production, namely in the ballooning production as well as Spielberg’s strained relationship with Julia Roberts, who co-starred in the film as Tinkerbell. For a great recap of just what went wrong with the making of Hook, please go to the brilliant podcast, I Hate It, but I Love It, and listen to the Hook episode. Hosts Kat Angus and Jocelyn Geddie do a hilarious job of running through the difficult time the people behind Hook had making the film.

The turmoil behind the scenes do somewhat translate onto the screen. When watching Hook, it’s a dizzying experience, but not necessarily in the good way. As if to prove just how great the movie could be, Spielberg assaults his audiences with an over-the-top visual experience. The sets look gaudy and messy, with what seems like thousands of extras spilling everywhere.

The story – written by Jim V. Hart and Malia Scotch Marmo from a story by Hart and Nick Castle, revisits Barrie’s legendary character, but this time Peter Pan is a middle-aged corporate lawyer. Played by Robin Williams who is given free reign to indulge in both sides of his comedic persona: the sentimental, heart breaker as well as the whirling comedy dervish. As the adult Peter (known as an adult as Peter Banning), is the kind of businessman that films love to vilify: the kinds of busy dads who ignore their kids and are obsessed with their work. He’s seen as a ‘bad dad’ because he misses all of his kid Jack’s (Charlie Korsmo) ballgames. Jack’s resentment is important because it feeds into one of the main conflicts of the film: the constant back and forth between father and son. This story line is one that’s been explored many times in films, particularly ones aimed at family audiences: one in which we see a neglectful father who prioritizes his work over his relationships with is children.

Spielberg – a director known for his penchant for emotional manipulation in his mainstream, family films – does a lot of exploration of a child’s disappointment with his distant parent. It’s this disappointment that allows for Peter Pan’s nemesis, the titular Captain Hook (a preening and campy Dustin Hoffman) to exploit the strife between Peter and Jack. The sad thing about Hook’s machinations is how easy it is for him to push all of Jack’s buttons, teasing all of his justified grievances against his dad.

But this is a lot of “Cats in the Cradle” stuff in this film which bogs down what could have been a fun film. Instead, it adds an unnecessary dreariness to the film, that juxtaposes badly with the Disneyland opulence of the set and the muggy Our Gang antics of the very 90s-era Lost Boys. The problem with Spielberg’s version of the Peter Pan fantasy is that he gets lost in the slick, overblown Hollywood excess.

Are there moments that salvage this film? Precious few, but there are a few. Williams does some good, personable work in the film when being Peter Pan. He was a performer that could impart an impish, beguiling twinkle beneath the furious comedy explosion. There’s also a lovely performance by Maggie Smith, too, who does her usual scene stealing work (and there’s a very predictable twist to her character’s backstory that I won’t share here)

When Hook was released, it was met with a pretty mixed critical response but it made lots of money. But in retrospect, it’s not a great film and it’s a missed opportunity to make something interesting. Unfortunately, Spielberg seems more interested in impressing us with the special effects and elaborate sets as well as with the heavy-handed family drama. What is missing is an interesting or novel take on the legend. Even if he’s pulling the story into the 1990s, Hook‘s main story is still essentially a tired retread on the familiar tale (done with fare more finesse by Walt Disney in 1953). Though, the film has some nostalgic value – particularly with the updated (though now-dated) look at the Lost Boys (Dante Basco steals his scenes with sheer charisma as the spiky haired, punky Lost Boys leader, Rufio) – it’s a mess, one that needed some serious editing and pruning (the 142-minute running time is criminal, by the way). There’s also something particularly obnoxious about kids depicted in family films in the early 1990s (overly sassy or precocious and in love with crass humor) and the Lost Boys seem to epitomize that trend. It feels like Spielberg at his most cynical and paint-by-numbers as the cinema fairy dust that he sprinkles in his family films feel like dust.

In retrospect 30 years later, Spielberg has admitted that he’s disappointed with the film. There’s a contradictory feeling from the film that it’s at once overzealous in its attempt to wow us but simultaneously lazy in its execution. Despite the superstar caliber of the cast, icons Robin Williams, Dustin Hoffman, Julia Roberts, and Maggie Smith are seemingly abandoned by their director, leaning into shtick, with Smith managing to conjure up some cinema magic. Though Spielberg is a master at spectacle, it feels as if Hook got away from him; it’s a shambolic mess and one that is fascinating to watch in all of its confused wrongness.

