Saturday, January 24, 2015

Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron - An American In Paris

Going with Gershwin, going wherever this Gershwin thing is gonna take me, I'm reminded of one of my fave movie bits: the sensuous, incredibly acrobatic ballet from An American in Paris. The trumpet solo in this version blows all the rest out of the water, forever. Hard to describe, really - you just have to listen to it - but it just has more - balls to it, more imperious sexuality, more Gene Kelly animal physicality. As I've said before, I never associated Gershwin with sexuality (though with this shining steed of a solo in my memory, I don't know how I could have thought it). 

Uan Rasey - does that name ring any bells? Not here. But he was one of the unsung heroes in MGM movies, one of those top-flight musicians who, instead of plodding along in the same groove with a symphony orchestra for decades, found himself providing the sound track for our lives. I don't even know how you pronounced his name, and he died at 90 a few years ago, but God, he made this number, made it racy, a little tom-cattish, finding misted midnight corners in it, nuances no one else could provide. 

I still think of Gershwin as asexual - the princely bearing, the Hapsburg lip, the "Gershwin is in the car" approach to the world - but from somewhere, or out of nowhere, this vibrating, brassy fire.

Who the hell is Mortdecai (and why?)

You know, folks, it's rare that I see a movie with the kind of reviews this one got (see excerpts from Rotten Tomatoes, below). Apparently Johnny Depp has been on a real losing streak. I was puzzled over why he strapped a dead crow to his head to play Tonto in the recent weak update of The Lone Ranger. This one is even more puzzling. I'm not sure I want to know what it is about, but it looks like it's about 2 hours too long for these particular critics. Once Siskel and Ebert claimed they wanted to kill themselves rather than sit through one particularly abominable movie (I think it was called  She's Out of Control). I am sure at least some of these critics wanted to take long (two-hour?) washroom breaks or just sprint for the exit, making up the review out of whole cloth, as I am sure they do anyway.

When I blathered on about making The Glass Character into a movie, an idea which was ridiculed and shot down so quickly I don't even know how it got back on its gasping, quivering feet, everybody said, "Oh, it should be Johnny Depp." Johnny Depp is now well over 50 years old, and while those Cherokee cheekbones have served him well, in the book Harold is barely 30. Johnny looks nothing like Harold, not even close. Zachary Quinto was my first pick, and he still might pull it off, and Jake Gyllenhaal was in second place, though his look is pretty far off (except for. . . those lips). But Johnny. He has yet another stroke against him now. It's sad, because he has turned in some interesting if over-quirky work over the years. I liked him on 21 Jump Street, myself, when he played a rogue cop. But Harold? No matter how cute his Keatonesque antics in Benny and Joon, he just won't make it - in particular, not after this.

Full Review… | January 23, 2015

With art-heist caper Mortdecai, Johnny Depp tries his darnedest to start a kooky Austin Powers-like franchise with a side of bumbling Insp. Clouseau. But dash it all if it isn't a crashing bore, old bean.
Full Review… | January 23, 2015

Toronto Star
 Top Critic
[Mortdecai] fails on just about every level, so committed to its ridiculous premise that it doesn't bother to step back and recognize what an unholy mess it is.
Full Review… | January 23, 2015

 Top Critic
Stale, strained and sadly dismal considering all parties involved, Mortdecai wants to be a globe-trotting roguish romp crossing the globe in a bespoke suit, but it feels more like a brandy-soaked nap in grandad's threadbare housecoat.
Full Review… | January 23, 2015
Depp's strenuously unfunny performance turns a frivolous caper comedy into a grim death march to the closing credits.
Full Review… | January 23, 2015

 Top Critic
Mortdecai is content to stroll casually and unassuredly through its paces, taking long, long intermissions for Depp to whimper and giggle.

Full Review… | January 23, 2015

A sh-tshow from start to finish, a theoretically whimsical comedy wherein the actors physically begin to shrink as it goes along, as if they realized what they had gotten into just a beat too late to possibly escape.
Full Review… | January 23, 2015

Go if you're a raging Anglophile with an afternoon to burn or you just love Depp, even at his hammiest. Otherwise, don't point this thing at you.
Full Review… | January 23, 2015

Entertainment Weekly
 Top Critic
It's heavy on doses of double entendres, slapstick and zaniness, but completely bereft of any laughs or true entertainment value. (Full Content Review -- Sex, Profanity, Violence, etc. -- for Parents also available)
Full Review… | January 23, 2015

Screen It!
When it gels, it's genial. When it doesn't, it drags. And drags.

