Here’s the starting lineup: William Goldman, red-hot off his Oscar win for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, is your screenwriter. He’s adapting a novel by Donald E. Westlake, whose protagonist John Dortmunder will soon become one of his most popular creations. Robert Redford plays Dortmunder, with George Segal cast as his right-hand man. And you’ve got Peter Yates (Bullitt, The Friends of Eddie Coyle) in the director’s chair, seeking to marry his sensibilities for comedy and crime in the same film. Top it off with Quincy Jones for the score, and The Hot Rock should be shaping up to be a hell of a film.
One can understand and appreciate the drive to make a lighthearted caper in early ’70s New York, when the crime genre was growing in popularity but also in self-seriousness. Dirty Harry did much to cement a gritty remorselessness in the genre in 1971, asserting an edgy protagonist with no reservations about killing his enemies. In March 1972, The Godfather would in turn spawn a million imitators looking to recapture the Very Serious Drama of American crime. So the conceit of The Hot Rock, at the time, was explicit: bring back the fun.
Continue reading The Hot Rock (1972)
Bernard Malamud wrote The Natural, his debut novel, in 1952, the year the Yankees beat the Dodgers in the World Series. The tale of once-promising baseballer Roy Hobbs was almost universally praised upon the novel’s release, with many championing it as the first great novel about baseball. Critical consensus, though, agreed that the actual baseball — the strategy, the technicalities, the game — mattered less than the fable at hand. In some ways the myth behind Roy Hobbs was more interesting than Roy Hobbs. The original New York Times review from August ’52 typifies this stance in describing the novel thusly:
a sustained and elaborate allegory in which the “natural” player who operates with ease and the greatest skill, without having been taught, is equated with the natural man who, left alone by, say, politicians and advertising agencies, might achieve his real fulfillment.
Continue reading The Natural (1984)
This article first appeared as a part of the Brattle Film Notes commentary series, presented by the Brattle Theatre in Boston, MA, for a special screening of The Sting. Slight edits have been made from the original posting.
In many instances a film is like a con: it wants to hook you, it wants to make you personally invested in the outcome, and it wants you to walk away with a smile on your face and slightly less in your wallet. If the endeavor is a success, there will always be enough to suggest that the artist — the film artist or the con artist — knows a truth that you do not. If the endeavor is unsuccessful, the feeling of being cheated will linger and frustrate.
If we apply this analogy to today’s film industry, of course, then the Marvel Cinematic Universe might be considered the most ambitious long con in Hollywood history. But things weren’t as complicated in 1973, and that year produced arguably the least-complicated Best Picture winner ever in George Roy Hill’s The Sting. A complex plot, high stakes for hardnosed characters, themes of friendship and honor amongst thieves — these elements are all there, but they’re intentionally deployed to the background of a filmgoing experience that’s less concerned with a moral message than a good time.
Continue reading The Sting (1973)
Any cook will admit that having delicious ingredients doesn’t necessarily make for a delicious meal, even if you are faithful to the recipe. The most masterful chef can combine a snazzy main course with cool, exotic sauces and side dishes, pepper in some flair, and tie it all together with pristine presentation — but if the temperature isn’t just right, or if just one of the ingredients has started to turn, or if the sous-chef finally makes his move by sabotaging his tyrannical chef’s best meal, well, at least those would be reasons. Sometimes it just doesn’t taste good. Questions arise: why didn’t the dish work? Didn’t we follow the recipe to the letter? Did you freeze that thing overnight like I told you to? When does one traditionally bring their extended metaphor to a close? Now?
Havana had all the ingredients. Sydney Pollack’s previous film Out of Africa walked home with Best Picture and a cartful of other Academy Awards; Robert Redford, longtime Pollack collaborator, was back for his seventh (!) go-round under Pollack’s guidance. Right there you’d think success would be imminent. Of all the famous Director-Actor partnerships, Pollack-Redford is perhaps the most dynamic, the most unexpected, the one that results in classics that span more than one genre. The pair met as actors on the low-budget 1960 film War Hunt, as recounted by Redford in his tribute to Pollack in Time following the latter’s passing, wherein Redford uses the term “kindred spirits”. The success of the adventurous Jeremiah Johnson, the thrilling Three Days of the Condor, the intimate Electric Horseman and the epic Out of Africa would all support that claim.
