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.


Harry and Son

June 22, 2011

Here’s a movie that boasts an impressive set of credentials: It has a fine cast, with some big names taking relatively small parts; the technical credits are impeccable; and the story is the admirably uncommercial tale of a father/son estrangement.

And most of all, it’s the pet project of Paul Newman, a man of high ideals and integrity whose films as director have been marked by earnestness and right-mindedness. Harry and Son finds Newman wearing the hats of not just star and director, but also co-producer and co-writer, so his commitment to the film is clear.

It’s also clear that, unfair as it seems, commitment and good intentions do not a good movie make. Not always, anyway; and Harry and Son, while not unenjoyable, never really shakes itself out of its well-meaning dullness.

Newman plays Harry, a lonely, widowed construction worker (he knocks down buildings) who loses his job at the beginning of the film. There may be something wrong with his heart, but he’s too stubborn to have it checked out.

He lives with his son, Howie (Robby Benson), who spends his time surfing, washing cars, and wanting to be a writer. Harry wants Howie to stop this writing foolishness and get a real job, which Howie manfully—if not wholeheartedly—tries to do.

The kid is obnoxiously well-adjusted, but he can’t endure his father’s withdrawal from the human race. He also yearns for the terms of endearment that dad is holding back.

During Howie’s search for work, he runs into his old flame Katie (Ellen Barkin), whose yen for men led to their breakup. Things start to rekindle between the two of them, unencumbered by the fact that Katie is nine months pregnant with a child whose parentage is a subject of some debate.

Newman develops plot threads in a spare, laid-back style, without any frills but without much forward motion. I was disappointed that the film veered away from Harry’s character after the first 15 minutes or so; in many ways, the movie becomes Howie’s story. There’s nothing intrinsically bad about shifting emphasis like that, but Harry is a vastly more interesting character than his son.

Newman has tried to add a little tarnish to Howie’s character, but the boy is too good to be true: energetic, loyal, forgiving. If you like Robby Benson, whose wet blue eyes match Newman’s peepers, then this may work. Benson has impressive emotional range, and he throws himself into the part. But for those of us who can’t stand him, the goody-goody role is made even more oily. It’s a tall order to expect us to believe he could be a budding Great American Novelist.

At the end of the film, a character says, “Life is like that,” as a way of making clear that you can’t explain life’s happenings. I suspect Newman wanted to give Harry and Son a true-to-life flavor; he takes pains to make sure everything does not come out okay. But that in itself is a kind of contrivance. As director, Newman is like his character: he just isn’t willing to cut loose. His movie isn’t bad; it’s merely constricted.

First published in the Herald, March 1, 1984

This came just about at the end of the Robby Benson Era of American filmmaking, as the star of Ode to Billie Joetransitioned into a career as director and actor. Plus he married Karla DeVito almost thirty years ago, a touch that, if you were a consumer of Seventies culture, you could not have seen coming. The movie itself just didn’t spark, despite (or because of) being an obviously sincere project on Newman’s part. But life is like that.

The Color of Money

March 2, 2011

It’s not quite fair to call The Color of Money a sequel to Robert Rossen’s 1961 film The Hustler. True, the new film picks up the story of the pool-playing shark “Fast” Eddie Felson 25 years later, but The Color of Money presents a completely new, self-contained story, and a fresh style of filmmaking to go with it.

We find Felson (Paul Newman returning to the role) as a hustler again, but now he’s hustling cheap booze—selling it to restaurants, encouraging shady deals, getting by. He still cuts a stylish figure, but he may be just a little bored. He hasn’t played pool in years. And he is a man who is ripe for some sort of redemption.

Enter Vincent (Tom Cruise), a hotshot young pool player, with all the right moves and talent to burn. He’s a bit flaky. He wants to play for the sheer joy of playing, which disturbs the materialistic Felson. “You couldn’t find the big time with a road map, kid,” Felson tells Vince, and the old pro decides to take the young phenom on the circuit, to find some action and prepare for a big cleanup.

Vince comes with a girlfriend, Carmen (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), who has a street-smart appreciation of Felson’s shrewdness. This trio sets out to Felson’s old haunts, and he teaches some hard lessons, such as this choice pearl after Vince lets an old-timer win a game: “That’s the trouble with mercy, kid. It ain’t professional.”

The dialogue is superbly written (by Richard Price, loosely adapting the Walter Tevis novel), and Martin Scorsese’s direction (aided by his brilliant collaborators, editor Thelma Schoonmaker and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus) hurtles the film along at thrilling speed.

There are directors who feel that the camera is there to watch a story, and not call attention to itself. Scorsese (Raging Bull, After Hours) is not such a director. His camera swoops, races, caroms and falls, and it captures the intense world of the smoky dives in which the story unreels.

Scorsese’s a bit like the pool players; they’ve got their trick shots, why shouldn’t he? There’s a sequence, when Vince is showing off his skills to the nighthawks at a poolroom, Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London” is chugging on the soundtrack, and Scorsese’s camera is swirling around it all, that ought to have audiences jumping out of their seats.

This directorial energy is excitingly caught by Newman and Cruise. They have that edge that you sometimes see when actors know they are doing something special (as indeed they are). And the film derives a juicy tension from the fact that their characters’ situation is analogous to their standing as actors: Cruise is the hottest thing going, and Newman is now the old lion. Hollywood has wanted to give Newman an Oscar for a few years now; this performance may do the trick.

Mastrantonio is a revelation as Carmen, and Helen Shaver does nice atmospheric work, just this side of floozydom, as Felson’s sometime sleeping partner.

The Color of Money is the kind of movie that is so inventive and busy, you wonder if it can be sustained. And if the film lets down at any point, it’s in the final 20 minutes or so, when Felson takes an unexpected diversion. This leads to an ending that is thematically satisfying, but slightly less dynamic than the previous two hours of film.

But by that time, Scorsese and company have sheer momentum on their side. There’s more to watch in The Color of Money than any ten current movies combined—and you never get the feeling you’ve been hustled.

First published in the Herald, October 16, 1986

Is The Color of Money considered not quite a full Scorsese movie somehow? It rarely gets mentioned when the people who consider him one of the greatest living directors begin ticking off his signature pictures. But it is very good, and as a star vehicle it’s exemplary. Newman did get his Oscar for the film, a year after an embarrassed Academy awarded him an honorary statue after many misses. Awkward, but earned.