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 American Dream is very expensive in ‘Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House’

The American Dream has celebrated social mobility and has encouraged people to strive to build a nuclear family, move to the suburbs, and to buy their own homes. In the 20th century, the American Dream was largely linked to the post-war Baby Boom generation, who returned from WWII after fighting in war that tipped the world into unbelievable chaos. Men came back from war, wives returned to the home from the munitions factories, and families moved en masse to the suburbs.

In the 1948 comedy Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House, the American dream is attached to home ownership. Jim Blandings (Cary Grant) is a successful advertising executive who tires of living in a seemingly cramped apartment in Manhattan, and has his eyes on a larger home in Connecticut. Along with his wife, Muriel (Myrna Loy), Jim sinks a small fortune to rebuild a dilapidated home to bend to their respective desires.

The film is narrated by Bill Cole (Melvyn Douglas), the Blandings’ attorney and their best friend. With mordant humor, he describes aspects of living in the city, using euphemisms when noting things like the crowd, the crush, and the noise. As he uses flowerly language ironically (he refers to New York as “cradling” its denizens), he makes a point that there are 7 million people living in the city. When extolling the “carefree, orderly existence” of New Yorkers, we immediately see a chaotic scene of a traffic jam, complete with a cacophony of car horns; the subways are referred to as a “transportation system, second to none in passenger comfort” though what we see are teems of people, pushing and shoving to squeeze into crowded subway cars; overcrowded diner counters are called “quaint, sidewalk cafes” whilst a beach inundated with sunbathers is praised as a place for “peace and privacy” for nature lovers. The juxtaposition of Bill’s narration to the very-skewed presentation of the city set the scene for the film’s rising action. In the exposition, we are shown a New York that Jim Blandings sees – uncomfortable, loud, dirty, and unyielding.

But the script – written by Melvin Frank and Norman Panama, based on Eric Hodgins book – doesn’t push to make rural living any easier. And that’s where the main thesis of the film lies: that to stake one’s claim will cost a lot of money. When watching Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House, we have to allow for several mitigating forces before simply enjoying the film. The main issue to raise is race, gender, and class. Jim Blandings is a middle-class white male, so he has the economic freedom to take his family – a wife and two daughters – and move to the suburbs (though it’s not mentioned, there’s the implication that his home is in an-white area) As the film lurches from one economically disastrous episode to another, we see that Blandings has the financial resources and freedoms to ride through these problems.

And there are a lot of problems with Mr Blandings’ dream house. For one, the original house has to be stripped down because it’s leaning like a tower in Pisa. There are water issues and in a comical exchange, Blandings finds out that there is solid rock near the foundation of his home, that may require blasting. To his lawyer’s dismay, Blandings is willing to sink more money into the project, in his goal to attain the kind of goal, inherent in the American Dream.

Though Blandings has a brief moment, a minor-epiphany in which he wonders why he wanted to do this major life shift in the first place. After all, he pours money, seeming without end, to what appears to be a money pit (Money Pit is a 1986 remake of this film). And whilst Bill advises his friends throughout the film that the free spending is a bad idea – and he was against the purchase in the first place, he comes around, noting, that even though he thought the project was doomed at the start, he thinks that maybe “you do buy with your heart and not your head. Maybe those are the things that really count.” He sees that the Blandings have managed – at great expense – to carve out their own place. There’s an implication that there’s something of the pioneer or settler in Jim Blandings, that he has tamed the rough, unforgiving wilderness for his family (with the assistance of laborers and lots of money) He also highlights a part of the American Dream that is key – making something of your own. In the beginning of the film, Jim and Muriel discuss their apartment, possibly remodeling it, but it’s an aborted idea because they’re renting. It’s impossible to do much with their living space because they don’t own it. So Bill sees that by escaping city life and city dwelling, Blandings has achieved the part of the American Dream that is so important – being able to assert oneself. Blandings has successfully become the king of his castle.

