Hi, I’m Peter Rainer I’m a film critic for The Christian Science Monitor and NPR master faculty of the New York Film Academy and author of Rainer on film. Today I’m going to be doing a podcast. The theme of which is the many great film luminaries that we’ve lost over the last many months. Each in their own way represents a bit of film history and have made major contributions to the art of filmmaking. It’s quite a long and sad but also rejoicing list of people and accomplishments that if you aren’t already aware of who these. Filmmakers and actors are then I hope this inspires you to search out their films.
Let’s start with Bernardo Bertolucci Bertolucci was an Italian film director who was most noted for a number of movies including The Conformist Last Tango in Paris. 1900 and The Last Emperor which won nine Academy Awards including Best Picture and Director Bertolucci was a prodigy. One of the most astonishing movie prodigies in the history of film. He directed his first feature when he was 21 called La Commare Secca. That film was not altogether successful but it was certainly prodigious. You could see that there was a born filmmaker at work at the time in the late 60s. The primary influence on so-called art cinema was of the French New Wave. But Bertolucci was influenced I think more so than the others not only by the French New Wave but by Hollywood the conformist was his first major international success. And it was absolutely extraordinary and in some ways it’s his greatest film and his most beautifully directed.
That led to. Last Tango in Paris with Marlon Brando.
I don’t want to know your name. You don’t have a name and I don’t have a name either no name here.
It remains a towering achievement especially in Brando’s performance. It’s probably the greatest performance. I think that’s ever been put on film Bertolucci followed Last Tango with 1900 which was a truly bizarre movie that had some incredible incredible sequences in it.
Remember when no one believed you could see the city up here. But we managed to see it from here. How close it seemed. Did you manage to see the whole war from here too.
Last Emperor which was his big epic about the last emperor of China that won nine Academy Awards including best picture.
What are you standing there for. You always wanted to leave the Forbidden City. Now you’ve got an hour to pack so go.
It was sort of Bertolucci going Hollywood to some extent but in the way of an artist the important thing to recognize about Bertolucci is that you could watch his films in a state of almost pure rapture. There are all sorts of things that you have to put into a movie besides how a movie looks. You need to do more than just know how to work the camera. But if it all comes together as it did in the best of Bertolucci then there’s really nothing quite like it. He was certainly one of the leading lights of the post-war film generation.
The next director. I’d like to talk about is Stanley Donen who passed away in February of this year. Now he’s not a name that most might know offhand but I’m sure you know some of his movies specifically Singin’ In The Rain which is often called the greatest musical ever made. But starting at the beginning Stanley Donen was originally a dancer. He was in the Broadway production of Pal Joey. That Gene Kelly starred in and Kelly and Donen sort of hit it off to the benefit of all of us. It was one of those things but Donen was somebody who again like Bertolucci was was something of a prodigy. He was in his mid 20s when he directed his first feature which was on the town. That movie really opened up the notion that you could do these big Hollywood musicals and not have them all be on soundstages. The opening sequence where the three guys are bustling around the city is obviously really shot in New York.
What Donen did subsequently was while he brought more realism into the actual locations he also used a lot of more you know movie tricks and things that that didn’t exist before. In general the musical in Hollywood was a genre where you had a lot of stuff going on with the performers and then they would go on stage to do their thing or they would break out into song but there was always sort of a demarcation between the non musical sequences that we were seeing and the musical sequences which were set up to be highly theatrical. But with Donen it was a bit different. He in collaboration with Gene Kelly directed some of the best musicals ever made in this country. As I understand it Kelly did the choreography and Donen did everything else and the marvelous fluidity of the camerawork and the way that he shot the dancing was extraordinary. Donen grew up as a boy marveling at Fred Astaire. So it was wonderful when he finally got to work with Astaire in funny face which he directed in 1957.
Or the movie royal wedding which has that famous scene with Fred Astaire dancing on the walls and the ceilings of that state room.
