Saturday, December 29, 2012

An Evening with Bill Murray about HYDE PARK ON HUDSON

As longtime TotED readers know, I rarely review current movies here, but when I heard about Focus Features’ fact-based comedy-drama Hyde Park on Hudson (HPoH), I didn't want to wait for the rest of the world to decide whether or not this film was a future classic!  On Sunday, October 14th , 2012, I was lucky enough to attend a sneak preview in my hometown, New York City, at Manhattan’s Florence Gould Hall.  The stars, Bill Murray as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Laura Linney as Daisy Suckley, surely need no introduction, being Oscar nominees themselves: Murray for Lost in Translation (2003), and Laura Linney for The Savages (2007), Kinsey (2004), and You Can Count on Me (2000), among their other memorable films.

In HPoH, distant cousin Daisy comes to Hyde Park in upstate New York (played by England) as a companion/assistant to Franklin. Her duties include helping to keep the extent of the 32nd President’s polio on the downlow; nobody wanted FDR to be shown as frail or helpless, especially with war looming on the horizon.  Daisy tends to her aunt, too, which delighted me, because Auntie is played by Team Bartilucci favorite Eleanor Bron (Help!, Alfie; Two For The Road; Bedazzled — the original 1960s films, not the remakes from the early 2000s)! 

Eleanor Bron as Daisy's Aunt
Daisy and Franklin have lots of interests in common, and soon literally become kissing cousins and confidants. The film’s narrative unfolds in an endearingly low-key style, almost as if these iconic historical figures could be members of your own family, albeit better dressed. I particularly liked the scenes with the Royal Couple, King George VI (played poignantly and ultimately endearingly by Samuel West) and Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman from Hot Fuzz; The Iron Lady).  Both George and Elizabeth are terrified of somehow screwing up this momentous occasion.  In particular, I found myself both amused and sympathetic toward the Royal Couple during the running gag about the King and the Queen not quite knowing whether to be insulted or just plain terrified when they’re faced with (gasp!) hot dogs, fearing an international incident if they do or say the wrong things.  George and Franklin even have a bit of a father-and-son aspect to their talks together. I’ll confess I’ve never seen the Oscar-winning The King’s Speech, but now that I’ve seen and enjoyed HPoH, I’d like to see both films back-to-back!  In any case, while some reviews were mixed, I found HPoH  to be witty, droll, and just plain endearing!

But you all really want to talk about Bill Murray, don’t you? Sure, we all do!  The New York Times’ Dave Itzkoff conducted the Q&A and Murray was a breezy, good-natured delight with both the interviewer and the questions from the enthusiastic audience.  Quoting from Itzkoff’s intro: “WHAT do we still want from Bill Murray?  His unpremeditated film career—in which he has parlayed performances as the happy-go-lucky heroes of 1980s-era slapstick into the existentially uncertain leading men of thoughtful comedies like Groundhog Day, Rushmore, and Lost in Translation—would seem to be sufficient. Yet we demand more from this 62-year-old actor, on whose rugged face a playful smirk and a contemplative gaze look equally at home, and he appears happy to give it to us in his life beyond the screen. Tracking his movements in the wild, as he crashes karaoke parties and kickball games, has become an online pastime; Mr. Murray himself has become the folkloric equivalent of a leprechaun or fairy godparent, popping up at unpredictable yet opportune moments.”

Murray’s amiable unpredictability has always been part of his charm.  For example, as Itzkoff got to see first-hand while visiting NYC on the film’s behalf: “… Mr. Murray gave a journalist a front-row seat to see his carefree philosophy in action. Actually, closer: After Mr. Murray’s interview with another interrogator ran overtime, I was invited to accompany him to an evening appearance at Florence Gould Hall — and onto the stage of its theater, where a private chat turned into a public spectacle for a few hundred members of the Screen Actors Guild. (Imagine accompanying Mr. Murray on a version of the famous tracking shot from “Goodfellas,” through the back rooms and bowels of an unfamiliar building until the moment you expect to part ways and take your seat in the audience, only to realize then that you’re part of the act.)  Murray apologized: “I’m sorry I went too long. I just feel badly when someone doesn’t have enough. Everyone wants to talk longer. Even I want to talk longer sometimes. And then I dig myself into holes I gotta get out of.”