One aspect that seems to escape viewing of the film, in the context of the American Dream, is work. Blandings’ work as an ad executive plays as a parallel to the main plot of the house build. At work, he’s struggling with an account, for a brand of ham called WHAM. He spends much of the film, toying with puns and rhymes to fix his issue. It comes not from a colleague, but from his maid, a Black woman named Gussie (Louise Beavers), who joyfully announces, “If you ain’t eating WHAM, you ain’t eating ham!” Gussie saves the day and the account, and her effort gets her a mere $10 raise (one hopes she made some more coin as the model for the WHAM print campaign, but I wouldn’t hold my breath) Because this film is set in 1948, we’re looking at a time when Jim Crow laws were still in effect in Southern States, Black voters were still disenfranchised, and women – and women of color, in particular – weren’t included in the professional workforce. So the American Dream looked far different for someone who looked like Gussie, and we don’t get to see her “side” of the story because the audience isn’t interested. The tone of the film – even if it strained to remain a comedy – would shift into dark satire, if we got the POV of Gussie, a Black woman, working for a privileged and entitled white family, with a patriarch who thinks nothing of swiping her intellectual property for a financial windfall. So much of Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House is about the American Dream, but it’s a very specific American Dream – one that is largely white and middle-class. Blandings escaped the hustle and bustle of New York City because he could. Most of the people swallowed in the throbbing crush of the subways cannot afford to buy acres of land and to build a house from scratch. In Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House, we see that the American Dream comes with a hefty price tag, but we also are reassured that our hero can afford it.

Tommy Wiseau, Hollywood genius – watching ‘The Room’

Whilst watching Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, there came a point when I was wondering whether Wiseau had purposely made a bad movie. “No one,” I thought, “Could make a movie like this, not ironically,” I thought. And therein lies the genius of Tommy Wiseau. In the “grande” tradition of Ed Wood, Tommy Wiseau has crafted a great work of terrible art. The Room is a marvellously inept and terrible film that has gained a cult following. Its reputation has grown and Wiseau has created a new career as a camp auteur. Watching The Room is an unforgettable experience in the same way that watching a building implode is unforgettable. It’s mesmerising and hypnotic in its sheer badness. And Wiseau is the wily genius behind it.

I recently attended a screening of The Room at the Prince Charles Cinema in Soho. I took a friend who was interested and curious after seeing the James Franco film, The Disaster Artist. The screening included a Q&A with Wiseau as well as a sneak preview of his newest film. Watching the film is an experience and Room vets will know it’s an immersive, interactive experience, akin to midnight showings of Rocky Horror Picture Show or Sound of Music sing-a-longs. Members of the audience cheer, shout, and hoot at the screen, often singing along with the film’s idiotic catchphrases. Hale storms of plastic spoons suddenly happen whenever spoon-centric decor is seen on screen. The audience roars “Meanwhile, back in San Francisco” whenever establishing shots of the city flash on screen.

Before the film was shown, people lined up to have a chance to ask Wiseau a question. He appeared in front of the screen in character mode. His eyes were shielded by dark glasses, even though it was evening and we were in a dark cinema. He had his recognisable mane of Howard Stern-like hair. He fielded questions with the smooth polish and practised grace of a pro. If a question or answer was going no where, he just simply said, “Let’s move one,” and asked for another question. Once the Q&A time was finished, he dashed off, never to appear again. Like the Scarlet Pimpernel.

As we sat and watched the film, I was wondering how he felt about his magnus opus being consumed in the way that it was. If he was in the lobby of the Prince Charles, sitting at the bar, did he hear the explosive laughter from inside the screening room? And if so, what did he think?

Part of my experience with The Room is trying to suss out if Wiseau is in on the joke. Is he an outsider artist? A performance artist? A comedian? Has he created an Andy Kaufman-esque character that we all struggle to figure out if it’s real? Or is he a genius marketer, able to make some mighty fine lemonade out of some garbage lemons?

It’s difficult to guess any of this, watching The Room. It’s a melodrama, aiming for Douglas Sirk, but falling short. The plot – and I use that lofty term loosely – is a darkly romantic tale of Johnny (Wiseau), a kind and successful banker who is in love with Lisa (Juliette Danielle). Unfortunately, Lisa is no longer in love with Johnny, and instead has eyes for Johnny’s best friend, Mark (Greg Sestero, author of The Disaster Artist). Accompanying his love triangle are tangential characters who sorta drift in and out when the script remembers them. These characters include Denny (Philip Haldiman), a young college student who inexplicably is supported by Johnny, both emotionally and financially; Peter (Kyle Vogt), a psychologist friend who seems to serve no purpose in appearing in the film; and Michelle and Mike (Robyn Harris and Scott Holmes), a couple who are friends with Lisa and Johnny. None of these story lines get much attention and are weirdly cut off and abandoned for the main conflict involving Lisa, Johnny, and Mark.