That’s an example where Donen was able to sort of use the medium of cinema to film musical sequences that you couldn’t duplicate if you were just in an audience watching a stage show. So even though his his background is very much in theater he was one of the film directors who was able to make things much more filmic and that’s had a great influence on on many films of all kinds. Ever since.
Singin’ In The Rain is a film about the transition from silent pictures to Talking Pictures. It’s just a flat out joy from beginning to end and of course it has. The singing in the rain number which you’ve probably seen has Gene Kelly singing in the rain.
The screenwriter Beau Goldman was once asked what’s the greatest scripted scene you’ve ever seen in a movie. And he said it’s the Singin’ In The Rain number from Singin’ In The Rain which is wordless unless you count the song that the Gene Kelly sings. But Goldman’s point was that you don’t have to have a lot of words to have a great scene. But that was not the only high point in Donen’s early career as a musical director. He also did a very interesting picture also with Gene Kelly called It’s Always Fair Weather. It’s a sort of a post-war downbeat musical when musicals began to go on the wane. He moved on to straight films like Charade which was 1963. Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn. This is a marvelous marvelous spy thriller comedy romance and it’s often called the best Alfred Hitchcock movie that Alfred Hitchcock never directed. He lived in England for a time and directed some very interesting films there. He was a big fan of the British comedians who were rampant then and he directed an interesting comedy called Bedazzled in 1967. He also did a film in 69 that very few people have seen called staircase that had Richard Burton and Rex Harrison as a gay couple which was highly unusual back in the day. There was nothing explicit about it but it was definitely a gay couple and both performances were extraordinary in the 70s. Donen came back with a wonderful comedy called Movie Movie it was sort of a tribute to old Hollywood and it was wonderful return to form even though it wasn’t entirely commercially successful. What we have to remember about Stanley Donen was that he was more than any other filmmaker in Hollywood responsible for creating musicals that had a real cinematic core to them. He really used film in ways that were extraordinarily creative just completely out of the realm of what directors were doing at that time in the musical. He changed the entire landscape of what a movie musical could be. And he did it in a way that was so joyous and so much a tribute to the dancing in these films also the way that he not only featured the dancers but film them to their best advantage is a lasting legacy for him and his films and will always give us great joy.
Moving on now to Bebe Anderson. Bebe Anderson was a great Swedish actress who is known primarily for her work with Ingmar Bergman. She was very much central to that Bergman universe of great actresses that he used as essentially almost a repertory company. He was absolutely extraordinary with actresses and usually the best work of these actresses was with Bergman. Bebe Anderson started out in the early 50s the first time she worked with Bergman was in 1951. He was directing a detergent commercial for television and she was in the commercial. But she really arrived on the scene in two major Bergman movies both made in the same year 1957. Wild strawberries and Seventh Seal Seventh Seal is most well-known I guess to most of you all for the scene where Max von Sydow plays chess with death.
And Bibi Anderson has a role in that as the wife of a peasant in Wild Strawberries Bebe Anderson plays two roles one is kind of a hitchhiker and then in the flashback scenes she plays the cousin of the doctor and she’s marvelous in both roles but the film that she is most known for was persona 1966.
It’s a very powerful and famous film. And Bebe Anderson was quoted as saying at the time that she read the script for the movie and she didn’t really want to play the role because it was the role of someone who was very insecure and scared and vulnerable. That’s not the sort of character that she wanted to be playing in the movies. But she also said well that’s sort of who I am in real life. And so Bergman picked up on that and that’s what he used in creating this role and in directing her and putting her on film. She said to be a great director you also to some extent have to be a great psychiatrist and certainly Bergman was a great master at that but he would only have been a master if he was working with Master actors. So persona is the standout performance in Bebe Anderson’s long career. She was in maybe Robert Altman’s Worst movie a film called quintet. I mean it’s sort of flabbergastingly awful in ways that only a great director could do. But there is a sequence in it where Bebe Anderson has a monologue that’s quite extraordinary. So the the moral there is you can be pretty amazing in a terrible movie even if the movie that surrounds you is awful. You have a chance to shine anyway if you have the material at least in the moment to do it. Bebe Anderson was also directed by Bergman in a number of stage productions. People forget that Bergman’s career as a stage director was was in many ways as voluminous as his film career. I have no. Problem imagining Anderson being as great on stage as on film. But I think she had a natural quality in film that was radiant and she took to the camera like very few other actresses.
