Blaze

October 3, 2012

Last year, Bull Durham introduced a talented new director-writer, Ron Shelton, to American moviemaking ranks. Shelton, it was obvious, had a gift for rich characters and offbeat observation, and he had written the sexiest repartee heard in movies in a long time.

Blaze is Shelton’s follow-up movie. It’s a loose account of a true story, the romance between Louisiana governor Earl Long and a New Orleans stripper named Blaze Starr. Their affair took place in 1959-60, just about the time Long (the brother of legendary Louisiana demagogue Huey Long) was being voted out of office and checking in and out of mental institutions.

It’s a juicy story, and Shelton clearly sees the crazy-quilt possibilities for a study in American Absurd. Long, played by Paul Newman, may have been a bit nutty, but he knew how to manipulate people, exchange favors, and cultivate voters. Whoever said insanity was detrimental to a political career, anyway?

Blaze Starr, played by newcomer Lolita Davidovich, is portrayed as a big-hearted innocent who falls into stripping almost by accident. She’s talked into it by a sleazy nightclub owner (Robert Wuhl), who has brought her onstage in a “variety-type situation,” in front of a crowd of sailors. When she balks at dancing around in her skivvies, he reminds her of the supreme sacrifice those boys are willing to give: “Will you do it for America?”

Thus her career is launched, which finally leads her to Bourbon Street and the attention of the governor. After some wonderful parrying, they eventually get together (at their first meeting, he proclaims her act “a powerful expression of basic human needs,” to which she shrugs: “I’m a storyteller”).

Shelton writes great looping dialogue and he has come up with some crackling scenes. The look at Louisiana politics is knowing and funny, although ultimately Shelton is just playing with the subject. He obviously loves his characters, and he writes generous, bright material for them.

As a result, the film, while it seems minor, has a spirit of healthy amusement. For instance, it’s fun to watch Paul Newman play comedy. When Long finds himself unable to perform during his first sexual interlude with Blaze, he apologizes on behalf of the entire state of Louisiana. Newman, full of manly concern, has a great time with the scene.

As for Lolita Davidovich…well. With a name like that, does she need to act? Let’s just say she has the right amount of innocence and sass for the role, and also the appropriate voluptuousness. The production was reportedly thrown into turmoil when she suddenly lost weight just before shooting was to begin and her curves became slightly less distinct. She regained most of the weight, although she wears padding in some of her clothed scenes. Nothing else about her performance is false, however.

First published in the Herald, December 1989

A mild, fun movie, although it didn’t catch on the way some of Shelton’s sports pictures did. Davidovich married Shelton, whose career has been less prominent than fans might have hoped at one time.


Bull Durham

January 23, 2012

Sex and sports. Are these the crucial issues for human existence?

Possibly, and they certainly are important to Ron Shelton, a screenwriter who makes his directorial bow with Bull Durham.

Shelton wrote the script for The Best of Times (1986), a delightful little movie about marriage and football. In Bull Durham, he combines some man-woman stuff with a loving look at minor league baseball. The result is one of the most likable debuts in recent memory.

The movie is introduced by Annie (Susan Sarandon), a team follower who annually chooses one young member of the minor league Durham Bulls to—ah—guide and comfort during the season. For her, baseball is spiritual business (she notes that a baseball has 108 stitches and a rosary has 108 beads). This season, she’s chosen a rangy rookie pitcher named Ebby Calvin LaLoosh (Tim Robbins, recently seen as Jodie Foster’s protector in Five Corners), a kid with a cannon arm who’d rather fool around then concentrate on baseball. She gives him her “life wisdom” and a much-needed nickname, “Nuke.”

But then someone else arrives to help bring the kid along. Veteran catcher Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) joins the club to help the pitcher prepare for the majors (or “The Show”) in baseball talk). Crash is one of those guys who’ve bounced around the minors forever, or, as he says when he arrives in the clubhouse, “I’m the player to be named later.”

It doesn’t take long before Annie and Crash are sensing some mutual interest. But Annie has certain standards: “I am, within the framework of the baseball season, monogamous,” she says, so Crash must put up with her reluctance and with Nuke’s rowdiness.

The film bops around in a slightly shapeless but always agreeable way. Shelton’s work is recognizably that of a first-time director; there’s an extraneous line of dialogue here, an uncomfortable camera angle there. But for the most part his keen eye for human behavior carries the day.