Regarding feedback on his performance, Murray said, “I’m curious to see what people think of it, just ’cause it is not like an ordinary movie. I don’t know if it’s great or not. We’ll see what you get.”  Indeed, he was genuinely surprised to be offered this iconic role at all:  “I thought, ‘Can this guy be serious?’  I wouldn’t have cast myself. But this guy did, and about halfway through I went, ‘Wow, he really was right.’  Not to compare myself, but certain personality things were similar, like the way he tried to leaven things and move attention around a room, get everyone their little slice of the sun.”

Have you seen Bill Murray, baby, standing in the shadows?
Asked how he prepared for the role, Murray cited his days at the celebrated Second City comedy troupe in Chicago.  There, he’d worked with the great writer, actor, and improv master Del Close, who’d explained to him: “You wear your characters like a trench coat. It’s still you in there, but there’s like a trench coat.” Murray added, “So I figured this was like a winter trench coat, because there was just a little bit more character that comes to the party. So I did a lot more reading, a lot more studying. People ask, “Did this really happen?”  Well, if you read the diaries, it’s very clear that it happened.  The writing changes. You read this later stuff, when we’re at war, and he’s not telling his wife, he’s not telling the cabinet—they don’t know where he is. But he’s sending messages by courier to her every day. This girl was the vault. I love that expression: ‘She’s the vault.’ He could tell her anything, and it wasn’t leaving her head.”

Murray wasn’t out to sully the real-life people involved, though.  “The thing I was concerned about was: The story that we’re going to tell, is it going to be a tearing-down of an icon?  I don’t know if I want to be part of that kind of action, where you trash someone.  What was the John Travolta movie, Primary Colors?  I didn’t want to do something where you were really just napalming someone.”

Itzkoff notes the joy Murray brings out of people when they encounter him, to which Murray smiles and says, “Some are more joyous than others. I’m of the habit that if there are people waiting outside the hotel, you don’t sign those autographs there. Because that means when you come back in the middle of the night, they’re still there. It’s usually a one-time thing. That’s it; that’s your one time. You try your hardest, but you can’t always be perfect.”

As he responds to this question, Murray brings Itzkoff with him onto an elevator, guiding him through a backstage area and onto the stage, where the expectant audience applauds rapturously. Even though these plans were surely explained to me ahead of time, the effect is one of dreamlike disorientation, followed by a deep breath and a tacit decision to follow Murray’s lead.

Itzkoff says:  “We were just talking about the joy you bring out of people. Do you believe it now?”

Is this like the Oprah show?” Murray playfully replies.  “Does everyone have a gift under their seat?  You guys are pretty jazzed up.”

Murray reminisces about the first time he’d went to Wrigley Field in Chicago as a boy. “I was a big Cubs fan, and I watched all the games on TV, but when I grew up, TV was in black and white. So when I was 7 years old, I was taken to my first Cubs games, and my brother Brian said, ‘Wait, Billy,’ and he put his hands over my eyes, and he walked me up the stairs.  And then he took his hands away.”  Choking up, Murray continues, “And there was Wrigley Field, in green. There was this beautiful grass and this beautiful ivy. I’d only seen it in black and white. It was like I was a blind man made to see. It was something.”

There seems to be so much serendipity in Murray’s life that Itzkoff couldn’t help but ask whether he’s actively cultivating these moments, or just hoping that they come to him.  “Well, you have to hope that they happen to you. That’s Pandora’s box, right? She opens up the box, and all the nightmares fly out.  And slams the lid shut, like, “Oops,” and opens it one more time, and hope pops out of the box. That’s the only thing we really, surely have, is hope.  You hope that you can be alive, that things will happen to you that you’ll actually witness, that you’ll participate in, rather than life just rolling over you.  Life rolls along, and holy cats, you wake up and it’s Thursday, and what happened to Monday?  Whatever the best part of my life has been, has been as a result of that remembering.