Moving on now to Agnès Varda. She was a real Pathfinder in the history of women directors in cinema and is only being recognized in full now because of partly her longevity I mean she she died fairly recently at the age of 90 and had received an honorary Oscar. And she also was nominated for a documentary that she did. I believe the oldest director to ever be nominated for an Oscar. But aside from all that her beginnings are quite interesting she started out as a photographer. She really was able to incorporate the integrity of the image into her film directing in a way that was quite integral to who she was as an artist. She is often called the godmother or the mother of the French New Wave which was a great efflorescence of cinema that started in France in the late 50s. Her first film was called La Pointe Courte. It was kind of in the neo realist vein of Visconti and Antonioni and directors like that. But her first feature was barely seen and not commercial in any way so it was some time before she did her next picture like six years Cleo From 5 to 7 it was called it was an amazing movie that really sort of put Varda on the map. Even then they didn’t always take her seriously. Her first feature was reviewed in The New York Times and it said the only thing worth noting about this movie is that it was made by this 25 year old girl but Varda’s career over time was unlike any other director. She was never really a part of the French New Wave in any real aesthetic way. She was part of what was instead called the Left Bank movement the Left Bank movement was sort of much more experimental and intellectual than the French New Wave. Her films are much more haphazard and handmade and I think that came from her photography background as well. She tended to see things in very particular ways. You know she she sort things out she saw film and film imagery as almost artifacts of experience in the late 50s. She married the great French director Jacques Demy he directed Umbrellas of Cherbourg and the success of that film brought to him and Varda to Hollywood. She loved Los Angeles and she had a connection to the city for the rest of her life. And she did a number of documentaries while she was here. She became involved with some of the Warhol people who were on the West Coast. She also was involved with the Black Panthers and Eldridge Cleaver and Dennis Hopper. You know she was part of that whole world but her films were influenced much more by the history of photography than by the history of film. That’s because of where she came from and what she came out of. She loved location shooting. She was one of those directors who the act of filming itself was part of the aesthetic process. She wasn’t bound by the kinds of rigidities that come with you know strict shooting schedules and so forth. Her most powerful movies are her documentaries or films that draw heavily on the documentary experience because that points to her intense fascination with the real and with discovering film and people in the process of training a camera on them of filming them of trying to somehow create something that didn’t exist before. People think that documentaries are quote objective right. That you just show something but the personality the core of the person who’s making these movies is not germane to the film itself. That’s not true. All of the great documentary filmmakers are able to convey what’s happening in front of your eyes in front of their cameras. But in ways that are very very intimate to who they are. But the best of them I think are not coercive and so you have you know the great documentarians who really show you the richness of experience in ways that dramatic films cannot always convey and I think the best of Varda’s documentaries do this as well. As time goes on. And her films become more accessible to a larger audience. They will find that they’re not at all intimidating or quote arty but are really human. Varda lived a long and fruitful life and did it her way which is not what you can say for every film director. She’s now been adopted as a beacon for others to do likewise.
