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Hullabaloo


Saturday, January 19, 2008

 
Saturday Night At The Movies

Writer’s block


By Dennis Hartley

As the rerun hell spawned by the Writer’s Guild strike grinds on, morphing Leno and Stewart back into flop-sweating open-mike comics and glitzy awards shows into sleepy press conferences, I’ve been relying more on “deep catalog” for entertainment lately. As I was perusing my media library the other night, I realized that there have actually been a surprising number of great movies concerning the art of writing over the years.

What better way to show your solidarity with those cold, tired scribes on the wintry picket lines than to hold a media room film festival in their honor? Here’s my pick for the “top 10” films about writers (as per usual, in no particular ranking order). I’m eager to hear yours. BTW I’m including novelists, poets and playwrights, as well as TV and screenwriters (print journalists and newspapermen would require a whole other post!):

American Splendor-From the streets of Cleveland, no less! Paul Giamatti was born to play underground comic writer Harvey Pekar, the misanthropic file clerk/armchair philosopher who became a cult figure after collaborating with legendary comic illustrator R. Crumb on some classic strips. Co-directors Shari Berman and Robert Pulcini keep the film fresh and engaging via some unusual choices, like breaking down the “fourth wall” by having the real Pekar interact with Giamatti in several scenes; it’s quite effective. Hope Davis is excellent (and virtually unrecognizable) as Pekar’s deadpan wife.

An Angel at My Table-Jane Campion directed this incredibly moving story of successful New Zealand novelist Janet Frame (beautifully played at various stages of her life by three actresses, most notably Kerry Fox). When she was a young woman, her social phobia and generalized anxiety was misdiagnosed as a more serious mental illness and she ended up spending nearly a decade in and out of institutions (if she were around today, she’d be handed a Xanax prescription and sent home). Not for the faint of heart.

Barfly-It’s the battle of the quirky method actors as Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway guzzle rye and wax wry in this booze-soaked dark comedy, based on the experiences of writer/poet Charles Bukowski. The film is quite richly drawn, right down to the smallest bit parts. Look for Sylvester Stallone’s brother Frank as a bartender who repeatedly beats the crap out of Rourke (betcha Rourke could take him in a real-life alley scrap!). For a perfect co-feature, check out the compelling documentary Bukowski: Born into This.

The Front-Directed by Martin Ritt, this generally downbeat yet politically rousing tale uses the entertainment industry’s spurious McCarthy era blacklist as its backdrop. Woody Allen takes one of his rare “acting only” gigs, and is very effective here as a semi-literate bookie that ends up “fronting” for several blacklisted TV writers. Zero Mostel is brilliant in a tragicomic performance as an archetypal “crying on the inside” funnyman. This was obviously an artistic labor of love (or possibly revenge?) from all parties involved. Anyone who doesn’t get a lump in their throat when it is duly noted in the end credits that Mostel, screenwriter Walter Bernstein and several other participants in the film actually were blacklisted back in the day probably voted Republican in the last election.

Hearts of the West-Jeff Bridges gives a winning performance as a rube from Iowa, a wannabe pulp western writer with the unlikely name of “Lewis Tater” (the scene where he asks the barber to cut his hair to make him look “just like Zane Grey” is priceless.) Tater gets fleeced by a mail-order scam promising enrollment in what turns out to be a bogus university “out west”. Serendipity lands him a job as a stuntman in 1930s Hollywood westerns. Featuring one of Andy Griffith’s best screen performances (next to A Face in the Crowd). Alan Arkin is a complete riot as a perpetually apoplectic director.

Henry & June - Fred Ward delivers his best performance to date as the gruff, libidinous literary icon Henry Miller. The story takes place during the time period that Miller was living in Paris and working on his infamous novel “Tropic of Cancer”. The film concentrates on the complicated love triangle between Miller, his wife June (Uma Thurman) and erotic novelist Anais Nin (Maria de Medeiros). Despite the copious amount of decadent atmosphere, naked flesh and furtive coupling, the film is curiously un-sexy, but still fascinating, and quite well acted. Also with the fabulous Richard E. Grant. Director Philip Kaufman remains one of America’s most underrated filmmakers.