Everyone has days where you wake up and think: “Nothing good has come to me in a little while. I’d better prime the pump’?   Well, who hasn’t woken up thinking, “God, nothing good has come to me in a while,’ right?  When I feel like I’m stuck, I do something—not like I’m Mother Teresa or anything, but there’s someone who’s forgotten-about in your life, all the time.  Someone that could use an ‘Attaboy’ or a ‘How you doin’ out there?’  It’s that sort of scene, that remembering that we die alone.  We’re born alone. We do need each other. It’s lonely to really effectively live your life, and anyone you can get help from or give help to, that’s part of your obligation.”

Even today, Murray is pleasantly surprised that the roles that he’d done years ago, if not decades ago, still endure.  “When you did the job, you thought you were just trying to amuse your friends who are all on the job. I’m just trying to make the sound guy laugh, the script supervisor.  Take a movie like Caddyshack,  I can walk on a golf course, and some guy will be screaming entire scenes at me and expecting me to do it word for word with him. It’s like: ‘Fella, I did that once.  I improvised that scene.  I don’t remember how it goes.’  But I’m charmed by it. I’m not like, ‘Hey, knock it off.’ It’s kind of cool.”
Eleanor Bron from A Little Princess,
because it's a better pic of her :-)

Murray continues to be pleasantly surprised that the lessons he learned back in Second City would pay off later in life.  “It pays off in your life when you’re in an elevator and people are uncomfortable.  You can just say, ‘That’s a beautiful scarf.’  It’s just thinking about making someone else feel comfortable.  You don’t worry about yourself, because we’re vibrating together. If I can make yours just a little bit groovier, it’ll affect me. It comes back, somehow.”

Hyde Park on Hudson is currently in limited release, and will be in wide release in January 2013!

Until then, check out these fun tidbits about the film, courtesy of Focus Features! Here's the link:

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942): Wild and Woolley!

It all started with the famous Algonquin Round Table, where New York City’s elite would meet to eat, drink, and crack each other up with sly, witty bon mots. The most outrageous gadabout of them all was Alexander Woollcott, a larger-than-life character even by the Algonquin Round Table’s standards.  Woollcott was one of the most eminent critics and radio personalities of the 1920s and ’30s—and also one of the most maddening men you’d ever meet!  As author Jared Stone describes him in his 2006 book Moss Hart: A Prince of the Theatre, “While many prominent people called Woollcott a friend, he was also known for his acid tongue and demanding, impossible-to-please attitude. He could be charming and generous one minute; petulant and venomous the next.”

As Andrea Passafiume explains on the TCM Web site, Woollcott’s many notable friends included the very successful playwriting team of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart: “One evening while Woollcott was visiting Moss Hart, he made an unusual request. He wanted Hart and Kaufman to write a new play for him to star in. Woollcott had dabbled in acting before, and thought that being in a play would be a new way in which to reach his massive audience.  Somewhat dubious, but not wanting to disappoint his friend, Hart agreed to give the matter some thought.”  Then Hart remembered an overnight visit with Woollcott in his country home.  Woollcott had badgered Hart and his household with all manner of unreasonable non-stop demands.  He unfairly accused Hart’s servants of stealing; he whined for cookies and milkshakes at odd hours; he demanded the heat be turned off; he insisted that Hart trade beds with him — it was always something!  As Hart described the maddening no-sleep-over to Kaufman, he had a brainwave:  “Wouldn't it have been awful if (Woollcott) had broken a leg and been on my hands for the rest of the summer?”  Ta-da!  A classic comedy was born!  Talk about turning lemons into lemonade!

Sophisticates on a Train!
George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s comedy The Man Who Came to Dinner (TMWCtD) debuted at New York City’s Music Box Theatre on October 16th, 1939.  It made Monty Woolley a Broadway star, and in January 1942, he became a movie star, too, when the Warner Bros. film version hit theaters.  The film version pretty much became an instant classic.  Even today, TMWCtD is a gift that’s kept on giving to delighted audiences over the decades, with awards and revivals in New York and London.  There was even a 1950 Radio broadcast starring Clifton Webb as Sheridan Whiteside, and Lucille Ball as Maggie Cutler.  Knowing that Webb and Ball were equally talented in both comedy and drama, I for one can cheerfully imagine going back in time to hear Webb and Ball do comedy together after their awesome dramatic performances in The Dark Corner!   I wonder how TMWCtD‘s Sherry (as friends call him) and Laura’s Waldo Lydecker would have gotten along, murder not withstanding?

