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Dreamgirls Redux

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I hate to go on and on about something, but it has, after all, been seven years since the film Dreamgirls came out. Having just watched it for the third time, I’m astounded at how great this movie is. That it only garnered two Academy Awards–one of them for Jennifer Hudson for Supporting Actress, and I’m telling you, if she hadn’t gotten that, it would’ve been the artistic crime of the century.(see my original review, Is Dreamgirls Hollywood’s Worst Nightmare?”

Jennifer Hudson

Jennifer Hudson (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

I’d forgotten a lot of the story, and continually found new things I’d missed in the film. One scene I had not forgotten, however, is when Jennifer Hudson flays herself on stage singing “And I am Telling You I’m Not Going.” It’s the peak of the movie, and although it takes a slight nosedive after that, it recovers nicely with Hudson later singing “I Am Changing,” which I’d forgotten, and “One Night.” Beyoncé was great, and sang her heart out—but Jennifer Hudson walked off with this show.

 

I saw West Side Story something like 45 times in my long life; I’ve seen Chicago maybe 6 times; and now I have another go-to movie musical to rent  when I want a cathartic experience.

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West Side Story Singalong

The first time I saw the movie West Side Story I was 16 years old. Since then I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen it, but my estimate is around 45-50. I’m not exaggerating.

Friday night Daryl was here for dinner and I was looking online to see what movies are playing this weekend, muttering and cursing because I have yet to find an organized movie calendar that makes sense online. And then, suddenly, I stumbled on this announcement:

NOVEMBER 11 (AFTERNOON PROGRAM )

SING ALONG WEST SIDE STORY 2:00

Hosted by Laurie Bushman & Sara Moore. Romeo and Juliet gets re-located to the streets of New York City in this ever-popular adaptation of the long-running Bernstein/Sondheim Broadway show. Come in costume! Sing along to this timeless classic with Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Russ Tamblyn and Rita Moreno! Grab your bag of goodies at the door! Winner of 10 Oscars® including Best Picture and Best Director for Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins. (1961, full program run appox 180 min, 35mm ‘Scope)

$15 general / $10 kids & seniors NO PASSES

Meetcha downstairs! I’m beside myself with excitement. Go read a recent post on WSS, here.

Stella Dallas: The Movie (1937)

Warning: Spoilers Ahead

I finally forced myself to watch Stella Dallas, a movie I’ve occasionally ranted about sight unseen. I did see the Bette Midler 1990 remake, though, and was so appalled it took me all these years to rent the original—which differs subtly but substantially from the remake. Maybe it’s because Bette Midler as trailer-park trash sails over the top with little effort, or maybe it’s the melodrama inherent in almost any part she plays—but her version of Stella has a definite POV, while the earlier film leaves space for the viewer to decide if Stella does right by her daughter.

At its heart the film is about class warfare. Stella is a young woman living with her dirt-poor family of Massachusetts mill workers, the only one among them with ambition. She’s taking business courses while Dad and baby bro work as mill hands and Mom schlepps around their tiny shack. Mom’s always hunched over, her hair a mess: the only thing missing from her slutty image is the dangling cigarette. Stella daydreams and watches the people come and go to the mill, her sights set on big shot “swell” Stephen Dallas (John Boles), whom she cleverly arranges to meet and manipulate into marriage. Trouble arises when Dallas realizes he took the girl from the mill but can’t get the mill out of the girl. Stella has a “vulgar” side she’s not even aware of herself. Imagine Midler as vulgar: piece of cake, right? Stanwyck’s Stella, though she talks tough and loves to dance, comes off so sweet it’s hard to sympathize with Stephen. I’m sure I’m not the only person who couldn’t stand his smug, weak-chinned visage—which is just as well, since he’s gone most of the time, all but abandoning Stella after their daughter’s birth when he moves to New York, ostensibly for business purposes.

In one scene Laurel (Anne Shirley) is a toddler, and in the next she’s a teen. In the intervening years, Stella has all but given up her partying ways to devote her life to her daughter. She sews the kid’s clothes by hand, monitors her social life, and pushes her to be like the snobbish bluebloods Stella used to want to know herself. At a Hampton-like resort, Laurel’s friends—spoiled brats one and all—cruelly mock Stella, not knowing she’s their pal’s mom : “That wasn’t a person, it was a Christmas tree,” they say, referring to her allegedly tasteless fashion sense (which isn’t half bad in black-and-white 2012). Stella wears heavy makeup, has a loud mouth, a brassy style, and…you get the picture. While Midler pulled this character off without a hitch, Stanwyck, except for the Brooklyn-ish accent, seems fairly “normal.”