Individual scenes click: Crash advises Nuke that “Clichés are your friends,” when it comes to answering bland post-game interviews, and provides a litany of examples; the players, who want a day off, induce a rainout by sneaking into the ballpark at night and turning on the sprinklers; and Annie creates her version of foreplay by tying Nuke to the bed and reading poetry to him (Annie: “Do you know Walt Whitman?” Nuke: “Who’s he play for?”)

Shelton’s got a good head for the feel and talk of baseball (there are some nifty, funny interior monologues that focus on what goes through a player’s mind when he is standing in the batter’s box or on the pitcher’s mound). It’s absolutely germane that this story is set in the minor leagues; as in The Best of Times, Shelton seems most interested in those characters who haven’t quite made it, and never will. That element lends Bull Durham a poignancy that never leaves the film, even when it’s at its flakiest.

First published in the Herald, June 1988

The movie sure was welcome at the time, I’ll say that for it. Shelton seems to have become disenchanted with movies, or they with him, or something; I’m not sure what explains Hollywood Homicide, his last completed feature, which was a real bust on all counts.


The Best of Times

July 29, 2011

Ever since 9:22 p.m., November 15, 1972, there has been an overriding reality in the life of an otherwise ordinary man from the small town of Taft, California. It was at that very moment, 13 years ago, that Jack (Robin Williams) dropped a last-second pass that would have given the Taft Rockets their first-ever victory over the hated Bakersfield Tigers.

Instead, Jack muffed the catch, Bakersfield won the high school rivalry again, and Jack was doomed to a life as The Man Who Dropped the Ball.

This is the situation for the protagonist of The Best of Times, a spunky, endearing slice-of-life comedy. As the film begins, Jack is recounting a brief history of the town of Taft, which has never seemed to win at anything. In a way, he’s like the town itself—small, unassuming, bloody but not bowed.

Jack gets it into his head that he can remove the nagging memory of that dropped ball—extricate himself from “the bowels of hell,” as he puts it—by replaying the game; that is, gathering all the now-paunchy players from the two squads and going through it all again.

But he’ll need the help of the greatest high school quarterback in the history of Taft: Reno Hightower (Kurt Russell). Reno resists, but a terrorist attack by a man dressed in a tiger suit—everyone thinks it’s a Bakersfield bad buy, but it’s actually Jack, trying to whip up enthusiasm for the game—changes Reno’s mind, and the preparations for the battle begin.

These are amusing; but at least as important to the heart of the film are the marital tribulations of Jack and Reno. Jack’s wife (Holly Palance) has thrown him out of the house because of his insistence on the replayed game. And long-standing problems have driven Reno’s wife (Pamela Reed) to temporary residence at the Top Hat motel.

A sequence with the two couples coming together for a reconciliation dinner is the comic centerpiece. The wives swig wine from the bottle in anticipation, the husbands try to bolster themselves with a game plan (“Be bland, but strong—careful, but with a touch of reckless”).

The women have deliberately scheduled the dinner for a Monday night, with the attendant televised football game; the dinner is a test to see whether the boys can resist the temptation. If that that setup seems a bit familiar, the results are funny nevertheless.

It all builds up to a conclusion that is also familiar and predictable: Every person who watches this movie knows that the big rematch will come down to a single play in which Jack will either redeem himself or become the goat of all time.

The plot may strike some as formula—how many movies can we take with a big sporting event as the finale? And yet The Best of Times has a wonderful freshness; it combines humor and heartache in a beguiling combination—in scenes such as Reno’s off-key rendition of “Close to You” at his wife’s motel room door, or the touching entreaty Jack makes to his wife in the gymnasium restroom during a pregame sock-hop.

Director Roger Spottiswoode (Under Fire) has a keen sense of how people talk, and behave; and he’s well-served by his actors. Williams and Russell have nice chemistry, and Palance (currently appearing in the Seattle Rep’s The Real Thing) and Reed (The Right Stuff) are attractively unglamorous.

The Best of Times doesn’t break new ground, and it’s a decidedly self-effacing work. But it’s a tremendously agreeable movie, and very easy to enjoy.

First published in the Herald, January 29, 1986

Lovely movie. I didn’t mention its screenwriter, because like most people I didn’t know who Ron Shelton was; Bull Durham was still a couple of years in the future. But of course Shelton’s spirit is all over this film, in the best ways. As for the director, this seemed like the moment Spottiswoode was going to settle onto the A-list, which didn’t happen although he did get some high-profile jobs, including a Bond picture. He was married to Holly Palance (yes, daughter of Jack), who didn’t really stick with the movie thing. This film just radiates a good feel, and everybody’s doing top-line work; of course, it didn’t do anything at the box office.


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