Sunday, December 03, 2006

Sheila O’Malley

1. James Agee’s “Comedy’s Greatest Era”. Published in Life Magazine in 1949, this groundbreaking essay about silent movies is a high-water mark for me, in terms of critiquing films and how to talk about the art of performance. (You’ll see that most of my critical choices come from the critic’s ability to talk about the art of acting, the craft of the actor – why something is good, why something is not good.) David Thomson said, in regards to Agee’s criticism: “he wrote like someone who had not just viewed the movie but been in it -- out with it, as if it were a girl, drinking with it; driving in the night with it.” James Agee made me see movies in a different way. He made me HUNGRY to see movies I had never seen, and to watch them not just as entertainment, but as puzzles to be pieced together. WHY does something work? WHY is something effective? Nobody is better than Agee at attempting to answer these questions. Any critic can say, “This is good” or “This is not good” – but it takes a master to explain why. I read this essay in college, I believe, after I had discovered Agee’s Let us Now Praise Famous Men. I hadn’t seen any Chaplin when I read the essay, but after reading the following paragraph, I had to see them all:
"The finest pantomime, the deepest emotion, the richest and most poignant poetry were in Chaplin's work. He could probably pantomime Bryce's The American Commonwealth without ever blurring a syllable and make it paralyzingly funny into the bargain. At the end of City Lights the blind girl who has regained her sight, thanks to the Tramp, sees him for the first time. She has imagined and anticipated him as princely, to say the least; and it has never seriously occurred to him that he is inadequate. She recognizes who he must be by his shy, confident, shining joy as he comes silently toward her. And he recognizes himself, for the first time, through the terrible changes in her face. The camera just exchanges a few quiet close-ups of the emotions which shift and intensify in each face. It is enough to shrivel the heart to see, and it is the greatest piece of acting and the highest moment in movies.

2. Pauline Kael: “The Man From Dream City” (The New Yorker, 1975) I love Pauline Kael, in general, even when I vehemently disagree with her – but her 40 page essay on Cary Grant “The Man From Dream City” has got to be one of my all-time best reading experiences. Ever. Cary Grant is my favorite actor – and I have spent much time myself pondering him and pondering why he is so wonderful. Pauline Kael analyzes him within an inch of his life. I read that essay in the height of my first Cary Grant manic episode (a couple of years ago) and it turned me on so much that I had to go back and re-watch all of his great films again, with her observations in mind. There is a mystery at the heart of Cary Grant’s appeal, and although he is obviously well-loved, he makes acting look so easy that I think sometimes it is not appreciated just how skillful and brilliant he is. Here are a couple of my favorite excerpts from her essay, the ones that made me want to race out and see all his movies again:
"Grant doesn’t assert his male supremacy; in the climax of a picture he doesn’t triumph by his fists and brawn – or even by outwitting anybody. He isn’t a conqueror, like Gable. But he’s a winner. The game, however, is an artful dodge. He gets the blithe, funny girl by maneuvering her into going after him. He’s a fairy-tale hero, but she has to pass through his trials: She has to trim her cold or pompous adversaries; she has to dispel his fog. In picture after picture, he seems to give up his resistance at the end, as if to say, What’s the use of fighting?"
Here Kael addresses his performance in The Awful Truth (my favorite of his performances, second only to Only Angels Have Wings):
"Grant uses his intense physical awareness to make the scenes play, and never to make himself look good at the expense of someone else – not even when he could waltz away with the show. He performs the gags with great gusto, but he never lets us forget that the character is behaving like an oaf because he doesn’t want to lose his wife, and that he’s trying to protect his raw places. Henry Fonda played roles similar to Grant’s … Fonda, with his saintly bumpkin’s apologetic smile and his double-jointed gait, could play bashful stupes more convincingly than any other romantic star. However, it’s part of the audience’s pleasure in Grant that he isn’t a green kid – he’s a muscular full-bodied man making a fool of himself."
It’s one of my favorite essays about the art of acting, focusing in on one of the most talented men to ever practice the craft.