Whether Stella’s vulgar or not, when she hears the rich kids making fun of her she has an epiphany: Laurel, she fears, will never be able to get very far as long as she’s stuck with her mother as an albatross around her neck. She hatches a brilliant plan, and asks hubby to let Laurel come live with  his new family; by now he’s married the woman he loved before he met Stella – a boring uptight blueblood who knows a salad fork when she sees one by god (crucial information for a mother dontcha know). When she tells Laurel what she’s decided, however, the kid, bless her gold-digging little heart, finally rises to the occasion. She declares undying loyalty to Stella,  and refuses to leave her.

This is the Big Moment in Stella Dallas, when Laurel acknowledges her mother’s devotion. Laurel doesn’t give a shit what the bluebloods have to say about Mom, she’s going to stand by her in love and loyalty. As I recall, this does not happen in the Bette Midler version.

Unfortunately, Stella subverts Laurel’s attempts to stay with her by feeding her a heroic lie, making it seem as if she wants to get rid of the kid and be free to have fun at last. Laurel buys the lie and moves in with Daddy, into the kind of household that makes her appear ever so presentable. She eventually marries the blueblood man of her dreams and lives happily ever after. Oh, yeah: She never sees Mama Dallas again.

I’ve compared the Stella Dallas story to the movie Spanglish, an immigration tale in which the mother refuses to let her daughter become “someone so different from me.” The values presented in each of these movies express directly opposing viewpoints of  the mother/daughter relationship. Stella Dallas declares that the daughter is better off gaining entry into the upper-class, even if it means cutting off the most important, loving relationship of her life. In Spanglish, by contrast, the mother-daughter relationship is paramount and worth preserving, even if it means giving up what might be a superior education and other so-called opportunities. Guess which reflects my own POV?

 Barbara Stanwyck was some terrific actress. Below is stuff about her from IMDB that I thought worth posting.

Everything You I Ever Wanted to Know About Barbara Stanwyck

• In 1944 she earned $400,000, and was listed as the nation’s highest-paid woman.

• She was nominated four times for Academy Awards, including for Stella Dallas, but never won any of them. In 1982, however, she was given an honorary Academy Award for “superlative creativity and unique contribution to the art of screen acting.”

•When she died on January 20, 1990, she left 93 movies and a host of tv appearances.

Barbara Stanwyck: Fire and Desire is a TV biopic ( 1991) directed by Richard Schickel that takes a look at her life and career. Stanwyck’s life seemed to mirror many of her famous roles.

• Stanwyck was frequently cited as a role model by such women actors as Sally Field and Virginia Madsen.

• Her stormy marriage to Frank Fay finally ended after a drunken brawl, during which he tossed their adopted son, Dion, into the swimming pool.

• Despite rumors of affairs with Marlene Dietrich and Joan Crawford, Stanwyck wed Robert Taylor, who had gay rumors of his own to dispel. Their marriage started off on a sour note when his possessive mother demanded he spend his wedding night with her rather than with Barbara.

Marilyn Monroe, who worked with Stanwyck in the 1952 film Clash by Night said that Stanwyck was the only member of Hollywood’s older generation who was kind to her.

• Her Honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement was presented to her by John Travolta, who later confessed that the experience was his supreme Oscar moment, and that Stanwyck had been a Travolta family favorite for years.

• She is the Godmother of Tori Spelling.

• Her favorite role, she said, was Stella Dallas.

• A Grand Dame. Alas, she was a staunch conservative Republican.

Academy Award Notes

Conspicuously Absent

Don’t expect a full report from me: I have my own interests, my own pet peeves, loves, and gripes, and I don’t feel an obligation to address everything. Or anything.

