Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Laramie Project (2002)

Original movies produced by and for HBO are, generally speaking, fine quality productions these days -- often to the point that they could be theatrical films. Generally, they have a degree of importance to them. Often they are about real people or real events.  The Laramie Project has all of these qualities.

Writer-director Moises Kaufman created a play made up of the actual words spoken by actual Laramie, Wyoming residents following the brutal murder of young gay Matthew Shepard by two Laramie residents. Kaufman then adapted his play into this affecting telefilm. The result is a glimpse of a town thrust into the national spotlight in the aftermath of Shepard's tragic murder.

Kaufman populates his film with many acclaimed character actors, all with relatively small roles. The cast includes Christina Ricci, Margo Martindale, Dylan Baker, Frances Sternhagen, Janeane Garofalo, Amy Madigan,  Ben Foster, Laura Linney, Camryn Manheim, Peter Fonda, Jeremy Davies, Steve Buscemi, Joshua Jackson, Lois Smith, Clancy Brown, Bill Irwin, and Tom Bower, among others. The most moving was Terry Kinney as Dennis Shepard, Matthew's father, who gives an eloquent speech at the sentencing hearing of one of the murderers.

The film is so well-constructed and well-edited with different threads of the fabric of Laramie that I didn't notice its dramatic holes until after the film was over. It seems to me that the filmmakers want to indict the people of Laramie, to hold them responsible in part for the culture that led to Shepard's horrific beating and murder.  I don't want to lessen the cruelty of the crimes against Shepard, but the crime could have happened in New York City just as easily as it did in Wyoming (and in my opinion, justice may not have been so sufficiently served in a more liberal state.) The people of Laramie were outraged, shocked, dismayed, and horrified by what happened to Shepard, no less than people anywhere else in the country would have been had it occurred in their back yards.  I don't mind movies that stack the cards to illustrate their points of view so much as I get bothered by the constant attitude that good, moral people who believe that the homosexual lifestyle is wrong are complete idiots. Most people that I know who have this attitude are tolerant and respectful of gays -- they would just prefer to not have gay culture in their faces all the time. I'm sure that if a television drama actually tried to be sympathetic to such Americans that a publicity nightmare would ensue. My point is that the savage beating of Shepard in Laramie is no more or less abhorrent than gay-bashing anywhere. But the majority of people who oppose special rights for homosexuals are not gay-bashers and in fact are just as repulsed by such behavior as people supportive of gay causes.  The Laramie Project does not make this distinction.

Ultimately, The Laramie Project is a consistently fascinating, complex, important piece of filmmaking that errs by villanizing  the people of a good city in a good state when the only villains here were the two perpetrators of the murder of Shepard.  For that reason, I have to give The Laramie Project a B+.

I watched The Laramie Project on DVD on May 17, 2014.

Monday, May 5, 2014

All About Eve (1950)

Incredibly, I had never seen 1950's All About Eve before this weekend.

Yes, I know that the film is legendary. I'm aware of its position in Hollywood history.  I'm aware that it is tied with 1997's Titanic as the movies with the most Oscar nominations (14).  I understand that by being cast in this film, Bette Davis felt that director Joseph L. Mankiewicz had rescued her film career.  And I can quote several lines from this movie that I had never seen, including the famous "Fasten your seatbelts. It's going to be a bumpy night."

I'm not sure why it has taken me so long to seek out All About Eve. Friends who are fellow film buffs have consistently urged me to watch the film. This  weekend finally seemed like the right time to do that.

The story is relatively well-known.  Eve Harrington, a seemingly na├»ve young woman from the
Midwest, attaches herself to Broadway diva Margo Channing and her circle of theatrical friends. Margo becomes aware that Eve may be trying to gain stardom at Margo's expense, but the people around her seem seduced by Eve's charms.  Eventually Eve makes calculated moves that thrust her into the limelight, though there are hints that her fame may not be long-lasting.

The first two-thirds of the movie showcase Davis's tour-de-force performance as Margo Channing.  Channing has created a persona for the public that masks her personal insecurities as she feels threatened by her middle-age in a youth-oriented career. She also longs for passionate love. Davis nails the role perfectly. Her Margo Channing is such a force of nature that the film misses her when she isn't onscreen.

Less successful -- though still effective -- is Anne Baxter as Eve Harrington.  Eve's adopted persona is demure and kindly; a perfect contrast to the in-your-face Margo. Unfortunately, Baxter isn't nearly as strong an actor as Davis, and in my mind, the film suffers a little because Baxter isn't as natural a fit in the film as Davis. 

An argument could be made that Baxter's role is supporting, although the movie allows her to take front and center in the last half hour. Yet both Davis and Baxter were nominated as Best Actress for All About Eve, both losing to Judy Holliday for Born Yesterday.  Other nominees were Eleanor Parker in Caged and Gloria Swanson in Sunset Blvd.  I haven't seen either Holliday's or Swanson's performances but both are probably deserved, and Parker gave a fine performance in a gutsy role. I suspect that Davis or Swanson should have won the Oscar, but I feel that Baxter's nod was undeserved.  (There's also a theory that the vote was split between Davis and Baxter, allowing for Holliday's win.  I don't subscribe to the split-vote theory as the math doesn't work out.)

(But MovieRAM, my readers ask.  If Baxter wasn't nominated in 1950, or if she was nominated in the supporting category instead, who should have gotten the 5th nomination? Easy answer, my friends.  I'd have given the fifth slot to the incandescent Betty Hutton for Annie Get Your Gun.)

All About Eve crowded the supporting actress category too.  Celeste Holm played Karen, the playwright's wife, who wields a surprising of influence in her inner circle before she sees that she never should have been supportive of Eve. It's a great, multi-layered  performance, and I probably would have been happy had she won. Surprisingly, the great character actress Thelma Ritter got the first of her six Oscar nominations as Birdie, Margo's loyal assistant. It's a small role, and while Ritter excels in it, it is not an award-worthy role. Both Holm and Ritter lost the award to stage actress Josephine Hull in Harvey, another movie that I need to see. (Other nominees were Hope Emerson, who was excellent as a brutal prison matron in Caged, and Nancy Olson in Sunset Blvd.)

While Davis, Baxter, Holm, and Ritter all lost the Oscar for All About Eve, supporting actor George Sanders won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for playing Addison DeWitt, the acerbic theater critic with the poison pen who can make or break careers.  While I haven't seen any of his fellow nominees, it is hard to see how any of them could be better than Sanders, who inhabits his role perfectly. It's a magnificent performance in a great role.

All About Eve won Best Picture, Best Director for Mankiewicz, and a Best Screenplay Oscar for Mankiewicz's excellent screenplay.  Edith Head won the Best Costumes award, and the film won an award for Best Sound Recording.

A few more thoughts on the film. Marilyn Monroe has an early supporting role in in this movie, and she acquits herself nicely.  I thought Gary Merrill as the play's director and Hugh Marlowe as the playwright were too similar in type to share so many scenes together. Mankiewicz's screenplay and direction are extremely first-rate.

Is this Davis's best screen work? It could well be -- though I'm terribly fond of her roles in The Letter and The Little Foxes. I don't think I've ever seen Holm or Sanders quite as good as they are in All About Eve.

All About Eve perfectly depicts the theater world with colorful characters and insightful dialogue. I wish Baxter's portrayal of Eve didn't pale when viewed next to Davis's Margo. Baxter's casting weakened the film for me (I think Donna Reed could have pulled it off.) Therefore, instead of a perfect classic, I have to deem it a very good one instead.  Grade: B+.

I watched All About Eve on Netflix Streaming on Sunday, May 4, 2014.