As the film progresses, Johnny discovers the affair and is completely devastated by the betrayal. He expresses his distress by baying woodenly. He grimaces and squints his eyes and recites his lines like a hostage reading out a ransom note. Wiseau writes himself a plum part and he approaches the role in a fascinating way – almost genius, really. It would be stupid to try and assess Wiseau’s performance in the same way one would judge an Al Pacino performance or a Robert DeNiro performance. He’s not a traditional actor. In fact, he’s not an actor at all. The genius in his non-performance is that he twists and bends his fictional universe and therefore his stilted, stunned delivery makes sense in the diegesis of the film. When Johnny is drunk, Wiseau is seen as working hard to convince us he’s drunk – we see the effort – and we are helpfully told “I’m wasted” This is the kind of acting that I’d refer to as postmodern acting, in that we see the artifice behind his acting. This isn’t a naturalistic performance, nor is it Method; Wiseau is never not Wiseau as Johnny. This performance is more than just a bad performance – we’ve seen millions of those from actors more skilled than Wiseau – yet, the sheer awkward incompetence of Wiseau is breathtaking. When he’s delivering his lines in that idiosyncratic, yet bad, way, I’m reminded of The Shaggs’ “My Pal Foot Foot.”

In the cinema, audiences shouted in delight whenever characters did anything nonsensical or foolish. The script is a missmash of scenes, some that pick up a loose thread of a subplot only to toss it. These ridiculous distractions further give the film its nutty brilliance. In one scene, we witness Denny facing off with a tough drug dealer, and the exchange approaches After School Special territory, but then that story line is abandoned. In another scene, Johnny and his friends on ill-fitting tuxes and go out to toss a football scene – there’s no explanation for the tuxes nor do we learn why the guys are going out to toss the football, but there you go. When Lisa is confronted by her gold digging mother, Claudette (Carolyn Minnott), she learns that her mother has cancer with a glib announcement, “The tests came back. I definitely have breast cancer,” in a tone one would use to order pizza – and then the cancer subplot disappears.

As a director, Wiseau is even more gloriously kacked than as a screenwriter or actor. The story contains awful dialogue and Wiseau has his characters behave in strange, erratic ways. One minute, Johnny is badly emoting and lamenting some injustice, and in the next, he’s cheerful and sunny, giggling inappropriately. He strenuously denies hitting Lisa, shouting “I did not hit her!” punctuating his denial by angrily throwing a bottle of water on the ground, before switching gears and offering a genial, “Oh, hi, Mark.” After Mark shares a dark anecdote about a woman being beaten by her boyfriend, Johnny laughs and exclaims, “What a story, Mark!” as if he were imitating Yakov Smirnoff.

When he directs outdoor scenes, they take place on rooftops, but the green screen is obvious. Wiseau’s sex scenes with Danielle are a shoddy copy/paste of one sex scene. The camera work is often confused, zooming in and out spontaneously. The staging of the scenes is amateurish (no one ever remembers to close doors in The Room) Wiseau cannot extract performances from his actors, and they’re left stranded, to do the work on their own, mostly failing.

So The Room is a mess. But a brilliant mess. A glorious mess. A transcendent mess. There are lots of bad movies – many made by artists far more talented and resourceful than Wiseau. Just the other day, I watched Netflix’s Otherhood, directed by Cindy Chupack, a writer whose resume includes such sterling work as Sex and the City and Modern Family. Yet, her film Otherhood was nearly unwatchable, despite it having a tonier budget than The Room, better actors, and far more resources. But The Room is a brilliant work of curio art, whilst Otherhood is just bland, Hollywood junk. It rests comfortably in cliches – while The Room dares us to react to cliches – and Otherhood‘s awfulness is defined by its bland, safeness. The Room is dangerous in that Wiseau takes the concept of cinema and movie-watching and tears the rules apart. He sets fire to Syd Field’s oeuvre, approaching film making with a context all his won.

Watching PBS American Experience’s ‘Clinton’ in a post-2016 world

American Experience: Clinton
It all began with hope….

PBS’s American Experience has a series of documentaries that chronicle the lives of U.S. presidents. In 2012, the programme came out with Clinton, a two-part documentary which delved into the Clintons’ story, which started in Arkansas and ended in Washington, DC. The series – though mostly sympathetic – also looked at the couple’s failings. Bill Clinton is portrayed as a brilliant, compassionate public servant who is undone by his own personal failings; Hillary Clinton is presented as a whip-smart, disciplined advocate who often sabotages her own efforts. The story – written by Barak Goodman and narrated by Campbell Scott – does an admirable story of summing up the political tale of two of the most magnetic, polarising, and fascinating figures in American politics.