Oh, my!  Will the gifts be returned?
Born in August 1888, Monty Woolley came from an elite family, owners of the renowned Marie Antoinette Hotel on Broadway.  Despite his youth, Woolley cut quite a swath through Manhattan society, along with Master’s degrees at Yale and Harvard.  He returned to Yale as an English instructor and drama coach, counting Thornton Wilder and Stephen Vincent Benet among his students, intimates, and confidants.  Woolley’s friend Cole Porter (we should all have such friends!) encouraged him to become a stage director himself, resulting in such Broadway hits as Fifty Million Frenchmen (1929), The New Yorkers, and Jubilee (1935). Woolley took his first Broadway bow in the hit musical On Your Toes (a revival is set for 2013) and soon it was Hollywood’s turn to sit up and take notice as Woolley ascended the ranks of supporting actors at MGM, Warner Bros., and Paramount.

Maggie loves Bert because he's a good skate!
Woolley came into his own in the 1940s, with hits like the Christmas classic The Bishop’s Wife; When Irish Eyes are Smiling; the rather fanciful Cole Porter biopic Night and Day; and best of all, two Oscar nominations: a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his role in the WW II drama The Pied Piper (1942), and a Best Supporting Actor nomination for another war classic, Since You Went Away (1944).  But for the life of me, I can’t imagine why Woolley wasn’t nominated for an Oscar for his iconic performance for TMWCtD! Just one of cinema’s little mysteries, I guess!

Only two actors besides Monty Woolley reprised their original Broadway roles for the movie:
  • Mary Wickes (Now, Voyager; June Bride; It Happened to Jane; and many TV series, including several with frequent co-star Lucille Ball), making her Broadway debut, and then her movie debut, as Miss Preen, the ever-startled and put-upon nurse.
  • Ruth Vivian, who plays the sweet, soft-spoken, but apparently batty Harriet Stanley (Confidential Agent; A Letter to Three Wives).
Then television came along, bringing a (reportedly so-so) 1972 TV movie starring Orson Welles, Lee Remick, and even Mary Wickes reprising her debut role.  In 2000, there was a delightful Broadway revival at The Roundabout Theatre, starring Team Bartilucci favorite Nathan Lane, also broadcast on PBS (which we watched and loved). There had even been a musical version in 1967, Sherry!, by none other than James Lipton!   Alas, it was short-lived, but the soundtrack is still available on as of this writing, with a powerhouse cast including Lane, Bernadette Peters, Tommy Tune, and Carol Burnett!

But of course, movies are the medium we’re most mad about here at TotED, so we’re focusing on the 1942 Warner Bros. version of TMWCtD, one of our favorite holiday comedies!  Naturally, Warner Bros. snapped up the movie rights, and the result has something for everyone:  comedy chock-full of witty dialogue by brothers Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein (the writers who brought us such hits as Casablanca and the film version of Arsenic and Old Lace), adapted from Kaufman and Hart’s play, of course, not to mention romance and rivalry; gorgeous gals; screwball comedy; even penguins and octopi!  How’s that for getting your movie-going money’s worth (so to speak, considering most of us here are most likely watching in on DVD/Blu-Ray and such)? 