3. Richard Schickel, Cary Grant: A Celebration (1983) Continuing on with the Cary Grant theme, my next favorite critic is Richard Schickel. He wrote an entire book about Cary Grant, an analysis of his acting and his career, from film to film, charting the development of the Cary Grant persona. How can you truly appreciate something like Gunga Din or Awful Truth without knowing the context surrounding it, and where Cary Grant was at that point in his development as an actor? It makes such a difference knowing that Sylvia Scarlett was the true breakthrough for Cary Grant, the first time he (as George Cukor put it) “felt the ground beneath his feet”. And I watch Sylvia Scarlett (a lovely weird little film) differently knowing that this was Cary Grant’s breakout part. He’s not quite there yet – The Awful Truth was a mere year later - but Sylvia Scarlett was the beginning of that confidence and humor and strange crankiness copyrighted by Grant. Schickel’s book breaks this whole journey down. One of his observations goes a long long way to describing the Grant phenomenon (this is in reference to Only Angels Have Wings):
"‘Jean Arthur half falls apart waiting for him to make a move,’ [Pauline] Kael writes of this movie, which is, for her, another prime bit of evidence about Grant’s essence as she sees it, which is ‘to draw women to him by making them feel he needs them’ without coming right out and saying so. But there is something more than a sexually shrewd enticement going on here. What’s really up is active resistance. Which resistance is based on an utterly firm belief that women gum up the works in enterprises where men must depend on one another to be undistracted. Grant’s character here is not playing hard to get; he is hard to get."
This is so right. It explains so much.

Here is Schickel’s analysis of Bringing Up Baby, and why this particular performance is so hilarious and perfect:
"There may be something sympathetic about a nebbish, but there is nothing funny about him. So they [Howard Hawks and Grant] added a certain crankiness to Grant's character -- a crabby, exasperated, put-upon quality. After all, the man was a scientist, a rationalist ... What, logically, would be his response to the sheer impracticality and heedlessness of Hepburn's character when the full import of their consequences to him dawned? Obviously, it would be a fuming fury, suppressed only by the demands of propriety (so many of her assaults on him occurred in public, a golf course, a nightclub, her aunt's dinner table, a police station) and politeness (she was, after all, a woman, and he could vaguely remember from childhood that you were supposed to be polite to them, even protect them, as they were the weaker sex.)"
Well, this was splendid. This was even historic. Grant would use this comically-stated balefulness often in the future. It became part of his identity.

Schickel has such a good eye for that stuff -- for nuance, for development, for how A leads to B leads to F and G. Cary Grant’s arc has never been analyzed with such clarity. Not to be missed.

4. David Edelstein is one of my favorite movie reviewers working today. I first became aware of him with his laugh-out-loud funny review of Battlefield Earth and I have been hooked ever since. My love for him has nothing to do with similarity in taste, although I often agree with his reviews. My love for him has to do with his skill as a writer. His writing just tastes good to me. Here's an excerpt from Battlefield Earth review:
"Let me try to summarize the plot. It's 3000 A.D., and the Psychlos are strip-mining Earth. What humans they haven't exterminated seem to have de-evolved and live in caves or primitive huts outside the giant mall-like structure that the Psychlos call home. Jonnie Goodboy Tyler (Barry Pepper, looking like some '80s heavy-metal guitarist en route to Betty Ford's) leaves his village and dishy cave girlfriend in search of food, then gets ray-gunned by Psychlos. Enslaved, Jonnie catches the eye of Terl, who has evidently been looking for a smart human to help him plunder what's left of the planet and keep it for himself. He zaps Jonnie with a knowledge ray and then, for some reason, lets him read the Declaration of Independence. I'm not sure what happens next because I went out for malted milk balls and then remembered I owed my mom a phone call."
Edelstein is best when he dislikes something. He never loses his sense of humor. North Country, he writes, "...is powerful and then some. I came out shaking, dabbing at my eyes, and vowing never again to write the c-word in shit on the walls of a women's room." In the middle of a pan of King Arthur, he comes up with this gem: "And then there's Clive Owen, rising above it all. Aloof yet watchful, the actor cultivates an inner stillness that is perfect for faintly ironic brooders. He neither distances himself from this risible material nor pulls out the stops and opens himself to ridicule. His King Arthur tells us little about Arthur, but much about protecting one's flank. The mark of a box-office king?" What a perfect way to describe the Clive Owen thing: “cultivates an inner stillness that is perfect for faintly ironic brooders”.