But watching the programme in 2016 is an interesting, and all-together different experience. What is striking is how much of what is discussed in the documentary – which focuses mainly on the mid 1990s – has become relevant yet again in 2016.

In a nutshell: Bill Clinton was born to a poor family in Arkansas. His mother, a widow, remarries to a horrible man who is abusive. This experience leads to a young Bill to turn to his church, his social circle, and his school. He’s a star pupil and a Rhodes scholar, studying in Oxford – in short he’s a brilliant guy. In Yale, he meets a bright and ambitious student, Hillary Rodham, and the two quickly fall in love. Both have grand ambitions and return to Arkansas, where Bill Clinton embarks an a remarkably successful political career, first as an attorney general and then governor. By 1992, he becomes a star of the Democratic party and bests President George H.W. Bush and becomes the 42nd president of the United States. During his two terms, he shepherds the country through some of its most prosperous times, but his shortcomings threaten to derail his accomplishments. Though he survives the attacks, his presidency ends on a glum note, as his legacy is ameliorated by his personal scandals. The film ends with wife Hillary winning her senate race and embarking on a political career of her own, implying another fruitful chapter in the Clinton saga.

Obviously, since the programme’s airing, a lot has happened in the Clintons’ lives and in America. Hillary Clinton wins two successful sneate campaigns before running unsuccessfully for president in 2008, losing to Illinois senator, Barack Obama. During Obama’s first term, she serves as secretary of state. She leaves, only to be embroiled in her own scandal, namely her use of a private server to store her emails as well as questions surrounding her behaviour after a fatal siege of a U.S. embassy in Benghazi that leaves a diplomat dead. She then runs for president in 2016, a clear front runner and suffers a humiliating defeat.

Clinton does some astute analysis in why Bill Clinton was successful but also why he was so frustrating to many of his supporters. From his early campaigns in Arkansas, he was seen as a wunderkind, and someone who defied expectations as well as doubts. Though Arkansas skews conservative, Clinton’s personal magnetism as well as his ability to convey empathy makes him appealing even to staunch conservatives. He’s popular among rural white voters who historically moved away from the Democratic party in the 70s and 80s, lured by the Republican party’s successful courting of the conservative white male voter. The film doesn’t go too much into detail as to why the GOP was able to shift those voters – it seems as if PBS or Goodman were too hesitant to mention race, gender, class, or sexuality. Though the Culture Wars will be highlighted later in the film, the early 1980s was already rife with a shift towards the Right. Ronald Reagan was president and successfully – and brilliantly – created a narrative of a specific and set kind of patriotism that was characterised by conservative, traditional values. Though the Democrats favoured labour unions and social spending, these stances aren’t enough to stop the shift, and in fact, in some circles, the Democrats are vilified as free-wheeling spenders.

Bill Clinton’s success lies in his ability to appeal to these white working class voters, and to assuage their fears of a White House that is willing to pour endless amounts of money into “entitlements.” To that effect, Clinton masters “triangulation” working as a model for a “New Democrat” – one who embraces fiscal conservatism, neo-liberalism, as well as token social liberalism (liberal for the 1980s and 1990s)

This question of progressive vs moderate is still ongoing, especially in light of Hillary Clinton’s loss as well as the recent Blue Wave in 2018 which brought in a record amount of progressive Democrats into congress. The Democratic party is having a major personality crisis as it’s trying to figure out its identity as older voters are being replaced by millenials. Baby Boomers are still operating as if the DNC is ruled by the Clintons – we see evidence of this with the centrist politics and policies of Joe Biden (the current Democratic front runner) and Nancy Pelosi (the speaker of the house) We also are witnessing a reckoning within the Democratic party, given the success of people like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib, and the enduring popularity of Bernie Sanders. When Clinton was running in 2016, many progressives were suspicious of her candidacy, in particular her past support of the Iraq War, NAFTA, TPP, for-profit prisons, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, welfare reform, onerous and discriminatory criminal justice reforms, as well as pro-business corporate welfare policies. Sanders candidacy forced Clinton to shift to the left – she embraced the labels “progressive” and “feminism” during her 2016 run – but she was also wary to lose the support of white middle-class voters, those who voted for her in the primaries in 2008.

But Bill Clinton in the 1980s and 1990s lived in a different political landscape, one in which moderate shifts toward the centre-right meant that voters skittish about too much reform would be placated by a president who assured voters that even if there’s a D behind his name, he wasn’t about to go and make monumental changes to policy. And that’s a problem.