Let’s begin with the tragedy that befell Viola Davis. When Meryl Streep‘s name was called, I swear to god, I yelled out “Oh, no!” Who knew she could hear me? She got up there and first thing she said was “I heard half of America yell Oh, no!” Now, I do love Meryl Streep, she’s our best actress, no contest. I didn’t see her as Thatcher, and have no interest in doing so, but I’m sure she was sheer perfection. But when will Viola Davis ever again get a role as juicy as Abilene in The Help? According to interviews she’s given, this was a first in her barely visible acting career. I keep wondering if she’s home in bed crying today. I fantasized Meryl giving her a sweet uplifting talk and hugs. (Read the story below, under “Related Articles,” for a great analysis of the part racism played here.)

At least Michelle Williams didn’t win over Davis — that would’ve been much more devastating, IMO. She was adequate as Marilyn, but not as great as the rave reviews. And I’m sorry, but I just cannot look at that pixillated little girl and think of her as Marilyn Monroe:

Okay? Am I right or am I right?

On to Angelina’s leg. She really did humiliate herself with that smug pose, didn’t she? Worse, she looked awful.Such a pretty face, they say of the fat girls…well, Jolie’s skinniness raises the same comment. Her face looked like it had been recently carved. I say cosmetic surgery, my daughter says it’s anorexia.

Speaking of facial surgery, though, what wonders it can do! It can make Tom Cruise look like he just stepped off the set of Risky Business!

I’m with everybody else on Billy Crystal, the best guy to host. Love what he does with the nominated films at the beginning, and last night he outdid himself, as did George Clooney. I’m proud of George! Here are two guys who aren’t insecure about their heterosexuality! So sorry George didn’t win, but I kinda knew he wouldn’t. I didn’t see The Artist, but I’m dying to.

Woody not in attendance, as usual. Used to think he was above it all, now I know better: he’s terrified of this kind of social scene. I can relate. Though Midnight in Paris was delicious, I would’ve loved to see Bridesmaids win for best original screenplay. That movie’s been way underrated, probably because the Academy underrates comedies, who  knows what’s up with that. But Bridesmaids was hilarious, and well done, and the fat girl looked divine in her divine gown.

Final complaint: You’d think the Academy might have done a little something for its greatest movie star — not actress, though she wasn’t bad, but she was the epitome of the old time movie star : Elizabeth Taylor. Pretty shoddy, sticking her in between everyone else that died last year. If she can do as many movies as she did beginning as a small child, knock herself out all her life in public and private (8 marriages, one of them a re-run), spend her senior years tirelessly working for AIDS organizations before it became trendy (she made it trendy!), and in the end get just a second to wink at the audience from the big screen, what hope is there for Viola Davis? Or for the rest of us?

P.S. Just learned that today, Feb. 27th, Liz would have turned 80. Happy Birthday, Beautiful!

Tropic Thunder


Offensive? Absolutely.
Should it be boycotted or otherwise censored? Absolutely not.

After reading this paragraph about Tropic Thunder in a San Francisco Chronicle review I knew I had to see the film ASAP:

One of the best pieces of satire involves Speedman’s ill-fated starring role in a movie called “Simple Jack.” The jokes are clearly set up to make fun of actors who play mentally disabled characters in an attempt to get Oscars, not the disabled people themselves. Several advocacy groups have asked moviegoers to boycott “Tropic Thunder.” But if anything, it seems as if they should be protesting “Forrest Gump.” –Peter Hartlaub

I have intentionally never seen Forrest Gump: from the trailers I perceived the film to be a disgusting portrayal of a mentally disabled person. I even avoided the Academy Awards that year by going out to see an art film, unable to bear watching Tom Hanks give another weepy acceptance speech, as he did for his role in Philadelphia. Because Gump is so beloved by American movie-goers, it’s become something of an obsession with me, so when I heard  that Tropic Thunder pulverized it, nothing could stop me from going to see TT.

TT wasn’t half as hilarious as promised, though it had its side-splitting moments. As a big fan of both Jack Black and drug jokes, I cracked up over his version of a junkie in withdrawal. Unfortunately, Black is seriously upstaged by Ben Stiller’s gross [fr]antics and Robert Downey Jr’s stunning portrayal of an Australian actor playing an African-American. Not to mention over-the-top special effects and bombs bursting in air. This movie is truly a mixed bag.

