Friday, September 01, 2006

Camera Obscura - What Makes A Movie Star?

There have been some losses in the legends of American entertainment this week, and not just the deaths of Glenn Ford or Joe Stefano. Tom Cruise found out he was just another product, and the manufacturing studios can replace him like any widget can be replaced.

Not that I think Cruise is a legend - except in his own mind. Getting dumped by Paramount simply shows that the studio distributors and producers are and always have been the real Power. Some say that Paula Fortunato, wife of Paramount's chief Sumner Redstone told her hubby Cruise had to go.

And while I can think of some great performances in a Cruise movie - the performances weren't his. It was Paul Newman in "Color of Money" or Cuba Gooding Jr in "Jerry Maguire" -- a movie that had a prophetic tagline: "Everybody loved him ... Everybody disappeared."

For real honest-to-Pete stardom and acting chops and legendary films, a worthwhile movie fan has to explore the work of Glenn Ford. When I was growing up, the man was the epitome of a square, a blase character. But some years back, thanks to Turner Classic Movies, I discovered he was one of the early pioneers of a more naturalistic, non-glamorous acting approach. He had a rather plain style, and was often quoted as saying he was just being himself onscreen.

I'll just mention 3 of the best of his movies as a place to start if you know little of him. First, he battles crime and Lee Marvin in the film noir thriller "The Big Heat." With a tense direction from Fritz Lang, Ford navigates a murky moral world with an understated skill, small details of all the characters make for a big movie.

Riots literally erupted in theatres when the rock and roll high school apocalypse of the 1950s, "The Blackboard Jungle" was released. It was all blamed on the use of "Rock Around The Clock" on the soundtrack -- but it pulsed to life a new twist in the American Dream -- the kids didn't care for the world they had been given. In fact it was Ford's son, Peter, who had the Bill Haley record and Ford who told producers to use the tune. It was a perfect choice. Ford here plays a former vet, unhappily making his way as a high school teacher and challenging not only the hopelessness of the teens, but of the adults too. It's another performance where we see a character taking mental challenges and bringing them to life.

Ford made many excellent Westerns - odd in that he wasn't an imposing figure. But I think that's what he used to his advantage - being ordinary and refusing defeat. At random, just look for "3:10 To Yuma", written by Elmore Leonard and directed by Delmer Daves. Here, Ford is the bad guy, and the fact that he could play a villain, a hero, a romantic comedy lead - that's a real legend and a real actor. If all you know of him was that he was Pa Kent in the 1978 "Superman" - just think of how good he was in a very short amount of screen time.

As for Joe Stefano - he wrote the script for a movie that changed all the rules for the American horror film - "Psycho." With simple scenes and complex characters under the brilliant hand of Alfred Hitchcock, Stefano had a tough time competing with his own success. His other major achievement was as writer and producer for the original "Outer Limits" -- still some of the best sci-fi ever made for television.

Enough of what was -- let's look at some potential greatness headed to theatres. Director Brian DePalma has taken the blood-curdling murder mystery known as the Black Dahlia, based on crime writer James Ellroy's book, and it looks fantastic. "The Black Dahlia", based on a real-life murder mystery from 194, hits the screen in mid-September.

Putting together DePalma, Ellroy and performers like Scarlett Johansson, Hilary Swank, Josh Hartnett -- that's a hefty amount of creative talent. DePalma and Ellroy should go together very, very well. Although the movie was oddly made in Bulgaria and not Hollywood, DePalma says in news reports his goal was just to capture the story and the style of Ellroy. That should work well. Ellroy's books are must reads. "The Big Nowhere" for example, is a sprawling masterpiece of crime fiction and helped launch his career.

I received an email this week about what may be one of the worst movies ever made, though there are some who love the Halloween made-for-TV movie called "The Worst Witch." One writer in particular can't stop hating the movie. But don't just take his word for it. Check out this video from the movie, with Tim Curry who has an evil tambourine he can't seem to find. Has anybody seen his tambourine???

Truly, truly awful stuff -- looks like it was made for a twelve cents on someone's camcorder in someone's basement ....but I'd bet Tim Curry can still get a movie made at Paramount if he wants.


  1. Oh.

    I didn't know Curry was David Bowie's evil twin. But now that I've seen the video, I'm not sure how I missed that blatant fact before. Who thought Frankenfurter and Mrs. Garret should have anything to do with each other. And what made her think she could do a British accent?
    And how did I miss this movie?! Who can I blame for not showing me "The Worst Witch" in my formative years?!

  2. From what i've read about it now, i am in a search mode for it - like you I am stunned i missed it somehow.
    seriously, epically awful!
    i love the description on that guy's review link where he compares Mrs Garret's close-ups to what would happen if Gwen Stefani was force fed cake and then battery acid and had a camera shoved up her nose.
    gotta find this one!

  3. X-E is a most excellent website. I believe it is he what has the top ten scary moments and top ten scary movies lists that are pretty awesome.

  4. Studios are waking up to the fact that movie stars don't matter anymore. They don't put butts in seats, so they're not worth the price they're asking.

    Of course, Tom Cruise has rebounded from the Paramount debacle. He just made a deal with some team owner or other. He'll be back on his feet making stupid movies again in no time.

    A question I have is, since Cruise has been ousted from Paramount, does this mean Comedy Central can now air "Trapped in the Closet" again?

  5. That is the most brilliant thing I have ever seen.