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Saturday, July 26, 2008

You Ought To Be In Pictures (originally published 2/05)

Making a biographical movie can be a tricky proposition, especially if the subject of the biography is still living. Anyone whose life becomes the subject of a film during their lifetime is likely to be a celebrity. That means that their face, voice, and mannerisms will be well known to audiences, all of which complicates the job of the actor who portrays them.

There is, however, another option. Once in a while an intrepid producer will sidestep the whole problem by hiring the actual person to play the part, carrying typecasting to its logical conclusion, you might say. That's what Showtime has done in their original series, "Fat Actress," which stars Kirstie Alley as Kirstie Alley. For an overview of earlier films that used the same ploy, look for these titles on video.

"The Fabulous Dorseys" (1947). Swing era bandleaders Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey play themselves in a musical dual biography. We see them as feuding siblings who are ultimately reconciled by the common tragedy of their father's death. Fellow bandleader Paul Whiteman also appears as himself. The real star of the show, however, is the music.

"The Jackie Robinson Story" (1950). The man who broke the color barrier in major league baseball portrays himself in this sincere recreation of his struggle against racial prejudice. The script was wisely crafted to demand little from Robinson in the way of acting. His thespian limitations are more than made up for by the excellent performances of Ruby Dee as his wife and Louise Beavers as his mother. They are able to carry much of the story's emotional content, while the film's thematic thrust is largely carried by Minor Watson as Branch Rickey, the man who hired Robinson to play for the Dodgers.

"To Hell and Back" (1955). Among the celebrities who have portrayed themselves on film, Audie Murphy is unusual in that he had already established himself as a movie star before being asked to re-enact for the camera the events outside of show business that made him famous. Renowned as the most decorated veteran of World War II, Murphy parlayed his notoriety into a movie career, beginning with a 1948 Alan Ladd picture called "Beyond Glory." Three years later he won his spurs as a real live actor (as opposed to just a movie star) with his critically acclaimed performance in John Huston's film adaptation of "The Red Badge of Courage." In chronicling his own war exploits in "To Hell and Back," then, he was able to combine the authority of having lived the events with the camera confidence of an experienced film actor.

"The Greatest" (1977). When the time came to make a movie out of Muhammad Ali's modestly titled memoir, there could be little doubt as to who would play the lead. Ali was no actor, to be sure, but he was a seasoned performer just the same. His successful self-promotion had been built around the creation of an outrageous public persona, and no one knew better than he how to put on that persona for the cameras.

"Sophia Loren: Her Own Story" (1980). Here we have the fascinating spectacle of a movie star starring in a movie about her own movie career, but without the sense of irony that informs Alley's turn in "Fat Actress." It's either the most natural thing in the world or the most perverse, depending on your point of view. Actually, it reminds me of Marlon Brando's comment when he was asked some years ago to discuss his movie roles in detail for publication. He declined, saying that it would be "like picking lint out of your navel and smoking it." In any case, if you can't get enough of Sophia, this is the movie for you. In fact, she ups the ante by portraying not only herself but also her own mother.

As you watch these autobiographical performances, keep in mind that this ultimate form of typecasting is not generally conducive to great cinema. It is, bottom line, a parlor trick. As Samuel Johnson said of the dog that dances on its hind legs, it is not that the thing is done well but that it is done at all that is remarkable. Viewed in that light, these are all fascinating and remarkable movies.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Ante Up (originally published 1/05)

At first glance, poker wouldn't seem to be an obvious subject matter for a movie. After all, it's just a group of guys sitting around a table pushing cards and chips back and forth. How can there be an interesting movie in a game that contains so little movement?

Ah, but what it lacks in movement it makes up for in drama. Those chips represent money, sometimes quite a lot of it, that has been placed at risk by the players. Furthermore, the players recognize that, although there is skill involved, ultimately they have placed their fortune at the mercy of the luck of the draw. Add to this the compulsive nature of gamblers, leading some players to risk money they don't have on bets they can't cover, and you have the makings of nail-biting drama. That's why it's not so surpising that the recent success of televised poker games has gone so far as to inspire a dramatic series on ESPN called "Tilt." If you enjoy watching poker on TV you may want to look for these movies about cardsharps on home video.

"The Lady Eve" (1941). Writer/director Preston Sturges created plum roles for Charles Coburn and Barbara Stanwyck as a father and daughter team of cardsharps in this classic comedy. "Colonel" Harrington is a distinguished looking con artist, whose motto is "let us be crooked but never common." His daughter Jean is a willing and skilled accomplice. Together they fleece wealthy pigeons in rigged card games. One of their hunting grounds is a luxury ocean liner, which is where they meet Charles Pike (Henry Fonda), whose family fortune was built on the sales of Pike's Pale Ale. Charles is no Ale executive, however. Instead, he has chosen scholarly pursuits, specializing in the study of snakes. Ironically, he is totally unable to recognize the human snakes who manage to lure him into a fateful card game. Charles fancies himself quite a card player, which makes him a perfect target for Jean and the "Colonel." The complication occurs when Jean unexpectedly finds herself falling for Charles.

"The Cincinnati Kid" (1965). Walter Tevis's novel "The Hustler," about a young pool shark who takes on the champ before he's ready, had been made into a successful and critically acclaimed film by Robert Rossen in 1961. "The Cincinnati Kid" is a similar story using poker as the game of choice. Steve McQueen plays the title role, a hot young poker player who dominates the game in the New Orleans area. On the national level, Lancey Howard (Edward G. Robinson) is the man to beat, so when Howard comes to town for a private game with a New Orleans high roller a game with The Kid is also arranged. Director Norman Jewison succeeds in making the sedate game as suspenseful in its own way as a car chase. Reproduced below, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies, is the film's promotional trailer.

"A Big Hand For The Little Lady" (1966). The setting is the Laredo territory in 1896. Once a year, in the back room of the local saloon, five of the territory's wealthiest high rollers gather for some serious poker. This year, one has missed his daugher's wedding to be there, while another, an attorney, has walked out on a client who is on trial for his life. The game is observed by a farmer named Meredith (Henry Fonda), who is waiting for his wife Mary (Joanne Woodward) to join him. Meredith has sworn off gambling at Mary's urging, but watching this high stakes card game tempts him beyond his capacity to resist. The next thing he knows he has put up his family's homestead money as an ante to get him into the game. By the time Mary returns and catches him at it, he's $500 in the hole. Overcome by the stress of losing the family's savings and by remorse at having let Mary down, Meredith suffers an apparent heart attack. In desperation, he persuades Mary to play out his hand for him, despite her ignorance of the game. Mary's unorthodox approach to playing out the hand leads to a clever twist ending.

Given that there's only so much that can happen in a card game, you might imagine that the current vogue for televised poker will burn itself out relatively quickly. Maybe so, but I wouldn't bet on it.