The main characters are actors on the set of a war movie, and TT opens with a bunch of fake trailers showing each one’s last film. The Ben Stiller character, Tugg Speedman, starred in Simple Jack, clearly a satire of movies about mental retardation (i.e., FG), not of retardation itself. Satire always carries the risk of coming off as a mirror image of its subject, and I can see why people interpreted it that way in this case. Still, I didn’t think the movie so terribly offensive at this point.

But then Kirk Lazarus, played by Robert Downey Jr., admonishes Speedman for going full retard in his Simple Jack portrayal. He goes on and on, giving examples of actors who played mentally challenged characters without going full retard–Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, Hanks in Gump. The point of this little lecture escaped me—whether because it was unclear or because I was cringing so much I don’t know—but it became obvious to me why disability activists went ballistic.

What’s telling is that the moviemakers were concerned enough about putting Downey in blackface that they consulted with African-Americans, yet didn’t bother to do the same with anyone in the disability community about Simple Jack. It never even occurred to them: like most able-bodied people, they’re utterly clueless in this area. People whose lives haven’t been touched by disability have no notion of the lives of people with disabilities and their families. As evidence just read some of the countless commentaries on Tropic Thunder telling disability activists to “lighten up,” or the clever new t-shirt slogan, Don’t go full retard.

Listen up, kids: Retard is not a noun; it’s a verb. When used as a noun it’s an insult. At this point in history, people who gasp with horror over the N word laughingly call each other retard without the least bit of compunction. They can’t imagine why it’s being called offensive. Actually, I’m not offended when I hear or read an insult to a person with a disability; I’m hurt. I first encountered this kind of mean, hurtful talk soon after giving birth to a child with a disability, and I was chided for being too sensitive. Those who don’t live with disability know nothing about this kind of language. I don’t point this out to excuse their ignorance, but rather to explain some of the disgusting discussion passing for dialog on this issue.

But movie boycotts are in general a bad idea. In the late 70s the gay community boycotted Cruising because it portrayed gay men’s culture as violent. To review it for a weekly newspaper, I crossed the picket line in front of the theater. Several of my friends were on that line, and I asked one of them how she could protest a film she hadn’t seen. Her response: “The word of gay and lesbian activists all across the country is good enough for me.” I was appalled—to publicly and vociferously object to a movie based on someone else’s evaluation struck me as utterly mindless. It still does, even if I agree that Tropic Thunder is mean and hurtful. People are always telling me I have no right to trash Forrest Gump if I didn’t see it—but at least I’m basing my opinion on having viewed several scenes from the movie, as well as having read a ton of reviews and criticism.

There’s another riff in Tropic Thunder related to disability that I haven’t heard anyone mention, possibly because it’s so baffling. Matthew McConaughey, who plays Speedman’s agent Rick Peck, seems to have a child who is in some way disabled. In one scene the child stands beside his father, who’s talking on the phone and says, “At least you get to pick him,” referring to adoption. Then, at the end of the film, Peck is flying home when the camera zooms in on the same child sitting across the aisle from him. What to make of this? Were the moviemakers trying, albeit lamely, to atone for all the retard jokes? I doubt they were, but if so, they missed the mark.

If anyone involved here had a shred of consciousness, they might have redeemed Tropic Thunder simply by showing Rick Peck and his child interacting in a loving way, especially since Peck is the only character in the film with half a conscience. But by throwing a disabled child into the mix without rhyme or reason, the moviemakers revealed more of their confusion about disability.

As negative as some of the chatter about Tropic Thunder is, the mere fact that it’s happening is a positive development. Disability and retardation aren’t topics usually discussed by the ill-informed, able-bodied population—in fact, most people assiduously avoid the topic as if they might catch something. The silence that surrounds disability speaks volumes. For this reason at least, calls for a boycott of Tropic Thunder are misguided. The dialog it’s inspired may be rife with insult rather than illumination, but somewhere along the way a few people just might end up becoming enlightened

November 24, 2008: I recently deleted a whole bunch of comments on my blog by mistake. There was a comment on this post questioning my assumption that Rick Peck’s son was supposed to be disabled. I don’t know if he was or not, but I am obviously not the only viewer who thought he might be: tons of visitors got here by searching under “Rick Peck’s son disabled?” or some variation of the phrase. So–I wish someone would comment if they have any knowledge or even just an opinion about it. — MS