Continue reading Havana (1990)
The name “George Roy Hill” might not be a household name here in 2016, but if the man himself doesn’t ring a bell you probably still know his films. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting are his best, riding high on the indomitable pairing of Robert Redford and Paul Newman. That pair would be separated for Hill’s ensuing films The Great Waldo Pepper and Slap Shot, both of which are well-crafted if not ultimately as powerful as those other two. The one that might throw you for a loop is The World According to Garp, a film from late in Hill’s career starring Robin Williams in his first dramatic role.
…that phrase doesn’t mean what it did back then, though, because “Williams in a dramatic role” isn’t as much of a novelty nor is it even something that seems worthy of being highlighted today. Dead Poets, One Hour Photo, Good Will Hunting, Awakenings and Fisher King let Williams be Williams — not merely Comedic Williams or Dramatic Williams — and despite the films themselves being best suited to the “Drama” category at your local rental store you probably don’t think twice about the star being a guy who most consider to be one of the funniest ever to walk the planet.
Continue reading The World According to Garp (1982)
The “Out of Africa” theory of evolution posits that Homo sapien originated on the African continent and migrated to replace other hominid species, which is in direct contrast to the multiregional theory of human evolution (the “Multiregional Continuity Model”) positing the phenomenon of Homo sapien to be just that: a phenomenon, simultaneous across varied regions and indicative of some level of gene flow between geographically separated populations. Significantly, this gene flow would have prevented speciation after the dispersal, a somewhat unbelievable but not altogether impossible occurrence that nevertheless would seem to nudge all credibility in the direction of the Out of Africa model. Among the critical tenets of this hypothesis is the assumption that after Homo erectus migrated out of Africa the different populations became reproductively isolated, evolving independently and, in some cases — as with the Neanderthals — into separate species entirely.
Thankfully, Sydney Pollack’s Out of Africa has nothing to do with any of that boring science stuff. Two nights ago the 88th Academy Awards granted Spotlight two major trophies, one for Best Original Screenplay and one for Best Picture, and so as usual a return to the past Picture winners seemed in order to see where we stand as a cinema-appreciating public. Is Spotlight better/worse than winners past? Did you see Spotlight? Did you enjoy it? Did you enjoy it at unprecedented best-film-of-the-entire-year levels? Did The Revenant or The Big Short deserve the trophy instead? Ah, of all sad words of tongue or pen!
Continue reading Out of Africa (1985)
Tootsie was a milestone for Sydney Pollack for a variety of reasons, some of which were trumpeted by adoring critics in 1982 and some of which took the ensuing decades to gestate. Today, with the benefit of Pollack’s entire career in retrospect, Tootsie holds strong as one of the director’s finest achievements. It is arguably his masterpiece, sure, but perhaps more significantly it is arguably his first masterpiece. That’s important for a film about a struggling actor finally doing what is necessary to create his first unadulterated success, finally testing himself to a limit he’d never considered before, being rewarded for it, and unexpectedly touching other lives along the way.
Of course “masterpiece” is relative. Three Days of the Condor might be a masterpiece, as might Jeremiah Johnson to a somewhat lesser extent. One of Pollack’s unsung achievements is The Electric Horseman, not a masterpiece in and of itself but masterful at times nonetheless. Saying one is better or worse than the other is uninteresting. What’s truly fascinating — and what makes Pollack one of the greatest American directors of his time — is the clear way in which elements of those earlier films come together in collaboration on Tootsie. Consider the most basic triumphs of each of those three films: Condor was unrelenting from start to finish, Jeremiah hung itself on the power of a single actor, and Horseman was simultaneously a comedy and a tragedy.