Film School Rejects
If you have an allergy to pure goofballery, this is not the movie for you. Spend your Depp bucks elsewhere.
Full Review… | January 23, 2015
What looked funny in small, trailer-sized doses turns into an interminable death march when applied to an almost two-hour run time.
Full Review… | January 23, 2015
There was no laughter, just grim resolve on the part of those of us professionally obligated to stick it out through the bitter end.
Full Review… | January 23, 2015

[An] absolutely bewildering waste of time, talent, energy and money.


Could not resist adding this morbid little tidbit. Much has been made of Depp's box office decline in recent years. It strikes me that he isn't being careful enough what he takes on - just has to work all the time, for reasons of his own. Maybe he's broke. It amazes me how these stars go through money.

Oscar Levant: Rhapsody in Black

Since my enthusiasm so often runs ahead of my knowledge, I'm writing this in advance of knowing anything about my subject. Or not much. I have ordered a biography from Amazon called Oscar Levant: A Talent for Genius, one of those 500-page doorstops I love so much, but for this post I'm pretty much winging it.

He was a strange one, and I have strange feelings for him, attraction and repulsion at the same time. Who wouldn't love a man who could play the piano like that? NOBODY could play the piano like that, poetic sensitivity melded with a gangster's rat-a-tat-tat aggressiveness.

Nobody looked like him either, with that sensual, almost Polynesian mouth, the flop of hair that whipped around as he played, the constant manic bobbing and weaving (particularly later in life when he was in the throes of God-knows-what sort of addiction/affliction) reminding me of Michael J. Fox. The grief-stricken, fathoms-deep eyes, the forlorn eyes of an abandoned child, that could quickly flip over into fierceness, to a sense of "yeah, make me", or even blanked-out indifference. 

Oscar Levant was an updated Oscar Wilde without the effeminacy. You knew he wasn't gay by the way he eyed women. Only his personal charm saved it from being a leer. Some glamorous dame would kiss him on the cheek (he played the harmless, charming, eccentric sidekick in all his movies) and he'd lunge at her neck. He got away with lines that would have been censored without that lightning-stroke, oddly monotone delivery: "It's a good thing Marilyn Monroe has gone kosher, because now Arthur Miller can eat her."

Seductive, but somehow - offputting -  as he evolved into a sort of comic hired gun, an outrageous joke-machine that spewed them out on demand. The narrow-eyed, double-breasted gangster demeanour, cigarette constantly dangling from those Filipino lips, deteriorated most awfully over the years as mental illness slowly consumed him. He ended up, no kidding, a real bona fide mental patient, institutionalized, getting shock treatments right during movie shoots so that he had to have himself signed in and out for his scenes (at one point actually playing a mental patient, a part he described as "Pirandelloish").

That's sad. That's sadder, even, than the elderly Dorothy Parker and her poodle called Cliche holed up in her fusty ash-and-bottle-strewn apartment, watching soap operas all day as her friends edged away from her one by one.

Oscar Levant had friends aplenty, but did they keep him around just because he was so entertaining? Did he sit down and think about all those viper-strike lines, actually write them down, or did they just pop out of him like Athena from the head of Zeus?  He had an extremely loyal wife who became a caretaker in later life, and three pretty, vivacious daughters. He had a lively, varied career that most people would envy, considerable fame and adoration, and at the same time the most awful, soul-destroying depression that finally claimed him and sucked him under. It's hard for me to even think about it. 

People sometimes called him a sellout; he did coattail on his close association with George Gershwin, who did Levant a big favour by croaking at age 38. Levant was automatically assumed to be his successor, but who can follow George Gershwin? Not even George Gershwin. Oscar Levant composed, but it doesn't hold together somehow. He's a  sort of Schoenberg on ice, a "look-at-me-I'm-a-composer" performing triple axels at the keyboard. The music is technically good, but it doesn't say anything.

His classic, often-misquoted line was, "There is a fine line betwen genius and insanity. I have erased that line." He constantly joked about suicide and his own craziness, causing an uneasiness and even fear that, for some uknown reason, was viewed as hilariously funny. He was, I think, the first shock comedian.

So, that's what I know, and it ain't much because it's less than what's in the Wikipedia entry. I think his doorstop of a biography (which I will consume in installments propped up in bed before sleeping) will be a wild ride, or else it will be boring, as some biographies inexplicably are.