Throughout the film, Bill Clinton is shown to be almost pathological in his need to be liked by those around him, including his political adversaries. He was a master compromiser, willing to water down his agenda if it meant having great optics and the sheen of a victory. Welfare reform, crime bills, DOMA, and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell are great examples of Clinton’s failures to use his presidency as a bully pulpit to push his agenda. These were compromises that pleased no one, and in fact, wreaked more havoc than good. Welfare reform and the crime bills disproportionately hit communities of colour and poor communities; the latter especially decimated certain communities, strengthening and buttressing the cradle-to-prison pipeline. And Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and DOMA hobbled the queer rights movement. But the Bill Clinton in Clinton is intent on maintaining ties to conservative voters.

In terms of foreign policy, Clinton’s legacy is even murkier. Somalia and Rwanda are major marks against the man – a fascinating factor, given the global reach of the Clinton Foundation and his later reputation as an elder statesman.

A common theme that is repeated throughout the film’s narrative around the 1996 midterm elections is that the Clintons failed to recognise the depth of fury that their detractors held for him. In much the same way they failed to gauge the anger that the 2016 voters had, the Clintons’ myopia kept them from correctly assessing the political temperature. During the 1990s, it was Newt Gingrich who led the charge for the Culture Wars, aided by the burgeoning cable news; in 2016, the Clintons were facing something strikingly similar, though led by Donald T***p.

Hillary Clinton’s attempt at overhauling healthcare was another instance when the Clintons inability to listen outside their inner circle hurt them immeasurably. Though Hillary Clinton was overqualified to be her husband’s adviser, sexism and good old fashioned misogyny made her unappealing to a lot of the public and media. And unlike her husband, she couldn’t finesse the press or crowd. The Hillary Clinton in Clinton is unyielding and self-defeating. Her healthcare plan tapped out at over 1,300 pages and buried any meaning in byzantine jargon and wonkery. When advisers tried to reach her and warn her – when allies wanted to break into the impenetrable inner circle to highlight what she’s doing wrong – she closed them out. Sound familiar?

Of course, the biggest story that dominates the series is Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky. The intricate, winding road that started at Whitewater and made its way to Lewinsky is a crazy, sordid story that exposes the hypocrisy of the Right, the gross prurience of sanctimonious naysayers, the unbelievably stupid arrogance of the president, and the smarmy smuttiness of the gutter press.

Clinton’s alleged role in possibly silencing Lewinsky in a different sex scandal – a sexual harassment case brought on by Paula Jones – shows the president at his worst. The film is frank in its depiction of Clinton as a “womanizer” – but truthfully in the #MeToo era, one should probably be more severe in summing up the president’s sexual history. The film was released in 2012, so a few years before the public became more aware of the destructive effects of sexual harassment. That Clinton had an affair with a 23-year old intern is ridiculous and he should be held to the same standards as Harvey Weinstein, Al Franken, Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K., Roy Moore, and any other powerful figure who exercises outsized power and influence.

The Lewinksy scandal led to Clinton’s impeachment (he was acquitted by the senate) The film’s conclusion posits that though Clinton survived the Lewinsky scandal and the impeachment with strong, solid poll numbers, that the experience sapped him of energy, enthusiasm, and ambition for his job. The final bits of the film have a desultory Clinton wander the halls of the White House, ruminating and moody while his wife is blueprinting the next phase of her career: the New York senate.

The takeaway from Clinton is that Bill Clinton was a good president but not a great one. He was capable of greatness but his personal failings stymied any promise. I think this is a far and accurate take. It’s one that carries over to Bill Clinton’s career as an ex-president. In the past few years, we’ve seen that Clinton’s superhuman instincts for politicking have been blunted. He hasn’t aged into the 21st century mode easily. Social media, #MeToo, the cancel culture, and the rise of Right Wing populism has left him confused and disorientated. When on press junkets for a truly bizarre project – a collaboration with pulp thriller writer James Patterson – Clinton has been unwilling or unable to contextualise his past with the #MeToo movement, and as a result, he comes off as insensitive, sexist, and unrepentant.

PBS should do a follow up – another three, four episodes, as some of the most interesting – if tragic and depressing – moments of the Clintons’ lives took place after 2000. Because Clinton is set in the context of the Clintons’ White House years, it only tells part of the story. But what’s striking is how much of what the Clintons faced during those years from 1992 to 2000 repeated itself in the ensuing years, particularly in 2016 when they made their bid for a second tenure at the White House. If anything, Clinton shows the cyclical nature of American electoral politics and how maddeningly consistent it can be.

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