So now we’re moving on to John Singleton. John Singleton was to this day the youngest person to ever be nominated for a Oscar for best director. He was 23 when he filmed Boyz N The Hood. His first feature 24 I believe when he was nominated which was a good year earlier than Orson Welles for Citizen Kane. John Singleton came out of South Central Los Angeles and had a great love of film instilled in him as a film student at USC. He submitted a script for admission that became the germ for Boyz N The Hood which was a very personal movie about the racial strife and violence in South Central. He had a very dedicated idea of what he wanted to be as a filmmaker from a very early age which isn’t always the case. A lot of fine directors find their way into film through other avenues but Singleton was single minded in wanting to be a film maker from early on Boyz N The Hood was a film that he felt he just simply had to get made and made by himself. Columbia Pictures I believe had offered to buy his screenplay but it was not really interested and have him directed. And he as young as he was and as ambitious as he was said thanks but no thanks. And so he was allowed to direct the film. And he stated in interviews that he kind of was learning on the job and because the film was shot in sequence. He felt that the film actually gets better as it goes along because he’s learning more about how to direct as he’s making the movie. It’s pretty strong all the way through it gets more dramatic towards the end but a really signal aspect of this movie is that when you watch it you see that as young as he is. This is a film that Singleton really really wanted to get made. What comes through is that deep deep commitment to the story which can often transcend many other things in a film. So he was creating his own way and his subsequent career he did a film called Higher Learning baby boy. He did a remake of Shaft in 2000 with Samuel L. Jackson. He also did a movie that was powerfully received called Rosewood in 1997 which is about a little known racist attack in Florida in 1923. He expressed some disdain and disappointment for where things were going in Hollywood and the opportunities available to him as a director in an increasingly commercialized industry. So he also produced a number of movies that he didn’t direct. Hustle and Flow did television episodes for shows like Empire and American Crime Story. He was an influence along with Spike Lee and Carl Franklin and several other directors on the youngest newest black filmmakers. Jordan Peele and Barry Jenkins took from John Singleton his desire to make films his way he once was quoted as saying about Boyz N The Hood that he had to direct it because no one was going to make the film I wanted to make except me. And so he made it happen. I had occasion to hear him speak several months ago at the academy Theatre in Beverly Hills and he spoke so reverently of what it was like to be in film school and not simply to learn how to make movies but to learn why you make movies. Ultimately you’re in the film business the art of film because you want to tell a story and you want to tell it in a way that matters to people that makes a connection to people. So it’s important to see a lot of the great films that have been made in the past not just because you can talk about movies at parties and impress your friends but as a real central inspiration to what you do for yourself not not to copy other people’s stuff but to see what’s been done and Singleton was saying that evening that as successful as he was he would sometimes call over to the film school and ask what films they were showing to their students because if he had time he would maybe just sit in and watch these films. I was quite moved by that because great movies can not only enhance your life they can change your life and they can also do so much for you as a filmmaker. It’s important to recognize that John Singleton who was first and foremost a film director and writer throughout his career starting at the very beginning wanted to expose himself to these great movies because those are his legacy as his films will be a legacy to any director who has a passion to put his or her story on the screen and to know that if you struggle hard enough there’s a good chance that you can do it.
Doris Day in the late 40s and 50s was a major star in the recording world. Before she ever came a movie actress with Les Brown’s band and many others she was able to captivate audiences with her singing which was not altogether bubbly cheery but had a certain melancholy or worldliness. She was never quite the chipper virginal type that she was characterized as she was a natural in the movies. She had a kind of effervescence. She did a lot of musicals and singing in her early films romance on the high seas etc. And she was very successful at that. But she was in a way a kind of antidote to some of the noir aspects of film that were predominant in the post-war era. There were a lot of slinky vamps and ladies of mystery Who were the counterpart to the very straight laced suburban mom types and the girlfriends and the chipper girl next doors and so forth that were also prevalent in the 50s. So there was a kind of yin and yang in the way Hollywood depicted women. And then here comes Doris Day who was kind of the antithesis in many ways certainly of the vamp character but also to some extent with the totally wholesome girl next door type. She managed to find a way to be herself and yet be sort of iconic as someone that people look to in the movies for good clean fun. She was an adept actress who didn’t stray very far from the kinds of roles that people associate her with particularly her comedies with Rock Hudson. But there were exceptions. She played Ruth Etting in a terrific movie. Love me or leave me where she was a gangster’s moll opposite Jimmy Cagney.