Continue reading Tootsie (1982)
There was a time when I’d never met a movie about con artists that I didn’t like. You name it: the almighty Sting, the classic you-didn’t-even-know-this-was-a-con Usual Suspects, George C. Scott’s The Flim-Flam Man; modern takes like Matchstick Men, Catch Me If You Can, American Hustle; the super-rewatchable original Italian Job and the super-rewatchable remake Ocean’s Eleven. Some of these — like, say, The Spanish Prisoner — technically aren’t that great as far as cinema is concerned. Maybe that’s part of what’s so damn endearing about them: they’re movies, not films, which means they could conceivably appeal to just about anyone because style and fun outweigh technique and competence. I think I was just fine with that for a while, and I might still be.
But I also remember taking issue with Christopher Nolan (you: “who the hell are you to challenge Christopher Nolan?”; me: “I have as many Oscars as he does“) when he made the following comment about heist movies in an LA Times interview while filming Inception:
I originally wrote [Inception] as a heist movie, and heist movies traditionally are very deliberately superficial in emotional terms…they’re frivolous and glamorous, and there’s a sort of gloss and fun to it. I originally tried to write it that way, but when I came back to it I realized that — to me — that didn’t work for a film that relies so heavily on the idea of the interior state, the idea of dream and memory. I realized I needed to raise the emotional stakes.
Continue reading Focus (2015)
The story of Paul Newman’s 1981 film Fort Apache, The Bronx is far more interesting than the film itself. When Newman suited up as a police officer in the South Bronx for a film about his ongoing fight for justice in the toughest neighborhood in the city, the context was a little too close for comfort: in the nine months preceding the filming of Fort Apache, at least twelve unarmed black and Puerto Rican individuals were killed by police officers throughout NYC (this is 1981, the most violent year of A Most Violent Year). The staunch opposition to the film saw massive protests, riots, a lawsuit and the formation of the Committee Against Fort Apache, all geared toward the halting of a film that many perceived to be defamatory and racist. Fort Apache got made, but it was one of the more dangerous film productions in the city’s history.
Newman himself got a big slice of Defamation Pie, too, courtesy of The New York Post. After reading the printed “facts” that Newman claimed were nothing of the sort, the actor accused the paper of “irresponsible journalism” and eventually referred to the Post as a “garbage can”. The paper ran a piece called “What Paul Didn’t Tell Us About Fort Apache” in the days following, and the dispute went in circles from there — people blamed the filmmakers for racism and defamation, Newman blamed the newspapers for false reporting and defamation, and film critics blamed Fort Apache, The Bronx for being kind of a shitty movie anyway. Paul Newman felt strongly about the journalistic integrity issues he encountered, and ultimately his extremely charitable history and consistent care for the underprivileged outweighed anything the Post said about him.
Continue reading Absence of Malice (1981)
As the Annals of Film History come to resemble the Annals of Film Remakes more and more every day, one might suppose it’s only a matter of time before someone digs up The Electric Horseman and updates it with a modern twist. If we’re going by plot alone, Horseman has in fact already been remade a thousand times; there’s nothing earth-shatteringly original about the concept, or the characters, or the message, or the way the whole thing comes together. It’s very nearly your everyday run-of-the-mill romantic comedy, sharing a great many characteristics with all of those other romantic comedies, except for the fact that the romance outplays the humor at every turn. Horseman‘s a lot more enjoyable if you can manage to ignore genre classifications, or ignore the fact that you loathe country music. I’m happy to be your guide on both.
Mainly The Electric Horseman has something a lot of romantic comedies don’t: Robert Redford. Over the course of seven collaborations, Redford and Sydney Pollack essentially only made two films that weren’t structured around the romance of Redford’s character with a woman smitten by his jawline and just-visible chest hair. Both Jeremiah Johnson and Three Days of the Condor overshadow the likes of Horseman, but the other four romantic films — This Property is Condemned, The Way We Were, Out of Africa and Havana — probably do too. That’s without considering the zillion other films that Redford made in the ’70s, the busiest time in his career.
Continue reading The Electric Horseman (1979)