Granted, at that time, Monty Woolley wasn’t as familiar to moviegoers as he was to Broadway audiences, so Warner Bros. surrounded Woolley with a galaxy of stars, including:
  •  Bette Davis, incomparable superstar and two-time Oscar-winner, as Sherry’s secretary Maggie Cutler. In fact, Davis had gone to New York to see the play herself, and she loved it.  She thought this comedy would be a nice change of pace from her usual heavy dramatic roles, and having Davis’ star power on the marquee sure couldn’t hurt!
  • Billie Burke as the dithering Mrs. Stanley, known and loved from the Topper films, the Father of the Bride films, and most iconic of all, her performance as The Wizard of Oz’s Glinda the Good Witch!
  • Grant Mitchell as the ever-irked Ernest Stanley, known for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington; Arsenic and Old Lace; The Grapes of Wrath;
  • Reginald Gardiner as Noel Coward manqué Beverly Carlton, also known for Laurel and Hardy’s The Flying Deuces, as well as The Great Dictator and Christmas in Connecticut;
  • Ann Sheridan, the “Oomph Girl” herself, as the popular, man-hungry movie/stage star Lorraine Sheldon, who was known for They Drive By Night; Nora Prentiss; George Washington Slept Here.  At the same time she made TMWCtD, the busy Sheridan was also shooting Kings Row (1942).
  • Jimmy Durante as Banjo, the husky-voiced zany with the impressive proboscis and rapid-fire wacky wit, inspired in real life by Harpo Marx. Durante could do it all, in every medium, as an actor (You’re in the Army Now; It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World; On an Island with You), comedian, composer, singer, and songwriter.  Who can forget Durante’s hit songs "Inka Dinka Doo," Umbriago,” and “Make Someone Happy,” especially at holiday time? Heck, while I was writing this post, I heard Durante’s cheerfully gruff voice singing “Make Someone Happy” for a commercial for!
Sheridan Whiteside calls in the Cavalry in his ongoing war
against happiness in those other than himself!

The film opens on Sherry and his longtime secretary Maggie Cutler, arriving from New York City to do a favor for Sherry’s old friend Harry Clarke, who’s running a lecture tour.  Despite the friendship, Sherry’s raising the roof even before the train to Mesalia, Ohio has pulled into the station:

 Sherry:  “I simply will not sit down at dinner with Midwestern barbarians.  I think too highly of my digestive system.”

 Maggie:  “Harry Clarke is one of your oldest friends.”

Sherry:  “My stomach is an older one.”

Merry Christmas to Sherry from Madagascar!
The worldly, arrogant, tart-tongued Sheridan Whiteside — “Sherry” to his sophisticated friends — couldn’t be more different from the genteel — if impatient — bourgeois ball-bearing magnate Ernest Stanley and his wife, Daisy.  It’s clear that Sherry is a termagant under even the best of circumstances.  Then Sherry slips and racks himself on the Stanleys’ snowy, poorly-shoveled steps, and the Stanleys’ well-organized life turns upside-down, with wickedly funny results!  The shenanigans bring to mind a quote from a lecture by Stephen King during my college days at Fordham University:  “When bad things happen to others, it’s funny.  When it happens to you, it’s horror!”  Luckily for us viewers, the funny parts override everything else in this hilarious nightmare!

Sexy stage siren Lorraine Sheldon can always get a cab!
At least Sherry is a witty, entertaining, fun-to-watch tyrant, as long as you don’t cross him somehow.  He’s a great host — albeit at the bedeviled Stanleys’ expense — as he invites everyone and everything to his hosts’ home, from convicts to overseas visitors from many lands and languages, even different  species, including octopi and penguins.  Those poor Stanleys — their phone bills alone must be through the roof with the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt and Sherry’s other famous friends gabbing away!  Slipping on ice and landing painfully on his rump certainly may not always lift Sherry’s spirits, but it sure leaves us howling with laughter as pandemonium reigns in the Stanley home, with scads of famous friends calling and visiting while Sherry amuses himself with gossip and guile.

We give Lorraine's blouse buttons 3 thumbs up!
Call it Stockholm Syndrome, or call it just plain warming up to each other, but as Sherry’s convalescence progresses, he finds himself taking a liking to some members of the household, including the couple working for the Stanleys, John (Edward Starkey) and Sarah (Betty Roadman), which just goes to show that if you feed people well, they’ll be your friends for life!  Sherry also takes a shine to the Stanley family’s young adult kids, June (Elisabeth Fraser) and Richard (Russell Arms).  Mr. Stanley keeps the young folks on short leashes, and when they confide in Sherry about Richard’s aspirations to be a professional photographer and June’s love for a labor union agitator who Mr. Stanley disapproves of, Sherry does his bit to help them while at the same time ensuring apoplexy from the easily-shocked Ernest and Daisy.  That’s what I call a win-win situation!