Don’t spoil this picture. It’s the first thing I’ve cared about since New York and I don’t want to lose it. I have to work. Do you understand. I’ve got to it’s all I’ve got.
Shut up you’re gonna work who said different.
She was in a film with Rex Harrison called Midnight lace which was a rather strong dramatic performance in a rather dark movie.
He said he was going to kill me before the month is out.
You got one of the less romantic ones.
Peggy he means it.
They always sound as if they mean it pet.
But I’m scared.
And there were a number of examples of that but I don’t think that that’s particularly what people wanted from Doris Day and it’s probably not in the end what would make her iconic. Doris Day had a marvelous voice in the Hitchcock movie The Man Who Knew Too Much she sings case Sera Sera which became her theme song in a sense.
She knew how to put a number across. Doris Day often said when asked you know why do people like you so much. You know what is your appeal and she said it’s because when I sing I really mean what I’m singing. And that’s just as important for the kind of movies that she made for the most part as it is for something that would be much darker. And that’s why I think she was so popular during the 50s and 60s at a certain point the kind of image that she projected went out of style in the late 60s and 70s for all of her. Brightness and happy chipperiness as a performer. She had a rather harrowing life with four bad marriages and all sorts of other things. And one of the things that happened was that most of her money was spent by her third husband Marty Melcher and so she did the Doris Day show for television which she really wasn’t crazy about doing but she needed to get her money back. So she did the show was successful but after that in the 70s she she decided that she really didn’t want to do anything anymore. She did say some years later she was tired of doing nothing that she wanted to come back and look out for what I’m going to do I want to be better than ever. But it never happened. She never did come back. It’s a shame in a way that she didn’t work more in the last two or three decades of her career. Not everybody can do what Doris Day did but the career of Doris Day is is a tribute to what you can do as a performer if you really know what you’re best at and you can put a persona across as surely as you can put across a song. And she certainly could do that said.
Just in closing a quick note on Tim Conway who passed away as of this taping last night Tim Conway was almost exclusively a television star with the Carol Burnett Show for many years. He had his own show for a while and he had all sorts of guest appearances on people’s shows throughout the years. He won an Emmy for his appearance on 30 Rock but for those of you who have never heard of him or seen him Tim Conway was known for cracking up. Harvey Korman in their comedy routines they often didn’t rehearse in advance. Korman had no idea what was coming and Conway loved to crack him up. Carol Burnett said he lived for that and you can just see in all of these sketches Corman trying to hold it in sometimes literally and just it’s not happening. There are so many wonderful characters that Conway played the old man on the Carol Burnett Show those wonderful sketches where he’s this exasperated boss with a bad toupee and a large mustache and and an accent that he said was sort of based on his mother’s Romanian accent.
Now like I told you I have this real important meeting with the Mr. Phillips.
Oh yeah he’ll be here at noon.
Oh thank you for that news flash. You have any news on the Hindenburg.
He started out even in the Army apparently he was sort of a cut up. He did radio and then he worked his way into television. But he was such a versatile and funny actor that if you were a sketch comic or you had a show like Carol Burnett’s where you had to turn out so many of these sketches so often he was your sort of all purpose infielder. He could do just about anything. And his sense of timing was as extraordinary as anybody’s. One of the great things now about film and about television is that all of this stuff still exists. You can call up so much from the past on computers and so forth. It’s really wonderful that this stuff still exists for people to enjoy forever and ever. It used to be cliche that they’re gone but their work lives on. But it really is true much more so than it ever has been. And I think that for an actor like Tim Conway it’s a very rare gift to be able to make people laugh in that way to have given such great pleasure to audiences over the years and to have that as a legacy. Especially with so-called clean comedy. I mean there was very little that was off color or anything about what Conway did. He was sort of more in that homespun comedy that was accessible to everybody and just as funny now as it ever was. Rest in Peace Tim Conway.
This is Peter Rainer film critic for The Christian Science Monitor and NPR. And on the faculty for the New York Film Academy author of Rainer on film. Thanks for listening. And until next time.