Manhattan-Writer/director Woody Allen casts himself as (wait for it…) a NYC TV writer going through a mid-life crisis. Mariel Hemingway is his teenage girlfriend (don’t say it!). Things get a little complicated when Woody falls for his best friend’s mistress (Diane Keaton). Meryl Streep has a memorable cameo as Allen’s bisexual ex-wife, who is writing a “tell-all” book about their marriage. Also featuring Michael Murphy and Anne Byrne, who both give excellent support. For my money, this is THE quintessential Woody Allen film, his absolute peak- and stands up quite well to myriad viewings.

The Owl And The Pussycat-George Segal is a reclusive, egghead NYC writer and Barbra Streisand is cast against type as a profane, boisterous hooker in this classic “oil and water” farce. Serendipity throws the two odd bedfellows together one fateful evening, and the resulting mayhem is crude, lewd, and IMHO, funnier than hell. Buck Henry adapted his screenplay from Bill Manhoff’s original stage version. Robert Klein is wonderfully droll in a small part. My favorite line: “Doris…you’re a sexual Disneyland!”

Prick Up Your Ears-Gary Oldman chews up the scenery with kinetic flamboyance in this biopic about the British playwright Joe Orton, who lived fast and died young. The chameleon-like Alfred Molina nearly steals the film as Orton’s long-time lover, Kenneth Halliwell. Halliwell was a frustrated, middling writer who had a complex, love-hate obsession with his partner’s effortlessly superior artistic gifts (you might say he played Salieri to Orton’s Mozart). This obsession led to a shocking and heartbreaking tragedy. Director Stephen Frears captures the exuberance of “swinging” 1960s London perfectly.

Reuben, Reuben -A largely overlooked and forgotten little gem from 1983 featuring the great Tom Conti as a boozing, womanizing Scottish poet (reminiscent of Sean Connery’s character in the 1966 satire A Fine Madness). Conti’s character (he’s not “Reuben”, incidentally) spends more time getting himself in trouble than writing poetry, and is constantly trolling for rich patrons (usually via their wives). The inspiration for the film’s enigmatic title isn’t revealed until the final moments, and it’s a classic black comedy corker. Also featuring the lovely Kelly McGillis in her film debut. Where’s the DVD?!

In a thousand words or less: Monster in a Box: The Movie, The TV Set, Heart Beat, Barton Fink, Factotum, Naked Lunch, The World According to Garp, Stranger Than Fiction, Adaptation , Permanent Midnight, Deconstructing Harry,The Basketball Diaries , My Left Foot , Wilde , Capote, Gothic, ,Tom & Viv The Hours, Shadowlands , Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, Reds , Quills,My Brilliant Career, Julia, Finding Neverland , Dreamchild, Shakespeare in Love , Author! Author!,Best Seller, Basic Instinct , Swimming Pool , Hammett, Misery , Secret Window (2004), The Shining.

There have also been a handful of TV series that have delved into the mind of the writer:

The Dick Van Dyke Show - Oh, Rob. The first TV series that deemed to turn the camera back on itself, paving the way for the likes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Larry Sanders. Van Dyke portrays the droll comedy writer who toils for “Alan Brady” a TV star played by series creator Carl Reiner. Reiner, who began his career as a comedy writer, based the character of Brady on his one-time real life boss, Sid Caesar.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0063934/ – Anyone else remember this one? I was only around 13 or 14 years old when I watched this show, so my memory is a tad fuzzy, but I do remember that it was not quite like anything else on the tube at the time (smart, quirky and a bit surreal). William Windom played a character based on writer/cartoonist James Thurber. There were only 14 episodes produced. Another candidate for a DVD release!

Californication -A new Showtime series that might be a little too smug and “hip” for its own good, but displays some occasional flashes of brilliance. David Duchovny plays the aptly named Hank Moody, an angsty New Yawk writer who moves to L.A. after his bestseller is optioned by Hollywood. Bawdy hilarity ensues. I’m sure that Duchovny’s Golden Globe win last Sunday will give the show a higher profile for its second season.

And speaking of Golden Globe winners, I should mention former SNL head writer Tina Fey’s art-imitating-life character in30 Rock , and an honorable mention to the short-lived Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip , which also dealt with backstage TV comedy writer angst.


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