Sheesh, Lorraine! Beverly C helps Maggie phone it in!
Meanwhile, sophisticated Maggie finds herself drawn to the editor of the Mesalia Journal, Bert Jefferson (Richard Travis from The Big Shot; Mission to Moscow; and many TV Westerns — appropriate, since his real name was William Justice!).  Bert proves to be an easygoing, affable fella; indeed, he must be the most laid-back newspaperman in or out of movies!   Bert doesn’t even get rattled when Sherry tricks him out of a dollar to pay the cab driver — which Bert firmly but good-naturedly gets back from Bert.  Good for you, Bert!  No wonder Maggie’s falling for this sweet,  handsome, refreshingly uncomplicated man.  Bette Davis turns out to be a swell comedienne with her droll delivery, while subtly letting her both her hair and her guard down to let Bert win her heart.Will there be a Christmas wedding with everyone living happily ever after?  Not so fast!  When Sherry realizes love is blossoming between Maggie and Bert, Sherry doesn’t like it a bit!  Beneath Sherry’s acid tongue, he’s genuinely fond of Maggie, but he’s even more fond of having everything his own way, with no disruptions of his precious routine!  So the rascally Sherry launches his secret weapon:  glamorous actress Lorraine Sheldon, who’s been looking for a new play to star in, and is always open for mixing business with pleasure.  Without spoiling the screwball surprises, I can only say that love just might conquer all with a little help from your zaniest, most talented friends!  That said, I must say Maggie needs more faith in Bert.  Newspaperman or not, I don’t think it’s occurred to Bert that Lorraine’s hot for him.  Maybe he’s too uncomplicated?

The secret of "Oomph Girl" Lorraine's fab  figure:
she sleeps in a mold!

Banjo meets Miss Preen. Hello, Nurse!
Considering how many stars vied for roles in TMWCtD, there could have been several versions filmed to keep everyone in Hollywood busy!  According to the TCM Web site, the following actors all wanted to be considered for roles:

Laird Cregar (Ooh, would that have been awesome, or what?!)
Orson Welles
Charles Laughton
Fredric March
Robert Benchley
Cary Grant
Rosalind Russell
Myrna Loy
Jean Arthur
Olivia de Havilland

At one time, Howard Hawks was interested in directing The Man Who Came to Dinner.

Bette Davis desperately wanted John Barrymore to play Sheridan Whiteside, but Barrymores drinking problem prevented him from being able to handle the film's snappy, complicated dialogue.

A dog bite to the nose temporarily  kept Bette Davis from being able to film scenes.

The character of Lorraine was reportedly based on actress Gertrude Lawrence.

In the film Jimmy Durante's character Banjo refers to Ann Sheridan's character Lorraine as "The Oomph Girl,” which was Sheridan's real-life nickname. In the original play, Banjo calls Lorraine "Old Hot-Pants.”

Mary Astor was tested for the role of Lorraine. (She'd have been a great choice, too!)

Danny Kaye tested for the role of Banjo. (0h, I can just imagine the awesomeness!)

Harpo Marx played the role of Banjo himself in a 1941 stage production at the Bucks County Playhouse in Pennsylvania.

The character of Beverly Carlton was based on Noel Coward.

Rosalind Russell, Myrna Loy, Jean Arthur and Olivia de Havilland were considered to play the role of Maggie.

The play The Man Who Came to Dinner was considered to be the last great collaboration between the team of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart.

According to the IMDb, co-star Richard Travis came back to the town of Paragould, Arkansas to host the World Premiere of The Man Who Came to Dinner at the Capitol Theatre.  Travis had previously lived and worked there as the editor of the theater's coming-attractions magazine!  What’s more, Travis’ real name was William Justice, which no doubt explains why he went on to many Western roles. 

All of us here at Team Bartilucci HQ wish you and yours a truly joyful and safe:
Merry Christmas!
Happy Hanukkah!
Happy Kwanzaa!
And/or anything else 

you and yours wish to celebrate!