About these pictures. It was a big disappointment to discover there were very few good photos of him, except for the sardonic, Edward G. Robinson-esque pose at the piano which was a publicity shot for his most famous film, An American in Paris. Others were grainy and dusty-looking, almost mildewed, as if no one had bothered to take care of them.  Contrast this with the hundreds of razor-sharp black-and-white shots I easily found of Harold Lloyd, even going back to pre-1920.

So I took the ones I could find, many of them extracted from old album covers, and because they are in the public domain, and because Oscar said I could, I tinkered with them. Something leaped out at me, a kind of predatory energy. There were so many dimensions to him. He looked different in every shot (and I've excluded some of the later, really painful ones). In a few of them he looked like a young Alan Arkin. 

Out of those ancient grey lithographs emerged  Shakespearian spectres, that is, if Shakespeare had dealt in slighty off-colour wisecracks. And many of the black-and-whites, particularly very dark concert shots, exploded into colour, which as far as I know is impossible (i.e. it's relatively easy to go from color to black and white, but how is it possible to go the other way?). But in every case, no matter how much I altered the original, he was still Oscar. His essence came through every one of the masks. 

People were known to say things like, "Oh! That's Oscar Levant. You know, he could have been. . . " But if hehad "been", as they say, we'd know nothing about him now. He would've had a stellar career as a concert pianist, then sunk out of sight, with only a few musty-smelling LP covers to remind us of who he was.

Instead we have quite a few "sidekick" movies where he's somehow irresistable in his craziness, and a few YouTube videos that are a little disturbing to watch, as he becomes a sort of tame circus tiger on pointless panel shows. He even does a turn on his own show, and the one surviving kinescope is excruciating: he slurs and bobs around like Ray Charles at the piano while his wife sits close beside him like a watchdog, making sure he doesn't fall over the edge.

And he did fall over the edge. What's on the other side of it? Nothing, or a reunion with his pal Gershwin, or celestial piano keys waiting to be played? Considering the chaos of his life, I think oblivion would have been more than enough.

CODA: I'm not sure I'll be writing about Levant again. In fact I kind of hope he won't be another Harold: making an Oscar doll would just be too challenging. But I did find out something about his death, so I'd better get to it now. Too bad he wasn't around to enjoy it, for he was morbid enough that I think he would have found the bizarre circumstances amusing.

Though everyone seems to think he was a complete wreck at the end, like everyone else with serious mental illness he also had his good days. Days when he could noodle around on the piano, talk to his wife June, take a nap. This is what happened: he went upstairs to lie down for a while (for, at age 65, he was already frail from years of drug abuse), to rest up for an interview he'd be having later in the day with a certain fresh-faced young photojournalist.

Her name was Candice Bergen.

Late in the afternoon when the doorbell rang, his wife welcomed Candy in, all bubbly and excited about meeting this living legend. June called upstairs:

"Oscar! She's here!"

No response.

"Going deaf, obviously. Oscar! Come on down now."

"Oh, it's OK, Mrs. Levant, if he wants to. . . "

"OSCAR." She looked at Candy in puzzlement. "What's he up to? I'll be right back."

Mrs. Levant went upstairs and into the bedroom. He was curled on his side in a fetal position, the way he always napped, the corner of a blanket childishly wrapped around his head.


The silence was profound.

"Oscar." She touched his shoulder, then drew back with a gasp.

It must have been hard for Candice Bergen, being assigned a plum interview like that, an interview withpictures,  to have to report back to her editor, "Uh, sorry, but I couldn't do it."

"Couldn't do it? Why not?"

"He's dead."



"Oh. Are you - "

"Sure? Yes, I'm sure."


"He's sure, too."

Then they both disgraced themselves - and each other - by collapsing into helpless laughter.

I'm glad, though. Not glad he's dead - I'm not that mean - but glad that such a turbulent, often agonizing life ended in such sweet surrender. It was like the tide going out: his heart stopped; it was time to go home.

BLOGGER'S NOTE: I was dredging around for some decent photos of George Gershwin - for my Facebook profile picture, as a matter of fact - cuzzadafact I'm kind of on a Gershwin kick now. The music frightens me, it is so gorgeous and unbelievable, yet in another way it pushes me back. Anyway, as sometimes happens, I found a cool picture of Oscar Levant instead, and it turned out to be on MY BLOG. I got reading the post, and liked it. In fact it's better than most of the shit I post now. . . I confess. . . so I'll rerun it, in hopes I'll get more than 17 views. This time.

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