5. Peter Bogdonavich. Love his movies, but I think I might even love his film criticism more. His most recent book Who the Hell’s In It is a gold mine of observations about actors. His essay on Dean Martin has to be one of the most eloquent and moving tributes to that hard-to-pin-down ultra-cool guy. I actually got tears in my eyes reading it. This is not just because I love Dino. It is because Bogdonavich has such a good eye for detail, such a generous spirit towards talent, such a wide knowledge of films … It’s an essay that makes you want to race out and rent every Dino movie, and watch them again, because you realize, anew, just how good that guy really could be. Essays on Karloff, Cary Grant (of course), Henry Fonda, Jimmy Stewart … Great stuff. And Bogdanovich’s commentary track on Bringing Up Baby is one of the best commentaries I’ve heard on any DVD.
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Sheila O'Malley blogs about movies, books, and mortifying high school memories at The Sheila Variations.

6 Comments:

Blogger Matt Zoller Seitz said...

Thanks for highlighting writing about acting; it's a nice counterbalance to everyone else's lists (mine included) which stress directors and movements.

Bogdanovich is a wild card choice in this context -- he's thought of mainly as a historian and gadly -- but there is in fact a critical sensibility at work in how he writes about particular subjects, and more tellingly, whether he chooses to write about them in the first place, and what context he puts them in.

And Edelstein's a gem.

9:41 AM  
Blogger Ryland Walker Knight said...

I've thoroughly enjoyed Bogdonavitch in every incarnation.

11:36 AM  
Blogger Dennis Cozzalio said...

Sheila! Nice to meet up with you in the House! And thanks for your words on "The Man from Dream City." I read it in Kael's book "When the Lights Go Down," around 1979, I guess, just when I was in the midst of realizing that Cary Grant was my favorite actor/movie star. And on top of every brilliant observation about the man in tha essay, I came away from it energized, realizing just how much more I had yet to see, and how grateful I was that I had it all to look forward to.

And Matt's right-- Edelstein is terrific. I was an avid reader of his from his Village Voice days and almost included his review of David Cronenberg's The Fly as part of my five.

7:04 PM  
Blogger Wagstaff said...

I surely do love Agee's article on the silent comedians. Good call.

4:14 PM  
Blogger Sheila said...

Matt -

Yeah, I was on the fence about Bogdonavich at first - I was also gonna go with James Berardinelli, whom I really like - but in terms of influence on me - influencing how I see movies, and how I understand my favorite actors (I love to try to pinpoint WHY Cagney is so good ... WHY Gary Cooper is so good - it's fun for me) ... Bogdonavich's stuff (for me) is really about that.

Like his essay on Dean Martin. And his essay on Boris Karloff (one of my favorites in his latest book)

He's looking at them through his own lens ... he is obviously biased, he loves these people ... but like you said - the choices, the people he has chosen to be in the book, speaks volumes.

Many critics seem to have a bit of disdain for actors - or, no, not disdain. Maybe they just don't know how to talk about it? They just know if it works or it doesn't. But like - we've all read reviews where the actors only get a paragraph at the end - with each actor paired up with an adjective:

"So and so is lovely, So and so is miscast, and so and so is oddly perfect in her part."

This, to me, is just the beginning. I like the critics who got a step further and ask WHY??

It's exhilarating to me. Bogdonavich is so good at that!

Again: this was SO fun and reading all of the pieces by everybody else was incredibly illuminating. I now have a list of books I need to get now!

5:11 PM  
Blogger Sheila said...

Dennis -

Ha! Good to see you here too!

yes - I so agree. "Man from Dream City" also left me energized. I had never read anything like it, really!

5:12 PM  

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